A COUNTRY BOY SINGS HIS HEART OUT Webb Pierce (Country Rewind Records) ***
More country classics exhumed by Country Rewind. This is the type of stuff people who disparage the genre think of when they’re putting it down. Webb Pierce was a classic artist, a contemporary of Hank Williams, and the naïve simplicity of the songs on A Country Boy Sings His Heart Out that detractors scoff at is what makes them special.
Like pop music and rock & roll, country music in general has many threads. According to country music historian Alan Cackett, Webb’s appeal can be summed up thusly; “A honky-tonk innovator, Webb Pierce was a fine singer, responsible for many of the hardest –cutting and daring recordings of honky-tonk’s golden age. His revival of Jimmie Rodgers’ In The Jailhouse Now was the bridge between the country’s hillbilly roots of the 1930’s and the burgeoning rockabilly of the 1950’s.” This is a high and lonesome parcel of songs that deserves to be considered alongside those of the legendary Hank Williams.
As with the other Country Rewind-issued sets reviewed in this column recently, the original master tapes were brought up to 21st century standards with additional recording to complete the process. “Bringing back these long lost recordings means so much to me” says project executive producer Thomas Gramuglia. “Hearing Webb’s voice and guitar playing again is truly a joy. This one-of-a-kind album contains recordings that were believed to be lost or forgotten. Webb was one of the most popular honky-tonk vocalists of the 50’s. These updated recordings will bring joy to any classic country fan.” Boy is he right about that.
Honky-tonk pushes the boundaries of what I can handle as far as country music goes, but being a musically curious sort, listening to A Country Boy Sings His Heart Out is equal parts entertainment and education. Had this crossed my desk 20 or 30 years ago I would have laughed and tossed it out but really, listening to Webb Pierce (or Hank Snow, or Leroy Van Dyke) is akin to a blues fan throwing on some Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters. For a true country fan it’s like tracing the roots of the music they love back to the source. On the surface these songs are corny and simple but the trick is to look deeper, past the obvious, and into the emotions being expressed. Do that and maybe you’ll find out what the fuss was/is about.
HOT TRACKS: Why Baby Why, Wondering, I’m Walking The Dog
REMAIN Bywater Call (Gypsy Soul Records) *****+
This is a riveting, soulful record. Bywater Call is a powerhouse 7 piece southern soul, blues and roots rock band from Toronto, and Remain is their 2nd album. Driven by the raw, blistering vocals of Meghan Parnell and the slide guitar of Dave Barnes this is one of those records that, once you hear it, you’re unlikely to forget the experience.
The seeds for this album were planted just prior to Bywater Call leaving for their inaugural European tour in 2020 when they wrote the title track. “Remain is a delicate yet powerful ballad of love lost due to physical and emotional distance and the unwillingness to just let go” Meghan says. She sees it as a reference to how they ultimately coped with the pandemic. “With no foreseeable end date during the lockdown, a lot of musicians we knew were thinking about calling it quits” she says. “We were choosing to stick it out and stay put!”
Aside from Meghan and Dave, Bywater Call is Bruce McCarthy on drums, Mike Meusel on bass, Alan Zemaitis on keyboards, Stephen Dyte on trumpet and Julian Nalli on tenor sax. Despite having a somewhat similar instrumental lineup to Lighthouse or Chicago, BC is a different animal. They bring the funk and the blues and there are times- especially when Parnell really lets loose and just roars- that you feel like you’re watching from the back pew in a black southern Baptist church as you find yourself being bathed in raw emotion. Rock and Blues Muse got it exactly right when they described Bywater Call as “a tightly connected group of superior musicians who have just started to discover what they’re capable of, as individuals and most importantly: as a group. There’s some rare alchemy going on here, so there’s no telling what Bywater Call might create next.” A publication called The Tinnitist calls them “earthy, gritty, punchy, soulful, rough ‘n’ ready, raspy, powerful, confident, stylish” and that works too.
Remain is like a basin where several cool and stirring tributaries merge to create something uniquely intense. Each musician plays a vital part in what we hear on Remain, but it’s the gutsy vocals of Meghan Parnell that really kicks this thing over the top. Southern rock/ soul/ blues/ funk from Toronto- who’da thunk it? Yet here we are… prepare to be amazed.
HOT TRACKS: Remain, Falls Away, Go Alone
BACK ON THE ROAD TO YOU Freedy Johnston (Forty Below Records) ****
Freedy Johnston is considered one of the best songwriters of his generation. In 1994 Rolling Stone named him the songwriter of the year, describing him as “a master storyteller who sketches out full blown tragedies in a few taut poetic lines.” That was 28 years ago and Back On The Road To You finds him in top storytellin’ form. Over an easy going acoustic backdrop with some country overtones, Freedy spins vivid, vibrant stories of the human experience.
