Our new monthly music feature, Rooted & Restless, finds country music aficionados Josh Hurst and Jonathan Keefe wading into all things Americana, expanding the definition of ‘country’ to incorporate all the permutations that the genre has opened itself up to, especially in recent years. And our first issue, focused on February releases, already finds this duo leaning hard into that ‘restless’ part: there’s an album praised for its “rock n’ roll energy” (Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Signs), a set of Frank Sinatra covers (Trisha Yearwood’s Let’s Be Frank), a group convened by pop singer Colbie Caillat (Gone West’s Tide EP), and the epochal, 1963 Ray Charles album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music — this month’s Kicking the Canon pick. Even the two seemingly more standard country projects here — one by an artist who fell under the tutelage of Blake Shelton on The Voice (Cassadee Pope’s Stages), the other by an ornery Texan often compared to Townes Van Zandt (Hayes Carll’s What It Is) — surely wouldn’t fit everyone’s definition of “country.” But if our critics really worried about such considerations, they probably would’ve reviewed the new Florida Georgia Line. There’s quite enough dividing lines being drawn right now; instead, Rooted & Restless is about striving to view borderlessness as a source of strength — or, to quote Hurst, about “music that is at once rooted in a particular tradition, but also eager to glimpse the future — grounded in a familiar grammar, but not beholden to it.”
It’s often said of dynamic live acts that their albums don’t fully prepare you for the concert experience. That’s undoubtedly true of Tedeschi Trucks Band, the polymorphous jam band whose gigs are alit with barnstorming virtuosity. Then again, you could just as easily say that the muscle of those live shows is inadequate preparation for the group’s albums, each one a thoughtfully-arranged, multi-layered mélange of American roots idioms. Signs may be their most sophisticated record to date, and also the most contemplative. They come by their reverie honestly: Singer/guitarist/howlin’ blueswoman Susan Tedeschi and venerated ax wizard Derek Trucks, the husband/wife duo around whom this band orbits, buried a number of close friends and mentors in the months leading up to Signs’ release, among them Leon Russell and Trucks’s uncle Butch. Those ghosts haunt Signs, an album that feels wise and weathered. That’s not to say it wants for rock n’ roll energy: Opener “Signs, Hard Times” spins the jitters into prickly funk, vamping over anxiety like Stevie Wonder’s “Superstitious.” And mid-album highlight “Shame” is a dramatic, brass-soaked tour de force of bandleadership, nimbly pivoting from James Brown’s commanding funk to Duke Ellington’s rich orchestral hues. Still, the heart of the record lies in songs that seamlessly integrate supple soul and insinuating R&B, always written with plainspoken empathy, arranged with a deft touch, ignited by Trucks’s crackling solos, and delivered by the gale force of Tedeschi — one of the great living blues singers, and never better than she is here. In “I’m Gonna Be There,” she pledges her fidelity even through life’s storms and trials; the song’s luxuriant groove builds into a swirl of strings, voices, and Trucks’s loose electricity. She hopes for better days and happier times on “When Will I Begin,” a song that captures the strange weather of prime Van Morrison, beginning as regally swaying R&B before swirling off into the mystic. “Strengthen What Remains” is a shimmering ballad, mostly acoustic, nestled deep down in the low embers of Tedeschi’s voice and accented with graceful woodwinds and strings. It’s the Tedeschi Trucks Band at their most delicate, while “Hard Case” represents their choogling, Dixie funk best — and a reminder of love’s tenacity, even when times get tough. Josh Hurst
Standards albums are always a dodgy proposition. Few contemporary vocalists have the disciplined technical skill to sing standards with the same precision as the singers who made them famous, and fewer still have the vision to bring their own perspective to decades’ old material in a way that feels fresh. To that end, Trisha Yearwood’s Let’s Be Frank is all the more exceptional. It’s saying something that, more than two decades into her career, Yearwood has rarely been in better voice than she is on this collection of songs all either popularized, or inspired, by Frank Sinatra. Yearwood’s gifts as a vocalist put her in rarefied air: Her technique is precise and unerring, her ability to approach a song with a deep understanding of how the choices she makes with her voice — and