Alan Jackson, Thirty Miles West. For someone who remains one of the all-time great country vocalists, sometimes Alan Jackson makes it sound like he's the last one left who knows what makes this music so timeless. Nobody who's come after him really takes it to the limit like this. For openers, he is sharp enough to never let us see all it takes to create albums this strong. Jackson makes sure to have it sound as natural as starting up an old Ford truck. He then gathers a studio full of musicians who can play this style inside and out, and encourages them to put their total talent on the line. Add to that 13 right-on songs for the occasion, the kind that crawl inside you and stay there, and then sing them like it's the only thing you're on this Godly earth to do. That's how country music is meant to be.
Alan Jackson has been in the game long enough to have learned where not to go, and he stays away from there like a nest of wild-ass rattlesnakes are waiting to strike. When he writes a song like "Everything But the Wings" or ""When I Saw You Leaving," there are real hopes and tears all over those words and notes, and it's obvious he puts every ounce of feeling he's got into making them real. The same is true of the songs Jackson covers, like "So You Won't Have to Love Me Anymore" and "You Go Your Way," where he gets so deep inside them it's like he may as well have written them himself. These are true blue classics, and if you think there's anything else like them right now, tune in a country radio station and be prepared for a seismic shock.
The days when a singer could find some brokedown honky tonk and rustle up a few gigs here and there to learn their way around country music have pretty much disappeared. Now it's management deals, sponsorship opportunities, and licensing rights taking the lead, and the chance of getting a bloody nose from a jealous boyfriend in the crowd after the show are likely long gone. But it's exactly those sweaty nights of hoping and dreaming what it might be like to make an audience dance and shout that make a country singer know whether they've got what it takes to make the long run. Alan Jackson learned his lessons well, and the true beauty of what he's really about is there is no way he'll ever forget them. For doubters, just listen to the man sing. Case closed, but hearts wide open.
The Atomic Duo, Broadsides. Folk music is dangerous stuff in the right hands, and it has found no better recent home than guitarist Mark Rubin and mandolin player Silas Lowe. This pair has been traveling the nation in recent years, stirring up trouble with just some metal strings and wood instruments. How they get over is to write songs that speak to the struggle of American life right now, whether it's unemployment, hunger, that dreaded disease of the spirit called despair or just plain old political chicanery. The United States has reached a crossroads, and these two know it.
Mark Rubin was a founding member of Bad Livers, who in their storied career were known for erasing musical boundaries as easily as shaking up an Etch-a-Sketch. His guitar work is always nimble and deep, and rarely misses a lick in delivering a solid punch. Silas Lowe is the perfect bandmate, hitting those heartbroken notes and kicking in quick on fiery mandolin. Old-time string band music hasn't sounded this lively in awhile, and it's thanks to Atomic Duo's fearlessness in taking on the big boys in Washington D.C. and on Wall Street, not to mention adding music to Gil Scott-Heron's "Whitey on the Moon" and covering Texan Don Walser's "John Deere Tractor." Those are big shoes from two fallen figures to fill.
Journey back to artists like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, or even those before them, and they were able to inspire listeners by taking a stand for the common man. With all that needs standing for these days, the ranks are pretty slim on that front. That's where the Atomic Duo comes in, because they jump head-first into the fray, writing songs like "Trickle Down," "New New Deal," "What the Other Man Won't Do," and "Prohibition is Still a Failure" to rally the troops of the disenfranchised. It's turning into an Us vs. Them world out there, the 1% vs. the 99%, and as an election year heats up to the boiling point, their music becomes even more important. Plus it's fun, as all truly great folk music is, and the fallout has only begun.
Omar & the Howlers, Essential Collection. There are so many heroes hiding in the music world, it would take a searchlight and a lifetime to find them all. Still, one of the great places to start would be wherever Kent "Omar" Dykes calls home, because this big Mississippi man has been mixing up blues and rock into a lethal concoction for 50 years, and shows absolutely no signs of slowing down. He began in the Magnolia State's McComb, known far and wide as the birthplace of Bo Diddley, and then wandered into Austin during the volatile 1970s and stayed there. During those years, Omar & the Howlers were a large group who cast a bright beautiful shadow over the cosmic cowboy crowd, and weren't too shy about letting their presence be known. Stetson hats and turquoise bracelets were not needed.
During the '80s and beyond Dykes whittled things to a deadly trio, but there was no way things would slow down. His bluesy terror took on a new sonic urgency, and if anything Omar & the Howlers became even more ferocious. Dykes' guitar possessed a new savage intensity since he had to carry the whole solo load, and he started writing songs that took his Delta roots into rougher territory. The Howlers were out to howl, and good luck to anyone trying to stop them.
This double-disc compilation is organized into two sets. The first is more of a best-of, starting with the recordings done in the '90s. While the band never had any real hits, they had many, many crowd favorites and all those are collected here. Kent Dykes' voice is like Howlin' Wolf run through an electric sander, but he carries such an emotional weight that it becomes almost warm and fuzzy. Then there's the guitar. He can get as bluesy as he wants, but also escapes the wankery of so many of the modern players. He comes by this greatness naturally, and after five decades has aged like a fine wine, even if it still has a screw-on top. Throw in a second disc of Dykes' own favorites, right up to a live cut of "Built for Comfort" recorded in 2008 with guitarist Magic Slim, and the collection starts to feel like a travelogue with the spirit of one of modern blues' finest warriors. It's all here, and after spending two hours with Kent "Omar" Dykes and the Howlers, you'll know exactly what makes the big man big — soul.