Jerry Douglas, Traveler. Great albums are often like extended trips. They may start in one place, move to another, and end up in a completely different world. Jerry Douglas is easily one of the world's great musicians, and as good a tour guide who could ever be found when it comes to exploring different sounds. He can play almost any stringed instrument better than anyone alive, and has enough friends who also play and sing that it's an embarrassment of riches when it's time to put out the call for an album.
On Traveler, Douglas wisely enlisted producer Russ Titelman to help record the 11 songs. For special guests, Eric Clapton, Mumford & Sons, Paul Simon, Dr. John, Keb Mo', Marc Cohn, Bela Fleck, Alison Krauss & Union Station along with several others all answered the call. Each brought their best game with them. Every artist sounds like they've found their perfect musical home, and much of that is thanks to Jerry Douglas's way of helping others shine. His gifts are so deep and sweet that others just naturally open up to that glow.
To hear Paul Simon sing "The Boxer" alongside Mumford & Sons is to hear timeless music take on an eternal spirit. Eric Clapton's elegantly relaxed version of Chris Kenner's "Something You Got" is so full of heart and soul the Englishman should book a week at a New Orleans studio immediately and gather Douglas, Titelman, pianist Dr. John, and the rest of this crowd around him. Once there, they could cover hidden Crescent City classics like the Pitter Pats' "It Do Me Good," Lee Dorsey's "Lottie Mo," and more, showing everyone how this music is really played. Right next to the guest vocalists, though, there are instrumentals where Jerry Douglas lets his freak flag fly, and the real scope of his abilities are set free. It feels like Fourth of July fireworks are going off, and it heals most ailments. What a world.
Lynn Taylor, Barfly. Drinking can be a bitch. What starts out as a one-way trip to the promised land can turn into an endless detour to sorrow and shame. Leave it to Lynn Taylor to capture that no man's land that awaits those who crawl inside the bottle, and do it in a way that anyone would want to hear. There will never be another Townes Van Zandt, but Taylor has a way of seeing the hazy light inside a barroom and writing songs that make that darkness come alive. He may have started out in the spritely string band Felix Wiley, but after the decade he took off found his own road a few years ago, and now has gotten around to going into a recording studio.
Anyone this strongly touched naturally has to be the son of a psychologist or a preacher, and for Lynn Taylor it's the latter. He grew up in Tennessee and Louisiana, prime country for being bit by the bug. For his first solo album, he rounded up a few sympathetic sorts, got hold of an eight-track tape machine and some one-inch tape and let it roll. Everything was extremely improvised, and perfection was not allowed in the front door. Good, because what Taylor and the band have done is an album that could have been recorded anytime in the last 50 years, but still comes across as modern as tomorrow's newspaper.
The key to Barfly is the naturalness of Lynn Taylor's voice. It seems to come from a place where the sun doesn't shine that often, but when it does it fills the room with a honey-like warmth. Maybe it comes from years of listening to others talk, and soaking up all those different accents and inflections. Or it could be something the singer was born with, and it grew and grew until it finally had to take flight. Whatever it was, this man is a singer for the ages and while not many may have heard him yet, time will surely take care of that. The simple style of the players around Taylor give him the support he needs, but never take over from letting the songs stay center stage. For music that first appears to be so far off the main highway—hell, it's even put out on Good Dirt Records—this should be required listening for anyone who's ever feared the words "last call." Bartender, set 'em up again.
Donnie & Joe Emerson, Dreamin' Wild. Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. Take these two brothers from the Pacific Northwest. When they were in high school the pair started a rock and roll band and soon enough decided it was time to make a record. Their father, a lifelong farmer and logger, decided to back their play and built them a recording studio on the farm, taking out a second mortgage to cover the $100,000 cost. He also constructed a 300-capacity concert hall close by, never mind they really were in the middle of nowhere, some five hours east of Seattle in Fruitland, Washington.
Luckily, though, Donnie Emerson actually had the gift. He wrote songs as heartfelt as anything on the radio in 1979, drawing from the unending well of soul music with shades of psychedelic rock, folk, and funk. The album the Emerson brothers made then went absolutely nowhere except straight to the thrift shop bins, where it languished for almost 40 years. Luckily a prominent blogger discovered the release and immediately took up their cause.
What Dreamin' Wild has going for it is truly the belief in dreaming. It's the sound of two teenagers who don't know what they don't know, and therefore are unafraid to try everything. They mix up musical styles as easily as playing ping-pong, and never find one they can't master. Donnie Emerson is a natural singer and player of multiple instruments, and if he'd been in New York or Los Angeles during this period would no doubt have become a teen sensation. That he still was able to record these songs with brother Joe on drums and create an undeniable small masterpiece boggles the odds, underscoring the implausibility of accomplishing such a long shot on their own.
Light in the Attic Records, one of the prime private detectives in finding cherished lost treasures, has done themselves proud again. The eight songs on the original album have been remastered to new sonic kick, the intriguing tale behind the music told in the liner notes and even a short film made telling the Emerson family story. There are probably hundreds of similar scenarios scattered throughout rock history, and as long as rabid fans are willing to dig through dusty stacks of aging vinyl there'll hopefully be more irresistible sets like this. Let's hope so.