My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Dolly Parton

Album Review: Johnny Cash – ‘Out Among The Stars’

johnnycashThere hasn’t been any shortage of “new” Johnny Cash music in the decade since the Man In Black’s death. But unlike most of those releases, this week’s Out Among The Stars isn’t a reissue, an alternate take, a demo or a recording made during the singer’s declining years when he was long past his vocal peak. Rather, Out Among The Stars is a full-fledged studio album that was mostly recorded in the 1980s and produced by Billy Sherrill. The nearly completed album was discovered two years ago by John Carter Cash, who was in the process of mining the Sony archives while trying to catalog his parents’ extensive discographies. He brought in some additional musicians, including Marty Stuart, Buddy Miller and Carlene Carter, to bring the project to completion. The final product was released last week.

Normally, news of this sort would be cause for great celebration but any excitement about the album had to be tempered with the knowledge that the 1980s were, as even the most die-hard Cash fans will admit , a period in which the singer released mostly less than stellar work. Add to that the fact that Billy Sherrill had been the producer behind “The Chicken In Black”, widely regarded to be one of the worst singles of Cash’s career, and no one was quite sure what to expect.

Considering that Out Among The Stars was mostly recorded in 1984, while Cash’s career was in the middle of a long dry spell and just two years before Columbia dropped him from its roster, it isn’t surprising that the album was forgotten. But those who were braced for the worst will be pleasantly surprised because it is far superior to most of his output from that era. So far the album has produced one non-charting single, “She Used To Love Me a Lot”, which David Allan Coe took to #11 in 1984. It was written by Charles Quillen with Dennis W. Morgan and Kye Fleming. Morgan and Fleming were one of Nashville’s top songwriting teams of the day, having written many hits for Ronnie Milsap, Barbara Mandrell and Sylvia.

Many other top 80s songwriters teams are also represented. Ed and Patsy Bruce contributed “After All”, a pop-tinged ballad that was a departure from Johnny’s usual fare and Paul Kennerley and Graham Lyle wrote “Rock and Roll Shoes”. Johnny himself contributed the sentimental “Call Your Mother” and the inspirational “I Came To Believe”, which was written while Johnny was struggling with addiction and completing a stint at the Betty Ford Center. Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman wrote the tongue-in-cheek “If I Told You Who It Was” about a country music fan who has a fling with a female Opry star after changing her flat tire. No names are named, but the lady’s identity is revealed (for those old enough to recognize it) by an uncredited vocal appearance near the end of the song. It’s not Dolly Parton; that’s all I’m going to say.

Although traditionalists like to claim Cash as one of their own, The Man In Black was no purist and frequently pushed the boundaries of the genre. In this collection he sticks close to his country roots, and unlike many of his records, there is plenty of steel guitar on this album. Among the most traditional tunes are two excellent duets with June Carter Cash — “Baby, Ride Easy” and a cover of Tommy Collins’ “Don’t You Think It’s Come Our Time”. Johnny sounds relaxed and refreshed on these tracks, and June is also in fine vocal form. “Baby, Come Easy” features harmony vocals by Carlene Carter and “Don’t You Think It’s Come Our Time” features some excellent picking by Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Bryan Sutton. Waylon Jennings joins Johnny for a faithful-to-the-original cover of the Hank Snow classic “I’m Movin’ On”. Jennings’ presence elevates a performance that otherwise wouldn’t be particularly memorable.

The album closes with a remixed version of “She Used To Love Me A Lot” that was produced by Elvis Costello. Not surprisingly, this version isn’t country but it is in keeping with some of Cash’s genre-pushing efforts. It doesn’t really add anything to the album, however, and I could have done without it. “I Came To Believe” would have been a more appropriate closing track, but that is the only negative thing I can say about an otherwise exceptional album.

It is unlikely that Out Among The Stars would have fared well commercially had it been released thirty years ago. It was not then and is not now what mainstream Nashville wanted. It won’t produce any big radio hits, but now there is a greater appreciation of Johnny Cash than there was in 1984. Sony is giving the release the promotional effort it deserves and I imagine it will sell quite well.

Grade: A+

Single Review: Dolly Parton – ‘Blue Smoke’

blue smokeYou never know quite what to expect from a Dolly Parton record. Her career has spanned the gamut from, quite literally the sublime to the ridiculous, and the purest traditional sounds to the most blatant of pop. Happily her new single is Dolly at her most traditional, and it’s an excellent song too – the best thing I’ve heard from her since 2008’s ‘Backwoods Barbie’. She wrote the song herself, and it combines a joyful sound with a complicated emotional mood, with the protagonist positive about moving on from a bad relationship as he heads on up the mountains withe her “suitcase full of heartaches”

Opening with instrumentation copying the sound of a train, the song uses the metaphor of a train journey as the protagonist leaves a failed relationship.

I know I’m gonna miss you but I hope it ain’t for long
And i wonder if youll even gonna notice that im gone
Oh It hurts to know you cheated and it hurts to know you lied
But it hurts me even worse to know you never even tried
I packed my suitcase full of heartaches headin’ for the train depot
And I bought a one-way ticket on the train they call Blue Smoke

Dolly’s vocal is bright and engaged throughout (she sounds a generation younger than her chronological age). Halfway through the mod lifts with gospel style backing vocals and handclaps, as though the act of leaving and going back home has cheered her up. The arrangement is brilliantly played bluegrass. Leaving on a one way ticket never sounded so good.

The album of the same title has already been released in Australia, where Dolly has started her current world tour, and is out elsewhere in May. It sounds as though the album is likely to be more eclectic, but this single is fabulous. You can download it now, and I strongly recommend doing so. Radio may ignore it, but that’s their loss.

