My Kind of Country

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

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Album Review: Shenandoah – ‘Long Time Comin”

long time cominThe early 90s saw changes for Shenandoah. They had left Columbia after their legal troubles, and signed to RCA. They recruited Keith Stegall to produce their debut effort for the new label alongside longterm collaborator Robert Byrne. It continued the style familiar from earlier work, but the songs were not quite as strong.

The lead single was a pleasantly radio-friendly mid-tempo song about a man going home to ‘Rock My Baby’ after a hard day’s work and a night out with the boys. Although not particularly memorable, It has an airy feel with some attractive fiddle, and it returned the group close to the top of the charts, with a #2 peak.

Unfortunately the other singles from the album were not as successful. The follow-up ‘Hey Mister (I Need That Job)’ offered a change of pace, portraying the voice of a young expectant father facing unemployment and desperate for a chance to prove himself and provide for his family. Perhaps it was a little too serious to play well on radio, more accustomed to Shenandoah’s lighter material, as it barely scraped into the top 30, but it is an excellent song (written by Kerry Chater and Renee Armand) with a moving vocal from Marty.

‘Leavin’s Been A Long Time Comin’, the up-tempo title track, was a return to a brighter feel (despite a downbeat lyric), and this one peaked at #15. ‘Give Me Five Minutes’ (written by Robert Ellis Orrall) is a charmingly optimistic number typical of Shenandoah’s up-tempo material. It would have made a fine radio-friendly single had they tried one more.

‘Same Old Heart’ is a tender Mac McAnally ballad acknowledging that a relationship is faltering, in which Marty’s phrasing is very reminiscent of McAnally’s version (on his excellent 1989 Simple Life album). I really liked this one.

Nostalgia for times past has a strong thematic role on this album. ‘Right Where I Belong’ (written by Rick Bowles and Josh Leo) is also good, a sweet look at the simple joys of small-town country life which a young man’s ambitions for something more exciting led him to pass up. Now, he’s back home to settle down, since in his quest for success,

I lost myself and that’s a high price to pay.

The tender ballad story song ‘There Ain’t No Beverly Hills In Tennessee, written by Marty Raybon and Mike McGuire, was the CD bonus track (omitted from the cassette). It is one of the best songs here, telling the story of a girl who marries young but leaves her husband with dreams of greener pastures:

There ain’t no California gold in a smoky mountain stream
There ain’t no silver linin’ to lace a poor boy’s dream
As she walked away I was thinking someday she’d come on back to me
But there ain’t no Beverly Hills in Tennessee

The gentle ballad ‘I Was Young Once Too’, written by the co-producer Robert Byrne with Richard Leigh, also looks back, with its tender portrait of the relationship between the protagonist and his father. ‘Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting’ is a little too similar melodically and thematically to their big hit ‘Sunday In The South’, but is beautifully sung.

The lively rockabilly ‘Rattle The Windows’ is a feelgood celebration of being in a smalltime country band.

This isn’t a bad album by any means, but it lacked obvious hits. With only one real hit single (in the shape of one of the record’s more lackluster songs), it did not sell as well as their last couple of Columbia releases. However, used copies are easy to find cheap, and it’s worth picking up.

Grade: B+

Favorite Country Songs of the 1980s: Part 7

honey i dare youIt’s been a while since my last installment of this series. Here are some more songs from the 1980s that I liked and remember. See if you recall any of these records.

Shame On The Moon” – Bob Seger
Bob’s 1982 recording of a Rodney Crowell song charted on the country charts in early 1983, reaching #15 in the process. The song was a bigger hit on the pop charts, reaching #2 for four weeks.

Doesn’t Anybody Get High On Love Anymore” – The Shoppe
The Shoppe was a Dallas based band that hung around for years after their 1968 formation. In the early 1980s they had eight chart records, but this was the only one to crack the top forty, reaching #33. They had a record deal with MTM Records in 1985, but that label vanished, taking the Shoppe with them.

Honey (Open That Door)” – Ricky Skaggs
The early 1980s belonged to Ricky Skaggs as he racked up eight #1 records before the end of 1984. Some of his records were bluegrass/country hybrids, others, like this cover of Mel Tillis-penned Webb Pierce record were more straightforward country. This record topped the charts in 1984 and had a very amusing video to accompany it.

A Far Cry From You” – Connie Smith
After disappearing from the charts for six years, Connie emerged with this excellent single in 1985. Epic didn’t give the record much of a promotional push so it only reached #71, but it was one of my ten favorite records for the year 1985.

He Gives Me Diamonds, You Give Me Chills”– Margo Smith
Margo Smith has a short run of chart success in the late 1970s but by the end of the decade her run was almost over. This 1980 record would stall at #52 and other than a pair of duets with Rex Allen Jr., she would not see the top forty again. Margo is still an active performer and lives in the Villages, FL. When she’s feeling well, she can still yodel with the best of them.

Cheatin’s A Two Way Street”– Sammi Smith
Sammi’s last top twenty record, reaching #16 in 1981. Sammi should have become a much bigger star than she did.

Tear-Stained Letter” – Jo-el Sonnier
This Cajun accordion player had two top ten records for RCA in 1988 before fading away. Cajun has never been mainstream so he didn’t figure to have too many hits (and he didn’t). This record reached #9 and the one before it “No More One More Time” reached 7. Nothing else reached the top twenty.

