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Mike Alan Ward

“Reading Hemingway: Looking Through the Pain”

Mud Bug Records

When Gram Parsons died at age 26 in 1973, he left behind a notebook he had filled with everything from doodles to shopping lists and the occasional song idea.

That notebook, more than 30 years later, wound up with Montana native Mike Alan Ward, who had been living in Nashville since the 1980s.

The idea was to pass the notebook around to several noted songwriters, like Ward, Jim Lauderdale, Carl Jackson and Marty Stuart, to see if they could come up with a new Parsons album. It was something like “Mermaid Avenue,” the album Billy Bragg and Wilco made of some forgotten Woody Guthrie lyrics, and the more recent Bob Dylan-driven “Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams.”

Poring over the notebook, Ward knew he had something when he came across the line, “Blurry, Slurry Night.”

“That sounds like Gram, and that sounds like a country song,” Ward said.

The song appears here on Ward’s first CD since moving back to Montana, and it does sound like Gram, with its pedal steel and Ward blending his aching vocals with singer Leslie Satcher.

Elsewhere on the album, Ward — who has written songs for Faith Hill, Dierks Bentley, Mel Tillis, Great Divide and others — expertly retraces country music’s roots, from folk to bluegrass.

“Wreckin’ the Train” is pure high and lonesome.

“Just when things are going my way/ That need for ramblin’ gets rolling through my veins,” Ward sings.

“You’ll Never Find Me,” the banjo-jangled “Almost Over You” and “Spiritual Awakening” also sound straight out of the darkest Appalachian holler. The highlight, at least lyrically, is the folky title cut, a melancholy, piano-driven travelogue that sounds like it might have fallen off one of Ronnie Milsap’s early albums.

The CD was published in Billings by Bill Porta’s Mud Bug Records and is available from www.CdBaby.com/cd/MikeAlanWard. It’s also available at iTunes and Amazon.

Keller Williams

“Bass”

SCI Fidelity Records

The trouble with bass players is they eventually want to do a bass album.

On countless CDs since 1994’s “Freak,” multi-instrumentalist Keller Williams has recorded rock, bluegrass and folk, and last year a children’s album. And, he’s collaborated with Bob Weir, The String Cheese Incident, Michael Franti and Bela Fleck.

On “Bass” he joins old pals Jay Starling on keyboards and drummer Mark D, calling themselves Kdubalicious. That goofy name is your clue to not take this bottom-heavy reggae/funk project, like all Williams projects, too seriously.

The beats on songs like “2BU” and “He Ho Jorge” are lazy and the funk is light, and the scatting on “Thinking” isn’t exactly Cab Calloway.

Still, there are moments when Williams’ vast talent outshines his cheekiness. “Hollywood Freaks” comes close to the smooth soul of the 1970s and the jazzy opener “The Sun and Moon’s Vangenda” is a gem. And yes, there are some solos, many of them, that are virtuostic, if that label can be applied to the bass.

Dessa

“Castor The Twin”

Doomtree Records

In Greek mythology, Castor was the gentler of the twins. He was the horse trainer while his brother Pollux was the boxer.

Rapper Dessa has been both.

As part of the Minnesota music collective Doomtree, her earlier albums have been filled with songs that could be aggressive and raw and sometimes vulgar, hung on huge hip-hop beats.

Unlike many rappers, however, Dessa can hold a note and her big, soulful voice always shinned through.

With “Castor The Twin,” she indulges that brassy voice, revisiting some of her best songs, rearranged as jazz and soul numbers and backed by piano and violin.

Even with the gentler arrangements, the songs lose none of their weight. If anything, they’re more powerful.

“The list of the things I used to be/ Is longer than the list of things I am/ Ex-lover, ex-friend, ex-communicated atheist,” she sings on the cut “Mineshaft” with the rushing urgency of Ani DiFranco.

In the same song, she refers to herself as an “underrated writer, overrated rapper.” These newly retooled songs will certainly take care of the former problem. Dessa is surely among the most literate songwriters alive.

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