Grade: A+

Classic Rewind: Holly Dunn ft Dolly Parton – ‘Daddy’s Hands’

Classic Rewind: Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton – ‘That’s When Love Will Mean The Most’

Album Review: Holly Dunn – ‘The Blue Rose of Texas’

HollyDunnTheBlueRoseofTexasShortly after the dissolution of MTM Records, Holly Dunn landed a contract with Warner Bros. and her career enjoyed a resurgence from both an artistic and commercial standpoint. Her Warner Bros. debut, 1989′s The Blue Rose of Texas was produced by Holly and her brother and songwriting partner Chris Waters, and is by far the finest album of her career. Her first single for her new label was “Are You Ever Gonna Love Me” which she wrote with Waters and Tom Shapiro. The uptempo number, which finds her frustrated by an overly cautious new love interest, became her first Billboard #1 hit in May 1989. It’s one of the few concessions to radio in what is mostly a very traditional album. Another uptempo number “There Goes My Heart Again”, which features background vocals by Joe Diffie who co-wrote the tune with Lonnie Wilson and Wayne Perry, was the album’s second single, which peaked at #4.

Suprisingly, Warner Bros. opted not to release any further singles from the album, despite a warm reception from radio. One track, “No One Takes The Train Anymore”, a ballad beautifully written by Chris Waters and exquisitely performed by Holly, was included on her 1991 greatest hits package Milestones. It became a single in 1991 in the aftermath of the “Maybe I Mean Yes” debacle, but overshadowed by controversy of its predecessor, it became the first Holly Dunn single not to chart. Despite its lack of commercial success, it has always been one of my favorites. It finds Dunn pondering an impending breakup and lamenting the fact that the fast pace of modern life, which includes traveling by car or plane rather than sea or rail, leaves little opportunity for the party that is leaving to change his mind.

The album’s remaining songs are exceptionally strong, even though none of them were released as singles. Approximately half of them were written by one or more members of the Dunn/Waters/Shapiro team with the rest being supplied by some well known outside songwriters. It’s hard to pick favorites, but if pressed I would narrow the list down to three: the Dunn/Waters/Shapiro-written title track, which includes some excellent electric guitar work, the Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet song “There’s No Heart So Strong”, and “Most of All, Why”, which contains some beautiful harmonizing by its writer Dolly Parton. Originally included on Dolly’s 1975 album The Seeker/We Used To, the regret-filled ballad asks the poignant questions:

How did we get here,
Where did it start,
When did we walk out of each other’s hearts?
Where did we lose it,
How did love die,
When, where and how, but most of all, why?

I like all of Dunn’s albums, but this is the one that I play all the way through most often. It’s one of the ten essential albums I’d want with me if I were stranded on a desert island and I’ve never quite understood why it didn’t sell better than it did. I don’t think it is still in print, but copies are still available on Amazon. Pick one up while you still can.

Grade: A+

Classic Rewind: Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton – ‘Milwaukee, Here I Come’

Classic Rewind: Glen Campbell and Dolly Parton – ‘Amazing Grace’

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

clay-walker-111954 (Sales): There Stands The Glass — Webb Pierce (Decca)

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

1954 (Disc Jockeys): Bimbo – Jim Reeves (Abbott)

1964: Love’s Gonna Live Here — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1974: Jolene — Dolly Parton (RCA)

1984: The Sound of Goodbye — Crystal Gayle (Warner Bros.)

1994: Live Until I Die — Clay Walker (Giant)

2004: There Goes My Life — Kenny Chesney (BNA)

2014: Drink A Beer — Luke Bryan (Capitol)

2014 (Airplay): Sweet Annie — Zac Brown Band (Southern Ground/Atlantic)

Predictions for the 54th Annual Grammy Awards

1015599-grammy-award-617-409The most significant aspect of the 54th annual Grammy Awards (airing Sunday night on CBS) is who isn’t nominated. Those looking for bro-country kingpins Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan among the nominees are out of luck. “Cruise” was easily a contender in many categories, but thankfully was completely shut out. Instead we’re left with country nominees that still hold strong allegiances to mainstream country music, but aren’t a celebratory party for the dreck Music Row has been spitting out for years now.

Country Nominations

American Roots Nominations

Here are my predictions for Sunday’s big night:

Best Country Solo Performance

528c0c3f7cdadGiven what was popular in mainstream country in 2013, this is a spectacularly solid list of recordings that received airplay but didn’t embarrass the history of the genre. What’s surprising is the category’s diversity; only Miranda Lambert has won previously, while category heavyweights Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley, and Keith Urban were shut out. It’s just too bad Kacey Musgraves, who has four other nominations, wasn’t included here as well for “Merry Go Round,” the best mainstream single of the eligibility period.

Should Win: “I Drive Your Truck” – Lee Brice gives an incredibly heartfelt vocal and proves he can pull off as close to a traditional ballad as country radio would play in 2013 

Will Win: “I Drive Your Truck” – The force of this song will propel it to victory

Make A Case For: “Mine Would Be You” – There’s been a lot of chatter that Blake Shelton is the only coach on The Voice who’s yet to win a Grammy Award. That’ll definitely change this year and I hope it does here, allowing a far more deserving nominee to pick up Best Country Album.

Best Country Duo/Group Performance 

2009-10-27-kenny-dolly-duet-fullThe Grammys were criticized in the 2000s for veering too far away from mainstream country and thus seeming out of touch with what was popular. They’ve since gone to extremes in the other direction, but it’s nice to see The Recording Academy hasn’t lost their artistic touch completely, as the solid nominees in this category prove.

