My Kind of Country

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

Monthly Archives: December 2010

Happy New Year from My Kind of Country!

It’s been 2 years and 25 days since we launched this little site.  In that time, we’ve generated 7,364 comments on our 1,433 posts from some 823,000 hits.  I’m sure I speak for my co-writers when I say it’s been a great run and we certainly look forward to many more years, comments, and posts as we approach another cycle of months.  And just in case we don’t say it enough: thanks for stopping by and reading what we’re writing.  We certainly hope you’ll stick with us these next 2 years and beyond.

For our last post of 2010, I’ve chosen one of my favorite YouTube videos of Dolly Parton.  It’s from the Tonight Show with Jay Leno sometime in October 2003, and Dolly takes a turn on the catapult to launch the item of her choice.  This clip includes the usual charming Dolly Parton interview too.  Enjoy!

From all of us at My Kind of Country: Have a safe and Happy New Year!

Classic Rewind: Gene Watson – ‘No One Will Ever Know’

Some hidden treasures of 2010

I restricted my top 10 singles list for the year to tracks which were formally released as singles, but a lot of the best music of the year was hidden away on albums. So to finish up our review of the year in country music, here are my favorite tracks from albums released this year. I’ve restricted the selection to one per artist (not counting duets), and I’ve excluded the albums which made it to my top 10 albums list to avoid too much duplication and to prevent the list being too long.

20. Trace Adkins – ‘Still Love You’ (Cowboy’s Back In Town)
Moving to Toby Keith’s label seems to have encouraged the talented but often artistically misguided Trace Adkins to give in to his worst instincts, but there is still some decent material on his latest album. This ballad swearing enduring love (written by love song specialist Jeff Bates with Robert Arthur and Kirk Roth) is a little heavily orchestrated, but has a great, understated vocal from one of the best voices around. It’s a shame the rest of the album wasn’t up to the same standard.

19. Gretchen Wilson – ‘I’m Only Human’ (I Got Your Country Right Here)
Gretchen has just scored an unexpected Grammy nomination for ‘I’d Love To Be Your Last’ from her self-released I Got Your Country Right Here, prompting general bewilderment from country fans online. But while that track isn’t bad, this song is rather better, a plaintive bar-room tale of a woman trying to resist the temptation of dalliance with a married man, which Gretchen wrote with Vicky McGehee, Dave Berg and Rivers Rutherford.

18. Jon Wolfe – ‘Play Me Something I Can Drink To’ (It All Happened In A Honky Tonk)
If you think Easton Corbin sounds like George Strait, you need to check out the Strait stylings of Jon Wolfe on his strong independent debut album. I particularly liked this classic country style bar room song (written by Kevin Brandt and Bobby Terry) about a guy seeking to get his broken heart temporarily cured by whiskey and a jukebox stocked with Hank and Jones.

17. Jamie Richards – ‘Half Drunk’ (Sideways)
A great song from a Texas-based artist about trying to get over an ex by drinking, but running out of money halfway through.

16. Miss Leslie – ‘Turn Around’ (Wrong Is What I Do Best)
A lovely steel-led heartbreak ballad written by honky tonker Miss Leslie herself, but sounding as though it could be a forgotten classic from the 60s.

15. Shawn Camp – ‘Clear As A Bell’ (1994)
This lovely song was my favorite from Shawn’s “lost” album which was resurrected from the Warner Bros vaults this year.

14. Zac Brown Band – ‘Martin’ (You Get What You Give)
Jamey Johnson personified a guitar in the title track of The Guitar Song, but Zac Brown sang a love song about one on their latest release. Charming and unusual.

13. Gary Allan – ‘No Regrets’ (Get Off On The Pain)
I’ve been disappointed by Gary’s musical direction over the past couple of albums, but the heartbreaking honesty of this touching song expressing his feelings about his late wife (which he wrote with the help of Jon Randall and Jaime Hanna) was a reminder of his excellent early work.

12. Jolie Holliday – ‘I’ll Try Anything’ (Lucky Enough)
A gorgeous cover of a sad song previously recorded by its co-writer Amber Dotson about struggling to cope with lost love. I can’t find a link for you to listen to the studio version, but here she is singing it live (after a nice version of ‘San Antonio Rose’. And as a bonus, here she is singing ‘Golden Ring’ live with Randy Travis.

