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Lincoln Durham

The Exodus of the Deemed Unrighteous
Droog Records

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One of the most skilled and creative guitarists knocking around the Texas roots-music scene today, Lincoln Durham’s got nimble fingers and, thematically speaking, a bit of a heavy hand. If the title of The Exodus of the Deemed Unrighteous didn’t already clue you in, he’s got some pretty grandiose sentiments to go with his electric-blues mojo, but then again it worked out all right for the likes of Led Zeppelin, so why not? And there is an echo of Robert Plant in Durham’s wicked wails, holding their own against shuddering Les Paul riffs as he plumbs the depths of his soul on angsty numbers like “Sinner” and “Ballad of the Prodigal Son,” or, alternately, playfully dark tales like “Annie Departee.” Part of the challenge here is not overly compromising the one-man-band approach that’s set him apart from the pack throughout his still-fresh career, and the record toes the line nicely with some bony percussion here (“Mama”), spare-but-thunderous kick drums there (“Beautifully Sewn, Violently Torn”), and occasional downshifts to acoustic guitar (“Keep On Allie”) that fill out the stage a bit without moving the spotlight. Overall, the creative tension between the spareness of the arrangements and the largeness of the ideas lends itself well to the project; it’s only pretentious if you don’t have the goods to back it up. — MIKE ETHAN MESSICK

Cody Canada

Some Old, Some New, Maybe a Cover or Two
Underground Sound

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Cody Canada is a killer frontman and guitar player. He’s also a damn fine songwriter, which can sometimes get lost in the hard-charging, Southern rock-style onslaught both Cross Canadian Ragweed and the Departed have become known for. But on Canada’s new solo acoustic album, Some Old, Some New, Maybe a Cover or Two, the writer in Canada is showcased and the purity of his storytelling steals the show. Recorded on a single night at the Third Coast Theater in Port Aransas, Canada sings newer tunes (the Departed’s “Cold Hard Fact”) along with some perfectly selected covers (J.J. Cale’s “If You’re Ever in Oklahoma”). For many longtime fans, though, the biggest lure will be the generous selection of songs from the ghost of Ragweed past. “Constantly” and “Boys from Oklahoma” are songs Canada has purposely steered clear of since his old band’s dissolution in 2010, but both are given revelatory new readings here in this intimately sparse framework. Technically speaking, the performance isn’t perfect: Canada’s road-weary voice often audibly fails him when he aims too high. But such isn’t a fault; it’s a badge of honesty. In both “17” and the heart-tugging “250,000 Things,” a duet with Willie, his youngest son, Canada evokes the chatty campfire traditions that have made legends out of many of Texas’ greatest names. With this record, Canada the rocker becomes an open-hearted folkie. — KELLY DEARMORE

jason eady

Jason Eady
Daylight & Dark
Old Guitar Records

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To misquote the late, great Waylon Jennings, this whole “they don’t make country music like they used to” gripe du jour has done got out of hand; it’s as played-out and lazy as “Nashville sucks!” Sure, you may not hear it on the mainstream radio dial, but there’s still a helluva lot of new “classic” country being made these days if you know where to look. What is rare, though, are artists like Jason Eady, who walk that trad-country line like they own it, rather than like they’re just retracing the bootsteps of legends that came before them. Much like his last outing, 2012’s AM Country Heaven, Eady’s new Daylight & Dark doesn’t just sound like a stone-cold classic country record; it is one. The up-tempo opener, “OK Whiskey,” is the obligatory fun but hokey toast to regional libations for the Texas/Red Dirt crowd; but after that it’s all pure gold, with songs like “The Other Side of Abilene,” “Temptation,” and the title track exemplifying the almost matter-of-fact (but never phoned-in) confidence and world-weary wisdom of a seasoned troubadour twice Eady’s age. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he surrounds himself with great talent: producer Kevin Welch and aces like guitarist Richard Bennett and steel/fiddle player Fats Kaplin imbue the record with an air of old-school, Nashville session-pro dignity free of gimmickry and showboaty flourishes. Talented women contribute, too, with six of Eady’s sterling originals co-written with either his fiancé Courtney Patton (who also contributes VIP duet and harmony vocals) or with Kelley Mickwee and Jamie Wilson of the Trishas. And there’s even a CD-only bonus track, “A Memory Now,” featuring both Hayes Carll and Evan Felker of the Turnpike Troubadours. But for all those helping hands on deck, it’s still Eady commanding this ship, and his self-assured voice (both as a singer and songwriter) and strong sense of direction steer Daylight & Dark straight and true.

