My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Bill Anderson

Album Review: Tracy Byrd – ‘The Truth About Men’

truthaboutmenBy 2003, Tracy Byrd was struggling to remain commercially viable so he and co-producer Billy Joe Walker, Jr. took a three-pronged approach for his RCA swan song,The Truth About Men, which combines the neotraditional sounds for which he had become well known with more contemporary material and a pair of novelty songs that they hoped would allow them to further capitalize on the success of the prior year’s #1 hit “Ten Rounds with Jose Cuervo”.

First out of the box was the tongue-in-cheek but blatantly honest title track that bravely declares how men (allegedy) really feel: “We ain’t wrong, we ain’t sorry, and it’s probably gonna happen again.” Written by Paul Overstreet with Rory Lee Feek and Tim Johnson, and with guest vocals provided by Andy Griggs, Blake Shelton and Montgomery Gentry, “The Truth About Men” didn’t reach the lofty heights of “Ten Rounds with Jose Cuervo”, peaking at #13. And no doubt everyone involved had some explaining to do to their wives. Novelty tunes tend to wear thin after repeated listenings, but this is a fun song that I’ve always enjoyed. The follow-up single, “Drinkin’ Bone”, which is one part novelty tune and one part party song, fared much better. It landed at #7, marking the last time that Byrd would chart inside the Top 10. Playing it safe and pandering to radio’s growing interest in less substantive songs, RCA released the Carribbean-flavored “How’d I Wind Up In Jamaica”. The production is a bit cluttered on this one and by the time of its release, Byrd was on his way out at RCA, so the single received little promotion and stalled at #53. A missed opportunity was the Rodney Crowell composition “Making Memories of Us”, which should have been released as a single. Byrd’s version is much better than the version Keith Urban took to #1 two years later.

The rest of the album is a mixed bag. The steamy “You Feel Good” is my least favorite song on the album. I admit to being put off by the reference to Byrd sleeping in the nude in the opening line, and that made me really not want to listen much to the rest of the song, but the real problem is that it requires a more soulful performance than Byrd delivers. Conway Twitty could probably have made this song work. “That’s What Keeps Her Getting By” and “When You Go” are attempts to move along with the musical times but both are forgettable filler, as is the power ballad “Somewhere I Wanna Go”. On the other hand, I quite enjoyed the Keith Stegall-penned “Tiny Town” and “Baby Put Your Clothes On”, which was written by Paul Overstreet, Bill Anderson, and Buddy Cannon. Not surprisingly, Byrd is at his best when he’s singing more traditional songs.

The album closes with a live version of “Ten Rounds with Jose Cuervo”, which not surprisingly works well in a concert setting.

The Truth About Men marks the end of the major-label phase of Tracy Byrd’s career. It was a modest success, peaking at #5 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart but it failed to earn gold certification. It isn’t his very best work, but it contains enough worthwhile songs to warrant purchasing a cheap used copy.

Grade: B

Album Review: Tracy Byrd – ‘Love Lessons’

lovelessonsTAfter enjoying tremendous commercial success with 1994’s No Ordinary Man, Tracy Byrd stumbled a bit with the following year’s Love Lessons, which failed to produce any major hits. Of its four singles, only the title track reached the Top 10, peaking at #9.

The album found him working once again with Tony Brown, who had produced some of his early hits from his debut album. First out of the box was the catchy line-dance number “Walking To Jersusalem”, which peaked at #15, a far cry from the #2-peaking “Keeper of the Stars” that had preceded it. The title track was the album’s biggest hit, but it is a bit dull and far from memorable. Much better is “Heaven In My Woman’s Eyes”, which sounds like something out of Merle Haggard’s catalog, but was actually written by Mark Nesler. I also liked “4 to 1 in Atlanta” which finds the protagonist preparing to visit Georgia in search of Ms. Right.

Love Lessons is one of those albums which is neither great nor terrible, and thus not very memorable. It lacks the compelling material of its predecessor. Tracy still sounds a lot like George Strait on a lot of the tracks. All of the songs are at least good, and today they might be considered great, but they did not stand out in era in which country music routinely turned out much higher quality material than it does today. There is no “Keeper of the Stars” or “Lifestyles of the Not So Rich and Famous” on this collection with the exception of two numbers written by two of country music’s greatest songwriters: “You Lied To Me” by the great Bill Anderson and “Don’t Need That Heartache” by Kostas and Melba Montgomery. Both of these songs are head and shoulders above anything else the album has to offer.

Love Lessons is not essential listening but is worth the small cash outlay required to obtain a used copy.

Grade: B

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 -

Album Review: Bill Anderson – ‘Life!’

lifeVeteran songwriter Bill Anderson’s most recent venture into the recording studio showcases some of his newest songs. Whispering Bill was never known for the quality of his voice, but that means he is not apppreciably worse than in his youth, while his songwriting prowess is still great. He also recruits a few famous friends to help out with vocals on some tracks, which helps with the overall sound.

‘Rhinestone Grindstone’ is a brilliantly and sympathetically observed portrait of a struggling middle aged musician afraid he’s going to die “unfamous and broke” after all, but still doggedly carrying on for his handful of fans. Now,

He can’t write the songs and he can’t hold the notes and he can’t get the girls like before,

a duetting John Anderson (who certainly can still hold the notes and will hopefully be recording again himself soon) sings.

