Hey there Y'all - I know it's been a few months since we've last met and discussed fine roots music, but during that time I've been busy listening and learning instead of writing about it! Now it's time to get back to writing, so without further adieu, here are a few classics that have been on my mind and in my CD player lately...
The Stanley Brothers
Complete Columbia Recordings (Columbia)
Ralph Stanley has finally been getting his fair share of acclaim, due in large part to the use of his long-time theme song 'Man of Constant Sorrow' in the Coen Bros. movie O Brother Where Art Thou?. This disc is the place to start if you haven't really heard the Stanleys before (and it includes an early version of his most famous song). You will probably find this record filed under "bluegrass", and certainly they are influenced by Bill Monroe & Co. However, I find these songs to be simply classic American music - what Ralph himself calls "Old Time". Believe you me, there ain't much better on a weekend morning than a cup of good joe and this disc on yer stereo.
Country Willie: His Own Songs (Buddha)
Country Favorites, Willie Nelson Style (Buddha)
These are the CD reissues of two albums from 1965 and 1966, and they feature Willie in ideal settings with fantastic players. Kudos to the late great Chet Atkins for producing both of these sessions and having the sense to feature Nelson in a "unadorned" style (as opposed to a lot of the "countrypolitan" stuff he did with other artists, which was heavy on strings, choral backgrounds and other such unnecessary lushness!). His Own Songs is the earlier session, and the mellower of the two. The songs are presented simply and with sparse but effective accompaniment, and it's a fine thing to hear Willie sing songs such as 'Night Life', 'Funny How Time Slips Away' and 'Hello Walls' that were big hits for other country stars.
Country Favorites is a more raucous affair, where Willie and the Texas Troubadours (Ernest Tubb's backup band) take on a nice selection of country classics. Fiddler Wade Ray plays some burning solos, and you can tell that Willie and the boys had a blast laying down these tracks. It is particularly nice to listen to these records back to back, as you hear all Willie originals and then Willie interpreting other peoples' tunes.
Additional note: Willie rediscovered some of the songs on Country Willie with Daniel Lanois and Emmylou Harris on the Teatro album - this is a great record, too, and one that shows the versatility and timelessness of the man and his songs.
The Best of Early Basie (Decca)
This is a nice one-disc compilation of one of the best bands there ever was. Notice I didn't say "best Jazz band" or "best Swing band". I said "band",and Basie's mid-thirties group was one of the greatest musical groups ever. The chemistry that existed between these gents was just right, in the same way that the chemistry of The Beatles or The E-Street Band was just right. This music has incredible energy, sparked by a great rhythm section and tight ensemble playing, and of course it doesn't hurt to have a soloist like Lester Young flying along over the top of it all. Which leads me to...
The Aladdin Sessions (Blue Note)
If you listen to the recording just mentioned, then you will undoubtedly fall under the spell of the great Lester Young, and you'll want to hear more of him. Lester's playing is stellar throughout this 2-disc set, He is accompanied by some great sidemen (like Nat King Cole and Vic Dickenson) and he really gets a chance to stretch out (whereas a lot of his solos for the Basie band were short). I have personally found this material an essential link between the Swing and Bebop eras. For those of you who have a little Bird or Coltrane, it would behoove you to hear one of the big influences on not just the saxophone but all of jazz. Final note: there is finally a fine biography about Lester by Douglas Henry Daniels called Lester Leaps In: The Life and Times of Lester 'Pres' Young. If you find yourself digging the sounds on these discs, I suggest getting the book. It provides great insight not only to Lester's unique style and personality, but also paints a vivid albeit painful picture of what a great artist had to endure in a world full of prejudice and ignorance.
I hope you get a chance to listen to some or all of the above, and I'll catch you on the flip side.