My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Chris Stapleton

Album Review: Dierks Bentley – ‘Riser’

riserOf today’s current crop of artists, Dierks Bentley is one of the few who at least tries to get it right. Much of the time he succeeds, though occasionally his projects fall short of expectations. Unfortunately, his latest effort Riser, which was released last month falls mostly into the latter category. If you like your country arena-rock style, then you’ll probably enjoy this album, but if you think country music should actually sound country, you’ll likely be disappointed.

Riser was produced by singer-songwriter Ross Copperman. Though he has dabbled in country music from time to time — he co-wrote “Tip It On Back” (one of my least favorite Dierks Bentley singles) as well as songs for Steve Holy and Jennette McCurdy — Cooperman is best known for songs like “All She Wrote”, which was a 2007 pop hit in the UK and “Holding On And Letting Go”, which was featured in the television series The Vampire Diaries. Not surprisingly, bringing in a producer from outside the genre has resulted in one of Dierks’ least country-sounding albums.

Things get off to a decent start with “Bourbon In Kentucky”, the album’s lead single featuring background vocals from Kacey Musgreaves. Surprisingly, the record stalled at #40. The current single “I Hold On”, which Bentley wrote with Brett James, has fared much better. It currently resides at #3 on the charts, but it’s not particularly memorable.

Though not in alignment with my tastes, Riser is at least several notches above the usual dreck heard on country radio today, and it does contain some substantive songs. “Here on Earth” was inspired by the death of Dierks’ father and the 2012 Sandy Hooks school shootings in Connecticut, and “Damn These Dreams”, about trying to juggle competing priorites is well written. But I am bored to distraction with arena rock laced with a bit of banjo and steel guitar so people will think it’s country.

I became more and more disillusioned with this album with each passing track, when I was pleasantly surprised by the very last one — “Hurt Somebody”, which — surprise! actually sounds country and even contains a bit of fiddle and background vocals by Chris Stapleton, whose gravelly voice complements Dierks’ nicely. “Hurt Somebody” is the album’s one truly great song. Download it along with “Bourbon In Kentucky” and “Here on Earth” and skip the rest.

Grade: C

Album Review – Don Williams – ‘Reflections’

4096_donwilliamsreflectionsOn his second Sugar Hill Release, and his third album in a decade, 74-year-old Don Williams spends a lot of time reflecting, just as the album’s title suggests. In the forty-plus years he’s been in the music industry he’s certainly earned the right, and with ten expertly chosen songs, he also gets right to the point.

As per usual Garth Fundis is along for the introspective journey and he succeeds masterfully in placing Williams’ distinctive baritone front and center, allowing the conversational way in which he sings to anchor the album extraordinarily.

This is no more apparent than on the one-two punch that opens the project. Townes Van Zant’s folksy “I’ll Be There In The Morning” is as honest a love song as it was forty-six years ago, with Williams breathing new life into the number with a combination of acoustic and steel guitars accentuated with ribbons of glorious harmonica. “Talk Is Cheap,” a Guy Clark co-write (with Chris Stapleton & Morgane Hayes) that previously found a home on Alan Jackson’s Thirty Miles West, lays bare our tendency to dream hypothetically and brings out the song’s urgency (‘wine’s for tasting, roads for taking’) in a way Jackson’s version didn’t. Both are two of the finest moments on record all year thus far.

Jennifer Hanson, Marty Dodson, and Mark Nesler’s “Back To The Simple Things” furthers the urgency felt in “Talk Is Cheap” by lamenting on modern technology and the stronghold is has on society. On one hand Williams is calling on us to live, on the other he’s making sure we remember what’s most important along that journey – human connection. The chugging beat, which backs the song, is fabulous, too, as is the uncomplicated way Williams is gets the message across.

“Working Man’s Son” finds Williams ruminating on a life lived while perfectly capturing the male psyche. Where most singers desire to run in the opposite direction from their elderliness, Williams stairs it squarely in the face with a stunningly age-appropriate lyric by Bob Regan and Jim Collins:

 I’ve had my fun, I’ve made some friends

I’ve loved and lost and loved again

Been down that less traveled road

Just to see how far it goes

Spoke my mind to defend myself

Tried not to hurt nobody else

But if I did, I hope they’ll forgive

Williams turns negative on Doug Gill’s “Stronger Back,” an antidote to the man taking the good with the bad on “Working Man’s Son.” He may be wishing for ‘a stronger back, a bigger heart, the will to keep on walking when the way is dark” but instead of letting his problems go, he just wants to embrace them and thus take responsibility. The flourishes of steel help to extenuate the track’s beautifully steady beat, and keeps the proceedings from getting too dark and moody.

“Healing Hands” is another life-well-lived moment, this time from a grandchild lamenting on the calluses as a benchmark of life in one’s years and the relationship between healing hands and a kind heart. The sentiment is there in Steve Gillette & Rex Benson lyric, but the execution is too schmaltzy. Fundis nicely makes up for it and saves the song with a striking mandolin and guitar heavy arraignment that’s slightly addictive.

In life, you know you ‘get it’ when you realize our days on earth are a journey full of lessons that never cease to reveal themselves to us. Steve Wariner and Tony Arata wrote “The Answer” about this phenomenon and framed the tale as a boy with countless questions for his all-knowing father. Williams does an impeccable job of bringing the ballad to life as does Fundis with his gorgeous production.

Much like he did with “I’ll Be There In The Morning,” Williams breathes new light into Jesse Winchester’s “If I Were Free” not by removing the song’s simplicity, but by adding to it. He turns the folk song into a country ballad backed solely by an acoustic guitar. The track takes on new meaning, too, with Williams at the helm.

With reflections on a life-well-lived, laments against modern technology, and disgust for people who dream without execution, a song like Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home,” about a man watching a prison execution, is the odd one out. But the tale does work, seeing as Reflections is an album, in part, about looking back on one’s life. The album’s real weak link is “I Won’t Give Up On You.” There’s nothing wrong with the beautiful love song at all, it just isn’t as spectacular a moment for Williams when compared to the rest of the record.

Often when singers make a record they talk about the idea of ‘having something to say’ with the songs they’re releasing. It’s especially true of songwriters, which makes Reflections all the more remarkable – Williams didn’t write a single word (he did co-produce) yet he has more to say in these ten tracks than most anyone over the course of their whole careers. His gifts as a singer and song interpreter are unmatched and help to elevate Reflections above the usual faire. If you’ve been waiting for a substantive collection full of meaning, with tasteful country production and class – than this is it. I can’t recommend Reflections enough.

Grade: A 

Album Review: Jason Eady – ‘Daylight And Dark’

daylight and darkJason Eady says his latest release, following up to the excellent AM Country Heaven, is not a concept album, but in effect it is, as it tells one story. Eady himself summarises it by saying,

“‘Daylight And Dark’ was written as a ‘day in the life’ story of a man who is trying to find his way through a bad period of his life. He is struggling between his intentions during the daytime and his temptations at night. Every morning he wakes up determined to make changes and do the right thing but as evening approaches he starts to give in and lose his way again…. The entire album is sung from this same character’s point of view and the order of the songs also tells the same story.”

The complex emotions of the story of a troubled individual ring very true. It is produced with understated taste by Kevin Welch to put the excellent songs and compelling story center stage.

The rhythmic lead single ‘OK Whiskey’, which I reviewed back in November makes a compelling, attention-grabbing opener, and sets the scene with the protagonist at a metaphorical crossroads on a literal highway.

He is back on the road in ‘The Other Side Of Abilene’. This excellent song is addressed to the woman he has left at home, with the resigned vocal delicately ornamented by real-life fiancée Courtney Patton’s sweet harmony vocal, which is also in evidence on other tracks. After a night in a motel he realises he has
got to turn back to see what lies ahead”.

Things slow down further for an introspective reflection on the fight with ‘Temptation’, a very fine song with a haunting steel guitar dominating the arrangement.

