If you haven’t been finding enough good traditional country music to suit your fancy lately, you haven’t been paying much attention. There’s plenty of it coming out all the time. Here are two of my recent favorites:
Recorded at Nashville’s historic RCA Studio B with a band built around his Fabulous Superlatives, Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions is ostensibly Marty Stuart’s love letter to traditional country music, but it also serves as a handy distillation of everything lovable about the artist himself.
After all, who else cedes precious album time to let legendary steel guitarist Ralph Mooney pick and slide his way through “Crazy Arms” more than a half-century after Ray Price made it a country standard? Or digs up, and reanimates (in rocking Marty Party fashion), forgotten gems like Don Reno’s “Country Boy Rock and Roll,” and Warner Mack’s “Bridge Washed Out”?
About the worst thing you can say about the Stuart originals that make up the rest of the album is that they’re better echoes of past classics than classic compositions in themselves. Yes, there’s a lot of Haggard in “Branded,” a lot of the Louvin Brothers in “Drifting Apart,” and a lot of Cash in “Hard Working Man.” Of course, the recitation “Porter Wagoner’s Grave” is positively haunted by the spirit of its namesake. But that’s sort of the point: Stuart is paying tribute. His affection is palpable, and the songs and performances (including a duet with Connie Smith!) are routinely excellent, if not classic.
While “Hangman” (cowritten with Johnny Cash just days before he died) is indisputably the showpiece, the rest is not that far behind. Altogether, Ghost Train is a rich, immensely rewarding collection that radiates love and affection for real country music. It’s up there with The Pilgrim as one of my favorite Marty Stuart albums.
Brennen Leigh is a young honky tonk songbird who has released a small handful of albums since migrating from Minnesota to Austin in 2002. Like Stuart, she doesn’t have the most distinctive of voices – she sounds very much like Miss Leslie and Melonie Cannon, for example – but she uses what she’s got to tremendous effect. While Ghost Train seems somewhat curatorial in its approach, The Box is wholly in the moment. It’s just that Brennen’s moment happens to be deeply informed by Emmylou Harris, George Jones, Melba Montgomery, and an unapologetic Louvin Brothers obsession.
Leigh’s grasp of tradition is deceptively organic. The first time through, I was sure I’d been beaten at the game of digging up obscure, heretofore unheard classics. “Big Horn Mountains” was obviously a bluegrass standard I’d somehow missed. “Hear My Little Bluebird Sing” was probably a dressed-up Carter Family track – why, why hadn’t I paid more attention to that Carter Family set? Then there was “Distracted,” first sung by… Patsy? Ella Fitzgerald? I even searched Google for the original Louvin Brothers version of “Are You Stringing Me Along,” which Leigh sings in beautiful close harmony with brother Seth Hulbert. Come to find out, there is no original Louvin Brothers version. That album highlight, like every other track here, is a modern composition. All but two of them were written or cowritten by the artist herself.
Judging from the ledger of live performances that is Youtube, this album has been years in the making: videos of these songs date back to at least 2008. That explains some of the ‘lived in’ quality of the performances, but not all of it. The rest, I suspect, can only be chalked up to talent and taste. Jim Lauderdale’s supporting appearance on the title track seems a ringing, and well-deserved, endorsement of both. (Lauderdale also appeared on the indie, and later Big Machine, debut of Leigh’s close friend Sunny Sweeney.)
An album that sounds this good musically, with songs of such uniformly high quality, is an impressive accomplishment by any standard – even more so for a relatively little-known act operating on what I can only imagine to be a relatively shoestring budget. Big labels and big money can polish (almost) anything to a likable sheen, but there’s a magic emanating from the heart of The Box that can’t be faked or easily replicated. Is it too early to call this one a classic? Pick up a copy for yourself and let me know. Here’s hoping some enterprising label sees fit to give it the wider release it deserves.