patty griffin

Silver Bell
A&M Records

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When Patty Griffin recorded Silver Bell in 1999, she undoubtedly hoped it would chime around the world. But the record-biz upheavals that swept it under A&M’s rug (and swept her to another label) turned out to be a possible blessing after all. It allowed the Dixie Chicks to help raise her profile by recording “Truth #2” and “Top of the World” for their multi-platinum Home (they also won a Grammy for their recorded-live version of the latter). Maybe Griffin might have had hits with those songs herself had she released her versions then, but it’s doubtful she could have achieved Chicks-level saturation, and they would have come from a somewhat conflicted album that carries disappointments as well as goosebump-inducing moments. (Among the latter is Emmylou Harris’ high-harmony accompaniment on “Truth #2.”) Jay Joyce and Craig Ross, who split production, laid it on too heavily in places, cluttering up tracks with clunky doses of rock guitar, drums, and electro-pop-something-or-other. There’s also a sense that Griffin was still unsure of how she wanted to define herself musically. The result is a collision of styles that pits devastatingly beautiful ballads such as “Mother of God” — in which every crystalline note and quiet whisper sigh with sadness — against propulsive drums and wall-of-muddy-sound guitars in songs such as “Boston” or the title tune (recently recorded by Natalie Maines). Elsewhere, we get “Perfect White Girls,” an attempt to mix sexy-rock-chick/soul-sister singing and trip-hop moodiness, with mixed results. But when Griffin’s soprano climbs to the clouds as she sings “I think I broke the wings off that little songbird/it’s never gonna fly to the top of the world now,” it literally brings chills. If the rest of Silver Bell could be stripped naked, a la Let It Be, it might have a stronger ring. — Lynne Margolis

Will Hoge

Never Give In
Cumberland Records

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Sometimes you want to tap the brakes on being too critical of modern Top 40 country music: those songs are written by real people, sung by real (if somewhat overly image-conscious and auto-tuned) people, and bought and enjoyed by real people that may well be reading this right now. But it’s hard to listen to more than a few minutes of it and not wonder where all the real people are in the songs; perhaps, crowded out by all those snuff-dipping, mud-tire obsessed redneck caricatures in the mainstream hits, they all migrated to the imaginations of relatively under-the-radar guys like Will Hoge. A source, friend, and aspirational figure to plenty of talented Texas artists just a shade younger than himself (the Eli Young Band took one of his songs to No. 1 last year, and you hear him echoed in the music of Wade Bowen and William Clark Green, among others), the versatile Tennessee native doesn’t always paint pretty pictures, but he certainly knows how to give them some depth. There’s wives who hock wedding rings to save their foolhardy husbands, kids who wonder why their daddy never smiles, and the possibility of failure or addiction lurking around every corner. On the upside, you’re never too low for redemption (“Different Man”) or short on heroes (“Strong”), and even the darker stuff never fails to sound at least beautifully bracing (“Home Is Where the Heart Breaks”) or just sadly pretty (“Daddy Was a Gambling Man”). Not every at-bat is a home run, but it’s never for lack of swinging and Hoge’s average probably tops 90-percent of the other records you’ll hear this year. With a Bob Seger-ish gift for welding common-man sentiment to heartland rock arrangements that are fulsome but never cluttered, and a gritty tenor with just enough nose in it to be distinctive and relatable, he sounds better and digs deeper than most modern country artists dare to. If the mainstream ever gets around to making that a virtue instead of a hindrance, Hoge would truly have it made. — MIKE ETHAN MESSICK

