Where Country Grows
Ashton Shepherd is a 24-year-old rugged country girl, lives in Alabama, and sounds like she'd kick your ass for looking at her the wrong way. Like Miranda Lambert, Shepherd has a deep drawl and a bullshit detector set to 11, and on her second album she lets you know she ain't taking crap from anybody, even on the ballads. Following her strong 2008 debut, Sounds So Good, this one picks up the pieces of a broken relationship and moves on. "The word is 'faithful,' look it up,” she sings on the opening "Look It Up.” "The word is 'over,' look it up.” Shepherd lets down her guard occasionally: The I'm-movin'-on declaration of "I'm Good” barely hides her heartbreak, and the catchy "Rory's Radio” is a nostalgic look back at simpler times. But this is mostly tough twang, in a voice made for wide-open spaces. —Michael Gallucci
Grand Theatre Vol. 2
On the ninth album by alt-country heroes Old 97's, Rhett Miller strains through a song about an actor doing "what he feels like his character would do.” He should relate; right down to its slapdash cover, the release seems designed to court the outlaw-country cultists who have been protesting his band's power-pop direction since 1999's Fight Songs. But by far the most compelling song on Grand Theatre, Volume 2 is Murry Hammond's closing "How Lovely All It Was,” pure melodic pop from the heart. They're great at this, so why are they so hesitant to embrace it?
Their recaptured country is growing stale, all labored rawness and riff retreads, with once-masterful lyricist Miller roughly drawling feel-good nonsense like "Perfume” he could write in his sleep. After a few more "Timebomb” retreads, Old 97's will barely be a step up the ladder from Mike Love singing "Fun, Fun, Fun” at 70. What hurts most is, as "How Lovely” and the earlier record's "The Beauty Marks” prove, the group is still capable of brilliance; out of eagerness to please, one of America's finest bands seems to have stagnated. —Nathan Phillips
motor city 5
To learn how Bettye LaVette gives dead George Harrison goose bumps, listen to her version of his "Isn't It a Pity,” a lovely tune that is, in her hands, a torching soul ballad, like the last tune at last call on our last day of existence.
And if you're one who thinks music didn't exist before Run DMC or Radiohead's third album, you need to hear LaVette's '62 debut "My Man — He's a Lovin Man,” or the late '60s scorchers she recorded for Silver Fox, or 2005's Joe Henry-produced I've Got My Own Hell to Raise, released just after her "comeback,” which saw the saucy R&B singer rise from the "dirty end” of the bar at the Locker Room Lounge on Livernois to the Kennedy Center Honors. Good thing she's back home this week and ready for public consumption. Here LaVette gives us her five — well, six — favorite songs ever. —Brian Smith
1 "Lush Life” — Johnny Hartman: Because the song is so difficult to sing and Johnny Hartman does it perfectly.
2 "Don't Go To Strangers” — Gloria Lynne: It's the first "standard” that I ever learned, and it helped to teach me phrasing.
3 "Giving Up” — Donny Hathaway: Because it always brings me tears.
4 "These Arms of Mine” — Otis Redding: Because it is so pitiful.
5 "I'm Losing You” — The Temptations: Because it is David Ruffin at his very, very best.
6 "Guess Who I Saw Today” — Nancy Wilson: Because only Nancy Wilson can sing it.
Sunday, July 17, at the Concert of Colors, at the Max M. Fisher Music Center, 3711 Woodward Ave., Detroit; concertofcolors.com; admission free; see the listings for more info.