My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Dolly Parton

Christmas Rewind: Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton – ‘The Greatest Gift Of All’

Album Review: Ricky Van Shelton – ‘Backroads’

backroadsRicky’s fourth studio album was released in 1991, and certified platinum before the end of the year. As usual, it was dominated by beautifully sung ballads and a pure country production.

The first three singles continued his admirable chart record by hitting #1. First came ‘Rockin’ Years’, a melodic duet with Dolly Parton (also included on her then-current album Eagle When She Flies). It is a gently melodic ballad about growing old with the one one loves – pretty and delicate with a lovely steel intro. However, I find the rocking ‘I Am A Simple Man’ rather dull. The third chart topper was the gentle tearjerking tribute to a father-son relationship, ‘Keep It Between The Lines’.

A nice, steel-dominated cover of Warner Mack’s downbeat ballad ‘After The Lights Go Out’ only reached an unlucky 13, but deserved better. The pleasant but not that memorable uptempo title track then made it back to #2.

My favorite of the non-singles is ‘Some Things Are Better Left Alone’, a fabulous ballad written by Roger Murrah and Larry Shell about the enduring power of an old flame endangering present happiness:

Every time I stir the ashes
That old fire begins to burn
When I wake those sleepin’ memories
Those old feelings still return

Oh, I shouldn’t think about you
But my heart keeps hangin’ on…

All the smoke from burnin’ bridges
Makes it hard to catch my breath
But the precious love I’m missin’
Is chokin’ me to death

Oh you’re still my strongest weakness
And I’ll love you ’til I’m gone
But I’ll have to remember
Some things are better left alone

Almost as good is the lesser-known classic ‘Who’ll Turn Out The Lights’, a solid country Wayne Kemp/Mack Vickery song previously recorded by George Jones, Conway Twitty, Ronnie Milsap and Mel Street among others. Ricky’s version is great. ‘If You’re Ever In My Arms Again’ is a nice wistful ballad written by Bobby Braddock.

‘Call Me Up’ was the obligatory rockabilly number. More to my taste, ‘Oh Heart of Mine’ is a likeable uptempo tune with a bluegrass feel, which was written by Allen Shamblin and Bernie Nelson.

The cute little terrier shown on the album cover was the Sheltons’ own pet, Lucky, who they found starving and abandoned while househunting on first moving to Nashville. She also appeared in the video for ‘Keep It between The Lines’.

Grade: A-

Razor X’s Top 10 singles of 2014

law way im livinIt seems that every year it becomes more and more difficult to compile a list of the year’s ten best singles. I don’t listen to country radio very much (OK – at all) anymore, so when one of my favorite artists releases a new album, I’m not always aware of which tracks have become singles. In fact, many veterans on independent labels no longer bother releasing product to radio. That being said, there were some worthwhile single releases this year and the following were my favorites:

10. All Alright — Zac Brown Band

The Zac Brown Band had been one of the few consistent bright spots at country radio in recent years. This tune has a great melody and a strong vocal performance, and I would have rated it higher had it not been for the over-the-top guitar solo that mars an otherwise very good record.

9. Like A Cowboy — Randy Houser

In another era, Randy Houser might have been a superstar. He’s one of the genre’s best vocalists but like many of his contemporaries he has struggled to consistently select strong material. This pop/rock-with-steel-guitar power ballad is not a timeless classic, but it’s one of the relatively few songs that didn’t either bore or annoy me. Yes, the bar has been lowered that much. That’s not to suggest that I didn’t enjoy this song, just an admission that it probably wouldn’t have made my Top 10 list in a stronger year.

8. Lay Low — Josh Turner

Turner is another artist whose talent often far exceeds the quality of the songs he sings. The lyrics don’t have a whole lot of depth but Turner’s vocal performance is enough to make this an enjoyable listen.

Sunny-Sweeney-Bad-Girl-Phase7. Bad Girl Phase — Sunny Sweeney

After a three-year hiatus, Sunny Sweeney returned this year, feeling feisty and letting everyone know that she’s not just the girl next door in this unfortunately non-charting effort.

6. PrizeFighter – Trisha Yearwood ft. Kelly Clarkson

Trisha Yearwood is another one of my long-time favorites who made a comeback this year. While not the strongest entry in her discography, “PrizeFighter” is a good, though not great, record.

A Million Ways To Die Single Cover5. A Million Ways To Die — Alan Jackson

Radio totally ignored this song from the film A Million Ways To Die In The West. This retro-sounding effort totally different from anything Jackson has ever done and is reminsicent of something Johnny Cash would have enjoyed sinking his teeth into. A fun listen if you don’t take it too seriously.