Matt the Electrician

It’s a Beacon, It’s a Bell

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Austin’s Matt Sever — aka Matt the Electrician — calls his latest album It’s a Beacon, It’s a Bell, but it’s really much more of a whisper. Granted, Matt’s never been a particularly high-voltage (pun intended) kind of performer; the charm and charge of his songs and stage manner has always been that of the quietest guy at the party who naturally proves to be shrewdest, wittiest, and ultimately most likable cat in the room. But It’s a Beacon, his sparest album to date, is so reserved that on the first spin, it all sounds like a lot of admittedly great lines adrift in a strummy acoustic sea with little in the way of memorable tunes to hold onto. But as one of those great lines (from “Muddy Waters”) puts it so well, “muddy waters flow clean when they settle down”; give them time to really sink in — and Sever’s eloquent lyrics alone are enough to warrant such patience — and one by one, songs like “The Family Grave,” “Shivering,” “John Elliot,” and “Under the Wire” reveal layer upon layer of subtle but subversively insistent melodies. It’s quality stuff, especially the opening title track, a clear-eyed reflection on the ones that got away with yet another line that effectively captures the hiding-in-plain-sight beauty of the record: “When my heart got bigger, I could see you better.” In other words, It’s a Beacon, It’s a Bell wins you over the same way Matt the Electrician always does; he may take a little longer than usual to really open up this time, but once he does, he’s got you. — RICHARD SKANSE

rod picott

Hang Your Hopes On a Crooked Nail
Welding Rod Records

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On his latest release, Hang Your Hopes On a Crooked Nail, Nashville-based singer-songwriter Rod Picott celebrates the nobility of those common women and men who make do through lives and loves that bend, but don’t break, the human spirit. The characters that populate the album’s 11 songs are everyday people who may not have much going their way, but what they do possess is the courage to simply hang in there while life keeps throwing those sharp-breaking curveballs their way. These are world-weary and street-smart songs about and for those of us whose lives and loves are anything but perfect. “You’re Not Missing Anything,” a love letter to a long-gone lover, finds the protagonist poignantly telling the departed paramour “you’re not missing anything, baby, now, just the laughing and the crying … just the living and the dying.” Picott concludes the chorus of “Memory” with the mantra of many lovelorn, gotta-move-on men and women who tell themselves they’ll “just let it be a memory” and keep doing so “until there’s someone else the shape of you.” Picott has a keen eye for the commonplace things that real people do and think. “Mobile Home” tells the sad story of the couple whose dream home is full of irony because “ain’t it strange it’s called a mobile home/you just sit there, you ain’t goin’ anywhere.” He notes how “you can’t hang a picture cuz the wall’s not wood,” and that when the relationship goes south, the stationary abode is sold to another pair of optimistic young buyers who “put their good pants on’ when they complete the deal.” The proud owner of the “’65 Falcon” is happy to drive an old rust bucket with a “busted windshield, bald tires and a broken door” that runs on fumes and romance, because it’s all he needs to get to his girl — who loves the static on the A.M. radio as much as he does and “sings along just a little out of tune.” All those little slices of imperfection add up to a tasty treat of a pie about humble lives and why they’re extraordinary. Produced by R.S. Field, who keeps the focus on the lyrical wisdom Picott dispenses, Hang Your Hopes On a Crooked Nail is a beautiful musical instruction manual for living with dignity and reliance. — D.C. BLOOM

