Elvin Bishop's Big Fun Trio. Nobody hits the blues funny bone like Elvin Bishop. Being born and raised in Oklahoma probably has something to do with it. It's a land of open spaces and leaves a lot of time for a young person to learn how to entertain themselves. By the time Bishop got to Chicago to attend college, the cast was set. He joined the brand new Paul Butterfield Blues Band then and got a bird's-eye view on urban blues in the Windy City like very few other young white musicians. Through all these years, Bishop has kept his smile. He's also become a treacherous lead guitarist and someone whose wit allows him to write songs like no one else. For this new set, he keeps it simple with pianist and guitarist Bob Welsh and cajon player and vocalist Willy Jordan. No fuss, no muss as the trio uses sheer intensity for any holes left by a lack of other players. They're not missed, which is a revelation. Some guest harp players do drop in—Kim Wilson, Rick Estrin, and Charlie Musselwhite—to add a little luster, but the Big Fun Trio don't miss a beat in recording a blues album that feels like a revival of righteousness. And when Bishop and Musselwhite share a vocal on "100 Years of Blues," they aren't kidding: between them the pair have been at this a century and show no signs of slowing down. Why should when the sky is still blue?
Guy Clark, The Best of the Dualtone Years. For Texas singer-songwriters, there a handful that rose up in the '60s and took it to the end of the earth. Guy Clark is surely one of them. He kicked around the Houston scene first, tried Los Angeles and soon figured out Nashville was where the action was for a songwriter who did not want to starve. The Texan also caught the attention of RCA Records, and snagged a recording career to boot. It was close to when the cosmic cowboy rub had reared its head, and Guy Clark got put in there with Willie and Waylon and the boys. It didn't hurt the bank account. But this was a man who has such a laser-focus on human emotions and the foibles of the heart that he immediately carved out his own unique niche with his debut album in 1975. Several record labels later Clark joined Dualtone and, again, distinguished himself with a guitar case full of classic new songs. This double disc collection is an amalgamation of the recent and the not-so-recent, but one thing is true: every single song has enough clear-eyed courage in them to make the case Guy Clark is one of the very best the Lone Star state ever birthed. Thank God he got off that L.A. freeway and lived to write about it.
Ruthie Foster, Joy Comes Back. One of the most committed and creative artists in music, Ruthie Foster's albums always outdo each other. She's made some keepers, and her latest bests them all. For starters check out the songwriters. She veers all over the road, covering everyone from country upstart Chris Stapleton to Stevie Wonder to Mississippi John Hurt. There are also a lot of new names in that crop, people like Grace Pettis and Deb Talan that bring some real surprises to the set. But it's Foster's own "Open Sky," her only original this time around, that steals the thunder. It is such a striking story of following the path of hopes and dreams that it becomes a breathless prayer for the future. It also sounds like it comes from a place of past mistakes, and the determination not to make them again. That's what Ruthie Foster does best: share her best self with us, and give us the strength to try and go there with her. Her voice is as gorgeous and strong as ever, and with producer Daniel Barrett it sounds like Foster has found a place where she can stand on solid ground and go forward without fear. And let's not overlook her new version of the Black Sabbath chestnut "War Pigs." Could that possibly be directed at Washington, D.C. in 2017? Oh the horrors.
Jeff Gold, Total Chaos: The Story of the Stooges. If there's going to be a book about the Stooges it has to be told by Iggy Pop, which is what Jeff Gold's truly amazing history makes happen. He asks Mr. Pop questions and then sits back and allows the man who was at the center of the Stooges tell it all. All. Scattered through the massive work is an extensive collection of photos, letters, flyers, posters, contracts, and all kinds of other memorabilia. That's to be expected, considering Gold runs the extremely cool website Recordmecca, specializing in all that's related to music—including the music itself. But it's how complete this particular collection is that truly turns TOTAL CHAOS into something that no Stooges fan, or even just fans of rock and roll, should be without. Joan Jett, Johnny Marr, Jack White, and Jon Savage make incisive contributions, while all-around music man Johan Kugelberg throws in his extreme knowledge as well. In the end though, this is Iggy Pop talking, like no one has ever heard before quite like this. Since he's the last remaining original member of the Stooges, there won't be anything like it again. Get it while you can.
Jimmer, God Like the Sun. There aren't many first names that work as an artist's total tag: Prince, Beck, and maybe one or two others. Jimmer works just fine for this incredibly moving singer, someone who had a shot at the brass ring 30 years ago in L.A. with his band the Rave-Ups, and then has taken an unbelievably circuitous route to get where he is today. Needless to say, his history hasn't always been pretty, but the only thing that matters is that Jimmer did not give up. Ever. This second album since a recent rebirth is so heart-baring that it can been a little itchy to listen to straight through. This is a man whose best songs could have been written in blood, and are sung in a voice that sounds like he's using it to make bail. There is an appealing heaviosity to "Grandma's Song," a joyousness in "Rollercoaster USA" and the deep-tissue sweetness all over "You Can Count on Me," featuring guest vocalist Syd Straw. They show that Jimmer is among the very best seasoned rockers still gambling with their lives on what they're doing. Hopefully the world will hear this music. It matters to him, and it could surely matter to all.
