Ben & Noel Haggard
For fans of his late, legendary father, country music great Merle Haggard, his youngest son Ben is no Stranger – in fact, he’s been the lead guitarist in Hag’s longtime band of the same name for the past eight years, since he was 15 years old, fitting in easily with veterans like musical director Norm Hamlet and Scott Joss.
Ben was a regular on Merle Haggard’s recordings, took the stage with him and the Highwaymen (Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson) as well as Blake Shelton for a memorable performance at the 2014 Grammys and for the 2012 “All for the Hall” show besides two of his idols, Vince Gill and Keith Urban. Earlier this year, Ben was featured with the Strangers backing Toby Keith for a Merle tribute on the nationally televised American Country Countdown Awards. He also contributed versions of “Mama Tried” and “Sing Me Back Home” to 2014’sWorking Man’s Poet:Tribute to Merle Haggard album which also featured Toby Keith, Jason Aldean, Jake Owen, Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley.
Kelly Willis is Back Being Blue, to take a color-coded cue from the title of her seventh album. It’s a shade she wears well, though long-patient fans might just say: You had us at back. They’ll take a new Willis record in whatever hue it comes, now that it’s been 11 years since her last solo release, 2007’sTranslated from Love. The Austin-based singer/songwriter has hardly been MIA in the intervening years, having recorded and toured as part of a duo with Bruce Robison. But she’s setting the duet aside for do-it-alone mode, at least as far as the spotlight is concerned. (Robison hovers just outside it this time, as producer.). Hers is a solo voice again, but it’s not necessarily sotto voce: This is an album of songs about lonesomeness that also happens to be a cracklingly good time
Awash in full-throttle fiddle, weeping steel guitar, a sprinkling of heavenly backing vocals, and anchored by her warm, expressive vocals, Brennen Leigh’s latest album is an emotion-packed revelation. Rooted in vintage country, Ain’t Through Honky Tonkin’ Yet is an unapologetically beer- and tear-soaked homage to an era when hard-country weepers burst forth from AM transistor radios.
“I’m in love with this idea of the real Nashville, ” says Leigh. “The idyllic golden age, which, to me, is around 1967, 1968, because of the alchemy, the explosion that occurred, with the best country music songwriters ever, the best singers in country music.” The album’s country roots run deep, with guests like Marty Stuart and Rodney Crowell and a lineup of top-flight musicians, yet each track soars with abandon. With thoughtful, incisive lyrics and vibrant melodies at the forefront, Leigh has successfully created a modern gem, while honoring country music’s enduring golden era.