Bill Kirchen

Seeds and Stems

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Even in a town crawling with hotshot guitarists, veteran axe-slinger and current Austin resident Bill Kirchen stands out. A fleet-fingered showman and an ingratiating frontman with wit and taste to match his technique, Kirchen delivers his rollicking mix of honky-tonk heartbreakers and diesel-fueled truckdrivin’ tunes with bottomless enthusiasm and effortless expertise. Seeds and Stems — a live-in-the-studio session cut in London between U.K. tour dates — comes as close to capturing Kirchen’s essence as any record could reasonably be expected to. The rousing 13-song set finds the artist and his longtime rhythm section (augmented by keyboardist Austin de Lone) ripping through some of his most enduring live numbers, with the same easy mastery and infectious spirit that makes his club gigs such a blast. The material spans the breadth of the artist’s four-decade-plus career, encompassing his days as a member of pioneering ’70s roots-rockers Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen as well as his subsequent solo releases. Kirchen and company imbue such Cody-era tunes as “Too Much Fun,” “Semi-Truck,” and “Mama Hated Diesels” with fresh energy, while the more recent “Womb to the Tomb” and “Truck Stop at the End of the World,” and a bittersweet reading of Bob Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” further demonstrate Kirchen’s superlative skills. The album climaxes with the Lost Planet Airmen chestnut “Hot Rod Lincoln,” performed here as an eight-minute extravaganza, with Kirchen replicating the trademark styles of guitar icons from Merle Travis to Freddie King. Like the rest of Seeds and Stems, the epic yet earthy performance captures the dieselbilly master firing on all cylinders. — SCOTT SCHINDER



The Apology, Part 2
Smith Entertainment

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Hanging out on the fringe of a fringe, more the logical heirs to the punk-tinged Denton alt-country legacy of the Old 97’s than just another Texas country bar band, Rodney Parker & 50 Peso Reward have been a mite stingy with the quantity of their output. Never the quality, though: 2008’s semi-breakthrough The Lonesome Dirge sounded like Cormac McCarthy had slipped into the writing room, and had a sonic kick to match. They took their time following up with the first EP installment of The Apology back in 2011, mixing a little welcome romance into their worldview without losing their edge. With The Apology Part 2 (for convenient catch-up’s sake, Part 1 is tacked onto the CD release of the sequel), there’s yet another incremental shift into radio-friendly, ear-grabbing, brightly rollicking numbers about falling in and out of love. Parker’s voice, reminiscent of Jay Farrar spiked with a shade of Eddie Vedder, remains a mighty anchor for the band’s sentiments: they might have lightened up a bit, but they’ve done so without dumbing it down. In between the hooks of top-down numbers like “I Thought Your Eyes Were Blue” and “Things You Make Me Do,” there’s a wealth of slyly poetic hints at the band’s surroundings, travels, and ambitions (“I’m building towers just to see if they lean …”).  Add in the punchy “Tongue Tied,” the freight-train chug of “I Apologize,” and the empathetic extended metaphor of “The Corner,” and Parker and the Pesos get more done in five tracks than a lot of bands ever manage in 10.

tish hinojosa

After the Fair
Varese Vintage Records

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Tish Hinojosa has been making beautiful, soulful music ever since bursting onto the folk scene in 1989 with Homeland, the San Antonio native’s major label debut. With 11 additions over the next two decades to a remarkable discography that has wedded contemporary folk with traditional Mexican music, Hinojosa’s newest album After the Fair and first since 2008’s Our Little Planet ends the longest fallow period of her career.
After the Fair celebrates Hinojosa’s time in Germany and her reflections on some of the country’s big tent, big-ticket events, such as its hosting of the World Cup and the Dom, a massive party that the city of Hamburg hosts three times a year (come on, San Antonio, time to up your Fiesta game!) Bringing together musicians from Austin and Germany, the result is Tex-Deutsch folk pop; Americana-ish with a smidgeon of European pop sensibility — sans tuba and that guttural Bavarian mother tongue, thankfully. But After the Fair isn’t a complete departure for Hinojosa, who still infuses the mix with a hint of Tex-Mex via her alluring Spanish take on Paul McCartney’s “A Certain Softness,” and another classic sung in Spanish, Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee.” And the album opens very close to home with a cover of a reflective song called “Cobblestones” written by her son. But the highlights are her own songs, such as the dreamy title track, about the promise to keep love strong well after the flame’s first lighting, and “I Will Do the Breathing,” which strikes a promissory note to be there for that special someone with lush strings and punctuating Spanish brass. “I will do the breathing ’til you are able to come up for air,” she sings. “I will be the feathers on the wings of the bird that flies you wherever you need to go.” After the Fair is a slow and sweet walk down the midway of life with a dear friend whose voice you love to hear. 