The wry ‘One, Two … Many’ offers a little self-directed justification for a fall from grace drinking too much:

I’ve had one, two … many
And that’s just enough to make me
Think so much that I can’t stand

‘Liars & Fools’ addresses two kinds of man, concluding he prefers the latter because

Liars, they live in their own little world
While the fools lay it all on the line

Yet he himself fits in the firmer category, as he reveals regretfully:

I watched as it all came undone
She was a fool for leavin’ my lies
And now I’m left with the damage I’ve done

Picking up both mood and tempo, ‘We Just Might Miss Each Other’ is a charming duet with Courtney Patton about trying to avoid an awkward encounter with the ex, with a lovely retro feel and bright fiddle.

The gently melancholic title track sees the protagonist facing up to his tangled life the morning after a drunken hookup with a stranger, but with no answers for himself:

I hear the normal people talkin’
Walkin’ right outside my window
And I wonder what they know that I don’t
Are they just survivin’ after all this time
And just going through the motions that I won’t?

‘Lonesome Down & Out’ is more forceful, as he admits defiantly that his druinking lifestule is due to his relationship breakdown:

I started runnin’
After the stayin’ failed to work

The melancholic ‘Whiskey & You’ (a Chris Stapleton tune which is one of only two songs on the album not written by Eady, and has previously been recorded by Julie Roberts and Tim McGraw) is a more somber reflection of life after divorce, almost a despairing one, which fits perfectly into the sequence. It is followed by the other outside song, Adam Hood’s ‘Late Night Diner’, which adds similar insight and sounds as if it was written for the project with its wistful acceptance of the high cost of failed love.

Finally, Eady joins up with Hayes Carll for the amusing story song ‘A Memory Now’, which ends the record on an upbeat note, with the passage of time having got the protagonist over his ex at last and revisiting all the warning signs. The sardonic tone makes this slightly out of keeping with the more thoughtful mood elsewhere, and it feels like more of a Carll song than an Eady one, but it does provide a positive conclusion to the story told through the album.

This portrait of a troubles soul is Jason Eady’s most ambitious record to date, and his finest achievement. This is highly recommended top anyone who wants some depth in their country music.

Grade: A+

Occasional Hope’s favorite singles of 2013

i let her talkCountry radio may have gone from bad to worse this year, but as ever there were a few bright spots – and some great singles away from the mainstream offerings. Here are my favorite singles of 2013:

10. Wagon Wheel – Darius Rucker
A vibrant, charming cover with rootsy production. What a pity the rest of the album was so deadly dull.

9. It Ain’t The Whiskey – Gary Allan
A bit loud, and perhaps rather similar to past songs, but a great vocal makes this worthwhile.

8. Songs About Trucks – Wade Bowen
An emotion I think we can all get behind – no more songs about trucks, please. But this isn’t just a complaint, this song also has a genuine emotional storyline which lets it stand on its own merits.

overnight success7. Overnight Success – Zane Williams
The independent artist explains how to become a country star, overnight (well, after nine or ten years hard work, of course). A fine song, by turns ironic, self-deprecating and good humoured.

6. Stripes – Brandy Clark
The witty song isn’t the best on the singer-songwriter’s excellent album 12 Stories, but it’s highly entertaining nonetheless. It’s a pity it hasn’t got more mainstream attention.

what are you listening to5. What Are You Listening To – Chris Stapleton
A very tastefully arranged recording, a well written song, and intensely emotional vocal. It wasn’t as successful as I had hoped it would be, and the singer-songwriter and former SteelDriver still awaits release of his solo album for Mercury, but it’s a fine and memorable record.

4. I Got A Car – George Strait
The story song about a couple’s journey from first meeting to starting a family, written by Keith Gattis and Tom Douglas, was an obvious single choice from George’s current album. It is packed full of charm, and shows the veteran (unexpectedly named the CMA Entertainer of the year) still has commercial potential.

3. Could It Be – Charlie Worsham
A debut single from a young artist with a fresh, youthful sound. Utterly charming. I wasn’t as taken by the album, but the single (which reached #13 on the country airplay chart) stands up as one of the more refreshing moments on country radio this year.

borrowed2. Borrowed – LeAnn Rimes
A cheating song from LeAnn’s somewhat controversial Spitfire album. Her mature vocals are beautiful, and the self-penned song draws with an unsparing honesty on LeAnn’s own experiences with her early relationship with her current husband, when both were married to others. The song’s complicated emotions didn’t help LeAnn’s increasingly chequered image, but it’s a fine and deeply truthful song – what country music is all about. The production is delicately sensitive and allows the vocals to shine.

1. I Let Her Talk – Erin Enderlin
A fantastic story song from the singer-songwriter, this beautifully realised tale narrates a bar room encounter between two women drowing their troubles. In an unexpected twist the meeting turns out to be between a man’s wife (the narrator) and his clueless “careless drunk” lover. Erin wrote the song with the great Leslie Satcher, and it is perfectly constructed. This was the promotional single for Erin’s independent album of the same name, and although it received limited mainstream attention it was absolutely the best single of the year for me.

Album Review: Kellie Pickler – ‘The Woman I Am’

picklerI wasn’t terribly impressed with Kellie Pickler when she first arrived on the scene and quickly wrote her off as a marginal talent without a lot of staying power. I was forced to reassess my opinion of her with the release of last year’s surprisingly good 100 Proof, which found her eschewing the trappings of contemporary country in favor of a more traditional sound. Predictably, 100 Proof’s singles received little support from radio and the album sold poorly. Pickler’s contract with BNA Records was terminated shortly thereafter, and I figured that the artistic growth she showed on 100 Proof was just a one-off. But once again Pickler proved me wrong. She signed with Black River Entertainment last fall, and The Woman I Am, her first album for the indie imprint, was released just this month.

Like 100 Proof, The Woman I Am was produced by Frank Liddell and Luke Wooten. Unlike 100 Proof, it is aimed squarely at a mainstream audience, serving notice that though Kellie may no longer be a major label artist, she still has her eye on the charts. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I consider most of today’s mainstream releases unlistenable, but I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this album. It has a couple of weak songs and some questionable production choices at times, but from beginning to end it maintains a semblance to actual country music and never dissolves into the lackluster Lite-FM sound that mars so much of today’s country music.

Two singles have been released so far. “Someone Somewhere Tonight” is a decent ballad that I probably would have liked a lot more if I’d never heard Pam Tillis’ version. The uptempo “Little Bit Gypsy” is Kellie’s current single. I quite enjoyed this one, despite the slightly cluttered nature of the production towards the end. Sadly, neither single has garnered much attention from radio. I don’t know how aggressively Black River will continue to promote this project, but there are several other worthy contenders for future single release.

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and Pickler is no exception as she opts to hock her engagement ring rather than return it to her two-timing ex-fiance in “Ring For Sale”, which was written by Jim Beavers and Chris Stapleton. “Bonnie and Clyde”, on which Kellie shares a co-writing credit with Kyle Jacobs and Liz Rose, is also quite good, despite a somewhat heavy-handed “Indian Outlaw” like arrangement. It is the ballads, however, on which Pickler truly shines, particularly on the lovely title track, which she also co-wrote, and “Tough All Over”, a Gary Nicholson and Leslie Satcher composition and not the 1990 Shelby Lynne song of the same name. “Buzzin'” is pleasant but lyrically shallow, and “No Cure For Crazy” quickly disintegrates into a too loud and too cluttered sonic mess.

The Woman I Am isn’t an outstanding album, but it is a very good one that proves that 100 Proof wasn’t just a fluke and that there is more substance to Kellie Pickler than one might have guessed based upon her first two albums and the dumb blonde shtick she engaged in at the time. The Woman I Am deserves a listen, even if like me, you weren’t a huge fan of Kellie’s early efforts.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Julie Roberts – ‘Good Wine & Bad Decisions’

good wine and bad decisionsIt’s nearly 10 years since Julie Roberts first appeared on the radar of country fans, and in the years since she’s endured more reverses than many artists, including losing her major label deal, losing her home in the Nashville floods, being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and last year being passed up for The Voice. Her career never quite fulfilled the promise of her distinctive emotion-filled voice; even her biggest hit, ‘Break Down Here’, barely cracked the top 20 even though it sold over half a million copies. I loved her two Mercury albums, but was left a little disappointed by her independent album a couple of years ago. Now, she has been signed to a revived Sun Records, and has new music.