11. Curly Putman – ‘Green Green Grass Of Home’ (Write ‘Em Sad – Sing ‘Em Lonesome)
The songwriter’s own version of his classic prisoner’s dream is as convincing as any version I’ve herd of this celebrated song.

10. Toby Keith – ‘Sundown‘ (Bullets In The Gun, deluxe version)
Toby is always a bit hit and miss for me, but this surprisingly restrained live version of the sultry folk-country classic is a definite hit.

9. Darin & Brooke Aldridge – ‘The Last Thing On His Mind’ (Darin & Brooke Aldridge)
I loved this husband and wife team’s sweet bluegrass album and this somber Easter song (written by Dennis K Duff) was the highlight for me.

8. Teea Goans – ‘I Don’t Do Bridges Anymore’ (The Way I Remember It)
Teea Goans’ retro independent release featured this lovely classic-styled ballad, written by Jim McBride, Don Poythress and Jerry Salley. Her voice is sweet but not that distinctive, but this breakup song is definitely worth hearing.

7. Catherine Britt – ‘Sweet Emmylou’ (Catherine Britt)
The Australian singer’s latest album was a bit hit and miss for me, but there were some very strong moments, including Catherine’s lovely version of her tribute to the healing power of the music of Emmylou Harris, which she wrote some years ago with Rory Feek. It has been released as a single in Australia.

6. Bill Anderson – ‘The Songwriters’ (Songwriter)
My favorite comic song of the year is the legendary Bill Anderson’s celebration (more or less) of songwriters’ lives, complete with the protagonist’s mother’s preference for a career as drug dealer for her son. Bill isn’t much of a singer, but this song (co-written with Gordie Sampson)is irresistible.

5. Randy Kohrs – ‘Die On The Vine’ (Quicksand)
One of the first songs to grab my attention this year was this lovely song warning a son against taking refuges from trouble in alcohol, written by famed dobro player and songwriter Randy Kohrs with Dennis Goodwin.

4. James Dupre – ‘Ring On The Bar’ (It’s All Happening)
I loved this sensitively sung low-key mid-tempo Byron Hill/Brent Baxter song about a man trying to figure out what happened to his marriage from youtube discovery James’s independent debut album, produced by Kyle Lehning.

3. Lee Ann Womack – ‘Liars Lie’ (Country Strong soundtrack)
I’m beginning to get impatient for a new album from Lee Ann, and this soundtrack cut has really whetted my appetite. This excellent song, written by Sally Barris, Morgane Hayes and Liz Rose, and the combination of Lee Ann’s beautiful vocals and the harmony from Charlie Pate, a pure country production (thanks to Lee Ann’s husband Frank Liddell and Chuck Ainlay), and a fine song make this a sheer delight.

2. Chris Young – ‘Chiseled In Stone’ (Voices EP)
Song for song, this young neotraditionalist’s three song EP of covers was the most impressive release of the year, allowing Chris to exercise his outstanding baritone voice on really top quality material – something sadly missing on his two full length albums. This Vern Gosdin song was my favorite of the three, but his takes on Keith Whitley’s ‘I’m Over You’ and John Anderson’s ‘Swingin’ were also great.

1. Alan Jackson ft Lee Ann Womack – ‘Til The End’ (Freight Train)
This particular treasure is not very well hidden, as although it hasn’t been released as a single it gained sufficient attention to get a well-deserved nomination as Musical Event of the Year at the recent CMA awards. This exquisite reading of another Vern Gosdin classic was by far the best thing on Alan’s latest (and possibly last) album for Arista.

Do you have any special favorite album tracks from this year which haven’t gained the attention they deserve?

Classic Rewind: Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland pays tribute to Reba – ‘The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia’

Classic Rewind: Porter Wagoner – ‘Green, Green Grass Of Home’

J.R. Journey’s Top 10 Albums of 2010

So many of my perennial favorites released new material this year that no room was left on the top 10 for new faces.  It wouldn’t have been hard to double this list as I bought twice as much music as last year, and had even more than that sent to me, and I found myself enjoying more and more of it as the months went on.  This always makes listing your favorites in order a task to undertake.  So this year, I  simply ranked my albums list according to their plays on my iPod and the 2 media players on my computers.  So here then, are my favorite and my most-played albums of 2010.

