My Kind of Country

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

Classic Rewind: Gene Watson – ‘The Great Divide’

Classic Rewind: Gene Watson – ‘The Jukebox Played Along’

Classic Rewind: Gene Watson – ‘Carmen’

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘Band of Brothers’

bandofbrothersIn era in which most artists only release new albums every two or three (or more) years, the ever-prolific Willie Nelson is back with a new collection, a mere eight months after the release of To All The Girls … Like all of Nelson’s recent releases for Legacy Recordings, Band of Brothers was produced by Buddy Cannon. It consists of fourteen tracks, eight of which were written by Willie and Cannon.

Band of Brothers is vintage Willie. He thankfully makes no attempts to chase current commercial trends, but manages to make the songs sound fresh and bold, without sounding retro. He serves notice that he’s ready to take on just about anything with the album’s opening track “Bring It On”. “Guitar on the Corner” sounds like a song you think you’ve heard before, but it’s a brand new composition. “The Wall” sounds like the aftermath of “Bring It On”, the bravado having worn off and the protagnist realizing that he’s bitten off more than he can chew. “Wives and Girlfriends” is aperhaps a semi-autobiographical, tongue-in-cheek and slightly (but only slightly) exaggerated account of an apparent glutton for punishment who has had more love affairs than most of us have had hot dinners.

In addition to the aforementioned Nelson/Cannon original compositions, Willie also enlists some help of a few prominent outside songwriters, including Gordie Sampson, Bill Anderson and Billy Joe Shaver. Sampson and Anderson contribute “The Songwriters”, which compares tunesmiths to heroes, schemers, drunks, and dreamers. It’s a perfect vehicle for Willie, one that I mistakenly assumed he’d written himself the first time I heard it. Jamey Johnson joins Willie on Billy Joe Shaver and Gary Nicholson’s “The Git Go”, which although well crafted, is a little too cynical for my liking. I prefer Shaver’s other submission “Hard To Be An Outlaw”, which again is a good match for Nelson.

I’ve often said that Willie Nelson’s voice is an acquired taste and I will readily admit to not being a huge fan when I first became interested in country music in the early 80s. I remember having a conversation with someone who told me to take a moment to appreciate Willie’s skill as a guitarist. It wasn’t enough to win me over as a Willie fan at the time, but over the years I’ve come to realize that the person who told me this was right. Willie remains one of music’s most distinctive pickers and it more than compensates for the occasional moments when his 81-year-old vocal chords let him down. He sounds pretty good on most of the uptempo and midtempo numbers, but the wear and tear is apparent on the ballads, most notably his cover of Vince Gill’s “Whenever You Come Around”. This type of song needs a prettier voice than Willie’s but his guitar picking helps to salvage the track.

Band of Brothers serves notice that Willie Nelson still has plenty to offer in the way of songs that are well played, well written, well produced and mostly well sung.

Grade: A -

Classic Rewind: Gene Watson – ‘Memories To Burn’

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘Uncharted Mind’

unchartedmind1990’s At Last was Gene Watson’s major label swan song but it was by no means the end of his recording career. After leaving the Warner Bros. roster, he continued to release music on a variety of independent labels, beginning with 1992’s In Other Words on the Broadland label. The following year’s Uncharted Mind was the first of four albums released on the Step One label.

Produced by Ray Pennington, Uncharted Mind finds Gene including some more contemporary-soundings songs with the usual traditional fare, with varying degrees of success. The opening track “Glass Hearts” is a pleasant number that was in the realm of what was considered mainstream at the time. Released by a younger artist on a bigger label, it might have been a hit. “Snake In The House”, however, doesn’t work quite as well. It is somewhat of a stylistic departure for Watson and sounds like something that might have been released a decade earlier during the Urban Cowboy era — ironically, a period in which Watson was one of the few holdouts still recording tradtional country. It is arguably the album’s biggest dud. The other contender for that dubious honor is “Simple Minded Heart”, a sickeningly sweet pop-country number that sounds like something Doug Stone turned down and has little to recommend it, despite being co-written by Mel Tillis. It is certainly one of his — and Watson’s — poorer efforts.