Jason Collum co-produces and co-wrote many of the songs with Julie. The result is much stronger than her last record. Collum’s production is often low-key, mixing the country torch balladry at which Julie has always shone, with occasional rock and soul influences, but always allows Julie’s trademark sultry vocals to take center stage.

The outstanding song is ‘Daddy Doesn’t Pray’, written by Chris Stapleton. This is a very touching tribute to a religious father after his death. I also rather liked the album’s other religious song, the longing ‘Arms Of Jesus’, backed by subtle strains of churchy piano and organ.

Steve Earle’s ‘I’m Not Getting Any Better At Goodbyes’ (recorded in the early 90s by Mark Chesnutt) is a reminder that Earle, better known for his country rock and political songs, can write a stunning country ballad when he chooses, and Julie does the song full justice.

‘He Made A Woman Out Of Me’ is a Bobbie Gentry cover, and the production and arrangement of a southern teenager’s sexual awakening. The vocal is convincing enough for it to be an enjoyable track, although the production is like the original to the point of sounding like a pastiche.

Buddy Miller harmonises on his own ‘Gasoline & Matches’. Julie sturdy version is less frenetic than others I have heard, including the recent cut by LeAnn Rimes, allowing the lyrics more prominence. This is a very good recording which grows the more you hear it.

Vince Gill guests on the lonesome ballad ‘Old Strings’, which Julie sings beautifully as she agonises over her continuing feelings for an ex. A lovely melancholy feel and tasteful arrangement make this another highlight.

The seductive ‘Keep Me Up All Night’, addressed to a husband who has let the romance fade, which Julie originally wrote for her debut album a decade ago with Kent Blazy and Cory Batten, but never recorded, is pretty good, and was worth pulling off the shelves.

The title track is an excellent song about a one-night stand with an old flame, regretted almost before it takes place. This should be ideal for Julie’s sultry voice, but unfortunately her pitch sounds noticeably off in places.

‘I’ll Close My Eyes’ is another excellent song about a woman refusing to acknowledge her husband is leaving, with a soothing melody and an understated acoustic arrangement. ‘Old Habit’ is another instant classic, a despairing ballad about facing the last vestiges of a relationship, with a desperate Julie realising her lover is treating her as a convenience. The phrasing and emotional interpretation are beautifully judged.

Some of the material stretches the boundaries a little. The harmonica-led bluesy country-rock of ‘If I Were You’, addressed to a neglectful lover by his partner in adultery, is quite catchy, with a heavy drum beat anchoring the rhythm; the harmonica is played by Willie Nelson sideman Mickey Raphael. The rocking ‘When It’s Over’ is not quite as good, seemingly at odds with the downbeat lyric and not quite right for Julie’s voice. The minor keyed ‘Bones’ is a fairly faithful cover of a song from British retro-soul singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka. It’s not country, but Julie sings it well and it is certainly an interesting choice. The bluesy soul of ‘Wrong About You’ works better for me.

The liner notes are in unreadably tiny print and essentially useless. The music, however, is mostly very good; a little more adventurous than her major label work, and a definite advance on her last release. if you’ve missed Julie’s bluesy voice, this is a very worthwhile purchase or download.

Grade: A

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘The Big E: A Salute to Buddy Emmons’

51GQ-c5OGdL._SL500_AA280_The steel guitar has been an iconic instrument in country music since it was first used in the genre. That doesn’t mean its use has been unchanged; more than almost any other instrument its specification and capabilities have changed with time. a large part of that is down to the legendary Buddy Emmons, one of the most brilliant and innovative musicians ever to be involved in country music, and creators of various new styles of steel guitar.

Emmons is saluted in this fine tribute record. Steel player Steve Fishell, currently touring with Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, produced, and his steel player’s natural understanding for and love of the instrument and the man being paid tribute to help to make this a worthy tribute to one of the giants of country (and not just country) musicianship – Emmons has also been active in jazz. The selected songs are ones where Emmons performed on the classic recording; some of them he wrote. The steel playing, courtesy of a dozen or so of today’s most accomplished steel players, is gorgeous throughout (although it doesn’t feature on every track), and the record recommends itself to a wider audience by the use of some starry guest vocalists on most tracks. A couple of great non-steel guitarists contribute too (Duane Eddy and Albert Lee).

A brace of instrumentals place the instrument center stage, but good though they are, it is the vocal tracks which non-specialists will gravitate to. Fishell plays on my favorite track, a lovely duet by Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell on Gram Parsons’ ‘That’s All It Took’. Emmylou swoops and soars as a counterpoint to Rodney’s more measured vocal as they swap lines.

Also very fine is Willie Nelson on the questioning ‘Are You Sure’, which he wrote with Emmons in the 60s. Nelson belies his age with his usual precise, distinctive phrasing and understated but believable emotional commitment. John Anderson is at his best on ‘Half A Mind’, originally recorded by Ernest Tubb with Emmons. It’s always a pleasure to hear Anderson singing hard country, and this is great, with Buck Reid’s steel backing him up nicely in very traditional style.

Gill and Franklin turn from the Bakersfield sound of their wonderful recent project together to some very retro western swing on ‘Country Boy’ (a 1949 hit for Little Jimmy Dickens, before Emmons joined him, but one he must have played many times).

Raul Malo is ideally suited to a loungy jazzy take on ‘Night Life’, but Chris Stapleton’s take on ‘Feel So Bad’ is a bit too far in the blues direction for my personal taste. Both tracks do, however, help to show the breadth of Emmons’s contributions to music in general.

Veteran Little Jimmy Dickens sounds fairly wrecked vocally on ‘When Your House Is Not A Home’, but then he is over 90 and not in the best of health. His inclusion is a nice touch as he was Emmons’ first major employer in the 1950s, bringing the remarkably talented teenager to Nashville.

The lesser-known Joanie Keller Johnson fails to match the Suzy Bogguss version of cowboy classic ‘Someday Soon’ (Emmons played on the recording by folk singer Judy Collins), although it is quite pleasant, with Keller’s husband Mike Johnson on steel. (Incidentally, as Joanie Keller, the singer has released some attractive independent records.)

A couple of guitarists try singing, with mixed results. I quite enjoyed the folky vocal at the end of ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ by steel player Greg Leisz, following a long, lyrical steel solo, but British-born Albert Lee (once a member of Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band and writer of Ricky Skaggs’s hit ‘Country Boy’) isn’t much good as a vocalist, and ‘Rainbows All Over Your Blues’ is one track which would have been much better off as a pure instrumental.

This is an excellent tribute to someone worthy of all the acclaim he is given, and it is all the better that (unlike the equally good Hank Cochran tribute from last year) it is released in Emmons’s lifetime. It is also genuinely great music in its own right. I recommend it to all country music fans, especially if you like the steel guitar showcased.

Grade: A

Single Review: Chris Stapleton – ‘What Are You Listening To?’

what are you listening toChris Stapleton has been one of Nashville’s premier songwriters for some years. He has also been known to discriminating music listeners as the lead singer on the SteelDrivers’ first two albums, each of which were recognised by Grammy nominations. Now he takes center stage with a mainstream major label deal as a solo vocalist on Mercury Records. His debut single is available for download now, and a full length album is expected later this year, both produced by veteran Tony Brown. Brown is an inspired choice for Stapleton, whose eclectic tastes have led him in the past to make music spanning country, rock, blues and bluegrass genres.