Back On The Road To You, Johnston’s 9th album, is steeped in wit, humor and love driven by infectious, ebullient melodies. Freedy set up house in Joshua Tree and got down to business in LA with producer Eric Corne, which gives the record a ‘California-ness’. You can hear and feel Laurel Canyon echoing throughout the songs; The Byrds, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, that sort of thing. An impressive list of guests and friends joined Freedy in the studio for this adventure- Aimee Mann, Susanna Hoffs (The Bangles) and longtime collaborator Susan Cowsill among them, along with an all-star roots music band.
Freedy Johsnton is one of those rare singer/ songwriters who can count critics among his biggest fans, and whose heroes consider him a peer. Stereogum says “Johnston has the ability to construct entire ecosystems and narratives out of working class ephemera” and VH1 notes that “his albums are filled with elegant, catchy melodies and rich, short story-like vignettes, long on character development and narrative detail.” It seems to me the sort of territory Steven Page is heading towards with his post-Barenaked Ladies solo stuff.
Even if you’ve never heard Freedy Johnston before, there’s a warmth and almost instant familiarity that makes it feel like these songs have always been around you. The Fender Rhodes is one of my favorite sounds in music, which makes a track like Trick Of The Light one of my new best friends. It’s tough to judge someone’s work based on just a couple of spins, but Back On The Road To You feels like a stranger at a chill backyard party that you just strike up a conversation with and it feels like you’ve known them forever. To get a firmer grasp on the magic of this disc and what it ultimately means to me will take a bunch more plays, and I’m very much looking forward to that.
HOT TRACKS: There Goes A Brooklyn Girl, The I Really Miss You Blues, Somewhere Love
LET’S GO! The Hungry Williams (Rochelle Records) **** ½
When you’re looking for a taste of vintage New Orleans-style R&B, where do you go? Why Milwaukee of course. That’s where The Hungry Williams hail from, and Let’s Go is like time traveling to a place where times were good and the music was jaunty.
In 1995, drummer John Carr heard a great CD playing at a bar and asked the bartender what it was; the then-recently released Chess New Orleans anthology. It was at that moment that The Hungry Williams was born. Flash forward to 2015 and Carr had played with everyone and anyone in town, earning the reputation is “Milwaukee’s Ringo”. Steeped in New Orleans music he had the itch to form a hard swinging horn driven band what a certain Latin flair. He even had a named picked out, in honor of one of the best New Orleans drummers, Charles “Hungry” Williams, and he also knew who he wanted to create this band with. Beginning with singer Kelli Gonzalez and bassist Mike Sieger, guitarist Joe Vent followed and keyboardist Jack Stewart too, resulting in a core group of like-minded musicians bent on bringing swing back to the masses.
Let’s Go plays like a 50’s or 60’s throwback record, the kind of stuff you can imagine Richie Cunningham and the gang on Happy Days dancing to. I love the effervescent swinging soul of these songs, but as music evocative of a particular point in time its appeal is by definition narrow. Be that as it may, The Hungry Williams play this stuff because they love it and so get huge respect from me on that count. After all if you don’t mean it, why play it? There is lots to get into here on a technical level, from the individual performances to the way the vocal harmonies are built and executed. The recording process was a joy, according to Joe Vent. “Once we got the room and the vibe locked in, we were nailing takes” he says. “It was the best recording situation; no thinking, just playing. We played these songs as a band, not individuals.”
The album was produced by Jacob LaCally, whom Carr got in touch with after hearing a song by The California Honeydrops that gave him chills because it was the sound he always wanted; a relaxed, authentic performance, the sound of instruments together in a room, and by God that’s exactly what he got. Let’s Go is half originals and half covers of NOLA classic deep cuts, but it’s the Lavern Baker number You’d Better Find Yourself Another Fool where it all comes together. The Hungries love to sing, and this one is your proof.
The Hungry Williams love playing music together and you can really feel that on Let’s Go- there’s a magic in these grooves that you really can’t get any other way. Sweet performances by all involved, particularly Jason Goldsmith on tenor sax and Casimir Riley on baritone, plus LaCally’s relaxed production make this a fun and inspiring record to put on anytime.
HOT TRACKS: You’d Better Find Yourself Another Fool, Boss Man, 669 (Across The Street From The Beast)