The most entertaining track on the record is probably his humorous collaboration with Joey + Rory, ‘Whisper’, which plays on both their real-life relationship and Bill’s famous nickname. Bill plays marriage counsellor to a squabbling couple, advising them to copy him instead of yelling at one another:

If you wanna make your point and really get through
Don’t raise your voice, just do what I do
Whisper

They all sound as thought they had a great time in the studio, and this would work well live too.

The ubiquitous Willie Nelson duets on the fun tongue in cheek ‘Bubba Garcia’s’, a co-write with Buddy Cannon and Jamey Johnson about a bar and restaurant which combines the Mexican and redneck influences of its owner’s heritage.

‘A Song Like This’ is a slightly quirky song Bill wrote with Brad Paisley, about an uptown woman who finds herself in a honky tonk bar due to a broken heart. Vince Gill inserts a soulful jazzstyle vocal cameo in the middle of the honky tonk tune to represent the woman’s sophisticated background; this is not my favorite side of Gill but he is certainly accomplished at it. Disappointingly, Dailey & Vincent are wasted and barely noticeable harmonising in the background of ‘Dreams Are Easy To Come By’, a pretty love song.

The best of Bill’s solo vocals is ‘Old Army Hat’, a very touching story song about a grandfather who embarrasses his grandson by insisting on constantly wearing his “funny looking worn out army hat” in honor of the comrades who didn’t make it back from WWII. The grandson finds his views change when they visit a war memorial at Washington DC, and he finds serving soldiers respect the old man/ Grandpa then gives his hat away to a little boy, the orphaned son of the victim of a more recent war, saying,

Son just keep it…
You’re a brave little soldier, son
And every soldier needs his very own authentic army hat
For your Daddy who gave everything the least that I can do
Is pass on this old worn out army hat

The song segues into part of ‘America The Beautiful’, with a small choir joining in, which works surprisingly well.

The other songs, good though they are, would undoubtedly sound better with someone else singing. ‘Blackberry Winter’ (written by Bill with Rob Crosby) is a very good if downbeat song comparing a thwarted romance to a cold spell in spring. ‘She Could Ruin My Life’ is quite a sweet song about falling in love, written with Jon Randall and Vicky McGehee. ‘In Another Life’, written with Walt Aldridge is a catchy and melodic but slightly silly little song about meeting someone it feels like he has known before; while the tender ‘When You Love Me’ is a straightforward love song.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Bill Anderson – ‘If You Can Live With It’

Album Review – Sara Evans – ‘Slow Me Down’

SaraEvansSlowDownAlbumWhen Sara Evans appeared on Opry Backstage with Bill Anderson in the late 90s, she commented on her voice, saying no matter what she sings it’ll always come out country. That logic may’ve been true at the time, but with producer Mark Bright at the helm and a 2014 mentality to uphold, Evans is as far from her country roots as one can be and still associate with country music.

If you’ve studied the careers of the 80s and 90s country women as closely as I have over the years, you know they show their true colors when their commercial prospects begin to fade. Do they go the Reba or Faith Hill route and squeeze out every last hit, with little regard for quality? Or do they take the Kathy Mattea and Patty Loveless route and seamlessly transition into a legacy career marked by adventurous and risk taking records that display the innate artistry that made them too smart for country radio in the first place?

With Slow Me Down Evans fits squarely into the former category with an album that exposes a hidden truth of her career – that she was never that artistic at all, just a trend follower who happened to come of age at a time when good quality songs were still the mainstay of mainstream Nashville. With that era firmly in the rearview mirror, we’re left with a singer resorting to whatever she can to find a platform, and the results are more than a little desperate.

When the title track was released late September, the press behind it made “Slow Me Down” out to be the best thing Evans had ever recorded, a record akin to the 80s crossover hits that came between the Urban Cowboy era and the new traditionalist movement. In reality it’s a terrible song, shoddily written by Merv Green, Heather Morgan, and Jimmy Robbins. The verses are stunted and repetitive and the chorus, while strong, becomes too breathy when Evans morphs into a pop diva by the end.

The rest of the album follows suit, with Evans turning out one generic ‘bright pop’ moment after another with little regard to singing anything that actually has something to say. Bright’s use of drums and electric guitars is far too generic for Evans, and any uniqueness in her voice is suppressed in favor of exploiting the lowest common denominator. Even her trademark covers of mainstream hits have taken a beating, with her take on Gavin DeGraw’s “Not Over You” maintaining far too much of his original, down to inviting him in for a guest vocal.

When I reviewed Stronger three years ago, I said one of that project’s shortcomings was the lack of Evans’ trademark sweeping story songs (‘I Learned That From You’ and ‘You’ll Always Be My Baby’) and her distinctive honky-tonkers (‘Born To Fly’ and ‘Suds In The Bucket’). Those problems exist here, too, but after three years of such songs going the way of VCRs and Landline telephones, it’s hardly a surprise. Evans does try and maintain the last ounce of her country credibility with “Better Off,” a fiddle-heavy tune featuring Vince Gill, but the production is still far too loud, with drums and noise marring the purer elements.