The gently paced mid-tempo ballad is not really traditional country, with blues and soul influences evident. However, its mellow feel and attractive melody make it more than listenable, helped along by a sympathetic production, the artist’s distinctively smoky, bluesy voice, and the sweet harmonies of his wife Morgane Hayes. The protagonist wonders a little wistfully what the music his ex is listening to implies about her emotional state – is she still not over him, and listening to sad songs, or a love song for a new love interest. He himself is clearly fixated on a record which reminds him of her.

Stapleton has a big powerful voice he is capable of letting rip as he did with former band the SteelDrivers, but here he shows all the understated restraint this downbeat number needs. There is still passion and feeling here, but it is channeled in a more subtle way.

I hope this is not too tasteful for country radio to deal with, because not only is this a fine record in its own right, but Stapleton is a major talent who deserves to be heard.

Listen here.

Grade: A

Album Review: LeAnn Rimes – ‘Spitfire’

spitfireLeAnn Rimes’ chart fortunes have been wildly inconsistent since she emerged on the country scene as a 13-year old. Her turbulent private life has also exposed her to a great deal of public criticism in recent years with her romance with new husband Eddie Cibrian breaking up two existing marriages and the home of two small children. Her excellent Vince Gill-produced covers album reignited my interest in her as an artist, and now she returns with her first records of all-new material in some years. She wrote many of the songs with her co-producer and frequent collaborator Darrell Brown, and it is the most personal and honest material she has ever recorded. She acknowledges that on the album cover, giving it the subtitle “the truth, in no particular order”. In other words, it is effectively a concept album about her affair, divorce and remarriage – meaty reality-based material which makes it a rare example of its kind in today’s market. Musically it’s not as traditional as Lady And Gentlemen but it is recognizably country music, with breathing space for LeAnn’s vocals.

The best songs are the more reflective ones where she shows some self-awareness. Candid cheating songs used to be a staple of country music but have fallen out of favor in recent years. ‘Borrowed’ is a guilt-ridden cheating song set during the affair, this one addressed to her new lover and dealing with her jealousy of his wife.

The remorseful ballad ‘What Have I Done’ (perhaps the outstanding song on the album) addresses the wrong she has done to her first love, who is “not her last”. It is an excellent song with a beautiful melody, with Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski adding harmonies and subtle steel and fiddle.

What have I done?
I broke the sweetest heart
Of the only man that’s ever loved me

I don’t know what I’ve become
I need to get back to where I’m from
Gotta smash every mirror in this empty house
Cause like you I don’t want to see myself
Oh, what have I done?

Both of these songs were released as singles late last year, but have failed to chart.

The haunting ‘Where I Stood’ (written by Australian AC singer-songwriter Missy Higgins) tackles the same theme, opening with the words “I don’t know what I’ve done” as she faces the loss of her husband and contemplates his finding someone new.

A heavy drumbeat leads into the less subtle ‘I Do Now’, which again addresses her cheating, but with less evident remorse, with LeAnn taking comfort in listening to Hank Williams and Merle Haggard but unfortunately not borrowing from them stylistically, instead going for a rock-influenced mid-tempo sound without much melody.

‘A Waste Is A Terrible Thing To Mind’ is another fine song written by LeAnn, as she ponders over her choices. It is one of the most traditional sounding songs on the album. Her diction is a bit muddy on this one (a problem she has sometimes suffered from in the past) so it takes some concentration to decipher the story, but it recounts the protagonist’s regret at separating from husband or lover:

I threw him out like the trash one night
The dumbest thing I’ve ever done
He was the best thing that I’ll ever find
Yeah, a waste is a terrible thing to mind

Darrell Brown contributed ‘Who We Really Are’ (a co-write with Sarah Buxton), a pretty ballad on which Leann’s vocals sound nice but again the words (about discovering oneself through the vicissitudes of love) are hard to make out.

The aggressive ‘Spitfire’ lets loose against a rival in love, and is a little spiteful, calling her rival not only a “dirty little liar” but a brainless one. It’s a brave choice as the album opener and title track as it doesn’t paint LeAnn in the best light and the obviously autobiographical nature of the material elsewhere makes this open to interpretation as a personal attack on her husband’s former wife, so making it the entry into the album could antagonize some listeners (but perhaps those most offended won’t be listening anyway, on principle?). Divorced from its likely context, it’s not a bad song in assertive vein.

She definitely addresses her husband’s ex-wife elsewhere, claiming to be ‘Just A Girl Like You’, acknowledging “he may break my heart too”, but I didn’t like this one much – it feels a bit disingenuous, there is far too much vocal noodling and the instrumentation has a slightly tinny feel. ‘You’ve Ruined Me’ also sounds a bit over-produced and over-wrought vocally.

Buddy and Julie Miller’s frenetic ‘Gasoline And Matches’ is done as a duet with rock singer Rob Thomas, and is quite entertaining, although it definitely leans more in the rock direction than country; rock guitarist Jeff Beck also guests. In the context of this album, it presumably reflects the passion wrought by her relationship with her new husband.

The equally fast-paced ‘You Ain’t Right’ written by Liz Rose with another husband-and-wife team, Chris Stapleton and Morgane Hayes, has a hardworking woman complaining about her layabout man’s lack of effort. It’s a good song, but lacks melody and feels out of place thematically.

I assume the judgmental ‘God Tales Care Of Your Kind’ is an older song as it was written with Leann’s ex-husband Dean Sheremet; it too seems a curious choice for this record unless she is addressing it to herself. Finally ‘Bottle’ is surprisingly bland for a Gary Burr tune.

It seems fairly clear that LeAnn’s personal life has caused a backlash against her music, and this album (apparently her last for Curb) will probably not get the radio play it needs to do well commercially. However, it is a serious artistic work rooted in real life. Perhaps a little too much so at times.

Grade: B+

Album Review: George Strait – ‘Love Is Everything’

love is everythingNow 61, George Strait may be giving up touring next year, but he still seems to be keen on continuing his recording career. As with everything he has done in the past decade, he has co-produced his latest album with Tony Brown, and there are no indications he is running out of steam. The pair know just what works for Strait and his fans, and while there are no real surprises here, it’s an accomplished record which will be well received by the fans.

Lead single ‘Give It All We Got Tonight’ is a rather dull and generic song with irritatingly tinny echoes in the production, written by Mark Bright, Phil O’Donnell and Tim James. It sounds exactly like an attempt at getting some radio attention. Luckily it’s done the job, giving George his 60th chart-topper; better still, it’s the only dud.

The outstanding song is ‘Blue Melodies’, a sad slow song written by Keith Gattis and one Wyatt Earp (yes, really). Loaded with steel guitar and fiddle, this is classic country heartbreak as a songwriter struggles to find the right words to convey his feelings. His sweetheart loves the sad songs, but he admits this will end up “a sad song, that’s too sad to sing” if she isn’t persuaded to return. His years of experience stand him in good stead here, as the phrasing is impeccable. This is absolutely lovely.

Gattis also contributed another pair of songs to the album. The engaging story song ‘I Got A Car’, written with Tom Douglas, narrates a romance from roadside pickup to starting a family together, and is quite charming, although the production gets a little busy towards the end. It would probably work as a single. ‘Sittin’ On The Fence’, a co-write with Roger Creager, is another good song. It is about a man undecided whether to make the move to save a relationship (even though he knows he’d be a “damn fool to let her go”).

Also very good, ‘You Don’t Know What You’re Missing’, written by Chris Stapleton and Al Anderson, reports a bar room conversation comparing one man’s complaints about mundane problems in his family life, to his drinking companion’s real heartaches. ‘I Thought I Heard My Heart Sing’ (by Bill Kenner and L Russell Brown) is an enjoyably bouncy number about the euphoria of falling in love which has a delightfully retro feel.

In the warmhearted ‘When Love Comes Around Again’, penned by Monty Holmes, Donny Kees and Jeff Silvey, Strait offers an older man’s hard-won experience of recovering from a broken heart to find new love, to counsel a younger friend going through it all for the first time. This might be another good single. The title track (written by Casey Beathard and Pat McLaughlin) is a little bland lyrically, but the laidback vocal and generous emotion work well.

