Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard had a strong showing out of the box with their new duo album “Django and Jimmie,” which sold more than 30,000 copies in the first week of June to hit No. 1 on the Billboard country charts and No. 7 overall. Every Tuesday on austin360.com, we recap recent local records in our “On the Record” roundup; here’s our take on the Nelson and Haggard disc, along with other highlights from recent weeks.
Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard, “Django and Jimmie” (Legacy). Someone should tell Willie Nelson that at 82, he’s not supposed to still be leaving all other Austin musicians in the dust with his new records. Then again, there’s some comfort in knowing that whatever hip new thing may be coming around the bend, Willie remains the gold standard here.
On the heels of last June’s set of mostly new originals (“Band of Brothers”) and last winter’s revelatory duo disc with sister Bobbie Nelson (“December Day”) comes this instant-classic project with Merle Haggard, a perfect pairing of country music’s two greatest living legends. Right out of the gate, Willie and Merle serve up a mission statement with the title track saluting early influences Jimmie Rodgers and Django Reinhardt (“a young singing brakeman and a jazz-playing Gypsy”), then follow it with the wonderfully whimsical double-entendre social-commentary “It’s All Going to Pot” with guest Jamey Johnson (on bugle and flugelhorn, no less).
Better still is track three, “Unfair Weather Friend,” a bittersweet number co-written by producer Buddy Cannon’s daughter, Marla Cannon-Goodman, that ranks with the best ballads either of these giants have ever recorded. By the time they get through Merle’s new original “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash,” trading memorable tales about the Man in Black with guest Bobby Bare, it’s clear that something special was happening in these sessions last fall at Austin’s Arlyn Studios.
The rest of the record includes a few new originals by both men, plus a couple of fresh nods to their respective histories with Nelson’s early hit “Family Bible” and Haggard’s staple “Swingin’ Doors.” An easygoing ramble through Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” proves a warm and wise choice, and Merle’s new “The Only Man Wilder Than Me” wraps up the set as a fitting duet, with each surviving troubadour presumably singing it about the other guy.
Shinyribs, “Okra Candy.” Gradually building this side-project of affection until he could leave the Gourds, Kevin Russell is now fully engaged with his present and future on Shinyribs’ third album. While the band’s live shows tend to stress Russell’s performance antics — singular dance moves, crowd-participation conga lines — on “Okra Candy” the focus is squarely on the songs, and they’re good.
“Red Quasar,” with tasteful horn accents, stands out as an immediately radio-friendly upbeat single, while “Donut Taco Palace” is a lovable lyrical lark steered by keyboardist Winfield Cheek’s classic Sir Douglas Quintet-style riffs. The ride swings from the sweet acoustic folk-rock of “Dead Batteries” to the hotter soulful strains of “Walt Disney” to the old-school rock ’n’ roll bliss of “The Longer It Lingers.” All 10 tracks ring true, but the quiet ballad “Feels Like Rain” stands in stark relief as something special, a heart-rending blend of emotional highs and lows. And not that it changes the musical contents, but the “Okra Candy” album cover is highly unlikely to be topped by any Austin act this year.
Uncle Lucius, “The Light” (Boo Clap/Thirty Tigers). Like recently disbanded Austin mainstays the Gourds, Uncle Lucius mixes together a broad range of American roots styles and spreads out the songwriting among several band members. “The Light,” the band’s fourth record and first with noted local producer George Reiff, is somewhat less egalitarian than 2012’s “And You Are Me,” which was mostly a shared-songwriting affair.
This time, primary singer Kevin Galloway steps out, penning five of the album’s 12 tracks and co-writing two others. He also sings lead on “Ouroboros,” an intriguingly rhythmic tune written by keyboardist Jonathan Grossman. Though founding bassist Hal Vorpahl departed before the record was made, two of his songs are included, and they’re both standouts, especially “Age of Reason,” which seeks common sense in the face of political polarization: “You may call it high treason / But I’m still calling for the age of reason.”
Guitarist Michael Carpenter takes a lead vocal on his more straightforward country-rocker “The End of 118,” and drummer Josh Greco gets co-writing credit on the moody midtempo number “Flood Then Fade Away.” The band’s finest moment comes on Galloway’s “Taking in the View,” a six-minute journey that opens with atmospheric piano and strings and references ZZ Top and Beatles lyrics as it builds toward a cinematic finale.
