My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Dierks Bentley

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘In a Perfect World’

perfectworldI’m not sure whether I’d call Shanachie a major label or not – it certainly is one of the big three when it comes to Irish/Celtic music, but however you chose to characterize the label, this album, produced by Brent Rowan, found itself issued on Shanachie, one of two Watson albums released on this particular label.

By the time this album was released in 2007, Gene had been bouncing from label to label for a decade since leaving Step One Records. In fact much of the output of the period (1998-2007) consisted of Gusto reissues of material taken from Step One albums and other material released on independent labels such as Broadlands.

Unlike previous albums, which never saw Watson other than as a solo vocalist, Watson entered new territory, recording six songs featuring guest artists (mostly as harmony vocalists rather than true duets) out of the eleven songs on the album. Also unlike recent albums, this album does not contain remakes of earlier Gene Watson hits, focusing instead on some old classic country songs, with some newer material mixed in.

While this album could never be described as innovative (a value-neutral term as innovation can be bad) or cutting edge, it is yet another example of a master craftsman applying his talents to a terrific set of songs.

The album opens with the old Hank Cochran classic “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me”. Released during the 1960s this recording would have been a major hit. This song is followed by Vince Gill harmonizing with Gene on the Harlan Howard’s “Let Me Be The First To Go”, a song initially recorded by the great Wynn Stewart. This song is a tearjerker in which Watson asks God to call him home first as he couldn’t handle life without his wife. Aubrey Haynie’s fiddle and Sonny Garrish’s steel guitar really standout on this track

“What Was I Thinking” follows next – this was not the Dierks Bentley hit of a few years earlier but a Skip Ewing ballad lamenting the breakup of a relationship.

“Today I Started Loving You Again” is one of Merle Haggard’s most famous songs, even though it was never a hit for the Hag (it was the B-side of “The Ballad of Bonnie & Clyde”) although Sammi Smith had a minor hit with it. The song has been recorded many times, but never better than this version which features Lee Ann Womack’s harmony vocals, especially noteworthy on the repeat chorus.

Harley Allen and Tim Mensy penned the title track “In A Perfect World” , a song of a man who has reached bottom and is imagining life as it could be, not as it really turned out to be. Joe Nichols harmony vocals provide the proper shading for this very desolate song:


In A Perfect World It Never Rains on Saturday
In A Perfect World I Wouldn’t Hate The Holidays
I’d Sleep Just Like A Baby and Have One Down The Hall
You’d Still Be My Girl, In A Perfect World

Tim Mensy also contributed “She’s Already Gone” and “This Side of he Door” (co-written with Shawn Camp). “She’s Already Gone” is just another good song about a relationship that is already dead except for someone actually leaving, but “This Side of The Door is really good. Guest vocalist Mark Chesnutt has some solo lines on this song, which Chesnutt originally recorded on his What a Way to Live album released in 2004. This songs rocks a little harder than is customary for Gene.

It is hard to image that “Together Again” was the B-Side of “My Heart Skips A Beat” for Buck Owens never wrote a better song. Buck’s A-side spent seven weeks at #1 but so many DJs flipped the record that the B-side also spent two weeks at #1. Rhonda Vincent guest on this song, the only true duet on the album, an a harbinger of more collaborations to come. In my opinion, this is the standout track on the album.

Another Tim Mensy song “I Buried Our Love” was released as a single although I never heard it played on the radio. It has a strong lyric and should have received at least some airplay.

Connie Smith is one of the few country singers on a par with Watson in terms of being a master vocalist. I think this song was first recorded by Point of Grace but I doubt that many would consider this rendition in any way inferior to the original. I would like for Connie’s voice to have been more prominently featured.

The album closes with yet another Tim Mensy song, “Like I Wasn’t Even There”. This song sounds more like the stuff currently played on the radio (only sung better) than like classic country. The storyline of this ballad is one of a man encountering his ex and seeing her behave as if he didn’t exist.

Reaction to this album at the time of its release varied although all reviewers considered it a good collection of songs sung by an excellent singer, while docking it stars for not pushing the boundaries of the genre. In my humble opinion when an album is this good, I don’t care whether or not it breaks new ground.

From this point forward Gene would feature more duets – his next Shanachie album would feature actual duets with Trace Adkins and Rhonda Vincent and Alison Krauss providing harmony vocals on a track.

Grade: A

Album Review – Radney Foster – ‘Everything I Should’ve Said’

RF.EISHS-11To record his first album of original material since 2009, Radney Foster traveled to Dockside Studios in Lafayette, Louisiana, a converted whorehouse lacking modern amenities. Working alongside musicians he’s collaborated with during his two plus decades making music, Foster has crafted some of the most personal work of his career.

As a result, Everything I Should’ve Said radiates with rejuvenated energy from an artist roaring with passion and contemplating sizable ache. The rough edginess producer Justin Tocket brings to the proceedings displays a palpable urgency, even if the slightly dusty dirt penetrating the tracks comes off a little heavy-handed at times.

Self-penned stunner “Whose Heart You Wreck (Ode To The Muse),” which opens the album, finds Foster tipsy and ravished at the mercy of creativity, and not the hands of a woman: “You saunter in at 2 am and whisper poetry.Sensuous, whiskey-soaked and breathless next to me.You’ll sneak out before the dawn, but what should I expect? ‘Cause you don’t really give a damn whose heart you wreck.” That thematic twist is a stroke of brilliance and turns what could’ve been just an average heartbreaker into something far deeper and more impactful.

“The Man You Want” and “Holding Back” are two more numbers Foster wrote solo and both are excellent love songs. “The Man You Want” is also a glorious moment of self-reflection, with Foster laying bare his character traits only to admit his greatest life accomplishment is being the man his woman wants him to be. His girl is his kryptonite on “Holding Back,” a beautiful sentiment about the depths of affection.

