Reviews by Declan Culliton

Kristina Murray Southern Ambrosia Loud Magnolia 

The album cover of Southern Ambrosia, depicting Kristina Murray in semi darkness, has more than a passing resemblance to Emmylou Harris’s Luxury Liner. Possibly coincidence or possibly a statement of intent from the Georgia born Nashville resident. Murray first came to my attention a few years back when she was introduced by J.P. Harris as the finest country singer currently residing in Nashville, before she performed a few numbers midway through his own set at Americana Fest. She had previously worked with Harris as a backing vocalist, appearing on stage at The Grand Ole Opry and gaining a reputation as one to watch’ among the thriving East Nashville artistic community. She appears regularly at The American Legion in East Nashville, where a new generation of artists, along with more established names, keep the flag flying for traditional country music.  

The album was recorded in Nashville at both Sound Stage Studios and Welcome to 1979, under the watchful eye of Michael Rinne, who previously produced other East Nashville emerging artists Caroline Spence, Erin Rae and Kelsey Waldon.

Murray’s vocal is unadulterated country, wonderfully accented with a nasally drawl that fits the part, though I did find it a tad difficult to catch her lyrics from time to time, in the absence of a lyric sheet. She writes and sings from the heart, kicking off with the first track Made in America,(a first cousin to Margo Price’s All American Made perhaps), which visits the anguish and despair, coupled with the pride, resilience and contradictions of being a Southerner. It'a lively opener with Murray making a statement that she has more strings to her bow than simply being a great honky tonk vocalist. It also fosters some nifty guitar work by Kris Donegan and pedal steel courtesy of Justin Schipper, both of whom contribute in no small manner throughout the album.  

Personal pain and the despair of others are awash throughout the album, from the hopelessness and inevitability of Slow Kill, to the drug fueled violence of The Ballad Of Angel & Donnie, which also includes a killer guitar break by Donegan. The tempo of both tracks almost masks the painful lyrics, with a delivery that recalls an early career Carlene Carter at her boldest. Tell Me is a gentle, drop dead gorgeous and moving country break up ballad, sung as a duet with Frank Carter Rische, with a nod perhaps to Emmylou. Potters Field is similarly paced, equally striking and laced with baroscopic slide and pedal steel. The instantly appealing Lovers & Liars is an epilogue for a soured and broken relationship.It kicks off with wailing harmonica courtesy of Pat Bergeson and a slick bass line before Murray’s drawl kicks in. Strong Blood remembers her father, whose material legacy may only have been a bag of power tools and a few busted pick-up trucks, but who instilled in his daughter a strength of character and resilience. The self-deprecating Jokes On Me simply aches, both Murrays vocal and Justin Schippers eerie pedal steel setting an almost tearful atmosphere to the albums closer.

Southern Ambrosia is the second album from Murray, following her 2013 release Lights Out For The Lonesome. It’s broader reaching than its predecessor, not locked in traditional country and a further substantiation of her talent not only as a vocalist but also as a storyteller. Most of the tales may be depressing, dark and void of happy endings, but theyre honest, real life and compelling, from an artist that has served her time playing dive bars in Colorado before adding backing vocals to other artists. Shes finally arrived where she belongs, front of stage and with the support of cracking musicians. 

It’s inexcusable given the endless talent of female artists among the East Nashville community, that only Margo Price has got the deserved recognition, and she had to literally sweat blood for her breaks. Kristine Murray is yet another resident of that neighbourhood who, together with Erin Rae, Lilly Hiatt and others, could comfortably make a major industry breakthrough given the exposure and industry support. Southern Ambrosia is an album that sounds better and better on every spin and cant be recommended highly enough.

Neilson Hubbard Cumberland Island Proper 

Cumberland Island, Georgia is the largest of the Sea Islands of the southeastern United States. The ruins of the Carnegie mansion, destroyed by fire in 1959, remain on the island and the grounds are still populated by wild horses, dating back to their arrival in the 16th Century thanks to the Spanish Conquistadors. Cumberland Island is also the title of Neilson Hubbard’s most recent album and the inner album sleeve articulates how he and his wife spent a magical afternoon on the desolate island, one day after they were married. The inspiration generated by his visit to the island, and his marriage, are the stimulus for much of the album’s material and its artwork, with tracks such as the stunning My Heart Belongs To You and For My Love reflecting the latter and needing little explanation. 

Hubbard’s early career included his first band Spoon, before forming The Living Hand with Clay Jones, releasing two albums prior to pursuing a solo career and recording four solo albums between 1997 and 2008. The highly regarded Strays Don’t Sleep, a collaboration with Matthew Ryan was also released in 2006. Much of Hubbard’s energies in the intervening period were taken up with production work, working with artists such as Amelia White, Tyler James, Amy Speace and more recently Ben Glover’s album Shorebound and Mary Gauthier’s Americana Music Association Album Of The Year nominated Rifles And Rosary Beads.Hubbard, together with Ben Glover and Joshua Britt are also members of the roots band Orphan Brigade. 

Recorded in less than one week with Ben Glover sharing the production duties, the album is beautifully presented both in its packaging, photography and liner notes. The quality of the songs are equally impressive from the opener and title track – a dreamish Celtic Folk feel underscored by Eamon McLoughlin’s delicate violin playing – it recalls Van Morrison’s You Know What They’re Writing About with Glover’s influence as co-writer most evident. Equally impressive is How Much Longer Can We Bend, also co-written with Glover. Country gospel is the order of the day on Old Black Riverand the previously mentioned My Heart Belongs To Youis the album’s stand out track, a song that could very easily grow wings in a similar vein to Eric Bogle’s And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda. It features in the main just Hubbard’s vocals in front of Danny Mitchell’s sympathetic piano and discreet horns. Don’t Make Me Walk This World On My Own also benefits from a similar exquisite mix of vocals, piano and horns.

Contributing to the album are a collection of Nashville big hitters including Will Kimbrough (guitars), Danny Mitchel (keys & horns), Dean Marold (bass), Eamon McLoughlin (violin), Natalie Schlabs and Audrey Spillman Hubbard (harmonies) and fellow Orphan Brigade members Ben Glover (acoustic guitar) and Joshua Britt (mandolin). There is a mellow style to much of the material on Cumberland Island, plaintive clear vocals revealing an artist growing in confidence and aided by a team of accomplished musicians and co-writers. An understated gem of an album, well worth checking out. I’m sure you’ll enjoy as much as I am.

Various Artists This Is Loose Loose

Celebrating their 20th Anniversary, Loose remain the champion of all things Americana in Europe. This Is Loose, a fifteen-track compilation, is a further reminder of the quality acts that the Loose family represent and includes tracks from 2017, 2018 and indeed 2019, with the inclusion of songs by both Frankie Lee (Downtown Lights) and William The Conqueror (Bleeding On The Soundtrack), both to be included in their forthcoming albums.

The list of artists covered in the recording reads as a ‘who’s who’ at the business end of the Americana market, both in the US and U.K. Included are leading lights such as Courtney Marie Andrews, Israel Nash and Andrew Combs representing the more established international acts, with more local and emerging acts Treetop Flyers and William The Conqueror also featured. Jim White has always been beyond categorisation and his inclusion on the label is the perfect marriage and included is the equally talented and no easier to categorise Joana Serrat. 

We’re reminded of the untimely passing of Robert Fisher in 2017 by the inclusion of Untethered from Willard Grant Conspiracy’s album of the same title. The album remained unfinished at the time of his death but was subsequently completed by his musical friends. Recent signing Sons Of Bill open the album with Good Morning (They Can’t Break You Now) from their recent and most experimental album to date titled OH God Ma’am and everybody’s favourite live band Danny & The Champions Of The World feature by way of Don’t Walk Away.

The Americans, Gill Landry, Ian Felice and Frontier Ruckus complete the line up in what is the perfect CD to pop in the player and let Loose select your playlist. Roll on the next 20 years!

Ariel Bui Disguised As Fate (10th Anniversary Edition) Love Note Collectables

I also honour your suffering and pain, remembering only vaguely now the depths of your trauma and despair that seemed never ending. I want to tell you; your life will get better. You will have adventures and learn to set better boundaries, find stability and peace’’.

