My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Carter Stanley

Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume III’

will the circle 317 years passed between the original Will The Circle Be Unbroken and Volume II. 13 years after that, in 2002, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band decided it was time for a third instalment, which they released on Capitol. It did not make as much of a stir as either of the previous instalments, but is still a pretty solid collection of bluegrass and oldtime music with some guests old and new.

The opening ‘Take Me In Your Lifeboat’ is beaty bluegrass gospel performed with Del McCoury and his sons. The McCourys are back on the secular ‘Love Please Come Home’, which is well done but not memorable.

I preferred the contributions from bluegrass great Jimmy Martin (1927-2005), who had taken part in both previous versions, and who belies his age with confident upbeat performances here. He sings his own ‘Hold Whatcha Got’ (which Ricky Skaggs had made into a hit in the late 80s), and also the lively ‘Save It, Save It’.

In contrast, June Carter Cash (1929-2003) takes the lead vocal on the Carter Family’s ‘Diamonds In The Rough’, with Earl Scruggs on banjo. She does not sound at all well, and indeed died the following year. Although Johnny Cash (1932-2003) was also in poor health, he sounds much better than his wife on a self-penned tribute to the late Maybelle and Sara Carter, ‘Tears In The Holston River.

Willie Nelson, not involved in previous versions, gets two cuts here. Willie sounds good on ‘Goodnight Irene’, but the tracks is irredeemably ruined by the presence of duet partner Tom Petty. Petty is out of tune and the harmony is embarrassingly dissonant. A cheery Nelson version of ‘Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms’ is better although it does feel a bit perfunctory.

Dwight Yoakam (another newcomer to the series) is great on his two tracks. He shows his Kentucky roots on the mournful and authentic ‘Some Dark Holler’. He is outstanding on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ ‘Wheels’, which he makes sound like. Vince Gill’s ‘All Prayed Up’ is an excellent piece of up-tempo bluegrass gospel.

Emmylou Harris sings her ex-husband Paul Kennerley’s ‘I’ll Be Faithful To You’, a sweet declaration of eternal love, exquisitely. She also duets with Matraca Berg (Mrs Jeff Hanna) on Berg’s folk-styleode to the river running through Nashville, ‘Oh Cumberland’. Alison Krauss exercises her angelic tones on ‘Catfish John’.

Iris Dement sings beautifully on her own nostalgic ‘Mama’s Opry’. Ricky Skaggs and Rodney Dillard team up for the pacy folk of ‘There Is A Time’. Band members’sons Jaime Hanna and Jonathan McEuen (who were the duo Hanna-McEuen at the time) are a bit limp for me on ‘The Lowlands’, a folky Gary Scruggs song.

Sam Bush takes it high mountain lonesome on Carter Stanley’s ‘Lonesome River’. ‘Milk Cow Blues’ is taken back to its blues roots and features Josh Graves and Doc Watson. Watson also sings the traditional ‘I Am A Pilgrim’. More contemporary is ‘I Find Jesus’, penned by Jimmy Ibbotson. ‘Roll The Stone Away’ (written by Jeff Hanna with Marcus Hummon) uses religious imagery but it is a bit dull. The Nashville Bluegrass Band take on A. P. Carter’s ‘I Know What It Means To Be Lonesome which is OK.

Gravel-voiced bluesman Taj Mahal and legendary fiddler Vassar Clements guest on the good-humored ‘Fishin’ Blues, which is mildly amusing. Taj Mahal and Alison Krauss guest on this album’s take on the title song which falls rather flat with Alison sounding a bit squeaky and therest of them dull and lifeless.

This album lacks the groundbreaking nature of Volume I, and the cosy atmosphere of either previous set, making more of a standard collection of older material. There are definitely some tracks well worth hearing, and I’d still be interested if there was a Volume 4.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Junior Sisk & Ramblers’ Choice – ‘Trouble Follows Me’

trouble follows meOver the past few years Virginia’s Junior Sisk and Ramblers’ Choice have been making quite a name for themselves in bluegrass. Sisk was named the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Male Vocalist of the Year last year. His latest album is an excellent example of his work, and has great appeal for bluegrass fans who like songs with substance alongside sparkling musicianship.

The vibrant opener ‘Honky Tonked To Death’ is a great mixture of uptempo bluegrass vocals and arrangement and a honky tonk country song, written by Bill Castle. The unrepentant protagonist blames the break up of his marriage on his drinking habits:

I guess our love began to die when I found swinging doors
And every night I stayed out late it died a little more

The rhythmic ‘Don’t Think About it Too Long’ celebrates making music. It is co-written by Ronnie Bowman, who also wrote the high lonesome ballad ‘A Cold Empty Bottle, a story song about a man whose broken heart (and love of sad country songs) only feed his alcoholism.

‘I’d Rather Be Lonesome’ is a plaintive up-tempo disclaimer of love for an unfaithful woman. ‘Gonna Make Her Mine’ is perkier, about a shy man’s determination to declare his unrequited love for a neighbour’s daughter.

The title track, written by Sisk, is a fast-paced story song about a hard-pressed farmer who turns to crime after losing his farm. He ends up in a new prison built on his former home.

The slower ‘Walk Slow’, written by Tom T Hall and his wife Dixie, takes a more contemplative, philosophical approach, advising living like a small child to appreciate life fully.

‘Frost On The Bluegrass’ is about the enduring pull of home. ‘Jesus Walked Upon The Water’ is a briskly delivered acappella gospel quartet.

An eclectic selection of covers wounds out the set. The perfectly-constructed country classic ‘All I Have To Offer You Is Me’ works well, while the band also takes on a Carter Stanley tune, the mournful yet up-tempo ‘Our Darling’s Gone’. Most unexpected is a version of Michael Martin Murphey’s ‘What Am I Doin’ Hangin’ Round’, which also suits a bluegrass interpretation. The band’s Jason Tomlin takes lead vocals on this one.

Grade: A

Album Review: Tom T. Hall – ‘The Magnificent Music Machine’

magnificent music machineAfter a string of successful albums and singles between 1971 and 1976 in which seven of his nine albums reached the Billboard Country Top Ten, and twelve of his singles reached the Billboard Top Ten Country Singles chart (six reached number one on Billboard), Tom T Hall decided that it was time to give proper airing to his bluegrass roots. The end result, The Magnificent Music Machine would prove to be both an artistic success and a chart success, with the album reaching number eleven and the only single released, “Fox On The Run” reaching number nine.

For this project, Tom called on a number of his bluegrass friends plus some other leading lights of the genre: Kenny Baker, Johnny Gimble and Buddy Spicher on fiddle; Gene Bush on slide dobro; Bobby Thompson and J.D. Crowe on banjo; Donna Stoneman (of the legendary Stoneman Family) and Jodi Drumright on mandolin; and Trish Williams, J.T. Gray, Art Malin, and Jimmy Martin (!) on harmony vocals To try to give the album some commercial appear, Nashville session stalwarts Buddy Harmon (drums), Henry Strezelecki and Bob Moore (bass) were added to the mix.

Up to this point in his career, Hall’s albums had been almost exclusively his own compositions. While Tom T would write five of the eleven songs on this album, six of the songs came from outside sources.