Should Win: “You Can’t Make Old Friends” – thirty years after the pair was nominated (and lost) in this same category for “Islands In The Stream,” Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton show up again with their second duet in as many years. The indelible magic is still there, even if the tempo has slowed with time.

Will Win: “Highway Don’t Care” – The Recording Academy loves Tim McGraw, Taylor Swift, and Keith Urban separately, the trio has 14 Grammys between them, and so collaboration between them will likely be too difficult for voters to resist.

Best Country Song

Merry_go_'roundIt says a lot about the overall quality of writing on Music Row these days when four of the nominees in this category show up twice among these five nominees. But it speaks volumes that half of Kacey Musgraves’ four nominations are found here, proving she’s more then just your average recording artist.

Should Win: “Merry Go Round” – I’d been waiting for just such a song for years and Musgraves, Shane McAnally, and Josh Osborne didn’t disappoint with their fantastic ode to suffocating small town life.

Will Win: “I Drive Your Truck” – the poignancy of this true story about a dad, the son who died in war, and the truck he left behind was too much for the CMA to ignore, and the same will prove true of the Recording Academy.

Best Country Album

UnknownThis is the weakest field of nominees in any of the country categories by a mile. The fare here is far too mainstream, clichéd, and sound-alike. I genuinely feel for those who’ll use this list as a benchmark of excellence for country music in 2013. Without the likes of Ashley Monroe among the nominees, that just isn’t fair.

Should Win: Same Trailer Different Park – given Musgraves’ competition, this shouldn’t even be a close call. She’s in a class of her own that the likes of McGraw, Shelton, and Jason Aldean couldn’t ascend to on their best day.

Will Win: Red – it’s general logic: if you’re nominated for Album of The Year, you usually take home your genre prize as a consolation or in some cases you win both. It isn’t always true, in which case Based On A True Story will take this, but it happens more often then not.

Best Americana Album

8fb2d908A solid list, although I expected to see Jason Isbell nominated here for Southeastern given the media blitz the CD was given. If he had been included, I would’ve been rooting for his win. Isbell’s album is just that good.

Should Win: Old Yellow Moon – Emmylou Harris is a Grammy Favorite and has released her strongest collection in years. That it’s also a duets project with Rodney Crowell more than forty years in the making only makes it sweeter.  

Will Win: One True Vine – Mavis Staples has won similar categories in the past few years and remains a Grammy favorite. I don’t see a reason to bet against her here.

Best Bluegrass Album 

0011661914124Without an eligible album in the running from Alison Krauss, the category is left without a ‘celebrity’ name to carry a win. Alan Jackson’s bluegrass project made the eligibility cut by a week, but was likely too new (despite the availability of advanced copies) to score a nomination.

Should Win: Streets of Baltimore

Will Win: Brothers of the Highway

Best New Artist 

imagesAn odd list, given that Lorde was left off while James Blake and Ed Sheeran were included despite not being new. Name recognition, and a plump spot on Taylor Swift’s tour, could propel Sheeran to the podium but he faces tough competition from Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, who had a breakout year.

Should Win: Kacey Musgraves – I have to stick with country music on this one. Of these nominees she’s the most well rounded mixing country with folk sensibilities in all the best ways. Plus, can any of the other acts claim half their nominations were for songwriting?

Will Win: Macklemore and Ryan Lewis – easily the most talked about duo in popular music in all of 2013. They may’ve hit it big with “Thrift Shop,” but their martial equality anthem “Same Love” showed their true artistry. Look for that to give them the edge over their competition.

Classic Rewind: Dolly Parton – ‘Letter To Heaven’

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Christmas Grass: The Collection’

christmas grassThis two-disc compilation of the best tracks from a series of three Christmas Grass albums released in 2002, 2004 and 2007 respectively comprises equal parts instrumentals and vocal tracks, and mixes the reverent with the fun/nostalgic side of the season. Most of the material is fairly well known, but the impeccable, cleanly played arrangements and excellent vocals make these versions a welcome addition to your Christmas playlists.

Dolly Parton gets things going to a bright and cheery start with her perkily irresistible reading of ‘Christmas Time’s A-Comin’’, backed by the harmonies of Dailey & Vincent. The duo also back up Russell Moore on the briskly cheerful ‘Christmas Time Is Near’.

A charmingly nostalgic look back at Christmases past in Tom T Hall’s likeable ‘Oh Christmas Candle’ is attractively sung by the trio of Jamie Dailey, Barry Scott and Doyle Lawson. Rhonda Vincent is warm and tender on Amy Grant’s Southern-themed ‘Tennessee Christmas’, while the Larkins take on a bluegrass version of Alabama’s ‘Christmas In Dixie’, which is quite nice.

Larry Sparks lends an unexpectedly wistful melancholy to ‘I Heard The Bells Ring On Christmas Day’ (with a lyric comprising a Longfellow poem), which I liked very much. My favourite track is the most downbeat one, ‘Merry Christmas Ho Ho Ho’, about a man facing his first Christmas alone, sung with a gentle sadness by Ronnie Bowman with supporting harmonies from Darrin Vincent and Sharon White.

John Cowan provides some variety by contributinga sultry soul-style vocal on ‘Please Come Home For Christmas’, which works surprisingly well with the bluegrass instrumentation.

On the religious side of things, Dailey & Vincent sing a quietly reverent and beautifully harmonised version of ‘Beautiful Star Of Bethlehem’, set to a simple guitar and mandolin backing. This must be one of their earliest recordings together. Sonya Isaacs sounds lovely on ‘Mary, Did You Know?’, while Sarah Jarosz is pleasantly soothing on ‘One Bright Star’.