Hasn’t It Been Good Together” – Hank Snow and Kelly Foxton
Hank’s eighty-fifth chart hit and the very last singles chart appearance for ‘The Singing Ranger’. This song crept to #80 in 1980. Hank would only record one more time after the album from which this album was issued, a duet album with Willie Nelson a few years later. Read more of this post

Single Review – Easton Corbin – ‘Clockwork’

Easton-Corbin-2-630x630The curious case of Easton Corbin continues.

In a format smothered by 80s rock, he’s the one artist given the freedom to retain a sound rich with steel guitars, fiddles, and audible twang. Country radio plays his singles, too, which is a remarkable feat for someone who wears their country credibility openly on their sleeve.

So why is he still recording mediocre inoffensive middle-of-the-road material? Does his record label have his image so tightly controlled he can’t rise to anything great nor fall to the doldrums like his peers?

“Clockwork” retains the same narrative Corbin’s been singing for his past few singles. It’s another guy-girl relationship song with the twist this time around being her punctual arrival at his place every Friday night. The writers inject the word ‘girl’ at the end of almost every line, as if to bro the song up, but it only sounds like a desperate plea to keep Corbin’s music on the radio.

Corbin could be a great country singer if he just had stronger lyrics and far more interesting melodies behind his natural twang. Even he, as evidenced by his relaxed vocal delivery, sounds a bit bored with his chosen material. Corbin does put some feeling into this, but his overall lack of energy prevents “Clockwork” from elevating past mundane.

This pleasing to all vanilla act has gone on too long. Let’s hope his upcoming album shows us what Corbin’s really made of.

Grade: B- 

Songwriters: Carson Chamberlain, Wade Kirby, and Ashley Gorley

Listen Here

Spotlight Artist: Marty Raybon and Shenandoah

marty raybonMarty Raybon was born in Greenville, Alabama, on 8 December 1959. He grew up playing bluegrass in a family band. In his 20s he moved to Muscle Shoals in the north of the state, where he founded a band with Ralph Ezell on bass guitar, Stan Thorn on keyboards, Jim Seales on lead guitar, and Mike McGuire on drums. The group, known originally as the MGM Band after the club where they had a regular gig, recorded a demo which attracted the interest of CBS Records, who picked them up and also gave them the name Shenandoah. They had also briefly used the name Diamond Rio, although they had no connection with the successful country group of that name.

Their self-titled debut album was released in 1987, but was only modestly successful, and is now very hard to obtain. However, it did provide their first top 30 country hit, ‘Stop The Rain’. The label had faith in the band, and their second album The Road Not Taken realised those hopes, taking them to the top of the charts. Less traditional than some of their peers, their music balanced radio friendly gloss with Mary Raybon’s soulful voice and allied to high quality material helped them to become among the brightest stars of the late 80s/early 90s.

Shenandoah never won as many awards as their talent may have dictated. The band was named the Academy of Country Music Vocal Group of the Year in 1990, and they won CMA and Grammy awards for their collaboration with Alison Krauss, ‘Somewhere In The Vicinity Of The Heart’.

Soon afterwards, however, they ran into trouble when several unknown bands sued them for use of the name Shenandoah. The costs of fighting these claims led the band into bankruptcy and forced them to leave Columbia in 1992.

They had a new start on RCA, and enjoyed further commercial success, before a further move to Capitol imprint Liberty Records in 1994. However, Marty Raybon appears to have been getting restless, and in 1995 recorded his first solo album (a self-titled gospel one) as a side project. Original band members Ezell and Thorn also left around this time. The band’s final album featuring Marty Raybon was a Christmas one.

Soon after this, Marty left Shenandoah for good. He teamed up with his brother Tim to form the duo the Raybon Brothers, and they had a hit single with the sentimental ‘Butterfly Kisses’ in 1997. It sold well but received mediocre airplay, and the brothers disbanded.

Meanwhile, Marty returned to his first musical love, bluegrass, and from 2000 onwards has recorded a succession of fine bluegrass albums. These days he is signed to Rural Rhythm Records.

It was always Marty Raybon’s voice which made Shenandoah. Indeed, they continue to tour without him, with a succession of new lead singers, but it was never the same without his smoky-voiced lead.

Through February we will be exploring Marty’s work with Shenandoah and solo.

Album Review: Doug Stone – ‘The Long Way’

Unknown2002’s The Long Way was Doug Stone’s first post-major label collection of mostly new material. Released in September by Audium Entertainment, the album was co-produced by Stone and Chet Hinesley, it consists of seven new songs and three newly recorded versions of Doug’s earlier hits for Sony. Though listenable, all of the re-recordings are inferior to the original versions.

As is often the case with albums that are released after an artist’s artistic peak, the material on The Long Way is inconsistent. It opens with the pretty ballad “Losing You”, which is a little too schmaltzy and AC-leaning for my taste, despite the inclusion of some nice steel guitar work. The mid-tempo title track is more contemporary than most of Doug’s work, but it is bland and forgettable. I like the Gary Burr and Cynthia Weil number “One Heartache At A Time” about an insensitive husband whose actions are slowly driving his wife away, much better. “POW 369″, written by Steven Dale Jones, though a bit sentimental, is the album’s best song. The album’s sole single, it tells about the remorse felt by the protagonist, upon learning that the motorist that just cut him off is an ex-prisoner of war. The single did not chart.

Doug wrote the bluesy and uptempo “Poor Man’s Boulevard” with co-producer Chet Hinesley. It’s a good but not great song that isn’t particularly suited to Doug’s voice or style. Another artist might have been able to better do it justice. The more country sounding uptempo “Bone Dry” is much better. Doug also co-wrote the ballad “Lying To Myself”, in which he can’t accept that the love of his life is gone. It’s more typical of his usual style, though he seems to be singing at the high end of his register and straining just a bit.

