My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Elizabeth Cook

Album Review: Carlene Carter – ‘Carter Girl’

carlenecarterCarlene Carter’s own music is vastly different from that of her famous family, so when plans were announced for a Carter Family tribute album, I wasn’t expecting a collection of faithful-to-the-original remakes. On one hand it makes sense to update these old classics, many of which date back to the 1920s, for the benefit of modern audiences. And who better to do so than the heiress to the Carter Family musical legacy? On the other hand, changing them too much runs the risk of alienating fans. Although she does take some liberties with the arrangements, for the most part Carter and producer Don Was get things right, although there are a few production missteps along the way.

Carter Girl, which was released last week on Rounder Records boasts an impressive lineup of guest artists from Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Kris Kristofferson and Elizabeth Cook to Sam Bush and the late Cowboy Jack Clement. The song selection is impeccable, consisting mostly of old chestnuts written by A.P. Carter, Helen Carter, June Carter Cash, and of course Mother Maybelle. Carlene herself gets songwriting credit on two numbers: “Me and the Wildwood Rose”, a remake of a recording she included on her 1993 album I Fell In Love and “Lonesome Valley 2003″, an old A.P. Carter and Al Anderson number which gets some updated lyrics.

The album’s main weakness is that some of the updated arrangements are too heavy-handed with the percussion, which doesn’t suit some of these old songs. This is immediately apparent with the opening track “Little Black Train”, which I instantly disliked. Upon hearing it, I was convinced that the entire album was going to be a disaster. The production on “Blackie’s Gunman” is also a bit cluttered. I did not initially like her take on her mother’s composition “Tall Lover Man” at all, finding the production a bit heavy-handed, but it’s been growing on me with repeated listenings.

Carlene and Don Was may have pushed the envelope a little too far on some of these numbers but they more than compensate for those excesses on the ones they get right, which is the rest of the album. She does a stunning version of “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight”, which features harmony vocals by Elizabeth Cook. Willie Nelson is her duet partner on “Troublesome Waters”, and Vince Gill provides the harmony on “Lonesome Valley 2003″, which is the centerpiece of the album. The original tune dates back to the 1930s. Carlene wrote the updated and deeply personal lyrics, which deal with the 2003 death of her mother June Carter Cash as well as the death of Johnny Cash four months later.

Production missteps aside, Carter Girl is a very fine tribute and a great introduction to one of the most influential families that country music has ever known.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Aaron Watson – ‘Real Good Time’

I am a big fan of Texas country singer Aaron Watson, and a new record from him is always worth hearing. The recording and completion of this latest release was understandably delayed by the personal tragedy Aaron and his wife suffered with the loss of their baby daughter a year ago, but sad songs are at a minimum here. The experience was clearly too painful to replay in music at this time, although he has written movingly about the loss in prose.

There are 18 tracks and an hour’s playing time, but sometimes less is more. In this case at least on first listen the setlist felt a bit too long with too many forgettable songs at a similar medium tempo, particularly at the start of the record. However, they almost all grew on me after a while. The rapid-fire title track is not that memorable but has an attractive instrumental lead-in, nice fiddle, and enjoyable groove which make it worthwhile. ‘Lips’ is a pleasant love song’, but ‘Summertime Girl’ (about memories of a past fling) is quite forgettable.

Among the other slow-growers, ‘Turn Around’ is a comforting religious number, offering hope to the troubled:

Some turn to a bottle
Some turn to a drug
Some turn to another’s arms
But it seems like it’s never enough
Well I wanna say
That you will never fail again
That there is grace to wash away your every sin
If you’re scared that you don’t matter
If you’re lost and need to be found
If you’re looking for a saviour
All you gotta do is turn around

You don’t have to take the broken road
You can turn around and come back home

It took a few listens to get into but I did warm to its positive message.

The mournful, fiddle-dominated ‘July In Cheyenne’ is a suitably downbeat response to the story of a rodeo rider who is killed in competition.

Six songs in, a cheerful cover of ‘Cadillac Cowboy’ (written by Chuck Pyle, and previously recorded by Chris Ledoux but first recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band as ‘Other Side of The Hill’) is the first song to really pick up the tempo. It is a duet with Justin McBride (one of many guests on the record.)

