My Kind of Country

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

Monthly Archives: March 2009

Are record labels stupid, or is it just radio?

radioLately I’ve noticed that the worst songs seem to be picked for release as singles from a number of artists.  Alongside that, labels seem to be increasingly confused about how best to promote albums, with songs being announced as the next single from a given artist, and then hurriedly replaced by something else.  It all seems like a terrible muddle.  What’s going wrong?

Our March spotlight artist Eric Church has released one of the poorest songs on his new album as its lead single.  A particularly egregious example is Tim McGraw.  His label, Curb,  released a ridiculous number of singles – seven – from his last studio album, 2007′s Let It Go.  How, then, have they managed to miss the one song on that set that’s really worth hearing, ‘Between The River And Me’?  George Strait released the unimpressive ‘River Of Love’ as the third single from Troubadour when he could have released the memorably quirky ‘House With No Doors’ or the duet with Patty Loveless on ‘House Of Cash’.  There are plenty more examples.

Trace Adkins and his label have taken something of a middle course with his current album, X.  The two singles released so far, ‘Muddy Water’ and ‘Marry For Money’ are perfectly listenable, but they really aren’t the outstanding tracks, either.  Will anyone who isn’t already a fan ever get the chance to hear great songs like ‘I Can’t Outrun You’, ‘Til The Last Shot’s Fired’, or ‘Sometimes A Man takes A Drink’?  Warner Brothers seems to have abandoned Randy Travis’ Around The Bend in favor of his new hits collection, I Told You So – understandable enough, and to be fair the singles from Around The Bend made no radio impact, but that means they are apparently not even going to try with the stunning ‘You Didn’t Have A Good Time’.

Then last year we saw two of the most commercially successful of today’s artists – Keith Urban and Brad Paisley – release singles taken from older projects rather than either something from their then current album or a new song to herald an upcoming 2009 release.

We’ve also seen record labels second-guessing themselves at the last minute, by not only announcing one song as a single, but going to the trouble and not-inconsiderable expense of making a video for it, and then changing their minds and offering another song as the single instead.  Sometimes they pretend there was never any intention of making the song they have made a video for the official single (as with Eric Church’s ‘Lightning’), but I’m not sure I’m convinced.

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Country Music 101: Dolly Parton — ‘My Tennessee Mountain Home’

My Tennessee Mountain Home, (1972 - RCA Records)

My Tennessee Mountain Home, (1973 - RCA Records)

A recent discussion on The 9513 forums reminded me of an idea we had recently to introduce a new feature, in which we’d pick some albums that we consider to be essential listening for all country music fans, that many new fans may not have had a chance to hear. The idea was to try and post some links to as many songs as possible on the album, to give everyone a chance to listen to them, and then have a discussion about the album.

I thought we’d start with Dolly Parton’s 1973 classic My Tennessee Mountain Home. Long before most of the world had heard of Dolly Parton, she was writing and recording country songs that would prove to be timeless. At the time of this album’s release, she was still struggling to break through as a solo act. Though critically acclaimed, the album sold poorly, much to the disappointment of Dolly and RCA. However, it’s an important album because it is one of the very first country music concept albums, released at a time when the usual approach to making an album was to find two hit singles and surround it with some filler — usually cover versions of other artists’ hits, or lesser quality songs to which the label or producer owned the publishing rights. The album also gives a lot of insight into the extreme poverty of Dolly’s childhood, which is unimaginable to most of us today.

Dolly wrote all of the songs on the album, which was produced by Bob Ferguson, though Porter Wagoner was the uncredited producer of most of Dolly’s work from this era.

Listen and enjoy, and be sure to let us know what you think:

1. The Letter
2. I Remember
3. The Old Black Kettle
4. Daddy’s Working Boots
5. Dr. Robert F. Thomas
6. In The Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)
7. My Tennessee Mountain Home
8. The Wrong Direction Home
9. Back Home
10. The Better Part of Life
11. Down on Music Row

Week ending 3/28/09: #1 this week in country music history

1959: Don’t Take Your Guns to Town — Johnny Cash (Columbia)

1969: Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass — Buck Owens & the Buckeroos (Capitol)

1979: I Just Fall In Love Again — Anne Murray (Capitol)

1989: New Fool at an Old Game — Reba McEntire (MCA)

1999: How Forever Feels – Kenny Chesney (BNA)

Reba McEntire

Reba McEntire

Mixtape Time!

mixtapeI was talking to a friend yesterday morning, and he told me that I need to give him a mixtape so he can “assess my personality”- so I decided to try and make my mixtape to try and encompass all of the music I listen to in just a limited number of tracks, say around 15-20. It was pretty difficult, but I tried to cover the major artists I listen to (Sugarland, Lee Ann Womack, Nickel Creek, Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood, SHeDAISY, etc.) as well as outlying genres beyond country music (Radiohead, Neko Case, Alicia Keys, Jazmine Sullivan, etc.) and I think this is a great set of songs that really gives an intro to my musical tastes- and it was difficult to decide on these songs for sure.