My favorite of his five solely written numbers is “California,” a delicate love song about two gypsies starting over in the Golden State. The two wayward souls aren’t a couple, just like-minded people, which make the story all the more alluring. Foster also nails the simple yet oh-so-true hook: “Can’t you hear California calling your name, a siren song that once you hear it you’ll never be the same.

Foster teams up with Jay Clementi on two numbers, the jaunty “Hard Light of Day” and pulsating “Lie About Loving Me.” Both incorporate the wall-of-sound production technique that mares too much of mainstream music and gives the tunes a rockish feel that engulfs any distinctive qualities within the melodies. Fortunately the lyrical content is top-notch on both songs with “Lie About Loving Me” acting as somewhat of an addictive earworm. Another in this vein is his solely written “Unh, Unh, Unh,” an insufferable piece of dreck I skip whenever listening to the album.

The rock flavored production actually adds a dimension of anger to “Not In My House,” a generational number inspired by his a conversation with his fifth grade aged daughter about the meaning of the word ‘slut.’ Foster and co-writer Allen Shamblin broadened the song to incorporate themes of world injustice and put forth their mid-50s southern man prospective on hate and bigotry. The song is effective without being offensive and a strong lyric that needed to be said.

Two additional standout tracks find Foster co-writing with Gordie Sampson and Jim McCormick. “Noise,” may also employ the wall-of-sound recording technique but I don’t mind it as much thanks to Foster’s vocal, which cuts through nicely. “Keep Myself From Falling” is also in the same vein musically, but has a fabulous lyric that wouldn’t have been out of place on mainstream country radio (by the likes of Dierks Bentley) just five years ago and should be mainstream enough now if Bro-Country hadn’t taken over. The same goes for the title track, co-written with Darrell Brown, which has Foster laying bare his regrets in a relationship.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is “Mine Until The Morning,” a duet with Patty Griffin co-written with Darden Smith. A delicate piano-laced ballad, “Mine Until The Morning” is a gorgeous love song with Griffin’s guest vocal adding a beautiful richness to the track.

By most respects, Foster has turned in another wonderfully strong album both vocally and lyrically with Everything I Should’ve Said. Highlights abound left and right and “Whose Heart You Wreck (Ode To The Muse)” and “Not In My House” are two of the most powerful songs you’ll hear all year. The only misstep comes from Justin Tocket’s far too loud rockish production, which doesn’t render most tracks unlistenable, it’s just intrusive where it doesn’t need to be. Other than that, Everything I Should’ve Said is a solid album belonging in the company of Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash’s recent releases.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard’

working man's poetI have to admit to receiving the news of another Merle Haggard tribute album with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. It seemed unnecessary coming on the heels of Suzy Bogguss’ excellent Lucky and the artist line-up seemed uninspired, especially when compared to that of 1994′s Haggard tribute Mama’s Hungry Eyes, which featured like Randy Travis, Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Radney Foster and Emmylou Harris, to name a few. I had serious doubts if half the artists on the just-released Working Man’s Poet had more than a vague awareness of who Haggard is before participating in this project. Some of them seem to have been selected primarily because they are on the roster of Broken Bow Records, which released the album. Others, like Joe Nichols and Randy Houser actually seemed to belong on such an album.

Reservations about the artist line-up aside, there is much to enjoy about this album and it even serves to illustrate that even relatively unexciting artists can rise to the occasion when given decent material to perform. I never expected to particularly enjoy anything by Thompson Square, for example, but their two contributions “You Take Me For Granted” (one of my favorite Haggard tunes) and “Let’s Chase Each Other Around The Room” are among the best on the album. Former American Idol contestant Kristy Lee Cook also turned in a solid performance on “Today I Started Loving You Again”, as did Dustin Lynch on “That’s The Way Love Goes”.

It was no surprise that Randy Houser’s versions of “Misery and Gin” and “Ramblin’ Fever” and Joe Nichols’ performances of “Footlights’ and “My Favorite Memory” were all excellent, but I was a little disappointed by Toby Keith’s rendition of “Carolyn”, which is marred by an intrusive string arrangement. “Pancho and Lefty” was always more of a Willie Nelson vehicle rather than a Haggard one, so I thought it was a little strange that it was included here. It’s performed by Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley with Bryan doing all the heavy lifting — singing Willie’s part. I don’t care much for the arena-rock style production but I was impressed with Bryan’s vocal performance. He is an artist I could actually enjoy if he chose his own material more carefully. It would have been nice if Dierks had been given another song to perform in addition to this one.

Another curious choice was the obscure 1980 track “Make Up and Faded Blue Jeans” — my least favorite on the album, performed by Jake Owens who sounds as though he is in way over his head. I tried very hard to set aside my intense dislike of Jason Aldean and fairly evaluate his two contributions, “Going Where The Lonely Go” and “Are The Good Times Really Over.” The results are a mixed bag; he rises to the occasion on the former, but falls flat on the latter. Haggard’s son Ben also makes two appearances with “Mama Tried” and “Sing Me Back Home”. His voice is pleasant to listen to but he lacks his father’s vocal chops.

The CD version of the album includes “The Bottle Let Me Down”, but since it is performed by Garth Brooks, it was omitted from the iTunes version. I didn’t realize that when I downloaded the album, but I can live without it.

Although I still prefer the Mama’s Hungry Eyes album, I enjoyed Working Man’s Poet much more than I thought I would. It was worth purchasing, even if it did mean giving Jason Aldean space in my iTunes library.

Grade: B+

Week ending 4/5/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

tanyatucker1954 (Sales): Slowly – Webb Pierce (Decca)

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

1954 (Disc Jockeys): Slowly – Webb Pierce (Decca)

1964: Understand Your Man — Johnny Cash (Columbia)

1974: Would You Lay With Me (In A Field Of Stone) — Tanya Tucker (Columbia)

1984: Let’s Stop Talkin’ About It — Janie Fricke (Columbia)

1994: My Love — Little Texas (Warner Bros.)

