Bobby Bare, Darker Than Light. At 77 years old Bobby Bare has pretty much seen it all. He had his first hit, "All American Boy," in the '50s and credited to Bill Parsons, but that didn't stop Bare from hitting the highway running on his own shortly after. Country hits piled up like tumbleweeds, and Bare quickly became a Nashville staple. He even flirted with the outlaw contingent in the mid-'70s out of his sheer uniqueness more than any real musical affinity. At this age he can pretty much do whatever he wants since no one knows what to expect and isn't keeping score anymore. What Bare does is pull out a hatful of sweet surprises, covering everything from Woody Guthrie to U2 to Merle Travis like they were all members of the same small club, which in a way they are. It's called the Order of the Songwriters, and when you've survived as long in Music City as Bare has you know where the treasure lies. It's not as big a stretch from "Shenandoah" to "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" as you might first imagine. Add in guest greats like Buddy Miller, Randy Scruggs, Alejandro Escovedo and Vince Gill among others, and there's no way for an album this strong not to seem like a semi-momentous occasion. Bare's voice captures the twilight of a life, yet retains the strength and spirit of a man who has a lot of miles left in him. There is wonder, longing, victory, defeat, love, fear and, yes, even death in these songs, but they are glued together by the common belief that what we do matters. To go from "I Was Drunk" to "I Was a Young Man Once" is to discover the long line we all walk, and frames Bobby Bare's life with a warm and uplifting glow.
Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite, Get Up! Anything that helps get the word out about bluesman Charlie Musselwhite is ricky-tick of the highest order. The singer-harp player, born in Mississippi and raised in Memphis, moved to Chicago in the early '60s, jumping into the urban blues scene there right up to his neck. He and Paul Butterfield walked the Windy City's mean streets and created a brand new style, cross-pollinating black and white culture like crazy. For Ben Harper to ask Musselwhite onboard his new album is like a brother lending a hand, and it pays off start to end. Harper's stripped-down take on these bluesy songs is both real and imagined, sort of like a traveler who arrives in a distant land but immediately makes himself at home. There is no artifact or strange airs on songs like "We Can't End This Way" or "She's Got Kick." Instead, Harper's mastery of folk and rock allows him to approach them with a natural grace, turning up the temperature when he needs to, and always allowing Charlie Musselwhite's heartburning harp to add the fire and filibration to whatever is being sung. In a way, it's like a modern version of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, played by two people who have the utmost respect for the blues, enough to make sure it's always man-handled with care. And at this point, Musselwhite has the appearance of a wisened soul, looking like a road-seasoned version of Robert Mitchum. Next to Harper they become modern seekers of the holy sound. Get up to get down.
The Box Tops, The Very Best. In the history of rock music, there really isn't a story quite like the Box Tops. Their 16-year-old singer Alex Chilton had the vocal grit of someone twice that age—not to mention a different race—and continually stumped audiences when they saw his photo. How could such a young man sound like the singer on "The Letter," not to mention follow-up hits like "Cry Like a Baby" and "Neon Rainbow"? It was almost like a fluke of nature. The Box Tops were often produced by Memphis legend Dan Penn and even though they lasted only two years became a veritable hit-making machine during that short life. A lot of it was Chilton's undeniably soulful voice, but it was also the thick and smoky bottom of the rhythm section and the sophisticated writing of people like Penn, Spooner Oldham, Donnie Fritts, Eddie Hinton, W.C. Thompson, Mark James (composer of Elvis Presley's "Suspicious Minds"), and Alex Chilton himself. There's also the happy discovery of Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released," the only time that song made the Hot 100 singles chart. As the '60s were stumbling towards an end, Chilton was dreaming up his next band Big Star, and Memphis music was starting to show its seams. But this 14-song collection by the Box Tops not only reminds us of one of America's most adventurous rock groups, but also of the promise of rock and roll no matter where it comes from. Memphis might have been the home of Stax Records, but crosstown history was also being made by teenagers who had captured their own Bluff City magic.