Then I thought it would be interesting to post my mixtape here to display it, and I would like you guys to do the same! You guys can post yours in the comments, mine is just below.

“15 Step” by Radiohead
“Fallin’ “ by Alicia Keys
“Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” by Beyoncé
“Lions, Tigers & Bears” by Jazmine Sullivan
“Rattlin’ Bones” by Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson
“The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” by Kathy Mattea
“Last Call” by Lee Ann Womack
“Fly Like A Bird” by Mariah Carey
“House Of A Thousand Dreams” by Martina McBride
“Coming Back To You” by Melinda Doolittle
“Desperation” by Miranda Lambert
“This Tornado Loves You” by Neko Case
“This Side” by Nickel Creek
“On Your Way Home” by Patty Loveless
“Gravity” by Sara Bareilles
“Don’t Worry ‘Bout A Thing” by SHeDAISY
“Very Last Country Song” by Sugarland
“Three Mississippi” by Terri Clark
“Wrong Side Of Memphis” by Trisha Yearwood

Click the link to hear the song- all of them are last.fm links except “This Tornado Loves You”, which is a youtube video. I hope you enjoy mine and post your own!

Promoting new acts in the digital age

 

Emily West

Emily West

Contrary to conventional wisdom, I do not think that the CD is going to die anytime soon. It is inevitable, however, that CD sales will continue to decline as digital sales increase, and at some yet-to-be-determined point, both will level off and stabilize.

Digital downloads have been a tremendous marketing tool for developing acts and independent labels, who can now release their music to their target audiences without the expense of having to put out a physical product.

That being said, I find the use of digital-only promotion by some of the major labels to be a little questionable. One has to wonder why huge, well-established major labels like Capitol and Sony have chosen to introduce mainstream acts like Emily West and Caitlin & Will via digital EPs, rather than releasing full-length albums on CD. Country music is still at the point where fans who get most of their music from mainstream radio are used to buying CDs at Walmart, instead of downloading them from Amazon or iTunes. While going the digital EP route may make perfect sense for non-mainstream or indie artists, when Capitol or Sony does it, it seems to say that the label lacks faith in the artist’s ability to sell albums.

What’s your take — are digital EPs the wave of the future for new acts, or are major labels doing their artists a disservice by failing to put out a physical product?

CD Giveaway: Eric Church – ‘Carolina’

carolinaUpdate: And the winners are … Caroline and Lanibug – comments number 1 and 8.  I’ll be getting in touch with you via email to get your shipping information – so check those inboxes.  Congratulations to these two ladies, and look for more giveaways to come next month as we have a very special feature planned for our April spotlight artist series.

Two major albums hit the stores this week.  One is Martina McBride’s long-awaited tenth studio album, Shine.  The other is the sophomore album from our March spotlight artist, Eric Church titled Carolina.  C.M. Wilcox (of Country California fame) recently reviewed the album over at The 9513.  So rather than make a futile attempt at following a fabulous writer like C.M. Wilcox and write a review of my own, I just decided to give away the album myself, and let you all make up your own minds about it.  Write your own review, so to speak.

The idea is simple:  comment with your favorite Eric Church song, why you’re a fan of Eric’s, or just tell us why you think you should get a copy of this album.  Two winners will be chosen at random, and each will receive a copy of Eric Church’s Carolina.  Deadline to get your comment posted is Sunday March 29 at 11:59 PM.  Good luck!

And if you just can’t wait, you can pre-order the CD from Eric Church’s official site and even listen to samples of all the tracks. Or you could of course get in your car, go to the local Wal Mart, and just buy the CD that way.

News: New Reba single to premier at ACM Awards

The official single cover for 'Strange' by Reba.

The official single cover for 'Strange' by Reba.