‘I Just Can’t Go On Dying Like This’ is a rare solo composition by Strait, and is an impressive sad country ballad. It is an older song which was one of the artist’s first, pre-fame, singles back in 1976, and was also recorded as a bonus on the Strait Out Of The Box box set. The latest version is significantly different from its predecessors, completely reinventing it by slowed down from a honky tonker into a mature ballad which is very fine indeed. He was joined by son Bubba to write ‘That’s What Breaking Hearts Do’, which is a decent song but the vocal feels a bit perfunctory. Father and son teamed up with old friend Dean Dillon for two further songs. ‘The Night Is Young’, a cheerfully delivered invitation to a wife for a long night out (and in), and is quite good, featuring horns.

The more serious ‘I Believe’ is a sensitive, strings-swathed, response to the tragic events at Newtown, Connecticut, last year, capturing the sadness felt across the world at such a horrific incident.

The album closes with the valedictory ‘When The Credits Roll’, written by Randy Montana, Steve Bogard and Kyle Jacobs. I don’t know how much longer Strait plans to continue recording, but this feels intended to evoke images of his life and career as the latter comes to an end. However, it doesn’t quite convince, because George has never really come across as the rebel presented in the lyrics, and the production is a bit cluttered.

This isn’t Strait’s best ever record – that would be quite an achievement – but it’s solid fare with plenty of good songs and one outstanding one. It’s the best mainstream record I’ve heard in a while.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Love Will’

lovewillI never know what to expect from Trace Adkins these days. I’m hard pressed to think of another example of such a talented vocalist whose musical output is so wildly inconsistent. Love Will, his latest effort, while not quite a return to his traditional roots, at least avoids obnoxious songs in the vein of “Chrome”, “Hillbilly Bone” and the infamous “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk”.

He teams up with a variety of producers this time around: Frank Rogers, Mark Wright, Tony Brown, Mickey Jack Cones and Kenny Beard, most of whom he has worked with in the past, and for the most part the results are quite good. The opening track “When I Stop Loving You”, is a catchy number that would be a good choice for a late summer single. It was written by Even Stevens and Marty Brown, who had a brief recording stint with MCA in the early 90s.

Things move in a decidedly more pop direction beginning with the second track “So What If I Do”, which may very well be the first Trace Adkins recording to ever feature a saxophone. “Come See Me”, written by Kenny Beard and Exile members J.P. Pennington and Sonny LaMaire. This song sets the stage for a cover of an Exile song, on which some of the band members appear as guest artists (more on this a little later). I actually didn’t mind the pop leaning songs up to this point, but by the time we get to the overproduced “Altar of Your Love”, the only Adkins co-write on the album, it begins to wear a little thin. And then there’s the cover of “Kiss You All Over”, which was a #1 pop hit for Exile in 1978, which sounds very much like a product of the era in which it originated. Its inclusion on the album seems pointless: Exile spends as much (or perhaps more) time singing as Adkins, and if he had to cover an Exile song, there are much better ones to choose from than this.

Fortunately, things improve dramatically after this. “If The Sun Comes Up” is an excellent number that sounds like vintage Adkins. “Say No To A Woman” is a more respectful look at the fairer sex than some other songs in Trace’s catalog. The current single “Watch The World End”, a duet with pop-singer Colbie Caillat is enjoyable, although the string section is somewhat intrusive. Likewise, I could have done without the strings and choir on the Chris Stapleton and Tim James-penned title track, which closes out the album.

Love Will is more pop-leaning than most of Trace’s other albums, which may be an attempt to remain relevant at country radio. It is however, a more mature sound for him, and the absence of tasteless and sexist redneck anthems is a most welcome change.

Grade: B

Album Review: Travis Tritt – ‘My Honky Tonk History’

honkytonkhistoryThe creative renaissance that Travis Tritt enjoyed with the release of Down The Road I Go was unfortunately short-lived; 2002’s Strong Enough was a commercial and critical disappointment and 2004’s My Honky Tonk History, while slightly better than its predecessor, was likewise a mixed bag.

Based on the album’s title, some fans might have been expecting a back-to-basics collection of traditional weepers; if so, those fans were likely quite disappointed, since the album often is anything but traditional. Ironically, the Luke Bryan and Patrick Jason Matthews title track is one of the most rock-leaning tracks Tritt ever released. The track’s production is rather heavy-handed, and this is also the case with the second track “Too Far To Turn Around”. Two tracks into the album I was bracing myself for a tedious listening experience; “The Girl’s Gone Wild” is more mainstream contemporary country but the lyrics are cliched and the whole song sounds like a retread of the Garth Brooks Hit “Ain’t Comin’ Home Til The Sun Comes Up”; a song of which I was never overly fond. The tune seems to have been carefully tailored to the prevailing tastes at country radio, but radio’s response was lukewarm and the tune topped out at #28.

Fortunately things take a turn for the better starting with the fourth track “What Say You”, a duet with John Mellencamp. It’s not a traditional number by any means; it is more in the vein of something that Bob Dylan or The Byrds might have recorded. I’ve never been a fan of Mellencamp’s music but somehow the tune manages to work. It marks Mellencamp’s first –and to my knowledge, only — entry into the country Top 40. The record just missed the Top 20, peaking at #21.

Following “What Say You” is the excellent “Circus Leaving Town”, a traditional steel-guitar drenched number which is by far the album’s best track. “Monkey Around”, a bluesy number written by Delbert McClinton, Benmont Tench, and Gary Nicholson provides a nice change of pace, and Tritt sounds as though he is thoroughly enjoying himself with this tune. “I See Me” is a more mainstream effort, a ballad about a father observing his young son. Earlier in Tritt’s career, this would likely have been a big hit but by this time radio had cooled toward him considerably and the record stalled at #32.

By the last third of the album, the quality begins to taper off again, as the songs become more rock-oriented with offerings like “When Good Ol’ Boys Go Bad”, the anti-commercialism anthem “It’s All About The Money” and the don’t-get-above-your-raisin’ themed “When In Rome”, which closes the album. The two exceptions are the beautiful ballad “We’ve Had It All”, a Tritt co-write with Marty Stuart and “Small Doses” written by Jerry Salley and Chris Stapleton who would later enjoy a stint as lead vocalist for The SteelDrivers. “Small Doses” is the one tune here that sounds as though it belongs on an album titled My Honky Tonk History.

Though it failed to spawn any major hits or earn gold or platinum certification, My Honky Tonk History did reach #7 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. His declining popularity with radio and creative differences with Columbia led to Travis’ departure from the label in 2005. With the major label phase of his career now over, he went on to experience even greater difficulties with the independent Category 5, with whom he signed in 2006. Uneven in quality though it is, My Honky Tonk History does contain a few very good tracks and for those alone it is worth picking up a cheap copy.

Grade: B

Album Review: The SteelDrivers – ‘Hammer Down’

steeldriversThe SteelDrivers are back with a new collection of acoustic tunes, as well as another personnel change, as Brent Truitt takes over as mandolinist from departing founding member Mike Henderson. Hammer Down, which was produced by The SteelDrivers themselves along with Luke Wooten, follows the same basic template as the band’s previous two efforts. But while I felt that Reckless was a slightly weaker collection than their 2008 eponymous debut, Hammer Down more than holds its own when compared with that first album.

Every song on the album was co-written by either a present or former SteelDriver, and lead vocalist Gary Nichols’ gruff but soulful voice is nicely complemented by the harmonies of fiddle player Tammy Rogers and bassist Mike Fleming. Many of the songs have a Celtic flavor to them, sounding a lot like some of the recordings that The Chieftains made with a variety of Nashville artists. This is most apparent on the songs with dark subject matter, like the opening track “Shallow Grave”:

I buried my love with a silver spade
Hid her down in a shallow grave
Can’t keep love in the cold, cold ground
Nothin’ in the earth can hold her down

Though the mournful lyrics suggest that “Shallow Grave” is a murder ballad, the tune is suprisingly upbeat. It is never revealed why the victim was killed.

