RJ Chesney – Amateur Revolution

RJ Chesney – Amateur Revolution
I have often wondered what Hank Williams Sr’s songs would have sounded like if he were alive today. L.A. (by way of Macon and Biloxi) songsmith RJ Chesney channels those types of roots with his latest release. Vocally, it has a bit less twang and more grit than Hank, and the songs ,while strongly retro, have an earthy depth to them giving them a subtle modern kick. The lyrics tend to be introspective and occasionally dark with a touch of humor in the right places. With excellent production from highly-regarded Norwegian producer H.P. Gunderson, this music just feels like it came from the formative years of country and that is a very good thing these days. – MW

Sara Petite – Road Less Traveled

Many male purveyors of country music are getting back to their roots lately, and if the latest release by San Diego’s Sara Petite is any indication, the women in country music have something to say about their roots, too. The fun and sassy title track gets the party started and it doesn’t end throughout the twelve tracks. Sara is like an encyclopedia of classic country styles, as she flows effortlessly from the haunting west Texas groove of “Blackbird” and the hooky pop edged “It Was Just A Kiss” to the emotive ballad “Getting Over You.” “Monkey On My Back” starts off with a traditional swing style before kicking into a high-octane honky-tonk foot-stomper. Sara has no problems letting the talented players on this CD showcase their capabilities, particularly in the over-nine-minute jam fueled “Sweet Pea Patch” – yes, you heard that right, a NINE MINUTE country song, but it really kicks throughout! Not lost at all is Sara’s knack for great storytelling that is both homey and thought-provoking. Check out tunes like “Patchwork Quilt” and “Good 2 B Me” if you want to really experience her talents in this regard. Sara is a Plains tornado of fresh air in the country scene and  lovers of any era of country really need to check her out.  – MW


Mark McKinney – World In Between

Mark McKinney – World In Between
Mark McKinney has been slugging it out in the Texas country music scene for years. With this his fifth recording, he proves he can duke it out with anything Nashville has to offer. He shows his meddle by staying away from the typified sound, and obviously putting his heart and soul into his music. He is a storyteller first and foremost, following the trails blazed years ago by Waylon, Willie, and Johnny, eventually resurrected by Chris Stapleton and others. His music does have a certain catchiness, but is also a bit edgy and walks that Americana/country barbed-wire tight rope with musical poise. Songs like the snappy “Bacon & Eggs,” potent ballad “Yours,” and heartland grooving “Monday” showcase the various subtle edges of of his songwriting envelope, pushed adeptly to present his heart-felt, intelligent stories. McKinney exhibits excellent vocal pitch and control throughout, not trying to do anything that may detract from the words, but still catching your ear with the emotive timbres. A track like “Rainy Day Monday” is a good showcase of his vocal capabilities. Mark McKinney could be another of those (yes, I know it sounds cliche), but another of those storytellers that offers Nashville an opportunity to travel back to the good old days when the music had more of a raw feel to it, before everything became so glossy and corporatized. – MW


The Melody Man, Alexander Ceruzzi – Original Country Music

The Melody Man, Alexander Ceruzzi – Original Country Music

Treasure Chest Records

Canton, Georgia based songwriter Alexander Ceruzzi has an undeniable knack for channeling a sort of inner history book as to what Nashville country music has meant for several decades. He fuses influences ranging from the era of the grand dames and gents to the gritty outlaw era, up until the current (and long ongoing) bawdy rocking side of the genre. Lyrically, you get tried and true country subjects such as heartache, drinking, and cars mixed at times with a tongue-in-cheek and occasionally dark lyrics.

The peppy lead track “Dumpster Diving” is a microcosm of how adept and talented Alexander is at weaving these various styles and influences into a song that feels like it could compete with the radio staples that are popular these days. “I’m Still Loving You” and “Play Your Cards Right” are solid examples of his abilities to write ballads that stand well-interspersed with the snappy rockers like “Vroom Vroom” and the honky-tonk blues of “Mama Was Right.” Enlisting the talents of vocalists Brian Glenn and Debbie Thomas as well as some excellent musicians, Alexander has shown that although corporate Nashville can be a very tough nut to crack, he has the songwriting talent to at least have a step up on some of the others trying to weave their way through the Music City miasma to bring their music to the masses.- MW



Laura Benitez and the Heartache – Heartless Woman

Laura Benitez and the Heartache – Heartless Woman
How about that! San Francisco does it twice in a row for me. Imagine if Tammy Wynette had taken opera lessons at some point in her life and you get a good idea of the vocal capabilities of Bay Area born and raised Laura Benitez. No, you won’t get any trilling arias or ceiling crumbling howls, but what you will get is a pure, melodic and soaring vocal timbre weaved with the honest emotion fused into her lyric writing. The music tends towards a more classic country sound – from the toe- tapping honky tonkers like the lead track “Good Love” to the two step shuffles like “Imitation Of You” and heart-rending blues-tinged ballads such as “Sweet Green Eyes”. Laura’s version of Gillian Welch’s “Tear My Stillhouse Down” packs a serious punch without straying into the “big hat” country bombast. This CD has everything good old-fashioned country lovers hold dear; great, emotive vocals; solid chops from the players; lyrics from the heart; and a serious passion for creating enjoyable music. If you are looking for the homogenized Nashville sound, look elsewhere. If you want pure country, dive into this. – MW