Kathryn Legendre

Old Soul

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Though still on the shy side of 30, Austin newcomer Kathryn Legendre ain’t kidding when she sings about being an “Old Soul” on the title track of her full-length debut. The song opens with her reminiscing fondly about “an AM country station that my grandpa dearly loved,” and each of the 10 tracks on Old Soul — nine of them penned by Legendre — would have fit right in alongside any of the old man’s favorites. A talented graphic designer by day, Legendre proves she’s also a natural singer, with a warm, husky drawl and pleasing hint of vibrato that fits her earnest take on classic country like a pair of broken-in boots. She’s a gifted lyricist, too, on sure footing both playing it light hearted (the playful “Roy Rogers”) and heartfelt (as on the beautiful elegy “Hard Road to Go (Down to San Antone).”) With the standout “Guy,” a reverent tribute to gold-standard songwriter Guy Clark, she deftly captures the essence of the master’s gift for detail-rich imagery painted with Hemingway economy and precision. All that said, her melodic chops aren’t quite so assured yet; her songs often hew a little too close to traditional form (or, in the case of the spritely opener, “Picking Up the Pieces,” too close to Steve Earle’s “Guitar Town”) to really stand out as truly distinctive. So call her an old soul with room to grow, then. But based on the charming promise shown here on her first outing, she could very well be a diamond some day. — RICHARD SKANSE

sam riggs

Outrun the Sun
Thirty Tigers

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A popular half-in-jest mantra among fledgling bands is “fake it ’til you make it” — i.e., carry and promote yourself as if you were already a star. Sam Riggs and the Night People took that attitude with them into the studio for their first full-length album, and while there’s nothing particularly fake about Outrun the Sun (seems pretty relatable and emotionally honest to these ears), it does give the impression that you’re listening to a pack of old pros instead of a young regional band scrambling for opening-act slots. No less tight than a platinum-bound mainstream project — producer Erik Herbst brought a similar sheen to breakthrough albums by folks like Josh Abbott and the Eli Young Band — it still carves out a personality amidst the professionalism, thanks to Riggs’ heart-on-the-sleeve approach to writing the songs. Big numbers like “The Change” and “Lighthouse” fall somewhere between Garth Brooks and Journey on the grandeur scale, but despite having an enviable range Riggs consistently avoids vocal histrionics and sticks to the well-crafted melodies. His lyrical individuality means the occasional clunky line, but it also means very few clichés and some singular gems like “Hold On and Let Go” (the best straight-up country tune on the album, and one of the year’s best overall), the surprisingly gritty prison drama of “Angola’s Lament,” or, from “Fire & Dynamite,” the unique come-on line, “You’re a novel, babe/In a sea of magazines.” If the woman in question listened to Riggs’ record, she’d probably be inclined to say, “Right back at ya, ace.” — MIKE ETHAN MESSICK

chris king

Classic Horse Label

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The January 2013 release of 1983, his first full-length, was just enough of a breakthrough to get Austin songwriter Chris King a nice string of road gigs, a decent chunk of regional radio action, and a burgeoning band called the Liberators. It’s a grand record and deserved even more, but progress is progress. Thus encouraged, King headed back into the studio on the barter system, armed only with a Gibson Hummingbird and a sense that it’d be best to strike while the iron was hot. The resulting album, Native, feels more like a companion piece to 1983 than a full-fledged follow-up — perhaps “Something Less Formal” should have been the title track; it’s as down-to-earth and intimate as the approach would suggest. King’s not one to overwork himself on the guitar, letting simple but purposeful strums and fills carry the day, but he’s an expressive vocalist with a gritty, rangy tenor perfectly suited to the detail-oriented come-ons (“Wheelhouse”), laments (“Cadillac”), and honky-tonk narratives (“Antler Inn Ballroom”) on bare-bones display here. Most of these songs showed up in fuller form on 1983 or his previous EP releases, so perhaps Native (which King is only releasing digitally) is only essential to his fans … but really, there’s less and less reason not to become one. — MIKE ETHAN MESSICK

