Home Sweet Hotel ScrollerAmelia White is from East Nashville. As Sam Lewis explained recently at Green Note, the distinction between downtown Nashville and East Nashville is one that means less and less the further you get away from Nashville, but it’s an important one. Downtown is the centre of the country establishment and East Nashville’s the edgy, hip satellite where you’re likely to hear something a bit out of the ordinary and “Home Sweet Hotel” certainly isn’t what you would call mainstream country. There’s a bit of a harder rock edge to most of the songs with a bit of overdriven guitar and some nice double lead guitar arrangements to spice the mix up.

The opening song “Dangerous Angel” is the first clue that this is a long way from mainstream country; there’s a slight emphasis on the offbeat which isn’t quite reggae, but it’s certainly leaning in that direction. From here on the album moves through a variety of musical stylings, including the uptempo country rock of “Leaving in my Blood” through the early Dylan feel of “Dogs Bark” to the slow sixties feel of “Right Back to my Arms” and “Six Feet Down” which close the album.

The lyrical theme running through the album is the performer moving along from town to town and it’s one that’s fairly common in current Americana. There’s no romance to being on the road, it’s just a succession of cheap motels and long drives and Amelia highlights this, and the longing to be back among family and friends (and with a lover). Her lyrical style is succinct; songs that seem to be densely packed with lyrics when you hear them turn out to be just a few lines long when you see them on the page. “Dogs Bark”, a warning against shooting your mouth off is a great example; it rattles along like some early multi-versed Dylan epic, but it’s really just a few very well-written lines (and some advice that Elvis Costello should have taken a long time ago).

Amelia sees herself as a songwriter first and performer second, and the craft in the construction of the songs is evident; there isn’t a word wasted and the lyrics are matched by the musical settings. And the East Nashville thing isn’t just about living there; Amelia creates a sense of place with references in “Rainbow over the Eastside” and the line ‘Hanging at The Family Wash’ from “Melissa”. It’s not just a place, it’s a way of life.

“Home Sweet Hotel” is out now on White-Wolf Records.

Rod Picott - 'Fortune' - cover (300dpi)I think we need to introduce a new way of evaluating Country and Americana albums. The five star system’s all very well but I think we need another measure. I’m thinking of something like the Kimbrough Count; if Will Kimbrough plays on the album then it’s worth listening to. It certainly worked last year with his appearances on albums by Dean Owens and Sam Lewis, and he shows up again here on Rod Picott’s seventh album “Fortune”, but this is a very different proposition to the albums by either of those artists.

Rod Picott’s songs are intensely personal, zooming in on the lives of ordinary people (Rod included) and everyday events, and delivered in a gruff baritone that often sounds on the point of cracking, but never actually does. More often than not, he performs with just his own acoustic guitar for backing, but, on “Fortune”, he’s added a smattering of musicians including Will Kimbrough and Neilson Hubbard to create a sound that’s still sparse, stark and sometimes downright menacing and intimidating. It’s still a fairly minimal soundscape but it reinforces the powerful lyrics which are poetic but never overblown.

Uncle John” is slightly untypical in that it deals mainly with family and society rather than personal matters, but the instrumentation is unsettling with detuned guitar, clipped notes, harmonics, heavy reverb and a sound somewhere between Dick Dale and Link Wray all underpinning a story of an outsider woodsman who pays the ultimate price for stepping outside society. The two lines ‘Drinks his beer from a can cause bottles break, Nine fingers from one mistake’ paint a graphic and economic picture of the lifestyle and its dangers, while the closing lines (along with the chorus) imply his death without actually making the statement.

The themes of the songs are mainly personal (although “Jeremiah” is written from the point of view of a woman hearing about the death of a soldier she loved), but it’s the moments when Rod steps back from dealing with raw emotion to singing about more general themes, particularly “Uncle John” and the moodily magnificent “Drunken Barber’s Hand” that the album really starts to soar. The album’s full of powerful, gut-wrenching songs that evoke the spirit of heartland America with imagery and playing that are equally powerful and simple. 2016’s looking good already.

“Fortune” is released in the UK on Friday January 15th on Welding Rod Records.