All in all, The Long Way is a pleasant but not particularly memorable listening experience. Cheap copies are readily available but it’s not an essential purchase except for diehard fans.

Grade: B-

Ray Price Remembered

Ray PriceWith the recent passing of legendary singer Ray Price, the chapter closes on the last of the great male honky-tonk singers of the 1950s. At times overshadowed by contemporaries such as Webb Pierce, Carl Smith, Faron Young, Ferlin Husky and Hank Locklin, Ray Price adapted and persevered, outlasting all of his contemporaries and continuing as an active performer until the end of 2012. His singles and albums encompassed a wide array of styles from shuffles, western swing and pure honky-tonk through to “Nashville Sound”, countrypolitan and pure classic pop standards. Willie Nelson calls him the greatest country singer ever and he certainly is in the top two or three for many of his fellow country artists.

Along the way he left a catalog brimming full of great music, charting 109 singles along the way, with 80 of them reaching the top forty and 46 reaching the top ten.

Born in 1926, and labeled as the “Cherokee Cowboy” because he hailed from Cherokee County Texas, Ray Price was part of what Tom Brokaw called the Greatest Generation, serving in the US Marines from 1944-1946 before starting his musical career in Dallas in 1948, recording a few singles for the small Bullet label.

Price’s big break came when he moved to Nashville, signing in late 1951 with Columbia Records and becoming the roommate and only real protégé of Hank Williams. When Hank died on New Years Day 1953, Ray inherited Hank’s band, the “Drifting Cowboys”, which was renamed and expanded to become the “Cherokee Cowboys”.

The hits started coming shortly after Price after signing with Columbia starting with 1953’s “Talk To Your Heart” which reached #3 on Billboard’s DJ charts. From that point through 1989 at least one of Rays singles would appear on the country charts every year.

Always a bit of a contrarian, when Rock ‘n Roll was beginning to hurt country music, Ray hit it really big with the retro sounds of “Crazy Arms” which featured a heavy bass, twin fiddles and introduced the world to the ‘Ray Price 4/4 beat’. “Crazy Arms” topped the charts for 20 weeks in 1956, staying on the charts for 45 weeks. For the next few years Ray scored big with such hard-core honky-tonk classics as “You Done Me Wrong”, I’ve Got A New Heartache”, “Heartaches By The Number”, “City Lights” and “Heart Over Mind”.

In 1963, having proved to the world that it was indeed possible to sell hard-core country in the age of rock ‘n roll and the “Nashville Sound”, Ray changed directions and started softening his sound with “You Took Her Off My Hands (Now Please Take Her Off My Mind)” followed by “Make The World Go Away” and a bluesy number written by a fellow who had been in his band, Willie Nelson. That song “Night Life” kicked off a new direction of more heavily orchestrated sounds for Ray culminating in his huge 1970 record “Grazing In Greener Pastures” b/w “For The Good Times”. This record sold close to a million copies and the B-side “For The Good Times” reached #11 on Billboard all genres chart.

The top ten records ended for Ray in 1975 by which time he was forty-nine years old, but Ray kept recording and experimenting giving exposure to new songwriters and following his own muse. Eventually Ray returned to his honky-tonk roots in his live performances

Ray Price was an innovator and collector/developer of new talent recording songs from new songwriters and giving valuable stage experience to new talent during his earlier days. Ray was among the first to record songs by Bill Anderson, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Conway Twitty. Among the future stars of country music to pass through his band were singers Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, Darrell McCall, Van Howard, Johnny Paycheck and Johnny Bush,and instrumentalists Buddy Emmons, Pete Wade, Jan Kurtis, Shorty Lavender and Buddy Spicher.

I could rattle on about the albums of Ray Price but will simply say that each album contains its share of treasures, although I am especially fond of his 1980 album with Willie Nelson, San Antonio Rose which contains one of my all-time favorite tracks the exquisite “Faded Love” with Ray and Willie joined by Crystal Gayle as part of a trio on the choruses.

In 2007 Ray and fellow legends Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard recorded an album, Last of The Breed and toured in support of the album.

Now the great Ray Price is gone, truly the last of the breed.

Classic Rewind: Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings – ‘Good Hearted Woman’

Classic Rewind: Willie Nelson – ‘Hello Walls/Ain’t It Funny How Time Slips Away/Night Life/Crazy’

Willie singing snippets from some of his early cuts by other artists:

Country Heritage: Ferlin Husky

ferlin husky

I hear Little Rock calling
Homesick tears are falling
I’ve been away from Little Rock way too long
Gonna have a troubled mind
Til I reach that Arkansas line
I hear Little Rock calling me back home

From “I Hear Little Rock Calling” — music and lyrics by Dallas Frazier

In a career in which he was a humorist, a singer, a dramatic actor on Kraft TV Theater, a movie star and talent scout, it seems only appropriate that Ferlin Husky was one of the first to record and take a Dallas Frazier lyric up the country charts. Moreover, Husky is one of the few country stars to have three career songs in “A Dear John Letter”, his 1953 duet with Jean Shepard that spent 6 weeks at #1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Chart (and reached #4 on the pop charts); “Gone”, a 1957 hit that spent 10 weeks at #1 on Billboard (and also reached #4 on the pop chart); and finally, in 1960, “The Wings Of A Dove”, a massive hit that Cashbox lists as the biggest country song of the period 1958-1984 with 19 weeks at #1 (Billboard had it at #1 for 10 weeks).