10. Alan Jackson – Freight Train

The ever-dependable Jackson released one of the best sets of music Nashville offered this year. Too bad more of these songs weren’t released to radio since this is likely the best Alan Jackson album most people will never hear.  If you haven’t yet, listen to ‘Tail Lights Blue’, ‘Till The End’, and the title track.

9. Sarah Buxton – Sarah Buxton

Four years in the making, Sarah Buxton’s first full-length album was finally released earlier this year, though 6 of the songs were released digitally in 2007. In addition to Buxton’s original take on the Keith Urban hit ‘Stupid Boy’, this disc features the raspy-voiced singer-songwriter’s four top 40 radio hits, and will likely continue to be mined for future hits by more A-listers.

8. Willie Nelson – Country Music

Nelson’s sedate take on these country standards and other songs from the Great American Songbook, including more than one hymn, are each one sublime.  My personal favorites are ‘Pistol Packin’ Mama’, ‘You Done Me Wrong’, and an almost-hushed take on ‘Satisfied Mind’.

7. Reba – All The Women I Am

Aside from that ghastly first single, Reba’s newest album is either half-full of good songs or half-empty, depending on how you look at it . Either way, the few tracks that do hit home pack a mighty punch. ‘The Day She Got Divorced’ stands as McEntire’s finest recording in years, while the weeping ‘Cry’ and the horn-infused title track remind us there’s still a gifted vocalist behind all that makeup and leather.

6. Coal Miner’s Daughter: Tribute to Loretta Lynn

Tribute albums? Meh. That’s usually my reaction too. But very rarely does a multi-artist collection offer so many one-time gems. (Think: Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles.) The usual suspects are all here – Reba’s awesome slice of western swing with ‘If You’re Not Gone Too Long’ is flawless – while even the likely Faith Hill and the unlikely Kid Rock step up to competence with Loretta Lynn’s  material. Added kudos for pairing Lynn with Miranda Lambert for the title track.

5. Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song

Jamey Johnson’s epic follow up to his career-making That Lonesome Song doesn’t pack the knockout punch of that first record. Instead, these 25 songs deliver their message with subtle dark overtones, and the stories told here are the kind you just can’t make up. Check out ‘Lonely At The Top’, ‘Can’t Cash My Checks’, and ‘Playin’ The Part’.

4. Gary Allan – Get Off On The Pain

Allan’s eighth album is another installment of the gritty, pathos-infused West Coast country that only Gary Allan is doing. These songs find a man addressing the harsher realities of everyday life; lyrics driven all the way home with Allan’s competent vocal work throughout. Favorites include ‘Kiss Me When I’m Down’, ‘Along The Way’, and ‘No Regrets’.

3. Marty Stuart – Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions

Stuart’s throwback to country’s first golden era is highlighted mostly by warm musicianship, which features up heaping dollops of fiddle and steel while keeping that signature Bakersfield-meets Mississippi sound that made Stuart’s early recordings so engaging. Choice cuts include the high-octane ‘Bridge Washed Out’ and ‘I Run To You’ with Connie Smith.

2. Chely Wright – Lifted Off The Ground

Lifted off the Ground finds Chely Wright ably making the leap to a mature, serious, and literate artist in the vein of Mary Chapin Carpenter and Rosanne Cash, with a brilliant blend of country and folk with tinges of rock and pop, aided in part by Rodney Crowell, who urged Wright to pursue her inner songwriter, and also produced the set.

1. Zac Brown Band – You Get What You Give

It’s been a fairly slow build for me, but the Zac Brown Band have firmly planted themselves as one of my favorite mainstream country acts today. I’m not sure why their sometimes warm and fuzzy, sometimes humorous, always charming kind of country took two albums and half a dozen singles for me to get them, but I think I finally do. These guys are the opposite of what so many are trying to do in Nashville right now: these are legitimate southern rock stars recording actual country music (as opposed to the imposters with their ‘I’m country’ lyrics and hard-rocking guitars). Here’s a band that can out-island Kenny Chesney – ‘Settle Me Down’, ‘Let It Go’, out-country Strait – ‘Cold Hearted’, and probably out-Hollywood Tim McGraw if they chose to, but at the moment they’re making music. Substantial, memorable music full of hooks and melodies.  I really like these guys.

