july 2008

What’s a little pointed political commentary among friends?

He’s been recording critically acclaimed albums since 1989, but it took the scabrous evaluation of Bush Administration policies as catalogued in his 2004 song “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore” to alter the trajectory of James McMurtry’s career. The 2005 album containing that song, Childish Things, was his most successful studio effort, until the release this past spring of Just Us Kids, which picks up where its predecessor left off in chronicling the humiliations power and privilege visits on the powerless. TheBlueGrassSpecial.com caught up with James at his Austin home between trips to the east and west coast promoting Just Us Kids. In typical fashion, he pulls no punches in discussing the course of his career, his ambitions, his songwriting process and the issues of the day as he sees them.


I am a modern man. A man for the millennium. Digital and smoke free. A diversified, multicultural, postmodern deconstructionist, politically, anatomically and ecologically incorrect. I've been uplinked and downloaded, I've been inputted and outsourced. I know the upside of downsizing, I know the downside of upgrading. I'm a high-tech lowlife, a cutting edge, state of the art, bicoastal, multitasker, and I can give you a gigabyte in a nanosecond. I'm new wave, but I'm old school, and my inner child is outward bound. I'm a hot-wired, heat seeking, warm hearted cool customer, voice activated and biodegradable. I interface with my database, and my database is in cyberspace, so I'm interactive, I'm hyperactive, and from time to time I'm radioactive. Behind the eight ball, ahead of the curve, riding the wave, dodging the bullet, pushing the envelope. I'm on point, on task, on message and off drugs. I've got no need for coke and speed; I've got no urge to binge and purge. I'm in the moment, on the edge, over the top but under the radar. A high concept, low profile, medium range ballistic missionary.

Emerging from Tragedy, Dan Paisley and the Southern Grass Hang Fire On The Room Over Mine

Following the death of his beloved father and bluegrass giant Bob Paisley in 2004, Dan Paisley wasn’t sure whether he wanted to keep he and his dad’s band, Southern Grass, going, or even if he had a future in music. The bluegrass world rejoices in his affirmative answers to both questions, as Paisley and the Southern Grass have returned from a soul searching sabbatical with one of the best albums of the year, The Room Over Mine. Although it has a few tender beauties in its tune stack, The Room Over Mine is notable for its furious, hard-driving, boundless energy. In an exclusive interview, Dan Paisley reflects on the path from the tragedy of his father’s passing to the triumph of Southern Grass’s new album.

Wayman Tisdale Rebounds from Cancer Through Faith and Rebound

When three-time collegiate All-American, Olympic gold medalist, former NBA star and respected musician Wayman Tisdale took a walk down the stairs of his home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on a sunny February day in 2007, the last thing he expected was to go tumbling to the bottom, and then be diagnosed with a clean break in the leg as a result of cancer having eaten through the bone. Through knee replacement surgery and a grueling chemotherapy regimen, Tisdale leaned on the love of his family and the faith he had embraced as the son of the Rev. Louis Tisdale, one of Tulsa’s most beloved ministers. Now fully recovered and looking formidable enough to step on a court and average 15 points a game again, Tisdale has resumed the second career that may well bring him as much attention as did his roundball feats, as a jazz bassist and songwriter. His new album, Rebound, puts his musical acumen fully on display, and he scores at will with a collection of songs reflecting his positive outlook and gratefulness to God for His grace. He took time out from preparing for a tour to discuss the role of faith in his life and music as documented on Rebound and also provides an inside account of the album’s highest profile track, a faithful remake of Barry White’s “Never Never Gonna Give You Up,” featuring his fellow former Oklahoma University varsity athlete, one Toby Keith, on lead vocal. People get ready.