4. Who I Am With You — Chris Young

His latest album found Chris Young moving in a more pop direction. While I prefer his more traditional efforts, he is such a strong vocalist, it’s difficult not to like his music. On this track, he often sounds like a young Randy Travis, though the song itself is a far cry from Randy’s brand of country.

3. That’s What Dreamers Do — Travis Tritt

This is a very nicely crafted ballad, from a film about the life of Walt Disney. Tritts’ voice sounds a little more worn than it did back when he was a staple on country radio, but this song holds its own with the best of his 90s ballads.

dolly bluesmoke2. Blue Smoke — Dolly Parton

This bluegrass-flavored single and the album from which it came marks Dolly Parton’s strongest effort since her bluegrass albums for Sugar Hill. At nearly 69 years of age, Dolly sound fresh and energetic and is showing no signs of slowing down any time soon.

1. The Way I’m Livin’– Lee Ann Womack

A lot of big names returned from long hiatuses this year, but Lee Ann Womack’s was the one I was most excited about. This non-charting record is an example of what country music used to be all about. It’s the first release of the post-major label phase of her career. I hope that her association with Sugar Hill is a long one and that she’ll begin releasing music more frequently than she has in the past. Country music needs more Lee Ann Womacks.

Occasional Hope’s Top 10 Singles of 2014

what we ain't got

jake owenEvery year the pickings on country radio seem to get slimmer and slimmer, with fewer slots available for anything really country, or for material with any lyrical depth. But there are still some gems out there, and a few of them are even hits. So here is my personal pick of the year’s singles.

10. All Alright – Zac Brown Band
The arrangement is a bit rock-oriented for my taste with fuzzy guitars but this is a great song with a very strong melody and plaintive vocal from Zac, so it just squeezes into my top 10 ahead of Josh Turner’s current single ‘Lay Low’ which I liked a lot but didn’t feel had a lot of depth. ‘All Alright’ underperformed on country radio, just scraping into the top 20, perhaps because the band have cut their ties with Atlantic and lost some promotional muscle.

9. Bad Girl Phase – Sunny Sweeney
Sunny rocks out and exercises her wild side.

brandy clark8. Hungover – Brandy Clark
One of the best songwriters in Nashville (she also co-wrote ‘Bad Girl Phase’), Brandy is also a fine singer, and this single comes from my Album of the Year of 2013. A jaundiced depiction of a marriage failing thanks to one party’s drinking, while the other moves on, unnoticed, it is a brilliantly observed slice of life. Brandy has recently signed a deal with Warner Brothers which may get her music wider recognition.

7. I’ll Be Here In the Morning – Don Williams
One of the biggest stars of the 1970s and 80s revives a deeply romantic song reminiscent of his best, written by the legendary Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt. Warm and tender in all the right ways.

dreamers6. That’s What Dreamers Do – Travis Tritt
The 90s star at his ballad-singing best, with a sensitive and thoughtful lyric about rising past hard times. It was written for a Walt Disney biopic, but its genuinely inspirational message is universal. Tritt’s vocal is excellent, sweet and tender, and backed by a tasteful arranagement.

5. What I Can’t Put Down – Jon Pardi
The young country-rocker’s third single (written by himself with Brice Long and Bart Butler) peaked just outside the top 30 – a disappointment following his top 10 breakthrough in 2013. The singer’s youthful energy sells the cheerful confession of over indulgence in sinful pleasures. Highly likeable.

ronnie dunn4. I Wish I Still Smoked Cigarettes – Ronnie Dunn
Technically this came out at the end of 2013 (and Razor X listed it in his top 10 singles for that year), but I’m counting it as a 2014 single. A melancholy reflection on growing older which was written by Lori McKenna, Luke Laird, and Barry Dean, Dunn’s vocal is perfectly judged with a wistful yearning for the lost innocence and carelessness of youth, “When I didn’t know what wasn’t good for me, but I knew everything else for sure”. Unfortunately it was far too good, and adult, for country radio to give it the time of day.

3. Girl In A Country Song – Maddie & Tae
This smart and funny satirical take on bro-country was a big surprise, coming from a pair of unheralded teenagers. It’s still on the poppy side aurally – but the clever and punchy lyrics work so well I don’t care about that for once (and the production is relatively restrained). They remind me quite a bit of the shortlived Wreckers. I’m interested in seeing what they come up with in future – and this song making it big on country radio is a great sign.

2. Blue Smoke – Dolly Parton
A delightful confection from another veteran who still has the goods. Dolly wrote the bluegrass-tinged tune as well as performing it with her customary zest.