My two favorite songs are “How Long Have I Been Your Fool”, which was written by Tammy Rogers and Al Anderson along with former SteelDrivers lead vocalist Chris Stapleton and the closing track “When I’m Gone”, another Stapleton co-write, this time with former band member Mike Henderson. With a different arrangement, “How Long Have I Been Your Fool” might have been a mainstream hit ten years ago; it would have sounded right at home on a Patty Loveless album.

“When You Don’t Come Home” is about a confrontation at gunpoint between an errant husband and a fed-up wife, the type of song that would make Loretta Lynn proud. As good as it is, the Tammy Rogers and Gary Nichols penned tune is the only song on the album that doesn’t quite work. Rogers’ voice is prominent in the mix as Nichols’ throughout the track, but this song, written from the female point of view, would have worked much better as a Rogers solo. The lyrics just don’t make sense coming from a male vocalist. That, however, is a minor complaint. The only other fault I can find with the collection is its brevity. I’ve become accustomed to albums that are 12, 13 or more tracks long, and anything less, such as as this lean 10-track collection that clocks in at just under 35 minutes, leaves me feeling a little cheated. It does, however, leave me wanting more and perhaps that was the intent. Whereas I played Reckless a few times and then forgot about it, I’ve been playing this album almost non-stop for the past week and I haven’t grown tired of it yet. I highly recommend it.

Grade: A

P.S. I’d also like to give a shout-out to our fellow blogger Juli Thanki of Engine 145, who did a superb job writing the album’s liner notes.

EP Reviews: ‘Hillbilly Bone’ and ‘All About Tonight’

hillbilly bone2010 saw a departure in Blake’s career, as his label used him as the guinea pig to pioneer their new SixPak idea – EPs with six tracks. It was originally intended that Blake should release three over an 18 month period, but in the event there were just two. Unexpectedly, it was to mark a watershed in Blake’s carer, catapulting him to the very top. None of his singles since 2010 has peaked lower than #1. Generally loud and unsubtle production from Scott Hendricks proved to be exactly tailored for country radio success.

Hillbilly Bone, the first of the two SixPaks, had just one single, the chart topping title track. The duet with Trace Adkins is in many ways annoying with cliche’d lyrics but there is a good humor and charm in the delivery which makes it hard to hate as much as it deserves. It was a genuine smash, selling over half a million downloads, and won Blake CMA and ACM awards for Vocal Event of the Year as well as the coveted CMA Male Vocalist of the Year, the first major awards of his career.

‘Kiss My Country Ass’ is unredeemed crap with no mitigating factors, the epitome of the country pride song with an aggressive edge. A cover of a poorly performing Rhett Akins single written by Akins with regular partner in crime Dallas Davidson and Jon Stone), it is predictably dreadful.

‘You’ll Always Be Beautiful’ is an AC-leaning and sincerely sung romantic ballad about love for a woman even she doesn’t think she’s pretty. It was written by Lee Brice and Jerrod Niemann.

‘Can’t Afford To Love You’ is another Rhett Akins song about a working class guy in love with a high maintenance glamorous girl, which is an undistinguished but okay song buried under too much loud production.

The best track by far on this EP (and the only worthwhile download), Blake’s own song ‘Delilah’ is a rather sensitive song declaring love for a troubled woman who has been unlucky in love elsewhere; the girl’s name, incidentally, was taken from fiancee Miranda Lambert’s dog.

You can’t blame no one but you Delilah
For what you find when you never ever look around
Reach out for the one right here beside ya
And find the one that’s never gonna let you down

Clint Lagerberg and Craig Wiseman’s ‘Almost Alright’ is a well-written song about slowly getting over a relationship, spoiled by the inclusion of Caribbean steel drums which sound tinny.

all about tonightThe title track and lead single from Blake’s second SixPak, ‘All About Tonight’ is a party song written by the Peach Pickers, which, although it’s one of their better efforts, tells you all you need to know. The live ‘Got A Little Country’ which closes proceedings is just as bad and long much the same lines.

‘Who Are You When I’m Not Looking’, the second single, is much, much better, a rather charming love song written by Earl “Bud” Lee and John Wiggins, which had previously been recorded by Joe Nichols. It was another #1 hit for Blake.

‘Draggin’ The River’, written by Jim Beavers and Chris Stapleton, is a playfully performed duet with Miranda Lambert about a Southern rural romance opposed by the girl’s father, which is quite entertaining; the young lovers decide to fake their deaths while they elope. Miranda wrote ‘Suffocating’ with Lady A’s Hillary Scott (who also contributes harmonies), a ballad with rather a bland melody which does not effectively bring the downbeat lyric to life. Uninspired production doesn’t help. ‘That Thing We Do’, written by Jeff Bates and Jason Matthews, is okay but forgettable mid-tempo filler.

A bonus cover of the Dan Seals hit ‘Addicted’ was included for iTunes pre-orders; that track was later included as a bonus on Red River Blue and can be downloaded separately. It’s a shame this didn’t make the main setlist, as it’s a fine version which allows Blake’s incisive voice and sympathetic delivery to shine, and is one of his best recordings, although a stripped down production without the full orchestration which swamps the second half of the song would have made it better still.

Grade: Hillbilly Bone: D; All About Tonight C

Album Review: Jerry Salley – ‘Showing My Age’

You may well recognise the name of Jerry Salley from his many credits as a songwriter. If you do, you will know what a fine writer he is, but may not be aware he is also an accomplished singer in a bluegrass vein with an attractive light tenor, who occasionally releases an excellent record. His latest album is largely acoustic country with a strong bluegrass influence. He produced it himself, and recruited some excellent musicians and harmony singers to help out.

The outstanding song is the tragic tale told in ‘Paper And Pen, which has been recorded by Alecia Nugent, who sings harmony here. It relates the story of two hearts broken when a man writes to his sweetheart, and she misunderstands his meaning when he writes at length about how hard it is for a man to commit – tearing it up before reading his proposal on the last page:

Her soul was bleeding
So she chose her weapon
And went for his heart
With paper and pen
She got her last words in
“I never loved you”
Was the lie she wrote him

He couldn’t believe
The reply he received
What a sad tragedy
For good love to end
Who needs a knife
When you can take someone’s life
With paper and pen

Another classic-sounding heartbreaker comes with the Jim McBride co-write ‘He Carried Her Mem’ry’, about a man who can’t get over a lost love. He gives up by degrees on everything else in life , falling into drunken despair before eventually killing himself “the night that he carried her memory too far”. Bradley Walker recorded it in 2006 on his outstanding country/bluegrass album Highway Of Dreams, which really needs a successor.

A couple of songs included here may be familiar from cuts by major country stars. ‘The Best Thing That I Had Goin’’ which Brad Paisley recorded some years ago, is the plaintive reflection on a lost relationship despite the protagonist’s success in other areas of life; the writer’s own version is very good, with delightful close harmonies from Brandon Rickman and a very bluegrassy feel. Reba McEntire has recorded the very fine ‘Close To Crazy’ written with Melba Montgomery, a regretful first person song about struggling to get over someone and finding,
This close to crazy is far from over you

‘The Broken Ones’ paints the portrait of Maggie, a compassionate young woman who works helping the hopeless:

If you call her an angel she’ll be quick to say to you
She’s just doing what the one who died for her would do

Love the broken ones
The ones that need a little patching up
Look for diamonds in the rough
And make them shine like new
It really doesn’t take that much
A willing heart and a tender touch
If everybody loved like He does
There’d a be a lot less broken ones

Opening track ‘Comin’ Home To You’, written with Chris Stapleton, is one of the less memorable songs, but sets a promising tone with its prominent banjo and relaxed happy mood as the protagonist changes his mind about leaving his loved one. ‘That’s Just Me Loving You’ is a pleasant love song performed as a duet with co-writer Lisa Shaffer.