The album opens up with “Fox On The Run”, a song which was added to the bluegrass repertoire by the Bill Emerson of the Country Gentlemen, but which started life as a rock song for British group Manfred Mann. The song was written by Tony Hazzard, an English songwriter who wrote hits for The Hollies, Herman’s Hermits, The Yardbirds, The Tremeloes and Lulu. The song reached #5 on the UK pop charts in late 1968 (at least one of the UK charts had it reaching #1). Tom T’s version was a hard driving affair and after the wide radio exposure and sales of the album, the song would be forevermore bluegrass

S

he walks through the corn leading down to the river
Her hair shone like gold in the hot morning sun
She took all the love that a poor boy could give her
And left him to die like a fox on the run

John Prine’s “Paradise” (sometimes titled “Muhlenburg County”) follows, a nostalgic yet bitter mid-tempo song that decries the damage that the coal industry has done to the environment

Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man

And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg county
Down by the green river where paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away

“Mama’s Got The Catfish Blues” is a Tom T Hall composition, written, he says, in the spirit of something Carter Stanley would have written. I’m not sure I’m hearing Carter Stanley in this particular song, but it’s a good song, one that also might have made a good single

There’s a turtle on the stump and the toadfrog jump
And I guess, I could gig me a few
In settlin’ fog I caught a big water dog
Mama’s got the catfish blues

I don’t like to see her unhappy
She treats me like a water tree
I hate to see mama with the catfish blues
And the catfish are layin’ in the river asleep

“Bluegrass Break-up” is a Charlie Williams composition, about the sadness of a bluegrass band that is disbanding:

Well, we’re finally breakin’ up our bluegrass band
And the thought of it is more than I can stand
But if parting is our one chance to survive
You’ll take the dobro and I’ll take the five.

Once our music tore the world apart
When we used to pick and sing it from the heart
But then dissension came into our lives
So you’ll take the dobro and I’ll take the five.

Once our world was harmony and fun
Wildwood Flower and ten-one mighty run
We can’t patch it up, we made too many tries
So you’ll take the dobro and I’ll take the five.

“I Don’t Want My Golden Slippers” is a religious song with the sound and feel of a church choir and a mostly acoustic guitar accompaniment. Although Tom T wrote this song, it truly sounds as if it could have been written a century before.

“Molly and Tenbrooks” is derived from an old folk tale about a horserace and was made famous and fashioned into a viable song by the ‘Father of Bluegrass’ Mr. Bill Monroe. On this recording Bill Monroe guests playing the mandolin to Tom’s vocals. Interestingly, Tom T reports that Monroe had to refresh himself on the mandolin part in order to play the song – he normally played guitar or just sang when performing this song!

“The Fastest Rabbit Dog In Carter County Today” is another Tom T Hall composition, this one an up-tempo romp about a rabbit hunt.

“I’ll Never Do Better Than You” also comes from T’s pen. One of the slower songs on the album, it expresses a depth of feeling that sometimes gets overlooked among the pyrotechnics of the genre

Tom’s late brother Hillman Hall, was an accomplished songwriter, although not in Tom T’s class, of course. “The Magnificent Music Machine” is Hillman’s contribution to this album, a terrific song that I would have released as a single. For that matter, it would have made a great Jimmy Martin single.

He’s got nothing but talent and time on his hands
He loves his music, hangs out with his band
He’s got big-hit ambitions and number one dreams
He’s a high-rollin’, a magnificent music machine

He hit town with nothing but his old guitar
With visions of grandeur and being a star
He writes them and sings them like you’ve never seen
He’s a high-rollin’, a magnificent music machine

“Rank Stranger”, of course is a classic Stanley Brothers song, perhaps my favorite song from the entire Stanley canon, from which there are many classics. This song still gives me chills and Tom sings it well.

I wandered again to my home in the mountains
Where in youth’s early dawn I was happy and free
I looked for my friends but I never could find them
I found they were all rank strangers to me

Everybody I met seemed to be a rank stranger
No mother or dad, not a friend could I see
They knew not my name and I knew not their faces
I found they were all rank strangers to me.

The album closes, fittingly enough, with another Tom T Hall composition “Bluegrass Festival In The Sky”.

In the sweet by and by at that Bluegrass Festival in the sky.

There’ll be Monroe Flatt Scruggs and the Stanleys
The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers and the whole McGranner’s Family
Molly and the Stonemans and Martin and Crow
Dillard and Thompson and Smiley and Reno.

(And we will sing)
In the sweet by and by at that Bluegrass Festival in the sky.

There’ll be old Tige and Baker and Clements and Warren
Richmond and Harold Carl Story and Dorrin
Acker McMagaha Wiseman and Gray
The Osbornes Bill Clifton Sprung and Uncle Dave.

(And we will sing)
In the sweet by and by at that Bluegrass Festival in the sky…

It would be many years before Tom T Hall would return to his bluegrass roots when recording a solo album, but return he would. It just didn’t happen as soon as I would have liked.

Album Review: Ralph Stanley & Ralph Stanley II – ‘Side By Side’

side by sideIt’s hard to know how much longer the legendary Ralph Stanley can keep on making music.  He is supported here by son Ralph II on a project intended to recall the best of the music Ralph made with late brother Carter as the Stanley Brothers.  Father and son take turns singing lead and harmony. Ralph’s ageing voice still has great presence and character, while his son’s has its own arresting quality.

A solo accappella performance by Ralph senior on ‘Don’t Weep For Me’ makes a virtue of his ageing voice and shows his sense of phrasing is unaffected.  He sounds good on the traditional ‘I’ve Still Got 99’, and is effective on the intensely lonesome wail of ‘Carolina Mountain Home’, in which the protagonist longs for his sweetheart.  Another traditional tune, ‘Wild Bill Jones’ represents the timeless sound of the music of the Appalachians.

The prettily melodic ‘Walking With You In My Dreams’ was written by Bill Monroe’s brother Charlie.  Ralph sings this one simply, with no harmonies behind him.

Ralph II delivers a measured lead on the pensive ‘Dirty Black Coal’, a song written by his father about miners’ mixed emotions about the dangerous and unpleasant work which nonetheless provides a living for their families.  John Rigsby’s fiddle underlines the mood set by II’s mournful vocal.  A version of  his father’s ‘A Little At A Time’ is good but less memorable than other tracks.

He is ideally suited to the plaintive ‘Don’t Step Over An Old Love’, familiar to country fans from Ricky Skaggs’ version.  This is perhaps my favourite track, followed by the melancholy gospel ‘Nobody Answered Me’.

Ralph II sings solo on the rapid paced banjo-driven Carter Family classic ‘Darling Little Joe’, and is supported by his father’s high harmony on the traditional ‘Six Months Ain’t Long’ and the newly written but very traditional sounding ‘White And Pink Flowers’.  II also takes the lead on a solid bluegrass version of Ernest Tubb’s ‘Are You Waiting Just for Me’.

One instrumental, ‘battle Ax’, is thrown in.

This is a rare link to the deep past of country and bluegrass, beautifully performed with the benefits of modern recording technology to keep the sound clear and pure.

Grade: A

Album Review: Donna Ulisse – ‘Showin’ My Roots’

showin my rootsFor the past few years former country singer Donna Ulisse has been making a name for herself as a bluegrass singer-songwriter. I’ve enjoyed her music in that vein, but a small part of me hankered after the neotraditional country singer she started out as. Now she has combined the two sides to her music in a nod to her musical roots, re-imagining the country classics she grew up listening to, in a bluegrass setting, with a few bluegrass songs thrown in. The result is a joy to listen to.