3 Fox Drive get two tracks, both rather forgettable: ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’ and ‘The Christmas Song’, which I usually find boring anyway.

Approximately half the tracks are instrumental versions of well-known Christmas tunes (the first of the three albums this compilation draws on was all-instrumental). I was initially a little disappointed by this, even though they are all flawlessly played, but they make for contemplative interludes. My favourite is a gently melodic performance of ‘What Child Is This’ (the Renaissance tune ‘Greensleeves’), featuring Alison Krauss on fiddle and Ronnie McCoury on mandolin, which is quite lovely. The stately melody of ‘Silent Night’ (one of my favourite carols) is also very fine, while a bouncy ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’ is fun.

This is a very tasteful bluegrass collection, leaning more to the mellow and contemplative sides of Christmas than to revelry. I would recommend it to all fans of bluegrass and acoustic music at this time of year.

Grade: A

Spotlight Artist: Heather Myles

Heather+MylesWhen Dolly Parton asked, “Why don’t more women sing honky-tonk songs?” she clearly was not referring to Heather Myles; the Riverside, California native, who was born on July 31, 1962, is one of country music’s few female honky-tonkers and one of an even smaller number of female artists associated with the Bakersfield sound. Her parents owned a horse ranch, and from an early age Heather was exposed to the music of Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, and Loretta Lynn. Unlike many other country artists, however, she was no child prodigy. She didn’t own her own guitar until she was 21, she was 24 before she finally joined a band, and she was 30 when her first album was released. That project, 2002′s Just Like Old Times, consisted mainly of her own original songs and was the first of a pair of album’s released by HighTone Records. Her second album Untamed was released in 1995.

By the mid-90s country music had moved in a more pop direction, making it difficult for Heather’s music to gain any mainstream traction. HighTone’s lack of an adequate distribution system also made it difficult for fans to find Heather’s music and ulitmately led to her departure from the label after the release of Untamed. Though she wasn’t enjoying much commercial success at home, she developed a loyal following in Europe and spent the better part of the next four years in the United Kingdom. The European country music fan base, though small, tends to favor more tradition-based music, which was a good fit with Heather’s musical style. Her 1996 live album, Sweet Little Dangerous, was recorded in England and released on Britain’s Demon label.

By 1998 Heather had signed with Rounder and released Highways & Honky Tonks, which included a duet with Merle Haggard. 2002′s Sweet Talk and Good Lies paired her for a duet with Dwight Yoakam. Her most recent album In The Wind, was reviewed by Occasional Hope when it was released in 2010.

Mainstream success has continued to elude Heather, in no small part due to her refusal to alter her sound in concession to the pop-flavored country currently in vogue. However, her cult following in Europe and the exposure she’s received on Americana radio stations, have enabled her to eke out a respectable living from her music. IF you like your country straightforward and unapologetic, Heather’s the girl for you. We hope you’ll enjoy the coverage as we spotlight her career during December.

Week ending 11/9/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

rebalinda1953 (Sales): I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know — Davis Sisters (RCA)

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

1953 (Disc Jockeys): I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know — Davis Sisters (RCA)

1963: Love’s Gonna Live Here — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1973: We’re Gonna Hold On — George Jones & Tammy Wynette (Epic)

1983: Islands In The Stream — Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton (RCA)

1993: Does He Love You — Reba McEntire with Linda Davis (MCA)

2003: Who Wouldn’t Wanna Be Me — Keith Urban (Capitol)

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

2013 (Airplay): It Goes Like This — Thomas Rhett (Valory)

Album Review: Alison Krauss & Union Station – ‘Two Highways’

twohighwaysAlison Krauss’ contract with Rounder required her to alternate her solo albums with collaborations with her band. Two Highways is the first album under that arrangement credited to Alison Krauss & Union Station. Released in 1989 at a time when bluegrass was still largely regarded as country music’s red-headed stepchild, it is by and large a traditional affair. It has little of the genre envelope-pushing for which Alison would later become known, though it is a softer and more polished sound than was typical of bluegrass up to that time. It was produced by Bill Vorndick. Guest artist Jerry Douglas plays dobro along with regular band members Jeff White, Mike Harman, and John Pennell.

Even though she shares the spotlight with her band members, Alison — who was still only 18 years old when the album was released — is the glue that holds everything together. She plays fiddle throughout the album and sings lead vocals on the majority of the tracks, sounding at times like a young Dolly Parton. The similarity to Dolly is most apparent on the Larry Cordle-penned title track and Todd Rakestraw’s “I’m Alone Again”.

Bass player John Pennell, who contributed much of the material to Alison’s solo album Too Late To Cry, supplies three tracks here: “Love You In Vain”, “Here Comes Goodbye” and “As Lovely As You”, one of the highlights of the album which features Jeff White singing lead vocals with some lovely backing vocals from Alison. Two instrumental numbers – the traditional “Beaumont Rag” and Kenny Baker’s “Windy City Rag” allow the band to shine. The album’s best track is “Teardrops Will Kiss The Morning Dew”, a cover of an old Osborne Brothers song, and the most unusual is a remake of the Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider”, which works surprisingly well with a bluegrass arrangement.

Two Highways did not produce any hit singles, nor did it make the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. It garnered little attention outside the world of bluegrass, but it did receive a Grammy nomination for Best Bluegrass Album in 1990 and it is one of the albums upon which future star Alison Krauss built her reputation.

