Kent Finlay, Dreamer. In the 1970s, Austin was starting to rip wide open, with a slew of clubs opening their stages to any and all takers. It wasn't long before Jimmie Vaughan, Willie Nelson, Kinky Friedman, and hundreds of other musicians turned the town into one big Texas twist-off. All well and good, but 30 miles south on IH-35 in San Marcos, it was quieter than a field of bluebonnets 50 miles from nowhere. Which is where Kent Finlay comes in. He decided to start a club in San Marcos, calling it Cheatham Street Warehouse, and booked just about anyone who wanted to make the drive. It didn't take long for a jumping scene to begin, attracting young locals like George Strait and his Ace in the Hole Band, strugglers Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Triple Threat Revue and so many others. Luckily daughter Jenni Finlay interviewed her father over several years and can now let the man tell his own story about those years of being one of the true believers in Texas music. And a wildly fascinating story it is, one that shows it takes devotion and a touch of lunacy to follow this kind of dream. Writer Brian T. Atkinson brings in artist interviews with people like Todd Snider, Marcia Ball, Joe "King" Carrasco, and dozens of others, all who got a hand and a bandstand from Kent Finlay, often at a time when not many others were offering assistance. There is also a 14-song album available of Finlay originals, sung by those who made the Cheatham Street Warehouse an oasis of music and central Texas mayhem.
Skylar Gudasz, Oleander. Someday Skylar Gudasz is going to be star. It's obvious from miles away, and just a matter of time before the world opens up its arms to this singer and fronts her the keys to the kingdom. The reason that it's taking a minute might have to do with the complexities of some of Gudasz's songs, or maybe it's because she's socked away in North Carolina and not on the media fast track. That will change, because her new album, co-produced with Southern rock legend Chris Stamey, includes the song "I'm So Happy I Could Die" that is totally irresistible. And the no-doubt follow-up track "I'll Be Your Man," produced by heavy-hitter Scott Litt, will likely go even further. These are true facts. Not many young artists sound as inevitable as Gudasz, with a quietly soulful voice that can also tear off the chains and head for the topper limits. If Burt Bacharach and Hal David were still working together they would have a field day with this woman's voice, but luckily Skylar Gudasz is more than able to write all her own songs, and play piano perfectly on them. Listen now and remember her name: the Sky(lar)'s the limit.
Dylan LeBlanc, Cautionary Tale. For someone who is still young, Dylan LeBlanc sings like he can probably see the end. There is such a deep resonance on his songs and in his voice, it feels like a foreboding aura has entered the room. This third album is where he delivers on the promise that has been there all along: he hits a deep Southern groove down in Muscle Shoals-adjacent Florence, Alabama, and never looks back. Producers John Paul White from the Civil Wars and Ben Tanner from Alabama Shakes have hit on a majestic magic, as they did on Donnie Fritts' recent winner, and it all comes together like a timeless night where the crickets are cricking and the bass drum is hitting. There are a few new songs that stand up next to anything being recorded today, like "Look How Far We've Come" and "Easy Way Out," where LeBlanc opens the door to a secret place and invites everyone in to see where eternity lives. If you've never heard Dylan LeBlanc, be ready to be breathless. No one else right now is doing music so chilling. And if you have heard, still be ready for revelations. If this album doesn't end up the very best of 2016, it's going to be a very close second. Really.
Janiva Magness, Love Wins Again. Don't ever mess with a survivor. They usually keep a knockout punch locked away out of sight, ready to spring it when needed. That's Janiva Magness to a “T.” The woman has made plenty of albums, always getting right down to business, but in 2016 she's decided to drop the big one and go for broke. It works just like a charm, too. Maybe it's a matter of growing all the way up, or possibly it's seeing that past detours and delusions are nothing but smoke. These are now songs built from inside a full-on force, with a gravitas behind them that pulls us up and over. Her singing is right on the mark, but then again, it's always been. Maybe the difference is that these original songs come from a place of acceptance, where Janiva Magness has taken off all the coats that kept her apart from others, and she now allows herself to be exactly who she is. Which could explain the choice of covers on John Fogerty's "Long as I Can See the Light." Right there everything becomes clear: "But I won't be losin' my way no, long as I can see the light." Janiva Magness lets her lovelight shine bright all the way through.
Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, Something Real. A whirling dervish of rock intensity, Lukas Nelson has so many irons in so many fires it has to be like riding a tornado. At the heart of it all is a young man who grew up on the side of openness with father Willie Nelson, and has let his freak flag fly high from an early age. Along the way he became proficient at a half-dozen styles and through trial and error arrived at his own style, burning up the guitar the whole way. He mixes blues, rock, surf, country, and whatever else suits him into a whole that is getting close to defying description, apt for someone who split his time growing up between Hawaii and Texas while learning all the ropes. It's no accident that Nelson and band are now working with Neil Young as well as pursuing their own path. Each of these new songs sounds like a world of their own, not always easy, and the experimental side of it all is what makes it so intriguing. Nelson can nail a ballad to the wall, and then throw caution to the wind and drift into Metallica territory. When they close the set with Scott MacKenzie's "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair)," it appears a new day has dawned. Naturally Neil Young steps in on a verse to make sure the circle remains unbroken, showing sometimes that history can still be our best friend.
