Strong musicianship, stellar songwriting and outstanding performances highlight four new releases out now.
Artist: Rhiannon Giddens
Title: Freedom Highway (Nonesuch Records)
You might like if you enjoy: Carolina Chocolate Drops, the Staple Singers, Otis Taylor's "Fantasizing About Being Black"
Tell me more: An album that is as haunting as it is brilliant, singer-songwriter/banjo virtuoso Rhiannon Giddens' Freedom Highway looks at the African-American experience free of cliche. Giddens uses her emotive soprano to make the painful past come alive from the earliest moments on her album where she sings of a slave threatened with losing her infant child at any time "at the Purchaser's Option." On "Julie," Giddens shares an original tale that serves as a rich dialogue between a slave and her owner. As the Union Army advances on the plantation, the slave owner exclaims that she has been a kind master and hopes to have her slave safeguard gold from the advancing Northern troops; the bittersweet finale reveals the slave's children have been sold by the uncaring white Southerner. "Mistress, O Mistress, I wish you well / But in leaving here, I'm leaving hell." Giddens also focuses on modern-day issues of race in the gospel-meets-soul "Better Get It Right the First Time," where her amazing vocals blend masterfully with rapper Justin Harrington's spoken word. Information: RhiannonGiddens.com.
Artist: Alison Krauss
Title: Windy City (Capitol Records / Cracker Barrel)
You might like if you enjoy: Alison Krauss, Rhonda Vincent, Dolly Parton
Tell me more: Cracker Barrel provided me with the company's exclusive version of Alison Krauss' latest album Windy City to review. That specific version includes the 10 tracks that appear on the standard release, as well as a ravishing duet featuring Krauss and country singer Jamey Johnson ("Make the World Go Away"). Windy City is Krauss' first album apart from her long-time backing ensemble Union Station in a decade (namely 2007's multi-Grammy winner Raising Sand where she collaborated with Robert Plant). One of the most acclaimed artists recording music today, Krauss has won 27 Grammy Awards (the most of any female artist ever) and has played a seminal role in renewing interest in American bluegrass over the past three decades. Windy City is a tribute to the past, with Krauss using her beautiful soprano to revisit classic country and bluegrass material originally recorded before 1970. Standouts adorn every corner of the release; some of this writer's favorites include the gorgeous "Losing You," uptempo "It's Goodbye and So Long to You," jazzy "I Never Cared For You" and an artfully-arranged take on the Glen Campbell hit "Gentle On My Mind." Information: CrackerBarrel.com.
Artist: Robert Randolph & the Family Band
Title: Got Soul (Sony Masterworks)
You might like if you enjoy: Sonny Landreth, Robert Randolph
Tell me more: Pedal-steel guitar hero Robert Randolph not only continues to extend the role of his "sacred steel" instrument on the aptly-titled Got Soul, but the New Jersey native has fully hit his stride as a great songwriter crafting works that support his explosive style across the 12-track release. He is a generous performer, with guest singer Anthony Hamilton soaring on "She Got Soul" and country hit maker Darius Rucker bringing some feel good vibes to the buoyant "Love Do What It Do." Later, Randolph and company delve into his love of funk ("Shake It," "Lovesick"), blues rock ("I Want It"), gospel ("Find a Way"), R&B ("Gonna Be All Right") and '60s Southern soul ("I Thank You" featuring singer-Hammond B3 organ player Cory Henry) with equal poise and firepower. Information: RobertRandolph.net.
Artist: Doug Schmude
Title: Ghosts of the Main Drag (Lost Hubcap Records)
You might like if you enjoy: John Mellencamp's '80s albums, the Fallen Stars, the Old 97's
Tell me more: On his new independent release Ghosts of the Main Drag, singer-songwriter Doug Schmude offers up a winning hybrid of Americana and indie countrified rock. With a mix of witty straight-forward lyrics and catchy songwriting instincts and solid contributions from a number of top players, highlights on the 10-song disc include the radio-ready "Small Town Eulogy" (featuring some stellar fiddle work by Kyle Nix) and "Why's it Take a Funeral?," the heartfelt love song "One Thing Left to Say" and the real world tale of hard work and family ties that comes alive via "Wooden Nickels." Information: dougschmude.net.