Mandy Barnett, Strange Conversation. It was never going to be a smooth ride to the top of Nashville's country music echelon for Mandy Barnett. The woman just wouldn't behave the way that's expected. She would zig and zag through various styles, speak what was on her mind, and whenever corporate kingpins tried to put their hands on the scale, off Barnett went. That's okay, because now that she's free and clear of them and on her own Dame Records, it's now her way or the highway. And what a way it is. Recording in Muscle Shoals, choosing songs by Mabel John, Lee Hazelwood, the Tams, Ted Hawkins, Andre Williams, and even Tom Waits, and duetting with John Hiatt, there's no way Ms. Barnett is backing down. Of course, it all works like a charm, because this is an album that will live forever. Her voice is funky and golden at the same time, no easy trick, and she carries so much emotional weight on everything she sings there is no denying greatness has entered the house. Near the end of the album "My World Keeps Slipping Away" is such a chillbumper it feels like Barnett is giving testimony why she had to take the reins of her career. She signed her first major record label deal at 12, and in that time learned what she loved and what she didn't like at all about the way Music City works. Now she's on her own, and what the woman is singing is surely a freedom's song that has been longed for during the past two decades. This is Mandy Barnett as she really is, and such an inspiration to hear. All growed up.
Ray Bonneville, At King Electric. This musician might not be a name known to all, but there is something perennially cosmic in Ray Bonneville's songs that say it should. He wraps his sound around a potent gris-gris of genuine grooves, and then layers on a soft-shell delivery that is seductively impossible to resist. Part of that is Bonneville's guitar, which has equal parts of his native Quebec and then later homes of Boston, New Orleans, and Austin woven through its spirit. At his core this man is a song catcher, someone who waits for the ether to send something his way, where he then snags it from the air and puts it inside his musical satchel. From there, things can go a thousand different ways until songs like "Next Card to Fall" and "The Day They Let Me Out" spring to life. Running through everything is the essence of all the different places he's lived and characters he's met. When he shakes everything up inside his back of tricks, Ray Bonneville comes up with a three-dimensional take on modern life, one that is sure to put some glide in the stride and more bounce to the ounce. After all, there aren't many modern musicians writing songs named "Papachulalay." A Decatur 'gator.
Shemekia Copeland, America's Child. Bloodlines don't mess around. Shemekia Copeland watched her bluesman father Johnny Copeland carve out a life in blues up close and personal. No doubt it was no walk in the park, but before his death Johnny Copeland became a world famous practitioner of America's deepest music. It's also no surprise that the daughter picked up the flag for him. After several albums it feels like Shemekia Copeland has recorded her crown jewel. There is such a sweeping view of life in America today that is captured in all its guts and glory, that America's Child could be her lifetime calling card. It's that accomplished. Copeland takes out her wandering shoes and digs into several different styles of music, all the while keeping it close to her heart. Producer Will Kimbrough and songwriters like John Prine, Mary Gauthier, John Hahn, and others are well-represented, and near the end of the album Shemekia Copeland tries on Ray Davies' "I'm Not Like Everybody Else" and makes it her own. Throughout the album she sings with a strength that few others possess today, something that speaks of the earth while it points to the stars. Bless her heart.
Mike Farris, Silver & Stone. Grits ain't groceries, eggs ain't poultry, and Mona Lisa was a man. Or at least that's how the old soul song goes, and it somehow applies to Mike Farris' ample abilities. Not sure how exactly, but that's the wonderful mystery of music. Farris is one of the great blue-eyed soul singers alive now, someone who pays respect to a higher power at the same time he knows the vagaries of love and lust more than most. His new album feels like a big-footed leap into the major leagues, one where his bad-ass voice and original songs match the greats who have come before him. Whether it's Farris' "Tennessee Girl" or "Golden Wings" or right-on covers of Bert Berns' "Are You Lonely for Me Baby" or Bill Withers' "Hope She'll Be Happier," the singer splatters the target every time he takes aim. Including legendary Memphis-Nashville Gene Chrisman on drums, even if it's only on one song, is like paying respect to those who helped invent this music. That's class. Underneath all the body-moving rhythms and heart-racing vocals is an unmovable faith where Mike Farris shows what got him this far, and a confidence that the journey has just begun. Hallelujah is here.
