Country Jukebox Jury LPs – Jason Isbell, Margo Price and Steve Earle

In this series, I will present the reviews of big albums reviewed weekly as part of Country Jukebox Jury. You can hear me talk about all types of country – poppy, bluegrass, rock, Texan, Canadian and British – every week at Facebook.com/acountrywayoflife

IV Jason Isbell  and the 400 Unit – Reunions

Jason Isbell is the much-loved singer-songwriter-guitarist from Alabama who is Mr Amanda Shires. Fun fact: his first name is Michael, like how Paul McCartney is really a James. I won’t tell you what a brilliant album this is, with immaculate production, song structure and melodic shape, or compare Jason to Neil Young, Jeff Tweedy, Bob Dylan (yep he’s another new Dylan) and Bruce Springsteen (he’s also another new Bruce); others have already done so.

I’m just going to quote some of Jason’s poetry so you can go discover Reunions for yourselves and see how he frames the lyrics with the 400 Unit, who are one of the best bands in America.

‘This used to be a ghost town but even the ghosts got out’ on Overseas, which mourns a lost love. On River, with Amanda’s fiddle prominent: ‘The river is my saviour cos she used to be a cloud…even when she dries up 100 years from now I’ll lay myself beside her and call my name out loud’.

On Only Children he is ‘walking around at night/ fighting my appetite/ Every kid in cut-offs could be you’, while the middle eight of Be Afraid is ‘We don’t take request, we won’t shut up and sing/ Tell the truth enough you’ll find it rhymes with everything’ (which shouldn’t rhyme given what he’s saying in that couplet!).

St Peter’s Autograph takes the form of advice to a grieving friend: ‘What can I do to help you sleep?…We’re all struggling with a world on fire’

It Gets Easier (‘but it never gets easy’) will be a t-shirt slogan: ‘Last night I dreamed I’d been drinking…woke up fine and that’s how I knew it was a dream’.

An extra point to note: once again Jason has his own label and releases the record on Thirty Tigers, an independent label who, as with XL and 4AD, prove that there is space in the indie sector to make records that are miles better than focus-grouped albums that come out on Sony or Warners. 5/5, but you knew that anyway.

Margo Price – That’s How Rumors Get Started

Margo Price’s third album That’s How Rumors Get Started follows two albums released on Third Man, Jack White’s label, and also a solo album from Margo’s husband Jeremy Ivey (who will release another in the fall). The couple enjoyed the birth of her third child, Ramona Lynn, in May so she is technically on maternity leave while doing promo for the album.

Sturgill Simpson has produced it in much the same way as Dave Cobb produces those of Jason Isbell and (indeed) those of Simpson. A lush organic sound gives the listener an opportunity hear each note and beat as it lands. Margo’s country voice is soft and pure but with a bit of grit, a little like Linda Ronstadt’s or SJ from Morganway.

Letting Me Down is a wonderful bit of cool rock which has a long fade(!!), Hey Child has tinges of Muscle Shoals r’n’b while Stone Me was the album’s first single, a song about glass houses set to a saloon-style piano. Gone To Stay, meanwhile, is a lost Fleetwood Mac song.

The album is very American and very comfortable, the sort of music Lukas Nelson is making at the moment. On What Happened To Our Love she writes ‘you were the music, I was the dancer’.

At ten tracks it isn’t long enough but then again Margo recorded it while pregnant so her new baby will inspire her fourth album. Along with Brandi Carlile and Yola, she is proving that sisters can do it for themselves. 4/5

Steve Earle – Ghosts of West Virginia

Steve Earle is never less than interesting. He’s now a full-time dad to a special needs son and is working on what is sure to be the best memoir since Bob Dylan’s Chronicles. Married several (six!) times, imprisoned, strung out on drugs and now in the creative run of his life, Steve’s 20th album is Ghosts of West Virginia, a deeply personal album which is naturally political. It packs a punch, coming and going inside 29 minutes.

The track It’s About Blood is folk music that sounds like the Earth itself. It was sung on the New York stage in the play Coal Country, to which this album is a companion piece. Six tracks on the album are here, performed with The Dukes.

Steve is a loud Democrat and this album hopes to reach across the divide to people who didn’t vote Democrat in 2016, changing the world ‘one heart and one mind at a time’.

On the album, as in the show, Steve tackles the story of John Henry – ‘my son Justin Townes had written one and I hadn’t!’ he told World Café – because the mythical steeldriver may have worked in West Virginia on the railroads, blasting tunnels through the Appalachian mountains. Time Is Never on Our Side sounds a bit like A Life That’s Good from the TV show Nashville.

Steve’s voice throughout, full of humming and deep breaths, sounds like that of Johnny Cash, who was in his early sixties when he made those records with Rick Rubin. Fastest Man Alive is a bit of rockabilly, Black Lung is bluesy and closing track The Mine is sung with despair in Steve’s vocal chords. It’s About Blood remains the centrepiece of the album.

Ray Kennedy, Steve’s production ally, gets the best out of the instrumentation. Expect GRAMMY awards for Ghosts of West Virginia, an urgent album from a songwriter who can teach you how to do it at a good price. 5/5 – please make time for it.

Justin Townes Earle died on August 23 2020 aged 38. Long life to his dad Steve and all the Earle family.

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