1. What We Ain’t Got – Jake Owen
This is a beautifully understated and philosophical sad lost love song written by Travis Meadows based on his own bitter experiences. Jake has gone on record to declare this the best song he has ever recorded, and he is dead right. It’s also the best mainstream single by anyone for quite some time. It’s still rising slowly up the charts, and may not be the smash hit it deserves to be: but it’s the song of the year as far as I’m concerned.

Classic Rewind: Dolly Parton – ‘God’s Coloring Book’

Week ending 11/15/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

johnschneider1954 (Sales): More and More — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1954 (Jukebox): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1954 (Disc Jockeys): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1964: I Don’t Care (Just As Long As You Love Me) — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1974: Love Is Like A Butterfly — Dolly Parton (RCA)

1984: I’ve Been Around Enough To Know — John Schneider (MCA)

1994: Livin’ On Love — Alan Jackson (Arista)

2004: In A Real Love — Phil Vassar (Arista)

2014: Leave The Night On — Sam Hunt (MCA)

2014 (Airplay): Leave The Night On — Sam Hunt (MCA)

Classic Rewind: Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton – ‘Once More’

It’s that time of year: Predictions for the 48th annual CMA Awards

Logo for "The 48th Annual CMA Awards"With Brad Paisley and a pregnant Carrie Underwood set to host for the seventh straight year, and all the usual suspects set to perform, you’d think business would run as normal. But you’re wrong. Not only will this mark the first CMA telecast without Taylor Swift in nine years, pop starlet Ariana Grande is set to perform with Little Big Town while Meghan Trainor will sing her hit “All About That Bass” with Miranda Lambert. Few other surprises have been announced, but God only knows why Trisha Yearwood has been regulated to a presenter’s slot and not given prime exposure to sing “PrizeFighter” with Kelly Clarkson.

At any rate, here are the nominees. You’ll find my Should Win / Will Win perdictions below. Do you agree/disagree? Sound off in the comments.

Entertainer of the Year

george-strait-credit-vanessa-gavalya-650Blake Shelton and Keith Urban have one trophy apiece while George Strait is nominated the year he gave his final concert. Only Luke Bryan and Miranda Lambert, who are on their second nominations, have yet to win.

Should Win: George Strait – The Country Music Hall of Famer and country music legend wrapped his Cowboy Rides Away Tour a year after beating his younger competition to win this award for the first time in 24 years. When all is said and done, the CMA would be foolish to deny Strait his rightful place as an all-time category winner (four wins), along with Garth Brooks and Kenny Chesney.

Will Win: George Strait – Prissy Luke Bryan can have his turn with his third consecutive nod next year. Strait, who’ll never be eligible for this award again, will go out in style.

Female Vocalist of the Year

m.lambert_264_Rsm_1595A milestone year, as Martina McBride and Miranda Lambert go for their record fifth win and Taylor Swift makes what’ll likely be her final appearance in the category. No artist has won five trophies; only Reba has as many as McBride and Lambert, so it’ll be very interesting to see how the Country Music Association votes this year.

Should Win: Kacey Musgraves – a year after winning Best New Artist and scoring two Grammy Awards, the only nominee who hasn’t won should emerge victorious with just her second nomination. 

Will Win: Miranda Lambert – stranger things have happened, but the artist with the most nominations usually walks away with at least one major award. It’s definitely time to spread the wealth, but that likely won’t come this year, thus helping Lambert make CMA history.

 dierks-600x399Male Vocalist of the Year

Jason Aldean has never been much of a compelling singer, but his radio and touring success should’ve earned him his fourth consecutive nomination. Dierks Bentley is back four years after his last nod, correcting a major oversight, and Keith Urban shows up for the tenth consecutive time.

Should Win: Bentley – it’s a race this year between Bentley and Luke Bryan, both of who deserve first time wins. But Bentley gets the edge thanks to seniority, and it’s about damn time, too.

Will Win: Blake Shelton – the reining champion is about the only one who can stop Bentley’s momentum. His material is getting weaker and his shtick ever more tiresome, but he’ll endure himself to voters anyways.

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Album Review: Joey + Rory – ‘Country Classics: A Tapestry Of Our Musical Heritage’

country classicsJoey + Rory have seen some ups and downs lately: their long awaited baby daughter was born earlier in the year, with Down’s syndrome; and Joey was diagnosed with cancer.

This album has been available for some time from the couple’s website and from Cracker Barrel, but has now gained a wider release. It comprises some of their favourite classic country tunes, dating from 1952 to 1980, and is dedicated to their respective parents and to baby Indiana. There is a laid back feel to the selection of songs. As usual with Joey + Rory, the production is impeccably understated and pure country. Even where the material leans to the pop-country of its era, they give it all a clean traditional-style arrangement. After more or less sharing the honors on their last few albums, this time around Joey gets the lion’s share of lead vocals, which is a good thing as she is of course an outstanding singer.