Ferlin Husky (December 3, 1925 – March 17, 2011) was born on a farm midway between the Missouri towns of Flat River, Hickory Grove and Cantwell. As a youngster, Ferlin obtained a guitar and, aided by his uncle Clyde Wilson, he learned to play it. Upon graduation from high school, Ferlin moved to the region’s biggest city, St. Louis, where he briefly worked odd jobs to survive before joining the US Merchant Marines in 1943. Ferlin would spend five years in the Merchant Marines, where in his off hours he would entertain shipmates with his vocals and musicianship. In 1948 Ferlin left the Merchant Marines to return to St. Louis where he worked for over a year with Gene Autry’s sidekick Smiley Burnett at radio station KXLW.

Moving to California in 1949, Husky landed some bit parts in western movies before moving to Bakersfield, where he sang at local clubs and worked as a disc jockey. By 1950 he was recording for Four Star Records under the name ‘Terry Preston,’ a name Ferlin felt less contrived than his given name. While none of the Terry Preston recordings became hits, they favorably impressed Cliffie Stone, a Southern California disc jockey whose television show Hometown Jamboree was quite popular. Stone played the Terry Preston records on his morning show on KXLA and eventually got Ferlin signed to Capitol Records, still under the name Terry Preston. Recording for legendary Capitol producer Ken Nelson, several fine singles resulted, including a cover of an old Roy Acuff hit “Tennessee Central #9,” none of which charted.

Nelson urged Ferlin to use his real name and the first single released under that name (“Huskey”–with an E–being the spelling used on records until 1957) hit the jackpot as the 1953 recording of “A Dear John Letter,” sung by Jean Shepard with recitation by Ferlin, resonated with returning Korean War veterans and launched both careers.

A follow up record with Ms. Shepard, “Forgive Me John”, also went Top 10 in late 1953, but it took another year for the solo hits to start. Finally, in 1955, Ferlin hit with four songs, two Top 10 records in “I Feel Better All Over” and “Little Tom”, a Top 20 record in “I’ll Baby Sit With You,” and a #5 hit recorded under the name of his comic alter-ego Simon Crum, “Cuzz Yore So Sweet”.

Growing up in the Great Depression and coming of age during World War II gave Ferlin a sense of the importance of helping others. As one of the first artists to reach Bakersfield, Ferlin was an influence and mentor to such struggling entertainers as Tommy Collins, Billy Mize, Dallas Frazier, Buck Owens and Roy Drusky. In fact, it was Ferlin who renamed Leonard Sipes as Tommy Collins.
During his years with Capitol, Ferlin Husky would push the boundaries of country music, whether by the sophisticated balladry of “Gone”, or the gentle ribbing of his #2 hit “Country Music Is Here To Stay” (as recorded by Crum).

Ferlin would stay with Capitol Records until 1972 charting forty-one records along the way, although after “The Wings of A Dove” in 1960 Top Ten hits would be scarce for the singer, with only “Once” (1967) and “Just For You” (1968), both which reached #4, scaling the heights. (“Heavenly Sunshine” reached #10 on Cashbox in 1970, stalling out at #11 on Billboard.)

After 1972, Ferlin would sign with ABC where he would chart nine times with hits including “Rosie Cries A Lot” (#17). A very nice record called “A Room for A Boy … Never Used” got lost in the shuffle; it peaked at #60 but is well worth hunting down.
After his stint with ABC, Ferlin would record sporadically for minor labels, often remaking earlier hits but sometimes coming up with new material. In 2005, at the age of eighty, Ferlin issued an excellent new CD, The Way It Was (Is The Way It Is), on the Heart of Texas label. This CD featured both old and new material, with Leona Williams on two tracks, and backed by a cast of fine Texas swing musicians.

Ferlin Husky was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2010. Many years before that, he became one of the first country artists to get his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Read more of this post

Album Review: Pam Tillis – ‘Homeward Looking Angel’

homeward looking angelPam’s second Arista album, released in 1992, was tastefully produced like its predecessor by Paul Worley and Ed Seay. Although the material was not quite as strong, there was enough to keep her momentum going, and in fact it was more successful commercially than its predecessor.

The first single ‘Shake The Sugar Tree’, written by Chapin Hartford reached #3. A pretty melody, tasteful arrangement, Pam’s confident lead vocal and banked harmonies from Stephanie Bentley (who later had a duet hit with Ty Herndon) apparently lifted from her demo of the song all contribute to making this a very attractive recording of a good song with an assertive attitude as the protagonist gives her neglectful man a warning.

The wistful story song ‘Let That Pony Run’ (about a suburban housewife who finds a new life after her husband leaves her), written by Gretchen Peters, is one of the standout tracks. It is the kind of mature, thoughtful lyric which would get no traction on today’s radio but in 1993 it reached #4. An exquisite vocal is backed up by backing vocals from Pam Rose and Mary Ann Kennedy.

The playful irony of ‘Cleopatra Queen Of Denial’, written by Pam, her then-husband Bob DiPiero, and Jan Buckingham, peaked just outside the top 10 (at #11).

By far my favourite track is the very traditional ‘Do You Know Where Your Man Is’ (written by Dave Gibson, Russell Smith and Carol Chase), which was another top 20 single. The pensive ballad asks a married woman about the state of her marriage

Did you kiss him when he left this morning
And does he know that he’s needed at home?
Well, if you don’t feel that old thrill
Then somebody else will
And there’s some mighty good women all alone

It’s ten o’clock
Do you know where your man is
And are you sure that he’s doing you right?
Are you still in his heart
When he’s out of your sight?
Do you know where your man is tonight?