Christmas Rewind: John Denver, ft Patty Loveless and Clint Black – ‘Christmas For Cowboys’

Dogs and duds: The worst singles of 2010

It’s not usually our style here at My Kind of Country to spend a lot of time writing biting reviews about all the crap we don’t like.  You can believe that our writers can be as brutal as the next when the dreck crosses our desks.  But hey, everybody’s gotta have a niche’ and ours is writing positively about only what we deem print-worthy.  Aside from that, there are so many other talented writers churning out brilliantly scathing analyses all over the interweb.  Still, we couldn’t resist – just this one time of year – to compile a list of the worst singles of the year, and then see just how blistered we can get a few superfans.

So here they are, the bottom of the bottom.  These are ranked in order, by a points system, taken from respective lists from Razor X, Occasional Hope, and myself.  Listening while you read is not necessary nor recommended.

P.S.  When commenting, please refrain from expletives.  Attacking the writers’ taste in music, intelligence, or even our Mamas won’t bother us so much.  Just keep it clean please.  Enjoy!

10. Jason Aldean – Crazy Town

I’m usually the first one to enjoy a song that paints up the roundabouts of Music Row. Romanticizing your hard-beaten path to stardom or just lamenting the rigors of the road in song is something of a rite of passage in country music.  Listening to this tune, it’s obvious Aldean is adhering to his own adage with ‘To be a star you gotta bang bang bang’. The problem is, he doesn’t even have the right drum. – J.R.

9. Craig Morgan — Still A Little Chicken Left On That Bone

I really dislike rock-oriented songs that try to gain country cred by adding some banjo to the mix, but it is the shouted chorus that really makes this record annoying. – R.X.

Banjo added to the mix or no, I bet even those guys from Deliverance would change the station when this came on. – J.R.

8. Toby Keith – Every Dog Has Its Day

Like Trace Adkins, Toby Keith continues to reach new lows with his pseudo-clever ditties such as this. Here, your typical white-trash honky-tonk angel (the same gal from all of Toby’s classy odes to true love) finally knocks out a suitor coming on too strong. I’m not sure what’s worse: that the narrator actually thought saying “every dog has its day dog but today dog just ain’t yours” would cool the suitor’s jets, or that someone thought this story even needed telling. – J.R.

7. The JaneDear Girls – Wildflower

Another overproduced rock-based number with an extremely grating sing-song chorus. – R.X.

Everything about this is awful. The girls can’t sing very well, even given a song with only a few notes to sing, and the overly processed sound is entirely inappropriate for a song comparing the protagonist to a wild flower. – O.H.

6. Laura Bell Bundy – Giddy On Up

I don’t know whether to dismiss this one as something that shouldn’t be taken seriously or to be offended that Bundy and her team thought that country music fans were so lacking in taste that we’d actually like something like this. – R.X.

5. Sugarland – Stuck Like Glue

Inane lyrics and annoying vocal tics (even before the reggae part starts). – O.H.

An absolute hot mess of a record that is annoying up until the reggae part, and from that point on it’s just embarrassing. – R.X.

4. Blake Shelton and Trace Adkins – Hillbilly Bone

Heavy handed production and clichéd redneck anthem lyrics combined with a pseudo hip-hop beat are the hallmarks of this record which is far beneath the talents of the two artists who recorded it. – R.X.

3. Trace Adkins – AlaFreakinBama

A tuneless shoutfest that would vie for the title of Worst Record of Trace Adkins’ career were it not for ‘Honky-tonk Badonkadonk’. – R.X.

Trace Adkins has a great voice but apparently no musical taste, judging by the number of truly crappy songs he has picked in his time. This manages to achieve something I previously thought unachievable: it’s actually worse than ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’. Almost tuneless in the verse, the chorus degenerates into a one-note yelling of the title, backed up by crowd noise. – O.H.

2. Carrie Underwood – Undo It

If Underwood were ably revisiting the sound Shania Twain pioneered in the 90s, I’d be one of the first to jump on board. But if the production sounds like an old mix tape from that era recorded over the FM airwaves, I’ll probably fall off the wagon. A chorus that falls apart with the first line doesn’t help to win me back either. – J.R.

Sheer unadulterated 80s pop melody, processed sounding and much too loud production, with absolutely no subtlety or light and shade in the delivery and an ultra-annoying chorus. I can see why her fans would like it, but personally I wish I could unhear it. – O.H.