My favourite track is a beautifully sung version of Dolly’s ‘Coat Of Many Colors’, which Joey learned at the age of four. Also lovely is ‘Paper Roses’, which Joey invests with emotion.

Joey’s vocal is honey-sweet and tender on ‘How’s The World Treating You’ (the oldest song included). She is equally smooth on the Crystal Gayle hit ‘Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue’. ‘I Still Believe In You’ (the most recent of the songs) is rather charming.

An emotional and stripped-down version of Jessi Colter’s ‘I’m Not Lisa’ is very good, while Joey’s exquisite version of ‘If I Needed You’ is repeated from last year’s Made To Last.

Rory takes the lead on ‘Rocky Top’, which is pleasant but unexciting. ‘King Of The Road’ has much more character and is quite enjoyable. I also quite liked ‘Hello Love’, which suits Rory’s warmth, but the best of his tracks is John Denver’s ‘Back Home Again’.

The beautiful ‘Let It Be Me’ is a true duet between the pair, and is one of my favourite tracks, tender and romantic. Just lovely.

Joey + Rory are a refreshing reminder of the best country music. While there is no new material this time around, the songs are beautifully sung and compare well against the originals.

Grade: A

Week ending 10/18/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

porteranddolly1954 (Sales): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1954 (Jukebox): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1954 (Disc Jockeys): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1964: I Don’t Care (Just As Long As You Love Me) — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1974: Please Don’t Stop Loving Me — Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton (RCA)

1984: Uncle Pen — Ricky Skaggs (Epic)

1994: She’s Not The Cheatin’ Kind — Brooks & Dunn (Arista)

2004: Suds In The Bucket — Sara Evans (RCA)

2014: Burnin’ It Down — Jason Aldean (Broken Bow)

2014 (Airplay): Roller Coaster — Luke Bryan (Capitol)

Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘The Way I’m Livin”

wayimlivinIt’s a bit early for year-in-review reflections, but 2014 will surely go down as an important year in country music history — the one that saw the long-awaited comebacks of two of its most important female artists, Trisha Yearwood and Lee Ann Womack. Womack’s long-awaited debut on Sugar Hill Records finally hit the market last week.

Womack may be frustratingly unprolific but anyone who listens to The Way I’m Livin’ — her first effort since 2008’s Call Me Crazy — will be hard-pressed to make the case that it wasn’t worth the wait. Whereas Call Me Crazy was a somewhat uneven affair, that is decidedly not the case here. Womack seems to have made good use of her time during her long hiatus from recording; she didn’t write any of the songs on The Way I’m Livin’ but she and her producers Chuck Ainlay, Frank Liddell, and Glenn Worf have compiled an excellent selection of songs from some of Nashville’s best songwriters. In an era where mainstream country music seems to have lost its way, The Way I’m Livin’ could be used as a textbook for a course called “Country Music Done Properly” that ought to be compulsory for every recording artist, producer and label executive in Nashville.

While the sound of The Way I’m Livin’ is no way retro, the songs do harken back to a time, not that long ago, when country music relied on melody rather than beat and the lyrics weren’t afraid to tackle serious topics. Much of The Way I’m Livin’ deals with life’s darker side — from the right-and-wrong struggles of the title track, Brennan Leigh’s “Sleeping With The Devil”, and Mindy Smith’s Delta-blues flavored “All His Saints”, to the beautiful and understated opening track “Prelude: Fly”, which deals with the death from spinal menangitis of songwriter Brent Cobb’s friend. Womack’s performance here has been compared to some of Dolly Parton’s early work.

Her performance on Hayes Carll’s “Chances Are” — my favorite track on the album — has evoked comparisons to another female legend, and although it’s not hard to imagine the treatment that Billy Sherrill and Tammy Wynette would have given this one, I think it’s just vintage Lee Ann Womack that sounds like something that could have been included on her masterpiece There’s More Where That Came From. The mournful “Send It On Down” sounds like something that Patty Loveless might have sung with gusto, but it’s hard to imagine her or anyone else topping Lee Ann’s version.

The great Bruce Robison contributed two tracks to the project: “Nightwind” and “Not Forgotten You”, which might have been considered the highlights on a weaker ablum, but the material on The Way I’m Livin’ is so consistently excellent, it’s really difficult to pick favorites. I didn’t realize at first that Kenny Price’s “Tommorow Night In Baltimore”, about a man in love with a nightclub dancer, was a remake of a 1971 Roger Miller hit. I’m not sure how I managed not to hear this one until now.

I simply cannot praise this album enough; it is one of those rare collections that is flawless from beginning to end. If you are only going to buy one album this year, make sure it’s this one.