Grade: A

Week ending 11/2/13: #1 singles this week in country music history

georgejones_tammywynette_v_e1953 (Sales): I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know — Davis Sisters (RCA)

1953 (Jukebox): A Dear John Letter — Jean Shepard & Ferlin Husky (Capitol)

1953 (Disc Jockeys): I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know — Davis Sisters (RCA)

1963: Love’s Gonna Live Here — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1973: We’re Gonna Hold On — George Jones & Tammy Wynette (Epic)

1983: Islands In The Stream — Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton (RCA)

1993: Easy Come, Easy Go — George Strait (MCA)

2003: Tough Little Boys — Gary Allan (MCA)

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

2013 (Airplay): It Goes Like This — Thomas Rhett (Valory)

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘To All The Girls’

to all the girlsThe newest Willie Nelson album finds Willie treading familiar ground, recording eighteen duets with various female partners. These partners range from young to old, famous to fairly unknown and across a wide array of genres.

The album opens up with the “From Here To The Moon And Back”, an introspective ballad from the catalogue of duet partner Dolly Parton. This song has a very quiet arrangement with piano being the dominant sound, along with a very light string arrangement – very nice song.

Another very quiet song is “She Was No Good For Me” with the normally boisterous Miranda Lambert assisting Willie on an old Waylon Jennings tune. It is nice to hear Miranda sing a song that requires nuance and restraint.

She was a good looking woman no doubt
A high steppin’ mover that men talk about
Everything bad in me she brought it out
And she was just no good for me

[Chorus:]
Don’t be taken by the look in her eyes
If she looks like an angel
It’s a perfect disguise
And for somebody else she may be
But she was just no good for me

“It Won’t Be Very Long” opens with a harmonica intro which comes to a dead stop and then starts to a song with a very country gospel feel – something either Roy Acuff or the Nitty Gritty Dirt band might have tackled. The Secret Sisters aren’t really very well known but probably do the best job of any act on the album of actually harmonizing with Willie. Willie and producer Buddy Cannon wrote this song.

“Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends” is a Kris Kristofferson song that originally was a top ten hit for new Country Music Hall of Famer Bobby Bare (it reached #1 on Record World) in 1971. In 1974 it reached #1 on Billboard for Ronnie Milsap. I always preferred Bare’s version as I think the song benefited from Bare’s more laid back approach to the song. Nelson and duet partner Rosanne Cash adopt the more relaxed approach to the song, with Willie’s guitar being the dominant sound of the background, but with a tasteful organ undertone by Moose Brown. Willie and Rosanne’s voices really don’t mesh well together and Willie’s eccentric phrasing is difficult for any singer to handle, but actual harmonizing on this tune is kept to a dead minimum.

“Far Away Places” is one of the classics of the American Pop Standards canon. The song was written by Joan Whitney and Alex Kramer way back in 1948, and was an immediate hit by three artists in late 1948-early 1949, reaching #2 for the legendary Bing Crosby, #3 for Margaret Whiting and #6 for Perry Como. The Como version is probably the best remembered version since RCA kept the song available for most of the last 65 years whereas the other versions have frequently been out of print. Willie and partner Sheryl Crow harmonize well and recreate the dreamy feel of the 1948 versions. This is my favorite track on this album:

Far away places with strange soundin’ names
Far away over the sea
Those far away places with the strange soundin’ names
Are callin’, callin’ me

Goin’ to China or maybe Siam
I want to see for myself
Those far away places I’ve been readin’ about
In a book that I took from the shelf

I don’t know how many times Willie has recorded his own “Bloody Mary Morning” but this version must be the fastest version on disc. I’m not a big Wynonna Judd fan but this is the kind of song she handles well. Mike Johnson (steel) and Dan “Man of Constant Sorrow” Tyminski (acoustic guitar) really shine on this track.

Writers Wayne Carson, Mark James and John Christopher, Jr cashed in big time with “You Were Always On My Mind” as it was a hit thrice (Brenda Lee, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson) and appeared on many albums generating many millions of sales (and royalties for the songwriters). On this recording Willie is joined by Carrie Underwood in a nice version with fairly minimal backing.

During the 1960s and 1970s semi-permanent male-female duos abounded, nearly all of whom tackled Merle Haggard’s “Somewhere Between”. It’s a great song and Willie is joined by the legendary Loretta Lynn, singing in better voice than anything I’ve heard from her recently. Willie and Loretta trade verses (usually in different keys) and do not harmonize except one line at the end. It’s a great song and full justice is done to the song.

“No Mas Amore” written by Keith Gattis and Sammy Barrett, is given the Mexican treatment by Willie and partner Alison Krauss complete with trumpets. Willies band member Mickey Raphael plays chord harmonica and bass harmonica; Alison’s band member Dan Tyminski adds background vocals and plays mandolin. Usually Alison Krauss duets produce a certain magic, but this one is merely pleasant listening.

“Back To Earth” features Melonie Cannon on this Willie Nelson ballad, taken at a languid pace. The song is nothing special but Melanie and Willie execute it well.

Mavis Staples is one of the best known gospel singers, carrying on the fine tradition of the legendary Staples Family. “Grandma’s Hands” was penned by Bill Withers, probably best known for his monster hits “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lean On Me”. The song was about Wither’s own grandma and is an affectionate look at a loved one, now departed. Willie and Mavis give it a bit of a ‘swamp blues pop’ treatment that fits the song exactly.

“Walkin” features Wiliie’s good friend Norah Jones on a Willie composition. This is a bluesy slow ballad about leaving.

“Till The End of World” is an old Vaughn Horton standard given an up-tempo western swing arrangement. Back in 1949 Ernest Tubb, Jimmy Wakely and Johnny Bond all had top twelve hits with the song, then in 1952 Bing Crosby and ace guitarist Grady Martin took it back into the top ten. Shelby Lynne reestablishes her country credibility with this effort.