If it’s any consolation, there’s a lyrical consistency on Slow Me Down that elevates the album above Stronger, which had too may juvenile lyrical couplets. But that’s hardly a cause for celebration, as the music here is far too weak, generic, and bland for a singer of Evans’ caliber. I’m not overly disappointed, though, as I kind of expected this, and in the context of mainstream country, this is one of the less irritating releases to come so far this year.

Grade: C-

Week ending 2/15/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

jackson_stonewall1p1954 (Sales): There Stands The Glass — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1954 (Jukebox): Let Me Be The One — Hank Thompson (4 Star)

1954 (Disc Jockeys): There Stands The Glass — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1964: B.J. The D.J. — Stonewall Jackson (Columbia)

1974: World Of Make Believe — Bill Anderson (MCA)

1984: That’s The Way Love Goes — Merle Haggard (Epic)

1994: I Swear — John Michael Montgomery (Atlantic)

2004: Remember When — Alan Jackson (Arista)

2014: Drink A Beer — Luke Bryan (Capitol)

2014 (Airplay): Drink A Beer — Luke Bryan (Capitol)

Week ending 2/8/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

Bill Anderson1954 (Sales): There Stands The Glass — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1954 (Jukebox): There Stands The Glass — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1954 (Disc Jockeys): There Stands The Glass — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1964: Begging To You — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1974: World Of Make Believe — Bill Anderson (MCA)

1984: Show Her — Ronnie Milsap (RCA)

1994: I Swear — John Michael Montgomery (Atlantic)

2004: Remember When — Alan Jackson (Arista)

2014: Drink A Beer — Luke Bryan (Capitol)

2014 (Airplay): Whatever She’s Got — David Nail (MCA)

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Only Me’

onlymeAlthough she is primarily known as a bluegrass artist, Rhonda Vincent has moved back and forth between bluegrass and country a number of times over the course of her career. She’s done bluegrass albums and she’s done country albums, and she’s done albums that blended the two genres. This time around, instead of hybridizing the two styles, she has released a collection of twelve songs, six of which are bluegrass, and six traditional country numbers. In its physical form, the album was released on two discs, which seems a little odd when all twelve songs could easily fit on one.

Both Willie Nelson and Daryle Singletary appear on the album as Rhonda’s duet partners. Interestingly, both appear on the bluegrass part of the album. Willie, who has had a hand in almost every musical style over his long career, is not particularly known for bluegrass, but he sounds right at home singing the title track with Rhonda. Singletary lends his vocals to a remake of “We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds”, a 1963 hit for George Jones and Melba Montgomery. One could argue that this one really isn’t bluegrass, but that would be nitpicking. Vincent and Singletary stick close to the original version and while this rendition doesn’t bring anything new to the table, it does give a deserving song a crack at reaching a new audience.

Although I’m a huge fan of Rhonda’s bluegrass recordings, on this particular album, the country songs are where she really shines. The country half of the album kicks off with her original composition “Teardrops Over You”. The rest of the songs on the album are remakes of country classics — with plenty of steel guitar that will keep purists happy. She bravely tackles “Once A Day”, and though she does a good job, nobody can sing this song like Connie Smith. I like her take on another Bill Anderson number — “Bright Lights and Country Music” better. She pays homage to Emmylou Harris on “Beneath Still Waters” and to George Jones (again) on “When The Grass Grows Over Me”, my favorite song on the entire album, and then kicks up her heels on the closing track, a barnburner called “Drivin’ Nails” which was a hit in 1946 for both Floyd Tillman and Ernest Tubb.

There are no surprises here, no real artistic stretches or groundbreaking moments, just some great bluegrass and country music. Sometimes that’s enough.

Grade: A+

Classic Rewind: Bill Anderson – ‘Liars 1 Believers 0′

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: Bill Anderson and Mary Lou Turner – ‘That’s What Made Me Love You’

Willie Nelson: the country duet albums

Whatever else one may think about Willie Nelson, there are two things that are absolutely true about the man – he has a strong sense of the history of the genre and he believes in paying it forward and back.

Take a stroll through the sales pages of a website such as CD Baby and count the number of country albums by unheralded artists that feature a track or two in which Willie Nelson does a guest duet or harmony vocal. As for duet albums, Willie has recorded more duet albums than most regular duos record in their career.

In this article we will take a look at some of the many duet albums that Willie has recorded with other country artists. We won’t be looking at the albums he cut with Ray Price (someone else will do that article) and we won’t be looking at the albums that Willie cut with artists outside the genre such as Ray Charles, Julio Iglesias, Wynton Marsailles, Leon Russell or Norma Jones. This will be country music – period.

1) Willie Nelson & Roger Miller – Old Friends (Columbia, 1982)

Willie Nelson and Roger Miller (1936-1992) were contemporaries and old friends who both played in Ray Price’s band. Roger was a unique talent, perhaps the greatest entertainer the world has ever seen. Roger barely needed even a guitar to keep an audience enthralled for hours, but before breaking through as a performer, he was a solid country songsmith, writing hits for other singers such as Jim Reeves and Ray Price.