It was previously recorded by Barbara Mandrell, whose version is also very fine, but Pam’s just edges it for me. Her beautifully judged vocal is backed by a lovely traditional arrangement with prominent steel guitar.

Opening track ‘How Gone Is Goodbye’ is one of a brace of songs written by Pam with Bob DiPiero. It is a very good song which could easily have been another hit single, with a ballsy (and surprisingly upbeat) delivery and mature lyric with a woman regretting walking out and wondering if she can backtrack.

The excellent ballad ‘We’ve Tried Everything Else’ (written by Pam and Bob with Steve Seskin)might be the same couple a little further down the line, as the protagonist suggests to her ex that getting back together would be the best solution, since new lovers have failed to help them move on:

Neither one of us is feeling any better
All we’ve been doing is fooling ourselves
Baby, you and me were meant to be together
Let’s try love again
We’ve tried everything else

The title track offers a portrait of a young woman who is returning home as the prodigal daughter but who hasn’t given up on her dreams:

Her party dress is tattered but her vision is inspired…

There’s a road ahead and the road behind
All roads lead to home this time

A couple of tracks are less interesting. ‘Love Is Only Human’ is an AC-leaning duet with Diamond Rio’s Marty Roe which is a bit bland, although it is beautifully sung; I would have loved to hear this pairing on a more dynamic song. ‘Rough And Tumble Heart’ was previously recorded in a very similar arrangement by female-led 80s group Highway 101, so Pam’s version, while perfectly listenable, seems redundant, even though she wrote it (with DiPiero and Sam Hogin). ‘Fine, Fine, Very Fine Love’ is just plain boring and Pam’s vocal verges on the screechy.

Although I don’t like this album quite as much as Put Yourself In My Place, it actually sold better, becoming Pam’s first platinum certification. It is a solid and very varied collection with some excellent songs. Used copies can be obtained cheaply, and it’s well worth picking up.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Suzy Bogguss – ‘American Folk Songbook’

americanfolksongbookFrom the earliest days of her career, Suzy Bogguss showed a penchant for folk and western songs, so it was no surprise when she decided to release an album of traditional American folk songs. These tunes, once universally taught to young children are in danger of being lost, now that many public school districts no longer have adequate funding to devote to music education. American Folk Songbook, which was released in August 2011, is Bogguss’ attempt to remedy that situation and prevent at least 17 of these treasures from fading into obscurity.

The best of these is “Shenandoah”, a 19th century tune about a wanderer who is waxing nostalgia for her Virginia home. The song was prominently featured in the 1965 James Stewart film of the same name. The tune is usually performed instrumentally; Suzy’s version is a rare opportunity to hear the lyrics. She sings it beautifully, her voice every bit as clear and strong as it was in her hit-making days.

One favorite that I remember from my own childhood is “Red River Valley”, a sad tune of farewell and unrequited love. The song is set in the central region of the North American continent, an area that crosses the 49th parallel and encompasses parts of modern day North Dakota, Minnesota, and Manitoba. Some claim that the song is Canadian in origin, and that the departing lover is returning to his home in Ontario; however a line in the final verse — “as you go to your home by the ocean” — conclusively kills this argument. Either way, it is a highly enjoyable slice of North Americana.

“Froggy Went A-Courtin'” is a children’s ditty that has existed in many forms; the earliest known of which dates back to sixteenth century Scotland when Mary Stuart was queen. `This version clearly has updated lyrics, since it makes reference to a president. It was one of my favorites when I was growing up, though I wouldn’t rank it as one of the very best numbers on this album.

There are a handful of tunes that should be familiar to most listeners of (relatively) more contemporary country music. Like most of the songs on American Folk Songbook, “Wayfaring Stranger” dates back to the 19th century. It was popularized in the 1940s by Burl Ives, but most modern country fans are probably more familiar with the version that Emmylou Harris took to #7 on the Billboard country singles chart in 1980. I like Suzy’s performance, but Emmylou’s recording remains the definitive version. “Sweet Betsy From Pike”, about the trials and tribulations of an unmarried couple traveling west during the California gold rush of 1849, is another tune that was popularized by Burl Ives, and later covered for country fans by David Allan Coe and Johnny Cash. “Wildwood Flower” dates back to the 1860s, but will be forever associated with Mother Maybelle and the Carter Family.

One of the more recent numbers in this collection is “Erie Canal”, written by Thomas S. Allen. The song is about mule-drawn barges, but travel on the canal was powered by steam engines by the time the song first appeared in 1905. “Rock Island Line”, about a train engineer who successfully avoids paying tax on the freight he is hauling, is of unknown origin, but it was first recorded in 1934 and was later popularized by the American blues musician Lead Belly. This is one of the few songs on the album with which I was not previously familiar.

When I first heard about this project, I expected it to be mostly comprised of songs written by Stephen Foster, the father of American music, but as far as I can tell only one of his compositions appears here — a quiet and whispery version of “Beautiful Dreamer”, which closes out the album.

Even though American Folk Songbook contains a generous 17 tracks, it is inevitable with a project like this that a few popular favorites will be omitted. I hope that a second volume will eventually follow; there is a treasure trove of material available, and I can’t think of anyone more suited than Suzy Bogguss to sing these songs.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Loretta Lynn, Cissy Lynn and Crystal Gayle – ‘Wings Of A Dove’

After the song there is a chat with this month’s Spotlight Artist Aaron Tippn.