Superstar Reba McEntire will debut her highly-anticipated new single, “Strange,” on the Academy of Country Music Awards live on CBS, Sunday, April 5th at 8 pm ET/ 7 pm CT from the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

Leading up to the performance, Reba fans can hear a sneak peak of “Strange” via a special widget available at Reba’s Valory Records webpage. The widget also includes a countdown to the ACM Awards, a video message from Reba and a link to pre-order “Strange.” (It works with Facebook, Myspace, Blogger, and lots of other social networking sites, but not WordPress, so I can’t embed it and share it with you here.) “Strange” will be available for purchase through Bandbox on The Valory Music Co. website immediately following Reba’s performance on Sunday evening. “Strange” will also be available on iTunes beginning Monday, April 6.

“Strange,” which arrives at country radio on April 6th, is the lead single from Reba’s first solo studio album in six years, as well as her first album on her new label The Valory Music Co.

Reba signed with The Valory Music Co. in November 2008. The move reunited the multimedia entertainer with industry leader Scott Borchetta, now President & CEO of Big Machine Records and sister label The Valory Music Co.

Reba’s new studio album will follow in late summer. One of the most successful female recording artists in history, Reba has sold over 55 million albums worldwide and her last 13 studio albums have all achieved platinum-plus status.

Click here to listen to a 30 second sample of the new single, ‘Strange’.

In memory of Dan Seals

dansealsCountry and pop star Dan Seals passed away last night, March 25, due to complications from cancer.  As one half of the pop duo England Dan and John Ford Coley, he charted five top 10 pop hits, including three #1′s.  In 1983, he started charting country singles.  Dan Seals went on to become one of the most successful country radio artists of the 1980s – with nine consecutive #1′s between 1985 and 1988.  A great artist who recorded some pop-country and some very traditional country records too, Dan Seals has been largely forgotten lately.  I am guilty of overlooking some of the great songs he left us.  So here’s my tribute to Dan Seals.  Three of my favorite Dan Seals songs.  Enjoy.  And rest in peace, Mr. Dan Seals.

I’m going to stop at three, but I also recommend ‘Three Time Loser’‘ and ‘Big Wheels In The Moonlight.

Visit the official Dan Seals site for a message from his family.

And you can go to the Dan Seals Last FM Page to listen to full tracks of all his biggest hits.

Single Review: Eric Church – ‘Lightning’

ericchurchFrom his debut album, Eric Church’s ‘Lightning’ has a strange story behind the actual release of the song.  It was supposedly released as a single.  Then, word spread that it was simply an album track with a music video.  At the time, Church said of the song, “This is one of those topics that there will always be disagreements on, and that’s okay. That’s what I do – make people think, make people talk,”  The VP of marketing at Capitol Cindy Mabe said this about the decision to release the video, but not push the song at radio. “‘Lightning’ is the song that got Eric his publishing deal and ultimately his record deal. It represents everything that makes Eric unique…Video has the ability to translate differently than radio,” Mabe added. “We want people to watch this video and feel the pain and the regret of this man who has committed this horrendous crime and yet, somewhere inside of themselves, understand how they could end up in the same place.”

To me, the song can – and does – stand on its own without the video.  The twist on this ballad about a man sentenced to death is that the condemned man is painted as the protagonist.  It’s the murderer we feel sympathy for.  The lyrics tell of his remorse, ‘Every life owes a death/That’s what the Bible says/I owe mine to this state/For shootin’ that boy to death’.  The video depicts this remorse well with shots of the headlines the killer has kept, tucked inside his Bible.  The lyric even goes so far as to justify the narrator’s reason for commiting his crime, ‘A hungry blue eyed baby cryin’/Made me rob that store’.  A shot of the blue eyed baby, presumably the narrator’s daughter, is shown just as Church sings that line.  

With this video and song, Eric Church succeeds in painting a picture of a condemned man who is truly sorry for what he’s done, and succeeds in making me feel sympathy for the man.  One could argue this song is either pro or con in the capital punishment argument.  And I think that is the song’s best quality.  It tells a story with vivid imagery, but does it in a way that’s not politically driven – and with this topic, that’s quite an accomplishment in my eyes.  The fact that the lyric is from a first-person perspective probably leads us to identify with a condemned man more so than a third-person account because we get to hear the man’s thoughts.  This way, we know he’s truly sorry.  But, he knows the punishment fits the crime.

I can understand why this song got Eric Church a publishing deal.  It’s really a stand-out, and one of a kind.  And it’s the song that got me to finally give Eric Church a second listen.  The only problem is that it lies somewhere in the middle of a classic dark country song like ‘Delia’s Gone’ and a saccharine love song like ‘Love, Me’ from Collin Raye.  To quote The Simpsons, ‘too smart for the corn dog crowd, too dumb for the bagel crowd’.  I think that’s apt.

B+

Watch the music video for Eric Church – ‘Lightning’.