Grade: A +

Week ending 9/13/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

Trisha1954 (Sales): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1954 (Jukebox): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1954 (Disc Jockeys): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1964: I Guess I’m Crazy — Jim Reeves (RCA)

1974: Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends — Ronnie Milsap (RCA)

1984: Tennessee Homesick Blues — Dolly Parton (RCA)

1994: XXX’s and OOO’s (An American Girl) — Trisha Yearwood (MCA)

2004: Girls Lie Too — Terri Clark (Mercury)

2014: Burnin’ It Down — Jason Aldean (Broken Bow)

2014 (Airplay): Bartender – Lady Antebellum (Capitol)

Classic Rewind: Dolly Parton & Friends – ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’

Classic Rewind: Dolly Parton – ‘If I Kiss You (Will You Go Away)?’

Week ending 6/14/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

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

Johnnie and Jack, 19421954 (Jukebox): Slowly – Webb Pierce (Decca)

1954 (Disc Jockeys): Oh Baby Mine (I Get So Lonely) — Johnnie & Jack (RCA)

1964: Together Again — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1974: I Will Always Love You — Dolly Parton (RCA)

1984: Someday When Things Are Good — Merle Haggard (Epic)

1994: That Ain’t No Way To Go — Brooks & Dunn (Arista)

2004: Redneck Woman — Gretchen Wilson (Epic)

2014: Play It Again — Luke Bryan (Capitol)

2014 (Airplay): Play It Again — Luke Bryan (Capitol)

Album Review – Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis – ‘Our Year’

51vcLhbUUYL._SY300_Over the Christmas holiday last year, a friend asked how Texas country was different from Nashville country. I had to stop for a moment and finally came up with an answer – to me Texas country often has more of a back to basics sound, more roots based than the commercial sheen coming out of Music City.

So it always surprises me when Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis record their collaborative projects there, not Austin, where they live, and spend most of their time. Like last year’s Cheater’s Game, Our Year maintains the Texas sound they’ve come to hone, down to the minimalist production and close harmonies.

Instead of a direct sequel, Our Year plays like a companion piece to Cheater’s Game – far shorter in length and less commercial in scope. The absence of production drives the record, giving the ten tracks a demo-like feel that leaves them sounding somewhat unfinished, but no less enjoyable or musically appealing.

No more is this apparent than on their cover of Tom T. Hall’s classic “Harper Valley PTA,” oft-covered in their live shows and the track that spearheaded this album. It opens with a lone acoustic guitar and doesn’t get much more rocklin’, save some dobro riffs, as it goes along. Willis’ strong vocal drives the song and works well to tell the story.

Robison and Willis bring a bluegrass flair to The Statler Brothers’ “I’ll Go to My Grave Loving You,” and while they don’t add anything new to Vern Gosdin and Emmylou Harris’ “(Just Enough To Keep Me) Hanging On,” their version works just as well. A cover of T Bone Burnett’s “Shake Yourself Loose” is pure honky-tonk bliss and a stunning showcase for Willis vocally.

Like Cheater’s Game, Our Year isn’t all country covers. The pair keeps it in the family on “Departing Lousania,” a mandolin driven ballad written by Robison’s youngest sister Robyn Ludwick. Robison appropriately takes the lead, sticking in his wheelhouse of journey songs, and does a bang-up job of bringing the story to life.

The harmonica is out in full force on delightful rocker “Motor City Man,” penned by late Austin singer/songwriter Walter Hyatt. The track breathes some much-needed attitude into the album and gives Willis a chance to deliver a strong and confident vocal.

The title track, a Zombies song written by Chris White, is a staple of their annual Christmas show and features a lovely banjo-driven arrangement and the pair’s signature harmonies.

Robison contributed two of the strongest compositions found on Our Year. “Carousel,” is a glorious steel-front waltz co-written with Darden Smith that concerns the end of a relationship, where a couple has to “step off of the carousel and say goodbye.” “Anywhere But Here” is an ode to youthful innocence and a perfectly articulated number about the restlessness of growing up.

“Lonely For You” is a Willis original, co-written with Paul Kennerley. Willis may be one of the best honky-tonk balladeers recording music today, but she also shines on uptempo material like this, about a woman who’s still holding on to a relationship that’s already come to an end.

Often when an iconic collaborative pairing (the Trio, Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss) tries to record a follow-up record the sessions are either marred with drama or the project takes years to see the light of day. It’s even harder, just ask Patty Loveless or Alan Jackson, to follow-up an iconic work with something even half as good as the original.