1. Justin Moore – Backwoods

I can live with the clichéd lyrics (which could be worse), but not the almost complete lack of melody, loudly over-produced backing and yelled singing. The interjected laugh is also irritating. – O.H.

In just over two and half excruciatingly long minutes, Moore manages to cram every cringe-worthy hillbilly cliché’ into a melodically clunky hit song. If country music all sounded like this, it would have stayed in those woods. – J.R.

 

Classic Rewind: Sugarland – ‘Stay’

Razor X’s Top 10 albums of 2010

The past few years have not seen the release of a lot of great country music, but 2010 provided some pleasant surprises, including the return of some veteran artists we haven’t heard from in a while, which may be a sign that the genre is finally getting back on the right track. I was able to compile my Top 10 choices with a lot less difficulty than last year, which surely is a sign that things are starting to improve. Here’s my list:

10. Sammy Kershaw – Better Than I Used To Be. I’m not sure that Sammy is better than he used to be, as the title of his current album says, but he’s definitely as good as he once was, as Toby Keith might say. I was pleasantly surprised by the strength of the song selection on this album.

9. SteelDrivers – Reckless. For their sophomore release, this progressive bluegrass band doesn’t stray too far from the formula that made their debut album a winner. While not quite as good as its predecessor, Reckless offers a refreshing alternative to the often lackluster fare offered up by the mainstream.

8. Willie Nelson – Country Music. His voice is not what it once was, but Willie is still able to use it to great effect. For his Rounder Records debut, he chose a solid set of traditional old-time bluegrass and folk songs, that didn’t require him to stretch beyond his age-imposed vocal restrictions. Commercial concerns don’t seem to have been given much consideration in this project, and the result is an album that truly shines.

7. Merle Haggard – I Am What I Am. Like Willie, Haggard’s voice is showing signs of wear and tear, but it worked well with the album’s material, in one of his strongest efforts in recent memory.

6. Dierks Bentley – Up On The Ridge. That this bluegrass-inspired project was released on a major label by an artist who is still consistently charting in the Top 10 is nothing short of miraculous. Bentley and Capitol had originally planned to release a pure bluegrass album, but appear to have gotten cold feet and issued a set that is heavily bluegrass-influenced, but with some concessions to more mainstream tastes. Nevertheless, they deserve great credit for daring to buck commercial trends in an era in which “play it safe” is the norm.

5. Joe Diffie – Homecoming. Diffie’s bluegrass album is more traditional than Bentley’s, a luxury afforded to artists who are no longer competing for radio airplay. After a six-year hiatus from recording, it was great to hear from Joe again.

4. Zac Brown Band – You Get What You Give. I didn’t really give this band a fair chance when they first showed up at country radio,being a bit put off by the “genre-defying” moniker that many critics were using to describe them. Like their previous album, not everything on You Get What You Give is traditional or even country, but all of it is quite different from what anyone else is doing at the moment, and I ended up liking this album a lot more than I ever expected to.

3. Alan Jackson – Freight Train. This solid follow-up to 2007’s disappointing Good Time suffered commercially from Arista’s decision to release two of its weakest tracks as singles, while passing over much stronger alternatives. It was also the last studio album Jackson owed them under his contract, and that may have resulted in less promotional support than usual. Nevertheless, there are some very fine moments on this album, not the least of which is his duet with Lee Ann Womack, a cover of Vern Gosdin’s “‘Til The End”, which was nominated for Musical Event of the Year by the CMA.

2. Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song. This double album, the long-awaited follow-up to That Lonesome Song, has been in heavy rotation in my CD player and iPod since it was released in September. It was recently awarded gold certification, despite a lack of support from radio.

1. Marty Stuart – Ghost Train. If I were stranded on a desert island with only one album from 2010 to listen to, this would be the one I’d choose hands down. This labor of love shows us what country music once was, and what it could and hopefully will be once again. I cannot praise this near-flawless masterpiece enough.