Album Review: Pam Gadd – ‘Benefit Of Doubt’

pamgadd1I like a little bluegrass mixed in with the straight country in my musical diet, and I was pleased to hear that Pam Gadd was releasing another album.  I first came across Pam back in 1990, when she was the more prominent of the two lead singers of Wild Rose, a bluegrass-infused all-female country band who released three albums on Universal and Capitol Records, and received a Grammy instrumental nomination.  She is not as productive as some artists, having recorded just two previous solo efforts, the excellent The Road Home on Vanguard in 1997, and the not-quite-as-good The Time Of Our Lives in 2001.  Musically, Pam falls in the hinterland where acoustic country overlaps with bluegrass.  Her voice is strong and distinctive with characterful inflections.

Although there are no instrumental tracks, there is some excellent acoustic playing throughout, which complements the material rather than overwhelming it.  Pam herself plays banjo, joined by former Wild Rose bandmate Wanda Vick on dobro, Vick’s husband Mark Burchfield on bass (except on ‘Farewell Wagon Master’), Bryan Sutton on guitar, Andy Leftwich on fiddle and mandolin, and Aubrey Haynie on mandolin.

The tone for the album is set with the opening track, a lively and beautifully played cover of bluegrass great Jimmy Martin’s ‘Hold Whatcha Got’, a song which will be more familiar to country fans as the song which lent the title to Ricky Skaggs’s late 80s album Comin’ Home To Stay.

Pam refers back to previous aspects of her career in a number of ways on Benefit Of Doubt.  The harmony singers include Dale Ann Bradley, with whom Pam worked in the New Coon Creek Girls, another all-female group, but this time a straight bluegrass one.  Wild Rose’s drummer Nancy Given Gardner, also sings harmony co-produces the album with Pam, although she only plays tambourine on one track (‘Applejack’), as there is no room for drums on the record.  Two of the songs Wild Rose recorded are given a new lease of life, namely ‘Home Sweet Highway’, which was one of the group’s better songs, and ‘Hit The Highway’.  I’m not a big fan of repeating songs previously recorded by the same artist, but reviving two songs after 20 years, on an album with 14 tracks is not unacceptable.  Another song, ‘Wrong Wrong Wrong’, was apparently recorded by the group but never released; it’s a catchy, medium-up-tempo number with a funky feel, which would have suited the Wild Rose vibe.

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Album Review: Martina McBride – ‘Shine’

image-11For her tenth studio album, Martina McBride decided it was time to switch out Paul Worley, whom she had been working with since what seems to be the dawn of time. His replacement? Dan Huff. Just the sound of that name triggers many alarms in country fans all over the world. The result is, as expected, one of Martina’s poppiest albums, but also, shockingly one might add, a really good one.

The set opens with the 80′s rock-esque track “Wrong Baby Wrong Baby Wrong”, an empowering theme about living life to the fullest. What’s surprising is that it’s actually really well written, as opposed to the new Jo Dee Messina single. Martina’s also oddly “silent”, meaning that she’s not belting all the time. This actually goes for the entire album, with a few exceptions, one being the second track, “I Just Call You Mine”, a big pop number. Martina could possibly take this all the way to #1 on the AC charts, because this song isn’t just pop, it’s good pop.

The next track, “Sunny Side Up” is a rather bland track not flattered by Huff’s production. Martina manages to sound interesting however, so it’s not a total loss. It’s followed by another song “Walk Away”, that’s just as suited for the AC charts as “I Just Call You Mine”, but just like that song, it’s also really good.

The real shocker on this album is track five – ‘I’m Trying’, which is a haunting song about a couple dealing with a man’s alcoholism. The track, which is almost acoustic, shocks on behalf of Dan Huff because of the sparse production, but also on behalf of Martina, whose singing has never been more nuanced and restrained.

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The Seven Year Ache

rosannecashI was a senior in high school in 2002.  It was a cold gray January day in Ohio, and I was driving home from school all by myself that day.  For reasons I’ve forgotten, none of my regular car pool buddies were with me that afternoon.  I was what I would call a casual fan of country music at the time.  My CD player regularly spun really mainstream acts like Garth Brooks and Reba, and I had a passing affection for Brooks & Dunn, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and a few others.  But I was hardly the country fan I am today.

