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Country and pizza 

American roots music revisited

Emmylou Harris was the definition of country music in the '70s and early '80s. Her crystal clear voice, top-notch Hot Band and eclectic song selections were a welcome respite from the pop-oriented artists who were delivering that era's mainstream product.

Available on CD in the U.S. for the first time, Cimarron (1981) and Last Date (1982) present two sides of Harris, demonstrating her incredible abilities and her understanding of the music she loves so much. Eminent Records have remastered both, and rare tracks have been added, making them all the better. Cimarron was not as well received as her other work when it was originally released and there is an obvious inconsistency in the sound and presentation of the songs. Essentially a compilation of tracks recorded over several years, it was a departure of sorts for Harris, who typically put out albums that were either musically or thematically linked from start to finish. While this may have been a problem when the album came out, in retrospect it now stands as an homage to Harris' early influences and personal taste. Ironically, two of her biggest hits, the duet with Don Williams on "If I Needed You" and "Born to Run," are both part of this collection.

Last Date is a live recording compiled from a series of shows where Harris was hoping to prove that her Hot Band was one of the best in the business. Even though most of the "name" players had left the group by this time, the Hot Band was still hot. Throughout the tour, guitarist and vocalist Barry Tashian provided the trademark harmonies on three songs Harris previously sang with the late Gram Parsons, and multi-instrumentalist Steve Fishell added the twang on pedal steel and dobro. Harris literally covers the spectrum of musical influences, opening the album with Hank Snow's "I'm Moving On" and including tunes by Merle Haggard, the Everly Brothers, Buck Owens, Neil Young, Carl Perkins and Bruce Springsteen. The energy of these performances is amazing and stands as undeniable evidence that Harris was the true torch carrier of country music.

Harris' most recent work is a marked departure from her traditional country roots, and for those who miss the old sound, these re-releases are a welcome return to the sound that made her so popular. She deserves all the accolades she receives, and then some.

There is an apocryphal tale that after an informal jam session in 1993, a pizza delivery boy swiped a cassette copy of the session from Jerry Garcia's house, and it has been bootlegged for years. Mandolinist David Grisman finally decided to release The Pizza Tapes commercially on his Acoustic Disc label, and the fans get a pristine copy of what was a historical little hootenanny featuring Garcia, Grisman and guitarist Tony Rice. The 20 individual tracks listed on the cover are a bit deceiving, as five of these are simply snippets of conversation, blown intros and noodling. However, these "Appetizers," as they are listed, provide a peek inside the process, showing the camaraderie, humor and imperfection of the three participants. Both Grisman and Rice contribute some wonderful picking to this collection, but Garcia shines brightest as a true connoisseur of traditional folk and country music. He sings such classics as "Amazing Grace," "Shady Grove" and "Long Black Veil," and his guitar interplay with Rice on several instrumentals is stunning. Grisman is, as usual, peerless on the mandolin, and the three together sound wonderful. The sheer joy these guys find in each other's company is obvious, and the music they create is timeless. It's a shame Garcia never reached the audience that appreciates this kind of acoustic music during his lifetime, as it would have only strengthened his legacy. The legitimate availability of this recording is a tribute to his skill, and Grisman deserves praise for releasing it.

The folks at Bloodshot hit a gusher this time with the previously unavailable recordings of western swing/hillbilly jazz artist Hank Penny. Not only is it difficult to find any of his early work due to his limited recording history, but Penny was a rebel who constantly clashed with executives over his wicked sense of humor and radical approach to making music. Penny was much more of a jazz aficionado than a country fan, and he expected his band to play as well as they could. As a bandleader he utilized a stage persona of the archetypal dumb hillbilly, which in contrast to the precision of the music often confounded the agents and club bookers with whom he worked. Crazy Rhythm: The Standard Transcriptions is a collection of radio sessions recorded in 1951, featuring Penny at what may have been his creative peak. The band is tight, his voice sounds great and the material covers his own career to that point as well as a number of contemporary hits. In addition to the jazz and western swing sounds throughout the disc, the early roots of rockabilly can be heard on several tracks, including "Flaming Mamie." Penny's signature song, "Won't You Ride in My Little Red Wagon," and the racy "Peroxide Blonde" have been covered by several artists since these recordings were made, and are typical of his slightly mischievous take on things.

Hank Penny was an outsider who stood his ground against the system and suffered professionally as a result. His music speaks for him and we're fortunate to get this rare glimpse into his world.

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