Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Morgan Wade, Valerie June, Sara Watkins and Not Our First Goat Rodeo

Morgan Wade – Reckless

From Virginia, Morgan overcame addiction to make her debut LP Reckless. The record is produced by Sadler Vaden, who is a guitarist in Jason Isbell’s band The 400 Unit, and Paul Ebersold, who won a Rock Gospel Album Grammy back in 2004 and is best known for working with corporate rockers 3 Doors Down.

Side A opens with Wilder Days, which sounds like The Wallflowers, and Side B with Last Cigarette. Along with the tremendous title track, both are irresistible pop nuggets which I call ‘Bob Harris Country’: chunky basslines, melodic guitars and a punchy melody. I’m a sucker for melody-driven rock with lots of hooks in the guitar part.

I love the production and arrangement of Matches and Metaphors, which sounds a little like Elle King, and the wedding song Other Side, which has the sort of grit that Ashley McBryde delivers in her songs: ‘You’ve seen the parts of me the world says I should hide’. With different production, Don’t Cry could be Hole-like grunge or Avril Lavigne pop-rock, but it’s catchy like the best songs of both those acts.

Kalie Shorr mixes country confessional and rock attitude but Morgan’s voice is one I like better. She is vulnerable on triple-time song Mend (‘I hope you can mend me’) and on Take Me Away (‘I wanna feel something’). Ernest Hemingway gets a namecheck on closing acoustic ballad Met You, which opens with her ‘numb from a cocktail of pills’ and has her reminiscing on happier times.

When she pleads for her beloved to return, asking him how that ‘northern air’ is on the song of the same name, she adds the detail of the red stain on the ‘white dress that I bought to impress you that night I confessed my truth’. There’s a lot of subtext in the song that will emerge in a live setting too. I’ll be there.

Valerie June – The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers

I saw the long-haired genre-hopper Valerie June perform on the open stage at Latitude one year to an appreciative crowd. Valerie is Americana and will win awards in that category in future, though I am sure she is more concerned about getting her music to as many ears as possible.

I was surprised at how understated the tracks on this album were. Both Colors and Stardust Scattering remind me of Deep Forest’s new age track Sweet Lullaby: drums are soft, the production creates a sonic bed for the horns to emerge. Valerie’s voice wraps around Carla Thomas’s on Call Me A Fool where, like The Highwomen, a unison vocal makes the lines punchier.

Elsewhere, Valerie is at the top of her range on the gentle Fallin’, swoons in the middle of Two Roads, is joined by percussion and many voices on the sweet final minutes of Within You and sings an appropriate sunny melody on Smile. I love the strings added to Why The Bright Stars Glow, which I hope she can replicate in the live sphere.

The album ends with 90 seconds of birdsong and pipes, sending the listener off to dreamland with a goodnight kiss. Valerie will win many more fans, more dreamers, with this album.

Stuart Duncan, Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile – Not Our First Goat Rodeo

Yo-Yo Ma is a well-known bluegrass cellist(!!) who teams up with fiddler Stuart Duncan, mandolin player Chris Thile and bassist Edgar Meyer on Not Our First Goat Rodeo, which has been nestling inside the bluegrass albums for nine months. It defies categorisation: there are a lot of pentatonic melodies from cello and bass on Your Coffee Is A Disaster; Voila! is great fun thanks to its jaunty melody; and I like the just-right wrongness of the portamento sliding on Every Note a Pearl.

There is some traditional folk on here. Stuart takes the lead on Waltz Whitman and there’s a Nickel Creek flavour to The Trappings. We Were Animals is a vocal-driven tune where Chris’s mandolin marries with Ma’s cello. The virtuosity is the selling point of the album but there’s plenty of melody and harmony to keep the casual listener interested.

Sara Watkins – Under The Pepper Tree

Like bandmate and old mate Chris Thile, Sara Watkins is not defined by the bluegrass music she grew up creating. She opens Under The Pepper Tree with a cover of Pure Imagination, with some glorious tremolando violin at the beginning, which segues seamlessly into The Second Star to the Right, from off of Peter Pan.

Brother Sean, with some clippety-clop strumming, and Chris on the mandolin pop up on Blue Shadows on the Trail, taken from The Three Amigos, which might as well be a Nickel Creek encore. Her voice flutters throughout When You Wish Upon A Star (written in 1939, lest we forget) and Edelweiss is turned into a lullaby featuring future Nickel Creek member, Sara’s daughter.

Mary Poppins inspires the presence of Stay Awake, a literal lullaby, and she bestows a mother’s love on an acoustic version of You’ll Never Walk Alone. At her producer’s suggestion, she ends with lullaby Good Night, a song for Ringo on the self-titled 1968 album by The Beatles. Her take on Moon River, one of the greatest popular songs ever written, is terrific too.

Every song on this collection has a strong melody. At what age, I wonder, do kids who grow up on lullabies start writing to rhythm not to melody? Maybe it’s when they discover girls and the mating rhythm of the backbeat.

I adore Sara’s own Joni Mitchell-ish lullaby Night Singing, with the chorus of ‘I love you’ sticking in the memory. Good old Taylor Goldsmith is on Blanket for a Sail, the Harry Nilsson song, and the waltz La La Lu from Lady and the Tramp is sung to a pizzicato accompaniment where she might be strumming the violin with her thumb. I’d never heard the country song Tumbling Tumbleweeds, on which Sara recruits her friends from trio I’m With Her (including Aoife O’Donovan who appears on the Goat Rodeo album above) and some lush piano.  

This is a wonderful set of songs that deserve to be heard. I wonder if Sara will do the sort of ‘mother and baby’ event that cinemas put on, or kid-targeted opera companies.

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