That afternoon, a song came on my radio that forever changed how I perceived country music.  One of my local stations (I get 3 country stations from around the tri-state) used to play lots of album cuts in the afternoon and ask listeners to call in with their comments.  Well, this day the D.J. (or the program director) decided to test Trisha Yearwood’s recording of the Rosanne Cash classic ‘Seven Year Ache’, a track from 2001′s Inside Out.  Rosanne Cash sings harmony and even takes the lead for a couple lines in the second verse here – and I am a big fan of her version too.  However, the Yearwood version brought me to the dance, so it’s still the one I dance with most often.

The song kicks off with its signature guitar riff – which is catchy in its own right.  But, this was the first time a song had ever really grabbed me with its lyrics and drew me in.  When the song was over and I learned it was actually a classic country song Trisha Yearwood had covered, it was then that I decided to dig deeper into the catalogs of country music’s artists and seek out more gems like this one.

I was instantly taken with the protagonist in this song.  The verses paint a vivid picture in my imagination – like a  mini music video playing inside my head as the story unfolds.  I see a woman at home alone, sitting on the edge of the bed, lost in thought.  I see a man in a seedy dive, with all the characters that usually inhabit the places.  And I wonder, just like this woman does, why?  Why has the man lost interest in his wife?

Rosanne reportedly wrote the song after a fight with then-husband Rodney Crowell.  Heartache and anguish are often the sources of life’s greatest inspiration.  The songwriter herself says of the lyric:  “That’s one of those gifts you only get once in life.  I wrote it in about an hour. I just poured my soul out into the song.”  She bared a lot of herself in the process, but gave us, in my opinion, one of the greatest lyrics of our time.

It’s been over seven years now since I first heard these two verses and chorus, and I still haven’t had a single yearwoodinsideout1song affect me as much as this one.  Some have come close, but just like a first love, my introduction to true lyrical genius was a once-in-a-lifetime experience – but one I’ve spent the past seven years trying to recapture.  So goes the seven year ache.

Listen to Trisha Yearwood (with Rosanne Cash) – ‘Seven Year Ache’

Week ending 3/21/09: #1 This Week in Country Music History

1959: Don’t Take Your Guns to Town — Johnny Cash (Columbia)

1969: Only the Lonely — Sonny James (Capitol)

1979: Golden Tears — Dave & Sugar (RCA)

1989: From a Jack to a King — Ricky Van Shelton (Columbia)

1999: You Were Mine — Dixie Chicks (Monument)

Ricky Van Shelton

Ricky Van Shelton

Album Review: Dallas Wayne – ‘I’ll Take The Fifth’

Dallas Wayne, I'll Take The FifthDallas Wayne is probably best known these days as a satellite radio DJ, but over the past ten years he has produced a handful of excellent country albums of his own.  The latest is I’ll Take The Fifth, released with little fanfare on March 3rd by Smith Entertainment, which seems to be basically a self-release with distribution.  Dallas has a deep, booming bass-baritone voice which is very distinctive, and his approach is pretty solid honky-tonk country with an edge.  He is also an excellent songwriter, who has composed all the songs on this release, more than half of them solo.  They vary from good to great, although perhaps none is as unforgettable as the controversial title track of Dallas’ last album, ‘I’m Your Biggest Fan’. If I have a complaint concerning the material, it is that several of the tracks on I’ll Take The Fifth have appeared on previous albums.

One of these is probably the track most likely to attract outside attention, as Dallas reinvents the thoroughly enjoyable ‘Straighten Up And Lie Right’, previously recorded on 1998′s The Invisible Man, as a duet with Sunny Sweeney.  The song works perfectly as a duet with Sunny cast as the sceptical wife (threatening to “loosen up those teeth you’ve been lying through”) and Dallas as the guy failing to offer an imaginative alibi if he can’t manage a convincing one, and the two singers’ voices contrast very effectively.  ‘I’m Gonna Break Some Promises Tonight’, another excellent honky-tonker, has a slightly heavier production here than it did on 2001′s Here I Am In Dallas, with sax and horns.  I like the pacy swinging feel of ‘If These Walls Could Cry’ from the same album (and it’s a well-constructed lyric), but redoing it feels a little pointless.  ‘Invisible Man’ is probably the most dispensable re-cut here, as it drags melodically, but even this has some good lines (by leaving, “I’ve finally found a way to make you happy, funny, I’ve been tryin’ for years”).

The other misstep comes with the closing track, ‘Something Inside’, where Dallas overdoes the deep growl of his bottom register, taking it a key too low and sounding flat.  It was probably a deliberate choice, to give a doom-laden feel to a rather depressing song, but I didn’t care for the effect.

