Campfire Tales: Autumn / Winter 2015

To kick off 2016 we’re taking a look back at the final couple of months of 2015. It’s our last chance to round up the best of the roots records from the dying embers of the year gone by.

November saw the welcome return of part time Pistol Annie Ashley Monroe and her much anticipated second record. We won’t dwell on it too much here, safe to say The Blade an excellent collection of songs (check out the luscious heartbreak of ‘Bombshell’ or peppy joy of ‘On To Something Good’) and made our list of the best albums of 2015.

Falling somewhere between the American country-rock of Blackberry Smoke and the Brit-rock of Temperance Movement is the first record from A Thousand Horses. With plenty of wailing guitar solos, some knee slapping honky tonk rock (‘Travelin’ Man’), and the radio friendly single ‘Smoke’, the quartet are squarely in the MOR section of the genre. Led by the earthy vocals of Michael Hobby, and counting a Zach Brown (not that one, that’s Zac…) amongst their numbers Southernality is a solid, easy to listen to, debut.

A bit more earthy is the eighth record from Blitzen Trapper. With its 70s feel obvious from the title track it's a groovy thing. Though it can be basic at times, ‘Rock And Roll’ is like a stripped down Stones track, it's well written and always authentic. Also mining the past to make their future are Canadian retro rockers The Sheepdogs. They're a band that have always sounded about forty years out of time and Future Nostalgia makes no effort to disguise that. ‘I'm Gonna Be Myself’, the riffing 70’s sound of ‘Back Down’, or the bass groove supporting ‘Darryl & Dwight’ all ably demonstrate their qualities. And throwing Turnpike Troubadours exemplary self titled fourth into the rocking roots mix make this a happy triple for the harder side of Americana.

A delayed UK release for BettySoo’s fifth album means this hidden treat can finally be heard without importing it. The American singer gives Americana a folk-pop feel across twelve tracks. It’s full of stories and melodies to lift the spirits, and delves into trad.country at times - hear ‘Last Night’ and its slide guitar. Sounding a bit rougher round the edges than the smooth voice and calming sounds of Bettysoo are the guitar driven roughness of Case Hardin. Evidence of their love of a guitar solo is found in the opening eight and a half minutes, the track ‘Poets Corner’. Turning their hand to acoustic at times, on the soft, thoughtful ‘Fiction Writer’ means they keep you engaged.

Flying the Music Row flag is the latest from country's finest baritone, Chris Young. After a barnstorming UK show in September it’s disappointing to find that I’m Comin’ Over relies so heavily on the current Nashville love of girls, radio-friendly melodies, and uber-polished production. The Tennessee singer is still one of the more country mainstream stars and the title track is an irresistible three minutes of country-pop. And it hits the chorus at just thirty seconds in: impressive. Throw in the plaintive ‘I Know A Guy’ and ‘Sober Saturday Night’ with Vince Gill and it’s still a decent listen.

While we’re on the subject of mainstream, two of the most established acts in country also returned, Clint Black, with his tenth studio album, ten years after the last, and George Strait with his first record since retreating from touring in 2014. Of the two Strait’s 28th studio recording, Cold Beer Conversation, is the more enjoyable. Trad.country fans will find both to their liking though and Black eschews any notion of modern country, On Purpose is twangy, has harmonica, steel guitar, organ, and feels decidedly old fashioned. ‘Better and Worse’ is a high point, but there are duds like ‘Summertime Song’ that dull the edge and it’s all a bit serious. A more fun take on traditional music, Cold Beer Conversation is obsessed with love and relationships. There’s a bit more to it though, and some damn fine lyrics that transcend the genre (“Now tell me buddy, don't you ever wish / We could work a little less, catch a few more fish?”) and concern themselves with real problems from real people. And drinking.

Then a set of up and comers released new records late in the year that are just as traditional and just as good. Jason James’ self titled debut shows a young man carrying on the sound of traditional country and demonstrates great promise. The second record from Whitney Rose is excellent: a fully grown collection of music. Heartbreaker Of The Year is mischievous and fun; the title track, ‘My First Rodeo’, the sassy ‘The Devil Borrowed My Boots’, and a worthy cover of ‘Be My Baby’ with The Mavericks Raul Malo, are all highlights. British singer Lizzie Wilson has a delightful voice but her EP is a little lightweight and trying too hard to fit into the current vogue. Raintown are well entrenched in the Brit-country scene and Writing On The Wall demonstrates that experience; they’re beginning to master catchy country pop.

Finally, superstar Toby Keith’s 35MPH Town delivers everything you’d expect from one of country musics favourites; including the hit rabble rouser ‘Drunk Americans’. It’s mostly feelgood stuff, about drink (‘Rum Is The Reason’, ‘Everytime I Drink I Fall In Love’), and women (‘10 Foot Pole’, ‘Haggard, Hank, & Her’): good solid country tropes. Toby pointed us at his favourite ten records recently, so take a listen. On the less commercial side of the record is Dave Rawlings Machine. Six years after his debut record, during which he’s produced multiple country, folk and bluegrass albums, Nashville Obsolete is uncompromising. With tracks lasting anywhere from three and a half minutes to almost eleven minutes Rawlings delivers a set of back-to-basics folk-blues-bluegrass music and it’s thrilling in its contempt for compromise.

Finally, we can't forget Cam. After her debut EP earlier on 2015 December saw her release her debut LP. Including the wonderfully drawn relationship ending 'Burning House', Untamed also had plenty of upbeat moments like 'Country Ain't Never Been Pretty', and its fair share of sassy gir power tunes in the ilk of 'My Mistake'. A strong effort from the shock of blonde hair.

As ever, scores below and scroll to the bottom for a playlist of the best tracks from these records.

Ashley Monroe - The Blade 9/10
BettySoo - When We’re Gone 7/10
Blitzen Trapper - All Across This Land 7/10
Case Hardin - Colours Simple 7/10
Chris Young - I’m Comin’ Over 7/10
Clint Black - On Purpose 6/10
Dave Rawlings Machine - Nashville Obsolete 9/10
George Strait - Cold Beer Conversation 7/10
Jason James - S/T 8/10
Lizzie Wilson - EP 6/10
Raintown - Writing On The Wall 7/10
The Sheepdogs - Future Nostalgia 8/10
A Thousand Horses - Southernality 6/10
Toby Keith - 35MPH Town 6/10
Turnpike Troubadours - The Turnpike Troubadours 8/10
Whitney Rose - Heartbreaker Of The Year 8/10
Cam - Untamed 8/10

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