It’s been a mediocre year for the usual Americana suspects. Lucinda Williams and Son Volt delivered disappointing efforts, and Emmylou, Neko, Gillian, Buddy Miller and John Prine have been missing in action. Except for the ever-delightful Patty Griffin, the latest from The Avett Brothers, Devon Sproule’s wondrous Keep the Silver Shined and Ryan Adams’ surprisingly consistent Easy Tiger, nothing has really wowed me. Until the last few weeks, that is. Steve Earle’s latest, Washington Square Serenade, due out in a couple months, is a fine return to form. And these three albums, all made by relative unknowns, make me remember why the genre will always be one of my favorites. They are gems, one and all, but they’re not polished gems. These are songs honed around kitchen tables filled with overflowing ashtrays and covered by stains from whiskey glasses. And these voices are rough, ragged, and just about perfect.
Chris Knight – The Trailer Tapes
Chris Knight’s four alt-country/rock albums are very fine, but nothing prepared me for the power of the utterly unadorned Trailer Tapes. Originally recorded as demos in his single-wide Kentucky house trailer in 1997, Knight brings a ravaged voice, a fine eye for detail, a compassionate heart, and a sardonic wit to the proceedings:
You say you're from college
But you don't seem too bright
You just brung a switchblade
To a pistol fight
These are tales of small town losers and drifters, little-girl ballerinas who turn into strippers to make ends meet, women who murder their abusive husbands, lost good ol’ boys adrift in big-city canyons. It’s just Chris’s acoustic guitar, his brutal songs, and that plaintive rasp, which is a dead ringer for Steve Earle. But it’s no crime to do a Steve Earle impersonation, particularly when you’ve been doing Steve Earle better than Steve Earle over the past four or five years.
Diana Jones – My Remembrance of You
Diana Jones, like Gillian Welch and Iris Dement, has the uncanny ability to write original songs that sound like they originated a couple centuries ago in some backwoods West Virginia holler. There’s an untamed blue yodel to her voice that will be offputting to some, but she can sit and sing for a spell on my front porch any time. And the eleven original songs here are gorgeous; plainspoken and straightforward, but probing the depths of complex relationships and an unnameable angst:
When you see me sliding fast
When you see it come over me
You don’t need to swear and break down the door
You just need to use the key
And lay me down
Mother Maybelle never sang about that stuff.
There’s no question that the image makers have been at work here. Diana’s got the thrift store Dust Bowl dress, and the hair pulled back in the prim bun. But some things can’t be faked. And in a world where “country” masquerades as aerobic instructors in Stetson hats, it’s great to hear the real deal.
Tandy – To a Friend/Did You Think I Was Gone?
Tandy is Brooklyn singer/songwriter Mike Ferrio and an ever-shifting lineup of bandmates. Named not after the Radio Shack folks, but after a character in Sherwood Anderson’s bucolic Winesburg, Ohio, the band’s been around for ten years, released a few albums, and probably sold a few hundred of them (and by a few hundred I mean a few hundred; none were printed in batches larger than 500). The two albums here, one old (2004) and one new, should go a long way to erase that anonymity.
Aided and abetted by Ana Egge and the great Malcolm Holcomb, Ferrio sings like John Prine, plays looselimbed, ragged country rock, and writes some of the damndest lyrics I’ve ever heard. That Sherwood Anderson reference is surely deliberate, because Ferrio perfectly captures the stifling boredom and ennui of smalltown life in tiny, telling details:
The Dream Superette sells soda, beer and cigarettes
They got bread and ice and plastic cars and almost everything
They got AC and TV and CDs in there
And action man toy handcuff sets
I’m waitin’ in the parking lot for the fuckin’ phone to ring
And a bus goes by on 29 headin’ for the interstate
Leaves a black cloud that hangs there in the air
If I hurry up I’ll catch me one ‘fore it’s too late
By tomorrow I could be anywhere
I’ve been in that store. You probably have, too. There are over two hours of music here, and not a minute is wasted.