Donna produced the record with acoustic guitarist Bryan Sutton. The band consists of some of the finest bluegrass studio musicians: Sutton, Scott Vestal on banjo, Rob Ickes on dobro, Andy Leftwich on fiddle and mandolin, and either Viktor Krauss (on most tracks) or Byron House on upright bass.

A pair of new songs bookend the album, both written by Donna with her husband Rick Stanley. The charming title track sets the mood and dwells on the influence on her of Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens, Dolly Parton and Carter Stanley. Fayssoux Maclean sings harmony. ‘I’ve Always Had A Song I Could Lean On’ is a fond reminiscence of a music-filled childhood.

Donna plays tribute to Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette with confident, sassy versions of ‘Fist City’ and ‘Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad’, both of which I enjoyed very much. A thoughtful and convincing take on Dolly Parton’s ‘In The Good Old Days When Times Were Bad’ acts as Donna’s nod to both Dolly and to Haggard, whose cover influenced this version.

Donna’s husband is a cousin of Carter and Ralph Stanley, and Donna’s version of the Stanley Brothers’ ‘How Mountain Girls Can Love’ is bright and charming. The finest moments on this album are the ballads. A beautifully measured version of Ralph Stanley’s deeply mournful ‘If That’s The Way You Feel’ is my favorite track. Larry Cordle and Carl Jackson add harmonies to this exquisite reading.

Almost as good, ‘Somebody Somewhere (Don’t Know What He’s Missing Tonight)’, a Loretta Lynn hit written by Lola Jean Fawbush, is lonely and longing, with the gorgeous tone Donna displayed on her 1990s country records, and a very spare, stripped down arrangement. Absolutely wonderful.

Donna is sincere and compelling on ‘Wait A Little Longer Please, Jesus’, a favorite of her father. I also enjoyed the traditional ‘Take This Hammer’ (the first song Donna ever sang in public, as a small child) with guest Sam Bush sharing the vocals. A sweet and tenderly romantic ‘Send Me The Pillow That You Dream On’ is delicately pretty.

‘I Hope You Have Learned’ was written in the 1950s by Donna’s great-uncle Gene Butler, who spent a short period in Nashville working as a songwriter. It is a high lonesome bluegrass ballad whose protagonist is in prison for murdering a romantic rival, and wants to know if the spouse will be waiting on release. Donna twists the genders around but otherwise this is faithful to the original, recorded by Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe.

The only disappointment for me was Rodney Crowell’s ‘One Way Rider’, which boasts sparkling playing by the musicians, but although Donna tackles it with enthusiasm, it feels a little characterless despite John Cowan’s harmony providing some flavor.

This is one of a number of excellent bluegrass/country albums to emerge this year, but Donna’s beautiful, expressive vocals, which are at their best on this album, make this one not to be missed. Her interpretative ability means that she brings her own contribution even to the best-known songs, and this is thoroughly recommended.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder – ‘Bluegrass Rules!’

When his mainstream career wound down, Ricky Skaggs decided to pick up his mandolin and returned to his roots in bluegrass.  He didn’t do it half heartedly – this is an uncompromisingly hard bluegrass set with high lonesome vocals, tight harmonies and nimble picking.  Produced by Skaggs himself, the album featured and credited his road band Kentucky Thunder, and was released on Rounder Records.

Opens with a spoken statement by the late gospel bass-vocalist J. D. Sumner, “country rocks but bluegrass rules” then the band swings straight into an uncompromising Bill Monroe-composed  instrumental, ‘Get Up John’. There are a couple of other instrumentals, another from Monroe bookending the project, and one composed by Ricky midway through the set.  They break up the vocal tracks but do feel a bit samey.

Virtually all the songs deal with tragedy and lost love.  In his teenage years, Ricky was a member of Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys (along with Keith Whitley), and that experience seems to be the overwhelming inspiration of this album.  The Stanley Brothers are a major source of material, with two songs written by each of Carter and Ralph.  Carter’s ‘Think Of What You’ve Done’ offers a measured reproach to the woman who has broken his heart by leaving him for another man.  It is excellent, as is the rhythmic ‘Ridin’ That Midnight Train’ with another broken heart lyric about leaving town with the blues in similar circumstances.  Ralph’s ‘Little Maggie’ with its high mountain lead vocals has a very pure heritage feel, while the perky ‘If I Lose’ is the record’s sole happy song, with love making gambling losses unimportant.

Although they did not write it (the credit goes to Southern hymn writer Albert Brumley), the somber spiritual classic ‘Rank Stranger’ is probably also best known as part of the Stanley Brothers’ repertoire.  Ricky’s version is a real highlight of this record, with gospel trio vocals from the band.

The quieter but intensely mournful ‘Another Night’ is another fine song dealing with the pain of lost love, as is the Earl Scruggs number ‘Somehow Tonight’.

‘I Hope You’ve Learned’ is a reproach from a man in prison to his cheating wife, wondering if she will wait for him when he is finally released.  A fine song in the high lonesome style, one is, however, left wondering what exactly he did, propelled by his jealousy (wifebeating?), and the fact that he is still blaming her for it is rather troubling.  This is one case where I don’t think I’d be waiting.

In a stern warning to ‘The Drunken Driver’, Ricky relates the story of a terrible accident:

These two dear kids walked side by side
Out on the state highway
Their loving mother, she had died
And their father had run away

They were talking of their loving parents
How sad their hearts did feel
When around the curve came a speeding car
With a drunk man at the wheel

The driver saw these two dear kids
And hooted a drunkard sound
“Get out of the road, you little fools”
And the car had brought them down

The driver staggered from his car
To see what he had done
His heart sank within him
When he saw his dying son

Yes, the drunken driver has managed to run over his own abandoned children.  The little boy then rubs it in for his penitent father, gasping out as he lies dying,

“Take us to our mother, Dad
She sleeps beneath the ground
It was you and her we were talking about
When the car had knocked us down
And please, dear Dad, don’t drink no more
While driving on your way
But meet us with our mother, Dad
In Heaven some sweet day”

The story is so melodramatic it might be hard for some contemporary listeners to take seriously, but Ricky’s dead straight reading gives it some impact, and it fits into a long standing tradition of songs of this kind which are a valuable part of bluegrass (and more general country music) heritage; it was recorded by country star Ferlin Husky in the ‘50s but has the feel of something 20 years older still.

This is a hard record to assign a grade to, as there is nothing to criticise, with excellent musicianship but it is not an easy listen for those with little exposure to bluegrass, and there is not much variety. I did enjoy it a lot, but it isn’t one of my favourite Skaggs albums, as I tend to prefer those where he mixes country and bluegrass.  Those with less of a taste for bluegrass without any country elements may want to pass.

Grade: A-

Album Review – Ricky Skaggs – ‘Country Boy’

Known primarily for its now classic title track, Ricky Skaggs’ Country Boy has held up beautifully since its release in 1984. A number one gold selling album, it wasn’t as prolific as the string of releases that preceded it, but it stands as a strong collection in Skaggs’ catalog.