Silas Lowe, Wandering Father, Forgotten Son. Right when it was time to re-up as a card-carrying member of AA (that's Americana Anonymous in case it's unclear), along comes a new Silas Lowe album that makes it seem that genre hasn't gotten stuck under the eaves after all. Austin-bound Lowe has recorded an album dedicated to his father, Roy Michaels, and the lost musical treasures that goes with him. Michaels was a founding member of '60s rockers Cat Mother & the All-Night Newsboys. Their first album was produced by Jimi Hendrix—which was about the only time Hendrix did that honor for anyone but himself, something that says a lot about Michaels' band. Lowe's dad disappeared on him, but luckily reunited before Michaels' died in 2008. Father and son each contributed six songs to this new album, and they are all chill bumpers. They are so rooted in their relationship and a deep love of all kinds of American music that it's like taking a walk in the woods with a pair of characters who've been apart too long. Songs like "About a Dying Father," "Burning Bride" and "Big Big City," bring a deep light to who Silas Lowe is, and how he got that way. On one song Silas Lowe wisely sings, "Wish I could learn to take it slow, life is so sweet when I let it go." Purity wins the day again.
Delbert McClinton & Self-Made Men, Prick of the Litter. If one Texas singer deserves the MVP badge after over sixty years of putting his soul to the wheel and never backing down, that would be Ft. Worth's Delbert McClinton. He was causing trouble in high school bands before going total pro, and when that happened he had the road pretty much to himself for being the ultimate Lone Star singing frontman. From his unbeatable release Victim of Life’s Circumstances in 1975, Mr. McClinton continued to make some of the very best recordings anywhere, and in the process somehow put five or six record labels out of business. Needless to say, it wasn't his fault. On this new release, his voice has warmed to an invincible seductive glow, and he can still strip the chrome off an old Shure microphone with his life-splattered pipes. Luckily McClinton continues to write songs that will be around forever. Album opener "Don't Do It" features the spine-tingling blues guitar of Jimmie Vaughan and a welcome appearance from fellow Ft. Worthian singer Lou Ann Barton. That's just for starters. All that follows shows a mature man who knows what he's done and what he wants to do, and exactly how to get there. Definitely more kicks than pricks for a true blue Texas Hall of Famer.
Gurf Morlix, The Soul & the Heal. How's this for a career trajectory? Born in New York state, Gurf Morlix moved to Austin in 1975 to play with Blaze Foley. Some who knew Foley, aka the Shrimp Cowboy, might have suggested a mental exam after that decision was made. Then the musician moved to Los Angeles to join Lucinda Williams' band. A little more stable choice, maybe, but one with a definite shelf life. Once back in Austin, Morlix has become a go-to producer for a wide range of artists, including Ray Wiley Hubbard and Slaid Cleaves. What's most distinguishing, though, are the solo albums Gurf Morlix makes. They start about even with Tom Waits in the 4 a.m.-of-the-soul sound, and then rumble and tumble all over the place. Morlix uses musicians with a minimalist touch, kind of like Japanese brush painting but employing an antique snare drum and beat-up B3 Hammond. There will never be unnecessary instrumental frou-frou on one Morlix's releases. He also writes songs to go along with that shot-in-the-heart sound: "Deeper Down," "Bad Things," "I'm Bruised, I'm Bleedin'," and "My Chainsaw" are testimonies to his worldview of living below the hallelujah line. If this all sounds like music that shouldn't be missed, right on. Pick up an inflatable doll at the winner's stand and have a ball.
Shinyribs, I Got Your Medicine. The endless bounty of booty-shaking joviality, Shinyribs knows how to kick up a good time. Kevin Russell, aka Shinyribs, ran the front line for Austin's beloved Gourds for 20 years. He always had an upper delivery of cosmic insight into their songs, like he was in on the joke and wanted to share a little with his followers. That said, he also knew his way all around roots music, having lived in Shreveport and Dallas while soaking up the atmosphere. For this new album, though, Shinyribs went deep into his own inner groove, co-producing the swinging sessions with the Squirrel Nut Zippers' Jimbo Mathus at Houston's legendary Sugar Hill Studio. There is something totally liberated all through songs like "Tub Gut Stomp and Red-eyed Soul," "The Cross is Boss," "Trouble, Trouble," and captivating covers of Ernie K-Doe's "A Certain Girl" and Toussaint McCall's "Nothing Takes the Place of You." It's like Shinyribs decided to set all his chickens free this time around and then see what happens in the barnyard. No doubt all involved had a cluckin' good time. These are vocals that come from so far back in the alley that not even a searchlight could find the wild animals, and a band with a horn section that knows how to blow and up the ante on a great show. And, yes, it's got a lock on Album of the Year. You heard it here first.