The quote above forms part of a memo on the inside sleeve of the album Disguised As Fate, written today by Bui to her younger self, in recognition of her arduous voyage from a coming of age teenager to the fulfilled young adult that she is today. 

The tenth anniversary re-release of Ariel Buis debut album was celebrated on September 16th at The Fond Object in East Nashville, on the closing day of the Americana Festival. Disguised As Fate was written by Bui between the ages of 15 and 20 while she, as a consequence of her mothers mental illness, lived in various parts of the US, often with other members of her family. Her parents had emigrated from Vietnam to the US at the end of the Vietnam War and growing up, particularly in the predominately white environment of Florida, was difficult for Bui, coupled with her mothers illness.

Now a classically trained musician and graduate of Rollins College in Florida, the album is in many ways a diary of that often traumatic and stressful youth, all of which heavily influenced the album. Titles include The Stranger (“My love for yous disguised as hate, So I can have someone to blame, For the fact that I couldn’tmake you love me’’), How It Should Be (“All our lives we spend afraid, Of the future we have made’’) and Change (“But one day, someone sweet will come my way, And Ill keep him at bay, Because I am afraid’’). All point to a young lady openly questioning and attempting to come to terms with her predicament. 

The album was co-produced by a close friend Dylan Ethier, who released it on his own Love Note Collectables label. Stripped back to the bare bones, the material essentially features Buis vocals and acoustic guitar, as she confronts the life issues shes been dealt. The vulnerability and frailty in her vocals and lyrics are all too evident and, in many ways, recall a young Dolores ORiordan.

Bui graduated from Rollins College in 2009 and abandoned the notion of a musical career, instead relocating to New Mexico, where she took up employment in a radically sustainable firm of architects and then worked for AmeriCorps’ Energy Conservation.Next, finding herself at a crossroads career wise, she was actively encouraged to revisit her musical vocation by friends who had recognised her unique and unclassifiable musical inventiveness. She subsequently settled in East Nashville and founded The Melodia Studio, which offers musical lessons to students of all ages, with the particular emphasis on fun learning’. 

The re-release of Disguised As Fate is much more than simply an album. It is a brave celebration of the resilience of a young woman, against all the odds in many instances, who has found her true vocation in life as an artist and musical educator. Its not a Saturday night party listen and needs to be approached in the context of the intriguing backstory. 

The memo quoted at the top of this review, in its totality, together with the poetic lyrics from this album, could fittingly be included in English Literature school curriculums for teenagers, by way of reassurance and awareness that difficult times do pass. 


Michelle Lewis All Thats Left Self Released 

Originally from Boston but currently residing in Los Angeles, Michelle Lewis has been playing piano from the age of eight, moving to guitar in her teens and is a graduate of the Berklee College of Music. All That’s Left is the latest instalment and third release from her, whose debut album This Time Around was released back in 2004. She is not to be confused with another American songwriter of the same name whose claim to fame includes writing for Disney soundtracks and Cher.

Her music is best described as folk approaching pop, highlighting not only her very impressive vocals but also her sensitive and delicate songwriting ability. The album features eleven tracks in total, with topics covering the full range of emotions, from the tranquil In Love Againand You And Me, to the resolve of Push On, which has been released as a singleA self-confessed lover of the more sad and mournful side of songwriting Lewis’s darker emotions are visited in Scars and All That’s Left. A cover of Springsteen’s Dancing In The Dark is also included, a more unhurried delivery than the original with the focus on her vocals. 

Co-produced by Lewis and Anthony J. Resta, the album was recorded at Bopnique Musique in Los Angeles. Lewis has delivered some thoughtful song constructions on All Thats Left, that could quite easily find their way onto playlists on commercial daytime radio stations.

Rob Mc Hale Prophets On The Boulevard Wooden Door

North Carolina based folk singer Bob Mc Hales albums are consistently well turned out, both in musical content, cover design and packaging. Mc Hale is very much a disciple of his fellow Statesman Woody Guthrie and his songs follow a similar trail, with the emphasis often on the environment and equality. The thirteen tracks on the album are all self-written with the exception of Willie Dixon’s Little Red Rooster, which is given a makeover and presented in a delightfully lazy J.J.Cale type delivery. A follower of Guthrie McHale may be, but his musical style often has more in common with British Folk than closer to his home State.

Up to fifteen instruments and ten players were employed in the recording altogether including Mc Hales regular players, his brother Pat who adds harmonica and his guitar player Mike Alicke. Four female vocalists also contribute. 

The striking streetscape cover painting by David Merck depicts a rundown town with an animated bearded bible wielding evangelist preaching to a group of people, while around the corner a lady of the night invites custom from a passing motorist and a presumably dead body lies on the pavement. A couple of yards down the street a guitarist (possibly Mc Hale) sits busking on the street.

Standout tracks are the breezy opener Common Ground, the gentle tribute song Woodys Shoes and When Im With, a rocky closer that bookends the album. 

Marla & David Celia Daydreamers Seedling 

Male and female double acts seem currently to be the order of the day, with endless combinations recording and touring, often under the Americana umbrella. Marla and David Celia, who both have previous recorded output, have released their first joint album having toured extensively over the past few years, primarily in Canada, Russia and Europe. 

David Celia is a Canadian born artist whose four individual albums include influences as far ranging as Gordon Lightfoot and 60s Brit pop. He encountered the Heidelberg native Marla at a music festival in Germany and went on to produce her debut album Madawaska Valley in 2016. 

Where many of their like have followed the Welch/Rawlings model, exploring music of long bygone days, this combination’s output is closer to The Everly Brothers take on folk and country music. Aptly titled Daydreamers, the album is composed by two artists that appear as musically compatible as they are romantically. The overall feel of the album is of fondness and affection, with titles such as Lover Of Mine, I Am Her Man and Heart Like A Dove. Much more than a personalised mutual admiration recording, the album maintains a relaxing and soothing essence throughout, courtesy of some beautiful harmonies by the pair and consistently strong material. The album was recorded at The Rooster Studios in Toronto and self-produced by the couple under the supervision of experienced producer Don Kerr, who is also Ron Sexsmith’s drummer. 

Theres much to admire on the album, with well-crafted songs that are easy on the ear and the perfectly matched harmonies by the couple which shine most brightly on the catchy opener Carry It On and the title track Daydreamers. The previously noted Heart Like A Dove, written by David as a Valentine’s Day gift to Marla also impresses. Whats also noteworthy throughout is Marla singing in her own accent, thankfully not attempting to adopt an American inflexion.

The Whispering Tree Invisible Forces Self Release 

Singer/songwriter Eleanor Kleiner and multi-instrumentalist Elie Brangbour are The Whispering Tree and Invisible Forces is their third album release. Self-produced and recorded at their home in New York the material visits several genres, from the instantly accessible and Aimee Mann sounding Heavy to the more mysterious These Houses, a haunting tale of the ghosts of bygone times contained within every four walls. Fat Cat is a well visited songwriting theme and it’s delivered with a jazzy dash and California dreams of a slower paced lifestyle under sunnier skies. Bells,the closer, is also politically charged (‘I hear bells ringing for change, though I’m not sure who’s ringing those bells today’). Split In Half, at six minutes the longest track on the album, is also the standout, addictively rhythmic with Kleiner’s soaring vocals particularly impressive. Heavy, which includes the album’s title in its lyrics, relates to depression and the rhythm in the gorgeous Garden recalls Calexico.

In terms of musical direction, The Whispering Tree are difficult to define, blending folk, blues, country soul and even jazz across the eight tracks on Invisible Forces. What can’t be denied is that the album is very easy on the ears.


Reviews by Paul McGee

Jaimee Harris Red Rescue Self Release

This is a very impressive debut from a Texas artist who is starting to make quite a few ripples Stateside. Starting off with the hard edged, driving guitar sound of Damn Right and the topic of doomed attraction and broken relationships, the mood changes on the soft and reflective Creatures to a nice melody and tempo, even if the subject is, again, that of love lost.

Harris has a past that she is thankful to have survived and this chance at putting her life on a central path is not one that she intends to mess up. Her voice is both gentle and powerful as she brings just the right amount of colour and tone to each of the 10 songs included here. There is just one co-write and the remaining songs are all self-penned, with Depressive State perhaps being the immediate stand-out with it’s refrain an earnest plea for acceptance, both from herself and others. I had a strange sensation of her singing this with Tom Petty in a dream; it’s just got that vibe about it.