The title track is a mature reflection on “staring 50 in the eye”. It was written with Brandon Rickman and feels like a 20-years-on sequel to the latter’s similarly themed ‘So Long 20s’, which was on his excellent 2009 release Young Man, Old Soul. I really like this with its comfortable acceptance of age – and the growing confidence maturity brings.

‘Where I’m Coming From’ and ‘Back Then’ look back (mostly fondly) on the lessons learned from growing up in the south in a previous generation. The good-humored and perky ‘It’ll Get You Where You’re Goin’’ also looks back to teenage years, and the gift of an old car at the age of 16. The fiddle-led ‘Five O’Shadow’ talks sweetly about fatherhood and a little boy who wants to be with daddy whenever he is home.

The first verse of ‘Amazing Grace’, performed with careful reverence by the Isaacs, leads into the equally sincere testimonial of ‘That’s All That Matters To Me’.

You can hear samples of several of the songs on Jerry’s website – which is also offering a deal to get both this album and its equally good predecessor, 2007’s New Songs, Old Friends, which features collaborations with Vince Gill, the Oak Ridge Boys, Rhonda Vincent, our current Spotlight Artist Ricky Skaggs and many others.

Grade: A

Album Review: JT Hodges – ‘JT Hodges’

A Texan in his early 30s, JT Hodges has been trying to break through on Show Dog Universal Records for a year or two with a couple of singles skirting the top 40 cutoff line. Now his debut album gives us a better idea of him as an artist.

The answer is a decidedly contemporary country-rock one with roots more obviously on the rock side than the country one (notwithstanding a mother who once had ambitions of her own to be a country star, and apparently had the first cut on Highway 101’s big hit ‘The Bed You Made For Me’ before rejecting a major label deal to concentrate on family). However, this is definitely an artist with something to say. The singer-songwriter co-wrote most of the material here, generally with his producers, the experienced Don Cook and Mark Wright and minor 90s star Mark Collie, whose own rocking style is not far removed from what Hodges is doing. The sometimes growly voice is nothing special and would be hard to pick out from a number of his contemporaries, but he attacks the songs with energy and commitment and puts them across convincingly. Production is punchy but not so loud as to overwhelm the actual songs as is so often the case with today’s artists.

His debut single ‘Hunt You Down’, written by Hodges with Collie and Rivers Rutherford, just squeezed into the top 40 last year. It is a richly detailed but rather implausible story song about a fling with a rich girl which the protagonist wants to extend, with inventive production, nonchalant whistling and sometimes annoying backing vocals. The follow-up, ‘Goodbyes Made You Mine’, did slightly less well. Almost spoken in the verses, it doesn’t have much of a melody in the verses and gets a bit yelly at times, but a catchy chorus hook and decent lyric with a man presenting himself as a woman’s last and true love give it some interest. These two singles so far rather underwhelmed me, but they are probably the poorest tracks on the album.

I like opener ‘I’d Rather Be Wrong Than Lonely’, a punchy country rock number about a potential hookup with a girl who might be “a little bit dangerous” for him. Hodges wrote the song with Collie and Cook, and together they provide a competently constructed song with a relentless beat, which is one of the best tracks.

This trio also wrote ‘When I Stop Crying’, a very good pained guilt-ridden ballad about redemption and recovery which allows Hodges to venture into the upper reaches of his vocal range. Vince Gill’s backing vocals on this track are proudly vaunted in the liner notes, but are not particularly prominent; Gill also plays a wailing electric guitar solo.

Joined by Mark Wright, they wrote the mid-tempo ‘Leaving Me Later, which is pretty good. Like a calmer sequel to ‘I’d Rather Be Wrong Than Lonely’, it deals with a relationship with a woman not planning to stay around. “Loving me now” is good enough for the protagonist, even if it he knows she is lying and will hurt him when she goes. ‘Give It One More Night’, written with all three producers, is not bad, but too repetitive.

‘Green Eyes, Red Sunglasses’ is a collaboration of Hodges, Collie and Chris Stapleton, and is typical of the latter’s blues-edged material. Cook and Hodges wrote ‘Right About Now’ with Lynn Hutton, a ballad brooding about a two-timing woman’s infidelity with a nice little double meaning in the lyrics.

There are a couple of outside cuts. ‘Sleepy Little Town’ is a compelling if dark semi-story song written by Chris Stapleton and Lee Thomas Miller. It is about the secrets and crimes coming to light in a small town, ranging from an FBI takedown of the local high school coach to a preacher’s wife who finally cracks and fights her husband’s domestic violence. It’s been selected as the latest single, and seems made for a video treatment to help flesh out the stories a bit. ‘Rhythm Of The Radio’ was written by Eric Paslay (another up-and-coming artist) and Dylan Altman, and is a pleasant but slight love song with attractive instrumentation; the Irish flute in particular gives it a fresh summery feel – a single for summer 2013 perhaps?

Overall, J T Hodges comes across as a kind of amalgam of Eric Church, Eric Heatherly and Mark Collie. He has had limited success so far, even with the support of label Show Dog Universal, but it sounds commercial enough while possessing real substance and ambition. He’s a long way from traditional, but definitely one of the better contemporary artists, and this is a very promising start.

Grade: B+

Random playlist: current album cuts edition

Here are five songs from five current albums I couldn’t help but take notice of when they were released. Have a listen, then share your own favorite tracks from current albums in the comments.

Alison Krauss & Union Station – “Lie Awake”
from Paper Angels, 2011

Written by Alison’s brother Viktor with Angel Snow, “Lie Awake” is set to an Appalachian folk song tempo usually reserved for yarns about murder, madness, and desolation.  In this brooding tale of long gone wrong, the intensity of the singer’s vocal, framed by the ominous dobro plucking and her own forlorn fiddling, speaks of torments untold if she doesn’t get out before dawn.

Zac Brown Band – “Sweet Annie”
from Uncaged, 2012

Like Zac Brown, I know what it’s like to have a ‘sweet Annie’. You probably do too. She’s the girl you put on the shelf for your career, another woman, or just because you’re not ready to commit. But her honeyed southern drawl and if-you-love-him-you’ll-forgive-him nature keeps drawing you back. She’s your go-to girl when the world falls in on you. And God bless her heart, she still hasn’t realized it’s only during those times of dire circumstance you come around.  To tell us about this Annie, the guys surround the verses’ breezy fiddles with the band’s airtight (and dig those repeating) harmonies.  Zac Brown has made this kind of apologetic tale of wanderlust his wheelhouse.

Miranda Lambert – “Nobody’s Fool”
from Four The Record, 2011

This is another song about two ex-lovers and their chance meeting out on the town, made memorable by its unforgettable hook: “When they ask I’ll just say he’s nobody/And me, well I’m nobody’s fool“. It follows the sonic template of last year’s “Heart Like Mine” where a lighter touch would have better served the sharp lyrics. Here, Lambert has a perfect vehicle for her pipes with Chris Stapleton’s bar-fly narrative.  The pain in her Texas drawl is apparent as she sings of eating her heart out while trying to ‘play it all cool’.  While she aches with regret for what she’s lost, there’s a doggedness in her delivery as she fires off the chorus with her chin firmly planted outward.

Kellie Pickler – “Where’s Tammy Wynette”
from 100 Proof, 2011

As the singer looks to country’s First Lady for guidance in life, this shuffling honky-tonk number features lines like “I’m gonna search that midnight radio/’Til I find something that hurts ” that show the romanticization of an icon/heroine as opposed to another hackneyed name dropping from the list of recommended honky-tonk heroes.

Alan Jackson – “Look Her In The Eye and Lie”
from Thirty Miles West, 2012

The hook is pure common horse sense, delivered with a knowing wink. The advice – “You may not get over some loves in your life/But as you get older, you’ll know wrong more than right” – coupled with Jackson’s seasoned wisdom, belies the profundity of the lesson learned.  It’s a perfect example of the classic Alan Jackson sound of sweeping medium tempo neotraditionalism and the wittiness demonstrated in his trademark self-effacing humor that makes me wonder who’s gonna fill his shoes.