“Will You Remember Mine” is a lovely ballad from Willie’s pen. I don’t know anything about Lily Meola but she is a perfect complement to Willie on this song.

Gone are the times when I held you close
And pressed your lips to mine
Now when you kissed another’s lips
Will you remember mine?

I’m sure we’ve all had this thought – indeed.

“Dry Lightning” comes from the pen of Bruce Springsteen. Emmylou Harris can sing with anyone. Therefore it is no surprise that this song works as a duet. It’s another slow ballad, but Emmylou, as usual is exquisite.

I first ran across Brandi Carlile some years ago when the late and lamented Borders chain distributed sampler CDs of her work. On “Making Believe” she proves both that she can sing effective harmony and can sing country music with feeling. This song was written by Jimmy Work but is best remembered as a major hit for Kitty Wells in 1955, with Emmylou Harris taking it back to the top ten in 1977.

“Have You Ever Seen The Rain” is a John Fogarty composition given a slow folk arrangement that enables Willie and (I think) daughter Paula Nelson to convey the lyrics in an uncluttered manner. I really like this recording.

Tina Rose is the daughter of Leon & Mary Russell. Willie recorded an album with Leon Russell in 1979, so it seems only proper that he should record a song with Leon’s daughter. I’m not that impressed with Ms Russell’s vocals, but they work well enough on the vehicle chosen, L.E White’s “After The Fire Is Gone”, which White’s boss, Conway Twitty took to the top of the charts with Loretta Lynn in 1971. Willie and Tina don’t have the chemistry Conway and Loretta had (few do) but the end result is worthwhile.

It remains true:
There’s nothing cold as ashes
After the fire’s gone

All told, there is a very pleasant offering from Willie – I’d give it a B+, mostly because a few more up-tempo numbers were needed. Willie, of course, is always Willie, and as always, he was chosen well in his selection of female guests.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A+

Willie Nelson: The early years

country favoritesWillie Nelson, alone among his contemporaries, continues to be an active and prolific recording artist. Not only is he releasing albums at a pace that would leave today’s stars thoroughly exhausted, but Willie continues to make guest appearances on the albums of other artists, famous and unknown alike.

The eighty year old Nelson continues to tour relentlessly, something he has been doing in one form or another for over fifty years.

Prior to “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain”, most knew Willie Nelson (if they knew of him at all) as the man who wrote “Hello Walls” for Faron Young and “Crazy” for Patsy Cline, and some songs that other singers had success recording.

Outside of his home state of Texas, the public consciousness of Willie Nelson as a performer basically dates back to the two albums Willie recorded for Atlantic in the early 1970s after which time he moved to Columbia for his recording heyday. This article will discuss the major label albums issued before then.

The first album out of the box was … And Then I Wrote which was released on the Liberty label in September 1962. This album featured “Touch Me” as the single (it reached #7 on Billboard’s country chart) and featured some songs that other artists had recorded with some success such as “Hello Walls” and “Three Days” (Faron Young), “Crazy” (Patsy Cline), “Funny How Time Slips Away” (Joe Hinton, Billy Walker). Although not released as a singles, “Mr. Record Man” and “Darkness On The Face of The Earth” would become songs associated with Willie, and “Undo The Right” would be a top ten hit for long-time friend Johnny Bush in 1968 (Johnny Bush and Willie Nelson were both in Ray Price’s band the Cherokee Cowboys during the early 1960s, and played in each others bands at various points in time). “The Part Where I Cry” was the other single release from this album.

… And Then I Wrote was not a terribly successful album but it was the first opportunity most had to hear Willie’s quirky phrasing. Although marred by Liberty’s version of the ‘Nashville Sound’, it is certainly an interesting album.

Willie’s second and final album for Liberty was Here’s Willie Nelson. This album featured five songs that Willie wrote (“Half A Man”, “Lonely Little Mansion”, “Take My Word”, “The Way You See Me” and “Home Motel”). The originals compositions were nothing special – only “Half A Man” attracted much attention from other artists – but among the covers are the Fred Rose composition “Roly Poly” (a successful recording for Bob Wills and for Jim Reeves) and Rex Griffin’s “The Last Letter”.

There were no Country Album charts until 1964. Neither of the two Liberty albums made the pop charts.

From Liberty, Willie very briefly moved to Monument Records, with no success (I’m not sure if any tracks actually were released at the time). Some of these songs were released in 1980 on a two album set titled The Winning Hand featuring Brenda Lee, Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson and released to cash in on the popularity of Dolly and Willie. All four artists had recorded for Monument in the past, and Kristofferson and Lee recorded additional vocals to create duets (and some existing tracks were edited together to create duets). Twelve of the twenty tracks were duets, and despite the contrived origins of the project, it was critically well received and well worth owning.

Willie’s immense songwriting talents attracted the attention of Chester Burton (“Chet”) Atkins”, the head honcho of RCA’s Nashville operations, and he was signed to RCA.

There is the misconception that Willie Nelson’s RCA albums found Willie buried by syrupy string arrangements and soulless background choruses. While it is true that RCA was never really sure what to do with Willie, the reality is that only the occasional track suffered from over production. Unlike Decca where Owen Bradley buried his more traditional artist such as Webb Pierce and Ernest Tubb with unnecessary choral arrangements, Chet and his other producers went much lighter on the embellishments. Although what we would deem the classic ‘Willie and Family’ sound never completely emerged on the RCA recordings, many of Willie’s albums had relatively sparse production. In fact, when Mickey Raphael produced and released the 17 track Naked Willie album in 2009, an album in which he removed excess production off Willie’s RCA tracks, he probably corralled about 80% of the tracks on which the production could be deemed excessive. Whether or not RCA could turn Willie into a star, his records always featured some of the best musicians and arrangers on the planet.