Photo by Glenn Campbell

Photo by Glenn Campbell

Intimate doesn’t really do justice to the experience of a sold-out gig downstairs at Green Note; it’s way beyond cosy with an audience of twenty-five. In an ideal world Sam Lewis would be playing a bigger room, but sometimes you have to work with what you have. Fortunately, everyone in the audience has come particularly to see Sam tonight, so we can just relax into a great live experience. On Sam’s latest album, “Waiting on You”, he’s backed by the cream of Nashville’s studio musicians, but this is a solo acoustic gig, and the songs and voice stand or fall on merit alone. I’m not going for the suspense thing here, I’ll tell you straight; this man has a phenomenal voice and his songs are multi-faceted gems.

Sam’s voice and songwriting fall into an intersection between soul, blues and country that doesn’t see too many visitors, but that isn’t the only thing to make him stand out. His laid-back stoner stage persona creates an immediate bond with the small audience before he’s even sung or played a note and generates a rapport that strengthens as the gig goes on.

Maybe it’s a reference to the heat in the venue (it’s a bit like having thirty people in your living room) but the opening song is an interesting one; it’s John Prine’s “Mexican Home”. Once the tuning issues caused by the heat are out of the way, Sam enchants the audience with two sets that include songs from “Waiting on You”, including “Things Will Never be the Same” (written in the UK last year, apparently), “Little Time”, “Virginia Avenue”, “3/4 Time”, “Reinventing the Blues”, “Waiting on You”, a superb “Never Again” and a mix of covers and earlier material.

Sam’s digressions between songs have a tendency towards the surreal and work perfectly to dissolve any barriers there may be between performer and audience; on the surface it looks shambolic, but it’s a hugely effective approach. Towards the end of his first set he talks about the impact that Fred Eaglesmith has had on his writing, playing the wonderful “Bluesday Night” from his debut album as an example of Fred’s influence, which he follows with the heart-rending “The Rocket” from Fred’s 2003 album “Balin”; it’s one of many perfect moments during the set.

After the encore of “The Cross I Wear”, it’s all over and Sam Lewis found some new fans, including a group celebrating a birthday; that’s the kind of birthday party I would go to every time. It’s too late to see Sam Lewis on this tour, but watch out for him next year. Meanwhile I think you ought to have a listen to “Sam Lewis”, “Waiting on You” or both to start the weekend.

Waiting on You TitleIt’s not particularly unusual to find an artist whose work is difficult to pin down to one genre. It’s pretty common to hear of artists mixing blues and country or blues and soul, but Sam Lewis goes the whole way, weaving elements of blues, soul and country into the texture of his songs on his second album, “Waiting on You”. The album was recorded at Nashville’s Southern Ground with a cast of players which included Will Kimbrough (the go-to guitar-slinger for Riot Squad favourite Dean Owens), Darrell Scott, Mickey Raphael, Gabe Dixon and The McCrary Sisters and the combination of a live recording philosophy and absolute top quality players creates a flawless and seemingly effortless backdrop for the songs and Sam’s smooth, soulful voice.

There’s nothing remotely flashy about this album but equally, there isn’t a note or lyric out of place in this atmospheric evocation of a life lived at a less frantic, more relaxed pace. The opening song, “3/4 Time”, sums this up; it’s not about a ¾ time signature, it’s about taking life at a canter rather than a gallop and appreciating your surroundings. From here on in, the album moves through a variety of styles, from the early Van Morrison feel of “Love Me Again” and the slow blues of “She’s A Friend” through the blues shuffle of “Things Will Never Be the Same” and the country blues of “Reinventing the Blues” to quiet contemplation of the finger-picked “Never Again”. It’s all gorgeously listenable and it’ll leave you with a warm glow of satisfaction.

Towards the end of the title song, Sam pushes towards the top end of his range and sounds a lot like Al Green; it’s just one of many examples of a superb voice finding the last ounce of emotion in the song and sharing it with us. Three songs towards the end of the album are perfect examples of Sam’s laconic songwriting and singing style. “Texas” is the story of a man going back to Texas after a relationship fails, although the twist is that the failure happened because, in his mind, he never actually left Texas, while “Virginia Avenue” is a musical snapshot of life in Anywheresville, USA. The closing song, “I’m Coming Home” is as close to anthemic as we get, with an uplifting message and a sound that’s reminiscent of The Band, and that always has to be a good thing.

“Waiting on You” is an album that’s packed full of musical quality; Sam Lewis has an astonishingly good voice and he’s surrounded himself by quality musicians who provide a classy backdrop for his gently evocative songs. It’s a cracking album.

“Waiting on You” is out now on Brash Music (BRH0093-2).