In the six years I’ve been hacking away at Taproot Radio, the thing that keeps me going is that every CD that shows up in the mail has something going for it. Every single CD has an enthusiastic, heartfelt band or singer behind it. I get a kick out of the enthusiasm people have for their music.
But some CDs are better than others. Some folks are still working on their musicianship and some folks are still trying to learn the elusive art of songwriting.
And some CDs knock my socks off. Every now and then I’ll be slogging through what seems to be the 100th not-quite-ready-for-prime-time CD and I’ll slide one into the car player that blows me away. When the music’s right and the lyrics are right, and the band’s attitude is right everything feels right with the world.
This year’s Taproot Best of 2011, as always, comes from CDs that have been submitted to Taproot Radio. And the number of CDs that came into the station was the largest ever. So these 20 CDs are truly the cream of the crop. I’m proud to be able to share them with you.
Enjoy. As always I value your thoughts and feedback in the comments or by email. And please, support and thank these artists. They deserve it.
– Calvin Powers, Music Director, Taproot Radio
1. Queen Of The Minor Key – Eilen Jewell
Eilen Jewel’s had hints of rockabilly in her previous CDs, hidden behind the blues crooning and the sweet country twangs. But on Queen of the Minor Key, Eilen Jewell bring the rockabilly front and center, just to prove she can. She’s still got the surf guitar, blues, and country bits in these songs. Most importantly her strong feminine voice carries it all. By all rights Queen of the Minor Key ought to be an instant rockabilly classic.
2. Old Mad Joy – The Gourds
The problem with every Gourds CD that comes out is that you have to get over the “but it doesn’t sound exactly like the last CD which I liked so much” problem. They never go for a radical change from one CD to the next. They just keep evolving and growing in new directions. This year’s Old Mad Joy is no exception. They’ve moved in to full-on rock and roll territory on Old Mad Joy, with Jimmy Smiths’ lyrics being just as obtuse and intriguing as ever and Kevin Russel’s mandolin taking a beating like never before. They keep adding instruments. They keep adding more and more vocals. The sound just keeps getting richer, grittier, heavier and, well, funner. The Gourds are still the best bar band ever in my book.
3. Eleven Eleven – Dave Alvin
No one makes you want to drop what you’re doing to run off and join a band like Dave Alvin does. His blues rock vibe has just the right mix of bittersweet sleaze and aloof indifference to the facts of life most people have to pay attention too. This year’s Eleven Eleven rides into my top 10 on the strength of “Johnny Ace is Dead” with good support from “Harlan Country Line” and “Black Rose of Texas.” I also give him props for having the guts to include a song like “Dirty Nightgown” in the mix as well.
4. The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams – Various Artists
It’s not just a historic project destined to sit on the shelves of museums. It’s also a really fine CD, carried both by the amazingly powerful melodic simplicity of Hank Williams’ lyrics and the “posthumous collaboration” from 13 stellar singer/songwriters who knew how to stay true to the Hank Williams sound. Hardly a weak track on the CD.
On Episode 68 of the Taproot Podcast, listen to a special audio show about the making of The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams. 13 singer/songwriters were given the opportunity to set lyrics from Hank Williams’ notebooks to music and perform them on the CD. On this show hosted by Alejandro Escovedo, we hear the artists such as Jack White, Rodney Crowell, and Alan Jackson talk about what it was like to “collaborate” with Hank Williams. (To be released on December 26, 2011)
5. To Drink The Rain – Malcolm Holcombe
Like all great visionary artists, Malcolm Holcombe sounds equal parts childish, grandfatherly, and crazy. His Appalachian blues/soul music has a tough as nails energy to it without losing the foot tapping appeal. Studio musicians have said they would fight for the right to play on a Malcolm Holcombe CD and To Drink The Rain shows you why. This is one of those CD’s that I’d like to put every track into rotation, but I limited myself to “One Leg At A Time,” “Down In The Woods,” “Becky’s Blessed (Backporch Flowers),” “A Mighty City,” and “To Drink The Rain”
On episode 44 of the Taproot Podcast, talks about living in the North Carolina Mountains and talks about 3 tracks from the CD, To Drink The Rain.
6. Bad Ingredients – Scott H. Biram
The dirty one man band is back with Bad Ingredients. Some people have tried to characterize this CD has his “quiet” album. But as I said in my review, “quiet” is a relative term in this context, more along the lines of channeling his demons rather than exorcising them.My focus tracks were “Black Creek Risin’,” “Dontcha Lie to Me Baby,” “Hang Your Head and Cry,” and “Memories of You Sweetheart.”