With Our Year, Robison and Willis have succeeded splendidly on both fronts with an album tighter and even more fully realized than Cheater’s Game. They could’ve done without the Statler Brothers or Gosdin/Harris covers and thrown in two more Robison originals, but there’s no other way this project could be more perfect. Our Year is easily yet another of 2014’s spectacular releases.

Grade: A+ 

Album Review: Dolly Parton – ‘Blue Smoke’

blue smoke albumI raved about the title track of Dolly Parton’s new album when I first heard it a couple of months ago, and in the time since it has not lost its charms for me. The album is a bit more of a mixed bag in terms of the range of musical styles, but Dolly is still a great singer and songwriter. She sounds enthusiastic and invested throughout, and has written some very good new songs for the project.

‘Miss You – Miss Me’ is an excellent song from the point of view of a child begging her warring and separated parents to reconcile for her sake. A delicately understated arrangement of mandolin, guitar and piano supports Dolly’s vulnerable vocal.

‘Unlikely Angel’ is a sweet love song addressed to someone who has rescued the protagonist from a bad situation. It is very charming, set to a pretty melody with an attractive acoustic arrangement and delicately delivered vocal. The impeccably played and sung ‘If I Had Wings’ has a high lonesome bluegrass feel and a gospel message.

The upbeat and nostalgic ‘Home’, which Dolly wrote with her producer Kent Wells, has a little busier production, as Dolly cosily remembers (a sanitized version of) her childhood, without any mention of the poverty she has written about in earlier (and better) songs. ‘Try’ is an inspirational number which comes across a little too much like a self-help book about overcoming adversity, with intrusive backing vocals, but the intense sincerity of Dolly’s vocals helps to sell it.

Dolly exercises her playful pop-country side with a rebuttal to a potential lover who isn’t in it for the long run, only wanting a temporary ‘Lover Du Jour’. It is wittily written and charmingly performed with Dolly showing off a pretty good French accent, but the poppy production and backing vocals verge on the irritating with repeated listens.

Two duets see Dolly teaming up with fellow veterans. ‘You Can’t Make Old Friends’ is a warm hearted tribute to friendship written by Don Schlitz, Caitlyn Smith and Ryan Hanna King, perfectly sung by both Dolly and Kenny Rogers. The production is fuller than it is on the acoustic numbers, with a string arrangement as well as electric instruments but still tasteful and understated. Another old friend, Willie Nelson helps out on Dolly’s own song ‘From Here To The Moon And Back’, a melodic and tender crooned ballad.

An eclectic selection of covers round out the songlist, with variable results. She has written additional lyrics to the traditional ‘Banks Of the Ohio’ to create a framing narrative with herself as a journalist interviewing the incarcerated killer– an inspired addition to the song. She sings it beautifully, supported by the harmonies of Val Storey and Carl Jackson, the latter also taking the odd solo line. An arrangement featuring acappella sections, Stuart Duncan’s fiddle and John Mock’s harmonica at various points combines with the vocals to make this the highlight of the album and one of my favourite versions of this much-recorded tune.

She makes Bob Dylan’s ‘Don’t think Twice, It’s Alright’ sound like one of her own songs, and it gets a pretty acoustic arrangement. Rather less successful is Dolly’s attempt at rock-gospel with a cover of Bon Jovi’s ‘Lay Your Hands On Me’, where the accompaniment is just too loud and drowns Dolly out, although she makes a decent stab at attacking the song vocally until she gets over-excited and starts shouting at the end.

If you get your copy at Walmart, you get four extra tracks, which are generally weaker than those that made the cut for the main release. There is a remake of her ‘Early Morning Breeze’, plus three new songs: the idealistic and inclusive ‘Olive Branch’, the poppy upbeat ‘Get Up, Get Out, Get On’ which I didn’t like, and the Celtic-tinged ‘Angels In The Midst’.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Dolly Parton – ‘Why’d You Come In Here Looking Like That?’

Album Review: Mary Sarah & Friends – ‘Bridges: Great American Country Duets’

bridges18 year old Mary Sarah Gross (who has, like many very young performers, dropped her surname for professional purposes) has been performing country music since her childhood. Discovered on Youtube by veterans the Oak Ridge Boys, her debut album, produced by songwriter Freddy Powers, features a number of very starry guests. The style harks back, sometimes to traditional country, but more often to the Nashville Sound and the pop music of that era. Mary Sarah’s voice has quite a light timbre at present, perhaps because of her youth, but she clearly has a lot of potential.

A real highlight is ‘Crazy’, which really suits Mary Sarah vocally, and is performed as a duet with the song’s writer Willie Nelson (offering his usual idiosyncratic vocal), with an arrangement similar to the Cline version. Very impressive.