Country Willie – His Own Songs features twelve songs Willie wrote or co-wrote. Some of the songs were also on his major label debut, but I prefer the RCA take on the ‘Nashville Sound’ to that of Liberty. The songs are great and Willie is in good voice.. Songs included are “One Day at a Time” (not the Marilyn Sellars/Cristy Lane gospel hit of the 1970s), “My Own Peculiar Way”, “Night Life”, “Funny How Time Slips Away”, “Healing Hands of Time”, “Darkness on the Face of the Earth”, “Hello Walls”, .”Are You Sure”, “Mr. Record Man”, “It Should Be Easier Now”, “So Much to Do” and “Within Your Crowd”. Pickers include Jerry Kennedy and Jerry Reed, and steel guitar is featured on some of the tracks. This could be considered a ‘best of’ compilation of Willie’s songs (not recordings) up to this point in time. This album reached #14 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Country Favorites – Willie Nelson Style is one of my two favorite RCA albums. This 1966 album was recorded with members of Ernest Tubb’s legendary Texas Troubadours, augmented by fiddler Wade Ray and pianist Hargus Robbins. Willie and Wade, of course were regulars on ET’s syndicated television show and the use of the Troubadours and the lack of the ‘Nashville Sound’ trappings made for a swinging set of western swing and honky-tonk classics. This version of the Texas Troubadours included Buddy Charleton (steel), Jack Drake (bass), Jack Greene (drums) , Leon Rhodes (lead guitar) and Cal Smith (rhythm guitar) augmented by Wade Ray and pianist Hargus Robbins. This album reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart .

Standout tracks on this album include “My Window Faces The South”, “Columbus Stockade Blues” and “San Antonio Rose” but the entire album is good. Willie sounds comfortable and relaxed on this entire set and his vocals, while sometimes an awkward fit , reflect the fun he was having performing with this collection of musicians , who were not credited on the initial release. A truncated version of this album was released on RCA Camden in 1970 as Columbus Stockade Blues.

Country Music Concert was recorded live in 1966 at Panther Hall in Dallas Texas, one of two live albums RCA would record there (the other was 1968’s Charley Pride Live at Panther Hall). This live performance featured Willie on guitar and vocals backed by his band members, Johnny Bush on drums and Wade Ray playing bass guitar. This album is my other favorite RCA album, again featuring Willie uncluttered by strings and choruses, singing mostly his own songs, but with a few covers. The album opens with Willie introducing the band and then starts with the music with a pair of long medleys in “Mr. Record Man”/”Hello Walls”/ “One Day At A Time” and “The Last Letter”/ “Half A Man”. To me the highlights of the album are Willie’s take on Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” and his own “I Never Cared For You” and “Night Life”. This album reached #32 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Make Way For Willie Nelson is a mixed bag of original compositions and covers. Released in 1967, some of the recordings are a bit overproduced and the album produced no real hits. The quasi-title track “Make Way For A Better Man” is one of those songs only Willie Nelson would write:

Hear me talkin’ now you tried to make her happy you couldn’t make her happy
Make way for a better man than you
You tried your brand of lovin’ she couldn’t stand your lovin’

Make way for a better man than you
I held back cause you and I were friends
But old buddy this is where our friendship ends
I’m takin’ over now those signals she keeps sendin’ means your romance is endin’
Make way for a better man than you

Willie’s own composition “One In A Row” reached #19 two years before this album was released. Notable covers on the album include “Born To Lose” and “Mansion On The Hill”. This album reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

“The Party’s Over” and Other Great Willie Nelson Songs featured the title song, which while never a big hit, was made famous by the late Don Meredith, one of the original trio of announcers for ABC Monday Night Football. When the result of the games was already determined (regardless of the time left in the game) Don would sing this song. “The Party’s Over” reached #24 for Willie, in a somewhat overproduced version. The rest of the album could be described as moody and downbeat. This album also reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Good Ol’ Country Singin’ was released on RCA’s budget Camden label in January 1968. RCA sometimes used the Camden label to release truncated versions of older albums, but RCA also used it to release material that would not be released on the main label. This album is the latter but RCA actually issued a single from the album, “Blackjack County Chain”, which reached #21. My favorite track on the album is a classic weeper “You Ought To Hear Me Cry”. Billboard did not chart budget albums.

Texas In My Soul was Willie’s 1968 tribute to his home state of Texas. Three of the songs, “Waltz Across Texas”, “There’s A Little Bit of Everything In Texas” and “Texas In My Soul” were songs performed by and associated with Ernest Tubb. “Who Put All My Ex’s In Texas” was one of the first songs written by Eddie Rabbitt to be recorded. This album reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Good Times is a little different and finds Willie breaking away from ‘The Nashville Sound’ mold to some extent. Other than Mickey Newbury’s “Sweet Memories” and the Jan Crutchfield-Wayne Moss composition “Down To Our Last Goodbye”, all of the songs were written or co-written by Willie. The title track has very minimal production. This album reached #29 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

My Own Peculiar Way, released in 1969, features eight Willie Nelson compositions (one, “Any Old Arms Won’t Do”, co-written with Hank Cochran) plus an exceptional cover John Hartford’s “Natural To Be Gone”. The title track wasn’t a hit, but it is quintessential Willie. This album reached #39 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart (are you seeing a pattern?).

