Backtrackin' for Country Comforts

From Texas to Canada, even from beyond the grave, traditional country music endures across decades, borders and genre reclassifications. These four releases went sadly unnoticed in 2007. Here's hoping that the new year will bring them some overdue recognition.

Gram Parsons called what he did "Cosmic American Music," and when listening to the recently unearthed Live at the Avalon Ballroom 1969, a show done with an early version of the Flying Burrito Brothers, it's difficult to think of a better description. Two shows opening for the Grateful Dead were preserved (with remarkable sound) and spent the next 35 years in storage. It's hard to believe that Deadheads put up with music this refreshing and concise, but listening to embryonic versions of "Hot Burrito No. 2" and "Sin City" are not only revelatory, but also damn near tear-inducing. Even the peculiar liner notes by uber groupie Pamela Des Barres cannot spoil the importance or the delight of this once-buried treasure.

Blue Rodeo has been playing since 1987, and the band's two songwriters have always defined its brand of roots music. Both Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor are capable of rare introspection as they mine Dylan, the Band and of course Gram Parsons for inspiration. The band's 10th studio effort, Small Miracles, came out late last year and is the band's best since 1997's Tremolo. Keelor's songs have always carried more bite (his solo effort Gone is well worth checking into), but there's not a clunker in the baker's dozen collected on Miracles.

Also hailing from north of the border is Steve Puchalski, who fronts Deromantic. The band's self-titled debut is a stellar effort, full of unexpected touches that are densely constructed to support Puchalski's weighty imagination. His rich voice, reminiscent of Ryan Adams minus the petulance, turns tracks such as "Under City Lights" and "Drunk & 35" into mini-epics that examine rural existence in remarkable detail. Wordy and sonically overfull, the songs of Puchalski strain the foundation of each melody, nearly drowning in their own splendor.

Closer to home is Mark Jungers. Hardcore alt-country lovers might recall Jungers from his days in Austin's Hell's Cafe back in the '80s, but Jungers is more akin to Gary P. Nunn and Billy Joe Shaver these days. Silos and Smokestacks is his latest solo venture, and it features the same kind of honest and unique inspection of living in the Hill Country that has been his calling card for several years. "Home Sweet Home Blues," "It Ain't Funny" and "Meatless Tuesdays" are just three of the gems that highlight Jungers' way with wit and rhythm.

 
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