Album Review: Dailey & Vincent – ‘Brothers Of the Highway’

brothers of the highwayAfter a detour with their Statler Brothers tribute and two gospel releases, the duo who burst onto the bluegrass scene in 2008-2009 are back on Rounder with an exceptional album mixing old and new material. The duo is in fine form vocally, with Jamie Dailey generally taking the lead and Darrin Vincent providing a close harmony, but they vary the arrangements as best suits each song. The band is augmented by the brilliant fiddler Andy Leftwich and acoustic guitarist Bryan Sutton, among others.

The sometimes frenetic pace and constantly changing rhythms of the opening ‘Steel Drivin’ Man’ make for an arresting start, and the music never let’s go. It is one of two Jamie Dailey compositions, and may be the first country or bluegrass song to be inspired by reading a Wikipedia article. The subject may have been garnered at second-hand, but the story sounds as authentic as if it were a traditional number, while the lengthy instrumental passages allow the band to show off their musical chops. Dailey’s other song here, ‘Back To Jackson County’, is pleasantly nostalgic about a childhood in the country. The similarly titled ‘Back To Hancock County’, written by Pete Goble and Leroy Drumm, has a little more substance with its wistful consciousness of change. It is one of a few songs where Darrin shares the lead vocals with Jamie evenly, as they do on the playful Porter Wagoner top 20 country hit ‘Howdy Neighbor Howdy’, another opportunity for an instrumental showcase.

Dailey & Vincent are challenged only by the Gibson Brothers among current proponents of close bluegrass harmony, and their version of the Louvin Brothers’ ‘When I Stop Dreaming’ is simply perfect. Darrin takes the lead vocal, and does an excellent job, with Jamie’s harmony vocal twining around it on the chorus to create a magical sound. Darrin also sings lead, and band members Jeff Parker and Christian Davis add a full spectrum of voices to the harmony on the well-played and sung but otherwise unremarkable ‘Big River’.

Bill Monroe’s bluegrass classic ‘Close By’ gets Jamie’s highest high lonesome vocal with no harmony and more superb playing. ‘Tomorrow I’ll Be Gone’ is a Wilma Lee Cooper song which has been recorded by a number of bluegrass artists including Monroe; Dailey & Vincent’s version is as excellent as one would expect.

A gentle laid back take on ‘Brothers Of The Highway’, the ode to truckers recorded by George Strait on his Troubadour set, is an unexpected inclusion, but a very welcome one. Jimmy Fortune of the Statler Brothers adds a third harmony voice. Gospel tune ‘It Will Be Wonderful Over There’ gets a Statlers-style gospel quartet arrangement.

Vince Gill’s ‘Hills Of Caroline’ gets a stripped down arrangement and spare lead vocal very reminiscent of Gill’s version, with a delicate harmony – simple and beautiful, and another outstanding moment. Kathy Mattea’s 80s chart-topper ‘Where’ve You Been’, with its sensitive portrayal of a couple divided by Alzheimers but united in love, has a full-scale string section backing Jamie’s vocal, making it the one song not to adhere to traditional bluegrass stylings. It works quite well, but is slightly out-of-place.

This is the best bluegrass album I’ve heard in a couple of years – and my favorite record so far this year.

Grade: A+

Get it at amazon.

Classic Rewind: Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley, Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Charley Pride, Bill Anderson and more – ‘I’ll Fly Away’

Country Heritage: Jeannie C. Riley

Jeannie C Riley

I want to tell you all a story about a Harper Valley widowed wife
Who had a teenage daughter who attended Harper Valley Junior High
Well, her daughter came home one afternoon and didn’t even stop to play
She said mom I got a note here from the Harper Valley PTA

– Tom T. Hall – 1967

Starting out at the top may not be a good thing. After all, there is no place to go but down. For 23 year-old Jeannie C. Riley, the top of the mountain was reached in August 1968, when “Harper Valley PTA” jumped from No. 81 to No. 1 on the Billboard (all-genres) singles chart. It subsequently reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles Chart and charted in a number of countries around the world (reaching No. 12 in the UK). Jeannie became the first female country singer to simultaneously top the pop and country charts and she won the 1968 Grammy Award for Best Country & Western Vocal Performance and the CMA Single of the Year award.

Born Jeanne Carolyn Stephenson in Stamford, Texas, to Oscar Stephenson, an auto mechanic, and Nora Stephenson, a nurse, and raised in Anson, Texas, Jeannie developed a strong love for country music as a young girl. As a teenager, she made her first public performances, appearing with her uncle Johnny Moore at Jones County Jamboree in nearby Truby, Texas. On December 20, 1962, shortly after high school graduation, she married childhood sweetheart Mickey Riley. Uncle Johnny took Jeannie and Mickey with him on one of his trips to Nashville, which intensified her desire to be a star in Nashville. Along the way she received encouragement from Weldon Myrick, a one-time member of the Jones County Jamboree, who had since become one of the Nashville’s leading steel guitar players.

Mickey and Jeannie had their first child, Kim Michelle Riley, on January 11, 1966. In August of that year, she and Mickey packed their belongings and moved to Nashville, where she worked as a secretary at Passkey Music. She made a few demo records along the way (under the name Jean Riley) and issued a single, “What About Them,” which failed to chart. Among the unreleased recordings, were some demos that were recorded for Aubrey Mayhew’s Little Darlin’ records.