This album, partially recorded at Willie’s Pedernales Recording Studio and using Willie’s band augmented by a few extra musicians such as Johnny Gimble (fiddle and mandolin), Grady Martin (guitar) and Jimmy Day (steel guitar) has the sound of a Willie Nelson album but all of the material is associated with Roger Miller (Roger wrote all ten songs, one a co-write with Bill Anderson). Staying away from the obvious Miller hits (most of them novelties that don’t lend themselves to duets) Willie and Roger tackle Roger’s solid classics that were hits for others such as “Invitation To The Blues” (Ray Price), “Half A Mind” (Ernest Tubb) “When Two Worlds Collide” (Jim Reeves) and “Husbands & Wives” (a hit for Roger, Jack Jones, Brooks & Dunn and also recorded by many others such as Neil Diamond). The single released from the album, “Old Friends”, also featured Ray Price, and scraped into the top twenty. Oddly enough only three of the songs are actual duets at all (Roger solos on three songs, including the only novelty on the album “Aladambama”, and Willie solos on four songs), but they do represent an enlightening dip into the Roger Miller song-bag.

2) Willie Nelson & Faron Young – Funny How Time Slips Away (Columbia, 1985)

Faron Young (1932-1996), although only a year older than Willie, had already been a star for six-plus years when Willie hit Nashville. Faron gave Willie his first two big breaks as a songwriter: he recorded “Hello Walls” (a million seller in 1961) and he refused to let Willie (the proverbial starving songwriter) sell him the song for $500, lending him the money instead. At the time, Faron had already seen the preliminary sales figures for the song and knew the songwriters’ royalties would be thousands of dollars. Willie never forgot this and the two remained friends until the end of Faron’s life. Faron would have hits on several other songs written by Willie and this album features most of them.

Side one of the album featured six songs written by Willie Nelson of which three (“Hello Walls”, “Congratulations” and “Three Days” were hits for Faron). Side two of the record features five of Faron’s hits supplied by other songwriters (“Live Fast – Love Hard – Die Young”, “Sweet Dreams” , “Four In The Morning” ,
“Life Turned Her That Way” and “Going Steady”, plus the title track – written by Willie but not a Faron Young hit.

This album was released in 1985. By then Faron’s 22 year run at the top of the charts was long over, but Faron could still sing. Consequently, even though this album was recorded at Pedernales studio, the musicians are Nashville session men and the album does not come across as a Willie Nelson album, but as a true collaborative effort. Faron solos on “Four In The Morning” and Willie solos on “She’s Not For You” but the rest is duets including possibly the best versions you’ll ever hear on “Hello Walls” and “Funny How Time Slips Away”.

3) Willie Nelson & Webb Pierce – In The Jailhouse Now (Columbia 1982)

Webb Pierce (1921-1991) was the biggest star in country music during the decade of the 1950s and remained a viable star until about 1967, after which time his high nasal style permanently fell out of vogue (except in bluegrass music). Most observers have failed to see Willie’s connection with Webb Pierce, who never recorded any of Willie’s songs, except as album cuts, and never had any working relationship with Webb, and it is a bit tenuous to see the connection, although Willie’s vocal phrasing and pinched nasal vibrato seem influenced by Webb’s vocals of the 1950s.

This album features duets on nine of Webb’s 1950s recordings, including Webb’s mega-hits “Slowly”, “There Stands The Glass”, More and More”, “Wondering” , “I Don’t Care” and “Back Street Affair” (a sextet of songs that spent eighty weeks at #1) plus three more songs that appeared on Webb’s albums and one new song written by Willie Nelson, Webb Pierce and Max Powell , the bluesy “Heebie Jeebie Blues #2” . The album was recorded at Pedernales Studio using Willie’s band augmented by Johnny Gimble, Grady Martin, Jimmy Day, Leon Russell and Richard Manuel.

The only single released from the album, “In The Jailhouse Now” barely dented the charts at #72, but Webb’s voice had dropped enough in pitch to make him an effective duet partner for Willie. Both singers obviously had fun recording this album and I regard this as the most effective of Willie’s major label duet albums.

Willie Nelson & Curtis Potter – Six Hours At Pedernales (Step One Records, 1994)

Curtis Potter (1940 – ) is part of the Willie’s Texas connection, having served as Hank Thompson’s band leader from 1959-1971 and one of Willie’s circle of friends including Johnny Bush, Darrell McCall and who knows how many others. Curtis never became a big star outside of his native Texas but he is an impressive singer and he and Willie harmonize well on this collection of country songs. Produced by Ray Pennington, the in-house producer at Step One Records, this collection features three songs written by Pennington, three written by Nelson, plus some outside material. This album features none of Willie’s band members, aiming instead for a Texas Swing/Honky-Tonk feel with outstanding fiddle work by Rob Hajacos and steel by Buddy Emmons.

For me the highlights are “The Party’s Over” and “My Own Peculiar Way” in which Willie and Curtis swap verses on a pair of Willie classics, and Willie’s solo turn on Ray Pennington’s “Turn Me Loose and Let Me Swing”. That said, I really like this entire album. It’s been in my car CD player for the last week.