Billy F Gibbons, The Big Bad Blues. When the blues takes someone over, it never really goes away. It might seek cover under other endeavors, but it almost always lives inside for life. Billy F Gibbons was invaded by the blues as a child in Houston, hearing sounds and stomps coming out of his unruly radio or emanating from the vibrating sidewalks on downtown streets. The feeling was all there. Flash forward 60 years and an otherworldly aura of divine affection has come home to roost on his unrelenting new album of down home blues. The songs are pulsing with wild-eyed life, like Gibbons recorded them on a bus bench on Lyons Avenue in Houston's Fifth Ward, right across the street from Briscoe's Barbecue. He mixes cross-cut originals with two each from Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley and a rollicking contribution by Ms. Gibbons, Gilly Stillwater, making sure the swampy temperature stays at the boiling point. The six-string maestro brandishes a guitar sound and smell like he's slicing up day-old fish bait with a Black Beauty switchblade in 100-degree heat on the Galveston seawall, splashing on some Aqua Velva smell-well to make sure all stays copacetic. Add in healthy doses of blues harp lagniappe by James "Thank You Baby" Harman, and suddenly everything arrives at the corner of Lightnin' Hopkins Lane and Juke Boy Bonner Boulevard. The final tipping point to an emotional master blast of nearby NASA headquarters proportion comes in Rev. Gibbons' well-used vocal crunch, delivered by someone who's been riding the backroads long enough to become, ultimately, a high priest of the Church of Holy Soul. Blues or lose.
Dawn Landes, Meet Me at the River. If you're going to sing country music, it doesn't hurt to be from Louisville, Kentucky. Dawn Landes eventually departed for Brooklyn, New York but not before the southern city had formed her earliest memories. Those childhood influences are all over Landes' stunning new album, one that instantly becomes one of the best of the year. There is a purity of intention on every song, no doubt helped along by veteran producer Fred Foster. Foster had formed Monument Records in the late '50s, and was integral to Roy Orbison and so many others' mega-hits. Foster also just happened to co-write "Me and Bobby McGee" with Kris Kristofferson. Landes knew she needed someone like the prolific producer to help realize the sound in her head for this music, so she called him up. Fortunately, Fred Foster said yes, even though he was pretty-much retired. How could he not? Singer-songwriters like Dawn Landes don't come along that often. With a voice cured in honey, she can sing like the wind and write like the words have been sautéed in love. When an album this moving arrives, everything else gets out of the way so there's extra room to listen. Of course, Fred Foster got some of the best Nashville musicians on the planet to play on it, and Landes had likely been thinking about the songs for a very long time. She even gathered two Jimmy Driftwood classics to add in for ethos. Still, all these elements had to sync up in a natural simplicity for it all to work, which is exactly what happened when the world aligned and alchemy happened. The river rolls.
Candi Staton, Unstoppable. This is chicken-fried funk from one of the original soul sisters. Canzetta "Candi" Staton has a long pedigree in that realm, and she comes by her legendary status righteously. Even when her radio hits dried up, the singer stayed at it, veering into gospel because that's where she hangs her spiritual shield, but always coming back to the secular side of the street. She has continually made music that warrants all her accolades, and this new album is no different. It's got grooving originals, covers of Patti Smith, Nick Lowe, Tyrone Davis, and Norma Jenkins gems and production by Lambchop's Mark Nevers. Mainly, though, it has Candi Staton in more-than-fine voice, which means she can curl the toes on call. To hear a woman who has persevered in a world where almost all others have fallen by the wayside is a true expression of courage and cool. Candi Staton doesn't grab the spotlight or jump in front of every camera in the room. Instead she puts her prodigious power of singing in service of songs that burn inside those who are willing to feel her beauty. It ain't over.