Enter “Harper Valley PTA”. Veteran country singer Margie Singleton, ex-wife of Shelby Singleton (previously associated with Mercury Records), asked Tom T. Hall to write her a song similar to “Ode To Billie Joe,” which she had recorded the previous year. Ever observant, Tom T. noted the name of Harpeth Valley Elementary School while driving through Bellevue, TN. In short order, he wrote “Harper Valley P.T.A.” about a fictional confrontation between a young widow, Stella Johnson, and a local PTA group who objected to her clothing, social drinking and friendliness with the town’s gentlemen. Tom T. Hall’s “talking blues man” demo was not quite geared to Margie Singleton’s style, but what Shelby Singleton saw in the song wasn’t quite up Margie’s alley, either.

Meanwhile, Jeannie had cut a demo of a song written by Royce Clark called “The Old Town Drunk” about a town drunk whose coat had washed up on the banks of the river and watched his own funeral service, then mocked the townsfolk at the end of the service. Remembering the demo and the singer, Shelby rushed the apprehensive Jeannie into the recording studio to record the song on his newly formed Plantation Records. “Harper Valley PTA” was the only the third single ever released on the new label (the Harper Valley PTA album was the first album issued by the label, as well). Jeannie had significant misgivings about recording the song, which she felt was not country enough to establish her as a country singer. She also had misgivings about being paraded about in miniskirts, and apparently hasn’t worn one since leaving Plantation.

Jeannie continued to have success after “Harper Valley PTA,” although nothing ever approached the heights of Tom T. Hall’s classic song. Jeannie made her Opry debut later in 1968 and the immediate follow up, “The Girl Most Likely,” reached No. 6 on the Billboard Country charts (it reached No. 1 on the Cashbox Country chart). Virtually all of her Plantation recordings attempted to capitalize on the feisty Harper Valley PTA persona – a persona which was actually alien to her true personality. Through 1971, she continued to record for Plantation records, scoring a number of minor hits, as well as five other Top Ten singles, including “Country Girl,” “Oh, Singer” and “Good Enough to Be Your Wife.” The sudden fame took a toll on her marriage and she and Mickey Riley divorced in 1970.

She left Plantation in 1971 to record for MGM where she was promised more artistic freedom. The four albums she recorded for MGM found her cast as a more traditional country singer. While her chart success was minimal, much of this material was excellent. The two biggest hits at MGM, both from 1972, were “Give Myself A Party” at No. 12 (No. 5 Cashbox) and “Good Morning Country Rain” at No. 30, the latter of which was her last top 40 single.

In 1974, Jeannie found religion and turned her attention more toward gospel music, although she recorded some secular music for MCA/Dot thereafter. Jeannie and Mickey remarried and Jeannie’s autobiography, From Harper Valley to the Mountain Top, was published in 1980, with a gospel album of the same name issued at that time.

The years after 1980 were difficult for Ms Riley, who was reported as suffering from long-term clinical depression. In 1994, Jeannie’s family had her committed to a hospital for evaluation after she fell into a deep depression. She and husband Mickey again divorced. At some point she received the appropriate treatment and pulled her life back together.
There is an active website for Jeannie C. Riley but it does not list any tour dates so I am not sure if she is actively performing. Her daughter, Kim Michelle Riley, recorded an album under the name Riley Coyle in 1993 which featured the song “Country In My Genes,” which Loretta Lynn had some success with a few years later. Jeannie sang with her daughter on one of the tracks on the album. Jeannie also appeared as a guest on the Tommy Cash album Let An Old Racehorse Run in 1994. Both albums were on the Playback label. Read more of this post

Album Review: Collin Raye – ‘His Love Remains’

hisloveremainsReligious albums, like Christmas albums, are often eschewed because they all tend to rely on largely the same set of songs. Collin Raye managed to avoid falling into this trap with 2011’s His Love Remains, a tastefully produced collection of traditional hymns and contemporary Christian songs that are largely a reflection of his Roman Catholic upbringing.

The opening track, the 18th century hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” is the first of two duets with newcomer Andrea Thomas. Collin holds his own nicely with his much younger duet partner on this number, but his voice sounds strained on their second collaboration, the contemporary “How Beautiful”. His voice also sound a bit worn on the on the Eucharistic prayer, “O Lord, I Am Not Worthy”, a duet with Nashville-based Christian artist Marie Bellet. The rest of the album, however, finds him in good vocal form.

I’ve always been a huge fan of traditional Southern Gospel. While there are no Southern Gospel songs per se in this collection, my two favorite hymns “How Great Thou Art” and “Amazing Grace” are both represented. I’ve never heard a bad version of “How Great Thou Art”, though no one’s version can match The Statler Brothers’ definitive 1975 version. “Amazing Grace” is a bit lifeless in the beginning, but the production slowly builds with each verse to great effect. The third verse is one I’d never heard before:

Did Jesus bear his cross alone
And let the rest go free?
No, there’s a cross for all of us
And there’s one for you and me.

Not having been raised in the Southern Protestant tradition, I’ve rarely come across religious albums by country artists that contained songs I’d actually heard in church. By and large I haven’t had a problem with that, since I find most Catholic hymns to be rather boring. Raye, however, has included a handful of songs that are among my favorites, including “Here I Am, Lord”, “I Am The Bread Of Life”, and “Were You There?”, a spiritual of African-American origin that became popular in Catholic circles beginning in the 1970s. Also included is one of the Church of Rome’s most traditional and revered songs, “Ave Maria”, which has English language lyrics I’d never heard before, along with the traditional Latin. On “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee” Raye avoids the temptation to use bombastic production and instead gives the hymn a simple but effective piano arrangement.