4) Willie Nelson & Johnny Bush – Together Again (Delta Records, 1982)

Delta Records is a long-defunct Texas independent label that never had much distribution outside of Texas and had some of its inventory confiscated by the IRS during Willie’s tax problem days. Johnny Bush Shinn (1935 – ) is a long-time friend of Willie’s dating back to the 1950s. Both were in Ray Price’s band and have been members of each other’s bands at various times.

This twelve song album features ten duets plus Johnny Bush solos on “Driving Nails In My Coffin” and his own “Whiskey River” (taken at a very different tempo than Willie usually performs it). The album opens up with the Buck Owens classic “Together Again” and works its way through a solid program of songs including the Paul Simon song “Still Crazy After All These Years” plus Willie Nelson tunes “I Let My Mind Wander”, “I’ve Just Destroyed The World I’m Living In” , “The Party’s Over” and “My Own Peculiar Way”.

“Whiskey River” was released as a single just denting the top 100, and “You Sure Tell It Like It Is, George Jones” was also released as a single, although it didn’t chart (it is a great track). “The Party’s Over is a standout track as is “The Sound of A Heartache”, a song written by Johnny Bush.

The album was recorded at Willie’s Pedernales Studio, but produced by Johnny Bush. Willie’s band was not used on this album, so the sound is more that of a conventional country band. This album was recorded after Johnny was struck with spastic dysphonia so he was not at his vocal peak , but still he was still a tremendous singer, if not quite the ‘country Caruso’ (later medical discoveries would restore him to peak condition).

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Album Review – Steve Wariner – ‘It Ain’t All Bad’

SW.Cover Hi res_smIn the modern age of country music, where genre blending is the new normal, it’s difficult to find artists exploring their love of different types of music for artistic and not commercial gain. Steve Wariner, who’s back with his first full-length country album in eight years, is an exception to the rule.

A bucket list record, as he calls it, It Ain’t All Bad gives Wariner the opportunity to explore his wide range of musical tastes without sacrificing the core sound he brought to such hits as (and some of my favorites) “Small Town Girl,” “Lonely Women Make Good Lovers,” “Kansas City Lights,” and “The Weekend.”

Wariner doesn’t succeed with every style choice, but the majority of tracks on It Ain’t All Bad are very good to excellent. He’s at his best on slower mid-tempo numbers where he’s able to show off the delicate nature of his voice. Steel and electric guitar backed “Arrows At Airplanes,” a co-write with Rocky Lynne and Mike Severs is a beautiful example about enjoying life, framed around the story of an old man “shooting arrows at airplanes, throwing pillows at freight trains” on the bank of a river. One of my favorite tracks on the album, it’s the type of tune Wariner excels at.

He’s equally in his artistic wheelhouse on “Spokes In A Wheel,” an environmentally conscious track about our place on ‘a little blue rock called mother earth.’ Co-written with Kent Blazy, “Spokes In A Wheel” works because it relays a timely message backed by gentle acoustic guitars without coming off as preachy. “’48 Ford,” a 70s singer/songwriter inspired folk song is a gorgeous reflection on the titular truck and the memories it holds throughout the life of a family. One of the album’s strongest tracks, it works summarily to “Spokes In A Wheel” by using simple imagery to frame the storytelling.

Western Swing ballad (and fan favorite) “Bluebonnet Memories” is the project’s most traditional track, blending steel guitar and fiddle with a bluesy guitar riff reminiscent of Vince Gill’s signature style. Wariner co-wrote the track with Rick Carnes as an ode to Texas, and while good, there are too much jazzy overtones for my taste.

“What More Do You Want” is a slicker more pop-leaning slow burner about a man wronged by his woman that recalls Wariner’s 80s sound, although he intended it to be Beatle-esque, in the style of George Harrison. He brought his son Ryan in on the slide guitar and it all works to create an ethereal feel. “Don’t Tell Her I’m Not,” possibly my favorite track on It Ain’t All Bad and the most current sounding song. Although it maintains the healthy dose of steel missing from country radio, I could see Blake Shelton scoring a big hit with this one.

Wariner is back in “I’m Already Taken” territory on “I Want To Be Like You,” a co-write with the always brilliant Bill Anderson and Tom Shapiro. It’s another relationship-between-a-family-song that starts off typical (a son emulating his dad) but twists into the dad emulating the son as their relationship evolves. The lyric is spectacular, but the string section makes the piano led production feel slow and heavy, giving the song more weight then it needs.

The up-tempo numbers are where It Ain’t All Bad looses its luster. The swampy “Voodoo” isn’t bad per se, just not to my personal taste and the chorus (“Must be the voodoo that you do, do”) sounds like it came from a rhyming generator. “It’s Called A Brand New Day” is too rock, with electric guitars that aren’t too loud, but not to my liking. The title track has grown on me, but the opening riffs are a little too progressive coming from Wariner.

I could also see Shelton scoring big with “Whenever I See You,” a modern day poppish number Wariner co-wrote with Carnes. The synth bass Wariner plays gives the track a neat groove that accomplishes the intention to help the song stand out. “A Thousand Winds” is Wariner’s response to how he wishes to be remembered in death, and an excellent lyric. I just wish the track wasn’t so slow and prodding, but at least it’s a good song.

I’ll admit that this was my first time listening to one of his recordings from beginning to end and it proved very satisfying. It Ain’t All Bad may drag a little as a listening experience, but it’s a solid above average album with some really wonderful tracks. It’s great to have Wariner back recording vocal tracks again, and the eight year gap was well worth the wait.