2004: When The Sun Goes Down — Kenny Chesney with Uncle Kracker (BNA)

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

2014 (Airplay): I Hold On — Dierks Bentley (Capitol)

My predictions for the 49th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards

Much like the state of modern country music the 49th annual Academy of Country Music are somewhat of a joke, marred by controversy and shameless rule breaking. Trigger, from Saving Country Music, did an excellent job summing up Justin Moore’s erroneous nomination for New Artist of the Year and exposing the truth behind the ‘fan voting.’ I highly suggest reading these three articles before proceeding further:

Justin Moore Should Be Disqualified from ACM’s “New Artist”

ACM’s Respond to Justin Moore’s “New Artist” Ineligibility

Why The Best Fan Vote for the ACM’s Is No Vote At All

 That being said, when the show airs this Sunday on CBS, it promises to be a fun night of modern country music. Here are the nominees. My Should Win / Will Win are predictions below:

UnknownEntertainer of the Year

It’s a solid list of deserving nominees who’ve all had a very big year in one-way or another.

Should Win: George Strait – he captured the CMA equivalent last fall in a surprise victory and continues to show all the ‘young guns’ how it’s done on his farewell Cowboy Rides Away Tour. He’s a legend, Country Music Hall of Famer, and the single most consistent artist and performer of the past thirty years. For him to lose would be an injustice.

Will Win: Blake Shelton or Luke Bryan – the show co-hosts are at the height of their popularity, with everything they touch turning to Gold. Bryan surprisingly won last year, so I’m betting Shelton will edge him out, and take home his first such trophy from the ACM. That is, if they don’t give the award to Strait.

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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

Christmas Rewind: Dierks Bentley – ‘Please Come Home For Christmas’

2013 CMA Awards predictions – Who should and will win

Here are my predictions for the 47th annual show, airing next Wednesday on ABC. Do you agree/disagree? As always you can check out the nominations, here.

UnknownENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR

A solid list of well deserving nominees, minus Carrie Underwood, whose lack of a nomination has already incurred my wrath. Taylor Swift may be the biggest star here, but the Country Music Association deserve credit for keeping their traditional edge alive and including George Strait, whose in the middle of his final tour.

Should Win: George Strait – he won back-to-back in 1989 and 1990 and deserves his third win this year, while he’s half way through his two year goodbye to the road

Will Win: Luke Bryan – he’s the biggest male artist in country music right now, selling huge amounts of albums and ranking up hit after hit. He’s on top and here to stay, which a win in this category is going to prove.

Cruise - Single CoverSINGLE OF THE YEAR

A surprising yet diverse list of nominees with Florida Georgia Line’s behemoth squaring off with Darius Rucker’s mainstream reading of an underground smash going up against Kacey Musgraves’ critical favorite, and Miranda Lambert’s best dose of angst since “Gunpowder & Lead.” I only wish The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two” was here in place of “Highway Don’t Care.”

Should Win: “Mama’s Broken Heart” – the fourth single from Four The Record was album’s best and proof that artists who get complacent should put down their own pen and let the professionals take over.

Will Win: “Cruise” – It’s the #1 song in country music history with a rap remix that also made it relevant in pop, and more than five million digital downloads. Is there any other single of the year?

imagesALBUM OF THE YEAR

Taylor Swift’s first (but likely not last) foray into pop is up against Kacey Musgraves’ critical smash and Little Big Town’s coming out. Underwood’s album is just okay and Shelton’s should’ve been replaced with Ashley Monroe’s Like A Rose.

Should Win: Same Trailer Different Park – the best album of the bunch comes from a 24-year-old who pours more life experience into her twelve songs than all the other nominees combined. One of the strongest major label debuts in years.

Will Win: Red – name recognition alone will endear her to voters, who’ve been handing this award to the biggest star for the past several years. Not even the fact it’s a pop album will hurt her.

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Week ending 9/28/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

crystal1953 (Sales): A Dear John Letter — Jean Shepard & Ferlin Husky (Capitol)

1953 (Jukebox): Hey Joe!– Carl Smith (Columbia)

1953 (Disc Jockeys): Hey Joe!– Carl Smith (Columbia)

1963: Abilene – George Hamilton IV (RCA)

1973: You’ve Never Been This Far Before — Conway Twitty (MCA)

1983: Baby What About You — Crystal Gayle (Elektra)

1993: Holdin’ Heaven — Tracy Byrd (MCA)

2003: What Was I Thinkin’ — Dierks Bentley (Capitol)

2013: That’s My Kind Of Night — Luke Bryan (Capitol)

2013 (Airplay): Round Here — Florida Georgia Line (Republic Nashville)

Single Review: Dierks Bentley featuring Kacey Musgraves – ‘Bourbon In Kentucky’

Dierks Bentley - Bourbon In KentuckyOne of the best things about mainstream country today is they haven’t forgotten the drinking songs. Dierks Bentley is one of a handful of artists who consistently hits the top of the charts and still consistently hues more to the traditional side of things. Bentley’s latest single finds the singer lamenting that there’s not enough liquor to numb his heartbreak, already well-mined subject matter for country songwriters.

The track opens with a moody distortion to the music and builds to an arena rock-style crescendo. The juxtaposition of all that bombast and Bentley’s fretful performance of a tried and true classic country music theme actually works very nicely here and Kacey Musgraves provides a fitting smoky harmony part. Continued kudos to Dierks Bentley for keeping the quality high even when he’s obviously aiming for country radio airplay.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Craig Campbell – ‘Never Regret’

neverregretCraig Campbell’s eponymous debut album was one of the few bright spots in country music in 2011. It contained some first-rate songs, but lacking the support of a major label, it didn’t sell as well as it should have. Never Regret, which was released last month, continues in the same neotraditional vein. Keith Stegall and Matt Rovey produced the set, and Campbell shares songwriting credits on half of the album’s songs.

