Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 2014-09-19


Johnny Cash: Out Among the Stars (Columbia/Legacy, 2014) The main reason you marvel that material this good was left in the can for 30 years is how many country albums settle for less. But the main reason the material itself astonishes is that Cash is so on his game in what was historically a fallow, coming-down-again biographical moment. In one novelty he gets it on with a chivalrously unnamed Minnie Pearl; in another, he puts a hundred bucks down on a Cadillac and drives it off a cliff on his last date with his ex-wife. Two love songs achieve high seriousness without whispering mawk. And Cash gets so much more out of Adam Mitchell's death-by-cop title song than Merle Haggard or Hazel Dickens. His natural gravity helps. But n.b., Rick Rubin: so does his possession of his bottomless pit of a voice. B+

Hard Working Americans: Hard Working Americans (Melvin, 2014) Hard-headed songs about hard work are hard to find ("Stomp and Holler," "Blackland Farmer") **

John Hiatt: Terms of My Surrender (New West, 2014) Encroaching decrepitude suits him so well vocally that he eggs one of the funniest songs ever written about old age into taking the piss out of a gaggle of musicians who can't grow up ("Old People," "Terms of My Surrender") **

Willie Nelson: Band of Brothers (Legacy, 2014) Only the song about songwriting rises above Billy Joe's "It's hard to be an outlaw who ain't wanted anymore," but a few come surprisingly close ("The Songwriters," "Hard to Be an Outlaw," "The Git Go") ***

Shaver: Shaver's Jewels, The Best of Shaver (New West, 2013) Saint and sinner, born again and doomed to perdition--these are old flavors in Southern vernacular music, leached by now of their savor. So give credit to this legendary outlaw-country songwriter-frontman--whose given name is Billy Joe, and whose eponymous band went belly up when his 37-year-old guitarist son Eddy Shaver OD'd New Year's Eve 2000--for slipping so easily from one to the other. This trick is greatly facilitated by Billy Joe's knack for the simple tune and an unassuming vocal affect that makes each one sound like he made it up in the shower after sleeping in his clothes. It also helps that "Son of Calvary," "You Just Can't Beat Jesus Christ," and "Live Forever" are followed by 10 earthbound numbers that culminate with "The Earth Rolls On," which could be about Eddy and could be the woman who has him bouncing down the street in "Love Is So Sweet." A

Billy Joe Shaver: Long in the Tooth (Lightning Rod, 2014) Raving the title track as if he has no teeth at all and topping an old reprobate's catchy cannot-love plaint with an old Christian's melodic yours-for-life pledge, the 75-year-old delivers the latest old man's summum. Striving as always to keep the tunes irresistibly familiar without making a fuss about it, he also deploys his knack for strokes of wordplay you swear someone must have gotten to first, and sometimes you'll be right--"I'm playing checkers while they're playing chess" has been turning trope, although not to my knowledge followed by "They make the big moves that make me a little less." On the other hand, "Is it a lover or a liver/I really need the most?" in the breakup-qua-detox song "Last Call for Alcohol" would seem to be his. Willie delivers "The Git Go" and "Hard to Be an Outlaw" more tellingly on his new album. But Shaver owns everything here nonetheless. A-

All My Friends: Celebrating the Songs and Voice of Gregg Allman (Rounder, 2014) For two CDs (and one DVD), allstars replicate Allmans with suitable flow and funk and unlikely vocal highlights--from John Hiatt, Trace Adkins, Zac Brown ("Statesboro Blues," "One Way Out," "Trouble No More," "Midnight Rider") **

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