She tackles Merle Haggard’s ‘Fighting Side Of Me’ with a perky confidence, and is joined by Haggard. A great traditional country arrangement make this very enjoyable although I’m not sure the defiance of the original quite survived. ‘Heartaches By The Number’, sung as a duet with the late Ray Price, is also great, with a wonderful traditional arrangement.

’Go Rest High On That Mountain’, which Vince Gill recorded in memory of Keith Whitley, seems like a curious choice of cover due to the personal and specific nature of the lyrics, but it is beautifully and tenderly sung by Mary Sarah, with Gill’s heavenly harmony the perfect counterpoint.

I took a while to warm up to Mary Sarah’s vocal on ‘Jolene’, despite a nice arrangement and Dolly herself harmonising prettily. I think she just sounds a little too forceful and not quite vulnerable enough, but the version has grown on me over repeated listens.

‘Rose Garden’ works well for Mary Sarah, on which she duets with Lynn Anderson. Tanya Tucker helps out on an energetic take on ‘Texas (When I Die)’. I can’t normally stand Big & Rich, so I was surprised to quite enjoy their contribution to a pretty but rather old fashioned love song. The ballad ‘My Great Escape’. ‘All I Wanna Do Is Sing My Song’, sung with her producer Freddy Powers, is also nicely done.

‘What A Difference You’ve Made In My Life’ is in 70s/early 80s pop-country style, with new Hall of Fame inductee Ronnie Milsap harmonising and offering the odd solo line. It sounds a bit dated by today’s standards, and the production is a bit cluttered with strings and belted out vocals without room for much subtlety, but it has a certain guilty pleasure quality about it. ‘Dream On’ featuring the Oak Ridge Boys is more of a disappointment – cluttered sounding and not very interesting, although Mary Sarah sings it well.

I really disliked the retro-pop ‘I’m Sorry’ and ‘Where The Boys Are’, a duet with Neil Sedaka, which has no country influences at all.

The sequencing of the album groups the stronger, and more country, tracks at the start, with the effect that after halfway through it feels like a downhill ride. I’m not sure I quite know who Mary Sarah is an artist, but I enjoyed quite a lot of the album, and she definitely has talent.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Tom T. Hall – ‘Ballad of Forty Dollars and His Other Great Songs’

ballad of forty dollarsTom T Hall had been knocking around Nashville for a few years working with Jimmy Keys, Jimmy C. Newman and Dave Dudley, when Mercury finally signed him to a recording contract in 1967. Although he had been supplying songs to artists such as Jimmy C. Newman, Dave Dudley and Johnny Wright, Tom was such a prolific songwriter that he still had a large song bag of previously unheard material from which to choose for his first album. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that Mercury had a clear idea as to how they wanted to market him at the time.

The Ballad of Forty Dollars and His Other Great Songs would not be released until May 1969; however, Mercury would start issuing singles off the album almost immediately. “I Washed My Face In The Morning Dew” made its Billboard chart debut on August 5, 1967. Tom said that he wrote the song for Flatt and Scruggs but they passed on it, so he recorded it himself. While not a giant hit (it spent ten weeks on the charts peaking at #30), it encouraged Mercury to keep moving forward. Moreover, the song was recorded as an album cut by numerous other artists, most notably Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton on their Just The Two of Us album. Porter loved the song and sang it on the Opry and kept it in his live act for the next thirty-nine years.

The first strange town I was ever in, the county was hangin’ a man
Nobody cared if he lived or died, and I just didn’t understand

(Chorus)
So I washed my face in the morning dew, bathed my soul in the sun
Washed my face in the morning dew, and kept on movin’ along

The next single “The World The Way I Want It” was probably a poor choice for the follow up as thematically, it was too similar to the first single without having the compelling storyline. That, plus the market for songs of social or spiritual conscience was limited:

I’d pay the debts of all the poor and let them start anew
I’d find each man who wants to work a decent job to do
I’d give hope to the hopeless and I’d give the sick their health
I’d give the high and mighty heart to share the nation’s wealth

The song topped out at #66 and charted for only three weeks. The production is marred by unnecessary background singers.

The next single, “Ain’t Got The Time”, fared similarly charting for only four weeks, reaching #68. I think that if it had been the immediate follow up to ‘Morning Dew’ it would have been a bigger success, as it has a very nice melody, in fact it’s one of my favorite Tom T Hall songs. At first listen one may think the song about being selfish but the larger theme is of being true to oneself.