A number of the songs (including the aforementioned ‘Straighten Up And Lie Right’) are co-written with alt-country artist Robbie Fulks, who produced one of Dallas’s earlier albums, and these are among the best songs on this record.  My favorite was ‘I Never Did Like Planes’, which sees the protagonist literally flying away from a failed relationship in Tennessee, with some beautifully observed lyrics and a very singable tune.  The chorus runs, “I never did like planes, but I’m not afraid to fly, I guess we’d all have wings if God loved goodbyes, I can’t believe that we’re all through, I never did like planes but I sure (still) love you.”  This could easily be a hit single for a traditionally-minded artist.  The pair’s ‘Crawlin’ Is Easy’ is another very good song as a husband sees the error of his ways (“when a man is wrong he knows he’s wrong”), with a solid hook (“when you ain’t got a leg to stand on”) and good tune.  ‘Fixin’ To Fall’ is the least remarkable of the collaborations with Fulks, with some rather silly lyrics and forced rhymes (“I’m fixin’, to fall head first for a sweet little vixen” is not even the silliest line) but it has a nice groove and is fun.

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Just a recommendation …

terriclark1I’ve written about this song on various occasions before in comments on other sites.  But, here is my official recommendation for ‘Nashville Girls’. The track was recorded back in March 2008 for Terri’s album, In My Next Life – scheduled to be released April 29, 2008.  It features guest vocals from Reba, Sara Evans, and Martina McBride.

Steel guitars kick off this clever novelty number all about Nashville girls, how they’ll never go out of style and why they ‘have big hair for a reason’ even imploring them to ‘tease them curls, jack em up to Jesus’.  We all cried when Tammy Wynette died – and Terri admits it here.  And how dare her L.A. friends laugh at that.  So here’s to Loretta, Dolly, Patsy, Emmylou, Jessi, June, Tammy, and all the other fine ladies that made country music great.  How could they go out of style?

The singles from the album, ‘Dirty Girl’ and ‘In My Next Life’ barely cracked the top 40 on the U.S. country charts peaking at #30 and #36, respectively.  However, both did well in Clark’s native homeland of Canada.   The former going all the way to #1.  So, in November 2008, the singer announced she was leaving BNA Records to pursue her career in Canada and hinted at the prospect of creating her own label.  Maybe the song will surface one day on her future albums.  Until then, here’s my recommended track for the weekend.

Listen to Terri Clark with Reba, Sara Evans, and Martina McBride – ‘Nashville Girls’

Country’s greatest duos

 

Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner

Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner

Few things satisfy a country music fan more than when two of one’s favorite solo performers announce plans to go into the studio and record together.  Country music has a long and rich history of producing collaborations with such great chemistry that they threatened to overshadow the solo work of the same artists. Perhaps that’s why we don’t see country music stars pairing up to do duets on a regular basis anymore. Nowadays, Tim and Faith, or Reba and Vince, or Kenny and Dolly, will make guest appearances on one another’s albums but they generally don’t make duet albums anymore – or if they do, it’s a one time or very occasional special event.

Today, a duo is more likely to be two performers that perform exclusively together as an act – i.e., Brooks & Dunn, Sugarland, or Joey + Rory, as opposed to the old days when Conway and Loretta, George and Tammy, and Porter and Dolly regularly released duet albums concurrently with their solo work. Growing up I can remember listening to such classic pairings as Waylon & Willie, Waylon and Jessi, Kenny Rogers and Dottie West, and David Frizzell and Shelly West, in addition to the aforementioned Conway and Loretta, and George and Tammy. And then later, there were duos that collaborated less frequently, like Kenny and Dolly, Travis Tritt and Marty Stuart. Most of the Porter and Dolly duets were out of print and off the radio by the time I got into country music, but when some of their work was finally released on CD, it was like finding a long lost treasure.

Who are some of your favorite duos?

To twang or not to twang?

sugarland3It’s a generations-old question.  Is country music country enough these days?  And when does the want to go mainstream override the need to remain traditional? Remixing country songs for pop radio is certainly nothing new.  But it’s a subject that seems to be coming up more and more these days.  Taylor Swift’s done it, and Carrie Underwood’s reps refuse to.  Lee Ann Womack took her remix of ‘I Hope You Dance’ all the way to the Nobel Prize ceremony, and Shania Twain sold millions of albums worldwide with remixed singles.  

Sugarland is now on an extended tour of the UK and Europe.  And in an effort to sell their music over there and get it played on mainstream radio stations, they’ve been asked to take the ‘twang’ out of their hit ‘All I Want to Do’.  To me, the only twang in that song is the vocal of Jennifer Nettles.  So, is Kristian Bush going to sing lead now in an effort to take the Georgia accent from the song?  I certainly hope not.  