Fortunately the rest of the album is much better. Among the highlights is a majestic cover of the Marty Robbins classic “You Gave Me A Mountain”, whch Watson had previously recorded for 1975’s Paper Rosie. His vocal peformance on the 1993 re-recording is every bit as impressive as it had been almost two decades earlier, but I slightly prefer the production on the 1975 version. The meat and potatoes of the album, however, are the more traditional numbers, which were always Watson’s strong point. The toe-tapper “Back In Texas” is a particular favorite of mine, as is Sanger D. Shaffer’s “Cool Ole Fool”, a light-hearted number about someone who is arguably going through midlife crisis. Curt Ryle, Mel Tillis’ co-writer on “Simple Minded Heart” redeems himself with the more traditional and much better “Mirrors Don’t Lie”, on which Gene turns in another stellar vocal performance.

Independent releases weren’t always easy to find in record stores (remember those?) in 1993, so many fans may have missed out on Uncharted Mind when it was first released. If you are one of those people, pick up a cheap used copy. The album is a little more uneven than some of Watson’s earlier efforts, but it still has much to recommend it.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind: Gene Watson – ‘You’re Out Doing What I’m Here Doing Without’

Concert Review: Willie Nelson & Family and Alison Krauss and Union Station along with Kacey Musgraves

“That is the most random pairing of acts I’ve ever seen in one show together in my life”

300x_062014If not my exact words, that’s at least what I was thinking when I logged into Engine 145 Feb 10 to Ken Morton Jr’s headline – “Willie Nelson, AKUS announce co-headlining tour.” Why in the world would two seemingly completely different acts share a stage unless for a one off benefit show somewhere in Texas or Nashville? Well I didn’t get my answer June 17 at The Blue Hills Bank Pavilion on the Boston Waterfront, but I was treated to four hours worth of music across the span of three acts.

I was most excited about tour opener Kacey Musgraves, the only act on the bill I hadn’t previously seen live. Her thirty-minute set was short, and we came in while she was performing a perfect rendition of her live-your-life mid-tempo ballad “Silver Lining.”

She plucked away on the banjo during “Merry Go ‘Round” and tried to get the crowd going during the chorus of “Follow Your Arrow,” which worked surprisingly well. Both were good, but Musgraves stunned with “It Is What It Is,” wrapping her voice around the lyric brilliantly. She gave her underrated steel player a gorgeous solo – and an “I love Pedal Steel” shout out – that easily trumps the recorded version.

The main concern people have with Musgraves is her burgeoning friendship with Katy Perry, a move that could transition her away from country. But the set showcased her country bonafides wonderfully, from her naturally twangy voice to her love of western themes (trademark neon cacti). As proof, Musgraves and her band closed their set with a glorious a Capella rendition of the Roy Rogers classic “Happy Trails To You” featuring the refrain “Till We Meet Again.” I know I’ll be meeting her again, hopefully as a headliner, real soon.

Alison Krauss and Union Station were next, bringing their comforting bluegrass picking to the hungry audience. From the first notes of opener “Let Me Touch You For A While,” I was home. Their 90-minute set was spectacular, with Krauss wrapping her otherworldly voice around their signature songs – “The Lucky One,” “Every Time You Say Goodbye,” “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You,” to “You Will Be My Ain True Love,” “Sawing On The Strings,” “Ghost In This House,” and “Paper Airplane.”

While their set was familiar, it was heavy on uptempo material, which I found surprising, given Krauss is known for her ballads. It worked though, as a whole night of ballads would’ve been too much. Even more startling was Dan Tyminski’s heavier-than-usual role acting like a second lead singer more than just a band member. He ripped through many of songs he fronts including “Dust Bowl Children” and got a charge out of some venue workers with “Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn.” Krauss showcased her trademark wit when talking about “Hey Brother,” his collaboration with EDM mastermind Avicii and the mainstream exposure it’s afford him, including a prime spot over the speakers at Kohl’s stores. Tyminski played that, too, along with his classic rendition of “Man of Constant Sorrow.” He’s a great singer but his prominence was likely do to Krauss’ vocal troubles over the past year.

Her master Dobro player Jerry Douglas also got a solo, plucking away on covers including one by Paul Simon. He’s incredible and the obvious master of his craft. They closed their set with an encore highlight, gathering around in a semi-circle to gift the audience short snippets of “When You Say Nothing At All,” “Down At The River To Prey,” the chorus of “Whiskey Lullaby” and a fabulous take on “The Long Journey,” which Krauss recorded with Robert Plant. The inventive encore was the highlight, a surprise moment of magic. At this point, especially since they haven’t released new music in three years, Krauss and Union Station is a well-oiled machine, albeit an exquisite one.