Woody Guthrie

The Buzz of a City Night
Ewing Music

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With his honey-toasted, whiskey growl of a voice, seasoned songwriting chops, and a crack team of tastefully restrained simpatico players, San Marcos bandleader Grant Ewing has a lot going for him on his third album, The Buzz of a City Night. But his greatest asset of all is the sense of the gritty authenticity that sticks to every track here like beads of honest sweat after a hard day’s work. Ewing’s weapon of choice is soulful rhythm ’n’ blues, which seems a pretty hot ticket these days, but there’s a blue-collar integrity to his execution that lends such choice cuts as “Picking Sides,” “Never Been Lonely,” and “Soul on Hold” more of a prime Delbert McClinton air than the stank of contrived hipster bait. There’s no showy flash on display here and not a funky horn in sight; just 10 solid original tunes (nine of them written or co-written by Ewing, and one, “Time,” by lead guitarist/bassist Colin Colby with Charles Cruz and Victor Holk) that sound fit to chase a late-night spin through Bobby “Blue” Bland’s Two Steps from the Blues — or at the very least, fit to be paired with a stiff bourbon. — RICHARD SKANSE

Woody Guthrie

American Radical Patriot
Rounder Records

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As prolific as he was during his short life, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie has released far more recorded and printed material from the grave than he ever did while he restlessly walked the earth. In addition to his only novel, the compelling House of Earth, edited by Texan Douglas Brinkley and the first title on Johnny Depp’s Harper Perennial imprint, Infinitum Nihil, 2013 also brings forth American Radical Patriot, an exhaustive labor of love produced by Rounder Records co-founder Bill Nowlin.

The box set — actually, more like a photo album — has six CDs, a documentary DVD, and a 78-rpm vinyl record, plus a 60-page edition of Nowlin’s downloadable 258-page book (included as a PDF on the first CD). It’s a ton of material — and it’s only Guthrie’s government recordings: the interviews Alan Lomax conducted with the folk singer for the Library of Congress, along with two-thirds of the 26 songs he wrote in 30 days for the Bonneville Power Administration and his pro-union and anti-venereal disease promotions for the war effort. This comes in addition to the flurry of releases delivered during the 2012 centennial of Guthrie’s birth. And yet, each one still manages to offer new revelations about a man whose confounding, complex personality continues to fascinate as much as his songs continue to resonate. That such a rich legacy was built from the simple act of writing and singing makes it that much more of an achievement. The fact that it was all done in a mere 10-year span elevates Guthrie’s output to the near-surreal.

American Radical Patriot carries us from his tragedy-filled childhood through the dustbowl and devastating Depression to the war that put the nation’s populace back on its feet — or some of it, anyway. Throughout this collection, we never lose sight of Guthrie’s main mission: giving voice to the common man, including those who could barely even see the lowest rungs of America’s socio-economic ladder. For the first time, we get to hear all five hours of Lomax’s interviews; digging like an anthropologist, he pried forth stories of Woody’s life and times — and the songs they inspired — that still contain a startling immediacy. The other material captures the wonder Guthrie felt upon viewing the Pacific Northwest and the massive dam-building project he was hired to document in song, and the mix of humor and seriousness with which he tackled the growing public health issue of venereal disease. All of it helps to clarify the question Nowlin poses: “Woody Guthrie: communist or ‘commonist’?”

This collection is hardly a mere historical document. The fact that so much of what Guthrie railed against is still going on as we busily repeat our past mistakes makes it sound like a review of current events. It’s a good thing Guthrie can still sing out a warning from beyond, and inspired so many disciples to carry his tune.