Grant-Lee Phillips, The Narrows. Grant Lee Buffalo was a band that might have been slightly inside for some people, but those who loved the group really loved them. A lot of that was because leader Grant-Lee Phillips had a way of blending the mystical with the everyday that no other musician could match. That could be partly because of Phillips' Native American ancestry, or maybe because he'd tapped into an outré source of influences that ping around the atmosphere like scurrying satellites. Either way, it's kept the singer-songwriter on a journey of indisputable independence ever since. He's over 30 years in now, and who would have thought would now make the best album of his solo career? Some of that might be because Grant Lee-Phillips moved to Nashville a few years ago and changed the channels in his life, and possibly it helped that he found his way to Dan Auerbach's Easy Eye Studio. Something is clearly going on between those four walls. But mostly it's because it sounds like Phillips has fallen into a well of surprises, opening himself to a surplus of self-discovery little seen in rock circles. There is a haunted essence at the center of songs like "Smoke and Sparks," "Yellow Weeds," and "Find My Way," one that often threatens to overtake Phillips. But it never does. "I'm lost but I keep on walking," he sings, "sometimes that's all a man can do." Long may Grant-Lee Phillips walk down his own road of wonder.
Margo Price, Midwest Farmer's Daughter. Every few years Nashville gets shown its shorts and has to cop to making a huge oversight in how they treat new talent. Illinois-raised singer-songwriter Margo Price hit Music City a while back, slipped around the normal rungs on the ladder only to be misused and abused. She got married, left for Colorado, came back, then went with her husband to Memphis' Sun Studio to record an album on their own dime. Nashville's finest couldn't have cared less, because when she returned there Price couldn't give it away. Enter Jack White and his Third Man Records. He had learned what true female country greatness is all about when he worked with Loretta Lynn, and no doubt instantly knew that Margo Price could be in the same glow of classic overwhelmingness. Luckily, White has released the Memphis-recorded album on his own label and is watching the world lining up to sing Price's praises. As well they should. This is real-dirt country, likely inspired by divorce court, county jails, foreclosed farms, welfare lines, rolling pennies in coin sleeves and anything else that test the limits of someone's courage. But most of all it's about never giving up, and believing that there simply has to be some spirit in the sky that cares. Even if the album's title quotes the Beach Boys' "California Girls," there is no way that Margo Price isn't a spittin' image of all the very finest singers country music has ever called its own. It might have taken her a decade to get on the launching pad, but no way she isn't going into orbit very soon. Starting now with a Saturday Night Live appearance, and when was the last time a semi-unknown country singer snagged that spot? Take that Music Row.
Various Artists, God Don't Ever Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson. There are a handful of early blues and gospel singers who created what came later. During the 1920s and '30s, they roamed the South, maybe making it up to New York, and set their scorched earth singing to the land like no one ever had. Some of the names have become legendary, and some are whispered among the knowing few. Any and all are American heroes. Blind Willie Johnson falls somewhere in the in-between. Fans of the music count him as a mountain, while others shrug their shoulders. In the end, Johnson is a giant and always has been. He wrote songs that became spiritual standards, and one even got sent into outer space for extraterrestrials to ponder. This nine-artist, 11-song tribute to Blind Willie Johnson fills in all the blanks on just why this Texan (born in 1897) is such a musical foundation. Tom Waits starts the action with a treacherous take on "The Soul of a Man," and from there the floodgates are open. It's a wild rollercoaster ride of emotional greatness as artists like Lucinda Williams, Rickie Lee Jones, Luther Dickinson, Sinead O'Connor, and others reach deep into Johnson's ethos to deliver the modern goods of why gospel music is like air: it has to be there or we're all done. Throw in Michael Corcoran's perfect liner notes and it's a set to miss at the listener's own risk. Plus, this album also answers what's up now with former Lone Justice lead singer Maria McKee, as she turns "Let Your Light Shine on Me" into a spine-tingling theme song for whatever future life on Earth may hold for us. Praise be to all.
Sarah Vaughan, Live at Rosy's. Imagine being in a semi-small jazz club in New Orleans on Tchoupitoulas Street in 1978 when jazz singer extraordinaire Sarah Vaughan and her scintillating trio wheeled into town to tear the room down. No one alive then could take on a song and turn it into such a devastating tour de force of sonic inspiration. From "I'll Remember April" to "My Funny Valentine," the 21 songs collected here feel like a big part of American musical history is being played out right in front of our ears. Vaughan was the kind of singer who always made a song her own, playing with the boundaries and sometimes taking it apart verse by verse. No matter what she did, the singer never did it the same way twice, adhering to the time-tested premise that jazz is all about self-discovery. These musicians were in it for the digging of what music is all about, going inside the notes to find a new and sparkling place that opened up to their touch. Sarah Vaughan helped create all what vocal jazz could be, and never shied away from adventure. Thinking of her in the Crescent City on a small stage with pianist Carl Shroeder, bassist Walter Booker, and drummer Jimmy Cobb thrills the heart, and then listening to what the foursome did with that opportunity is something that will last a lifetime. As always Resonance Records outdoes itself with a booklet with a handful of insightful interviews and memories by historians and the musicians themselves. This is time travel of the highest order, and needless to say it won't happen again. Truly a gift that keeps on giving.