The #2 peaking “Something In My Heart” was the first of two singles. A fine slice of neo-traditional country, the track is pleasant on the ears but not memorable enough to stand out among Skaggs’ iconic hits. The brilliant title track was the second single, a one-week chart topper in 1984. It’s possibly my all time favorite Skaggs recording, the song both infectious and effortlessly cool but more importantly, it stands the test of time sounding fresher today than back then.

The rest of the project matches the exuberance of the singles. Never one to shy away from covers, Skaggs peppers a few smart selections among Country Boy’s ten tracks. My favorite is Bill Monroe’s instrumental hoedown “Wheel Hoss,” a fiery fiddle and steel number that also makes ample use of a mandolin’s charms. Skaggs also does a great job covering “Window Up Above,” a 1960 hit for George Jones. While its hard to compare, Jones does have the slight edge with his near flawless ability at capturing heartache with his voice. In comparison, Skaggs sounds a bit too clean.

“I’m Ready to Go” is a cover of an old Carter Stanley co-write and a magnificent banjo centric bluegrass thumper. Like the title track that opens the record, “I’m Ready To Go” closes out the proceedings with a similar jaunty texture but instead of incorporating modern country elements, it sticks straight up bluegrass, a wonderful choice for a wonderful song.

Larry Cordle wrote “Two Highways” which would become the title track for Alison Krauss’ 1989 album. Surprisingly it’s Krauss’ version that’s more upbeat but Skaggs’ rendition is far superior thanks to a slower neo-traditional arrangement that appropriately lets the ache of the lyric shine through.

“Baby I’m In Love With You” is another steel accented uptempo number, and a rare love song on the album. The fluffy lyric, written by Alex Gibson, Andy Gibson, and Joe Weaver, brings the song down considerably, and coupled with the production, make the song a miss. I don’t have a problem with the drunk on love scenario but the execution is too sappy for my tastes.

“Brand New Me,” the other love song, works much better because Skaggs’ character comes from a place of healing. The overall track has a bit of a Dan Seals’ vibe down to the ribbons of steel guitar woven throughout and Skaggs’ straightforward approach to the vocal. Overall it’s a good song, but there’s nothing terribly special or unique to help it stand out amongst the strongest tracks on the project.

The fiddle ballad “Patiently Waiting” is one of those standout tracks. The neo-traditional arrangement is perfect and acts as an inviting gateway into the song. Another highlight is “Rendezvous,” a slightly theatrical love song about getting back to the stage when the couple first met.

As a whole Country Boy is a very solid above average album with some brilliant moments sprinkled throughout. His material was stronger on his previous two releases, which is reflected in the notion that Country Boy isn’t one of Skaggs’ best-remembered projects for much beyond the title track. But its definitely still worth listening to even though its just below essential.

Grade: B+ 

Album Review – Ricky Skaggs – ‘Don’t Cheat In Our Hometown’

Following the monster success of Highways and Heartaches (platinum sales, 3 #1s and a #2), Ricky Skaggs issued Don’t Cheat In Our Hometown on Epic Records in 1983. It was his second consecutive number one album and featured 3 number one hits and sold a respectable 500,000 copies.

The mid-tempo title track, made famous by the Stanley Brothers, was written by Ray Pennington and Roy E Marcum and became Skaggs’ seventh number one overall. The twangy ballad is stellar warning from a man to the woman sleeping around behind his back:

How can I stand up to my friends and look ‘em in the eye

Admit the question that I know would be nothing but lies

You spend all your past time, making me a clown

But if you’re gonna cheat on me, don’t cheat in our hometown

Much like Sawyer Brown’s “All These Years,” “Don’t Cheat In Our Hometown” offers a unique perspective on the classic cheating scenario, one in which the man is made into the fool. The role reversal is excellent and Skaggs brings that sense of victimization to his venerable vocal.

A spirited and comical cover of Mel Tillis’ “Honey (Won’t You Open That Door)” was released in the winter of 1984. Driven by a jaunty drum and organic guitar riffs, “Honey” is one of my favorites of Skaggs’ recordings thanks in part to the songs’ ability not to take itself too seriously while dealing with substantive subject matter.

It seems like another dimension now, but there was a time when a track like Bill Monroe’s marvelous “Uncle Pen” could not only gain the attention of country radio but top the charts as well. Another favorite of mine, “Uncle Pen” is brilliant in how it blends an obvious bluegrass sensibility with mainstream country. The fiddle heavy hoedown is spectacular and I love how it blends so easily with the acoustic guitars.

Dolly Parton joins Skaggs with a haunting harmony vocal on Carter and Ralph Stanley’s “Vision Of Mother.” The somewhat disturbing mandolin ballad finds a man seeing a vision of his dead mother preying for him. The song succeeds because of the vivid imagery, although the vocals are a bit too sharp for my tastes.

“I’m Head Over Heels In Love” is a fabulous steel led thumper, in the same vein as Exile’s hits like “Woke Up In Love.” I love the uniquely slick style of the track; it fits Skaggs like a glove. I also enjoy the traditional “A Wound Time Can’t Erase,” another example of modern mid-80s country that a carries a nice dose of twang. Skaggs’ vocal may be a bit too dragged out on some of the notes, leading his voice to sound a bit nasally, but it doesn’t take away from the overall tune.

The other more traditional numbers are also quite strong. “She’s More To Be Pitied” is a fabulous fiddle-led number by Ruby Rakes, while “Keep A Memory” is a wonderful traditional bluegrass tune penned by Carter Stanley. I also love Fred Stryker’s “Don’t Step Over An Old Love,” the best such song among the album tracks. The album closes with “Children Go Where I Send Thee,” an excellent traditional gospel number that’s made all the sweeter thanks to the myriad of harmony vocals.

Overall, Don’t Cheat In Our Hometown is another excellent collection of bluegrass and country tunes and was dedicated to the Stanley Brothers upon its release. While the song selection may not have been as strong as his previous release, it remains timeless thanks to expert musicianship, and remains an essential listen today.

(NOTE: Don’t Cheat In Our Hometown was reissued in 2009 and included a DVD respective. That version can be found easily online.)

Grade: A

Album Review – Ricky Skaggs – ‘Sweet Temptation’

Ricky Skaggs’ debut for Sugar Hill Records, Sweet Temptation was Skaggs’ second album overall when it was released in 1979. The album features backing vocals from Emmylou Harris, and is influenced sonically by her solo efforts.

The Carter Stanley composition “I’ll Take The Blame” was the album’s sole single reaching #86. A gorgeous stone cold traditional country ballad, it features Harris prominently on backing vocals and the overall track rests on the high twang of their vocals, a hit or miss depending on the style of country you find most appealing. I happen to love the bluegrass twang, but can see where others may not be able to warm up to it.

“Little Cabin Home On The Hill,” collaboration by Lester Flatt, John Hartford and Bill Monroe is another fiddle centric ballad, this time finding our protagonist mending a broken heart by crying out his pain in his cabin home. This bluegrass tune is stellar, as Skaggs and Harris’ vocals blend seamlessly and the mournful fiddle echoes the ache felt by the main character.

