By Sarah Bennett
By Adam Lovinus
By Jena Ardell
By Nate Jackson
By Gustavo Arellano
By Nick Keppler
By Nate Jackson
By Alex Distefano
Hightone Records has served up a serious triple-threat with superb new releases from HANK THOMPSON, DAVE ALVIN, and BIG SANDY & HIS FLY-RITE BOYS. The Thompson album, Seven Decades, comes as the biggest surprise, as this old fella has been recording since the '40s (hence the title) and has been a pivotal figure in country music, a bridge between the western swing of the '30s and '40s and the honky-tonk of the '50s and '60s. Many times I've written in amazement of still-active, still-vital musical senior citizens, but in general, that's been a thing of dubious value; Thompson's agreeably reedy vocals, vaunted songwriting skills and energy level at age 74, on the other hand, remain virtually unchanged and perhaps even improved since his heyday, bespeaking black collusions with Satan. Hell, he even looks a bit like Lucifer with those squinty eyes, that cayenne-red face and that pointy, evil goatee! Aiding and abetting Thompson here are veteran Texan producer Lloyd Maines and a sterling, swinging backup, including guitarist Thom Bresh, who is Merle Travis' son and whose tricky pickin' is a dead-ringer for dead-old dad's. The track list includes such warhorses as Jimmie Rodgers' "In the Jailhouse Now," the Kingston Trio's "Scotch and Soda," the standard folk songs "Wreck of the Old 97" and "Abdul Abulbul Amir" (anyone remember the great old cartoon based on that tune?), plus a batch of originals both new and old that are the equal of anything Thompson's ever waxed in his long life. This'un is a lock for country album of the year, if not album of the year period. If you don't buy it, you suck.
Dave Alvin has long promised to release an album of historical folk songs, and he has finally done so with Public Domain. Tunes both familiar and obscure made the cut, and as always, Alvin manages to saturate even the most staunchly traditional material with surprises. He turns Tommy Johnson's Delta-blues tune "Maggie Campbell" into a rockabilly outing but brings it back home by inserting Muddy Waters' bottleneck solo from "Can't Be Satisfied" into the break. He turns the bluegrass chestnut "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down" into an electrified, raunched-up modern blues stomp. He transforms Blind Willie McTell's Piedmont-blues number "Mama, Ain't Long for the Day" into a down-home Texas yarn that might have been written by Guy Clark, and he morphs Gus Cannon's "Walk Right In" into a country bounce that might have been arranged by Willie Nelson. The playing is magnificent throughout, and Alvin's bullfrog voice seems to drop an octave with every new album, developing a world-weary quality that serves his often somber vision well. Better cut back to one pack a day of those American Spirit Industrial Strength cigarettes you smoke, pal—I hear the black lung announcing its imminent arrival.
Local hero Big Sandy's latest, Night Tide, marks an almost radical departure from past releases and demonstrates his remarkable growth as a songwriter. Intelligent, introspective lyrics have replaced the standard "let's jump tonight" fare largely served up in the past, and he's learned to write haunting melodies like no one's bidness. The newly stripped-down lineup (pianist Carl "Sonny" Leyland has left the group; Jeff West has replaced Wally Hersom on bass) has a darker, moodier, toned-down sound that at times recalls the style of Johnnys Cash and Horton rather than the western-swing and boogie rave-ups that have long been the Fly-Rite Boys' forte. Among the best tunes are the existential "When Sleep Won't Come (Blues for Spade)," a literate, first-person rumination from the POV of western-swing pioneer Spade Cooley, who was imprisoned for murdering his wife; the Spanish-flavored "Tequila Calling," which is so melodically pop-ish that it could have emerged from the Brill Building and been a megahit in 1963 for Jay & the Americans; and steel guitarist Lee Jeffriess' shimmeringly gorgeous instrumental "In the Steel of the Night." The more young and thoughtless among Big Sandy's fan base might be disappointed by this very adult offering, but anyone with a keen ear and functioning brain will revel in the group's newfound maturity. Congratulations, Sandy: you've achieved your goal of becoming your own man.
I don't know of anyone who was as moved by the recent death of Doug Sahm as was FORBIDDEN PIGS leader BILLY BACON, who looked up to Sahm as a musical god from the time he was a little piglet and later became close friends with his hero (Sahm's Texas Tornados even covered Bacon's "Uno Mas Cerveza"). The San Diego-based Bacon has dealt with his grief by releasing Pig Latin (Triple X Recordings), an anthology of new and previously released Tex-Mex Pig-tunes inspired by and dedicated to Sahm. Various versions of the Forbidden Pigs are represented going back to '91, aided and abetted by the likes of Chris Gaffney, Juke Logan, Steelbone and—full disclosure—yours truly, who produced the Pigs' debut album. With that out of the way, I must say in all sincerity and without any favoritism whatsoever that perhaps no band on Earth today produces Tex-Mex with the skill and sheer joy of Bacon and company. Listen to Bacon's cool-as-the-original take on Sahm's "Mendocino," the yodeling stomp of "No Mas Tequila," the screaming passion of Bacon's vocal on "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights/Volver Volver" and the yee-haw! two-step of "Nogales," and you'll agree.