her phrasing — can elevate any lyric, make her one of the finest interpretive singers in popular music. Let’s Be Frank works, then, because of the choices she makes throughout, leaning into her vowels like a blues singer, bringing a sultry, seductive tone to “Witchcraft”; using first-person perspective on “The Lady Is a Tramp” to engage her own public image with a wry wit; and when she pulls back on the final few bars of “Over the Rainbow,” she subverts the expectation that she’ll go for a full-on diva belt, ending the song instead on a melancholy note. Recording at Capitol Records studios, and singing into the same microphone that Sinatra once used, Yearwood approaches the material here with respect, but also without being overly reverential. She embraces the sarcasm in the final refrain of “They All Laughed” and sings just behind the beat on “All the Way.” It’s apparent throughout the album that Yearwood has thought carefully about her performances, and that she wants to bring a distinct interpretation to each song. And while the songs are all very familiar — only “For the Last Time” is an original cut, and it’s to Yearwood’s and Garth Brooks’s credit that it fits seamlessly into this particular tracklist — the selection and sequencing work to create something cohesive and fresh. Let’s Be Frank isn’t just Trisha Yearwood in Rat Pack drag; it pays homage to a singular talent from a bygone era, while also adding to the legacy of one of our finest contemporary artists. Jonathan Keefe
Hayes Carll made his reputation as a wiseass — so when he came down with a serious case of the blues on 2016’s Lovers and Leavers, a tender-hearted, but pensive, divorce album, some listeners jumped to the mistaken conclusion that he’d put his impish wit behind him. Rest assured, What It Is features some of the cleverest writing of his career, sometimes deployed in favor of sardonic topicality, sometimes to support love songs as poignant as anything on Lovers and Leavers. It’s the fullest flourishing yet of Carll’s gifts, an album that is by turns wry and reposed, situated in the rich storytelling tradition of Texas troubadours like Guy Clark and Rodney Crowell, yet distinct in its style and in its point of view. That Carll is writing and singing with considerable spring in his step may or may not have something to do with Allison Moorer, who co-wrote half these songs and to whom Carll is engaged. It seems likely that she is also the subject matter of “None’ya,” a lilting, fiddle-led tune about two people who take little jabs at each other, but who are clearly smitten. There’s also the warm, fleet-fingered picking of “I Will Stay,” a pledge of fidelity in a world of shifting sand. Both songs are ravishing, whereas “Fragile Men” — a tongue-in-cheek dressing down of tough-talking dudes who can’t stand to see their world change — is simply withering. That song finds its companion piece in the Chuck Berry riffs and barbed one-liners of “Times Like These,” about the manifold abuses heaped upon us by the plutocrats. The breadth of these songs suggests what a rich songwriting vein Carll and Moorer have struck together, and their casual virtuosity is matched with arrangements that are eclectic without being ostentatious: Listen to how “Be There” begins in austerity, but blossoms into symphonic splendor, or to how the title cut rides atop spritely bluegrass. There’s plenty of evidence on What It Is that Carll is still a wiseass — but he’s also just made the most mature record of his career. JH
Cassadee Pope fared slightly better than many of the countless would-be country stars Blake Shelton’s endorsed duringh his tenure on The Voice in that she’s actually scored a hit single: “Wasting All These Tears” cracked the Country Radio Top 10 back in 2013. Pope’s fortunes quickly turned, however, when none of her subsequent singles made much of an impact. Six years later, she returns with Stages, an album that seems ill-poised to recapture much of any commercial momentum. The material on Pope’s debut sounded far more like that of Paramore — or, less charitably, Avril Lavigne — than the output of any country artist, and that’s equally true of the songs on Stages. Whatever country signifiers might be present on songs like “One More Red Light” and “Distracted,” these are subsumed in mixes that foreground a middle-of-the-road pop aesthetic. Pope and her co-writers can structure a decent hook; had she been marketed to Adult Top 40 from the get-go, the slick, singalong chorus of this album’s “FYI” wouldn’t sound out-of-place sequenced between Shawn Mendes and Pink. And while Pope remains a competent vocalist, she’s also an unremarkable one, rarely imposing a distinct personality on to a collection of songs that also fail to establish any coherent artistic identity. Pope’s attachment to country music was always tenuous at best, but Stages doesn’t ultimately tether her to much of anything else either. JK