“Truck-N-Roll”, the opening track, is not as fluffy as the title might suggest. Co-written by Campbell with Brett Beavers and Chris Lindsey, it sounds a lot like something Beavers might have written for Dierks Bentley. It is also reminiscent of Easton Corbin’s “All Over The Road”, but it’s a better song and would make a good summertime single. Another mid-tempo number, the more contemporary “Keep Them Kisses Comin’” likewise should have a lot of appeal to radio, as would the humorous “My Baby’s Daddy” in which Campbell discusses an uneasy relationship with his future father-in-law. To date, however, only one single has been released — “Outta My Head”, a pleasant but forgettable piece of fluff that cracked the Top 40 last fall.

The album’s best track is the ballad “When She Grows Up”, about a father’s aspirations for his infant daughter, though I could have done without the very young child singing “Jesus Loves Me”, which serves as the song’s intro. “That’s Why God Made A Front Porch” is another winner, though it is probably not commercial enough to be released to radio. Another Campbell co-write, it is one of those increasingly rare songs that manages to pay homage to the country lifestyle without a lot of amped-up electric guitars and redneck posturing. “You Can Come Over”, is another nice ballad in which Campbell attempts to keep at arm’s length an old flame that he’s not quite over yet.

There isn’t anything particularly memorable about the remainder of the album’s songs. Overall, the material on Never Regret isn’t as strong as that of the first album. Campbell didn’t write as many of the songs this time around, and it appears as though he and his producers may have had some trouble finding an entire album’s worth of first-rate tunes. It comes off as a largely play-it-safe effort that probably won’t earn Campbell any new fans, but also won’t alienate those who liked his first album.

Grade: B

Album Review: Brad Paisley – ‘Wheelhouse’

wheelhouse“Southern Comfort Zone”, the lead single from Brad Paisley’s newly-released album Wheelhouse is a fish out of water tale that makes the case that pushing the envelope and venturing outside one’s familiar territory can be a very positive thing. It’s a very appropriate message from an artist who has been pushing his own boundaries, with varying degrees of success, beginning with 2009′s American Saturday Night. Wheelhouse is Paisley’s most ambitious project to date; he wrote or co-wrote all of its songs, and produced the album itself. Unfortunately, the material is very uneven in quality and even the better tracks serve as evidence that up to now Paisley has benefited immensely from the guidance of Frank Rogers, who produced all of his previous albums.

With its references to Billy Graham and Martha White, “Southern Comfort Zone” is a celebration of southern culture, complete with audio clips from The Andy Griffith Show, and makes the case that travel broadens the mind. It’s an appropriate opening track to an album that takes the listener on a long (sometimes too long) musical journey that has a few twists and turns along the way. It is followed by Paisley’s current single, “Beat This Summer”, a feel-good summertime tune with not-too-deep lyrics, that suffers from production that is too cluttered and overwhelming.

Brad is joined by an eclectic roster of guest artists, including Dierks Bentley, Hunter Hayes, Charlie Daniels, the late Roger Miller, and rapper LL Cool J. Of these collaborations, the Bentley/Hayes/Miller one, “Outstanding In Our Field” is the most interesting, though the inclusion of Miller’s vocals seems gimmicky and unnecessary. “Karate”, featuring Daniels, is about a battered wife who takes her revenge by studying the martial arts. It sounds too much like a party anthem for such serious subject matter. But the album’s true zenith comes with “Accidental Racist”, in which Paisley apologizes to a Starbucks barista for wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a Confederate flag, as well as all the social injustices of the last 150 years. LL Cool J provides the other side of the conversation, which is an admirable (I suppose) attempt at a serious dialog about race, but instead comes across as pandering.

There is a fair sampling of songs that are more vintage Paisley — such as “Death of a Single Man” and “Runaway Train” (the one track on the album that I truly enjoyed), but even these are marred by overwrought production and Paisley’s attempts to sing at the top of his vocal register. Many of the album’s songs contain background vocals from annoying choruses that mimic the “oohing” and “ah-ing” of area rock concert audiences.

In addition to the standard album, there are two extended versions of Wheelhouse – the Deluxe and Cracker Barrel editions, which each containing different sets of bonus tracks, that I found more enjoyable than most of the songs on the main part of the album. The Cracker Barrel edition, which oddly enough is available for download from Amazon, contains an acoustic version of “Beat This Summer” which is far superior to the original. “Only Way She’ll Stay” and “She Never Quite Got Over Him” both deserved slots on the main part of the album.

It’s hard to fault Paisley for trying to expand his horizons, but by and large Wheelhouse does not succeed on an artistic level, and since his fingerprints are all over the project as its producer and main songwriter, the fault clearly lies with him. After the somewhat disappointing This Is Country Music, I’d hoped for a return to form. I still think Brad Paisley has a lot of good music left in him, but not enough made it into this collection. Here’s to hoping that his next album will be a bit less self-indulgent and more conventional.


Grade: C-

When the dead roam the country charts: posthumous hits and manufactured “duets”

brad paisleyWhen Brad Paisley’s Wheelhouse was released last week, everybody was talking about “Accidental Racist”, the controversial duet with LL Cool J. Late night shows like Saturday Night Live and The Colbert Report were merciless in taking apart the song’s misguided message. And the discussion isn’t likely to be over anytime soon.

Another track on the album stood out to me too. “Outstanding In Our Field” features guest vocals from Dierks Bentley and the late Roger Miller, and Hunter Hayes on guitar. Miller’s contribution is used mostly to beef up the rhythm section of Paisley’s latest loud party anthem list song.  Paisley’s track rips off the entire ten-second opening of Miller’s “Dang Me” – the part where Roger sings  “boo doo boo ba ba bum bom” – but any similarities between the two songs ends with that sampling. If Paisley’s song charts, it could be Miller’s first showing on the Country Songs list since 1986.