7. If I Walked on Water – Ted Hefko And The Thousandaires
Ted Hefko writes New Orleans inspired jazz that appeals to the NYC crowd. That’s a tall order but he and his band, the Thousandaires know how to make music that sounds upbeat, sophisticated, and fun while staying true to the spirit of New Orleans. Think of him as an urban Dr. John. My focus tracks are “If I Walked On Water,” “It’s Cold In Here,” and “You’ve Gotta Take Steps.”
On episode 66 of the Taproot Podcast, Ted Hefko talks about the extremely competitive music scene in NYC and how that’s a positive influence on artists, how Dylan’s early work was a huge inspiration for him, riding the Greyhound Bus to move to New Orleans when he was just out of high school, and learning to “fix his face.”
8. More Like A Good Dog Than A Bad Cat – Mark Jungers
The Texas highways are littered with the discarded Texan songwriters who failed the authenticity sniff test. But veteran singer Mark Jungers has survived, writing songs that fit the here and now of rural Texas without sounding cheap or pandering. My focus tracks are a”Show Me A Sign,” “Wasn’t Thinking,” “50 Head,” and “Drive.”
On episode 47 of the Taproot Podcast, Mark Jungers talks about the upcoming Frio River Festival, how he came up with the title “More Like A Good Dog Than A Bad Cat,” and why he needed to write a cattle-rustling song,
9. Paladino – Paladino
Most of Paladino’s songs explode out of the psyche of lead man Jonathan Harkham so fast that the backing band can hardly keep up. You don’t so much listen to them as hit against them like flying into the side of a beautiful southern California mountainside. The things is, you’ll want to thank the band when it’s done. My focus tracks are “Have You Ever Been Lonely,” “Lonely Mountain,” “Mexicali Rainsong,” “Ode To Misery,” and “Snow Deer.”
On episode 67 of the Taproot Podcast, Joanathan Harkham talks about trying to capture the textures of the southern California landscape and latino culture, listening to his mother’s country music while growing up in Los Angeles, and why he chose to cover “Green Green Grass of Home.” (To be published on December 19, 2011)
10. Who Was That Man? – Tokyo Rosenthal
It would be a mistake and a shame to saddle Tokyo “Toke” Rosenthall with the label”singer/songwriter.” Better to call him one of the most entertaining story tellers working today. His latest CD, Who Was That Man?, unfolds like the opening credits of an epic western movie, complete with dramatic mariachi horns. There are elements of “Country and Western” music woven throughout the CD, but he’s not riding off into cliche’ territory. He’s just setting expectations for a set of songs that are borderline mythic ballads. Highlights for me are “Maybe I’ve Been Where I’m Goin’,” “San Antone,” and the bizarre and catchy tune, “The Librarian.”
On episode 50 of the Taproot Podcast, Tokyo Rosenthal talks about the award he won for his song “Black To Blue,” his experience with European “listening rooms,” and where he got those mysterious horn players on his latest CD.
11. Middle of Everywhere – Pokey LaFarge & the South City Three
Not since the Squirrel Nut Zippers has 20’s/30’s/Depression era music been so fun. I don’t know how a group of young guys can make such achingly authentic music, but they do it. They treat it like the fun romp this sort of music was always intended to be. The track “Mississippi Girl” could earn the CD a spot on anyone’s Best of list all by itself. “So Long Honeybee, Goodbye,” and “Head to Toe” are winners too.
12. Bad Man’s Blood – Ray Bonneville
Ray Bonneville is one of the best barroom balladeers working today not to mention a guitar player second to no one. Whether he is pounding on it like a rock and roll star or creating bluesy atmospherics, he knows how to tell a story in song and music. Every song will keep your attention. There’s always something building in there. Think Dave Alvin, but more rugged, more scarred, more stories. Highlights for me are “Bad Man’s Blood,” “Sugar and Riley,” “Mississippi,” and “Blonde of Mine.”
On Episode 52 of The Taproot Podcast, Ray Bonneville talks about whether or not he’s a blues man, his time in New Orleans, and the spaces in his songs.