It’s hard to believe Willie Nelson is a man of 81, when he sings and has the energy of men thirty years his junior. After the show a friend asked me if he still had the goods and with a resounding yes, he does. But really, does he sing well? No, he doesn’t. But much like Kris Kristofferson, that’s to be expected, as Willie will always be Willie.

Like most every other show he’s played, Nelson began his set just as expected, with “Whiskey River.” He has to be the oddest entertainer I’ve ever seen as he doesn’t take breaks between songs, instead he lets song after song bleed into one another so you don’t know where one ends or the next begins. It works for him as he bled “Crazy” into “Night Life” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” into “Always On My Mind.”

He also turned in fantastic renditions of “On The Road Again” and “Good Hearted Woman,” which he dedicated to Waylon Jennings. When he launched into “Beer For My Horses,” I didn’t recognize the song at first given how he’d changed it up, but the lyric caught up to me when he got to the “Pappy told my pappy” line in the second verse. I always love hearing him sing “Me and Paul,” and especially liked the all-too-appropriate line about him singing on a package show with Charley Pride.

Nelson had his family band with him, which included his two sons and sister Bobbie, who gave a nice piano showcase. His guitarist was introduced as simply as Johnny, and revealed late last week to be the actor Johnny Depp, who’s in town playing Mobster Whitey Bulger in the biopic Black Mass.

His son Lukas had a showcase of his own, ripping through the blues on “Texas Flood,” a nine minute set highlight showcasing his masterful guitar playing and powerfully aching booming voice. He later went more restrained and joined his dad for their recent duet “Just Breathe.”

As much as for his own material, Nelson’s set was a showcase for country music. He gifted us with three Hank Williams covers – “Jambalaya,” “Hey Good Lookin,” and “I Saw The Light,” all of which were outstanding. He turned “Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” into a chant, converting the word ‘mama’ into a deep-throated wail, which worked for a sing-along but became grating.

Nelson, who transported the crowd to a 1970s Texas honky-tonk with his unique outlaw sound, closed the show (and evening) with a sing-along that brought out Krauss, Union Station, Musgraves, and her band. With everyone on stage they went through the gospel favorite “I’ll Fly Away” and country standard “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” among others. It was fabulous he included everyone in this and it was a hoot to see Musgraves’ band in their flashy suits that light up like a Christmas tree.

All and all it was a fantastic evening of live music that left this Musgraves, Krauss, and Nelson fan extremely satisfied. Given that Rounder Records began in Massachusetts, it’s wonderful that Krauss gave a shot out to the people who signed her in 1985 – who also happened to be in attendance.

Now, could Nelson have sung “Poncho and Lefty” or “City of New Orleans?” Of course. Should Musgraves have been allowed to play longer? Hell, yeah. Did I want to hear Krauss sing a bit more? Without a doubt. But that’s just nitpicking a near perfect evening of exceptional music from three of the brightest talents country music has to offer. Just a terrific show, and wonderful evening, all around.

Classic Rewind: Jimmy C. Newman – ‘Cry, Cry Darlin”

RIP Jimmy C. Newman, who died on 21 June. This was one of his biggest hits:

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘Honky Tonk Crazy’

honky tonk crazyOne of the ironies of the rise of the neotraditional movement in the late 1980s was that it swept away some of the old guard who had been keeping more traditional sounds alive on country radio. Gene Watson was one of the casualties. His last album for Epic, produced by Billy Sherrill, was an excellent effort which deserved to do much better than it did.

The title track is a smooth confessional from a man who warns off a woman who is getting a little too close:

I’ve always been honky tonk crazy
I’m someone that’s best left alone
Cause when I get honky tonk crazy
I only feel right doing wrong

I’ll take you and make you love smokey old bars
Cheap whiskey and a sad country song
Till there’s nothing left of the lady you are
And then like your pride I’ll be gone

Lovely steel guitar and fiddle, and Gene’s seductive vocal makes the prospect seem more inviting than it should. The song, written by the legendary Harlan Howard with Ron Peterson, was also recorded by Keith Whitley (and is available on the posthumous Sad Songs & Waltzes). Gene’s version disappointingly failed to creep into the top 40 on the Billboard country chart.

