Sound Check

Equally impressive as Heartbeat's musical archive is Rounder's New Orleans masters series. In addition to reinvigorating the careers of such premier crooners and shouters as Johnny Adams, Irma Thomas and Charles Brown with their best studio work in decades, Rounder has reissued vintage 1950s and '60s sides from the vaults of the Crescent City's many regional record labels. The latest, Collector's Choice, begins with ten rare Professor Longhair tracks recorded for the Ric, Ron and Rip labels. Somewhat uneven, the songs fill a hole in the Longhair saga between his wild early years and later rediscovery, drifting from slurry solo ballads to crazy Carnival stomps to straight-up blues backed by a crashing horn section. The remainder of the collection has fine selections by R&B staples Thomas, Eddie Bo and Tommy Ridgley and a few odd marvels, including Joe Jones' pointy "You Talk Too Much" and Martha Carter's counterpointy "I Don't Talk Too Much." (***)

Singer/songwriters, especially women, have always had a place in the Rounder stable. Patty Larkin, Christine Lavin, Iris DeMent, Nanci Griffith, Cheryl Wheeler, Rory Block: the list of those who started on Rounder's Philo subsidiary competes with that of any record company. The latest to break out is Canadian Lynn Miles, whose Slightly Haunted is already making a radio splash. Though comparisons with others can be cheap, not mentioning Shawn Colvin in the same breath as Miles would be remiss. Her voice has the same aerial quality, and her acousto-electric arrangements carry the same soft but insistent rhythms. Miles' record is somewhat less cluttered than Colvin's work, but like Colvin, her lyrics smell of cold winters and icy crescent moons, places where love and love lost hold sway. The similarities are almost eerie. (PPPP)

Famed flat-picker Tony Rice, who has spent most of his career with Rounder, doesn't write many of his own songs, but he knows a good tune when he hears one. Tony Rice Sings Gordon Lightfoot compiles from Rice's many earlier efforts his interpretations of the Canadian singer/songwriter. With only one previously unreleased track, the disc may be too much of an overlap for some Rice fans, but to have all his Lightfoot songs in one place seems to me worth the investment. Lightfoot never had the likes of Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Ricky Skaggs, J.D. Crowe or Norman Blake backing him up; more than that, Rice has a special affinity for Lightfoot's music, and his talents as both player and singer help him transcend the originals, or at least gives their brains a butch new body. In Rice's hands, "Early Morning Rain," "Bitter Green" and "Home from the Forest" become almost life changing. (****)

Rice is just one of the Rounder finds who have moved into the limelight, yielding hefty sales that help subsidize the traditional recordings that ultimately set the label apart. The latest example of such a recording is Esta Pasion by Austin conjunto band Los Pinkys. Rare for a group with such a deep feel for conjunto, the Pinkys sport an Anglo frontman from Saginaw, Michigan. Bradley Jaye Williams was raised on Polish polka music, and his passion for Tex-Mex music brought him to Austin, where he teamed with a group of autenticos headed by accordionist Isidro Samilpa. An outstanding technician with the special, plaintive voice needed to translate conjunto's themes of abject misery and undying love, Samilpa revives the ghost of Austin past in every note, when conjunto ruled the streets and jazz and blues were just an afterthought. (****)

While Rounder's attention to forgotten forms may lack commercial rewards, the satisfaction of preserving and promoting such music seems to be reward enough. This may be especially true of old-time string-band music, born in Appalachia but dying of neglect for several decades. A vibrant music that uses bluegrass instrumentation but has a completely different, freewheeling mindset, old-time embodies the back-porch notion that real music belongs to the people and can't be bought, sold or taken away. Old-Time Music on the Air, Volume Two continues Rounder's commitment to old-time music and its purveyors, young and old. The urbanized bands that have adopted old-time, even electrified it with startling results, are in short supply here, but the mix of solo folk from the mountains and hipper bands with names such as the Boiled Buzzards and the Rhythm Rats maintains a lively pace. If you like to just plain feel good, start here. (*****)

Also on the old-time front, multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell's first solo job, If I Go Ten Thousand Miles, finally showcases one of the music's most gifted and intense proponents. Powell, who has toiled for a passel of revivalist bands, mostly fiddles his way through a tight set of traditional tunes and songs, backed by wife Christine Balfa (of the exalted Cajun music family), bluegrasser Tim O'Brien and other pickers of quality. His style links the hyper-traditional mountaineers with the urban old-time punks, and has all the vigor of both. (****)

Moving farther West, Rounder again proved prescient by hitching its horse to the cowboy wagon before it became a train. For a quick overdose, a just-out four-disc Singing in the Saddle series covers the A to Z of cowboy music from the early years to the modern revival. (PPPP) More to the heart of the matter, however, is Rosie Flores' A Honky Tonk Reprise. A reissue of the San Antonio cowgirl's forgotten 1987 Warner Bros. debut, the disc adds six bonus tracks recorded for a follow-up but never released, and they have a lot more twang and gut than her more recent rockabilly flavored songs. Flores plays new old-fashioned country music at its best. (****) -- Bob Burtman

***** Timeless
**** Timely
*** Worth some time
** Time worn
* Time's passed

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