The acoustic strum of Catch It Now speaks of getting out there and living life big while the guest vocals of (the late) Jimmy LaFave on Red Rescue add a poignancy to the lyric about reaching out and trying to help lift the darkness.

Fake seems a deeply personal song with its slow, lifting structure while Hurts As Good As It Feels sounds like the most radio-friendly track here; again, it deals with an abusive relationship that feeds only negative habits.  Forever is a different take on Jaimee’s ability and delivers a torch song moment that no doubt has fuelled the early comparisons to Emmylou. However, my thoughts are more towards Patty Griffin with her vocal power and tone and never more so than on Snow White Knuckles, a song that deals with her addiction and shows both her resilient and vulnerable sides in the understated delivery.

Closing track Where Are You Now? has a sad acceptance in the letting go of a loved one (parent, friend, relative?). Poignant and restrained.

The production by Craig Ross is very bright and full of just the right amount of space for the players to really express themselves and serve the songs. One of the best releases this year and highly recommended.

My Politic 12 Kinds Of Lost Self Release

This band is building up quite a head of steam as their career reaches for new heights with the release of this seventh album since they started out in 2006. Working around the central pairing of Kaston Guffey and Nick Pankey, the other band members add greatly to the organic, rootsy sound of the 12 tracks here, with dobro, mandolin, fiddle, acoustic guitars and upright bass all adding plenty of layers to the superbly observed songs and lyrics.

Starting out with Bored Young Ghost, a clever take on the possibility that growing up bored in a small country town is not just the preserve of the living. Loneliness captures that feeling of isolation perfectly and the need to reach out to another. All songs are written by Guffey and he certainly has a way with words and capturing a sentiment, a feeling or an idea worth pondering upon. Lost love is reflected in Only Human, with the notion that ultimately, we are always on our own – ‘I was always thinking of me, and you were always thinking of you.’

Down In Hell is about addiction and the possibility of repeating the sins of the father is something that many songsters have tacked, but not with this much wry observation and insight. The Tunnel is a plea and the need to reach out for one another.

I Don’t Wanna Run is about slowing down, living a simple life and being thankful for a place to settle down. Devil’s Playground, is a Steve Earle type workout that examines hypocrisy and juxtaposing the high from a needle with the high from the Good Book on a Sunday. ‘Amphetamines are passed around like communion and the Good Lord’s grace.’ 

These are character songs and dreaming of another life (Aint Outta Line), failed relationships (Great Divide), returning home (My Mother Missouri) and living a reclusive life (News Alone) are all observations on life and the feeling of being vulnerable and lost. 

Really great stuff throughout, with Wilson Conroy on dobro, mandolin, and Jen Starsinic on fiddle being supporting the twin guitars of Guffey and Pankey. Will Cafaro provides solid bass lines throughout with occasional drums from John Wood and B3 organ from Jeff Adamczyk.

Tim Easton Paco & Melodic Polaroids Campfire Propaganda

Welcome back to this very fine singer songwriter who has been releasing excellent music since his debut appeared back in 1998. Throughout the first decade of the new millennium, Easton released a series of quality albums culminating with a best of collection in 2013. 

He continues to record and release music and this project is a direct-to-lacquer mono recording. There is a timeless quality to the feel of the songs and the 10 tracks included are all just Tim and his faithful old companion, Paco – a J-45 Black Gibson guitar that he has owned since 1987.

The liner notes talk of both him and the guitar having taken a lot of dents and cracks over the years on the road but on listening to these songs, his craft is alive and well with the added sparkle that only experience and insight bring with the passing years. He is a very talented guitar player and his songs speak of heartland America in the best of Folk traditions. 

Never Punch The Clock Again is a story song of murder and staying on the run. California Bars is another dusty road tale of wanderlust and evil deeds while Elmore James is a tribute to the old blues master.

Another Good Man Down speaks of drug addiction and there is a cover of the Jimmie Rogers song, Jimmie’s Texas Blues, while Travelling Days evokes the spirit of Woody Guthrie complete with harmonica backing to add atmospherics. This is a cosy night by the fire with a nice glass of wine.

Jesus Save Me is a plea for tolerance and patience among the self-professed emissaries of truth on Earth and the greed that seems inherent in humankind, with bullying ways engineered to spread fear. This is an excellent release and deserving of a place in any discerning music collector’s home.

Walter Salas Humara Walterio Rarr

The Silos were a band credited with being at the origins of the alt-country, No Depression movement sound that spawned such acts as Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown, The Bottle Rockets, Wilco, Son Volt and many others. 

As a founding member, Walter has always espoused that rebel notion of staying independent, keeping it on the edge and creating a body of work, whether with the changing Solos line-ups, or latterly on a solo basis, that is continuously scaling such heights... His light continues to burn brightly as evidenced by the 10 tracks included here, all played with an energy and tension that feels like electricity burning in your grip. 

Walter also handles full production duties and the snap of She’s A Caveman and Here We Go are examples of the dynamic still at play as he releases his rock instincts to run alongside the more rootsy numbers like l Want To Be With You and Come In A Singer; all the way along to the funky groove of Hecho En Galicia

The playing is excellent throughout with Joe Reyes on guitar and Konrad Meissner on drums really driving the tight workouts and spinning the plates… Out Of The Band sums it all up with a driving beat and a rocking conclusion to what is a really enjoyable listen and one that proves real talent never goes away; it just takes a well earned rest from time to time!

The Watson Twins Duo Self Release

Twin sisters Chandra and Leigh Watson make a very welcome return with this 8-track album. It has been a few years since their last output but those sweet harmonies are as tight as ever and the production on the project is light and airy. Russ Pollard did the honours at Camp Sierra Studio in California. He also plays a number of instruments across the tracks, with just a few guest appearances from Vanessa Carlton (piano), Bo Koster (keys) and Mickey Raphael (harmonica).

At just over 21 minutes, it never overstays its welcome but, rather leaves you wanting more – a very good sign! The traditional country sound of Cry Baby is perfectly captured with some superb pedal steel playing by Carl Broemel, who also provides bass and guitar parts, in addition to some drum programming. All in all, this is a tightly produced record that highlights the commercial appeal of the twins, together with their natural talents as songwriters and singers. All eight tracks are written by Chandra and Leigh and the big sound of Rolling Thunder reminds me of the classic 60’s arrangements and vocals a lá the Shirelles.

They sing of ‘this city of lost souls’ on Down In The Valley and this is not a fate these twins will ever suffer as their talent will always point them in a clear direction. There is a torch song, noir feel to the duet with The Cactus Blossoms on the atmospheric Call To You, while the song Blue Tonight has a more folky vibe to the arrangement. 

Playing Hearts has a fine up-tempo beat and the title track sums it all up with the classic hook, ‘Gonna Hustle, Gimme That Shake; Thought We Had It Made’. Perhaps a sideways look at the career difficulties of any artist trying to forge a meaningful career in the shark infested waters of the music business these days. An excellent release and welcome back, Ladies…! 

Astra Kelly Chasing The Light Rockaway

This interesting artist is a Chicago native who now lives in in San Diego and has quite a number of releases to her name. Her career that has seen her work hard to rise above the crowded marketplace where the competition is always fierce. Her talents extend to Radio DJ, local concert promoter, recording studio manager, vocal coach and voice-over artist. Go girl…!!

On the opening track, Prelude, she sings ‘head, heart, soul; let the light be the fire’. This sums up Astra’s philosophy in believing that living in the moment is what we can best aspire towards. The following track, Old Shoes, speaks of leaving down your burdens and moving on to better things. It may be centred around a relationship but can equally be likened to a spiritual awakening. Equally, the title track, Chasing The Light, is affirmation that the journey is going to be worth all the effort. 

Astra co-produced the project with Jeffrey Berkley who also plays banjo and guitars across the eleven tracks included here. All Along speaks of leaving and taking a journey - only to realise that ‘you find out when you get there; you had what you were seeking all along’. Again, a message of inner strength being ample as our guiding light. 

The Less I Have (Freedom) speaks of living life as simply as possible, feeling light. All That Matters is a relationship song that questions the need to hide feelings and the wish for real honesty. Pedal steel from Doug Pettibone on this track adds to the atmosphere and augments the tight band arrangement.