Country music has a long history of singers hitting the charts after their deaths, with solo hits and with “duets” pieced together using studio master tapes. Hank Williams had 4 #1 hits and a handful of top 10′s after his death on New Year’s Day 1953. (Even though it was on the charts in 1952, because “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive” hit the top shortly after the singer’s death it is counted in Billboard as a posthumous hit.) In 1989, Hank Williams Jr. took a demo recording of his father singing “There’s a Tear In My Bear”, beefed up the production and added his own vocals to create a top 10 hit single, which would go on to win both Williamses a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Collaboration. The music video for that song featured old television footage of Hank Sr. performing merged with Hank Jr. and made for a cool illusion of the two singing together. It took home Video of the Year awards from the CMA and the ACM’s that year.

In May 1989, country music lost another great talent when Keith Whitley died. He too would hit the top spot after his death, with “I Wonder Do You Think of Me” and “It Ain’t Nothin’”. Whitley charted two more top 20 releases as a solo artist after his death, and two more in duets with wife Lorrie Morgan – “Til a Tear Becomes a Rose” – and with Earl Thomas Conley, on “Brotherly Love”. Unlike the duet with his widow, Whitley and Conley had recorded their song two years before, so it’s not an example of an electronic duet.

Gentleman Jim Reeves is country music’s biggest posthumous hit-maker. His string of hits after death is as impressive as what he charted during his lifetime. Reeves racked up 6 #1 country hits after he died in 1964, as well 13 top 10s, and over two dozen total country top 40 chart outings stretching to 1984 – two full decades later. He also consistently hit the top 10 on the charts in Norway and the U.K., Reeves even topped the U.K. singles chart with “Distant Drums” in 1966. Partly because of his continued popularity on the radio and in the record stores, Jim Reeves was also one of the first artists to have his vocals isolated and then remixed with another singer’s to form a duet. In 1979, Deborah Allen kickstarted her short solo career when she contributed to RCA’s unfinished master tapes of Reeves – which resulted in  3 consecutive top 10 hit duets. The Gentleman was then paired with his contemporary Patsy Cline – the two had recorded a number of the same songs – for a pair of albums on MCA and RCA, and they hit the top 5 with “Have You Ever Been Lonely” in 1982.

Those are just some highlights in country music’s history of posthumous duet creations. There are lots more, and some weren’t as well-received. Anita Cochran controversially added Conway Twitty to her “I Wanna Hear a Cheatin’ Song” in 2004. Several other artists and even the late singer’s family spoke out when Twitty’s vocals were spliced from former performances and interviews and added to the song, in what has correctly been called a case of “musical necrophilia“.

roger millerIs Paisley guilty of the same musical necrophilia? I say he is. Unlike all the hit duet creations I mentioned above, Conway Twitty and Roger Miller didn’t record a version of either “I Wanna Hear a Cheatin’ Song” or “Outstanding In Our Field”. These are songs that were written years after their deaths. And while Brad Paisley’s sampling of Roger Miller’s distinct and well-known song opening  works better as an homage than Anita Cochran’s creepy robotic-sounding creation, it still seems like a cutesy way of paying tribute to Miller. How about covering “England Swings” or “Old Toy Trains”? Or better yet, why not write an original song that sounds like it was inspired by Roger Miller?

Roger Miller is not here today to say whether or not he’d like to add his trademark scatting to a song all about a party in a field, with a tractor tire as a cooler for the beer and a bonfire to light up the night. A song with all the subtlety and charm of a drill sergeant at six a.m.  Roger Miller – a man renowned for his quick wit and quips like “Some people walk in the rain, others just get wet.” – would likely object to it. But that’s not really my call to make. None of us – music blogger or platinum-selling country star – should be making that call for Roger Miller.  Dang you, Brad Paisley. Dang you.

Album Review: Holly Williams – ‘The Highway’

the highwayBeing the grand-daughter of Hank Williams (and to a rather lesser extent the daughter of Hank Jr) is a lot for a young singer-songwriter to live up to. Holly’s first two major label albums had some fine songs, but I was not quite convinced she was a fully formed artist. Now in her 30s, she has made the leap and produced a truly excellent collection of songs, released on her own label. Holly’s sultry alto voice is compelling as she portrays a variety of characters or bares her own soul. In a vague modern Americana singer-songwriter style with frequent use of a cello giving a richer, less sweet sound than the more familiar fiddle, it is tastefully produced by the artist with Charlie Peacock, best known for his work with critical favourites The Civil Wars.

Among the best songs is the bleak ‘Giving Up’, which she announces as “the saddest damn story you’ve ever seen”. It is a weary plea addressed to an alcoholic friend who keeps on claiming to be tackling her problem, a wife and mother so far gone, “the doctor said you’d die if you had another drink”. But that doesn’t seem to get her beyond platitudes, and Holly notes, incisively:

Well, I wonder if it scares you
I wonder if you think about
The daughter that you’re leaving
The man you used to love
And the son that cries for you
..
Well I guess this is it
Oh yeah, you must be giving up

You put us all through a living hell
A thousand excuses for your liquor trail
But my compassion is fading fast
Another rehab, and you break another glass

Bottles in driers
Bottles in shoes
There are even bottles in the baby’s room
You’re losing everything that you ever had
Your life is one thing all that money can’t buy back

This hits very hard, and sounds as if it was inspired by a specific person.

The powerful, pained ‘Drinkin’ tackles a drinking, cheating, abusive husband to ask him why, and is another of the strongest songs, with Holly’s compelling vocal grabbing attention.

Another highlight is ‘Waiting On June’ a tender reimagining of Holly’s maternal grandparents’ love story, which is very touching, with added poignancy from the death of the grandfather’s WWII comrade. The acoustic arrangement and actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s backing vocals give it a homespun feel.

Also based on her family, the quietly mournful ‘Gone Away From Me’ is a beautifully observed recollection of a small town childhood blighted by the loss of family members, and is another highlight. Jackson Browne sings backing vocals, but it is Holly’s emotional vocal which really bring this alive.

‘Railroads’ picks up the tempo with a disconcertingly upbeat tone musically belying the dark first-person story of a sinful preacher’s wild son.

