Billed by Paul Burch as “an imagined autobiography” of legendary 1920s singer-songwriter Jimmie Rodgers, the marvelous Meridian Rising opens with a clarinet-spiced ode to the Singing Brakeman’s hometown of Meridian, Mississippi and ends an hour later with the infectious “Back to the Honky Tonks” and “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble,” a Dixieland instrumental. In between are well over a dozen sprightly tunes that tell Rodgers’s colorful story in the first person and that, like his music, draw on a wide variety of influences, including ragtime, country, jazz, blues, and folk.
Burch, who wrote all the selections, contributes engaging vocals and guitar work and is joined by an ensemble that’s as diverse as the music they play. You might not expect to see fiddle player Fats Kaplin and Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band member Garry Tallent on the same album’s credits, but here they are, along with Billy Bragg, the Mekons’ Jon Langford and many others. Instruments range from electric Hawaiian steel, upright bass, cello, clarinet, and oboe to sax, trombone, trumpet, tuba, and bouzouki.
The year is young, and this album won’t even be officially released until February 26, but as far as I’m concerned, we already have a contender for best roots album of 2016. Rodgers would have loved it. Chances are, so will you.