Year End Wrap-Up Part 2

2023 was a great year for roots music and we told you about a lot of the year's best releases in previous Root 66 columns. But there were some very good releases we didn't get to before the clock ran out on 2023, so we've picked out some of our favorites from that stack to tell you about here.

Tom Paxton & John McCutcheon - Together

They've been friends for decades but this release marks the first time that these two titans of folk music have written songs together and released them. As you would expect from the pair, lyrics are eloquent yet often pointed, as on the understated "Ukrainian Now," a reflection on the war in Ukraine that was written shortly after the conflict began. The immigrant's tale that is "In America" also carries a heavy subject, but not all is bleak here. "This Campfire" is a cowboy song with harmonica from Charlie McCoy, "Same Old Crap" is a bouncy, almost celebratory cut about having writer's block, "Complete" is about enjoying a Johnny Cash CD that just came in the mail, again with McCoy on harmonica and "Everything" is a brief and amusing bit about what Jesus said about homosexuality (nothing) featuring just McCutcheon on vocals and banjo, and where he uses notes on his banjo to represent the "nothing" that Jesus said. Inventive in lots of ways, this 14-song set will stimulate thought and singalongs too.

Afton Wolfe - The Harvest

This latest release by Wolfe is a set exclusively comprised of songs written by famed Nashville songwriter L.H. Halliburton. Wolfe chose these songs not only because they are gems, but also because Halliburton happens to be his father-in-law. The bucolic "Harvest" sounds influenced by The Marshall Tucker Band, mostly thanks to the flute playing of Seth Fox and the gentle Southern rock beat. "New Orleans Going Down" finds Wolfe singing in a raspy tone as he recounts the horror of hurricane flooding, obviously about Katrina although that storm is not mentioned by name. The song has a funky feel to it that reflects the city's musical heritage and that in a way flips the bird to anything trying to destroy it. It is another sort of adversity that plays out in the slow and somewhat spooky "Hello Mr. Wolf" where Wolfe speak-sings about how trouble is always right around the corner. There are only seven songs here but they are all powerful, including the album closing "Here to Stay" which is performed in a Tom Waits-like vein.

Charlotte Morris - Wild Child

Morris is a singer and also a violin player so her music is liberally flavored with fiddle, like on the melancholy album opener "Tennessee" where the fondness for the state that lives in her vocal is tempered by an aura of sadness that the strings add. Morris tunes into more of a pop vibe on the catchy "Your Number One," the story of a woman who's had her heart broken and is determined to not get into that situation again. The song may be a reflection of a real life incident as Charlotte has stated that the tunes on Wild Child are informed by what she's experienced herself. And indeed the emotions Morris expresses here sound authentic, making songs like "If My Heart Had a Say" where a lover pleads for a second chance and "This Time 'Round," a modern country groove about finding empowerment through the hard times of rough relationships, very relatable. Title cut "Wild Child," compared to what might be expected from a song with such a title, is a mellow reading about a woman that would rather flee than fight with another fractious lover.

Pert Near Sandstone - Waiting Days

Pert Near Sandstone is a bluegrass band and they begin Waiting Days with the banjo and fiddle driven romp "I've Been Traveling." Done in an old time bluegrass vein and with lyrics about being forever on the road the song pays homage to the bluegrass masters who came before as well as the oft-heard situation of missing one's home. "Out of Time" sounds like R.E.M. performed as bluegrass but the plaintive song dripping with urgency and detailing social ills (guns, pollution) was written by band guitarist J Lenz. "End of the Line" is a riding-the-rails tune that Jimmie Rodgers would have loved while title cut "Waiting Days," a jazzy bluegrass groove, is about heading down the road with a lover, complete with a mid-song mandolin solo. "On to Dawn" is a fast barn dance that if you believe the lyrics, is fueled by plenty of coffee. This very satisfying set from a band that's been plying their trade for more than two decades wraps up with the gospel-tinged "Lay Down Your Burdens," a slow cut that reflects the arrival of a well-deserved rest.

Keturah Allgood - Shine

This album from North Carolina native Keturah Allgood is her first in 17-years and Shine is a very appropriate title as the album basks in a positive light throughout. On set opener "Radio" Keturah deals with any daily noise the same way that millions of others do; she blasts tunes on the radio. The cut is a perfect example of the power of music; there's no way you can be blue while listening to the upbeat country groove. "Butterfly Wings" is soft and slow, not unlike a journey made by the song's namesake insect, but the subject isn't bugs; the song is a very hopeful and spiritual reading of parting with a loved one. "Beautiful You" is a stunning love song with plain-spoken lyrics while title cut "Shine" is about setting one's heart free to experience love through any adversity that life and a relationship may bring. So yes, Keturah provides an uplifting message throughout, but she's never preachy or pushy, just naturally encouraging. It's refreshing to hear such music and the pure country of "Love" with slide guitar from David Flint is the kind of song that Keturah refers to in opener "Radio;" just turn it up and let the goodness wash over you.

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