Grade: B+  

Country Heritage: Jean Shepard

jean shepard 1You gaze at that guitar on your knee
In a way that you never look at me
This love affair of yours has gone too far
And I’m tired of playing second fiddle to an old guitar

– From “Second Fiddle (To an Old Guitar),” Capitol Records, 1964

Kitty Wells may have been the reigning Queen of Country Music during the 1950s, but in the eyes of many (including myself) Jean Shepard had at least as good a claim to the title. Whereas Kitty Wells, after the uncharacteristically defiant “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” reverted back to songs of domestic bliss and of being the “wronged woman,” Jean Shepard kept pushing the boundaries for female country singers. Jean may not have pushed things as far as Loretta Lynn did during the late 1960s and 70s, but she laid the groundwork for Loretta and those to follow. Among Europeans, whose tastes in country music run to more traditional sounds, many regard her as the greatest of all female country singers, a sentiment that was echoed by such leading British county music journalists as Pat Campbell, Bob Powell, and David Allen. While I don’t regard Shepard quite that highly, on my personal list of the greatest female country singers of all time, she would be in my top three (greatest, as opposed to most popular or most influential) singers. During her peak years (roughly 1953-75) she was a definite force of nature

Born Ollie Imogene Shepard on November 21, 1933 in Oklahoma, she was the child of parents who moved to Bakersfield, California, as a result of the Dust Bowl that engulfed the midwest during the 1930s. Since Shepard has been staunchly performing modern traditional country music for over sixty years, it seems only fitting that she grew up and started her career in the area surrounding Bakersfield, California.

Jean began her career as a bass player in the Melody Ranch Girls, an all-female band formed in 1948. Not long thereafter, she came to the attention of Hank Thompson, who, impressed by her talents, helped her get a record deal with Capitol Records–where she worked with Thompson’s producer, Ken Nelson. At the time she inked her deal, Shepard was still a teenager.

On her Capitol recordings, Shepard was a honky-tonker whose hard-core sound could rival any of her male counterparts. While her first single “Crying Steel Guitar Waltz” failed to chart, it showed enough promise for Capitol to team her with another promising singer, Ferlin Husky, for the 1953 chart-topper “A Dear John Letter,” a song which resonated with many returning Korean War veterans. After this, the solo hits started coming with “Beautiful Lies” and “A Satisfied Mind” being among the biggest hits of 1955 ( “A Satisfied Mind” was also a major hit for Porter Wagoner and Red Foley, but after you’ve heard Jean Shepard’s version, you will forget about the others).

Along the way, Shepard became a part of Red Foley’s Ozark Jubilee (broadcast from Springfield, MO on ABC TV) from 1955 to 1957, and she was inducted as a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1956, where she has remained a member to this day. It was during this period that Jean released what may have been country music’s first album centered around a theme in Songs of a Love Affair. Shepard had a hand in writing all twelve songs on this album.

She continued to have hits throughout the fifties and sixties, although like many other traditional country singers her hits became increasingly smaller as rock ‘n roll and the Nashville sound came into prominence. Lost in the shuffle were such excellent singles as “Act Like A Married Man,” “Tomorrow I’ll Be Gone,” “I Used To Love You,” and “Have Heart, Will Love.”

In 1960 Shepard married Hawkshaw Hawkins, a minor star whose forte was his live stage shows rather than recording success. Jean was pregnant with his son Hawkshaw Hawkins, Jr. at the time of the 1963 plane crash that claimed Hawkins’ life (as well as those of Lloyd “Cowboy” Copas and Patsy Cline).

After her son’s birth, Shepard dealt with the tragedy of her husband’s death by pouring herself back into her career. In 1964 she rebounded back near the top of the charts with the feisty “Second Fiddle (To an Old Guitar),” a song which spotlighted her yodeling ability. The next few years would produce more hits including “Seven Lonely Days,” “Many Happy Hangovers To You,” and a rare ballad “Another Lonely Night.” She also teamed up with Ray Pillow for several duets, including the big hit “I’ll Take the Dog” in 1966.

Between 1965 and 1970 Shepard charted fifteen Top 40 hits. Eventually, though, Capitol –- blessed with a deep roster that included Wanda Jackson, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Glen Campbell and Sonny James –quit pushing her recordings to radio.

A switch to United Artists (UA) in 1973 re-ignited her career as her first single for the label, the Bill Anderson-penned “Slippin’ Away,” went to #4  Billboard /#1 Cashbox /#1 Record World  , and was followed by such great singles as “At The Time,” “I’ll Do Anything It Takes (To Stay With You),” “Poor Sweet Baby,” “Tip of My Fingers,” and “Another Neon Night.” One of her UA albums, Poor Sweet Baby, was composed entirely of songs written by Bill Anderson.  Shepard remained with UA for five years.  Since then she has recorded only occasionally for various minor labels.

Along the way, Shepard married Benny Birchfield, (best known for his tenor harmonies during his tenure with the Osborne Brothers bluegrass group). She also served as president of the Association of Country Entertainers, the perfect spokesperson for this very traditionalist organization.