The production is very clean throughout with plenty of space between the notes. Astra sings in a very clear, confident and soulful voice with her spoken-word piece, Watching Wasps, an interesting break to the flow of the music where she addresses the need to unlock our mental chains and step into the light. 

The country sound of Twisted is perfectly delivered with banjo and violin (Melissa Barrison) to the fore, while the acoustic groove of Stone Cold delivers a happy, upbeat sound. Crumble has a soulful sound with Jeff Berkley front and centre on electric guitar & banjo – ‘change is always comin’ back for more.’ 

Closing track, The Road, is a powerful ending that displays Astra’s ability to front this excellent studio band and a strong statement that here is an artist worthy of your attention. A fine release.  

Eilidh Patterson Sunshine Self Release

A commercial, contemporary Folk sound that is full of catchy melodies and songs that engage the listener. The studio musicians play with great sensitivity and talent in delivering these songs and Sandy Jones features on a number of instruments together with the family bluegrass band Cup O’Joe (The Agnew siblings, Reuben, Tabitha & Benjamin) and Ruth Trimble. Co-produced with Sandy Jones at the Foundry Music Lab in Motherwell, Eilidh shows a real talent for capturing a hook and melody to match her beautiful vocals and engaging words.

It has been a number of years since her last release but Eilidh has not gone away and her talents certainly shine brightly across the 12 tracks included here. In the days of singles and radio charts, the title track would have featured as a prime example of how to deliver a hit. Sunshine bounces with a happy, pop sound and an optimism about living life. Similar tracks to this are True Love Is Returned, A Good Day and the joyful slice of memory that is My Mother Loved Elvis.

However, there is also the other side of life and reflective songs like I’ve Got Lines and Do I Really Know You? hint at a disappointment with relationships that becomes manifest on the sweetly sad song, Losing You… There is a glimpse of what Eilidh could veer towards in the future with the bluesy groove of Slow Down, advice to start smelling the roses a little more and the beautiful delivery on The Way You Say My Name shows that real love and commitment is still out there, even if it’s capture is as elusive as ever... The closing song, When I Don’t Feel Like Singing Anymore is a call for reassurance and support when doubt arises and it stands as a ray of hope for a brighter tomorrow. This is a very strong comeback statement and one that merits your attention

Josephine Johnson The Spark Self Release

This is the second release from a singer songwriter who has worked hard at forging a career in the competitively overcrowded artistic space that is the female solo market. Josephine released Let It All Out back in 2014 and on this follow up she has enlisted co-producers John Vanderslice (Samantha Crain, the Mountain Goats, Grandaddy, Strand Of Oaks, Spoon) and Robert Shelton, who also engineered, across the eight tracks featured. The project was recorded at Vanderslice’s analogue studio in San Francisco and mastered in Boston. It is the culmination of two years work in driving the campaign, via KickStarter, towards a happy ending.

The overall sound is underpinned by warm keyboard sounds from Shelton on piano and organ and Carly Bond contributes on guitar, slide and clarinet to great effect. The rhythm section of Doug Stuart and Jason Slota drive the tempo with a confidence, whether on the slow groove of the title track or the up-tempo closer, Light It Up.

Long Way Home is a gentle acoustic arrangement that highlights Josephine’s smoky vocal delivery while Come Down displays a slow burn soulful sound. Tuesday Evening and Carry On also focus on a tight band sound and the vocal colour added by Josephine builds an atmosphere that delivers a consistency across this interesting release.

Kristi Rose & Fats Kaplin How Many Chances Self Release

Released in 2017, this project is not the first time that the combined talents of Kristi and Fats have aligned to make sweet music. In 2010 they released the excellent I Wonder As I Wander and they quickly followed this up in 2011 with You're Still Around

So, this makes it a very fine hat-trick with the engaging vocals of Kristi mixing seamlessly with the superb musicianship of multi-instrumentalist Fats. He plays a dizzying array of instruments on the 12 tracks included here. Wait for it – steel guitar, mandolin, organ, button accordion, bass, harmonica, violin, clarinet, viola, acoustic guitar and electric guitar...!

Of course, it helps that they are also husband and wife and the close bond shared is evident in the way that they deliver songs that have a sweet balance and a feeling of wide-open spaces about them. The bright melody and excellent harmonies of Beautiful World is a prime example, but we also have the treat of the title track with its lonesome harmonica and acoustic sound, balanced against the slow, reflective vocal and sensitive arrangements of So Far As I Can Tell and closing track, Far Away Places

The easy cool of Fly Tomorrow is a smooth groove and the next track, Gin, is a salutary look at domestic dystopia, compulsion and disillusionment. This duo makes soulful music that comes from the creative heart of what they define as Pulp Country. Wonderfully atmospheric and highly addictive.



Reviews by Eilis Boland

Mules & Men Thinking Sideways Self Release 

An exciting debut album from a new Irish band who are turning the bluegrass genre on its head.

Firmly rooted in bluegrass, Mules & Men are doing to the genre what The Pogues did to folk music - and they call it Acid Celtgrass!

Luke Coffey, who wrote the majority of the songs, shows that he has a good ear for constructing a melody as well as being one of the best young banjo players in the country at the moment. 

Wonder/Wander is a gentle paced ballad of yearning for a lost love where Luke’s vocals are superbly complemented by Lily Sheehan’s harmonies, all beautifully enveloped in Luke’s inventive banjo lines - definitely the strongest song on the album.

Mark Corry shows that he is not just a pretty mullet wearing bass player by contributing three original songs, all of which tend towards the manic, but are very funny too. Procrastination Blues aptly kicks off the collection at a searing pace as it describes an alcohol fuelled encounter with the devil. Donegal recounts a hilarious trip to that county that didn’t end well (I hear that Ardara may have been the end destination). ‘Pope John Paul upon the wall’ and ‘a red haired girl with a bad tattoo’ should give you an idea of the session that ensued.

Accomplished guitar player Lily Sheehan gets to shine on her own song Meet Me, a gentle love song which showcases her delicate vocals and is complemented superbly by guest violin player Camille Champarnaud.

Ballybough Breakdown is a banjo-driven mid paced instrumental where Luke gets to show that he can bend those strings with the best of them.

John Denby on mandolin is the band’s secret weapon - he lurks in the background playing solid rhythm and then every so often he gets an opportunity to unleash some killer licks. He’s credited in the sleeve notes with ‘vocals’ also, but rumour has it that no one has actually ever heard him sing ...

Luke also contributes several good mid-paced songs written in a traditional country style.

The album’s attractive artwork hints at the band’s punk sensibility - it’s a curious mash up of medieval meets 21st century, for which Mark Corry is responsible.

I can’t wait to see this band develop and build on their undoubted talents. Hopefully next time they will use a producer (this recording is self-produced) who will help them iron out a few issues like vocal projection. We’ll be hearing more from Mules & Men.

Caroline Wickberg  I’m Not Mad  Self Release 

Swedish sound engineer Caroline Wickberg comes out from behind the mixing console to deliver an accomplished EP of lush folk pop compositions.

The themes are the age-old ones of relationships - either heartbreak or desire - but the songs are as much about creating a soundscape to convey those emotions as they are about the lyrics.

December opens the collection with hypnotic percussion, then heavy bass drum is added in, then a catchy guitar riff - all serving as an ever building backdrop allowing Caroline’s sweet and ethereal vocals to send a sensual message to an illicit love.

On the title track I’m Not Mad, a tale of the insomnia and catatonia of despair following a break up, layers of echoing vocals are used over the mainly acoustic strings, while Caroline reassures us  that she’s ok.

Wedding Crasher is another great slow burner, building from acoustic guitar, adding violins, then cello and the ever prominent upright bass to evoke the darkness of a potentially dangerous brooding relationship.

Not surprisingly Caroline has successfully co-produced and also played guitars and synths. Special mention must go to drummer Max Sjoberg.

The several references to summer & winter and light & dark lead me to wonder if Swedes are as obsessed with the weather as we Irish are?!

Anyway, the five songs on here add up to a healthy 22 minutes and are we.

Dave Richardson Carry Me Along Branch & Thorn 

A charming folk album that will definitely be in my end of year ‘best of’ list.