The fiddle also takes center stage on “Put It Off Until Tomorrow,” co-written by Dolly Parton and Bill Owens. Parton released the tune herself three years later as a duet with Kris Kristofferson from a double album entitled The Winning Hand, a project consisting of unreleased tracks on the Monument label. Skaggs’ version once again finds Harris on backing vocals, and the tune straddles the space between country and bluegrass, finding a nice home somewhere in the middle. I like the subdued atmosphere of Skaggs’ version the best although Parton provides a nice prospective by flipping the gender roles.

Skaggs keeps Sweet Temptation alive with a few banjo and dobro centric tunes in the middle of the album. “Baby I’m In Love With You” is a fabulously plucky love song that takes after old-time country, Stanley’s “Baby Girl” is a delightful traditional bluegrass thumper, while “I Know What It Means to be Lonesome” has a wonderfully fast acoustic arrangement that doesn’t quite fit with the sad themes of the song and Skaggs’ vocals are a rare misstep as he sings the track in too high a key. Skaggs rectifies this on “I’ll Stay Around,” another traditional bluegrass tune that ranks among my favorite tracks on the album.

The title track written by Cliffie Stone and Merle Travis is another masterful tune and an album highlight. I love everything about the song from the wonderful combination of dobro and steel that lead the arrangement, to Skaggs’ pitch perfect vocals. Travis also sang the song, (his version can be heard HERE), but I much prefer the vibrancy Skaggs brings to the song.

The quietest song on the album, Stanley’s “Could You Love Me On More Time” puts Skaggs’ vocal front and center, backing him solely with an acoustic guitar. In lesser hands this naked approach could’ve been disastrous, but Skaggs pulls it off with effortless ease.

The most blatantly country track on the project is “Forgive Me,” which Wayne Walker wrote with G. Paul Sullivan. Another stellar tune, it somewhat foreshadows the direction Skaggs would take in the 80s, when he became a genre superstar. It’s another standout track on the album.

What surprises me about Sweet Temptation is the level in which Skaggs knows himself as an artist. He was only in his early 20s in 1979 and yet he sang with a confidence of someone twice to three times his age. This keeps Sweet Temptation from sounding like a less then project, an early representation of an artist still learning where he fits in the country music landscape. Instead its essential listening from an artist who hadn’t yet hit his prime, although you wouldn’t know that from listening to this.

Grade: A 

Album Review: Ricky Skaggs – ‘Music To My Ears’

Most country music stars record less frequently once the major label phase of their careers end, but Ricky Skaggs is a notable exception to the rule: his independent albums far outnumber his major label efforts. From a fan’s standpoint, this is a good thing, though he has become so prolific it is sometimes difficult to keep up with his output. Music To My Ears, which was released last week, dropped just a little over a year after 2011’s Country Hits Bluegrass Style and a second volume of Skaggs family Christmas songs.

Like most of Skaggs’ post-1997 output, Music To My Ears leans heavily toward bluegrass; however, this is not strictly a collection of bluegrass tunes. He pushes the envelope just a bit by incorporating some Celtic instruments such as the bagpipes and tin whistle, along with the occasional electric guitar and keyboard. Some bluegrass purists may cry foul, but the vast majority of time the blending of styles works well. A prime example is “What You Are Waiting For”, an inspirational but not overtly religious number, which effectively combines some traditional bluegrass instruments — banjo and mandolin — with a piano intro, and some electric guitar tracks and background vocals that would not sound out of place on today’s country radio.

Overall, however, the album’s more traditional numbers are its best — from the high lonesome sound of the opening track “Blue Night” and Carter Stanley’s “Loving You Too Well”, to the wonderful picking on the instrumental “New Jerusalem”, which Ricky wrote. And then there’s the unusual “You Can’t Hurt Ham”, a Skaggs co-write with Gordon Kennedy, who co-produced the album with Ricky. It is, essentially, a tongue-in-cheek tune about spoiled food and the supposed long shelf life of ham. While I don’t agree with his claim of “no refrigerate, no expire date”, the song is a very entertaining number.

Like most of Ricky’s albums, Music To My Ears contains a handful of religious and inspirational numbers. There’s the aformentioned “New Jerusalem” and “What You Are Waiting For”, as well as the more openly religious title track, and the family-values themed “Nothing Beats A Family”. Interestingly, none of the members of the Skaggs-White clan makes any appearances on this album.

The one track that doesn’t quite work is the apparent centerpiece of the album, “Soldier’s Son”, a duet with Barry Gibb. The song itself, which Gibb wrote with his children Ashley and Stephen, is not bad but its attempt to alternate between bluegrass and mainstream pop elements seems a bit forced. Aside from that,I’ve never been able to tolerate Gibb’s singing and that alone is enough to spoil the song for me. It is however, the album’s sole misstep, with the possible exception of the background vocals at the end of “Nothing Beats A Family.” All in all, however, there is far more here to like than dislike, unless one is just not a bluegrass fan. Those who are will find this collection most enjoyable.

Grade: A-

Country Heritage: Sonny & Bobby, The Osborne Brothers

Bluegrass and Modern Country Music – kissin’ cousins or estranged relations ? Although they claim common ancestry (Ernest Tubb, Gene Autry and Bill Monroe were all hugely influenced by Jimmie Rodgers, and many others were influenced by the Original Carter Family), it has been many years since modern country and bluegrass music split off in different directions from their acoustic string band origins. Up until the end of the 1960s you could hear bluegrass played by some country radio stations (most frequently by smaller stations located in more rural areas), and artists such as Jimmie Skinner, the Willis Brothers, Lee Moore, Grandpa Jones and Frank “Hylo” Brown straddled the two genres. Mainstream artists such as Skeeter Davis, Carl Smith, Porter Wagoner and the duo of George Jones & Melba Montgomery would record albums of bluegrass songs. By the end of the 1960s, however, bluegrass was nearly extinct on country radio. True, there were a few songs, usually associated with movies (“Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” “Dueling Banjos”) or television shows (“The Ballad of Jed Clampett”), which achieved some airplay, but those were few and far between.

Today bluegrass is largely banished from country radio. Yes, various performers such as Keith Urban or Rascal Flatts will gratuitously drop a banjo or a mandolin into their songs, but their music isn’t bluegrass. Yes, artists such as Alison Krauss or Rhonda Vincent will occasionally grace a Nashville artist’s album as a duet partner for a song or two, but those songs really aren’t bluegrass either. And yes, the soundtrack to Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, sold millions of copies – but how often did your local country station play any of the songs from the soundtrack?

The last bluegrass act regularly to receive country radio airplay was the duo of banjo player Roland “Sonny” Osborne (born 10/29/37) and his mandolin-playing brother, Bobby Osborne (born 12/9/1931). Sonny and Bobby were born in Hyden, Kentucky, but when Sonny was very young, the family moved near Dayton, Ohio where they had their first experiences as performers. As children, their father instilled a love for traditional music. Bobby picked up the electric guitar as a teenager and played in various local bands. A few years after his brother began playing the guitar, Sonny picked up the banjo. Both were greatly influenced by the likes of Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, Alton & Rabon Delmore and Bill Monroe.

Being six years older, Bobby was first out of the gate. During the autumn of 1949, he and friend/banjoist Larry Richardson joined the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers. This effectively changed the band from Delmore Brothers sound-alikes into a pioneering bluegrass band. They recorded a number of sides together including the original version of “Pain In My Heart.”