Now that country radio programmers have realized that the women of Little Big Town are pushing 50, and have soured on Lady Antebellum’s brand of aural Lunesta, there’s an opening for a new co-ed act. But rather than biting with any of the superlative singles by Delta Rae in the last few years, it looks as if programmers might instead embrace Gone West. The quartet consists of just awful erstwhile pop star Colbie Caillat; her fiancé, Justin Young; “Bubbly” co-writer Jason Reeves; and Nelly Joy, who was last seen and heard from as one of the appalling JaneDear Girls. The Tide EP’s lead single, “Gone West” — because why the hell wouldn’t that also be the title of the group’s first single? — and the simpering “This Time” both aim for the rootsy-pop of the Lumineers or the Lone Bellow but, instead, recall “Simple,” the single that found Florida Georgia Line playing Mumford & Sons dress-up. The songwriting on is on par with Caillat’s pop hits, which is to say it parlays vapid lines like, “I’ve gone west to bring the best back with me” and “When you left, I was so damn ready / No tears fell, just confetti” into ostensible hooks. To their credit, Gone West sell all of this with enthusiasm, though that enthusiasm far outstrips any actual skill that they display on these four tracks. JK
The music of Ray Charles always sounded like freedom. On his early sides for Atlantic, he was a man unencumbered by the conventions of genre, gleefully innovating a borderless cross-contamination of gospel, blues, jazz, and proto-rock-and-roll. But it’s 1962’s Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music — a two-volume set recently reissued in one pristine package — that best embodies his sense of boundarylessness. The album was only possible through the creative freedom clause in Charles’s recording contract, which afforded him an unprecedented level of autonomy to follow his muse in whatever direction it led him, in this case toward a landmark of genre fusion that casually intermingled American roots idioms even as it issued a formal challenge to the highly segregated country music industry. (Alas: The more things change, the more things stay the same.) Nowadays it’s a critical cliché to highlight the straight line connecting white country music to black rhythm and blues — but only because Ray Charles illuminated it, whooping and wailing through these honky tonk standards and coalescing all of it under the umbrella of “soul music.” The songs — all recorded with lush orchestral backings and full complements of harmony singers — blow right past the analog austerity that so often characterizes roots music, reveling in the deep tones and flagrant emotion of the countrypolitan sound.
Where lesser performers and arrangers might have been buried under these thick orchestrations, Charles finds plenty of room for grit, groove, and casual invention. “Bye Bye Love” opens the set with nightclub swing and Andrews Sisters-styled harmonies; the tune is so breezy and Charles’s singing so convivial, you almost miss the despair that lies curdled just under the surface. It’s immediately followed by Charles’s legendary take on Cindy Walker’s “You Don’t Know Me,” often performed in his live concerts as a saloon song riddled with dejection. Here, the song’s bitter pill is sweetened by Charles’s harmony singers, who could at times sound saccharine on his more straightforward rhythm and blues recordings, but here serve an invaluable role in smoothing out the naked, often pained emotion in these songs. And by and large, these are indeed songs of heartache, in the grand honky tonk tradition: “Born to Lose” is the confession of a man destined for ruin, and his plight is situated under the sweep and sparkle of the big band — as if to say that one guy’s problems don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world of missed chances and broken covenants. Meanwhile, “Half as Much” drips with bitterness, but you wouldn’t know it from Charles’s swaggering, brassy arrangement. In theory, some of these symphonic extravagances toe the line of easy-listening mush, but the grain in Charles’s voice keeps emotional accessibility at the forefront; you may be seduced by these lustrous performances, but you’ll never quite forget the midnight blues at the center. Decades later, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music still sounds like the work of a man who was free to do things his way. JH