Both Sides Now was released in 1970 and is basically a covers album with Willie penning only three of the eleven tracks. This album included two songs from the Roy Acuff catalogue (“Wabash Cannonball”, “Pins and Needles In My Heart”), a song from the Ray Price hit list (“Crazy Arms”) plus covers of pop songs “Both Sides Now” (penned by Joni Mitchell but a hit for Judy Collins) and and “Everybody’s Talking” (penned by Fred Neil but a hit for Nilsson). The single from this album was penned by soon-to be-ex-wife Shirley Nelson and reached #42. The now familiar “Bloody Mary Morning” makes its debut here – it would be re-recorded and released as a single after Willie moved to Atlantic.

While I like this album, it is a disjointed affair and Willie’s unusual phrasing on some of the songs won’t be to everybody’s taste. “Crazy Arms” features steel guitar and a walking base line whereas “Both Sides Now” features little more than a guitar. This album did not chart.

Laying My Burdens Down also was released in 1970 but by this time RCA had given up on having Willie score any hit singles. The title track reached #68 and the over-produced “I’m A Memory” would reach #28 and would be Willie’s last top fifty chart appearance while signed to RCA. This album is mostly composed of Willie originals but isn’t his best work. This album did not chart.

Willie Nelson and Family is a collection of songs released in 1971 as performed by Willie and the beginnings of his family band. Paul English was on board playing drums as was his sister Bobbie Nelson playing the piano. This album would set the template for future albums. Songs include the Willie Nelson-Hank Cochran collaboration “What Can You Do To Me Now” along with Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, Hank Sr.’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”, Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again”, plus some Nelson originals. This album reached #43 on Billboard Country albums chart.

Released with no fanfare in September 1971, Yesterday’s Wine contains some of Willie’s finest songs, and is Willie’s first concept album. The album contains the full complement of RCA’s finest session players but sounds surprisingly spare at times. The album has a deeply philosophical and religious feel to it without being too preachy (the premise is the life of an ‘Imperfect Man’ from birth to the day of his death). The single released from the album “Yesterday’s Wine” b/w “Me and Paul” barely dented the charts, but both are still loved and remembered today:

Miracles appear in the strangest of places
Fancy me finding you here
The last time I saw you was just out of Houston
Let me sit down, let me buy you a beer

Your presence is welcome with me and my friend here
This is a hangout of mine
We come here quite often and listen to music
And to taste yesterday’s wine

Yesterday’s wine, yesterday’s wine
Aging with time, like yesterday’s wine
Yesterday’s wine, yesterday’s wine
We’re aging with time, like yesterday’s wine

“Family Bible”, a song Willie wrote but sold in order to keep eating, makes an appearance here. This album did not chart.

There would be a couple more RCA albums, and RCA would re-release various permutations and combinations of old material after Willie hit it big in the middle 1970s (including an album an which Danny Davis and The Nashville Brass were overdubbed onto ten of Willie’s songs, but by the end of 1971 it was clear that Willie would need to look elsewhere if he was to achieve success as a recording artist.

It should be noted that RCA issued several singles on Willie that either never made it onto an album, or made it onto an album years later. Two notable examples were “Johnny One Time” which hit #36 for Willie in 1968 and was a minor pop hit for Brenda Lee in 1969, and “Bring Me Sunshine” which reached #13 in 1968 but wasn’t on an album until the 1974 RCA Camden release Spotlight On Willie.

In the digital age, there are plenty of good collections covering Willie’s earlier years, both anthologies and reissues of individual albums. For the obsessive Willie Nelson fan, Bear Family has issued an eight CD set with 219 recordings. That’s overkill for all but diehard fans, but there are numerous good anthologies available. There is also Naked Willie for those who would like to have multiple versions of some of Willie’s RCA recordings.

Single Review: Jennifer Nettles – ‘That Girl’

jennifer nettles - that girlOn her first chart outing as a soloist, Jennifer Nettles revisits the stuff of Sugarland’s awards show-sweeping “Stay”, which won Nettles half a dozen trophies as the song’s only writer.

In 2007′s “Stay”, Jennifer Nettles sang from the perspective of the longsuffering other woman.  In interviews, Nettles has said “Stay” was inspired by Reba McEntire’s 1986 hit “Whoever’s in New England”. She flipped the protagonist to the other woman, and the song was born. This time, Nettles has given “Jolene”, the redhead from Dolly Parton’s classic 1973 hit, her own voice.

“Stay” finds the other woman weeping and wailing and literally begging a man to stay with her.  “That Girl” finds the other woman reacting to her transgression with far more grace. The other woman in “Stay” pushes away a dead-end situation eventually, where “That Girl” finds her relatively unscathed and quick to retreat.

Producer Ruck Rubin has the whole affair played out in a winning minor key, with canned percussion and a gloomy-sounding bass.  As for Nettles, she’s singing with an appropriate loose efficiency – none of her trademark throaty twang –  for what she’s got to say, which goes something like: “I always kinda liked you. Sorry I slept with your man. He called me by your name (mine’s Jolene). Hope it’s all cool.”

Revisiting a classic country song is a different and unique idea for today’s mainstream country stars. Like the idea behind it, “That Girl” is a bit offbeat, but not without its charm and it’s well executed. It all works for me.

Grade: B+

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Classic Rewind: Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton – ‘Just Somerone I Used To Know’

It’s been reported that the legendary songwriter and producer Cowboy Jack Clement died today at the age of 82. The Tennesseean’s Peter Cooper has written an excellent tribute to his remarkable career.

Meanwhile, here are Porter and Dolly singing their hit ‘Just Someone I Used To Know’ for him:

To see Cowboy Jack performing some of his own songs, go here.

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