Sings Without Words (RJF Records)
Available at www.rayflacke.com
Off White Album (Double D Records)
Available at www.dandugmore.com
Far From Enough (Nonesuch)
Ask an out-of-towner what makes Nashville a thriving music capital, and they'll name singers and performers. Ask songwriters, and they'll say, "It all begins with a song." But ask the artists, the record producers or the studio engineers, and they'll say that the backbone of the city's music industry is the enormous number of outstanding musicians who live and work here.
Of course, Nashville also thrives on conformity. For better or worse, artists and songwriters must learn to work within an established system, and instrumentalists are no different. No matter how good a guitarist or keyboardist may be, his or her playing will be restricted to fitting within specific, often formulaic arrangements. Fresh ideas are fine, on occasion, as long as they stay within boundaries that don't leave room for much individuality.
But, for decades now, the more ambitious members of the city's instrumental crew have taken time to create their own musicside projects, so to speak. Only that description shortchanges both the talent and the work. Truth is, Nashville studio musicians have been creating outstanding recordings since Chet Atkins first cut tracks under his own name for Bullet Records in 1946.
Country instrumentals are as old as the genre itself, with historians citing fiddle tunes as the birth of country music recording. But Nashville studio musicians and the records they make are often something else entirely: It's not about formula, but instead, a chance for that player to show off personal style and taste.
Three recent albums illustrate how individual a well-regarded musician will sound if given the chance to lead instead of support. Ray Flacke's Songs Without Words offers the biggest surprise; an Englishman known for his fleet "chicken-picking" on an electric Fender, he sticks entirely to melodic acoustic guitar originals. Flacke's résumé underscores the esteem in which other pickers hold him: Bandleaders who are considered excellent guitarists themselves often hire him. Flacke has played with Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart and Jamie Hartford, all of them stellar guitarists, as well as on albums by Emmylou Harris, Kathy Mattea, Travis Tritt and others.
On his new album, Flacke proves as inventive and capable on acoustic as he is on electric; for such an aggressive Fender player, his touch on his Guild D60 is disarmingly beautiful. Working solo, Flacke's melodicism and ideas reward attentive listening, but the lyrical quality of the playing also will work for those who enjoy music with meditative or calming qualities.
Steel guitarist Dan Dugmore also focuses on gently beautiful songs on his first instrumental collection. Dugmore pioneered the use of steel guitar on rock songs, having toured with Linda Ronstadt for 14 years and James Taylor for 11. One of Nashville's most prolific session players since moving here 15 years ago, he stays in demand because of his clear tones and the emotional depth he can add to a song.
Featuring 12 gentle covers of Beatles ballads, Dugmore's Off White Album highlights his love of melody. He plays all of the instruments himself, backing the dreamy, voice-like quality of his sliding notes with acoustic guitar, mandolin and bass. The haunting beauty of his playing keeps it from fading into background Muzak; instead, it has a winsome, narcotic-like effect that's relaxed but vibrantly alive.
Bassist Viktor Krauss' Far From Enough is the most ambitious of the three albums. Released by Nonesuch, a major label, Krauss recruited all-star support for the project, which blends progressive acoustic and jazz ideas into something funky and fresh. The high regard with which the bassist is held shows in the level of collaborators he recruits: jazz guitar stalwart Bill Frisell, Dobro master Jerry Douglas, drummer Steve Jordan (who's backed everyone from Sonny Rollins to The Rolling Stones) as well as his sister Alison Krauss on vocals and viola. The results resemble Frisell's Americana explorations and Douglas' fusion of roots instruments and modern-improvisational ideas, yet Krauss asserts his own ideas through a rhythmic underpinning that alternates between jauntiness and architectural complexity.
The albums reiterate that Nashville remains a home to some of the most accomplished musicians in the world, only they rarely get to show it. The city and the music world would benefit if more of them took the time to share their own ideas instead of just adding color to the songs of others.
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