I can tell your heart’s been broken in two you are looking for a shoulder
I’ve found out that other people’s tears just seem to make me older
I’d like to help with your broken heart really I think it’s a crime
But I ain’t got the time ain’t got the time

All that I can give you is a well wish
I hate to be that way I know that it’s selfish
But baby I’ve got a destiny to meet and I know it’s on down the line
Ain’t got the time ain’t got the time

Plantation Records released Jeannie C. Riley’s version of Hall’s composition “Harper Valley PTA” just before “Ain’t Got The Time” was released. By the time the Hall’s next single was due, “Harper Valley PTA” had become a massive international hit and radio programmers were really interested in finding out what else Hall had up his sleeve. The answer was “The Ballad of Forty Dollars”, the first of the great story songs to become radio singles.

While the song nearly has been forgotten, at the time it was released, the song was a sensation and many prominent country artists recorded it as an album track – I have at least thirty such covers in my record collection. Told from the perspective of a day laborer, it makes a very mundane (but very important) event come to life

The man who preached the funeral said it really was a simple way to die
He laid down to rest one afternoon and never opened up his eyes
They hired me and Fred and Joe to dig the grave and carry up some chairs
It took us seven hours and I guess we must have drunk a case of beer

And the surprise twist

Well, listen ain’t that pretty when the bugler plays the military taps
I think that when you’s in the war they always had to play a song like that
Well here I am and there they go and I guess you’d just call it my bad luck
I hope he rests in peace, the trouble is the fellow owes me forty bucks

“The Ballad of Forty Dollars” reached #4 and stayed on the charts for eighteen weeks.

At the time this album was released, rarely were more than two singles issued from an album, and many albums of the day would have but one single released. Consequently, possibly the strongest song on the album, “That’s How I Got To Memphis” was not released as a Tom T Hall single. That doesn’t mean that the song got lost. Far from it as label mate Bobby Bare would take it to #3 in the summer of 1970 and Deryl Dodd would get the song on the charts again in 1996. Significant album cuts on the song include Solomon Burke on his 2006 album Nashville and Rosanne Cash on her 1982 album Somewhere In The Stars:

If you love somebody enough
You’ll go where your heart wants to go
That’s how I got to Memphis
That’s how I got to Memphis
I know if you’d seen her you’d tell me ’cause you are my friend
I’ve got to find her and find out the trouble she’s in

If you tell me that she’s not here
I’ll follow the trail of her tears
That’s how I got to Memphis
That’s how I got to Memphis

“Cloudy Day” is a tale about an apartment Hall had in Nashville, although the song is more about how it feels when you’re having a really bad day:

It doesn’t matter who you are , we all must have a cloudy day sometimes
Days we can’t seem to win, days when we ain’t got a friend,
We all have days and I guess this is mine

“Shame On The Rain” is a jog-along ballad with too much “Nashville Sound” production. As Hall said ‘the thing about rain is,like tap water, you’d like to turn it on and off but you can’t do it’

After I’ve Lost such a heartbreaking game
You’d think the sub would shine, shame on the rain

“Highways” is a rather poetic traveling song:

Highways never reach above the ground and cannot know the things a cloud knows
In a million volumes they have never written to express my love

“Forbidden Flowers” is another jog-along ballad that uses the metaphor of flowers as lovers

You can pick forbidden flowers
The are ways and there are means
If you pick forbidden flowers
You may shatter someone’s dreams

“A Picture of Your Mother” is the story of a father trying to tell his little daughter about her mother, who passed away three years earlier. Although very sentimental, the song contains a universal beauty that only a true poet can capture

My little girl and I lost Mama just three years ago
And now that she is older there are things she wants to know
She said, “Please Daddy tell me ’bout my mother ’cause I miss her.”
I said, “Get pen and paper and I’ll help your draw her picture.”

I said, “First draw a heart so big there’s room for little else
Then write a million for the things that she denied herself
Draw a rose the kind of which there’ll never be another
And when you finish you will have a picture of your mother

There was never the slightest chance at the time of the song being released as a single and I don’t know of any cover versions, but this song is worthy of being revived.

“Over And Over Again” is a simple admission of wrongdoing and the promise to be faithful in the future. For some reason, this song sounds like something Roger Miller might have written.

“Beauty Is A Fading Flower” sounds like a song a bluegrass band should record. Physical beauty, of course is a temporary thing, subject to the ravages of the aging process (or worse yet, the plastic surgeon’s scalpel) but inner beauty lasts more enduringly. As Tom T Hall puts it,

Beauty is a fading flower
Love goes on and on

Ballad of Forty Dollars and His Other Great Songs is not a great album, although it is a good one. All of the songs are at least good and several of them are classics. Producer Jerry Kennedy tried a number of settings and arrangements for Hall’s distinctive vocals. By the next album, he would be 90% there and after that he had it completely zeroed in. This album would not chart but the next eighteen albums (including two hit collection) would find their way onto the charts.

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