Music Review: Wayfaring Strangers: Cosmic American Music

Published on March 15th, 2016 in: Americana, Current Faves, Music, Music Reviews, Reviews |

By Melissa Bratcher

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You can always rely on Numero Group to unearth incredible, forgotten music. You know that music: the kind of stuff you pick up in a flea market because it costs a quarter and has a cover with a lady sporting huge hair and a necklace made of spoons. The kind of albums that were perhaps self-released or on the tiniest label. Hidden gems, for sure.

Numero’s newest compilation, Wayfaring Strangers: Cosmic American Music is a trip through the cut-out bins. Here are tracks that, despite not being breakthroughs for the artists, still have merit. It’s Americana, and it’s indie as anything. Maybe the artists weren’t signed to a big label. Maybe they made the record in one of those booths at a fair. Maybe they had a song that they really needed to record for serious reasons.

There are stories behind these artists. There are bands made up of farm and ranch hands. One of them, Jimmy Carter and Dallas County Green, opens the album with the rambling “Travelin’.” The other, The Black Canyon Gang, puts forth the incredible, soulful “Lonesome City.” It’s richly atmospheric with a stoney groove. Sandy Harless financed his album with proceeds from his fish breeding business but was cheated by a fake record label. Someone should cover his “I Knew Her Well” because it’s frankly lovely.

There are lady singers. Mistress Mary has an unusual, earthy voice with appealing vibrato. Her authenticity shines through on “And I Didn’t Want You,” a gentle groove with pedal steel. The mysterious Kathy Heidiman (Numero Group could dig up no information on her) sings with an odd, pure voice on “Sleep A Million Years.” Plain Jane isn’t a lady, but “You Can’t Make It Alone” is a slice of psychedelic Americana with spacey guitar and a somnambulant feel. The lead singer has a Parsons-esque weediness to his voice, and since Gram Parsons is the patron saint of this collection, it is quite appropriate.

Why do some artists make it and some just don’t? Angel Oak’s “I Saw Her Cry” feels classic, like a JD Souther tune. The lead singer’s voice is unforced and likable, and a steel guitar swoops sadly in the background. Arrogance’s charmer “To See Her Smile” sounds current and fresh, all searing vocals and plinky piano.

What’s not to love about Wayfaring Strangers dedication to the stranger sides of Americana? Allen Wachs’ “Mountain Roads” is a bit filmic, and also a recitation of things found around mountains (deer, cedar trees, wind). It’s got a curious appeal and roiling guitar and bass. Bill Madison’s “Buffalo Skinners” is moody and noodly, but compelling like a Max Brand book. It’s nearly 8 minutes long and is quite informative. If you have questions about buffalo skinners, it will probably be answered in this track.

The opposite, then, would be Doug Firebaugh’s “Alabama Railroad Town.” The song is so short that I thought I had somehow paused my playback. His delightfully hushed delivery slips into falsetto. It’s pretty, despite the bits about “Seven more men left to die” and “You can still hear them screaming.” I wanted more. Mike and Pam Martin’s “Lonely Entertainer” was clearly meant to be serious, but it turns out instead to be a bit goofy (“Every song I sing begins to sound the same / I meet a lot of important people / but I don’t remember their names”).

I’m a fan of Numero Group’s compilations. There are always little nuggets of brilliance, artists that really should have made it, and songs that scratch the itch of much-needed weirdness. Wayfaring Strangers: Cosmic American Music hits all those points. It’s like finding buried treasure that someone helpfully dug up for you.

Wayfaring Strangers: Cosmic American Music will be released by Numero Group on March 18.

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