In 1950, 13 year old Sonny joined his brother in the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers. Following his tenure with the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Bobby joined forces with Jimmy Martin to form a band called the ‘Sunny Mountain Boys’. Following the breakup with Martin, Bobby briefly joined the Stanley Brothers, singing high baritone above Carter’s lead and Ralph’s tenor. Unfortunately, before this trio was able to record, Bobby was drafted into the military in November of 1951.

During Bobby’s military service Sonny continued his musical career. During the summers of 1952 and 1953, Sonny played banjo for Bill Monroe. Also, Sonny recorded a number of singles for small record labels such as Kentucky and Gateway. I do not know how many sides were released by Gateway, but I am aware of at least forty-two songs being recorded, featuring Sonny on banjo and vocals, Carlos Brock on guitar and vocals, Billy Thomas on fiddle, Smokey Ward on bass and Enos Johnson on mandolin and vocals.

In late 1953, Bobby & Sonny teamed up with Jimmy Martin and performed on a local Detroit radio station billed as “Jimmy Martin and The Osborne Brothers.” Bobby & Sonny lasted two years with the mercurial Martin, during which time they recorded a few singles for RCA. They left in 1956 to work with Charlie Bailey on the WWVA Big Jamboree in Wheeling, West Virginia, where they would stay for four years. A few months later they joined forces with lead singer Harley “Red” Allen and formed their own band–thereafter becoming known as the Osborne Brothers.

Shortly after joining forces with Red Allen, The Osborne Brothers signed a deal with MGM records. Their fifth single for MGM, “Once More,” reached #13 in 1958. While no more singles charted nationally for MGM (many of their records were regional hits), the Osborne Brothers continued to record, refining their sound. Red Allen left the group after the first album, but Sonny & Bobby soldiered onward, with other outstanding vocalists such as Benny Birchfield helping complete the harmony trios. They would record three more albums for MGM before leaving for Decca in late 1963. Many of these albums included songs that would later become hits when re-recorded for Decca.

The Decca years found Sonny and Bobby experimenting with the instrumentation of their music. They experimented slowly at first, using an electric bass, then added additional instruments such as steel guitar and piano, and Sonny’s own creation, the electric six-string banjo. The hybrid country bluegrass sound proved quite popular with fans and disc jockeys alike. They were soon booked on the major country package shows of the day. With their voices being featured on their own major label recordings and on others from Conway Twitty to Bill Monroe, their name became synonymous with harmony singing. From 1966 to 1976, the Osborne Brothers would chart 16 times. While none of these songs were huge national hits, the records sold well and were mostly huge hits in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic areas. Several of their songs such as “Ruby (Are You Mad),” “Roll Muddy River,” “Son of A Sawmill Man” and “Rocky Top” became bluegrass standards, with the latter even being designated as an official Tennessee State song.

The Osborne Brothers were inducted as members of the Grand Ole Opry in 1964. They were voted as the CMA’s “Vocal Group of the Year” in 1971, and received nominations in the category in 1970, 1974 and 1975. From 1971-1978 they were honored by Music City News as the nation’s top bluegrass group. Along the way, they became one of the first major bluegrass groups to appear extensively at bluegrass festivals.

The eighteenth (and last) charted single for Sonny & Bobby was “I Can Hear Kentucky Calling Me” in early 1980, which peaked at #75. By 1980, the chasm between the sound of bluegrass and modern country music had grown too deep for bluegrass to get any airplay on country radio. Ricky Skaggs would have considerable success on country radio during the years just ahead, but the records that charted well for Skaggs were far less grassy than the hybrids that the Osborne Brothers had been charting in the 1960s and 1970s.

Following their departure from Decca/MCA in 1975, The Osborne Brothers signed with Country Music Heritage (CMH) records and gradually reverted to traditional bluegrass instrumentation and have stayed there ever since. The Osborne Brothers were inducted into the International Bluegrass Music’s Hall of Honor (the genre’s equivalent to the Country Music Hall of Fame) in 1994 and were elected to the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame in 2002.

He Osborne Brothers continued to perform until Sonny Osborne retired from performing in 2005 after a shoulder operation affected his ability to play the banjo. Bobby Osborne continues to perform to this day, with Rocky Top X-Press, the band he formed after Sonny’s retirement. At 79 years of age, Bobby still tours – his busy schedule can be checked out on his website www.bobbyosborne.com .

The Osborne Brothers were pioneers in being among the first bluegrass groups (possibly the first bluegrass group) to include modern country instruments such as drums, electric bass, electric guitar, electric banjo, guitjo (a banjo neck on a guitar body) and steel guitar into bluegrass music. Many other acts would follow suit, even traditionally oriented groups such as Jim & Jesse McReynolds. Perhaps of greater importance was the vocal trio style created by the Osborne Brothers in conjunction with Red Allen, sometimes dubbed as “inverted stacked harmony”. This sound, unique and electrifying, featured Bobby singing a high lead line, Sonny singing baritone, and finally Red Allen singing the tenor as the lowest part. Although Red left after the first MGM album, subsequent vocalist such as Benny Birchfield , Dale Sledd and others kept the excitement going, setting a pattern many other groups,both bluegrass and modern country tried to duplicate, although few with such panache.

Discography

VINYL

The Osborne Brothers recorded four albums for MGM and 14 albums for Decca/MCA during the vinyl era. All of these records are worthwhile. If you found all 18 of the albums and played them chronologically you would hear a detailed history of the evolution of bluegrass music as the Osborne Brothers occasionally strayed into “newgrass” before the term was invented. The Decca/MCA albums are especially interesting as the Osborne Brothers covered many classic country songs as well as contemporary country material.

Unfortunately, little of the classic MGM and Decca/MCA material is available on CD, except for on two terrific (and quite expensive) boxed sets issued by Bear Family which contain all of the MGM and Decca/MCA material.

Leaving MCA/Decca after 1975, the Osborne Brothers joined the tradition-oriented Country Music Heritage (CMH) label, issuing at least ten albums for CMH, including a wonderful double album with Mac Wiseman. The CMH albums straddle the vinyl, cassette and CD eras, so you may find those albums in any or all of those formats.

Four albums were issued on Sugar Hill and five on Pinecastle. The Pinecastle albums all were issued on CD, however, only Once More, Volumes 1 & 2 were released on CD by Sugar Hill.

There was a live album issued on RCA in April 1982 titled Bluegrass Spectacular. This album, recorded in October 1981 at Opryland’s Theater By The Lake, features the Osborne Brothers with guests the Lewis Family and Mac Wiseman. Hairl Hensley and Roy Acuff do the opening introductions. For this performance, Paul Brewster sings the additional harmony Hal Rug plays steel guitar and former Texas Troubadour Leon Rhodes plays electric lead guitar. As far as I know this is the only RCA album, although RCA Camden issued something in 1968 called Bluegrass Banjo Pickers which has a few Sonny Osborne tracks (I’ve never seen the actual album)

CD

The Ernest Tubb Record Shop currently has available both of the Bear Family Box Sets at $99.98 each. If you are a diehard fan, it’s definitely worth the money to buy these, but for the casual fan, they are overkill. It is possible (sometimes) to find these sets for less money on sites such as www.overstock.com and www.countysales.com . Also you may be able to find used sets on sites such as www.musicstack.com .