In 2010, Jean was inducted into the Oklahoma Country Music Hall of Fame. Then in 2011, Jean was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, an honor three decades overdue.

Jean Shepard has been a member of the Grand Ole Opry since 1955 and continues to perform regularly on the Grand Old Opry where she is indeed, the “Grand Lady of the Opry,” and a national treasure. She also tours occasionally, (in the past she sometimes performed with her son Hawkshaw Hawkins, Jr. but I haven’t heard much about him recently).  She’s lost a little off her vocal ‘chops’ over the course of time, but even 85% of Jean Shepard is a lot more than 100% of most singers.

Discography

Vinyl

Capitol Records issued twenty-one albums on Jean Shepard from 1956 to 1975 (one of these was a duet album with Ray Pillow) plus there were some budget reissues released on the Hilltop label. United Artists issued five albums plus a Greatest Hits collection from 1973 to 1976.

Albums on either Capitol or United Artist  will capture Jean at the peak of her vocal prowess. Later albums will still catch Jean in good voice but with less care given to the accompaniment and production, although the album Stars of the Grand Ole Opry issued in 1981 on Pete Drake’s First Generation Records, is a pretty good effort.

CD / Digital

The CD catalog for Shepard isn’t what it should be, although the Bear Family boxed set titled Melody Ranch Girl is available. The folks at Collector’s Choice Music described it thus, “151 legendary Capitol sides from the woman who broke through the thick gender barrier in country music without looking back! This is everything Jean recorded from 1952–1964—from ‘A Dear John Letter’ up through ‘Second Fiddle (to an Old Guitar)’—including her landmark album Songs of a Love Affair, the first concept album recorded by a female country artist, plus her Got You on My Mind, Lonesome Love and Heartaches and Tears albums. A 36-page book with a newly researched biography, discography and rare photos completes the story.”

For folks wanting to sample Jean’s work without shelling out over $100, there are some decent alternatives available.

The Ernest Tubb Record Shop currently lists nine titles available, including the above-mentioned Melody Ranch Girl boxed set and the CD version of Stars of the Grand Ole Opry and an outstanding two disc set released recently by the UK label Jasmine titled The First Lady of Country, which is composed of four of Jean’s early Capitol albums (Songs of A Love Affair, Lonesome Love, This Is Jean Shepard, and Got You On My Mind).

I am not sure of the vintage of the recordings on the other sets available from Ernest Tubb, but if you call them, the folks taking your order often can give useful information.

The Country Music Foundation in 1995 issued the stellar Jean Shepard: Honky-Tonk Heroine, which has 24 songs taken from her tenure at Capitol. It may still be possible to obtain this disc. That same year Castle Communications (Australasia) issued A Satisfied Mind which has 26 tracks (17 Capitol recordings and 9 United Artist recordings)– this is the only set (of which I am aware) that contains original United Artist recordings.

Other collections available are of uncertain vintage. Jean has issued some CDs herself (Jean, Personal Favorites, and perhaps other titles) that are often remakes but contain some song titles otherwise unavailable. I have several of these discs and they are worth obtaining.

Amazon (and probably other sites, as well) have some of Jean’s music available as digital downloads. The available music appears to be a mixed bag of originals and remakes but fortunately you can hear samples before purchasing.   While recording quality can vary, there are no bad Jean Shepard vocal performances on any of the recordings that I’ve heard.

Album Review: Lorrie Morgan – ‘Shakin’ Things Up’

shakin things upFor 1997’s Shakin’ Things Up, for the first time Lorrie shared in the production duties, being credited alongside James Stroud. The production has a glossy sheen to it, in keeping with the contemporary direction of country radio, but it is not appreciably different from her previous record stylistically. While Lorrie is in good voice, this is definitely an album of two halves: the first half is commercial and just a little dull, the second half has much better material.

The vivacious lead single ‘Go Away’ is quite poppy, but frivolous fun. Its radio friendly style led it to a top 5 chart peak and it was in fact to be Lorrie’s last top 10 hit. The even more pop oriented (but with little more lyrical substance) ‘One of Those Nights Tonight’ peaked at #14.

I liked the assertive rejoinder to a parting lover, ‘I’m Not That Easy To Forget’, quite a bit, but even though it sounds like a hit, country radio was less impressed, and the song failed to make into the top 40. It was written by Chris Waters, George Teren and Stephanie Bentley.

The best single from the album was the least successful of all: a lovely cover of the underrated Bobbie Cryner’s ‘You’d Think He’d Know Me Better’. If you’re not familiar with Cryner, check her out now – she released two excellent albums on major labels in the mid 90s, but for some unaccountable reason gained no traction despite a beautiful voice and fine songs. This particular song, Cryner’s version of which had charted in the 50s in 1996, is a sharp, subtle indictment of a self-absorbed narrator who can’t understand why her marriage is failing, yet makes it all to clear to the listener. It’s a shame neither recorded version was a big hit; perhaps the emotion is too uncomfortable.

Another attempt to bring a new but relatively obscure song to a wider audience was Lorrie’s cut of ‘In A Perfect World’. This fine Keith Stegall song had been included on Stegall’s 1996 album Passages (another recommended purchase). Lorrie’s wistful vocal is beautifully judged, but the string section is unnecessary and does its best to smother the song. A quietly understated countryish cover of pop classic ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’ works quite well with similarly intimate, throaty vocals.