Hillary Scott – Freight Train Love

Hillary Scott – Freight Train Love
Belltown Records
Crossover acts are finding more of a niche these days and Hillary Scott’s particular niche is starting to awaken more people up to her talent. Her latest CD does fit in the Americana genre to a certain extent as a heartfelt country fueled twang is apparent in several tracks. There is also a pop/R&B sensibility that takes some tunes on a subtly different tack adding a lively vibe to the vocal honesty. The crisp hookiness of the title track – the romping boogie of “Get Your Love” and heartbreaking emotive blues-with-a-bite “Losing You” – gives you an idea of Hillary’s talent to weave the slight variance of styles into very solid, enjoyable songs. Her voice is the strongest glue that does this – a breathless croon that has a soulful quality with both range and control that helps you feel the straight-from-the-heart lyrics. It doesn’t hurt at all either that her back-up band for the album includes session players who have worked with the likes of Paul McCartney, Rod Stewart, Linda Rondstadt, and Bonnie Raitt, among many others. Still, Hillary’s talents are what make this a very pleasant musical repast that should keep her on track to wider spread notoriety. – MW


Michael-Ann – Heavy Load

Michael-Ann – “Heavy Load”
If Nashville is going to wake up and step further away from the generic pop country of too many recent years, Michael-Ann could be someone who helps them take those steps. This L.A. based lady who grew up in Kansas City has a very solid grasp of her roots, channeling some of the bluesy influences of the “great ladies” to give you an idea she really feels what she is thinking. “Any Day” has a rocking bluegrassy edge that while hooky has an edgy intensity that keeps it from being typified. “Heavy Load” is a Americana ballad where her vocal timbre, power and emotion all shine brightly. “Nevermind” has a gritty western edge, feeling like something the cowboys of old may like to hear in a saloon after a tough day at the ranch. Michael-Ann is a thought-provoking lyricist, something often lacking in modern country, but she manages to make her words heartfelt and homey, both comforting and poignant in their delivery. She has a top notch band of players backing her and the music is a perfect accompaniment to her vocal talents. If she can navigate the miasma of the current country music scene uncompromised, she has the capability of being one of country’s hot rising stars. – MW



Haymaker – Now Now Now

Haymaker – Now Now Now
Honey Bucket Records
The third CD from this Long Beach, CA foursome weaves touches of rock, folk and Americana with country the way country should sound. That sound is produced by people with grit in their souls and heartfelt stories to tell, something Haymaker have mastered. The music is not pretentious: all four are excellent players but do not flaunt their talents for sake of ego stroking. Rather, they blend them wonderfully in songs that are feel-good experiences. “Different Girl” kicks off the disc with a Saturday night at the honky-tonk shuffle that homogenized Nashville country seems to have abandoned as of late. “Stomp The Gas” does just that, a rollicking romp that flexes southern rock and rockabilly roots. “Lie in Bed” shows the more balladic side, with a smooth, subtle emotion that will really gets its hooks into you. This effort is just an excellent collection of songs that you can either dance to, kick back and listen to, or hang out at a party and jam to. The kind of music that gives me hope that country will get back to its roots and realize that if you show true passion to create great songs instead of trying to write hits, that you have more potential to crossover to music lovers of various genres. This is something else Haymaker has down pat.  – MW


Kandia Crazy Horse – Stampede

Kandia Crazy Horse – Stampede
Bluebilly Records – BBL-000-001
With few exceptions, country music and Americana are not known as a providence often trod by African-American musicians and artists. Kandia Crazy Horse is on her way to changing that perception with this wondrous debut. To avoid becoming a Nashville stereotype, the first throaty and fervent strains of “California” actually bring the country side of Janis Joplin to mind. “Congo Square” has a toe-tapping hooky quality with a soulful power to the vocal work. “Gunfight At The Golden Corral” smacks of old time two-stepping honky tonk, complete with home-spun humorous lyrics. The aptly titled “Americana” is a minimalist acoustic track where Kandia further displays the vibrance and controlled emotion of her wonderful voice. If this CD seemed gimmicky, that would be one thing, but it is anything but. This is music created by a lady with a very high level of passion and talent, with a clear idea of her musical influences and what she wants to do with it. Soul in country music is not a new idea, as anyone who has every listened to Hank Williams Sr, Johnny Cash or Patsy Cline can attest to. Kandia Crazy Horse just has found a way to bring that into the 21st century and it works marvelously. – MW


Michael and the Lonesome Playboys – Bottle Cap Sky

Michael and the Lonesome Playboys – Bottle Cap Sky
Blackwater Records – 002
There is only one way you could refer to Michael and the Lonesome Playboys as “commercial” country. That would be if you were driving in your ’55 Ford trying to catch the latest country station on your scratchy AM Philco radio. This may seem a flowery way of saying “retro”, but that is the feeling you get from this L.A.-based roots country act. The style invokes the single-name country legends, (Hank, Johnny, Willie, Eddie, etc.), but there is also a subtle edge that says “Austin” inching some of the vibe towards Americana. Perhaps it is the vocal work of Michael Ubanldini, who blends the pain of Hank Williams with the outlaw recklessness of Waylon, enhancing the vocals that take simple down-home subjects and infuse them with a Townes Van Zandt-ish honest lyrical sense. The songs take you from the land of broken hearts to the wide open asphalt to smoke-filled whiskey-soaked honky tonks. In a way, “Bottle Cap Sky” is a protest against the country establishment that still seems stuck in the big hat era. And while that type of country definitely has its place, Michael’s does as well as it reaches deep into the heart and soul of what made country one of the most popular indigenous American music styles, creating music that is flat-out enjoyable. – MW