The only other CD available covering the Decca/MCA years is titled Country Bluegrass. It sells for $9.98 and has ten of their chart hits including “Rocky Top,” “Roll Muddy River” and “Ruby (Are You Mad).” It’s inadequate, but essential.

ET has eleven more titles available, all of which come from post-1975. They do have the terrific Essential Bluegrass Album (with Mac Wiseman) which was a double album with 24 songs.

ET also has available six solo albums that Bobby Osborne has issued plus an album with Jesse McReynolds titled Masters of The Mandolin. I have several of Bobby’s solo albums – they are good but something was definitely lost from the vocal blend when Sonny retired. Moreover, Bobby has lost some of his upper range over the years, especially on the more recent albums and when he performs some of the old Osborne Brothers classics, he has had to do them in lower keys. This point was brought home by Bobby’s performance on the Opry in July 2011, where Bobby has clearly changed the chord progression on the chorus of “Rocky Top” to make it easier to sing.

Currently www.bobbyosborne.com has six of Bobby’s solo albums available for sale as well as ten Osborne Brothers CDs and two DVDs of the Osborne Brothers in concert.

Album Review: Scott Holstein – ‘Cold Coal Town’

The last musical recommendation I got from the late lamented 9513 was Scott Holstein, who Brody Vercher pointed out a few weeks ago. His independent CD Cold Coal Town has been produced by Scott himself alongside dobro player extraordinaire Randy Kohrs. Impressively, the entire album was recorded in one night (in Kohrs’ studio in Nashville), and great credit goes to the very accomplished band. Bluegrass backings and a soulful fusion of bluegrass-country-blues in Scott’s passionately smoky voice set this record apart. The songs, all written by Scott, are mainly rooted in his West Virginia coalmining family background, and the quality is exceptionally high.

‘The Spell’ opens the set with the protagonist railing against the woman he loves despite her “wicked ways”. It seems quite appropriate for it to lead into ‘Walls Of Stone’, the blues-infused lament of a prisoner sentenced to 99 years in gaol after killing his unfaithful wife. The sprightly instrumental ‘Leavin Charleston’ showcases the band’s tight, sparkling musicianship. Their more lyrical playing comes to the fore in another instrumental cut, the stately ’The Holstein Waltz’, which is lovely. Scott does not play an instrument on the album, but composed the tunes.

‘Boone County Blues’ is one of those cheerful sounding expressions of deep sadness which are common in bluegrass, again with really great picking. It is, perhaps, the least exceptional song here, but is still very good. The charming ‘Clinch Mountain Hills’ is a tribute to the Stanley brothers, written by Carter Stanley’s graveside and channelling his voice. Don Rigsby provides the high tenor harmony counterpoint to Scott’s gravelly baritone.

I don’t remember ever seeing a country song with a Latin title before. ‘Montani Semper Liberi’ is the official motto of Scott’s home state of West Virginia (meaning “mountaineers [are] always free”), and the song tells a dramatic story, with a young man choosing not to take sides in the Civil War, just as the state was formed in June 1863, declaring:

Mama stitched my uniform
But no colors do I choose
They’ll never take this mountain
The gray nor the blue

Cause mountaineers are always free
And almost heaven’s good enough for me
Upon this land I’ll state my creed
Mountaineers are always free

The grim reality of life in the coal towns fuels much of Scott’s best work. The title track has the protagonist leaving his childhood home for a better future, and reminiscing about the hardworking miner father who “left one day and came back dead”, having advised his son not to follow him into the mines. In ‘Roll, Coal, Roll’, meanwhile, the protagonist is a weary trucker moving coal down from the mountain mines.

The acappella Black Water quietly and compellingly tells the true story of a fatal flood caused by a coal company’s unsafe practices in the 70s, when several communities were destroyed and over 100 people were killed at Buffalo Creek, West Virginia by coal slurry after a dam broke. Perhaps the highlight of a very fine record, this sounds like a traditional folk song, and has Don Rigsby and Randy Kohrs on harmony:

Coal company said “God is to blame”
They built the dam “but He brought the rain”
Truth was known throughout the land
Never do trust a company man

Black water, black water
So black and so deep
And under black water forever I’ll sleep
Death angels are calling out to me
Black water is rolling down Buffalo Creek

Death was the scene even high in the tree
Fathers and children and mothers to be
Nowhere to run as black water comes down
And so is the lie of a coal mining town

A similar flood seen from the first person, this time caused by a coal company’s reckless clearance of tree cover on the mountain, sees locals seeking refuge, but there ‘Ain’t No Higher Ground’ to run to.

This is a fantastic record, and definitely my favourite of the year so far. I’ll be very surprised if it doesn’t make my end of year top 10.

Grade: A+

You can currently purchase the CD from Scott’s website, although I understand wider distribution is being sought.

Album Review: Patty Loveless – ‘Honky Tonk Angel’

Honky Tonk AngelPatty Loveless’ third album, released in 1988, marked her real commercial breakthrough. It was her first gold-seller (and eventually reached platinum status), and it also built on her growing success on country radio. No less than five of the ten tracks were released as singles – an unusually high number at the time. It is a testament to the strength in depth of the material that every single one was a top ten hit.

Whereas Patty’s first two albums had been co-produced by Tony Brown with Emory Gordy Jr, this time Brown took sole charge, and he delivered a commercial, radio-friendly record with enough traditional influences to fit perfectly with the tune of the times. The title alone was something of a statement of intent, as a phrase which does not appear on any of the lyrics of the songs, but one which called to mind Kitty Wells’ 50s classic ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels’. A predominantly up-tempo set of material drew on Patty’s rock-singing past and her mountain background, intermixed with some soaring ballads which showed off her beautiful voice and emotive interpretative ability.

The opening track, and lead-off single, was the beaty country-rock ‘Blue Side Of Town’, written by Hank DeVito and Paul Kennerley. It was followed by the pleading ballad ‘Don’t Toss Us Away’, written by rock musician Bryan MacLean, and previously recorded by the country-rock group Lone Justice featuring MacLean’s sister, future pop star Maria McKee, on vocals. Brown’s production and Patty’s vocals transformed it into a pure country song, one which allowed Patty to stretch out vocally and show how she could emote, supported by Rodney Crowell on harmony vocals, as she begs:

Don’t toss us away so thoughtlessly
It just ain’t right
Oh can’t you see
I still love you
I want you to stay
Darlin’ please, don’t toss us away

Patty’s first #1 single was the engaging up-tempo ‘Timber I’m Falling In Love’, one of several tracks here to benefit from Vince Gill’s prominent harmonies. It was also the first #1 for its writer, Kostas. The same combination of Kostas as writer, Patty on lead, and Vince Gill on harmony (together with bluegrass vocalist Claire Lynch) was responsible for the fourth single, the full-blooded ballad ‘The Lonely Side Of Love’. Only reaching #6, it was the least successful of the singles from the album, and is one of Patty’s less well remembered songs today, but it is still a fine recording.

Kostas wrote a third track on the album, the loungy ‘If You Think’, which is beautifully interpreted by Patty as a love song with an underlying hint of sadness as the protagonist defends her love against her lover’s doubts. The final single was my favorite, as Vince Gill’s harmonies again helped ‘Chains’ to the top of the chart. The downbeat lyrics about a woman emotionally tied to a hopeless love are married to an effervescent sound which is utterly irresistible.