Dave Richardson opens his third album with a tribute to a dead giant squid. Seriously. Bear with me here. On first listen I assumed Squid was a tongue-in-cheek song, but subsequent listens convinced me that I was wrong. The song was inspired by seeing this rare specimen in the Smithsonian and Dave responded by writing what is actually a touching ballad speculating on the life of this unfortunate mollusc. The gorgeous Waiting For The Sunlight describes the simple pleasure of getting up early and tiptoeing out to see/feel/enjoy the dawn - it would almost convince this inveterate night owl to get up very early (just once!). Liv Baxter lends her beautiful vocals to this and several other songs here. More simple pleasures are celebrated in Front Porch Time - a beautiful evocation of retreating from the stresses of a busy day to relax with loved ones at the dimming of the day.

Most of the album is recorded with acoustic instruments- Dave on acoustic guitar, Ariel Bernstein on ‘barely there’ percussion, and Mali Obomsawin on upright bass and vocals.

Fellow New Englander Jefferson Hamer (Anais Mitchell, The Murphy Beds), who is quite familiar in this part of the world, guests as a backing vocalist on several tracks and also plays electric guitar on another original song Goodbye Baltimore, which is the rockiest track on the album. Traveling So Far movingly recounts the story, from a daughter’s perspective, of a road trip to her estranged father’s funeral and all the feelings that this drags up - Emily Mure’s backing vocals are perfect here. Another stand out track is Rise And Play (The Fox) - another simple arrangement of acoustic guitar, bass, glockenspiel and other subtle percussion allows Dave’s strong voice to convey the fox’s night time antics delightfully. There are also covers of three traditional ballads from the Child Ballad collection, including a version of Polly’s Ghost (aka Pretty Polly).

Co-produced with Dan Cardinal (Josh Ritter, Darlingside) Dave Richardson has indeed created a must-have album.

Mike O’Donovan  No Time Like The Present  Self Release 

Limerick man Mike O’Donovan waited 65 years to get lots of living under his belt before he got around to recording his first collection of excellent original songs. Calling in many of his local musician friends, some well known on the national scene, he turned to his friend Dave Keary to help him produce this accomplished collection.

Various musical styles are used in the recording, reflecting Mike’s many influences over the years.

It Was On A Night Like This uses accordion and trumpet to evoke a mariachi feel in this nostalgic love song, while See You Once Again recalls the roots rock of The Band.

Keyboard genius James Delaney lends his magic touch to the latter and several other tracks. There’s a long tradition of brass bands in Limerick, and this is continued here with lots of brass contributions from saxophonist Michael Buckley and others. Trombone player Alistair White adds to the jazz inflections of The Dancer, and Gemma Sugrue’s backing vocals lend this and many other songs a relaxed laid back vibe.

Refreshingly, Mike hasn’t fallen into the (unintended) trap of singing in a fake American drawl - the vocals are pure Limericana!

The Billy Shinbone Show  Self Titled Tiny Dog 

Former member of Flipron, Jesse Budd releases a smasher of a debut solo album as his alter ego The Billy Shinbone Show.

In a scintillating smorgasbord of styles it’s impossible to categorise exactly what this recording sounds like, but Billy successfully melds influences from skiffle, rockabilly, punk, country, blues, rock and psychedelic pop. He plays practically all of the instruments here, sings all the songs and  co-produced with James Wilkes and Charlotte Worthy-Jarvis in his native Somerset.

If You Think You’ll Get Away With It, You’re Wrong, in what might be a first, finds clawhammer banjo trading licks with sitar in a delightful tirade against a haughty opponent, all sealed with the kiss of a howling harmonica. Rockabilly guitar and lots of bendy electric guitar chords duel with banjo in Temptation’s Got The Good Stuff. Day Of The Dangerous finds accordion, sitar, electric guitar and handclaps vying for attention in a psychedelic maze - and what the song is actually  about has defeated me so far! Billy’s vocals over a simple jazz guitar accompaniment tells the story of a nightmarish dream of hospitals and death in A Bunch Of Flowers, but he cleverly lifts the mood with the introduction of the chimes of a toy xylophone. Billy’s black sense of humour pervades the whole album, not least on the closer Thanks But No Thanks, Baby where a former lover is rejected with tongue-in-cheek bitterness - “If it’s all the same to you, I’ll wash my own dishes and polish my own brown shoes”.

The appropriately chaotic and psychedelic cover art completes the unforgettable experience that is the Billy ShinBone Show- go experience it for yourself (but don’t say I didn’t warn you).





Reviews by Stephen Rapid

JP Harris Sometimes Dogs Bark At Nothing Free Dirt

After two albums on Bull Hunt’s supportive Cow Island label, JP Harris released his new album on Free Dirt and has also changed his approach to making these records to some degree. This time out he brought in Morgan Jahnig to produce and they decided to pretty much assemble these new songs in the studio. The musicians had heard the voice and guitar demos but from that point on they brought to each song what they felt it need. The steel guitar underpins the regret of When I Quit Drinking wherein the protagonist has given up drinking but found that his clear head brings back memories that are maybe too revealing and hence he considers heading back for the oblivion of the bottle again. There are two things that this track emphasises and they are the quality of Harris’ matured lyric writing and the strength of emotion in his voice. He is indeed a fine singer on these traditionally minded but new sounding songs

There is a slightly more acoustic approach to some of these songs and they gain from these different settings. The omnipresent lure of drink is again the subject of I Drink Alone, where he wishes to hide the habit away from judgmental eyes - his own included. Miss Jeanne-Marie is a tale of regret about a lost relationship. The closing song Jimmy’s Dead And Gone, a train song, is first cousin to Billy Joe Shaver’s Georgia On A Fast Train. It closes the album on a fast tracked musical high. Elsewhere Lady In The Spotlight has reminded some the Lonesome Highway team of Gordon Lightfoot. What men can all too often bring or remove from a relationship is the subject of the title track as it considers how men can cause pain by just being a man. A sentiment that he expresses with some conviction.

On the album Harris is joined by some very accomplished players including Leroy Powell on steel, Mark Sloan’s effective keyboards and Chance McCoy on guitar, fiddle and vocals. The Watson Twins add harmony vocals and Kristina Murray sings a duet on Runaway, a song about being the eternal drifter. So, all in all a top-notch album from a man who appears (on the cover) like you wouldn’t want to meet him on a dark night, but in truth would be great company on a dark night. Or in fact any night when he makes music this good. Undoubtably an album that is contender for the year’s ‘best of’ list.

Jimmy Rankin Moving East Songdog/True North

The seventh album from the easily likeable Rankin. Simply put, this Canadian singer/songwriter is a must for anyone who enjoyed Springsteen’s Seeger Session. This full-blooded high-octane folk music is given the kind of production that is both stirring and strident. It reflects the nature of life in Nova Scotia and Canada’s East Cost maritime community. Rankin lived in Nashville where he honed his songwriting skills before relocating back to Nova Scotia. There he recorded and mixed the album with producer Joel Plaskett at the helm. There is heart and salted soul at the core to these blue collar tales of working men and women. 

Rankin was a member of the Rankin Family - a band well known in Canada and elsewhere. The sleeve lists eleven plus players who brought this album to live. All bring their spirit and heart to these songs. Mostly written by Rankin solo but with one co-written by Patricia Conway and one with Steven McDougall. The final non-original is a traditional set of reels under the overall title of Dirt ’n’ Potatoes. This is life affirming, blood stirring music that draws form a musical tradition that goes back a long time but here in Rankin’s hands is given a vibrancy that is largely irresistible. Something akin to the aforementioned Seegar Sessions or the Pogues at their rowdy best. It is the sort of music and album that would, more than likely, find an audience on this shore as it would back in Canada. Moving East is simply moving.

Garrick Rawlings Self-Titled Peloponnese

Formally a hard rock guitarist, who during his travels met and became the road manager for Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. This instilled in him an interest in songwriting and solo performance (often opening for Elliott). Another person he met at this time was Rick Shea, who was also a part of Dave Alvin’s band. This has resulted in Shea bringing his talents to this album and co-producing with Rawlings in drummer Shawn Nourse’s studio in Los Angeles. Both Rawlings and Shea play a variety of stringed instruments throughout including mandolin, Spanish guitar and pedal steel.  