Sugarland’s latest album – Love On The Inside, which I would categorize as more acoustic pop than country anyway, is probably the most ‘country’ of their three releases, but only in the loosest sense of the word.  The most country instument on the album is the voice of Jennifer Nettles.  So why the need to remix the songs? Nettles attempts to explain the ‘disassociation’ in an interview with London’s Financial Times:

“As opposed to ‘disassociate’, I would say it’s more to open us up, to say: ‘hey this is what we do, we love all kinds of music and we play all kinds of music’. We embrace it, and I think our fans do too. We want to broaden ourselves and quite frankly we want other people to hear our music and see how it’s accepted.”

I am still in the dark about the logistics behind this thinking though.  Broadening the fan-base and the visibility of country music sounds like a great idea to me.  But when you have to take out the very elements that make it country music to sell it as mainstream music in another nation, doesn’t that defeat the purpose?  Aren’t you then, by default, just selling American pop to an overseas audience?  Dolly Parton (who has always been as much a pop star and cultural icon as a country star) recently wrapped up a very successful tour of Europe without changing her sound.

What do you think?  Is it necessary to tweak the music to sell it to larger numbers? Should acts like Sugarland and Taylor Swift change the sound of their music to appease the European audience?

Album Review: Joey Martin – ‘Strong Enough To Cry’

joeymartin1Joey + Rory were my favorite duo on last year’s Can You Duet, but I felt a little guilty about hoping they would win, because I couldn’t help feeling Joey was really a solo singer, with Rory just there to support her. I would have been perfectly happy if she had built on the exposure of the TV show to release a solo record, but of course the pair went on to record one of the best albums of 2008 in The Life Of A Song.

Before Can You Duet, though, Joey was indeed a solo singer. Before she married Rory, she was signed for a while to Sony Records, who dropped her without releasing any material, and in 2005 she recorded a solo album. It was originally released on the couple’s own Giantslayer Records; available as a digital download after Can You Duet was aired; and when Joey + Rory were signed to promote retailer Overstock, they cannily managed to persuade the store to stock the album in CD format.

I have just managed to get hold of a copy, and I’m not disappointed. The songs are not as good as those on the exceptional The Life Of A Song, but there is a pretty good selection, and overall this is a good album by one of the best female country singers to emerge in the last decade. Joey has one of those voices that could really only be country, with a distinctive timbre.

The album kicks off with a few bars from the classic ‘Have I Told You Lately That I Love You’, sung by Joey’s mother June Martin (who has a pretty good, slightly old-fashioned voice) accompanied by her father Jack. Further snippets from this recording are inserted between a few of the other tracks. Technically, the album starts with Joey inviting her parents to play the song, and ends with them all chatting and giggling in the studio. This was probably intended to underscore the charming home-made feel of the project, but comes across as a little self-indulgent, and by the second listen I was distinctly irritated. This aside, there is a strong family element to the record. Although Rory does not sing on it, the harmony singers include June Martin and Rory’s daughter Heidi, and even Rufus, the family dog, gets in on the act. Rory produces (with one Bill McDermott), and of course contributes his songwriting talent.

The best songs are the title track and ‘See You There’, which are the first (real) track and the penultimate one. ‘Strong Enough To Cry’ is an excellent song co-written by Rory with veteran songwriter Max D. Barnes, and showcases Joey’s excellent voice; this cut could easily be a hit single. ‘See You There’ is almost too personal, and may be too much for some, as it tells the story of the early death of Joey’s brother; some of the detail feels rather like trespassing on someone else’s private grief, and some of the rhymes feel a little too obvious, but the song has a real emotional impact. Joey and Rory wrote this song together, as they did ‘Nothing To Remember’, a charming song with a pretty tune and a good hook (“I’d rather have something to forget than nothing to remember”).

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Single Review: Caitlin & Will – ‘Address In The Stars’

caitlinwillSeason 2 of Can You Duet starts this June. And the first season winners Caitlin & Will still don’t have a single at radio yet.  The song ‘Even Now’ was released to iTunes last year – and was slated as a radio single for this year. But apparently, the radio programmers decided this tune was the better of the two.  As Caitlin Lynn said over at Country Universe on Leeann Ward’s review of this song:

Here is your truth…Sony, nor did Will or I switch our single. RADIO switched our single.  We went out on our radio tour the whole month of February. If you dont know how it works I’ll tell you…you go into a conference room or sometimes a kitchen with the Program Director and or Music Director (Sometimes they bring in staff and sometimes they dont) We play 3-5 songs for them, try to get to know them as best we can in under an hour and then leave to go do it all over again. Sometimes 5 stations in one day. At every station we would play Even Now and Address in the Stars. We gave them the single to play which was ‘Even Now’ and they said “No” we are not playing ‘Even Now’ we are playing ‘Address in the Stars’.