Carolyn Wonderland, “Live Texas Trio” (Bismeaux). The fiery blues singer and guitarist’s 10th album, her third for Ray Benson’s Bismeaux label, smartly captures what Wonderland does best: Letting everything loose onstage. Culled from performances at the old Antone’s in Austin as well as Dallas’ Kessler Theatre and Houston’s Last Concert Cafe (the “trio” refers to shows, not the lineup, which on some tracks grows to seven players), the 12-song disc includes choice covers from the likes of Doug Sahm (“At the Crossroads”) and Los Lobos’ Cesar Rosas (“Cumbia Raza”) as well as a handful of originals. Perhaps best of all is the bluesy core Wonderland taps into on two Blind Willie Johnson tunes, “Samson and Delilah” and “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.”
William Clark Green, “Ringling Road” (Bill Grease/Thirty Tigers). “Everybody’s saying I’m the next big thing,” Green sings in the heavy, bluesy leadoff track to his third album, but he sounds more wary than boastful, wisely skeptical of the expectations. Still, Green is legitimately a fast-rising star on the Texas roadhouse circuit, and it’s easy to hear why in the blend of raw energy and musical professionalism he brings to this 11-song set. His singing stands out, too, especially on the ballad “Final This Time,” an emotional duet with Dani Flowers. The closing track, “Still Think About You,” was co-written with the late Kent Finlay, a mentor to Green and countless other Texas songwriters.
Texas Horns, “Blues Gotta Holda Me” (VizzTone). It’s a blazing brass party with Mark “Kaz” Kazanoff, John Mills and Adalberto Gomez on this 13-song set. Marcia Ball, W.C. Clark and Nick Connolly guest on vocals for a cut each, and guitarists Johnny Nicholas and Anson Funderburgh and Derek O’Brien also get moments to shine. But the spotlight rightly shines on the trio of horn players, especially on instrumentals such as Kazanoff’s “Rippin’ and Trippin’” and the Curtis Mayfield classic “People Get Ready.”
Jimmy LaFave, “The Night Tribe” (Music Road). Long one of Austin’s top singers, songwriters and interpreters, LaFave keeps things close to home and heart on his second release of new material for Music Road Records. He’s used the name “The Night Tribe” for his backing crew off-and-on over the years, and he revisits the notion in the title track, a bluesy number that evokes the nocturnal spirit of creative types who are out well past midnight.
Renowned for his illuminating versions of Dylan tunes, LaFave shines this time on a gloriously chiming “Queen Jane Approximately,” and also gives a gentle touch to Neil Young’s “Journey Through the Past.” But mostly this record focuses on LaFave’s own material, from the sweet sway of the opener “The Beauty of You” to the introspective ballad “Island” to the funky ramble of “Dust Bowl Okies.”
Casper Rawls, “Brave World.” Renowned for his long tenures with the LeRoi Brothers and Toni Price as well as his more recent Sunday afternoon “Planet Casper” residency at the Continental Club, guitarist Rick “Casper” Rawls somehow had never released a solo album until now. It’s easily one of the year’s best local records, with Rawls backed by a prime local cast including David Grissom, Glenn Fukunaga, Floyd Domino, Warren Hood and Dony Wynn.
Rawls’ sharp instinct for material that suits his style draws him toward terrific takes of songs by George Harrison (the opening “Any Road”), Walter Hyatt (“Houston Town”) and J.J. Cale (“Thirteen Days”). But it’s the originals that take center stage. “Angeline” rivals the best classic pop in Buddy Holly’s book, “I’m Living It” sets honky-tonk twang to a brilliant lyric (“If you need more proof than that, I’m living it”), and the joint gets rocking on the clever Suzy Elkins co-write “Don’t They Know (Who We Think We Are).”
The capper is an album-closing cut about Rawls’ guitar-slinging heroes called “The Day That Don Rich Died,” for which the chaser is a wonderfully humorous, previously unreleased tune by Rawls’ late friend Buck Owens called “A Little Bitty Piece of DNA,” with Owens on lead vocals. Tied together by the sure-handed production of R.S. Field, “Brave World” is a lifelong pursuit that panned out perfectly.