by: Solomon Burke

Four years after the stellar and eclectic Don't Give Up on Me from 2002, which won a Grammy, Solomon Burke returns with another surprise. Nashville was recorded in Music City with producer Buddy Miller and a slew of guests who include duet partners Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Patty Griffin, and Gillian Welch, as well instrumental talent that features Brady Blade, Byron House, Miller, Al Perkins, Garry Tallent, Mickey Raphael, David Rawlings, Sam Bush, Phil Madeira, and many others. The set opens with a stripped to the bone version of Tom T. Hall's "That's How I Got to Memphis," accompanied only by Miller's acoustic guitar. Burke's big, crackling throaty baritone makes the song, which has been covered by everyone from Bobby Bare, Bill Haley, and Rosanne Cash to Scott Walker, Lee Hazlewood, and Ben Vaughn. Miller lets the slow, earthy cracks in Burke's voice resonate deeply. The duet with Parton on her "Tomorrow Is Forever" is deep, soulful country music at its best. Al Perkins' pedal steel floats around the pair as they trade lines and harmonize. With excellent backing vocals from Ann McCrary and Gale West, this is a true melding of the country and soul traditions. Bruce Springsteen's "Ain't Got You" is utterly transformed from a country blues shouter into a roiling, tough, backwoods hard country and near-bluegrass meld. Perkins' dobro, the slippery brushed drums that shuffle in overdrive and fiddle, and Tallent's standup bass take the thing back into the woods and never let it out. And it just goes from here. Welch's "Valley of Tears" is another stripped to the bone ballad with Rawlings and Welch singing and playing and Miller backing on vocals as well. But that backing is a bit stiff; it would have worked better without any, but it's Burke's killer voice that brings the real sadness in the tune to bear at the listener's door. Burke can really do the weepers, as further evidenced by his reading of Don Williams' "Atta Way to Go" with strings and a full countrypolitan band behind him. Here again, Burke proves that he can do the tradition without schmaltz. There is great power in his voice as he allows the lyrics to penetrate him and then projects them as his own. This song, too, becomes so rooted in the blues and Memphis soul that it might shock Williams to hear it. "Up the Mountain" a Griffin song, proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Griffin and Burke were made to sing together. This is a duets record that should happen. She can sing anything, and her manner of countering Burke's throaty R&B moan brings out the depths of gospel. The pairing with Harris on George Jones' "We're Gonna Hold On" works less well. Harris does the same thing on every single recording she's appeared on for the last decade. In addition, the instrumentation feels ragged and out of balance. The set ends with Larry Henley and Red Lane's "Til I Get It Right," where Burke's vocal comes off every bit as haunted and heart-rending as Johnny Cash's and he gets it right form the first note. Burke is at a place in his long career where he has nothing to lose. His restlessness and willingness to stretch himself is far different than say Rod Stewart attempting all those horrifying volumes of the Great American songbook. Burke fully inhabits what he sings. His performances are precise in that they bring out every single lyrical nuance as an extension of soul. This is a keeper, one of those records that you'll still be listening to in ten years. ~ Thom Jurek

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