Microclimates (self-released) by Brushfire Stankgrass is hippie to the core. Its combo of bluegrass and jam-grass goes from back-porch mountain Appalachia to futuristic electric eclectic electronica via a schizoid program of alternately funky and funny progressive folk songs for the mentally unbalanced (stankgrass.com).
No Depression Legacy Edition (Sony Legacy) by Uncle Tupelo takes the groundbreaking indie release from 1990 from the pre-Wilco Jeff Tweedy’s Illinois band and adds a second disc of newly remastered demos, live tracks and cover versions (“Sin City,” by Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman, is gorgeous).
Hourglass (self-released) by Austin’s own Jane Ellen Bryant, the follow-up to her self-titled 2012 debut, is everything country music should be today but isn’t: folksy, haunting, melodically beautifully, with intelligent, evocative lyrics sung in a sexy angelic voice. JEB is the real deal. She can rock it or roll with a sultry twang. In 2011, she had enough balls to play with her band in a parking lot during the annual SXSW festival. You got friends who ignorantly say, “Uh, I don’t like country?” Play ‘em this. (janeellenbryant.com)
Michael Bloomfield finally gets his due with a four-disc box— From His Head To His Heart To His Hands: An Audio/Visual Scrapbook (Legacy)—that cements his rep as one of the greatest guitar players of them all. One of the discs is a documentary—Sweet Blues—on this tortured individual who couldn’t sleep and died of a drug overdose at the age of 37 in 1981. Carlos Santana is in it praising Bloomfield’s talent. The two of them got famous in San Francisco back in the ‘60s, and Carlos told Michael he’d catch him someday. Michael encouraged him, as he did everyone else who marveled at his dexterity on the six strings. It was Michael’s searing lead guitar lines that sent the folk purists into a tizzy at Newport when Dylan went electric. Dylan is in the film too saying how Michael was the greatest guitar player he ever heard. A number of cuts from Super Session with Al Kooper and Stephen Stills are here as are his amazing leads with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Muddy Waters, Electric Flag and Janis Joplin.
There’s a unique new voice in town. Singer-songwriter Melanie Devaney’s Single Subject Notebook (self-released) has 10 originals and a sterling cover of Lennon/McCartney’s “Don’t Let Me Down.” Call it Americana or pop folk if you want but it’ll be worth your time and effort going out of your way to hear this Iowan beauty (melaniedevaney.com).
The only way for me to properly do a “Top 10 CDs of 2014” is to list them as the year goes on. So far The River And The Thread by Rosanne Cash is number one but Johnny’s daughter has some competition from violinist Regina Carter’s Southern Comfort (Sony Music Masterworks) where this jazz virtuoso explores American folk music of the Deep South. All of her albums have a mighty theme. She’s tackled her African roots on 2010’s Reverse Thread and her mother’s favorite early jazz standards on I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey in 2006. Here, she researched the Library of Congress and contacted eminent folklorists to dig up field recordings deep in the heart of Appalachia. She spent hours listening to Cajun fiddle, gospel, coal miner folk songs, Hank Williams (“Honky Tonkin’”) and Gram Parsons/Chris Hillman (“Hickory Wind”). She has brought those last two (and nine more) to vivid and stunning life with progressively creative arrangements of violin, guitar, bass, drums and accordion. This is one for the ages. You just have to taste her playful “Cornbread Crumbled In Gravy.”