The album’s most traditional track, ‘I’ve Enjoyed As Much Of This As I Can Stand’ is a timeless country classic, written by Bill Anderson and Jeanie Seely and originally a hit for Porter Wagoner. Like ‘You’d Think He’d Know Me Better’ it is about someone too insensitive to read another’s signals, although in this case it’s the man to blame. Lorrie interprets it beautifully, as she encounters an ex and finds it too painful to keep on chatting with him about the way he has moved on, when it is clear that she hasn’t. Vern Gosdin’s harmony adds the perfect finishing touch.

The sultry story song ‘Crazy From The Heat’ (written by Wally Wilson, Sam Hogin and Jim McBride) tells the story of Mississippi teens finding passion together. It’s quite good, but the instrumental sections sound a bit cluttered in places.

‘You Can’t Take That’ is a good ballad with Lorrie clinging to memories of the good times in the aftermath of a breakup. The bright ‘Finishing Touch’ is about a woman preparing for her man’s return home. The title track is a mid-tempo pop country number about chasing dreams.

The album was certified gold. While it’s not Lorrie’s best work, there is enough here to make it worth picking up a cheap used copy.

Grade: B

Album Review: Lorrie Morgan – ‘Classics’

classicsJust like her current tourmate and last month’s Spotlight Artist, Pam Tillis, Lorrie Morgan had recorded a number of sides for Hickory Records before her rise to fame, and saw those early recordings cynically re-released in an attempt to capitalize. Licenced to Curb and packaged as the optimistically titled Classics in 1991, the music shows Lorrie could definitely sing beautifully (perhaps a little too sugar-sweet at times on the ballads), but shows little artistic individuality, with the music typical of the pop-country of the latest 70s and early 80s.

‘The First Few Days Of Love’ is a mellow ballad written by Sanger D Shafer and Eddy Raven and smothered in strings. It’s a little sleepy, and now sounds very dated, but Lorrie sings it well. Along similar lines is ‘In For Rain’, although that one works a little better than the rather boring ‘Let It Be Yesterday’.

The best tracks are all up-tempo. ‘Say The Part About I Love You’ is a beaty up-tempo number with a cynical lyric about a one night stand with a sexy but obviously shady man. The production does sound dated, as is often the case with material with a pop-country influence, but Lorrie’s committed, energetic vocal makes it quite enjoyable.

I also liked the assertive demand to a spouse, ‘Who Do You Know In California’, which like ‘Say The Part About I Love You’, was written by Eddy Raven. The catchy ‘Ain’t Got Time To Rock No Baby’, a withering putdown of a needy and juvenile lover is another winner:

I only meant to love you, not to raise you
I thought you were already grown

Liz Anderson’s ‘Tell Me I’m Only Dreaming’ is not bad, although the dated production hampers it a bit, It charted in the lower reaches of the country charts in 1979.

Only the first seven tracks are on the iTunes version (no doubt a copyright issue). The CD version adds another three fairly forgettable cuts, which I think come from 1984. ‘Don’t Go Changing’ is a bland ballad with strings and choir-style backing vocals which was a flop single; ‘Easy Love’ is equally bland mid-tempo pop-country song; and ‘Someday We’ll Be Together’ is a boring cover of a pop hit for R&B group the Supremes (which Lorrie may have known from the Bill Anderson/Jan Howard country hit version). None is worth tracking down separately.

At this point in her career, Lorrie was showing few signs of star quality, and this compilation is of historical interest only.

Grade: C-

Week ending 7/6/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

donwilliams1953 (Sales): Take These Chains From My Heart — Hank Williams (MGM)

1953 (Jukebox): Mexican Joe — Jim Reeves (Abbott)

1953 (Disc Jockeys): Mexican Joe — Jim Reeves (Abbott)

1963: Still – Bill Anderson (Decca)

1973: Don’t Fight The Feelings of Love — Charley Pride (RCA)

1983: Love Is On A Roll — Don Williams (MCA)

1993: That Summer — Garth Brooks (Liberty)

2003: Beer For My Horses – Toby Keith with Willie Nelson (DreamWorks)

2013: Cruise – Florida Georgia Line (Republic Nashville)

2013 (Airplay): Anywhere With You — Jake Owen (RCA)

Classic Rewind: Bill Anderson – ‘Still’

Week ending 5/25/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

tanya1953 (Sales): Mexican Joe — Jim Reeves (Abbott)

1953 (Jukebox): No Help Wanted — The Carlisles (Mercury)

1953 (Disc Jockeys): Your Cheatin’ Heart — Hank Williams (MGM)

1963: Still – Bill Anderson (Decca)

1973: What’s Your Mama’s Name — Tanya Tucker (Columbia)

1983: Common Man — John Conlee (MCA)

1993: I Love The Way You Love Me — John Michael Montgomery (Atlantic)

2003: Three Wooden Crosses — Randy Travis (Word/Curb)

2013: Cruise – Florida Georgia Line (Republic Nashville)

2013 (Airplay): Get Your Shine On — Florida Georgia Line (Republic Nashville)

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