The Upshot: Granted, it doesn’t take much to make a Guitar Nerd’s day – except non-stop guitar played by the masters. Fans of Arlen Roth’s output over the past 50 years are simply pre-sold, given his lofty standards and choice of musical partners. Tele Masters delivers the unexpected – and then some.
BY ERIC THOM
Some artists are beyond reproach – to the point where reviews are barely relevant. Still recovering – personally – from the stellar Slide Guitar Summit from ’15, Roth’s Tele Masters will simply stop you in your tracks to fully concentrate on the rich beauty summoned by Leo Fender’s Telecaster. Good luck wiping that smile off your face.
Roth is no stranger to these smart compilations. Aside from his original solo releases, Roth issued Toolin’ Around back in ‘94, enlisting the support of giants like Danny Gatton, Duane Eddy and Jerry Douglas. A popular sideman and guitar teacher, Roth stayed out of the limelight, preferring to work when – and with whom – he wanted. This heralded Master of the Telecaster and King of All Guitar Teachers continued to release solo records but returned to Woodstock on a more relaxed, Levon Helm-themed ramble that also featured Sonny Landreth and Bill Kirchen. With the success of Slide Guitar Summit, Tele Masters zeroes in on a wider range of guitar sounds, as Roth assembles a varied template of guests (Joe Bonamassa, Steve Cropper, Jerry Donahue, Vince Gill, Johnny Hiland, Bill Kirchen, Albert Lee, Brent Mason, Brad Paisley, Jack Pearson, Will Ray, Redd Volkaert and Steve Wariner) to stir the pot, adding their colourful shades to sixteen choice cuts. This is clearly a guitar party amongst the instrument’s brightest lights – and a joy to sit back and listen to. And, while you expect the most from Cropper, Kirchen and Albert Lee, there are some great surprises as well. Produced by fellow curator, Tom Hambridge (as was Summit), vocals play a key role on five tracks – notably, daughter Lexi’s haunting turn on Pee Wee King’s “Tennessee Waltz” and Jack Pearson’s inimitable work on both Charles Segar’s “Key To The Highway” and the sensational Pearson original, “I Can Fix It” (Pearson turning in exceptional guitar-playing on both). One expects country genius from Albert Lee who, in concert with Roth, recreates Paul Simon’s “Mrs. Robinson” as it’s never been heard before but, it’s the country guitarists – in general – on this record who burn brightest: Vince Gill’s molten gold on Red Hayes’ “Satisfied Mind” is, together with Roth, simply beautiful music that also serves to remind us of Gill’s other great instrument, while the steam coming off the blistering workout by Roth, Steve Wariner (and Cindy Cashdollar) on Hank Penny’s “Remington Ride” opens the disc with the bar for Instrumental Excellence set to ten, if not eleven. Roth’s own “Roadworthy” underlines why both Roth and Brent Mason remain first-call session giants, the tune recalling The Ozark Mountain Daredevils at their most daring. Truly head-spinning. At the other end of the spectrum, Merle Haggard’s right-hand man, Redd Volkaert closes the record with Roth as they float down an old mill stream with the delicate, slightly jazzy, “A Minor Thing”, before turning up the tempo and going all Hot Club. Of special note is Hambridge’s other role as drummer on all but one track, together with his stalwart bassist, Tommy MacDonald. Not to be outdone, Steve Cropper’s own “White Lightning” is noteworthy, although Cropper’s gruff voice proves a slight deterrent. Will Ray’s muscular treatment in tandem with Roth on Link Wray’s “Rumble” pays dear tribute to fellow Tele Master Roy Buchanan, rekindling Roy’s appeal in seconds flat. Brad Paisley’s lightning-fast, speed-demon pairing with Roth on Roth’s own “Bunky” is further proof that these young country boys have a lot more going for them than inflated Stetsons. What can one say about the tireless, prolific Joe Bonamassa, making time to join Roth for his tribute to Albert Collins in “Joe’s Blues”, slowing things down in a bluesy tussle with Roth, Jack Pearson and Billy Panda on acoustic guitar? To his credit, he disappears into the Roth/Pearson original as all three conjure their magic as equals. Yet, there are three tracks on Tele Masters that rise above the rest. Roth’s revisited version of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” is completely transfixing (he covered the Stan Jones classic on his first record, Guitarist, in ’63). Here, joined by the great Cindy Cashdollar on steel guitar, Alex Saltzman on organ and Billy Panda on acoustic guitar, the song is bigger than legend itself. Johnny Hiland joins Roth in tribute to fellow session and Tele Ace, Danny Gatton, with Roth’s “Funky Mama” – and you can almost picture Gatton, elbow-deep in thick grease, underneath one of his vintage restorations with a smile from ear to ear. In addition, Jack Pearson proves why he deserves ‘household name’ status with – again – “I Can Fix It”. His near-perfect, bluesy voice teams with his scorching guitar as he and Roth roll and tumble like their sights were set on reinventing Lowell George’s Little Feat. If anything was broken, Jack Pearson just fixed it, with the powerful Hambridge/MacDonald rhythm section earning an assist.
Tribute to past masters or a celebration of current Tele superstars? It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that these are the best sixteen tracks you’ve ever heard in a row and Tele Masters will soon top your playlist, turning a typical drive into a fresh way to appreciate your surroundings. Such is the power of great music and the variety on display will keep it from burning out. Kudos to Roth, who has pulled this master Tele class together, rising above his personal challenges, to arrive somewhere something fresh and vital. So nice to see his daughter, Lexie, be a part of the plan.