Bill Knight | Red-white-and-blue roots music



Capsule reviews can be like speed dating in a bouncy house. Risking insulting artists who spent energy and investments of time and temperament, they’re a way to acknowledge their efforts. (Likewise, excuse the name-dropping comparisons, but they’re efficient.)

Anyway, much of the Fourth of July was spent listening to American music; not the John Philip Sousa/Kate Smith variety, but the red-white-and-blue roots music from small-label outfits offering that hardscrabble heart, charm and creativity traced to Texas and Appalachia and a heritage of rank-and-file roadhouse/barn dance expression.

There were few fireworks and not enough hooks, those unforgettable melodies that stay with listeners like summer memories, in these four CDs. An exception is Van Dyke Brown (the alter ego of 40-year-old Scott Honea), whose debut CD “Holy Libel” has an acoustic-oriented sound, but with a pedal steel guitar and a pleasant pop feeling, like CSN&Y when they got along or Paul Simon if he were less pretentious.

“The Fair” launches this ride with a narrative becoming a novella (appropriate since Honea is a novelist as well as a filmmaker and photojournalist). His wordplay tells stories: “The night I dropped acid and went to the fair/ I spent 36 dollars throwing darts through the air/ for a Motley Crue mirror that would soon need repair / and I laid there knowing I’d never leave there.”

“Sycamore” is a memory of visiting a cemetery close to a family home, seeing June bugs and feeling gravel between the toes and reflecting, “You come and you go, you love and you leave.” “Five Miles” has a more indie/country feel, and “Gary” is a thrill, a track of “Magical Mystery Tour” psychedelia and Honea calls “cosmic folk.”

• Chuck Hawthorne’s “Fire Out of Stone,” his second record, is a collection of songs about surviving and healing. His vocals aren’t unlike Bob Dylan in his pre-electric period and Roger Whittaker during the height of his ubiquitous TV commercials in the ’70s and ’80s, and “Such is Life” and “Broken Good” stand out, but a strong theme can result in a thread of sameness. (He’s scheduled to be featured at 8 p.m. Aug. 6 on

• Meghan Hayes’ “Seen Enough Leavers” photos indicate she went for a forlorn waif-with-an-edge look, but despite that choice, her voice is reminiscent of tender Judy Collins, easygoing Linda Ronstadt or rollicking Alison Krauss. Pointed and pouty on “Burley” and “Potholes,” two cuts are delightfully incongruous and appealing: “A Birthday in the Pawnshop” is as entertaining as Joni Mitchell jamming with Jimmy Page, and “Second to Last,” though overproduced, has an organ wash like a Springsteen anthem from the ’80s.

• Rod Picott singing on “Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil” sounds like an accessible Tom Waits, less gruff than gravelly. Recovering from health issues, Picott recorded 12 tunes at home alone, so the sound and sense are as private and casual as time in a confessional. Emotionally charged, but less powerful and draining, the gentle, bleak songs range from whispering asides to poetic images. “A 38 Special & A Hermes Purse” describes “another lost soul waiting to be found” and himself as “a train wreck turning Beaujolais into piss,” “A Guilty Man” features a provocative simile: “Guilt as strong as gasoline.”

There’s a repeated tendency throughout for the poignant slipping to somber to abject anger and depression: a sense of wrongfully convicted inmates at minimum-security prisons; Honea escaped such bondage and celebrates freedom.

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