The sad backstory of the Hacienda Brothers’ terrific Arizona Motel album is that the group’s soulful lead singer, Chris Gaffney, succumbed to liver cancer on April 17. With a husky, earthy voice, Gaffney brought the Haciendas’ songs (some of which he wrote) to vivid life, giving even the darkest of narratives the grit and buoyancy of an unconquered spirit. Singing in 3-D seemed to come natural to Gaffney, but it’s a trait only our greatest singers possess. On the Dan Penn-produced Arizona Motel, the simplest articulations of the heart hit doubly hard with a one-two punch of rich soundscapes coupled to Gaffney’s knowing vocal attack. Check into Arizona Motel and check out him and his mates. The extended stay rate is the best deal in town.

Remembering Bobby Murcer, Yankee for life.

John Anderson: Deeply Countrified
For those who may have missed John Anderson the first time around, and for those who may need to be reminded of what all the fuss was about, five worthy Collectors’ Choice reissues reclaim an important body of work that spoke eloquently and all at once to country’s past, present and future, and has lost none of its compelling features over time.

The Grascals: Keep On Walkin’
Those who couldn’t get enough of the Grascals’ first two albums are hereby advised that they ain’t heard nothin’ yet. Keep On Walkin’ is the work of master musicians whose communication skills—vocally and instrumentally, that is—are second to none in or out of the bluegrass world.

Dan Tyminski: Wheels by Billy Altman
As bluegrass fans know, singer/guitarist Dan Tyminski has spent better than a dozen years riding shotgun for Alison Krauss & Union Station. And while no one would argue that the Lonesome River Band alumnus hasn't had a significantly raised profile because of it—after all, not everyone gets to lip-sync for George Clooney—the release of Wheels should help keep anyone inclined to take him for granted good and honest. That's the way to describe this album, too: good and honest.

Crooked Still: Still Crooked by Derk Richardson
First Alison Krauss, then Nickel Creek, and more recently Crooked Still have made the world not only safe but apparently eager as well, for soft-focus bluegrass and string band music. In the new quintet incarnation of Crooked Still that recorded the group’s third CD, banjo player Gregory Liszt, double bassist Corey DiMario, and new members Tristan Clarridge (cello, replacing founding member Rushad Eggleston) and Brittany Haas (five-string fiddle) provide a warm, sometimes earthy, sometimes vaporous soundscape for the unspeakably lovely and airy voice of Aoife O'Donovan.

Sisters Morale: Talking To the River
On their first album since 2002’s moving Para Gloria, the lyrically engrossing and gloriously musical Talking To the River, Lisa and Roberta Morales offer a dim view of the price of love, song after song detailing bruised feelings stemming from deceit and betrayal, dreams gone sour, and appeals to a higher power for guidance, salvation or redemption. One senses they wish to be alone.

The Infamous Stringdusters: The Infamous Stringdusters
The Infamous Stringdusters is another impressive showcase for the group’s arranging, vocal artistry and sure hand with strong original and distinctive cover songs.

Donna the Buffalo: Silverlined
Marking its 20th year together, Donna the Buffalo delivers the best of its seven fine albums in Silverlined. Never forsaking its mountain music roots, the quintet brazenly incorporates textures and rhythms from a multiplicity of sources to create a bountiful, captivating landscape that enhances the vibrancy of the baker’s dozen of original songs penned by the redoubtable Tara Nevins (six are hers) and vocalist-guitarist Jeb Puryear.

The Mother Truckers: Let’s All Go To Bed
From a rambunctious start to a temperate ending, the Mother Truckers’ Let’s All Go To Bed is a work of unflagging energy, unbridled soul and unalloyed conviction. What’s the old expression? It’s a mother? Exactly.

Drew Emmitt: The Long Road
Wanderlust afflicts Leftover Salmon lead singer/mandolinist Drew Emmitt on his exemplary third solo outing, as a number of songs deal directly with a journey, within and without, and sometimes both at once.

Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice: Blue Side of the Blue Ridge
Junior Sisk’s pinched, nasally tenor is one of bluegrass music’s most emotive, and identifiable, instruments, and it’s rarely been as affecting as it is here, in serving the reconstituted Ramblers Choice on the group’s return to the active list following a 10-year absence, Blue Side of the Blue Ridge.