The songs are, in the main, written by Rawlings except for two covers which are indicative of his influences and overall direction. They are the Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter written Grateful Dead recorded Friend Of The Devil and Townes van Zandt’s Pancho & Lefty. Both are given credible readings that fit easily in the overall style of the album. I Want To Run Away opens the album in an upbeat musical style even if the song talks of running away to find a better feeling and day! There is something of a border feel to Notengo Palabras - sung in Spanish. Then there are some story songs of some of dark travellers, such as the central figures in Lights Of Marfa. It features some sweet pedal steel and a harmony vocal from Jaimi Lyn Shuey. Lost In Time is about finding a somewhat worse for wear cello in a pawn shop. Jaimi Lyn Shuey again joins him on the vocals.  The slow ballad of ‘whatever gets you though the night’ Whiskey, Cryin’, Pain … is perhaps the best of their dual vocals. Rawling’s own vocal has a little of the age and rough edges it needs to make the songs believable.

This is one of those albums that is not trying to reinvent anything new, instead it consolidates a tradition of the troubadour who during his travels has had a chance to see many of the aspects that life has to offer. The interplay between Rawlings and Shea is seamless and portrays two men at ease with themselves and this music. I suspect any fan of Rick Shea’s work will also enjoy this and will be equally rewarded by Rawlings songwriting.

Tom Van Stockum Trebuchet Self Release

This newest of songs from Van Stockum shows him developing his skill as a writer and singer as well as offering a sound that builds on his debut self-titled EP by bringing together many of the same players that featured on that release. This is a full sounding album that includes a myriad of influences that stretch in many different directions. That ranges from the brass bolstered Strayed Out, the Hammond infused 60s influenced Want It As Bad As Me to the more roots-styled Cracks And Folds or the acoustic Autumn Rose which features backing vocals form Liz Hanley. The final track, the appropriately named, Going Time has some twangy guitar over a solid up-tempo and uplifting beat. A fully realised album that producer Alex P. Weinquest lets flow to whatever placed that the song requires.

That makes for an engaging album overall but not one that will appeal to those looking something that fits their concept of Americana as less expansive and more easily digested. This is the kind of album that has some layers in the recording that are revealed on repeated listening. However, it is Van Stockum’s voice that is the lynchpin that the album is focused on. The writing takes on a level of self-realisation and retrospection about the condition of relationships that are either a cause for regret or revelation. Whichever direction Van Stockum takes you on you can fell happy that you’re along for the ride. Tom Van Stockum has made this album a little difficult in one aspect and that is the use of what appears to be hieroglyphics on the front and back over. While it adds to the intrigue may not be the most effective communication of the contents. But it is the music that counts and this does that.  

The Pine Hearts Carousal Self Release

This band is fronted by the songwriter Joey Capoccia. It appears to be a three-piece acoustic bluegrass based band with some additional members on board for the album including pedal steel guitarist Leo Grassl adding an extra sonic dimension to this Nashville recorded album. The band are from Olympia in Washington State and have a couple of previous releases under their belts before this album. On the recording the six piece also feature banjo, mandolin, upright bass, fiddle and guitar. The overall feel is of a forward thinking bluegrass band rather any form of newgrass. They also have a penchant for traditional country and cover George Jones’ The Window Up Above as well as two other non-originals Good Luck By The Sea song written by Scott Nolan and a public domain instrumental President Garfield’s Hornpipe. The latter shows that the band have the chops to impress in this field. The remaining songs are written by Capoccia 

All are well realised and take on some important topics such as the self-explanatory opener Living With Depression. Elsewhere the perennial theme of forlorn love is central to Crying For Another or the considered solace of the lovelorn in The Pedal Steel Let Me Down Easy. All of which mark this as a band with strengths as players and well as having, in Capoccia, a decent songwriter who is developing his craft. The band’s bassist Charles R Humphrey 111 produced the album alongside its engineer and mixer Charles Chamberlin. This is an album that should please any open-minded bluegrass fan as well as the casual listener who appreciates some well played and delivered songs that are, at their best, readily memorable.

Bob Collum and The Welfare Mothers Pay, Pack And Carry Harbour Song

Making the reverse musical journey to the usual route, Bob Collum came from Tulsa, Oklahoma to the London’s Thames Estuary to deliver his power-pop inspired country rock. So, what do you get? Well 10 memorable slices of Collum’s take on the blending of the two genres. The name of the man behind the desk should be familiar to some sleeve readers from the late 70s. It is none other than the Vibrators bassist and producer Pat Collier. He also played with the Boyfriends who were a poppier combo overall. So, he has a pretty good track record (ha) for this. The songs are written by Collum, either solo or with writing partners. The covers include a welcomed take on Mike Heron’s (of the Incredible String Band) Log Cabin Home In The Sky that is a standout. He also takes on Mike Nesmith’s Different Drum, which holds its own against other versions, without outdoing some of them (there are some 20 or so versions out there!).

There are some other interested parties involved including guests Martin Belmont on guitar and Peter Holsapple on guitar, keyboards and vocals. Also prominent in the mix and giving the songs their country flavours are Mags Leyton on violin and vocals as well as Allan Kelly on steel guitar. The later features heavily on the opening Across A Crowded Room. The violin is central to Scarecrow. Tin Can Telephone is a song co-written with Martin Belmont and Rambow - making me wonder if it is Philip Rambow of the late, lamented Winkies fame? An up-tempo song with Belmont’s trademark twang over a solid up-tempo beat and a memorable chorus. It is a song that helps defines the sound that Collum seems to be aiming for, where the two elements fit together comfortably. So if you want to single out a representative track to listen to this may be the one. Otherwise the whole album is well worth packing and carrying home for some more listening. It also comes in a neat Saul Bass inspired cover.

John David & The Jerks I Love You Means I’m Lucky sonaBLAST!

On their Facebook page it says that this Minneapolis band are akin to a fusion of Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and The Jayhawks. So old school Americana then! Of course, you can pinpoint these elements in the songs but that doesn’t mean that were looking at a mere copyist. For their third album David and the band pulls these overall influences, and there are others, into a cohesive album that veers more towards the rockier end of things but there are moments like the reflective Swedish Dream that is more ambient and atmospheric with distant vocals, acoustic guitar and random sound. I’ll Die Of Grief rocks harder and again the vocals are mixed into the overall sound making it difficult to decipher the words, though perhaps the title is a pretty good clue to the overall direction. As is I Only Want Your Love which has pedal steel and a driving beat that makes it hit the spot.

David and his guitarist Jerrick Jenson and the engineer Zachary Hollander produced the album which has a layered muscular sound. Less so is Must We Break which features the steel guitar and David’s vocal and guitar. After such full-on tracks like the brass bolstered Every Little Road gives the listener a moment to hear David in a more stripped-down context and one that shows his high register voice off as an important part of the overall sound. Friend Like You closes the album in a high-speed indie rock throw down mood. Maybe this album isn’t for everyone but it is the sound of a band and singer pulling tighter to create their own take on any number of strands that they want to knit into something they can call their own.

Malcolm Holcombe Come Hell Or High Water Proper

What can be said of Malcolm Holcombe that hasn’t already been said. He is either an expressive, earthy singer or dismissed as an also ran. A man whose voice grates on some listeners. I favour the former thinking. Over the last few albums he has found a group of players who are supportive of Holcombe’s talent. This include producers Marco Giovino and Jared Tayler as well as his two harmony and backing vocalist Greg Brown and Iris Dement. The latter is a perfect contrast vocally to Holcombe. It is a pairing that works. Both producers are also players and are the nucleus of these sessions. A couple of players join in on guitar and accordion. It is however Tyler’s Dobro which seems most suited to the occasion when it appears.

The songs are chronicles of people on the fringes of society. The Vietnam vet living in isolation in Left Alone or the opening verse of Legal Tender sets out a scene that encompasses an certain lifestyle “my cousin’s in and out of jail, more times than I can count, bad habits run in the family, Marshall still grows pot.” Merry Christmas alludes to a time that was anything but merry. Another 13 songs in this latest instalment that has seen around 10 albums by Holcombe since 2006 up to this release. That’s quite a productive output for an artist who is not exactly a household name - he is no Seasick Steve. Malcolm Holcombe is no one else other than Malcolm Holcombe but what helps Come Hell Or High Water stand out from his recent work is perhaps the contribution of Brown and Dement. The counter balance they provide to his vocals add an extra layer of attraction. On the cover under the disc is a graphic entitled “Captain Beefheart’s Ten Commandments of Guitar Playing” which, even if only 6 are visible, make for interesting reading and perhaps show another of Malcolm Holcombe’s influences.