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Album Review: Brandon Rickman – ‘Young Man, Old Soul’

Brandon RickmanBrandon Rickman is a very talented bluegrass singer and guitarist, with a grittily soulful voice which is very distinctive. Although this is his debut solo album (on the always-admirable Rural Rhythm Records), he has spent some time as lead singer for the Lonesome River Band. Rickman co-produces with Jimmy Metts, and they have made a record with a surprisingly full acoustic bluegrass sound, despite the small number of musicians; many tracks just feature Brandon’s voice and guitar, although others feature members of the Lonesome River Band and other musician friends. Brandon also co-writes almost all the material.

The album immediately seizes attention with the arresting opening track, ‘Always Have, Always Will’, an excellent song which Brandon wrote with Chris Stapleton of the SteelDrivers. This portrays a man who cannot stop drinking and lives with the cost, as he declares his undying love for the woman who could not live with it:
I’ve fought it time and time again
But the whiskey always wins
I got regrets I try to kill
I always have and I always will …
I know the Devil way too well
But I knew the price when I made the deal.”

The song is well complemented by the arrangement, with some fine playing, especially from Aaron McDaris on banjo and Jenee’ Fleenor on fiddle.

Two songs are written with Craig Market. ‘Here Comes That Feeling Again’ is a rather good country song about a love that should be over, but somehow keeps sneaking back into his heart “out of nowhere, out of thin air, it just comes rolling in like an old song”. Even better is ‘What I Know Now’, a thoughtful reflection on past mistakes and growing up, delivered very simply, just Brandon and his guitar:
“I don’t like to dwell on what I’ve done wrong in my life
Chalk it up to being young and full of youthful pride
You can’t go back – and I know that – but if I could, somehow,
I might’ve stayed a little longer, loved a little stronger, done right where I done wrong
If I knew then what I know now.”

Another introspective take on growing older comes with ‘So Long 20s’ as Brandon hails turning 30, again in very low-key style. He wrote this song with one-time Lyric Street country act Kevin Denney, and shares feeling which will be all-too-familiar to most of us:
“The older I get, the more I’m afraid
It’s not my age that scares me, it’s how fast I got here …
Seems like I laid down, took a nap around 18
Woke up this morning like it was all a dream.”

Buddy Owens helped Brandon write the less interesting ‘Wide Spot In The Road’, about a small hometown. I preferred the similarly themed ‘I Take The Backroads’, written with Jerry Salley (who also contributes harmonies), which has the protagonist returning home to a town which has changed out of recognition, thanks to a new freeway. Salley also co-wrote (with Brandon and Justin David) the regret-filled tribute to a prodigal’s loving mother, ‘Wearing Her Knees Out Over Me’, which is one of my favorite tracks.

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Album Review: Tommy Webb – ‘Heartland’

tommy-webb-heartlandTommy Webb is a bluegrass singer who has just released his third album, and his first on the larger independent label Rural Rhythm, which should lead to a higher profile for him.

I think it shows a definite advance over both his 2007 debut album, Eastern Kentucky, and last year’s follow-up, Now That You Are Gone, both of which were released on the smaller Kindred Records. Like those predecessors, the new album features playing entirely by Tommy’s regular band, augmented by producer Ron Stewart on fiddle/mandolin/anything else required. The recording sessions took place at the delightfully named Sleepy Valley Barn studio in Tommy’s home state of Kentucky, and the whole project has a very authentic, organic feel. Tommy hails from Langley, Kentucky, and is clearly steeped in bluegrass traditions. I wouldn’t put him in the top rank of male bluegrass vocalists, but he is firmly in the high lonesome tradition and sings with real feeling for the lyrics. The material he has gathered for this album is very high quality, with a strong overlap with country music, although the treatment is firmly bluegrass.

Two of the tracks are re-recorded versions of songs which appeared on Tommy’s previous releases, which the label probably felt deserved wider attention. The more interesting of these songs is ‘If It Weren’t For Bluegrass Music (I’d Go Crazy)’, a re-write of Clinton Gregory’s minor country hit from 1991, ‘If It Weren’t For Country Music (I’d Go Crazy)’. Tommy gives himself a co-writing credit for altering the allusions from country artists to bluegrass ones, for instance declaring, ‘I’d vote for Ralph Stanley for president’ where the original picks Merle Haggard. The changes work pretty well, although the hook line sounds a little awkward – surely most people normally refer just to “bluegrass” rather than to “bluegrass music” as a rule?

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Spotlight Artist: Keith Whitley (July 1, 1955 – May 9, 1989)

keithwhitleyLast month we spotlighted the Class of ’89, noting the many creative and commercial triumphs that occurred during that landmark year for country music. The same year brought one of country music’s great tragedies — the untimely death of Keith Whitley from alcohol poisoning. May 9th marks the 20th anniversary of that sad day. This month My Kind of Country will spotlight Keith Whitley and look back at the great musical legacy he left behind.

Jesse Keith Whitley was born in Sandy Hook, Kentucky, on July 1, 1955. Many sources cite 1954 as the year of his birth, but 1955 is what is engraved on his headstone. When young Keith was a teenager, he entered a talent contest with his brother Dwight. Also entered in the contest was another teenage prodigy by the name of Ricky Skaggs. The two became lifelong friends. Together, they became the opening act for the bluegrass band The Clinch Mountain Boys. Whitley went on to play and sing for the bluegrass band J.D. Crowe and the New South. The group released an album in 1982 called Somewhere Between, featuring Whitley on lead vocals. The album eventually led to a solo deal for Whitley with RCA Records.

Whitley’s RCA debut was the mini-LP A Hard Act To Follow, which was released in 1984. The mini-LP didn’t make much of an impact on the charts. The lead single “Turn Me To Love” peaked at #59 on the Billboard country singles chart. It’s worth noting that the harmony vocals on this recording were provided by an unknown and unsigned singer by the name of Patty Loveless. Despite his very traditional voice, heavily influenced by Carter Stanley and Lefty Frizzell, RCA was pushing Whitley in a more country-pop direction, which was evident on his next project.

A Hard Act to Follow was followed up in 1985 by the album L.A. to Miami. Featuring a more contemporary sound, the album provided Keith with his first top 20 single, “Miami, My Amy”, followed by three top 10 hits: “Ten Feet Away”, “Homecoming ’63”, and “Hard Livin’.” The pop influences were still dominant, although the album also contained two more traditional songs: “On the Other Hand” and “Nobody In His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her”, which went on to become huge hits for Randy Travis and George Strait, respectively.

During this time, Whitley met and married Grand Ole Opry star Lorrie Morgan. Their son, Jesse Keith Whitley, Jr. was born in June 1987. Whitley was also working on a new album for RCA. The project was near completion, but he was unsatisfied with the way it was turning out. He approached label head Joe Galante, and asked for and received permission to shelve the project and start over again. He was also granted the right to have a bigger say in the production of his records.

Whitley teamed up with a new producer, Garth Fundis, and began working on a new album. The result was Don’t Close Your Eyes, his most traditional album yet for RCA. The title track not only went to #1, it was Billboard’s #1 country record of the year in 1988. The album also produced two more #1 hits for Whitley, and was certified gold.

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