Sylvie Simmons isn’t just a familiar byline to lovers of quality magazines, she’s also a musician who not that long ago (in the grand scheme of things) released an album under her own name for the world to feast on. But what she’s also done, as she did back in 2000, is compile a Rough Guide to Americana release, offering us her pick on some of the best voices in that loosely defined genre. We and, as she admits, she could have picked many other selections for this compilation but the selection here is still just fine and hangs together nicely with some of the less usual suspects.
The collections opens with the soon-to-be-defunct Giant Sand and the track “Man on a String” from the LP Heartbreak Pass. Giant Sand has it supporters and the band’s dust, roots music sound demonstrates why: These aren’t just songs, they’re slices of the American landscape, splayed out before our very ears like images on our phone screens. Patty Griffin’s irreplaceable “Wild Old Dog” from the equally brilliant American Kid reminds us that we need to ask more questions about why Griffin hasn’t come to occupy a more significant parcel of land in our consciousness.
The same goes for Dawn McCarthy and Bonnie “Prince” Billy whose excellent tribute to Don and Phil Everly, What the Brothers Sang gives us “Milk Train” while the ever-reliable Mary Gauthier’s “Oh Soul” is the parting shot. In between we’re treated to Robert Earl Keen’s take on an Old World writer’s “52 Vincent Black Lightning” cast as a bluegrass tune. Its author, Richard Thompson, is curiously absent from this collection though he surely has plenty in common with many of the voices from the corner of the globe he’s called home for several decades now. And like many of the artists here, he’s smart, literary, and maybe a little too good for the mainstream.
Those same things may be said about James McMurtry who gives us “Copper Canteen” from the easy to love Complicated Game, which sits nicely next to Robbie Fulks’ “I’ll Trade You Money For Wine”. Those voices too are exceptional ones to be in room with, voices that should and sing and suggest that even if everything in the world ain’t right we can make a little better a little bit at a time.
It may be embarrassing to admit that one has never heard or heard of some of the artists represented here, but Sean Taylor, who gives us “Tienes Mi Alma En Tus Manos”, and Reed Foehl who damn near carries away the whole shebang with “Caroline”. (The same might be said for Stone Cupid’s “Saint on a Chain” (with Julie Christensen). But the joy of compilations such as this one is that you can hear new voices and place them in new contexts and maybe even rediscover a voice or two that you’ve lost contact with. Then, of course, there are the names that should be more familiar to everyone, including Jim White (“Rambler”, from Sounds of the Americans is represented here) and Noah Gundersen (“Boathouse”), and the almighty Chuck Prophet whose “I Feel Like Jesus” is refreshing to find again.
At one hour the compilation doesn’t overstay its welcome, nor does it wear us out as it tries to do spectacular leaps in an attempt to over-impress. That approach as well as the simply but stately packaging and Simmons’ nifty liner notes make this a nice pick up for the price. So, hang on to this and in five years, compare its listing with those artists you’ve welcomed into your permanent collection. There are bound to be some matches. And that’s as it should be.