HANNAH JOHNSON– Shaken (Woodville)

ShakenPhysically based in Kings Heath, Birmingham but with her spiritual and musical homes shared between Nashville and Austin, Johnson was formerly one–third of Western Swing and bluegrass trio The Toy Hearts. But then, a couple of years back, guitarist and fellow vocalist sister Sophia decide to move to Austin, initially putting the band on hiatus and, eventually, seeing her form Hannah Johnson and The Broken Hearts, with father Stewart still on lap steel.

The band name’s now been dropped to make this Johnson’s solo debut, recorded in Austin with dad, resident bassist Chris Shirley and a clutch of solid session musicians, but also, indicating that whatever family rift may have occurred things is now in the past, with Sophia co-producing and featured on acoustic guitar.

Rooted in the old country, the blues and honky tonk of the Ameripolitan sound, there’s no huge musical departure from former days, the album comprising three original songs and eight covers from some of the genre’s greats. It’s one of Hannah’s that gets things rolling with the chugging Telecaster founded ‘Nowhere Train’, an early example of how she can switch from a silky purr to a gravel growl in the same line. ‘Morning Cocktail’ is another original, a slow waltzing, steel weeping number about drowning the hurt of a destructive relationship in rather too much alcohol that comes with a dreamily reflective guitar bridge.

The first cover comes from the Willie Nelson catalogue with a sultry swing and shuffle through ‘Three Days’, then it’s back to her remaining original, a co-write with Sarah Sharp on the fingerclicking sassy laid back 40s Andrews Sisters meets Patsy Cline swing of the playful ‘Your Girlfriend Hates Me’ with Emily Gimble on piano.

From hereon in, it’s an easy rolling journey through well chosen covers, headed up by Skeets McDonald’s honky tonker ‘Gotta Get You From That Crowd’ about a lover who spends a little too much time raising a glass with his friends. Next up, and again highlighting that growl, she transforms jazz pianist Richard M. Jones much covered (from Aretha and Nina to Led Zep and Johnny Cash) eight-bar blues ‘Trouble In Mind’ into slinky Western Swing.

Referring to Alabama rather than her hometown, ‘Not In Birmingham’ gently slides through the Roger Miller number with brushed drums and twangsome guitar, picking up the Western Swing banner again for a sweetly sung ‘Sooner or Later’ by Bob Wills before dipping into rock n roll tinged, fiddle-flavoured old time country with ‘Never No More’ and another potent guitar solo.

She brings the show to a close with a couple of contrasting numbers; first, a gentle home on the range sway through Gwil Owen’s ‘West Texas Lullaby’, taken at a just slightly faster tempo than the version popularised by Toni Price, and then breaking out Bryce Clarke’s acoustic mandolin for the scratchy goodtime jellyroll flapper flurry of ‘Shake It & Break It’ by “Father of the Delta Blues” Charlie Patton.

A dynamic live performer too, Johnson proved her authenticity chops long ago with the Toy Hearts, but this serves as a terrific launch of what promises to be an equally illustrious and acclaimed solo career.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.hjbrokenhearts.com

‘Not In Birmingham’ – live:

Asleep at the Wheel – Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys (Proper)

Asleep2Willie Nelson, Brad Paisley, Jamey Johnson, George Strait, and Lyle Lovett are just some of the guest artists on Asleep At The Wheel’s soon-to-be-released album Still the King: Celebrating The Music Of Bob Wills And His Texas Playboys.

Clearly, leader Ray Benson has some friends who respect his talent.

And why not? Ever since 1970, when Benson formed the now Austin, Texas-based group in Paw, Paw, Virginia, it’s preserved the Western Swing tradition of Bob Wills. This latest recording is the nine-time Grammy Award winning group’s third tribute to Wills.

But don’t let all the fancy, arena-filling names fool you into thinking that the music is anything but Western Swing at its finest.

It’s not a stretch to hear Merle Haggard’s distinctive vocals wrap smoothly around those of Asleep at the Wheel’s Emily Gimble on ‘Keeper of My Heart.’ They’re as natural as hearing Del McCoury – whose vocals enchanted everyone from Bruce Springsteen to the late Jerry Garcia – and his band perform ‘Silver Dew on the Bluegrass Tonight’ or Nelson joining the Quebe Sisters for a stunning performance of ‘Navajo Trail.’

Those songs and the others are brilliant and bewitching.

The real stand-out songs, though, are those where younger performers – including Brad Paisley, who lends virtuosic guitar work and vocals to ‘My Window Faces the South,’ and the Avett Brothers’ elegant performance on ‘The Girl I Left Behind,” – bolsters belief that Western Swing and its fans won’t fade away anytime soon.

Asleep At The Wheel doesn’t currently have any U.K. concert dates set, but this March 3 release is a terrific placeholder until they make their way back.

Nancy Dunham

‘San Antonio Rose’ live: