My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Classic Rewind: Barbara Fairchild – ‘Cheatin’ Is’

Spotlight Artist: Lee Roy Parnell

lee-roy-parnell_2011_13049617483975.pngHe made a name for himself with vocal stylings similar in tone to Ronnie Dunn. But it was the brief mainstream acceptance of his bluesy Texas country sound that cements the legacy of Lee Roy Parnell.

Parnell was born December 21, 1956 in Abilene, Texas but raised on his family’s ranch in Stephenville. His father toured as part of teenage Bob Willis’ traveling medicine shows. Parnell would have his first public performance on Wills’ radio show at six-years-old, and play both drums and guitar in a local band as a young adult. He joined the Austin music scene in 1974, while he was also a member of Kinky Freedman’s Texas Jewboys.

Parnell would work the Austin music scene for more than a decade, playing clubs, sharpening his skills on the slide guitar, and holding down a radio show. He relocated to Nashville in 1987 where he scored a publishing deal, regular gig at the Bluebird Café, and a record contract with Arista Nashville within a two-year span.

His eponymous album came in 1990, along with three singles that failed to crack the top 40. A fourth single, “The Rock,” that led his sophomore set Love Without Mercy, did slightly better peaking at #50. His breakthrough would finally come when upbeat rocker “What Kind of Fool Do You Think I Am” peaked at #2 in 1992. His string of hits continued for the next four years, where he would peak at #2 twice more (with “Tender Moment” in 1993 and “A Little Bit of You” in 1995) and see four more singles hit the top 10.

In addition to his own hit singles, Parnell would come to be known for notable contributions as both a songwriter and musician. He wrote Pirates of the Mississippi’s 1992 top 40 hit “Too Much” as well as Collin Raye’s 1993 top 10 “That’s My Story.”

In 1994, Parnell played slide guitar and appeared in the music video for Mary Chapin Carpenter’s sole chart-topper “Shut Up And Kiss Me.” That same year he formed Jedd Zeppelin, a supergroup consisting of himself, Steve Wariner, and Diamond Rio. They collaborated on a cover of “Working Man Blues” for the multi-artist Mama’s Hungry Eyes tribute album to Merle Haggard.

He scored his final top 15 hit “Givin’ Water to a Drowning Man” in 1996, while recording for Arista imprint Career Records. A nomination for the Best Country Instrumental Grammy came in 1997, and his final Arista album, a greatest hits collection entitled Hits & Highways Ahead was released in 1999.

Two more albums would follow after the turn of the century – Tell The Truth on the Vanguard label in 2001 and Back To The Well on Universal South in 2006. Neither would produce any hit singles. He was also credited for contributing slide guitar to David Lee Murphy’s low charting single “Inspiration” in 2004.

While Parnell has since retired from the music industry, his legacy of hits live on thanks to the fans who remember his contributions to the country music landscape more than twenty years ago. Please enjoy our retrospective as we revisit his discography for the month of September.

Classic Rewind: Randy Travis – ‘Three Wooden Crosses’

Week ending 8/30/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

nitty_gritty_dirt_band_hire1954 (Sales): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1954 (Jukebox): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1954 (Disc Jockeys): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1964: I Guess I’m Crazy — Jim Reeves (RCA)

1974: Old Man From The Mountain — Merle Haggard (Capitol)

1984: Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper’s Dream) — Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (Warner Bros.)

1994: Dreaming With My Eyes Wide Open – Clay Walker (Giant)

2004: Live Like You Were Dying — Tim McGraw (Curb)

2014: Burnin’ It Down — Jason Aldean (Broken Bow)

2014 (Airplay): Drunk On A Plane — Dierks Bentley (Capitol)

Classic Rewind: The Statler Brothers – ‘Don’t Forget Yourself’

Classic Rewind: Kelly Willis and Kevin Welch – ‘That’ll Be Me’

Single Review: Blake Shelton – ‘Neon Light’

Blake SheltonIn a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Blake Shelton said the following about his latest single “Neon Light”:

“The song, the melody, the chorus is so George Jones or George Strait. It really is. Of course, I’m always going to have the haters and critics out there that say it’s not. But then, kiss my ass! I know more about those records than a lot of people.”

Way to stay classy, Blake. I am no Blake Shelton hater, having liked quite a lot of his music, though admittedly not so much in recent years. And I’m no slouch when it comes to familiarity with the music of both Georges and all I can say is that I imagine that the Possum has probably put some wear and tear on the inside of his coffin after all the turning over he must have done at the comparison. I can’t imagine George Jones singing this song under any circumstances. I can imagine him speaking out against Blake’s remarks, had Shelton been imprudent enough to say something like this while Jones was still alive. The chorus does sound a little like some of George Strait’s poorer efforts, and now every time I hear the song I try to think of how his version would be different — and presumably much better.

I’m not sure that this song is salvagable, but I imagine that a Strait recording of this song would have a much different arrangement. Ditching the annoying hick-hop beat would be a good place to start. I took an instant dislike to it from the moment I heard the the first opening notes from the banjo. There was a time when the banjo was regarded as primarily a bluegrass instrument and was rarely used on mainstream country recordings. I used to think that was a shame, but has been so overdone in recent years — usually in an attempt to give a rootsy feel to otherwise non-country sounding songs like this one.

The sad part about this is that fans that grew up listening to country radio over the past decade — the ones too young to remember George Jones or the kind of music George Strait did back in the 80s — probably do think that this is rootsy, throwback record. But those of us old enough to know better are unlikely to be impressed. Lyrically the song doesn’t have a lot of substance, which is OK for a summertime release, but Scott Hendricks’ obnoxious production is a deal killer for me.

Grade: D

Classic Rewind: Joe and Rose Lee Maphis – ‘Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music)’

Country roads and greener pastures

TaylorI was really happy to hear about the release of Taylor Swift’s new single last week. Now there’s something you never thought you’d hear me say. But (you knew there had to be a “but” coming, didn’t you?) I should qualify that comment by saying my mood was not affected so much because I was looking forward to listening to new Taylor Swift music, but because the single “Shake It Off” is a watershed moment in Swift’s career, as the artist, her label and her publicists acknowledge that 1989, Swift’s forthcoming album, is not country, but pop.

I will be the first to argue that this is hardly news and that Swift’s music was never really country to begin with, but it’s nice to hear the people responsible for marketing her finally admit it. While Swift’s defenders have argued for years that she was bringing new fans to the country genre, I always maintained that her youthful fanbase was unlikely to embrace the genre at large, and that Swift herself would eventually decide that the pop world was a better fit for her. The shift began with the release of 2012’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, which became the first Taylor Swift single to be deemed not country enough for country radio. It spent nine weeks at #1 anyway, due to a ridiculous change in Billboard’s chart tabulation methodology, but that is a separate topic.
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Classic Rewind: Suzy Bogguss pays tribute to Hank Williams – ‘I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)’

Single Review: Jake Owen – ‘What We Ain’t Got’

what we ain't gotIt’s a sad realisation of how the country radio scene has changed in the past few years that now it’s a surprise as well as a pleasure when a new single from an A-list country star turn out to be really good. I quite liked Jake Owen when he started out, but his music took a downturn after the excellent 2007 top 10 ‘Startin’ With Me’. In more recent years his music has completely lost me as he has joined teh bro-country party crowd, although I’ve sometimes had the (hopeful) impression that of all the current stars his heart wasn’t quite in what he was putting out.

His latest single shows he’s more than party songs. The song is written by Travis Meadows and Travis Goff, and is beautifully constructed, with an opening philosophical statement about the universal imagining of greener grass elsewhere. He then brings that understanding to his acceptance that there is no way forward for a failed relationship:

We all want what we ain’t got
Our favourite doors are always locked
On a higher hill with a taller top
We all want what we ain’t got

We ain’t happy where we are
There’s greener grass in the neighbour’s yard
A bigger house and a faster car
We ain’t happy where we are

All I want is what I had
I’d trade it all just to get her back
She’s movin’ on but I guess I’m not
Yeah, we all want what we ain’t got

We all wish it didn’t hurt
When you try your best and it doesn’t work
Goodbye is such a painful word
We all wish it didn’t hurt

But the song itself is just the foundation. A subtle understated production led by a gentle piano and a vocal which is filled with resigned sadness make the song’s emotions hit home, while never getting exaggerated. This song, and singer, are mature enough never to build up to a crescendo; the protagonist is broken by his loss and sounds broken through to the very end. It is perfectly done.

This single really rekindles my faith in Jake Owen as an artist capable of producing music with substance, even though he didn’t write the song himself.

It’s quite a brave move releasing this song as a radio single in the current climate, and I applaud him and his team for taking that risk. I don’t know how well this third single from his current Days Of Gold album will do for Jake, although it’s already entered the top 40 country chart. I sincerely hope it’s as successful as the far inferior material he has been presenting to the world of recent years. If not, that will be one more strike against country radio. Regardless, it’s well worth seeking out and downloading, and is the finest single from a currently successful mainstream country artist so far this year.

Grade: A+

Classic Rewind: Don Williams – ‘Some Broken Hearts Never Mend’

Fellow Travelers: Val Doonican

Val_Doonican_1971Unlike Engelbert Humperdinck, who achieved world-wide fame, our next fellow traveler’s popularity is largely confined to the United Kingdom and Ireland and parts of the British Commonwealth, with some popularity in the Netherlands. Like Humperdinck, Michael Valentine “Val” Doonican was born elsewhere (Ireland) but migrated to England where he achieved great success.

Val Doonican was born in Waterford, Ireland in 1927, where he started performing in his late teens as part of the Irish folk scene where he appeared on radio and on Waterford’s first television broadcast. Val moved to England in 1951 as part of a group called The Four Ramblers. Eventually Anthony Newley noticed Val’s singular vocal talents and pushed him into a solo direction. In 1963 Val appeared on Sunday Night At The London Palladium leading him to be offered his own television show on the BBC.

    Who Was He ?

The closest analogy to Val Doonican’s career is that of Perry Como, an American pop singer whose hits spanned decades and whose television shows spanned four decades. Like Como, Doonican had a very relaxed style (Val was known for sitting in a rocking chair while singing on his television shows), but unlike Como who came from the Italian belle canto tradition and mostly performed songs from the Italian and American pop standards catalog, Val emerged from the Irish folk tradition and sang a wider variety of music. Doonican’s career on British television lasted for over twenty years. Val Doonican had remarkable recording success given that his recording career launched during the “British Invasion” years of the Beatles, Kinks and Rolling Stones. While Val never had a number one record in England, he did have five top ten records with “What Would I Be” reaching #2 in 1966. “Walk Tall” reached #3 in 1964 and “If The Whole World Stopped Loving” reached #3 in 1967. In all, Val charted 14 hits on the British charts.

    What Was His Connection to Country Music ?

Val Doonican emerged from the Irish folk tradition, one of the key elements of Appalachian and early country music. Doonican’s repertoire consisted of folk songs, pop songs and American country songs. Two of Val’s biggest hits were covers of American country hits in “Walk Tall” (Faron Young) and “If The Whole World Stopped Loving” (Roy Drusky) and he issued several other country songs as singles (his cover of Jim Ed Brown’s “Morning” reached #12 in England and #5 in Ireland).
Val Doonican issued many albums during his career. Twelve of his albums reached the British charts with six of them reaching the top six, and one album Val Doonican Rocks But Gently going to #1 in 1967. Val’s albums featured many country songs, some of which featured arrangements that could have been played on American country radio. Val Doonican issued many albums during his career and gently introduced British audiences to American country songs. Moreover, several of his albums were released in the United States and Val would feature American country artists as guests on his television show.

I made the analogy of Doonican’s career to that of Perry Como, but as a vocalist a better comparison would be Jim Reeves or (to a lesser extent) Roy Drusky. It doesn’t appear that Val ever tried to conquer the US market although Americans who lived in England for a few years (such as myself) would have loved to have seen him do it. ABC TV ran The Val Doonican Show as a summer replacement from June 5, 1971 to August 14, 1971.

Val retired five ago from performing (he is now 87) but his much of his musical output is still in print and worth seeking.

Classic Rewind: George Strait – ‘Nobody In His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her’

Album Review: Kelly Willis – ‘Translated From Love’

translated from loveAfter five years’ silence, 2007 saw the release of what was probably the least country-related album of Kelly Willis’s career.

The quirky opener ‘Nobody Wants To Go To The Moon Anymore’ (written by Damon Bramblett) is quite interesting, about changing times and decreasing ambition and dreams. Bramblett also wrote the very appealing ‘Sweet Surrender’, which is my favourite track, and the most reminiscent of Kelly’s earlier work.

‘Stone’s Throw Away’ is also excellent, a delicate ballad with a hushed, honeyed vocal. The title track is a slow ballad which is beautifully sung. The tender ‘Sweet Little One’, written Kelly with her producer Chuck Prophet, is pretty with a lullaby feel. ‘Losing You’ is also really good, an understated ballad about a slow breakup.

‘Don’t Know Why’ is quite nice but a little more mellow than the lyric about a troubled relationship seems to demand. ‘Too Much To Lose’ has a pretty melody and wistful vocal but gets repetitive and boring after a very promising start. The mid paced love song ‘The More That I’m Around You’ is definitely a pop song , but it is a pretty good one.

She takes on a bad girl rock ‘n roll attitude for ‘Teddy Boys’. ‘I Must Be Lucky’ also has a rock feel but it has an insistent groove which holds the attention. ‘Success’ is a pop/punk cover with raucously yelled backing vocals from alt-country band The Gourds (although Kelly’s lead is rather engaging).

Kelly’s vocals have an intrinsic charm whatever she sings, but this really isn’t a country record.

