My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Tag Archives: Lead Belly

Album Review – Robert Plant & Alison Krauss – ‘Raising Sand’

raising_sandI remember the instance where I logged onto CMT.com in August 2007 and saw a story about Alison Krauss teaming up with Robert Plant for a duets project. Having immersed myself in country music since I was a kid, I had no idea who Plant was, although I had heard of Led Zeppelin. Like everything Krauss does, I eagerly anticipated the album knowing it would result in a musical journey worth taking.

The genesis of Raising Sand came during a Lead Belly tribute at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in which the two singers performed together for the first time. O, Brother Where Art Thou mastermind T-Bone Burnett produced the sessions, taking place in both Los Angeles and Nashville. The album consists mostly of cover tunes, with Plant and Krauss acting out a role reversal – he tackles her trademark bluegrass while she embraces the bluesy style that penetrates his solo work.

A faithful to the original cover of the Everly Brothers “Gone, Gone, Gone (Done Moved On)” preceded the project, allowing Plant to lead with his signature wail. The version is excellent, with some gorgeous lead guitar riffs and drumbeats to give the track a distinctively lively yet retro feel. The pair won The Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals Grammy for the track in 2008.

The second single was “Please Read The Letter,” an original tune that Plant released as a collaboration with Jimmy Page in 1998. This version is wonderful, with Plant once again taking lead, and Krauss turning in an intoxicating fiddle solo reminiscent of Martie Maguire’s work with Dixie Chicks. Plant’s vocal is a bit shaky so Burnett was smart to employ a minimal production that allowed the pair’s harmonies to take center stage. The track was named Record of the Year at the 2009 Grammy Awards.

The third and final single was “Rich Woman,” a nice enough track but my least favorite of the three thanks to a rocking beat and choral refrain that grows grating after repeated listenings. It isn’t a bad song at all, just not to my personal taste. Like it’s predecessors, “Rich Woman” also won a Grammy, taking home Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals in 2009.

“Killing The Blues,” written by Rowland Salley of Chris Issak’s band Sivertone is my favorite track on the project, a rootsy country masterpiece drenched in steel guitar. The track is simply gorgeous, and very much deserving of the Best Country Collaboration with Vocals Grammy it won in 2009. Possibly even better then “Killing The Blues” is the Tim Burton-esque “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us,” a Krauss-led number with a fabulous banjo driven arrangement written by female singer-songwriter Sam Phillips. I love the twisty Halloween-esque vibe of the track, creepy and strange, anchored by Krauss’ crystal-clear vocal. Both songs are worth the price of the album, hands down.

Doc Watson and Rosa Lee Watson co-wrote “The Long Journey,” the project’s lone spiritual number that has a surprisingly sing-song-y feel. The track closes the album, which makes sense, because it feels more produced than the other numbers and has more of a shimmer to it. Come from nowhere is a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Nothin’” which shakes up the pace of the project with a loud electric guitar driven sound that helps it stand out, for the wrong reasons. It’s a good song lyrically, which a more understated arrangement would’ve made clearer. Mel Tillis wrote “Stick With Me Baby,” another track christened by The Everly Brothers in the 1960s. Plant and Krauss’ version is mellow and slow, almost a bit sleepy.

Unfortunately, nothing else from Raising Sand stood out to me. As a whole the project is kind of uneven but that’s likely do to my need to hear more steel and banjo to appreciate what everyone involved was going for here. But the best tracks (which I highlighted) are near incredible, making Raising Sand a unique album on the musical landscape and a bright spot when it first came out six years ago. In addition to the Grammys for individual tracks, the record itself won Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album and the overall Album of The Year (a first for Rounder Records) categories in 2009. All involved reunited for a follow-up shortly after their Grammy Sweep, but those sessions proved unsuccessful. It’s too bad, because I would like to hear more from this duo. I saw them when they toured off the record and it proved they still had more up their sleeve (the live show was much better then the album). But if Raising Sand is all we get, this is a fine collaboration from two worthy talents.

Grade: B

Advertisements

Album Review: Suzy Bogguss – ‘American Folk Songbook’

americanfolksongbookFrom the earliest days of her career, Suzy Bogguss showed a penchant for folk and western songs, so it was no surprise when she decided to release an album of traditional American folk songs. These tunes, once universally taught to young children are in danger of being lost, now that many public school districts no longer have adequate funding to devote to music education. American Folk Songbook, which was released in August 2011, is Bogguss’ attempt to remedy that situation and prevent at least 17 of these treasures from fading into obscurity.

The best of these is “Shenandoah”, a 19th century tune about a wanderer who is waxing nostalgia for her Virginia home. The song was prominently featured in the 1965 James Stewart film of the same name. The tune is usually performed instrumentally; Suzy’s version is a rare opportunity to hear the lyrics. She sings it beautifully, her voice every bit as clear and strong as it was in her hit-making days.

One favorite that I remember from my own childhood is “Red River Valley”, a sad tune of farewell and unrequited love. The song is set in the central region of the North American continent, an area that crosses the 49th parallel and encompasses parts of modern day North Dakota, Minnesota, and Manitoba. Some claim that the song is Canadian in origin, and that the departing lover is returning to his home in Ontario; however a line in the final verse — “as you go to your home by the ocean” — conclusively kills this argument. Either way, it is a highly enjoyable slice of North Americana.

“Froggy Went A-Courtin'” is a children’s ditty that has existed in many forms; the earliest known of which dates back to sixteenth century Scotland when Mary Stuart was queen. `This version clearly has updated lyrics, since it makes reference to a president. It was one of my favorites when I was growing up, though I wouldn’t rank it as one of the very best numbers on this album.

There are a handful of tunes that should be familiar to most listeners of (relatively) more contemporary country music. Like most of the songs on American Folk Songbook, “Wayfaring Stranger” dates back to the 19th century. It was popularized in the 1940s by Burl Ives, but most modern country fans are probably more familiar with the version that Emmylou Harris took to #7 on the Billboard country singles chart in 1980. I like Suzy’s performance, but Emmylou’s recording remains the definitive version. “Sweet Betsy From Pike”, about the trials and tribulations of an unmarried couple traveling west during the California gold rush of 1849, is another tune that was popularized by Burl Ives, and later covered for country fans by David Allan Coe and Johnny Cash. “Wildwood Flower” dates back to the 1860s, but will be forever associated with Mother Maybelle and the Carter Family.

One of the more recent numbers in this collection is “Erie Canal”, written by Thomas S. Allen. The song is about mule-drawn barges, but travel on the canal was powered by steam engines by the time the song first appeared in 1905. “Rock Island Line”, about a train engineer who successfully avoids paying tax on the freight he is hauling, is of unknown origin, but it was first recorded in 1934 and was later popularized by the American blues musician Lead Belly. This is one of the few songs on the album with which I was not previously familiar.

When I first heard about this project, I expected it to be mostly comprised of songs written by Stephen Foster, the father of American music, but as far as I can tell only one of his compositions appears here — a quiet and whispery version of “Beautiful Dreamer”, which closes out the album.

Even though American Folk Songbook contains a generous 17 tracks, it is inevitable with a project like this that a few popular favorites will be omitted. I hope that a second volume will eventually follow; there is a treasure trove of material available, and I can’t think of anyone more suited than Suzy Bogguss to sing these songs.

Grade: A