I made no secret in my review of ‘Even Now’, I think it’s one of the best songs to come out of Nashville in quite a while.  So, why the radio programmers decided ‘Address In The Stars’ is the better choice for the lead-single is still kind of a mystery to me.  Lyrically, it’s basically a re-write of LeAnn Rimes’ ‘Probably Wouldn’t Be This Way’.  Word is, Caitlin was inspired to write it after losing an aunt to breast cancer.  But does the song really hold up on its own without knowing the backstory?  No.

The song starts off simple enough with its piano intro and Caitlin brilliantly delivering the lines.  (She’s a modern-day Trisha Yearwood – a master of interpretation from the very beginning.) Then the chorus starts bombarding us with a wall of sound.  Caitlin’s vocal is never lost in all this sonic mess though.  She possesses one of those rare, instantly identifiable voices, and it’s plenty big enough to outshine even the glossiest production.  I’m a big fan of this duo.  But the more I think about it, this is exactly the kind of song I would expect radio to latch onto instead of an intelligent lament like ‘Even Now’.  Here’s hoping the pair succeeds anyway.

C+

Listen to ‘Address In The Stars’ at the official Caitlin & Will site.

Remembering March 16, 1991

rebapeoplecoverIn the early morning hours of March 16, 1991, a plane crashed into Otay Mountain in southern California. The crash, which left no survivors, occurred shortly after the Hawker Sidley aircraft had taken off from Brown Field, a private airport about 15 miles southeast of San Diego.  In addition to the pilot and co-pilot, Jim Hammon, Reba’s tour manager, and band members Kirk Cappello and Joey Cigainero, keyboardists; Paula Kaye Evans, background vocalist; Michael Thomas and Terry Jackson, guitarists; Tony Saputo, drummer, and Chris Austin, a vocalist who also played fiddle and acoustic guitar, were lost.

Reba herself had spent the night in San Diego to rest up and planned to meet her band the following night for a show in Indiana.  In the aftermath of the tragedy, she was scheduled to perform on the Academy Awards that year, only 9 days after the crash.  She sang the song ‘I’m Checkin’ Out’ from the Meryl Streep flick Postcards from the Edge.  Many music insiders criticized her for going back to work so quickly.

In the People magazine exclusive interview, she explained her decision to go forward with her career:

We were wondering what to do. I was wanting to cancel everything until July. I said, “I’m just not going to go back out there. It’s too much, I can’t do it without them.” I told Debbie I had to make a decision. And she looked at me, just like Jim would have done, and said, ‘Are you thinking about quitting?’ ”

I said, “Well, no, but I don’t know when I can go back.” And she said, “Jim Hammon worked all this time to help get you where you are today. He’d kick your butt if you thought about quitting.” And I hugged her neck and said, “I needed that, you’re right.” I know Jim would tell me, “Now, Reba, you know those fans expect that out of you, and you can’t quit; you’ve worked too hard and too long, and you’ve got to get back up there.”

I’ve got a very good calm that Jim wants me to go back out there. I know Kirk and Joey and Terry and Tony and Chris and Michael and Paula Kaye, they’d want me to, too. So my first time to perform again is on the Academy Awards, and I’m going to sing a song called “I’m Checkin’ Out” from Postcards from the Edge. I’m going to do it for the band. They’re checking out. They’ve got a new place to dwell.

formybrokenheartReba then channeled her pain into her next album, the landmark release For My Broken Heart.  The album is a collection of songs of loss, loneliness, heartbreak, and pain.  And the grief surrounding the recording can be heard on every track, but particularly the album closer, ‘If I Had Only Known’.  Reba dedicated the entire album to her lost loved ones, but this song more than any other addresses the sorrow of losing someone all too quickly without ever saying goodbye:  ‘If I had only known/It was my last night by your side/I’d pray a miracle would stop the dawn/And when you smile at me/I would look into your eyes/And make sure you know my love for you goes on and on/If I had only known’.

To me, this is the mark of a true artist:  one who can face adversity and the worst of heartache and then turn that tragedy into a timeless work of art.  The loss of these 8 talented musicians was a blow to the entire country music community, but their legacy lives on.  Every time someone takes solace in the songs on For My Broken Heart, their memory lives on.

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