My Favorite Albums of 2011

For me, it was a good year for music. I listened to more and liked more than I have in several years.

Here are the albums I listened to and enjoyed the most.

Garland Jeffreys – “The King of In Between”

Jeffreys’ first album in 13 years features his strongest material since 1991’s “Don’t Call Me Buckwheat,” one of the signature discs of that decade. Jeffreys typically moves easily through rock and roll, reggae, and folk blues as the melodic foundation for his mix of personal history and social commentary.

J.D. Souther – “Natural History”

Souther takes his considerable back catalog, notably songs like “New Kid in Town,” “Sad Cafe,” and “Best of My Love” that were hits for The Eagles, and strips them down to their basics. showcasing his silky voice.

Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers — “Starlight Hotel.”

What a revelation. Muth comes out of Seattle, but does country the old fashioned way, backed by pedal steel and telecaster. The songs are smart, funny, and sad. She’s an authentic new voice not to miss.

Tara Nevins – “Wood and Stone”

Nevins’s second solo effort is a stellar collection that moves easily from fiddle music to contemporary folk rock to Cajun. It’s an album that sounds familiar, yet new, not an easy feat. Nevins is joined by a few guests, notably Levon Helm, who pounds the skin on three cuts, Jim Lauderdale, who lends harmonies on the back porch sound of “Snowbird,” and Allison Moorer. Larry Campbell, the multi-instrumentalist genius who has played extensively with Bob Dylan in recent years, produces and lends his string talents all over the place.

The Low Anthem — “Smart Flesh”

The Low Anthem’s ( first major label effort is a haunting masterpiece, a new generation’s “Music From the Big Pink.” Like the mystical alchemy The Band conjured in a West Saugerties, New York, house, the four members of the Low Anthem have created a new sound, turning our expectations of Americana (or Alt Americana, if you will) on its head, partly by using the sonics of the place.

Greg Trooper – “Upside-Down World”

When the Hammond B-3 kicks in to start this album, trailed by Trooper’s resonant, soulful, alt-country vibrato, it’s clear one of America’s best (and underappreciated) songwriters is taking us along for another enchanting ride through a life of bruised relationships, guarded hopes, and interesting characters.

Lori McKenna – “Lorraine”

The image of Lori  McKenna is that of a blue collar housewife sitting at her kitchen table penning songs that somehow find their way onto the albums of country superstars (Faith Hill, Keith Urban). But that doesn’t do justice to the depth, subtlety and honesty of her songs, stripped down to their essence on her largely acoustic solo albums (although this one has strings in just the right places and background vocals from Kim Carnes).  She is the girl who married her high school sweetheart and quickly had babies — five in all. McKenna does the difficult — writing about life, real life, with an unerring eye. It’s all here, the shadowing doubts, the gentle joys, the people we recognize from our lives. McKenna is a staple of the Boston folk scene, but her voice is more heartland than right coast, more open spaces than urban races.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – “Here We Rest.”

Isbell transports us to his native Alabama with all the ups and downs through his stories. This one puts him into the same discussion as Steve Earle and other masterful storytellers.

Lucinda Williams – “Blessed”

For me, this was a return to form for Williams, a record with aching ballads, hard rockers and without the self consciousness of the last few.

Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter – “Marble Son.”

Feedback-drenched psychedelia opens this disc, a harder shot of rock than her last one. Think of it as Americana meets Zeppelin in places. The lyrics are smart and mystical. And then there’s her voice, as alluring, as distinctive as any in music today.

The Civil Wars – “Barton Hollow”

Perhaps the surprise of the year, a quiet, intense, and beautiful melding of voices and talents. The whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts.

Wilco – “The Whole Love.”

A return to their ecclectic roots, with the expected twists and turns.

Danny Schmidt — “Man of Many Moons”

This is a smart working-man’s album, poetic and affecting, framed by Schmidt’s singing.

The Smithereens – “2011”

These guys, makers of such great rock and roll in the 1990s, hook up again with producer Don Dixon and lightning strikes twice. It’s all you’d expect from a Smithereens album.

Tara Nevins of Donna the Buffalo Talks About “Wood and Stone”

Tara Nevins has been one of the main songwriters and vocalists in the jam band, Donna the Buffalo, for more than two decades, building a collection of fine roots albums and a widespread fan base known as The Herd.

More than a decade after her solo debut, Nevins, who will play at North Shore Point House Concerts in Norfolk on June 11,  recently released “Wood and Stone,” a stellar collection that moves easily from fiddle music to contemporary folk rock to Cajun. It’s an album that sounds familiar, yet new, not an easy feat. Nevins is joined by a few guests, notably Levon Helm, who pounds the skin on three cuts, Jim Lauderdale, who lends harmonies on the back porch sound of “Snowbird,” and Allison Moorer. Larry Campbell, the multi-instrumentalist genius who has played extensively with Bob Dylan in recent years, produces and lends his string talents all over the place.

