Wayne Bledsoe: Andrew Bird revisits folk; Jamey Johnson honors Cochran's classics

Andrew Bird

Andrew Bird

"Hands of Glory," Andrew Bird (Mom + Pop)

Listening to the evolution of Andrew Bird has been fascinating. He first became known as a sort of adjunct arm of the Squirrel Nut Zipper and he dug up elements of hot jazz and acoustic swing. He was a violinist but he also proved to be a formidable singer-songwriter — and an artist who was not chained to any style.

On his new album "Hands of Glory" Bird is updating folk music for a new generation. Throughout the disc Bird makes references to traditional folk, gospel and blues songs. In the case of "Railroad Bill," it's a straight rendition of a classic folk ballad (or one of the many versions of it). But, more often, Bird's taking an idea, a line or a sentiment from a vintage song and creating something new.

The title line of "Three White Horses" shows up in folk songs about death, including "One Kind Favor." "When That Helicopter Comes" is actually a cover of a Handsome Family song that grabs the Biblical line "power in the blood," which shows up in a number of gospel songs. He also covers Townes Van Zandt's "If I Needed You." Van Zandt's songs have the same simple raw power as old Appalachian ballads and Bird delivers the song appropriately.

What Bird and a few others are doing falls into the folk song tradition. It's the reason there are so many variations of certain songs and the same theme shows up in so many different numbers.

Bird's violin is one of the things that continues to set him apart, but he's smart enough to use it as a cool element rather than turn it into a gimmick. Whether he's bowing or plucking the strings or keeping the sound natural or creating a bowed saw sound, Bird uses restraint and taste when he plays. The 9-minute closing track is mostly a showcase for the instrument, but it's subtle and beautiful.

"Hands of Glory" might not be the perfect album for fans who jumped on board with Bird early, but for those who enjoy hearing an artist explore and refine, it's a lovable chapter in his career.

"Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran," Jamey Johnson (Mercury)

Hank Cochran was one of country songwriting's greatest artists. The number of classics that he wrote or co-wrote is amazing — "Make the World Go Away," "I Fall To Pieces," "It's Not Love (But It's Not Bad)" among them.

He counted among his best friends in later years singer-songwriter Jamey Johnson. When Cochran was dying of cancer in 2010, Johnson was a friend who sang Cochran's songs at his bedside.

"Living for a Song" is a fine and fitting tribute from a friend and artist to another. Cochran friends and fans show up to help out, including Alison Krauss, Merle Haggard, Leon Russell, Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Elvis Costello, Ray Price, Willie Nelson and George Strait, and Johnson smartly doesn't hog the spotlight.

Instead, the focus is on the songs and the best way to deliver them. It's a likeable and low-key showcase for some real classics.

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