Reviews by Declan Culliton


Kayla Ray Yesterday and Me Self Release

Less than half a minute into Rockport, the opening track on Yesterday and Me, and Kayla Ray’s husky drawl and edgy tale of looming despair and heartache had me hooked. The combination of her distinctive and very country vocal and the unfolding tale stopped me in my tracks, getting my full attention. It’s the first of twelve, often compelling stories, the album contains, each one tumbling effortlessly into the next, by an artist that is as brutal in her candidness as she is gifted in her song writing. The stories don’t deliver many happy endings and encompass all the elements that contribute to a great country album, with hurtin’, cheatin’, lovin’, leavin’ and drinkin’ always close to the surface. However, the album’s tales of disarray read like a personal diary and stand head and shoulders above the majority of formula written albums that masquerade as country recordings these days.

The previously noted Rockfort is a hard-hitting story of a woman’s intended liberation and escapism only to degenerate into drug addiction and suicide. The alcohol fuelled Hell of a Day to Drink All Night is a hell raising and somewhat tongue in cheek up tempo journey and the Keith Whitley written Once A Week Cheaters is a dreamy duet that pays homage to Dolly and Porter, with Ray and Colton Hawkins sharing vocals. Pills tackles the thorny subject of anti-depressants in a no holds barred manner but not without a slice of humour, the type of song that Elizabeth Cook was writing in her early career. Fair Warning addresses domestic abuse, Camel Blues laments doomed love ("it takes two hard working fools to build a wall, it takes two fools in love to make it fall’’) and title track Yesterday and Me is reflective, stained with regret and broken dreams of unfulfilled expectations.

Ray was born and reared in Waco, Texas and took full advantage of the musical opportunities offered to her at a young age, which included performing with Jimmy Gimble’s family band The Gimbles and eventually acting as tour manager for Jason Eady. Her debut recording Love and Liquor from 2014 highlighted her distinctive and very country vocals and suggested an artist with the potential to write clever sassy lyrics to match. That album was produced by Jason Eady, who obviously recognised her potential when she worked for him.  This time around Jason Eady is joined by Pat Manske (Robert Earl Keen, Joe Ely, Tom Russell, Wayne Hancock) as co-producers and the pairing is inspired. Avoiding the temptation to over produce – the ruination of so many country albums in recent times - they achieve the perfect balance between Ray’s vocals and the stellar contributions of some crack musicians. The players are Joshua Barnard on guitar, Cody Braun on fiddle, Dick Gimble on upright bass, Ray Rodriguez on drums, Bukka Allen on piano, Jason Clyde Cartier on electric bass and Geoff Queen on steel guitar and dobros, whose contribution is particularly central to the overall quality of many of the tracks.

Kayla Ray possesses the ability to articulate true life stories of pain, loss and waste, with a dynamic similar to that of Brandi Clark and Kacy Musgraves but with far more edge and delightful guiltlessness, avoiding any degree of sugar coating on her parables. She’s unlikely to grace the stage at The Grand Ole Opry and country music radio stations will no doubt run a mile from the album - two factors that suggest a great traditional country album from a hell raising and fearless young lady that’s not going to be shackled. Thank God for that! A contender for album of the year for me.

Pat Reedy and The Longtime Goners That’s All There Is (And There Ain’t No More) Muddy Roots

There’s a somewhat charming innocence to Pat Reedy, as if he’s been taken by surprise by the critical acclaim for his recently released and second album, the wonderfully titled That’s All There Is (And There Ain’t No More). It’s not too long since Reedy was toiling on building sites to make ends meet, writing and performing in the little spare time available to him. Prior to his days on construction sites, Reedy paid his dues as a busker in New Orleans, learning his trade and eventually hooking up with some other New Orleans street musicians to form the first incarnation of his backing band, The Longtime Goners. Trips to Nashville followed, where his performances began to raise a few eyebrows, gaining him a reputation as an old school, no frills artist, delivering genuine country music without any extraneous bells and whistles. Reedy has managed to translate his live shows seamlessly on to this album, thanks to the excellent production by Richard Bailey, who creates the perfect mix between instrumentation and Reedy’s alluring monotone vocals.

Bloodshot Heart gets things underway, with enough hooks and twang to draw you in on first listen,followed by Lucky I’m Alive which includes some sweet pedal steel by Leo Grassl. A reality check on Music City is included compliments of Nashville Tennessee At 3AM, (“Everyone’s an outlaw until the cocaine wears off, the only thing that’s cheap in these bars is talk’’). Some marvellous fiddle playing introduces the classic country sound of Wedding Ring and the rip roaring You Don’t Have To Tell Me Again is laced with clever witticisms and killer guitars and pedal steel (“you say I like living dangerous, you must take me for some kind of fool, there’s arithmetic that runs my life that you don’t learn in school’’). That track could very well be a precursor for the title song and album highlight That’s All There Is etc, a leaving song as his woman packs her bags for another man. 

It’s difficult to exclude a mention of any track on the album such is the quality and Conversation With Jesus also deserves noteOut of the Hayes Carll school of songwriting it refers to an imaginary conversation with the Lord after escaping injury in a drunken car crash where Reedy is given sound advice. ("Lay off whiskey and remember this one thing, Holy-rollin’ preaching just ain’t worth a damn, What matters most in life is how you treat your fellow man"). Funny Thing About A Hammer laments the endless toil of the working man and the album is bookended by a lively train song Coal Train Blues.

I really can’t overstate how much I’m continuing to savour this album and finding it’s melodies unshakable. Let’s hope it gets the exposure it so richly deserves and that Reedy follows in Joshua Hedley and JP Harris’ footsteps in being recognised as one of the premier ‘country’ artist performing in Nashville this year. A must buy for lovers of ‘real’ country music.

Cliff Westfall Baby You Win Self Release

From time to time judging a book by its cover is not such a bad idea. Without doubt this was the case with New York based artist Cliff Westfall’s knockout album Baby You Win. The striking album cover design is very much in the ‘pulp fiction’ expression and a fitting metaphor for the music contained within.  It was designed by New York artist and musician Billy Woodward, whose previous employers include Rolling Stone, Sun Studio and National Geographic. Very much a retro sleeve made for twelve inch vinyl, it’s front cover is striking and the rear cover notes the six tracks on both side one and side two. Westfall also hired some New York big guns to feature on the album, including Scott Metzger (Shooter Jennings, Nicole Atkins, Stanton Moore) on guitar, Dan Lead (Kevin Morby, Norah Jones) on pedal steel and Jeremy Chatzky (Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle, Laura Cantrell) on bass. Recording took place at Trout Recording in Brooklyn, produced by Bryce Goggin and Graham Norwood, who manage to achieve the perfect balance between vocals and instruments.  

Most impressively the musical content more than matches the packaging with an equally retro country sound that instantly recalls early Dwight Yoakam on the opener It Hurt Her To Hurt Me and does not contain a weak moment over the course of the eleven tracks that follow. Till The Right One Comes Along is unadulterated classic country, tingling piano and plenty of twang keeping pace with Westfall’s elongated vocals. The Man I Used To Be and A Live If You Must slip back a gear or two, the former a tale of regret and remorse, the latter – with honeyed backing vocals from Barbara Endes - visiting denial and unacceptance.  Hanging On, written by Ira Allen and Buddy Mize, and a hit for The Gosdin Brothers in 1967, is the one cover on the album, a slick delivery sympathetic to the original. The Odds Were Good closes the album in style, chunky guitar working alongside Westfall’s tale of visiting an Oklahoma dive bar.

Baby You Win is classic West Coast country via New York and satisfyingly a further indication that real country music is alive and healthy outside Austin and East Nashville. A majestic recording that hopefully will not be ignored. You really need to get your hands on this one!