13. Okra And Ecclesiastes – Grant Peeples
Grant Peeple’s third CD, Okra And Ecclesiastes wins my reward for best original CD title in, oh, well, a long time. Some how that title builds an image of Deep Woods Gothic that permeates the whole CD and Grant follows through with Ray Wylie Hubbard style lyrics and gritty, grindy, guitars. Highlights for me are “Power Lines,” “Down Here In The Country,” and “My People Come From Dirt.”
On episode 31 of the Taproot Podcast, Grant Peeples talks about selling music on the honor system, his North Carolina connection, and how he nearly set his dog on fire.
14. Welding Burns – Rod Picott
Rod Picott’s latest CD, Welding Burns, is just right for the times, which is to say it’s about tough people working their way through hard times. It’s a CD full of stories about people doing the right thing sometimes, and sometimes, well, not so much. Picott’s CD comes across as a set of tough as nails rock and roll ballads tempered with just a little bit of mournful country twang. Highlights for me are the title track, “410,” and “Sheetrock”.
15. Ghost Stories – Eric Hisaw
Eric Hisaw has a way with the Joe Sixpack Rock and Roll Ballad. His songs deserve to be turned into anthems for the working class. All the characters in his songs are so real you’d swear you’ve met them before. My focus tracks are “Johnston County,” “California,” “Don’t Live There Anymore,” and “The Love She Wants.”
On episode 53 of the Taproot Podcast, Eric Hisaw talks about his cheap living days, the writers who inspired him, and the challenges and rewards of writing songs about your family.
16. Wreck And The Mess – Scotty Alan
Scotty Alan knows how to write songs with a hook in them. Wreck and the Mess wins my 2011 award for most songs I like to sing along with at the chorus. Most songs are driven by an acoustic guitar riff that could be at home in a punk band, which is pretty much where Scotty cut his teeth musically. My focus tracks are “Good-Bye,” “Your Hero?,” “Long Ways From Laughin’,” and “Ain’t Much.”
On episode 63 of the Taproot Podcast, Scotty Alan talks about living in the wilds of Michigan, his punk rock days, making music at home, how he found himself in Los Angeles to record his CD, Wreck and the Mess, and his “Irish roots.”
17. The Sun Session – The Border Blasters
I have to give props to The Border Blasters’ new CD, The Sun Sessions. It was recorded in the legendary Sun studios in Memphis, but these songs are so easy-going and relaxed it has a back porch music vibe which I really really like. This is a fantastic CD to listen to after a hard day’s work.
On episode 64 of the Taproot Podcast, Todd Jagger and JR Harrell talk about listening to border radio stations when they were kids, their own radio show, the joys of Texas swing, and their experience recording in Sun Studios with ghosts looking over their shoulder.
18. Another Lost Highway – Arty Hill
Here’s what you need to know about Arty Hill and his band, The Long Gone Daddys. They are the the best honky tonk band working today. Their songs are original, fun, and just right for the times. Yeah, they cover the classic tried and true honky tonk songs at their live gigs. But you’ll want to dance to their originals even more.
On episode 60 of the Taproot Podcast, Arty Hill talks about changing the name of his most recent CD, his theory of what makes a song great, getting preloaded on a Ford, and why he had to write a song about drinking charcoal.
19. Wood And Stone – Tara Nevins
Tara Nevins’ solo CD, Wood and Stone, is a deeply personal set of songs about working through relationships, work, and life in general. But she manages to make them universal and you’d swear she’s singing about your life by the time you get to the end of the CD. You can hear strains of her Donna The Buffalo music in this CD, but at the end of the day, this CD is Tara’s voice.
On episode 40 of the Taproot Podcast, Tara Nevins from Donna The Buffalo discusses her new solo CD, Wood and Stone, her reunion with her previous band mates, and announces the location of the new Grass Roots Festival.
20. Lie To Me by Bettysoo and Doug Cox
Two great voices, a guitar, and a dobro is all it takes for Bettysoo and Doug Cox to knock it out of the park with their latest CD, Lie To Me. Bettysoo’s voice is strong, feminine, and mesmerizing, and Doug Cox’ guitar riffs are a perfect complement, soulful, tight, and clear. The CD highlight the duo’s strengths and range from old-school Doug Sahm to more modern fare like Jane Siberry. Highlights for me are “Lie To Me,” “Boxcars,” and their cover of “Dublin Blues.”
On episode 51 of the Taproot Podcast, Bettysoo and Doug Cox talk about their one year anniversary as musical collaborators, their naming challenges, and the sensuous mysteries of the dobro..