‘Happy’ is a mournful reverie about a past relationship the protagonist now regrets throwing away, with the cello sounding almost menacing as Holly bemoans:

The truth is I loved you all the same
That night I broke your heart
And the day you cursed my name
And the truth is I never really knew
You were everything to me
Until it was much too late
Cause you’re the only one who makes me
The only one who makes me happy

Like the stripped-down acoustic bluesy folk ‘Let You Go’, it is written by Holly with Chris Coleman, her rock drummer husband. With Cary Barlowe, the pair also wrote ‘Til It Runs Dry’, a cheerful-sounding mid-tempo number featuring Dierks Bentley’s backing vocals.

‘Without You’, written with Lori McKenna, looks back to past searching for love and life, from a position of fulfilment. Jakob Dylan sings backing vocals, and a stately cello gives a mature feel befitting the literary allusions in the lyric. Sarah Buxton co-wrote ‘A Good Man’, a sweet love song with a striking acappella first verse and stately melody.

The title track was the least compelling song, but the weakest song on an album this strong is still pretty good. here Holly fondly recalls the period she was on the road with her music.

This is an excellent set which should appeal to fans of literate female singer-songwriters with country and Americana connections, like Matraca Berg, Lori McKenna and Mary Chapin Carpenter, but for my money this is the most appealing record of its kind I’ve heard in a long time.

Grade: A

Predictions and analysis: The 55th Annual Grammy Awards

Grammy-AwardsIt’s that time of year again, to celebrate music’s biggest night. The 55th Grammy Awards are set to air this Sunday on CBS. In a rather surprising move, it’s the females who’ll be representing our genre at the show. Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift, and Miranda Lambert are all slated to perform, with Lambert teaming up with her ‘Locked and Reloaded’ tour partner Dierks Bentley for a special collaboration. The country nominees are below, and it turns out they’re much stronger than was expected. The Recording Academy seems to have found a happy medium between commercial and artistic popularity. We’ll have to see if any of the artistic nominees (Jamey Johnson, The Time Jumpers, and others) will prevail against their commercial contemporaries. Predictions are below:

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Razor X’s Top Albums of 2012

Finding good new country music is not as easy as it once was, and due to a number of other things that were going on in my life, I’m afraid I didn’t put much effort into seeking out new music this year but I was able to find a few gems:


10. Heroes – Willie Nelson

Willie’s return to the major labels was an eclectic collection that found him covering Coldplay and Pearl Jam, but also reunited him with Merle Haggard and Ray Price, as well as sharing the spotlight a bit with his sons Lukas and Micah.

dierks9. Home – Dierks Bentley

2010′s Up On The Ridge was successful critically but not commercially, so it’s not surprising that Dierks chose to follow it up with a much more radio-friendly collection. The strategy worked, as Home produced three # 1 singles.

8. Nashville, Volume 1: Tear The Woodpile Down — Marty Stuart

Not quite the masterpiece that 2010′s Ghost Train was, this collection was still one of my favorite listens of the year. I would have rated it higher if it hadn’t contained some recycled material (“Sundown In Nashville”, “Truck Driver’s Blues”).

kelliepickler7. 100 Proof – Kellie Pickler

I never thought that Kellie Picker’s name would ever appear on any of my best of lists, but she really blossomed with this collection of more traditional-sounding tunes. Unfortunately, just as she was finally making music that allowed her to be taken seriously as an artist, she was dropped by her record label. What the future holds for her remains to be seen. There was a time when I would have said that she wouldn’t be missed very much, but now I’m curious to see what direction she goes in next.

6. Calling Me Home — Kathy Mattea

I wasn’t a huge fan of 2008′s Coal, but I like Kathy’s second visit to her Appalachian roots much better. This is a less bleak look at her heritage.

zbb5. Uncaged – Zac Brown Band

Creepy cover art aside, this collection allowed the Zac Brown Band to further expand on their increasing eclectic but always interesting catalog.

4. Thirty Miles West — Alan Jackson

There weren’t any real surprises or stretches in Alan’s EMI Nashville debut; it’s very much in the same vein as most of the other albums he’s released over the past twenty-odd years — which is exactly what country music needs right now.

terriclark3. Classic – Terri Clark

Terri Clark and I were born just a few weeks apart, so we grew up listening to much of the same music. This collection, in which she covers tunes by Linda Ronstadt, Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Reba McEntire and Tanya Tucker, provided a wonderful trip down memory lane and is the best album of her career.

2. Restless – Sweethearts of the Rodeo

This long overdue new release was well worth the wait. It’s a shame that it won’t be as widely heard as it deserves.

jameyjohnson1. Living For A Song – A Tribute to Hank Cochran — Jamey Johnson

By the time I was three tracks into listening to this album for the first time, I knew it was my favorite of the year. It’s a beautifully crafted masterpiece with an impressive guest roster that pays homage to one of the greatest country songwriters of all time. I can’t say enough good things about this album.

Occasional Hope’s Top Albums of 2012

It’s not been a bad year for country music – as long as you ignore the charts and mainstream country radio. My #1 album of the year was released on a major label but with no singles success, and most of my other selections came from independent labels, although some of the names will be familiar. Just missing the cut were, among others, albums from Joey + Rory (some delicious moments but more hit and miss than their previous efforts), Terri Clark’s classic covers, the always reliable Alan Jackson, Kathy Mattea, and current star Dierks Bentley.

For full reviews, and purchase details, click on the links in the album title and artist name respectively.

10. Alive At Brushy Mountain PenitentiaryMark Collie

The live prison album was recorded in 2001, but only escaped the vaults of MCA this year. It was worth the wait, with an energetic set of suitably themed mainly original songs.