Jon Byrd Dirty Ol’ River Longleaf Pine

The title of Jon Byrd’s debut solo album, recorded back in 2007, was Byrd’s Auto Parts, following a career of performing as a sideman previous to its release. The Tee-shirt available for purchase with the album had the slogan "Byrd’s Auto Parts: We Don’t Rock Ever," printed on the front. The catch phrase just about sums up the Alabama born musician to a tee (pardon the pun). Byrd is pure country with a distinctive semi spoken vocal style and clever songs that inevitably are accompanied by pedal steel guitar. Equally impressive live, Byrd currently performs a weekly residency at Bridie's Bar in Nashville where he delivers two hour sets, generally alongside Paul Niehaus on pedal steel.

Dirty Ol’ River offers ten tracks with a common thread, clever well-constructed songs, delivered by Byrd’s gnarly deep vocal with some sweet, sad pedal steel always close by. The pedal steel on the album is courtesy of Eddie Lange, a ‘go to’ player in Nashville for many years. The opener I Get Lostis the album’s tour de force, but there lots to savour before the closing song, a cover of Steve Young’s Many Rivers. The toe tapping You Taught Me How and the tongue in cheek If Texas Is So Great all work well, as does the Willie Nelson sounding Silent Night. Well-chosen covers include Tammy Wynette/Billy Sherrill’s ‘Til I Can Make It On My Own and Giving The Devil His Due, written by Davis Raines. All in all, a clutter free bunch of songs by an artists who appears uncompromising and remarkably comfortable in his own skin. Lovers of Tom Russell will certainly warm to Dirty Ol’ River and understandably so. 

Currently residing in Nashville, Byrd recorded the album locally at TJ Tunes under the guidance of Thomm Jutz whose previous employers included Nancy Griffith, Todd Snider, Jason Ringenberg and Otis Gibbs.  An album well worth checking out - you won’t be disappointed.

James Houlahan The Wheel Still In Spin Gumbo Luvah 

An album that had me scratching my head on first listen but unravelled and revealed itself after a few more spins. Difficult to define genre wise, it skits between folk, experimental indie and mainstream across its twelve tracks. Houlahan’s website bio describes his music as ‘eclectic Americana’, creating another sub-genre which does not really inform or prepare the listener’s expectations.  A meeting of minds between Jim White and Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes) possibly best describes the album, which includes two stunning tracks in the achingly beautiful All I’ve Got and the almost gothic Stuck In Between, alongside the empirical Spirit/Music and a cover of Joe Ely’s Indian Cowboy. Echoes of Neil Young present themselves in the closing track California.

This is the fourth album from Houlahan, a founding member of Boston bands The Dogs On Television and The Jody Grind. His music has been used in both TV commercials and in films. His composition Going Home (For Thanksgiving) featured in film Little Pink earlier this year alongside contributions from David Crosby.

Like the aforementioned Jim White and Conor Oberst, it’s unlikely the wheel will ever stop spinning for Houlahan, landing him in one particular musical genre. No harm either, as his eccentricities and musical detours are exactly what makes this album most appealing. 

Kerry Fearon Honky Tonk Girl Self Release

There’s certainly no questioning Kerry Fearon’s work ethic, enthusiasm and energy. Together with holding down a career as a teacher and hosting a radio show on Downtown Radio, she also presents her own tv show on the Keep It Country channel every Friday. What does she do in her spare time, you might ask? Well, in the limited downtime she’s had this year, the South Armagh young lady has recorded a covers album of ‘close to her heart’ standard country classic songs, some from yesteryear and some from more recent times.

Recent years have also been traumatic for Fearon with the loss of her father, a well-known local singer, in 2013 having been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease the previous year. Turning tragedy into positivity, and having been too shy to sing in public, she vowed to honour her father’s legacy by deciding in her own words ‘not to waste her own voice anymore’. She recorded a few tracks herself which were eventually uploaded to Soundcloud by a friend and got some very positive feedback.

Those reactions resulted in Fearon having the confidence to release a couple of singles before embarking on recording Honky Tonk Girl. What particularly impresses me about the album is Fearon’s reluctance to go down the country crossover route – which may have been an obvious choice – instead she has selected classic country songs that are dear to her. It may be an exercise in ‘testing the waters’ prior to considering penning her own material for future recordings, but on the evidence of her vocals – and indeed the musicianship – she has passed her entrance exam with flying colours. Jessi Coulter’s Storms Never Last opens the album in fine style and classics such as Loretta Lynn’s Honky Tonk Girl, Maybelle Carter’s Juke Box Blues and a particularly impressive delivery of Gram Parson’s Luxury Liner all work. Also included are two Ashley Munroe co-writes, I’m Good At Leavin’ and If The Devil Don’t Want Me.

The album was recorded and produced by (former bass player with Van Morrison) Clive Culberston at his own No Sweat Studio in Coleraine, Co. Derry.

Fearon will, without doubt, continue her ascendancy in the music industry in Ireland or abroad. Whether her career path travels the roads of presenter or performer, or a combination of both remains to be seen. She most certainly has the vocal ability, personality and drive and if those talents crossover into song writing, watch this space. 

The Weight Band World Gone Mad Self Release

Former members of The Band, Jim Weider and Randy Ciarlante performed  at Levon Helm’s Woodstock New York Barn in 2013, joining original Band member Garth Hudson to perform "Songs of The Band." Following the success and positive feedback to that event, Weider decided to recruit others to form The Weight Band, a vehicle to continue the tradition and legacy of a group many consider to be one of the most influential forefathers of what some decades later would become known as Americana.

Five years on and after touring and performing classic Band material, Weider and his colleagues have taken a giant step forward in recording their debut album, which includes eight self-penned songs among the eleven tracks that feature on the album. Indeed, the final track is a live and rousing version of Remedy, originally recorded for The Band’s 1993 Jerico album, which was co-written by Jim Weider. The aptly titled World Gone Mad kicks the album off in fine style, Weider’s slick mandolin playing and a harmony driven chorus setting the template for what is to follow. Big Legged Sadie would sit comfortably on Levon Helm’s 2007 Dirt Farmer album. Wish You Were Here Tonight, a beautifully constructed ballad, slows things down temporarily before You’re Never Too Old (To Rock ‘N’ Roll) and Every Step Of The Way raise the tempo once more.

Joining Weider in The Weight Band to create a supergroup of sorts are a bunch of highly regarded and seasoned musicians, a number who have connections or have performed with Levon Helm, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, B.B. King and Al Green. Michael Bram plays drums and vocals, Brian Mitchell keyboards and vocals, Matt Zeiner also keyboards and vocals and Albert Rogers bass and vocals. 

As expected the album follows a similar landscape to the original Band material with shared vocals, multi instrumentation and timeless material. World Gone Mad establishes The Weight Band as much more than merely a tribute or cover band but an essential ingredient in keeping the gospel according to The Band alive and kicking

Mark Wayne Glasmire Can’t Be Denied Traceway

Pennsylvania born Glasmire had been a closet musician since the age of ten, finally plucking up the courage to perform in public by an insistent college girlfriend who encouraged him to play at a coffeehouse at Kutztown State University. Having completed college he performed semi-professionally, playing in New York by night, while working on construction sites by day.

To fulfil his ambitions as a career musician Glasmire pitched his tent in Nashville, before moving to Dallas and eventually settling in Arlington, Texas, where he currently resides. His song writing has been acknowledged with awards in The B.W. Stephenson Competition in Dallas, The Dallas Songwriters Association International Songwriting Competition and The GINA/LAWIM Songwriting Competition in Los Angeles and most notably the Grand Prize in the Country Song section of the 2010 Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at Merlefest. 

By his own admission one of the challenges his musical career has faced from the outset has been to establish himself in a particular genre and capture the appropriate listenership. ‘When I spent time in New York, people told me I should be in Nashville. When I moved to Nashville, they told me I should be in California. Now I live in Texas!’. Pre- Americana, his style would have been described as ‘country rock’, closer in texture to The Eagles than Gram Parsons, but his writing style also brings to mind Guy Clark at times, an artist that Glasmire had the pleasure of supporting. Other notable performers that he also supported include Jesse Winchester, Gordon Lightfoot, Tracy Chapman and Dierks Bentley.

Borderline – a common song title in recent times – Those Nights and the title track Can’t Be Deniedare the pick of the crop on what is Glasmire’s seventh studio album. Released on the Traceway Records label, the twelve-track album was co-produced by Glasmire with John Albani at his Sonic Eden Studios in Nashville.