Grade: B-

Classic Rewind: Loretta Lynn – ‘I’d Rather Have Jesus’

Week ending 8/23/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

conway and loretta1954 (Sales): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1954 (Jukebox): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1954 (Disc Jockeys): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1964: Dang Me — Roger Miller (Smash)

1974: As Soon As I Hang Up The Phone — Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn (MCA)

1984: Still Losing You — Ronnie Milsap (RCA)

1994: Be My Baby Tonight — John Michael Montgomery (Atlantic)

2004: Live Like You Were Dying — Tim McGraw (Curb)

2014: Burnin’ It Down — Jason Aldean (Broken Bow)

2014 (Airplay): I Don’t Dance — Lee Brice (Curb)

Classic Rewind: Kelly Willis – ‘Heaven’s Just A Sin Away’

Classic Rewind: Dallas Frazier – ‘There Goes My Everything’

Legendary songwriter Dallas Frazier performs one of his classic songs:

Concert Review: Little Big Town at the South Shore Music Circus

IMG_3747They may be from the Boondocks, But Little Big Town have sailed their Pontoon into a rock and roll Tornado.

If their recent show at the South Shore Music Circus proves anything, it’s that the quartet known for simple backwoods arrangements complimenting their airtight harmonies have morphed into a band solely focused on succeeding in the current “country music” landscape.

They made their way to the rounded stage like rock stars filing into a stadium, Kimberly Schlapman’s head of tight blond curls visible a mile away. Karen Fairchild, modeling denim short-shorts, knee high leather boots, and a gold sparkle jacket launched into pulsating set opener “Leave The Light On,” a track from the band’s upcoming Pain Killer due Oct 21. The band and crowd embraced a little “Day Drinking” shortly thereafter, which worked in the environment despite missing the snare drums utilized in award show performances of the track.

The foursome focused most heavily on their work produced by Jay Joyce, a response to the lukewarm reception of their most recent Wayne Kirkpatrick-produced set, 2010’s The Reason Why. Apart from down playing their country credentials, their work with Joyce is far more guitar heavy, which afford them to gave the banjos and mandolins a break for most of the evening.

Pain Killer got a generous showcase, a risk seeing as no one, not even me, has heard the album yet. They played more than half the album and while most of the tracks ran together, I could hear something special in the title track and Schlapman’s vocal showcase on “Save Your Sin.”

Tornado made up the majority of what was left and tracks like “Pavement Ends,” “Front Porch Thing,” and “On Fire Tonight” fit in perfectly with the vibe of the evening. “Pontoon” had the whole crowd singing along and “Your Side of the Bed” was as effective live as on the album. “Sober,” which I expected to be treated more acoustically, was a slight disappointment, but the magic of the track shone through. Fairchild traded her sparkle coat for long leathery fringe to croon “Tornado,” a set highlight.

I did appreciate how they sprinkled in subtle nods to the past ten years, gifting the crowed with “Little White Church” and “A Little More You.” I had completely forgotten about “A Little More You” and was happy when they resurrected it. “Boondocks,” easily the band’s signature song, came towards the end of the evening with a drum heavy beginning that rendered the track almost unrecognizable at first.

At one point Fairchild commented on this being their second ever performance on a revolving stage (they played the Cape Cod Melody Tent the night before) and how they were nervous about letting down the audience with their lack of production.

After introducing their band, the group commented on their history as a band and how 2014 marks twenty-five years together. The women talked about how IMG_3751Fairchild and Jimi Westbrook went to college together and their first meeting with Phillip Sweet. Instead of logically launching into “I’m With The Band,” which they didn’t play, they gave us a couple of tracks that influenced them. First was a stripped down almost bluesy cover of the Oak Ridge Boys classic “Elvira” that got such an inventive take from the band, it took until the chorus before I knew what they were singing. The other track that influenced them was Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” a logical choice seeing as they’re always being compared. In fact, when I was playing Fleetwood Mac’s The Dance live album a while back, I thought it was Little Big Town on opener “The Chain.”

At the encore they turned the spotlight on Lori McKenna, who helped write tracks on their most recent albums. Hailing from Stoughton, MA, McKenna is ours as much as she is a nationally recognized singer/songwriter. She was brought on stage to sing a new song “Humble and Kind.”

Just because the show was steeped far more in rock and roll than what most would consider country music didn’t mean it wasn’t enjoyable or a huge disappointment. Did I long for them to grace us with an acoustic set? Yes, I did. But they are still exceptionally talented and perfectly showcased it during their set. Little Big Town worked the stage brilliantly, a job mostly regulated to Sweet who threw many a guitar pick into the crowd and was, no pun intended, sweet to the audience the whole show. I was thrilled that I finally got to them, and it was an added bonus that it occurred at my favorite music venue, a place I would’ve deemed far too small for them at this point in their careers.

Singer/Songwriter Sara Haze opened the show with a thirty-minute set focused on originals and “Riot,” a song she had cut by Rascal Flatts on their latest album. Haze, who had a guy accompanying her on guitar, was very good although a little too indistinctive. Haze also joined Little Big Town on stage during the encore.

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