Best tracks: ‘I Could’ve Gone Right’, ‘Rose Covered Garden’, ‘Maybe Mexico’, ‘On The Day I Die‘.

marty raybon9. Southern Roots And Branches: Yesterday and TodayMarty Raybon

Former Shenandoah lead singer Marty Raybon released a pair of albums this year. This, the secular one of the pair, was the better, with Marty’s smoky voice sounding as good as ever on a bluegrass influenced set including the odd reworking of a few Shenandoah hits.

Best tracks: ‘Long Hard Road’, ‘Big Pain’, ‘Ghost In This House’, ‘Get Up In Jesus’ Name’.

8. Honky Tonk Till I DieEric Strickland and the B Sides

Solidly enjoyable, unpretentious honky-tonk with some great original songs written by the North Carolinian lead singer. It may be obscure, but it’s really good.

Best tracks: ‘Haggard And Hell’, ‘Freedom’, ‘Standing In The Headlights’, ‘Womankind‘.

wesley dennis7. Country EnoughWesley Dennis

An excellent return from one of the best singers who never made it. The former Mercury Records artist has a classic country voice and has written some fine songs for this independent releases.

Best tracks: ‘A Month Of Sundays’, ‘Lady’s Choice’, ‘That Dog Won’t Hunt’, ‘Sun, Surf And The Sand (And My Ties)‘.

6. The Time JumpersThe Time Jumpers

The part-time supergroup featuring Vince Gill and Dawn Sears came up with a delightful confection of country, jazz and western swing for their first studio alum together. The musicianship sparkles and this is a real celebration of the joy of making music.

Best tracks: ‘So Far Apart’, ‘Three Sides To Every Story’, ‘The Woman Of My Dreams’, ‘Someone Had To Teach You’.

gene watson5. Best Of The BestGene Watson

I wasn’t sure whether to include this album in my list but in the end the quality shone through and I had to keep it in. A veteran star who still has the vocal goods to shame most of his younger, more commercially successful rivals, Gene Watson has chosen to revisit some of his best-loved recordings for this release. I would really have preferred new material from him, but this is just a lovely listening experience.

Best tracks: ‘Farewell Party’, ‘What She Don’t Know Won’t Hurt Her’, ‘Nothing Sure Looked Good On You’, ‘Between This Time And The Next Time’.

4. Pourin’ Whiskey On PainTim Culpepper

The unknown newcomer gave me my most pleasant surprise this year with his traditional sound and some excellent songs.

Best tracks: ‘One More For The Road’, ‘When Misery Finds Company’, ‘Pourin’ Whiskey On Pain’, ‘Toss And Turn’.

jason eady3. AM Country HeavenJason Eady

I called this a “low-key delight” when I reviewed it earlier this year, and my judgment stands. This mature thoughtful record has no weak spots at all. Patty Loveless duetting on one track is an unexpected bonus.

Best tracks (though everything is worth hearing): ‘AM Country Heaven’, ‘Man On A Mountain’ (with Patty Loveless), ‘Water Into Wine’, ‘Old Guitar And Me’.

2. Too Much Ain’t EnoughClinton Gregory

Sweet voiced singer/fiddler Clinton Gregory is back after years of silence with a lovely set of mainly sad songs.

Best tracks: ‘Too Much Ain’t Enough’, ‘Too Country For Nashville’, ‘Has Love Taken Its Toll?’, ‘Chase Away The Lonely’.

jamey johnson21. Living For A Song: A Tribute To Hank CochranJamey Johnson

It was obvious as soon as I listened to this album that it was going to be this year’s highlight. Songs by one of the greatest country songwriters ever, performed by Jamey Johnson and some of his friends including legends like Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Ray Price and Emmylou Harris, and more recent stars like Lee Ann Womack, Ronnie Dunn and George Strait. From the exquisite opening notes of ‘Make The World Go Away’, with Alison Krauss’s angelically sweet counterpoint to Jamey’s gruff tenderness, every single song here is a gem, and almost every track is excellent. This really is an outstanding album.

Best tracks: hard to pin down, but if I must then ‘Would These Arms Be In Your Way’ solo; ‘Make The World Go Away’ with Alison Krauss; ‘You Wouldn’t Know Love’ with Ray Price; and ‘Don’t Touch Me’ with Emmylou Harris.

Razor X’s Top Singles of 2012

Every year it seems that it becomes more difficult to compile a list of the year’s top singles. I seldom listen to country radio anymore and as such I’ve become much more album oriented and barely aware of which songs on my favorite albums were actually released as singles. However, I have managed to identify a few bright spots in a genre that is still sadly headed in the wrong direction. Here are my favorite choices of 2012:

dierks10. 5-1-5-0 — Dierks Bentley

Though not as good as his previous single “Home”, which made my list of 2011′s top singles, the title of this catchy number refers to the section of the California Welfare and Institutions Code which allows law enforcement officers to involuntarily confine individuals with mental disorders. In the case of the narrator of this story, it is his love interest who is making him crazy.

9. Neon — Chris Young

Songs paying homage to one’s favorite watering hole have long been a staple in country music, but this tune by the best of country music’s current crop of male vocalists does it in a fresh and interesting way, comparing the colors of the bar’s neon signs to the blue of a Wyoming sky, the red of a Santa Fe sunset, and the yellow of Texas sunflowers. It underperformed on the charts, peaking at a disappointing #23.

martina8. Marry Me — Martina Bride featuring Pat Monahan

It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to get excited about anything Martina McBride has done, but I was pleasantly surprised by this cover version of a hit for the group Train. Given country radio’s current pop leanings I expected this one to perform well on the charts, but it stalled at #45.

7. Diamonds Make Babies — Bradley Gaskin

I prefer Dierk Bentley’s version of this tune that delves into the six degrees of separation between engagement and parenthood, but it’s a fun song no matter who sings it.

terri6. Love Is A Rose — Terri Clark
If I were compiling a list of this sort a decade ago, it would have been inconceivable that the vast majority of my selections would be by male vocalists. Terri Clark is one of the few females who has released anything that I found remotely interesting this year. Sixteen years after she topped the charts with “Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me”, Clark shows that she can still wrap her vocal cords around a Linda Ronstadt tune. Unfortunately, Terri’s record is unlikely to get any chart action in the U.S., but hopefully it will gain some traction in Canada.