Becky Schlegel: For All The World to See
A favorite of A Prairie Home Companion and RFD-TV’s Midwest Country Theater, South Dakota native Becky Schlegel has delivered a subdued, thoughtful gem of a third album, all but one of its 11 songs being Schlegel originals, situated in a down-home soundscape shaped by banjo, mandolin, steel guitar, dobro, piano, acoustic bass, acoustic and electric guitars and unobtrusive drums.

The Loose Acoustic Trio: Sorrow Be Gone
The Loose Acoustic Trio derives so much enjoyment from its blend of Cajun, folk, jug band and old-timey music that a listener could be forgiven for feeling blindsided by Sorrow Be Gone’s topicality.

Willie Nelson: Stardust: Legacy Edition
Released as part of the label's ongoing celebration of Willie's 75th birthday year, Stardust: Legacy Edition, coming on the heels of the essential four-CD box set, One Hell of a Ride, underscores yet again the depth of a remarkable, landscape altering body of work. It makes a fellow proud to be alive to enjoy it all.

Ronnie Hawkins: Mojo Man/Arkansas Rockpile

Although the original albums represented in this Collectors' Choice two-fer, Mojo Man and Arkansas Rockpile, were issued in, respectively, 1967 and 1970, the 23 tracks on the CD were recorded between 1959 and 1963. At that time, Huntsville, AK-born Ronnie Hawkins was one of the most dynamic rock 'n' roll performers on the scene. In 1958, on the advice of Conway Twitty, Hawkins took his powerhouse band, the Hawks (which included a fellow Arkansas native in Helena's Levon Helm on drums), and relocated to Canada, from where he continued to launch incendiary rock 'n' roll assaults, with an even more formidable version of the Hawks, which came to include native Canadian Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson. His band went on to become The Band, but Hawk went on being Hawk, rarely (but always cleverly) departing from the blues- and rockabilly-based sounds and the big beat that drove audiences wild.

Amos Garrett: Get Way Back: A Tribute to Percy Mayfield
Veteran guitarist Amos Garrett, whose studio credits range from Stevie Wonder to Anne Murray to Emmylou Harris to Maria Muldaur (among many, many others), has fashioned a beautiful tribute to “The Poet of the Blues,” Percy Mayfield, on the easygoing Get Way Back, which leans heavily on Mayfield’s Tangerine catalogue and avoids both “Please Send Me Someone to Love” and “Hit the Road, Jack” (“Well, those songs have been sung before,” Garrett says). Working with a sharp septet featuring horns and Hammond organ complementing the basic drums-string-bass-piano-guitar combo, Garrett makes it a tossup as to whether the star of this outing is his mellow vocal drawl (so much his own but also reminiscent of Mayfield’s deceptively casual style) or his personable guitar stylings.

Roy Hargrove: Earfood
In explaining his aims in recording Earfood, Roy Hargrove said his plan was to deliver “…a recording steeped in tradition and sophistication, while maintaining a sense of melodic simplicity,” with the ultimate goal being to give the listener “a feeling of transcendence.” The trumpeter hit his mark. His tight, disciplined quintet is in perfect tune with its leader’s mindset, playing with an easygoing grace and bracing emotional heat on a baker’s dozen tunes consisting of seven Hargrove originals and six tasty covers.

Wayman Tisdale: Rebound
None of Wayman Tisdale’s previous album have been freighted with more personal relevancy to his own life and philosophy than this, his eighth album, titled Rebound. In March of last year Tisdale was diagnosed with bone cancer; now, after a grueling regimen of chemotherapy and knee replacement surgery, he’s back, sounding and looking at full strength, with one of the most appealing and vibrant long players of the year, evidence anew that upon his return to the active list he brought his A++ game.

Rob Roy Parnell: Let’s Start Something
Brother of Lee Roy, Rob Roy Parnell shares his sibling’s love of Texas roadhouse music—short for blues, hard country boogie and classic R&B—and testifies to the depth of his feelings on every well crafted cut of his sophomore album, Let’s Start Something.

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