Album Review: Josh Turner – ‘Punching Bag’

Josh Turner’s deep burnished baritone is one of the most distinctive on today’s country radio, but his choice of songs has sometimes let him down.  Happily, this time he has found a better selection of material than on his last effort, the disappointingly pedestrian Haywire, much of it written or co-written by the artist.  Frank Rogers’ attractive production puts the vocals at the heart of the record, in a restrained but firmly country setting.

A silly novelty spoken introduction on a boxing match theme by real-life ring announcer Michael Buffer leads into the title track, written by Josh with Pat McLaughlin.  The song itself is thankfully much better, a well-written driving up-tempo number which uses boxing effectively as a metaphor about dealing with difficulties in life, specifically heartbreak:

She broke her promise and now she’s gonna leave me
She floated like a butterfly, it stung me like a bee
She took off the gloves and took a cheap shot
And she left me hanging in a pretty tough spot
I’m a punching bag

This is great fun and it could be a good single choice with obvious video possibilities.  It is certainly more interesting than Josh’s current top 20 hit, the unexciting ‘Time Is Love’, which is pleasant listening but nothing more.

Josh teamed up with Mark Narmore to write two songs.  The better of these is the very good ‘Cold Shoulder’, the plaint of a bewildered man struggling to understand why his wife is freezing him out when he has done nothing wrong.  Some lovely steel guitar from Steve Hinson dominates the backing, while the vocal is excellent.  ‘Good Problem’ is less memorable but still a pretty good song about a man getting ready to settle down to married life and give up his freedom with no regret, with an interesting arrangement.

‘Find Me A Baby’, written by Josh with Frank Rogers, is another good-sounding take on finding true love, but this time clearly autobiographical drawing its details from Josh’s real life and featuring his wife Jennifer and their small children on faintly embarrassing “na-na-na”s, something I normally hate, but the good humor of the song as a whole just about carries it off.

Ben Hayslip is not a bad writer when separated from his Peach Picker friends, and he helped Josh with ‘Left Hand Man’ (yet another take on committing to getting married but one which benefits from a playfully charming arrangement) and the lyrically slight but catchily melodic ‘Whatcha Reckon’.

Josh alone wrote the album’s standout track, the mournful ‘Pallbearer’.  Iris DeMent adds a harmony vocal and Marty Stuart plays mandolin on this take on love lost for good:

She don’t call and she don’t try to
And my prayin’ can’t bring her back
My eyes are wide open watchin’ my future
My eyes are wide open watching my future fade to black
I’m like a lonesome pallbearer
Walkin’ down the aisle
Travelin’ to the graveyard counting down the miles
With every earth filled shovel they dig that eternal bed
I’m like a lonesome pallbearer carrying the dead

I’ve pondered trading places with the man layin’ in that hearse
I try to hold my head up but her leavin’ is like a curse

Josh’s deep bass-baritone has a natural gravitas showcased at its best on serious songs like this with emotional weight rather than the more frivolous fare radio prefers.

Ricky Skaggs guests on the religious ‘For The Love Of God’, contributing mandolin, an instrument described as a cello banjo and harmonies to the bright acoustic treatment of a heartfelt if slightly moralistic song about living the right way and for the right reasons.  This was another solo composition by Josh.

Also very well done is the album’s other religious song, ‘I Was There’, written by Tim Menzies and Monty Criswell, where Josh reverently portrays the voice of God.

‘Deeper Than My Love’ is a nice love song written by Chris Stapleton and Lee Thomas Miller with some great growly bass vocals from Josh and cool banked backing vocals which give the track a life and individuality perhaps missing in the relatively obvious lyrics.

The redundant deluxe version  just adds live versions of ‘Punching Bag’ and ‘Time Is Love’ and some of Josh’s bigger past hits, which add little to the recorded versions.

Overall this is an enjoyable album which is a definite step back in the right direction after Haywire.  Some of the material is still lacking in lyrical depth, with the melodies generally stronger, but the whole package is solid.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Musicians Against Childhood Cancer – ‘Life Goes On’

Musicians Against Childhood Cancer is the umbrella name for an annual charity concert by some of the best current bluegrass musicians. In 2006 a compilation of tracks recorded at the concert over the years was released in aid of St Jude’s Hospital, and this sequel contains performances from more recent years. The music was all recorded live but the excellent mixing would not be out of place in a studio set. The musicianship is without exception superb, as one might expect, and this is a fine bluegrass sampler in its own right, with a range of subject matter. The two CD-set includes a generous 39 tracks.

The outstanding track as far as I’m concerned is Bradley Walker’s cover of ‘Revelation’, a somber Bobby Braddock vision of the Second Coming which was originally recorded by Waylon Jennings and more recently served as the title track of an album by Joe Nichols. Walker’s superb 2006 debut album Highway Of Dreams has been far too long waiting for a follow up and it is good to hear him again. He is accompanied by a simple acoustic guitar backing allowing the bleakness of the song to take center stage.

I’m a fan of the compelling sibling harmony of the Gibson Brothers, and they contribute the fascinating ‘Ragged Man’, a tale of bitter sibling rivalry. The brother who is reduced to homeless poverty while the brother once preferred by their mother now rolls in riches, rails against “that golden boy” and warns him to “watch his back”. I’m also a big fan of Brandon Rickman’s soulful voice, and he teams up with bandmates from the Lonesome River band for a beautifully judged reading of the traditional ‘Rain And Snow’. Later the Lonesome River Band provide one of the best instrumentals on offer, the lively ‘Struttin’ To Ferrum’, which holds the attention all the way through.

Rhonda Vincent sings a simple but lovely, plaintive version of the traditional ‘The Water Is Wide’. She also sings harmony on Kenny and Amanda Smith’s take on gospel classic ‘Shouting Time In Heaven’. Marty Raybon is excellent on the gloomy Harlan Howard song ‘The Water So Cold’ (once recorded by country star Stonewall Jackson), which sounds made for bluegrass. Read more of this post

Single Review: Bradley Gaskin – ‘Diamonds Make Babies’

I loved Bradley’s debut single, ‘Mr Bartender’, but despite a warm response from country radio DJs at last year’s CRS seminar, their stations failed to follow through and support the song above a peak position of just #32.  For his sophomore release, a year later, he has picked a song which also appears on Dierks Bentley’s new album, and which my colleague Razor X suggested would be a good single for Bentley.  Back in the 60s and 70s it was quite common for multiple artists to record the same songs, and even for rival versions to compete against each other on the singles charts.  But it is a practice which has largely fallen out of use, making this an extremely unexpected choice for Bradley’s follow-up to the fantastic ‘Mr Bartender’, and perhaps an unwise one in terms of establishing him as an individual artist, when that debut was notable in part for its vocal echoes of Travis Tritt.

Written by Jim Beavers, Chris Stapleton, and Lee Thomas Miller, the song is slight but quite charming.  The protagonist offers a slightly tongue in cheek warning  to a friend about to take the plunge and get engaged that all too soon his bride will be getting broody, and that really will change their lives.  He claims the engagement ring has “some crazy powers of its own”:

Diamonds make babies

And babies make mamas

And mamas make daddies make changes they don’t always wanna…

You’ll talk about it on your honeymoon

You’ll both agree that its way too soon

Next thing you know she’s seeing pink and blue

Everywhere she goes

The inevitable comparisons with Dierks’s version are not altogether to Bradley’s favor, as Dierks’s voice is more distinctive and the vocal grittier and more incisive.  Bradley’s vocals are good, and more clearly his own than they were on ‘Mr Bartender’, but not really distinctive enough to stand out.  However, taken on its own merits, it is an enjoyable track which would sound a lot better on the radio than most of the playlist.  It’s just a shame that unless it’s a complete flop, it almost certainly means that Dierks’ version will remain an album track.

The track is one of four cuts by Gaskin to be released as an EP on iTunes on 10 April.  A full length debut album will hopefully follow soon, and despite my reservations about this track, I do have high hopes for the artist.

Grade: B

Listen here.

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