Christmas Rewind: Suzy Bogguss and Chet Atkins – ‘I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day’

Week ending 12/25/10: #1 singles this week in country music history

1950: If You’ve Got The Money, I’ve Got The Time — Lefty Frizzell (Columbia)

1960: Wings Of A Dove — Ferlin Husky (Capitol)

1970: Coal Miner’s Daughter — Loretta Lynn (Decca)

1980: That’s All That Matters — Mickey Gilley (Epic)

1990: I’ve Come To Expect It From You — George Strait (MCA)

2000: My Next Thirty Years — Tim McGraw (Curb)

2010: Why Wait — Rascal Flatts (Big Machine)

Christmas Rewind: Sugarland – ‘Gold And Green’

Christmas Rewind: Steve Wariner – ‘On Christmas Night’

Merry Christmas to everyone

We’ll be taking a short break from posting over the Christmas weekend (but keep checking in for our daily Christmas Rewind). We’ll be back to normal next week.

In the meantime, we wish you all a very Merry Christmas.

Christmas Rewind: Chris Young – ‘O Holy Night’

Album Review: Sugarland – ‘Gold And Green’

Sugarland’s Christmas album was released in full last year, with five of the tracks repeated from an EP sold exclusively at Wal-Mart with purchases of the band’s Enjoy The Ride in 2007. The material is evenly divided between Sugarland originals and more familiar fare, and a mixture of secular and religious aspects of Christmas, often within the same songs. Jennifer is in excellent voice throughout, with Kristian Bush given a higher profile than usual, and the production (by Byron Gallimore and the band) is Sugarland at their most restrained and mellow, with most tracks acoustic. Every inclusion here feels carefully chosen and executed; this is no casual Christmas cash-in but a fine album in its own right.

‘City Of Silver Dreams’ opens the album with a gentle, dreamlike ode to New York at Christmas time rather reminiscent of Mary Chapin Carpenter, written by the duo with Lisa Carver and folk singer-songwriter Ellis Paul. ‘Little Wood Guitar’ was written by Kristian with Ellis Paul, and is a musician’s look at her life through the lens of three atmospherically conveyed Christmas Days: a childhood gift of the eponymous guitar which sets her on her path in life, struggling young adulthood, and finally with a family of her own.

‘Coming Home’ is a jazz-blues number with a gospel choir chorus which is extremely well done, but not my personal cup of tea. The soothing title track has a subtle string arrangement (and quote from ‘The First Noel’ alongside its comforting vision of a contemporary Christmas scene), and Kristian gets a few lines to sing alongside Jennifer’s lovely lead vocal.

He also gets two actual lead vocals on this side project. He is unimpressive on ‘Holly Jolly Christmas’, with Jennifer offering a counterpart of snippets from ‘Winter Wonderland’ (sounding more invested than she does on the official cut of that song); this is the least effective track on the album, although the bells make it sound cheerily festive. ‘Maybe Baby (New Year’s Day)’ is much better, a very enjoyable bluesy country-rock ballad written by the duo with Troy Bieser, about a man returning home for the Christmas season and reflecting on the possibility of seeing his ex-lover. Kristian doesn’t have the best of voices, but at least on this track it has a gravelly soulfulness which works well.

Of the traditional material, Jennifer delivers serious versions of the carols ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’ and the beautiful ‘Silent Night’, which she sings partly in Spanish. Both have tasteful acoustic arrangements, the former (one of my favourite tracks)with twin banjos, the latter featuring Kristian’s mandolin. A rather pedestrian vocal take on ‘Winter Wonderland’ is redeemed by the playing in the instrumental break with its nod to ‘Deck The Halls’.

The playful ‘Nuttin’ For Christmas’ (one I hadn’t heard before) has Jennifer playing the part of a naughty little girl (and not sounding too bothered at getting no presents as she recites the litany of her misdeeds), and the playing is great.

I have a limited tolerance for Christmas albums, so many of which tend to sound the same and repeat the same songs, but this was an extremely pleasant surprise for me. It might even be my favorite Sugarland album.

Grade: A-

Christmas Rewind: Alan Jackson – ‘Let It Be Christmas’

Occasional Hope’s Top 10 Albums of 2010

While great mainstream releases have been a little thin on the ground, there’s been some good music released if you look around, on both major and minor labels. Here are my favorite albums of the year (with links to fuller reviews):

10. Aaron Watson – The Road And The Rodeo

The best Texas country album of the year by a solo male vocalist. In the opening track Aaron talks about “seldom being heard on your radio”, but this is just the sort of music which ought to be at the heart of the mainstream.

