For Thanksgiving 2005, Compact Capsules gives thanks to the fact that elder statesmen and women like Merle Haggard, Bobby Bare, and Bettye LaVette are still getting it done. Each artist has a new release out and in the process proves that age is no deterrent when it comes to making music that is vital.
Capitol Nashville 74930
Here he is nearing 70 years of age and Merle Haggard is still making essential country music. Proof positive is the Country Music Hall of Fame member’s latest release called Chicago Wind. It was just over a year ago that Haggard made news by reuniting with the label that gave him his start back in the mid-1960s, Capitol Records. It was for the Hollywood-based label that Haggard released his debut album in 1965 and proceeded to rule the country & western music charts in the ensuing years chalking up some 40 number one hits while with Capitol. Haggard marked his return to the label last year with the self-produced release Unforgettable, a collection of standards in which his voice was form-fit to the classic selections. On Chicago Wind, Haggard steers the ship in a country direction and delivers a record as honest and revelatory as anything Nashville has had to offer this year. The album also reunites Haggard with legendary producer Jimmy Bowen. The two last teamed on Haggard’s classic 1979 release Serving 190 Proof. Bowen’s production is restrained and tasteful resulting in a record that wears well on the ears. Never one to shy away from social issues when it comes to his songwriting, Chicago Wind features a couple of numbers on which The Hag, ever the maverick, tells it as he sees it, a privilege that comes with elder statesman status. Beginning with a guitar intro that sounds straight out of the Tommy Collins-era Bakersfield country archives, “Rebuild America First” finds Hag taking aim at Washington and urging it to get its priorities in order. “Where’s All the Freedom” is a shuffling country tune that’s no less opinionated in its message, that being the sorry state of affairs in this country. The chorus “Where’s all the freedom that we’re fightin’ for” is a particular jab at the powers that be. While those two songs are likely to garner much of the attention, Chicago Wind has many more satisfying moments. The easygoing title track is classic Haggard while love songs like “What I’ve Been Meaning to Say” and “Mexico” present a voice that aged well. Haggard revisits the 1973 composition “White Man Singing the Blues” and pays homage to a couple of his contemporaries, Willie Nelson and the late Roger Miller, with heartfelt covers of their songs “Leavin’s Not the Only Way To Go” and “It Always Will Be”, respectively. Forty years after that first release for Capitol Records, Chicago Wind is a testament to the staying power and artistry of Merle Haggard. Often imitated but never duplicated, simply put, Chicago Wind proves Merle Haggard is not a Country Music Hall of Famer for nothing. (Capitol Nashville Records, 3322 West End Avenue, Nashville, TN 37203, or www.capitolnashville.com)
The Moon Was Blue
Going back to the late 1950s, Bobby Bare has made a ton of records during his nearly 50 year career. A country & western artist with bona-fide Country Music Hall of Fame credentials, Bare began as an artist who at the outset blended high-charged numbers (“All American Boy”) with honky tonk tunes full of longing (“Detroit City”). Since those early days Bare has recorded too many albums and released too many singles to remember. His first album of new material in more than two decades, The Moon Was Blue is a special occasion on two counts for Bare. First off, the album is co-produced by his son Bobby Bare, Jr., a renegade type like his dad who has made his mark on the alt country side of the tracks. Second, it is a throwback of sorts to the Nashville Sound which is a far cry from the more outlaw image bestowed upon the elder Bare during his heyday. For those unfamiliar with the phrase Nashville Sound, it originated early in the 1960s as a style of country music where the hillbilly flavor was largely scaled back to give country songs more mainstream pop appeal. We’re talking string sections and background singers on the choruses of songs with the aim to dull the traditional sound and win fans in uncharted waters. Despite the very non-outlawish sound to The Moon Was Blue, it in many respects is very much an “outlaw” recording. Rather than going with the usual Nashville studio types to back Bare, the producers opt for accompaniment from musicians primarily from Nashville’s indie underground, groups like the Silver Jews, Lambchop and Bare’s son’s Young Criminals’ Starvation League band. It brings a refreshing and at times uncharacteristic flavor to the music. Now 70 and never considered a great vocalist, Bare has instead been known more as a stylist when it comes to his singing. Despite the late years, he is in fine voice on the outing proving every bit the stylist. One of Bare’s greatest qualities throughout his career has been his uncanny ability to select great songs with works from tunesmith Shel Silverstein his favorites. An album rooted in country, the songs comprising The Moon Was Blue, all covers, are strictly tunes from yesteryear that Bare has always loved but never got around to recording. His sing-along rendition of the sentimental favorite “Shine On Harvest Moon” truly tests the wayback machine waters. The remaining ten tracks range from pop (“Everybody’s Talkin'”, “Yesterday When I Was Young”) to ballads (“Love Letters in the Sand”) to country standards (“Am I That Easy to Forget”) to of course, one from the Silverstein archives (“The Ballad of Lucy Jordan”). In all, Bare is no less for the wear of his latter years on this impressive comeback delivering these tunes in heartfelt fashion with the occasional a wink and a smile. Once an outlaw, always an outlaw. (Dualtone Music Group, 1614 17th Avenue South, Nashville, TN 37212, or www.dualtone.com)
I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise
Performance of the year as far as recordings are concerned? From what these ears have heard since January 1, nothing can top the stop-in-your-tracks rendition of Lucinda Williams’ “Joy” that singer Bettye LaVette delivers, or make that bleeds, on her recording I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise. Passion, funk, soul and sensuality fill the grooves of this impressive comeback affair. LaVette’s career goes back some 43 years where as a 16-year-old she saw the release of her first single for a small Detroit label. That single, titled “My Man He’s A Lovin’ Man”, would be her highest charting record reaching number seven on the R&B charts. It would begin a trek that would see her record singles for a string of labels both big and small such Atlantic, Calla, Karen, Silver Fox, SSS International, ATCO, Epic, and finally Motown which released her last singles in the early 1980s. Amazingly, in all that time LaVette had only one full-length album released in the States, Tell Me A Lie, issued by Motown in 1982. (LaVette did record an album in 1972 for Atlantic Records, but it was never released in the U.S.) The ice was broken in 2003 with the release of A Woman Like Me which garnered LaVette a W.C. Handy blues award for comeback of the year. While consistent chart success eluded her, LaVette’s singles have always been considered hot property amongst deep soul fans. Listening to I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise it’s easy to understand why. First and foremost, LaVette is an interpreter of the highest order. The song selections are an impeccable bunch. Wrapping her potent voice around each and every one of the 10 selections, Lavette’s covers span the aforementioned Williams number to Joan Armatrading’s “Down To Zero” to Aimee Mann’s “How Am I Different” to Dolly Parton’s “Little Sparrow” to Fiona Apple’s “Sleep To Dream” to Sinead O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” leaving her definitive stamp on each and every one. The arrangements are fresh and inventive. Credit on that end goes to producer Joe Henry who himself is becoming a rising star in producer circles. The combination of his creative touches on the production side and LaVette’s prowess on the singing end makes for a compelling and highly recommended album. (Anti Records, 2798 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90026, or www.anti.com)
Bettye LaVette performs at Johnny D’s in Somerville, MA on Saturday, December 3. Johnny D’s is located at 17 Holland Street in Davis Square. Call 617-776-2004 or check them out on the web at www.johnnyds.com.
(Dan Ferguson is a free-lance music writer and host of The Boudin Barndance, broadcast Thursday nights from 6 – 9 pm on WRIU-FM 90.3. He lives in Peace Dale and can be reached at email@example.com.)