Ridin' on the Wabash Cannonball (04/30/99)
Kelly Willis, What I Deserve (Ryko 1999) - Ten years in Nashville will make a veteran out of any performer. Kelly Willis, coined "the queen of alternative country," makes a return to the recording studios after an absence of five years. Recorded in San Francisco and Austin, What I Deserve has an aching, lovely presence from this performer (named by People Magazine in 1994 as one of the world's "50 most beautiful people").
Raised in Virginia, Kelly began performing professionally in 1987 with the Washington D.C.-based "Kelly and the Fireballs." That band moved to Austin, evolved into "Radio Ranch," and delivered a mix of honky tonk country and Texas dance hall with shades of rockabilly and blues.
Kelly holds to the same strengths on What I Deserve.
Of course, it helps to have talented friends. Thus, Gary Louris (ex-Jayhawks) co-wrote three songs with Kelly, and Jon Leventhal (who has worked with Shawn Colvin) co-wrote two other songs. Kelly's band includes such notables as Chuck Profit on guitar, Michael Been (from the Call) on bass, husband Bruce Robison on harmony vocals, and Larry Aberman on drums.
With songs like "Take Me Down," "What I Deserve," and "Fading Fast," Kelly delivers a subdued brand of alternative country, with a hint of melancholy and a generous serving of her sweet voice.
A treat for fans of well-made albums (regardless of genre), What I Deserve deserves notice.
Snooky Pryor, Shake My Hand (Blind Pig Records 1999) - Pioneer Chicago Blues man, Snooky Pryor returns with Shake My Hand. With his smooth, jamming harmonica, Snooky's voice and harmonica playing are as powerful as ever.
Born in 1921 in Mississippi, Snooky is credited as being a pioneer of the amplified harmonica. Upon his discharge from the Army, Snooky settled in Chicago, where he played on the Maxwell Street scene.
Recalls Snooky, "Every day seemed like Sunday to me down there. We used to make shoe boxes of money. We made more money down there on the street than we did in those little clubs. I used to make so much money down there, I would walk sideways with money in my pocket, the money would be so heavy."
A devout and principled man, Snooky became disillusioned with the music and retired to down state Illinois for most of the 60s and 70s to pursue carpentry, fishing and see after his large family. Finally, a series of successful European tours lured him back to performing regularly.
For the new album, Snooky is joined by guitarist Billy Flynn, bassist Robert Stroger, and drummer Jimmy Tilman. The trio plays right in the groove of Snooky's style of traditional blues, without intruding in the spotlight.
Shake My Hand features some of Snooky's newer songs, as well as swinging versions of Hank Ballard's "Work With Me Annie," "Sleepy John Estes," "Some Day Baby," and a reprise of Snooky's own classic, "Telephone Blues."
In describing his playing, Snooky says, "I'm a little more aggressive on the harmonica than other people. You know what I mean? I like for things to be kind of rhythm-like . . . I like for people to be happy. I love music my own self. I just love it!"
That enthusiasm is apparent on Shake My Hand. Listen to this treasure.
Groovegrass Recordings - Think bluegrass is boring? Then give a listen to Groovegrass. Built around Mac Wiseman, Doc Watson, and Del McCoury, two new recordings show the diversity of bluegrass.
First is Mac, Doc & Del (Sugar Hill Records 1999), built around a traditional sound highlighted by the singing and playing of three legendary bluegrass artists: Del McCoury, Doc Watson, and Mac Wiseman.
By way of background, Del McCoury started as a banjo player, then shifted to guitar and vocals during a one-year stint with Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys in 1963.
Elder statesman Mac Wiseman started recording in 1946 with old timer Molly O'Day, and joined Flatt & Scruggs in 1948 in the Foggy Mountain Boys.
Blind since infancy, Doc Watson didn't begin earning a living as a musician until age 30. Hooking up with a local piano player, Doc play rock-a-billy and swing for pay and traditional tunes in his free time. The 60s folk revival brought Doc out of the mountains and into the spotlight.
Produced by Scott Rouse, the three renowned players shine on songs like "Live and Let Live" and "New Mountain Over My Shoulder." Try Mac, Doc & Del for the finest in traditional bluegrass.
Yet the real surprise lies in Groovegrass 101 (Reprise 1998), which features funked-up versions of country and bluegrass classics, such as "Walkin' After Midnight" and "Wabash Cannonball."
The band on Groovegrass 101 features Doc Watson, Jerry Douglas, Scott Rouse, and Bootsy Collins on "Space Bass" and vocals. Joining the sessions are Bernie Leadon (guest banjo appearance on two songs, including "Blue Moon of Kentucky") and Gene Wooten (dobro on "Salty Dog Blues").
Groovegrass 101 updates bluegrass and pushes it squarely into the 21st century. While the songs may be traditional favorites, the instrumentation and arrangements are surprising and distinctive: sound bites accentuate the fine banjo picking on "Howdy," and "Deep River Blues" is played by the funkiest hillbilly you have ever met. Run for a copy of Groovegrass 101.
- Randy Krbechek © 1999
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