Nevins writes with honesty and just enough of a sense of humor about where she’s been. She kicks off with a propulsive fiddle-fueled rock tune, “Wood and Stone,” that wouldn’t sound out of place on a DTB disc (the band is working on its tenth album). “All I Ever Need” takes a Cajun twist on a love gone sideways. And “You’re Still Driving That Truck” is a wry payback.

On “What Money Cannot Buy,” she sings:

 Rose colored memories on which my heart is hung

Fade like a song that’s too long been unsung

I wish I had hard times stuck inside my head

Help me to forget we’d ever met

Then she follows with the country swing of “You Walked the Wrong Side,” a toe tapping done-me-wrong song that sounds like something off a Patsy Cline record.

She chooses her covers well, reworking the standard “Stars Fell on Alabama,” remade as a back porch story,  and reaching back for Van Morrison “The Beauty of Days Gone By,” a stately meditation showcasing her vocal elasticity, and the traditional Down South Blues,” reworked as old fashioned country pop offering.

Were the songs for “Wood and Stone” written over the decade since your first solo album or were they the product of only recent work?

The songs on this record are for the most part the product of more recent work.

There’s an introspection to many of the songs, some looking back and some looking at the present. Was there something that prodded you in that direction?

 I was married for 13 years and six years ago that marriage ended.  It was a huge life shift for me. It’s been a journey I wasn’t expecting.   I’ve learned a lot about myself in these recent six years and have gained or rediscovered an inner strength.  I’ve also had a few relationships since then.  This record definitely reflects all of that.

To you, is there a difference sitting down to write a song for you to play solo and writing a song for the band?

No, not necessarily.  Sometimes perhaps, if I feel like writing in a more traditional style a song may be less suited to the band, but even then that’s not necessarily true.

You feature a jazz standard, “Stars Fell on Alabama.” How did you decide to include that?

A couple of years ago I was spending a lot of time in Huntsville Alabama  where a movie called “20 Years After” was being made.  I was asked to rewrite “Stars Fell On Alabama” in an Old Time mountain style for the soundtrack. After the movie came out a lot of folks who had seen the movie wrote to me asking where they could buy a recording of my version of song!  Between that and the fact that the song fit the theme of the record, I decided to put it on.

Larry Campbell has worked with a bunch of great artists from Dylan to Levon Helm to Garland Jeffreys. How did you come to work with him?

I had written these songs the few years I spent in Huntsville Alabama, which is 96 miles south of Nashville.  I was set on recording the record there in Nashville and was thinking about and talking to producers there. I was talking to my friend, Jim Lauderdale, about making the record and he suggested Larry Campbell.  He said “I think Larry Campbell is your guy.” I didn’t know Larry personally. Jim called him on my behalf and told him about my project.  I sent Larry some songs. He liked what he heard and decided that yes he would like to produce the record.

Was there something he brought to the project? Did you approach it differently collaborating with him?

Larry was a perfect fit for the project.  He has a great knowledge of and has played a lot of traditional music over the years. He’s played plenty of contemporary music as well.  I wanted to give the traditional nature of some of the songs I wrote a more contemporary feel, while giving the more contemporary sounding songs a bit of a traditional feel.  The idea was to create a cohesive whole with all these varied musical ingredients that over the years have made the pieces to my own musical puzzle I guess you could say.

Larry totally got what I was after.   He related to and dug the concept.    By the second day of recording he had a clear vision of the picture he was helping me create.   He’s brilliant that way and is an amazingly talented  multi – instrumentalist.  He was all about the record sounding honest and organic — real. I trusted his musical sensibilities and was able to let go in a way that doesn’t come naturally to me.

You’ve played different kinds of music in your career. Tell me about the journey? What did you start playing? And how did the Cajun influence work its way into your sound?

I played the violin all through public school.  In high school I bought the “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” record and was first introduced to the fiddle music.  I was drawn to it immediately.  Later in college at the Crane School Of Music, my roommate, fellow violinist, played in an Old time fiddle band.  There I reconnected with my interest in and attraction to Traditional fiddle music.  I graduated, leaving my classical studies behind, and started traveling to festivals in the South where I became part of a community of folks who like me had discovered and fallen in love with this music. It was a very powerful time of musical discovery and learning.  I still travel to these festivals every year.

I had a lot of things going at once.  I had started a fiddle band with three women called The Heartbeats.  I was also writing songs and  had started an electric band with some friends called Donna The Buffalo.

Along the way, at some of these fiddle conventions Id go to, I was introduced to the music of Louisiana – the Cajun and Zydeco music.  Later I took a trip to southwest Louisiana to the Mardi Gras there and bought an accordion.

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