This week's Expert Witness looks at releases from The Highwaymen, Dave Van Ronk, and more.
The self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics," Robert Christgau was one of the pioneers of music criticism as we know it. He was the music editor at the Village Voice for almost four decades where he created the trusted annual Pazz & Jop Poll. He was one of the first mainstream critics to write about hip-hop and the only one to review Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water with one word: "Melodic." On top of his columns, he has published a number of books over his career including his autobiography, Going Into the City, which was released in 2015 to critical acclaim. He currently teaches at New York University. Every week, we publish Expert Witness, his long-running critical column. To read more about his career, read his welcome post; for four decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website.
The Highwaymen: The Very Best of the Highwaymen (Columbia/Legacy) Nelson, Jennings, Cash, & Kristofferson joined their voices in American song during the Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton years, and listening back, the greatest of these was Nelson—the man could sing (and still can). As a group, NJCK are better passing lines around than joining their voices grandly in song‑-"Desperados Waiting for a Train" gets buried alive, "Born and Raised in Black and White" lost in the crowd. But they top Arlo's wistful "City of New Orleans" as well as Bob Seger's mawkish "Against the Wind," equal George's slapstick "The King Is Gone," and forever define Robert Earl Keen's highwayman saga "The Road Goes on Forever." Also, believe it or not, they have politics: "Welfare Line" describes white people, "American Remains" shovels a foreclosure on top of a drought, and a crucial cameo from Johnny Rodriguez extracts every ounce of outrage from the Woody Guthrie classic properly entitled as it is here: "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)." A MINUS
Dave Van Ronk: Down in Washington Square (Smithsonian Folkways) Born in 1936, Van Ronk was the paterfamilias of the Macdougal Street folk scene from approximately 1958, shortly before its inception and well after his career began, until 2002, long after its demise and too damn early for his. He was an agitator and a port in a storm, a wag and a songbag, a virtuoso without portfolio who played Scott Joplin on guitar and banjo in a Dixieland band—almost everything but much of a singer. So while this three-CD set is the nearest we'll get to a comprehensive overview, it may be too gruffly hewn to convert you, and there's a sense in which I'm equally taken with the outtakes and rarities CD The Mayor of Macdougal Street, which Elijah Wald compiled while editing Van Ronk's text, leavings, and interviews into the terrific autobiography of the same name. Nevertheless, it established Van Ronk as a hero whose conception of American song was almost as all-embracing as Willie Nelson's. And one more thing. The label in parentheses up there? Smithsonian Folkways? That label is owned by a federal government a loud minority has delivered into the budget-slashing hands of yahoos bent on extirpating any trace of the demon leftism from Our Nation's Capital. It may not be long for this world, and it deserves both our support and our preemptive collectoritis. So check out, oh, "Haul on the Bowline," "House of the Rising Sun," and "Garden State Stomp" and discover a gravel-voiced post-Trotskyite who never stooped to protest music because he was just too damn smart. A MINUS
The Rough Guide to Hillbilly Blues (World Music Network) Be aware of a superior if barely findable alternative: the expertly annotated 1993 Columbia/Legacy double-CD White Country Blues (1926-1938): A Lighter Shade of Blue, which splits 50 tracks among 31 artists who include nine of the 25 here, four with repeats that deserve it. But this is a viable substitute, less for its songs (especially with two standouts also on 2015's more useful Rough Guide to Blues Songsters) than for the fancy picking where most of these fellas claim bragging rights—rags and jigs, a "bluegrass twist" and even a "fandango." Also check talking blues pioneer's Chris Bouchillon's light-blue comedy routine "Born in Hard Luck," which took me half a dozen plays to start wearing out the way skits do. And don' forget Walter Smith's "The Cat's Got the Measles and the Dog's Got the Whooping Cough" because it's a losing battle‑-the thing implanted itself in my head for a week. B PLUS
Neil Young: Peace Trail (Reprise) Anything but "predictable," these political ditties rank among the strangest songs of his career, as in "Hope that was confusing, looking like a bright light/Blinding you forever with its power" ("My Pledge," "Glass Accident") ***
Chartbusters USA: Special Country Edition (Ace) Nashville crossover in the 60s is the concept—major country hits that creased the pop charts and exemplify how corny, hopeful, humanistic, and relatively unpolarized that time was (Tommy Cash, "Six White Horses"; Jeannie C. Riley, "Harper Valley P.T.A."; Roger Miller, "Chug-a-Lug") ***
Roll Columbia: Woody Guthrie's 26 Northwest Songs (Smithsonian Folkways) No no no fellas—throwing a bone to every folkie lifer within driving distance is not how you spruce up his catalogue (Cahalen Morrison, "Lumber Is King"; Annalisa Tornfelt and the Tornfelt Sisters, "Eleckatricity and All") *
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