The second and last single did a little better, reaching #28. The funky ‘Everybody Needs A Hero’ (written by Max D. Barnes and Troy Seals) is a Georgia boy’s reminiscence of a somewhat disreputable childhood hero. The implication is that he is actually the kid’s father or grandfather:

My mama says I turned out just like him
She worries and prays that I’ll change
I didn’t know until a few days ago
Why he sent me his gold watch and chain

‘I Didn’t Think Of You At All’ is a classic Gene Watson heartbreak ballad, with perfect phrasing conveying the emotional devastation of a man desperately trying not to let it show. Gene squeezes out every drop of emotion while never oversinging it. Equally broken is the protagonist of ‘Ashes To Ashes’:

I tried everything, even drowning your memory in booze
So I finally decided to lie down and die with the pain
Oh, but my heart kept on beating and softly repeating your name

When they lay me away the last words they’ll speak
Here lies a man that don’t rest in peace

God gave me your love and God knows I threw it away
What I put you through is the same hell I’m living today
Now praying don’t help so dying’s the best I can do

In similar heartbreak vein is a revival of a country classic, ‘You took Her Off My Hands’, one of Harlan Howard’s earliest compositions (with Wynn Stewart and Skeets McDonald) whose best known recording is that by Ray Price; Patsy Cline also recorded a version under the title ‘You Took Him Off My Hands’. Gene’s interpretation is superlative.

‘Getting Used To Being Loved Again’ is a gently vulnerable ballad expressing the wonder of finding new love at last. ‘I Always Get It Right With You is a warm, tender love song.

‘When She Touches Me’ features a former Casanova who has been felled by falling in love with one of his conquests.

‘Nobody’s Baby Tonight’ is a sympathetic song about a fragile woman whose man has recently left her and is so lonely she resorts to picking up a man in a bar.

The pacey ‘Her Heart Or Mine’ tackles a relationship which has run out of steam, but there is no way of avoiding hurting one or the other:

There’s no way I can make both of us happy
I don’t know if I should break her heart or mine

After this album failed to maintain Gene’s commercial status, he left the label for a period in the wilderness. He enjoyed a brief resurgence when he signed to Warner Bros, recording two excellent albums for that label, Back In The Fire which I included in our retrospective look at he Class of ’89, and At Last. But linking up with new labelmate Randy Travis’s manager (and later wife) Lib Hatcher turned out to be a bad move, and legal wrangles coincided with the end of his major label career. The 90s saw Gene recording for a succession of minor labels, many of which have gone out of business, making the music he made there hard to come by.

This is a wonderful, underrated album from an artist at the peak of his vocal prowess, which deserve to be better known. Unfortunately it has not yet been re-released, and only rather expensive used copies seem to be out there at present. If you do come across a copy, it’s well worth it.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Jamie O’Neal – ‘I Need Thee Every Hour’

Week ending 6/21/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

eddy raven1954 (Sales): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1954 (Jukebox): Slowly – Webb Pierce (Decca)

1954 (Disc Jockeys): Oh Baby Mine (I Get So Lonely) — Johnnie & Jack (RCA)

1964: My Heart Skips A Beat — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1974: I Don’t See Me In Your Eyes Anymore — Charlie Rich (Epic)

1984: I Got Mexico — Eddy Raven (RCA)

1994: Wink – Neal McCoy (Atlantic)

2004: Redneck Woman — Gretchen Wilson (Epic)

2014: This Is How We Roll — Florida Georgia Line ft. Luke Bryan (Republic Nashville)

2014 (Airplay): Play It Again — Luke Bryan (Capitol)

Classic Rewind: Gene Watson – ‘What She Don’t Know Won’t Kill Her’

Classic Rewind: Keith Whitley – ‘I Never Go Around Mirrors’

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘Memories To Burn’

memories to burnIn 1985 Gene moved from MCA to Epic, and recorded Memories To Burn, which he produced with band member Larry Booth. Lead single ‘Cold Summer Day In Georgia’ was a modest hit, peaking at #24. It is a good song in which a man ponders a breakup and the unlikelihood of his woman coming back.

The Western Swing title track did much better, reaching the top 5. It is a slightly anxious message to a new love interest the protagonist hopes will workout better than his past experiences.

The final single, ‘Carmen’, was rather atypical of Gene’s style, and peaked just outside the top 30. It did make a bit of a splash among country fans overseas, after he performed the Spanish-style tune at the Wembley International Country Music Festival. It is quite a pretty plaintive ballad about a roving cowboy from the US falling for a Mexican girl.

‘The Note’ is a stunning lost love ballad which was to be a top 30 single a decade later for neotraditionalist Daryle Singletary. The best song on the album, it is perfect for Gene, and should probably have been a single. The vocal rivals his classic ‘Farewell Party’.