Among the more contemporary fare are two remakes from Collin’s major label days, “I Get What I Need”, and “Love Remains”, and the brand new “Undefeated”, all of which are worthwhile and enjoyable. I am somewhat less enthralled with the choir-led “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” which seems a bit out of place with the rest of the album.

Said to have been inspired by the loss of Collin’s young granddaughter, who died from a rare neurological disorder, His Love Remains will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but those who enjoy religious music and are looking for something a bit different from the usual fare will find it quite enjoyable.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Johnny Rodriguez – ‘How Could I Love Her So Much/North Of The Border’

Album Review – Collin Raye – ‘The Walls Came Down’

RayewallsIn the wake of the success of I Think About You, Epic Nashville released The Best of Colin Raye: Direct Hits in the spring of 1997. Lead single “What The Heart Wants,” a mid-tempo ballad, peaked at #2 while the Phil Vassar co-write “Little Red Rodeo” was a top 5 hit. Both are excellent songs, and the latter is still one of his biggest recurrent hits today.

Kim Tribble and Tammy Hyler’s “I Can Still Feel You” returned Raye to the top of the charts for the first time in three years and served as the lead single for The Walls Came Down, his fifth studio release for Epic. The single was a change in tone for Raye, with a decidedly slicker production marked by pronounced percussion and guitar work. I like it, but it’s far from a favorite.

Much better is the second single, Tim Johnson and Rory Lee Feek’s “Someone I Used To Know.” It’s an excellent lyric and the first major cut of Feek’s songwriting career (he bought his barn the year after this hit peaked – he and Joey now film their TV show there). Back in his signature ballad mode, Raye shines with this tale of a man’s anguish towards his malevolent ex:

Like a friend, like a fool

Like some guy you knew in school

Didn’t we love, didn’t we share

Or don’t you even care

I know we said we were through

But I never knew how quickly I would go

From someone you loved

To someone you used to know

Read more of this post

Album Review: Gary Allan – ‘Set You Free’

set you freeGary Allan’s career seemed to be on a bit of slowdown, with his last top 10 single coming in 2007. Gary has responded by turning to a variety of producers, often a ploy of the artist in decline and desperate to get another hit, but on the whole it seems to have worked. The result is probably the artist’s most sonically adventurous album to date, which is a mixed blessing, but after an initial sense of disappointment on my first hearing, I’ve warmed to the record more than I was expecting.

His biggest hit single in years, the resigned ‘Every Storm Runs Out Of Rain’, is a good song in a contemporary vein. The production (overseen by Gary with Greg Droman) is adventurous and a long way from Gary’s earliest traditional leanings, but not unattractive (apart from an echo which I could do without but is only used a couple of times). It places Gary’s best plaintive vocal at the heart of the track, supported by an effective harmony from co-writer Hillary Lindsey. This is the song which give the album its title.

Gary and Droman also produced ‘You Without Me’, a weary reflection on dealing with having split from someone the protagonist still loves, which Gary wrote with John Lancaster and Rachel Proctor, with another fine vocal. ‘Sand In My Soul’, their third collaboration, on the other hand, is a boring Warren Brothers song about depression on the beach, with a weird echoey sound. The bluesy rocker ‘Bones’, written by Keith Gattis, has an interesting lyric but it sounds like a loud tuneless mess. Disappointingly it is one of the songs flagged on the CD packaging as a likely single.

Gary turned to Mark Wright to help with a further three tracks. The best of these is ‘Hungover Heart’ which is a solid number despite a sometimes heavy hand with the electric guitars. Gary’s vulnerable vocal is perfect for the song, written by Matt Warren and James Leblanc. Gary’s own ‘No Worries’ is bland and boring reggae-lite which sounds like a Kenny Chesney reject, with irritatingly whispery, echoey production. ‘Good As New’ closes the album with an air of philosophical resignation, and is okay but a little over-produced.

The producer with the biggest role is Jay Joyce, best known for his work with Eric Church, and although I was concerned that I wouldn’t care for his work with Gary, it turns out to be better then expected. The best track on the album is one of his production efforts, is the downbeat ‘It Ain’t The Whiskey’, which showcases Gary’s grainy voice and is reminiscent of his best work, and where the production choices are inventive in a mostly good way (although the last instrumental break is pointlessly loud). An unusual opening with the faint sound of an organ leads into the body of the song, in which Gary declares to an AA meeting “in the church of the broken people” that depression is the root of his addiction, and

It ain’t the whiskey that’s killing me

The song was written by Greg Barnhill, Jim Daddario and Cole Degges.

Joyce also does a good job with the chugging ‘Tough Goodbye’, about a commitment-phobe with some qualms about breaking up with his latest victim. Penned by Josh Thompson and Tony Martin, the song is pretty good and gets a committed delivery from Gary, with an interesting ending where he suddenly sounds more vulnerable and even regretful. It might make a good single.

‘Drop’, another likely single does have a compelling, sexy vocal, but the song is just okay and the instrumental arrangement and production don’t really appeal to me, although it might work on radio. The mid-tempo ‘Pieces’ (written by Gary with Odie Blackmon and Sarah Burton) isn’t bad but is a bit loud, while ‘One More Time’, written by Gary with Hillary Lindsey and Matt Warren, is inoffensive but boring.

Overall, I think this album is a distinct improvement over his last couple of albums, although the quality of the material is not up to his classic work.

Grade: B

Joey + Rory – ‘Where Jesus Is’

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