5. Living For A Song– Jamey Johnson featuring Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson and Hank Cochran

The capstone of Johnson’s magnficient tribute album to one of country music’s greatest songwriters finds him joining forces with legends Nelson, Haggard and Kristofferson, and the late Hank Cochran himself. Predictably, it was ignored by country radio.

Zac Brown Band in Concert on NBC's "Today Show" at Rockefeller Center in New York City on July 13, 20124. No Hurry — Zac Brown Band

I really liked everything that the Zac Brown Band released this year and was tempted to include all three of their single releases but that seemed like taking the lazy way out. “No Hurry”, which peaked at #2 early this year, is my favorite of the bunch.

3. Loving You Is Fun — Easton Corbin
This laid back tune, which I reviewed back in February, reminds me of the type of song Clint Black used to do in the 90s. Country music needs more artists like Easton Corbin.

2. So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore — Alan Jackson
Alan’s second single under a new deal with EMI Nashville is well written and impeccably performed but unfortunately, it did nothing to reverse his chart decline. The production and his vocal performance are nicely understated.

george1. Drinkin’ Man — George Strait
After phoning it in for the past couple of years, George Strait came back in a big way with this tune about a lifelong struggle with alcoholism. He tackles the topic in a straightforward and effective manner, never becoming maudlin or preachy. He co-wrote the song with his son Bubba and Dean Dillon. It stands in stark contrast with most of the fluff on country radio — or at least it would have had it received more airplay. It stalled at #37, which is nothing short of tragic because it likely means that the major labels will not be inclined to release material like this in the future. But even though it is the lowest charting single of Strait’s long and illustrious career, it is an artistic triumph.

2012 CMA Awards: our predictions

The 46th annual Country Music Association annual awards ceremony will take place on November 1, 2012 at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. The show will air live on ABC television again this year and is presented by the pairing of Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, who will take over hosting duties for the fifth consecutive year. Eric Church and his massive hit “Springsteen” lead the list of nominees, with Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton close behind him.

On awards night, look for a musical tribute to Willie Nelson and The Band Perry to debut the first taste of their Rick Rubin produced sophomore album. There’s also talk that Female Vocalist nominee Kelly Clarkson will debut “Don’t Rush” on the telecast, a duet with Vince Gill featured from her Greatest Hits, Chapter One album in stores Nov. 19. Also look forward to a duet from Tim McGraw and Faith Hill (which I’ve heard is during the Nelson tribute), and solo performances from each.

Entertainer of the Year

Jason Aldean
Kenny Chesney
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton
Taylor Swift - Jonathan Pappalardo, J.R. Journey

The usual solid yet unspectacular group. Carrie Underwood fans are likely fuming at yet another snub, while everyone else will bark at the inclusion of Swift, a two-time winner and the incumbent, for her increasing lack of country credibility. But Aldean is the nominee to watch, as his recent stadium tour announcement will likely endear him to voters in the years to come.

Jonathan Pappalardo: I’ll bet on the safest choice this time around and say Taylor Swift is going to win. Chesney may have had the biggest tour, and Aldean is on fire right now, but Swift has the lock on this category.

J.R. Journey: Taylor Swift now not only represents about one-fourth of the total United States GDP, she also hawks makeup, perfume, and shoes on the side. And she just had the #1 song in 12 countries. I say Swift is most likely to succeed on CMA night.

Female Vocalist of the Year

Kelly Clarkson
Miranda Lambert - Jonathan Pappalardo
Martina McBride
Taylor Swift - J.R. Journey
Carrie Underwood

Kelly Clarkson, really? She did score a #21 hit with the country version of “Mr. Know It All” so her nomination is somewhat, albeit very marginally, justified. She has yet to fully embrace a career in country music. McBride is a snoozer scoring her 14th consecutive nomination and 15th overall as her career takes a downward spiral. See, this is what happens when all the great female artists of late (Kimberly Perry, Jennifer Nettles, Shawna Thompson) are members of duos and groups.

Jonathan Pappalardo: While I’d love to see this award go to Clarkson (to tick off the industry if nothing else), she’s a pop singer who’s done a bang up job covering country songs in concert. That’s about it. Miranda Lambert, meanwhile, is the biggest star in country music right now that actually looks and sounds country. And her intuition to form the Pistol Annies proves she’s not afraid to take creative risks. Its her award to lose, and I don’t foresee that happening.

J.R. Journey: Taylor Swift is the likely winner here for pretty much the same reasons she’ll win Entertainer of the year. Miranda Lambert’s new solo music is way below her usual standards this year and I think Carrie Underwood’s dog already had its day in this category, so I don’t see voters leaning toward either of them. 

Male Vocalist of the Year

Jason Aldean
Luke Bryan
Eric Church
Blake Shelton - Jonathan Pappalardo, J.R. Journey
Keith Urban

Another somewhat standard list until you take into account Urban is here in place of red-hot Dierks Bentley. Bentley’s exclusion, which comes on the heels of three back-to-back #1 hits is shocking. Urban should be joining Brad Paisley and been made to sit this one out this year.

Jonathan Pappalardo:  There’s seemingly no stopping Blake Shelton right now despite one mediocre single after another. He’s the biggest star here next to Jason Aldean and the all around better vocalist. He’ll sail to his third straight win no problem.

J.R. Journey: Blake Shelton is coming off two consecutive wins here and his visibility remains higher than Aldean’s, the next closest competitor. Long shots for the win Luke Bryan and Eric Church are still newcomers and first time nominees leaving Keith Urban the longest shot “veteran” slot. For my money, Shelton will repeat a third time here.

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Classic Rewind – Dierks Bentley – ‘Trying To Stop Your Leaving’

The fourth single from Long Trip Alone, it peaked at #5 in early 2008:

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