‘Speak Of The Devil’ is another fine ballad and great performance about dealing with a breakup. The protagonist is struggling to get over a really bad relationship with the help of his friendly neighbourhood bar, and it only gets worse when she turns up:

The songs on the jukebox tell of cheating and sin
Speak of the devil – and she walks in

In ‘Stranger In Our House Tonight’ (another great ballad), the protagonist has just heard his wife plans to leave, and is completely blindsided. In ‘New York Times’ (written by African American country singer O. B. McClinton) he is searching for his runaway wife who prefers city lights to a rural Texas home.

The up-tempo ‘I Want My Rib Back’ is a jaundiced number about an unhappily married man co-written by Keith Whitley and later recorded by Kenny Chesney. The call-and-response backing vocals (also making an appearance on the closing ‘Get along Little Doggie’) are a bit dated, but otherwise this is an entertaining performance.

On a happier note, ‘If I Painted A Picture’ is a romantic love song laden with fiddle.

This album is available on a 2-4-1 CD, paired with its successor Starting New Memories (also a great album – I particularly like the story song ‘Atlanta Anymore’ which has a nice twist in its tale of the end of an affair). It is highly recommended.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Gene Watson – ’14 Carat Mind’

Single Review – Trent Tomlinson – ‘Come Back To Bed’

unnamedWith a beat slightly reminiscent of Luke Bryan’s “I Don’t Want This Night To End,” and a lyric not too far removed from the bro-country of today’s mainstream radio, Trent Tomlinson marks his return with a whimper that should be a bang.

“Come Back To Bed” says it all through its title. Tomlinson plays the part of a man desiring his woman to drop the towel around her newly showered body and return to his embrace to be covered in kisses and fawned over. Unfortunately that’s about as deep as the song gets.

But unlike most songs of its ilk, “Come Back To Bed” is nicely restrained and features zero of the 80s rock trappings that has ruined mainstream country over the past ten years and Tomlinson’s Lee Brice-like vocal is crisp and clean, not dirty and gravelly, which I greatly appreciate. He also seems invested in what he’s singing, which for a marginalized lyric like this, wins him many points.

Is “Come Back To Bed” the second coming of “One Wing In The Fire,” his excellent number from eight years ago? Of course not, and I’m not at all surprised, especially given the course of our genre in that short span of time. But it’s not an offensive song to women, nor is it rock or hip-hop in any noticeable way. I’ll take this over 99% of radio offerings any day. At least he keeps it listenable.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Marty Robbins – ‘Begging To You’

Album Review – Gene Watson – ‘Sometimes I Get Lucky’

0215albums006Sometimes I Get Lucky came just two years after Gene Watson scored his biggest and only number one hit, “Fourteen Caret Mind.” While immensely successful, the album, nor anything else Watson released after it, was that successful again.

“You’re Out Doing What I’m Here Doing Without,” a jaunty honky-tonker, was the first single peaking at #2. I quite like this one even though it hasn’t aged too well. Watson brings a nice energy to the track and I love the ribbons of steel woven throughout.

The title track was the second single and didn’t fare as well, peaking at #9. It’s an excellent steel-laced country shuffle that has Watson channeling Merle Haggard both sonically and vocally. The steel guitar is especially engaging and hooks the listener in from the beginning.

While the majority of country music was caught up in the watered down pop of the Urban Cowboy era at the time, Watson proved the exception. Sometimes I Get Lucky is purely a honky-tonk record with both steel and twangy guitars delightfully peppering the arrangements and making for a Big City esque sound.

Album opener “Speak Well of Me” is the perfect example; a weepy steel led number about a man pleading with his ex to only say nice things about him to their children. “She Makes Leaving Look Easy” is another great track, this time about a woman with ease about her during a break-up. Watson’s vocal is silky smooth and weaves through the track with the effortless of the woman leaving.

The rest of the ballads are ear catching but still somewhat interchangeable. “You Waltzed Yourself Right Into My Life” and You Put Out An Old Flame Last Night” are nice steel-led numbers while “Thinkin’ ‘Bout Leavin’” is more of the same except for the addition of a twangy guitar. All are good, but somewhat blend together.

“You’re Just Another Beer Drinkin’ Song” is the album’s only truly upbeat number and it’s a fabulous mix of steel and rip-roaring twangy lead guitar. “If I Were You I’d Fall In Love With Me,” isn’t as charging, but it’s just as infectious.

Overall Sometimes I Get Lucky is very engaging and enjoyable album from one of the best honky-tonk singers the genre has ever produced. The song selection is high and Watson’s voice is in fine form throughout. Another winner in his catalog.

Grade: A

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

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