Local Record Reviews 

Zebra Ranch by Hill Country Revue, Royal Blue by Barbara Blue

The Cody Dickinson-led Hill Country Revue establishes itself as more than just a marking-time offshoot of Dickinson's more well-known North Mississippi Allstars with a strong second album for national indie Razor & Tie.

Initially partnering with hill-country blues stalwart Garry Burnside and Beale Street hotshot Kirk Smithhart, the younger Dickinson's band began as something of an alternate take on the Allstars' sound. But then Burnside stepped back (he remains a non-touring member), Dickinson gave up the drums for guitar (and his trademark electric washboard), and Michigan-based singer Daniel Robert Coburn came aboard as lead singer.

These moves transformed Hill Country Revue into a heavier, more aggressive band, balancing the hill-country blues base with a stronger brand of Southern rock. And though the nimbleness of the elder Dickinson's guitar playing was sometimes missed, Coburn proved to be a stronger, more soulful singer on the band's debut, Make a Move.

Zebra Ranch, named after the Coldwater, Mississippi, recording studio of Dickinson's late father Jim Dickinson, where both of the band's albums have been crafted, pushes this evolution further. Where Burnside wrote or co-wrote seven of the first album's 10 songs, here he contributes to four of 14. Instead, Dickinson has taken the primary songwriting role, writing or co-writing half the songs, and both Coburn and Smithhart take on larger roles. The band also moves further away from the North Mississippi Allstars template with the departure of bassist Chris Chew, replaced by Doc Samba. (Young Memphis music veteran David Mason is also new on drums.)

The result is an expansion of the first album's classic-rock influence. The blues base is still there — witness Smithhart weaving a hypnotic hill-country riff into the otherwise more straightforwardly rock "Bottom $" or the classic-sounding hill-country groove on the Burnside/Dickinson collaboration "My Baby Don't Know" or the genre-affirming anthem "Hill Country." But many of the album's strongest songs stray further afield from that style. "Chalk It Up," co-written by Coburn and Dickinson, sounds like it could be a soulful radio-rock hit from the early '70s. And "Idyll," Dickinson's tribute to his native Mississippi landscape, is not the most incisive lyric you'll ever hear but has an easygoing yet gritty quality. The band hammers home both the album's rock-oriented expansion and personal motivations with an album-closing cover of the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses," the original of which featured Dickinson's dad. — Chris Herrington

Grade: B+

According to the liner notes on Royal Blue, Barbara Blue's first studio album since 2004's 3rd and Beale, Blue has performed more gigs on Beale Street than any singer in the district's history.

I can't confirm the truth of that assertion, but after 14 years of near-daily performances as the one-woman house band at Silky O'Sullivan's, it seems possible. On stage, Blue is a human jukebox, lending her raspy, soulful Etta James/Janis Joplin-style pipes to almost any kind of song a patron can think to request and she can be persuaded to sing. On record, Blue gets to fully craft her sound, which is classic soul with elements of blues and rock.

Royal Blue was recorded locally at Royal Studios, the longtime home of legendary producer Willie Mitchell, who had initially agreed to oversee the album before health problems scuttled the collaboration. After the elder Mitchell's passing in 2009, his son, Lawrence "Boo" Mitchell, stepped in to produce and engineer the album, which nails the classic Memphis sound via the use of an all-star assemblage of local session musicians that includes guitarist Skip Pitts, bassist Dave Smith, drummer Steve Potts, and keyboardist Lester Snell.

Given such a strong foundation, Blue's warm, engaging vocals shine. There are a couple of high-profile Memphis covers here: Blue becomes the first artist to do an Elvis song at Royal with a powerful blues arrangement of "Heartbreak Hotel" and pays tribute to Mitchell with a jazzy, piano-heavy arrangement of Al Green's signature "Let's Stay Together." But perhaps better are Blue's takes on a couple of lesser-known Hi Records nuggets, the Green album cut "Rhymes" and the bluesy, O.V. Wright-identified "8 Men & 4 Women." — CH

Grade: B

Barbara Blue will celebrate the release of Royal Blue at Silky O'Sullivan's on Friday, October 15th, from 6 to 9 p.m.

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