9. Dierks Bentley – Up On The Ridge

Not quite everything gelled for me on Dierks’s bluegrass-influenced project, but it was a brave attempt at artistic growth and one of the most ambitious and adventurous records of the year. He was rewarded with three CMA nominations, more airplay than bluegrass can usually command, and respectable sales figures.

8. Merle Haggard – I Am What I Am

The legend returns with his best work in years. His voice has suffered the ravages of age, but his songwriting is still inspired, with ten of the twelve tracks consisting of solo Haggard compositions which stand comparison with his past repertoire. Highlights include the reflection on the changes brought by time, ‘I’ve Seen It Go Away’, which opens and sets the tone for the album.

7. Amber Digby and Justin Trevino – Keeping Up Appearances

A delightful set of covers of classic country duets by the excellent Amber Digby with her producer Justin Trevino recall the best of country music’s proud duet tradition.

6. Brennen Leigh – The Box

A really charming set of folk-country songs with pretty tunes mostly penned by the singer. The highlight is the Louvin Brothers style ‘Are You Stringing Me Along’, but it’s all worth hearing.

5. Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song

Jamey’s magisterial double album opens with his cover of a previously unrecorded Keith Whitley song, ‘Lonely At The Top’, contrasting the miseries of fame with the greater problems of those less successful. It is chock full of songs about broken hearts, an unsentimental look at poverty (‘Poor Man Blues’, ‘Can’t Cash My Checks’), God (‘I Remember You’, ‘My Way To You’), country life, and country music itself, plus a song for Jamey’s little girl (‘Baby Don’t Cry’). Alongside the Whitley song are covers of Vern Gosdin’s ‘Set ‘Em Up Joe’, the Kris Kristofferson-penned Ray Price classic ‘For The Good Times’, and a malevolent take on ‘Mental Revenge’ (written by Mel Tillis but best known by Waylon Jennings), and legendary songwriter Bill Anderson duets with Jamey on the title track. This is not as dark as Jamey’s masterpiece That Lonesome Song, and I didn’t feel the songs were quite up to that standard. With the whole more than the sum of its parts, this is still a deeper and more challenging record than almost everything else cut in Nashville these days. Jamey has managed to sell pretty solid numbers despite the lack of a real radio hit so far this time around.

4. Marty Stuart – Ghost Train

This record was something of a revelation to me. I’ve never really got Marty Stuart’s music before, respecting his musicianship and admiring his approach, but never really loving the results. At last, this statement of what country music should be grabbed me from the first vibrant notes of opener ‘Branded’, in a set which is full of fire and energy. The backing is superb (with a handful of instrumentals including a steel guitar centered performance of ‘Crazy Arms’ by its writer Ralph Mooney). Marty’s vocals are truly heartfelt on the ballads and forceful on the up-tempo material, with wife Connie Smith duetting with him on a love song, and the material is excellent. Favorite tracks include the somber co-write with the dying Johnny Cash, ‘Hangman’.

3. Joe Diffie – Homecoming

Our August Spotlight Artist Joe’s long-awaited bluegrass album was well worth the wait. His voice sounds as good as ever and is ideally suited to the high lonesome sound, the production and musicians were spot-on, and the songs were great.

2. Joey + Rory – Album #2

I loved their debut, and their follow-up has all the charm of the original. Joey’s beautiful voice is still front and center, but Rory gets a bigger profile than previously, with the odd solo line and one lead vocal on his touching tribute to his father, ‘My Old Man’. Carl Jackson’s lovely clean production is the perfect match. Songs range from the witty sideswipe at the music industry which provides the title track to a set of sincere love songs, with a warning to a potentially erring husband (‘God Help My Man’), some western swing and country gospel along the way. This is one of those albums where you believe every word is true.

1. Ken Mellons – Rural Route

Dierks Bentley and Joe Diffie’s respective takes on bluegrass got most of the headlines this year, and both won places in my personal top 10. But for my money, the best of the lot was the underrated Ken Mellons with this superb album with character filled, emotional vocals, excellent material and outstanding bluegrass picking. It was hard to put my top five in order, but in the end this one just edged the rest. If you haven’t heard it, and like bluegrass as well as country, it really is an essential purchase.

Christmas Rewind: Ricky Van Shelton – ‘What Child Is This?’

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