The first great country record of 2016, two sometimes great collections of rootsy collaborations, an Americana heroine in decline, and the first lousy country record of 2016.
Tom Erlewine triangulates these Maryland brothers-not-bros dead-to-rights between Sam Hunt and Chris Stapleton, but don’t let that spook anyone harboring doubts (*raises hand*) about the former’s offhandedness or the latter’s bluster. The sense of humor that 99 percent of us will need to make do in this age of diminished expectations runs through “Dirt Rich” (“If you’re broke don’t fix it/ Learn to live with it”), the Trip Advisor for glass-half-full staycationers “Rum,” and a title track that evinces a hella sharper eye for second-hand goods than Macklemore (“Buy a cheap gold necklace with a stranger’s name”). Brother T.J. isn’t a sweet-talker — his m.o. is to get swept away in the moment, so that when he sings about “that night when you slipped off those cut-off jeans” you can trace the descent of denim along every curve from hip to toe. It would be a marvel how “Stay a Little Longer” escalates from verse to chorus as though actually driven by the inexorable magnetism of sexual attraction even if Brother John’s extended guitar coda didn’t then pull off the same trick. Twice.
Buddy Miller & Friends
Cayamo Sessions At Sea
Buddy takes top-billing — it’s his party, after all — but his harmonies and co-leads generally cede the spotlight to the friends on these old favorites, so the credits pretty much let you know the keepers. Lee Ann Womack? Kacey Musgraves? Nikki Lane? Elizabeth Cook? Drag all four directly to your playlist. The low points range from too tasteful (Shawn Colvin’s bridled over-articulation breaking “Wild Horses”) to too tasteless (Brandi Carlile and the Lone Bellow gilding the wings of “Angel from Montgomery” so chintzily that I could hear the handclapping a capella climax coming a chorus away) to too tastefully tasteless (if you think Lucinda Williams’ voice hasn’t deteriorated, play this muggy “Hickory Wind” alongside the clarion “Return of the Grievous Angel” she contributed to the 1999 GP tribute of the same name). The high point? Richard Thompson intoning “Wedding Bells” with the icy restraint of a nutcase packing the semi-automatic arsenal he plans to bring to the chapel.
Blues & Ballads (A Folksinger’s Songbook: Volumes I & II)
The fusty title had my guard up even before I saw how the antiquarian packaging design takes Harry Smith’s fonts in vain or read the North Mississippi Allstars star’s boasting that “This art is not for the masses.” Really, though, the part of the title that indicates the album’s flaw is that & II: Dickinson’s not folksinger enough to carry 21 songs in 75 minutes, no matter how sweet he plays his many guitars. But his vocals are relaxed and flexible, especially when softened by the right harmonies. Great guest cast: Alvin Youngblood Hart and especially Amy LaVere are my kind of folkies, Jason Isbell is a welcome addition to anyone’s band, and Mavis Staples could make “Ain’t No Grave” sound like church over a Zaytoven loop.
The Ghosts of Highway 20
Remember when she was a studio perfectionist? Her slurring has somehow become both more mannered and lazier over the years, and at times here she’s so dead-tongued and slack-lipped you’d think her drug of choice was novocaine. You might recognize the most memorable song here — it’s the ninth-best track on Darkness on the Edge of Town. But but but but but. The sound of a gifted woman aging audibly is one we still (still? still!) too rarely overhear and though Williams is a mere 63, her passions, undimmed, lead her more often to bewilderment and desperation. You can sense her realization that poems about death aren’t just lyrical exercises even as she tries to shrug off those epiphanies with lines like “I know about pain/ And all that jazz.” And when she starts musing about “the river of truth” or whatever you can try and listen past her to the lovely playing of Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz.
Hank Williams Jr.
It’s About Time
Bocephus has been many ridiculous things over the years — shameless nepotee, pro sports mascot, wingnut Facebook meme made flesh — but he’s never been subtle, and there’s something ignobly endearing about his commitment to rowdy clowning. Still, his flat-footed delivery endumbens Skynryd’s “God and Guns” to the point that it could almost pass as a parody in a less bitter and clingy world, “Club U.S.A” takes no stand on what what door policy we should adopt, and “Dress Like an Icon,” which mentions Nicki “Mee-naj” and instructs us to “Walk this way like DMC Run” — you know what? I take it back. Clowns a) get the joke and b) are scary. Junior’s just an old dude who hears no too rarely. Guest enablers include Eric Church and Brad Paisley, whose participation is probably required by CMA bylaws.