Aaron duets with Elizabeth Cook on the ballad ‘Leather And Lace’, which was written by pop star Stevie Nicks for Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter’s album of that title (but ultimately dropped from the set list). It doesn’t sound very country but is quite pretty and mellow. Fellow Texans Pat Green and Josh Abbot join in on the Outlaw styled ‘Texas Boys’, celebrating and lamenting the life of travelling musicians and their long suffering wives, citing Waylon and Willie and set to a typically Waylon beat. Kevin Fowler and veteran country star John Anderson are featured on the novelty ‘Deer Blind’. It is always great to hear the distinctive Anderson, one of the few non-Texans to appear, but he seems wasted on this.

Another duet, ‘Off The Record’, sung with Texas country singer Charla Corn, is the best new song on the album . This excellent downbeat song is set in the aftermath of a failed marriage with the protagonist sharing his feelings about what has gone wrong and what feelings still remain despite it all.

Lead single ‘Raise Your Bottle’ pays tribute to old soldiers and the prices they have paid. Continuing the theme, Aaron throws in yet another version of his masterpiece, ‘Barbed Wire Halo’. While this is a genuinely great and moving song which deserves to be widely recognised as a modern country classic, this is at least the fifth time he has recorded it and this version feels a little perfunctory compared to earlier ones. If you haven’t heard the song, listen to it  and then download it.

Country-rock ‘Reckless’ (which Watson has also recorded before) sounds rather like a filler album track on a Kenny Chesney album, and is one of the more disposable moments. Another repeat offering is ‘Honky Tonk Kid’ but at least this rings the changes by bringing in guest Willie Nelson, who suits the elegy for a country singer perfectly.

The catchy ‘Fish’ is quite entertaining with sprightly fiddle, while ‘Nowhere Fast’ has a pleasantly jazzy, loungy feel.

I liked the wry kissoff song, ‘I Don’t Want You To Go’ as Aaron addresses the kind of woman who is serious bad news when it comes to a long term relationship:

You may be fun for Saturday night but the rest of the week is the pits …
I don’t want you to go – but I need you to leave

‘Hey Y’all’ is mischievously subtitled “my contribution to ruining country music country song! Ha!’ It is a parody of all those “I’m country” songs set to non-country rhythms, with every rural Southern cliché imaginable packed in. It is very cleverly done, but hard to listen to as the sound is so horrible. It is so sharp and accurate, I can imagine some people taking it as a serious attempt at meeting today’s market.

Another disappointment comes with the packaging. Liner notes are minimal, and there are no songwriter credits included.  Overall, though this is definitely a worthwhile purchase.

Grade: B+

Random playlist 5

Here are five songs I’ve been playing a lot recently…

Elizabeth Cook – “Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman” … I’ve been re-watching my Weeds DVDs in anticipation of season eight’s premiere (it’s this Sunday!) and thanks to the show’s excellent taste in and use of popular music, I was reminded of the sorta-title track to Cook’s 2007 Rodney Crowell-produced album. This bit of raucous ear candy is bitingly funny in its flippant take on the old gender double standards.  Even if it’s not your style, it’s worth a spin if only to hear the lady sing the word “honey”. It’s great.

Waylon Jennings – “You Asked Me To” … I’ve been adding to my limited Waylon Jennings collection lately. After I got a copy of Waylon’s Honky Tonk Heroes set, it was this top 10 hit I kept spinning. It’s a straightforward confessional from a man devoted to the woman he loves and his lack of regard for much else. Because it’s Waylon, it comes with a powerful bass line and plenty of the singer’s strong-jaw personality . Co-writer Billy Joe Shaver later recorded it with Willie Nelson and Elvis even took a shot at it, but Waylon owns this one outright.

Carrie Underwood – “Wine After Whiskey” … I hope the Carrie Underwood camp releases this to radio at some point. It has all the elements of my favorite classic country music: a tale of lost love told with an alcohol metaphor. Underwood turns in an unusually understated performance on this track she co-wrote with Dave Berg (of current Rodney Atkins’ hits fame) and heavy hitter Tom Shapiro, and the steel guitar flourishes almost make up for the lack of fiddles.

Dwight Yoakam – “Intentional Heartache” … Woman scorned, gets pissed, takes revenge. Not so much an original concept. But one should never underestimate Dwight Yoakam’s ability to make a retro theme sound like the first time you heard it. Could be because in this snide tale of said scorned woman motoring to North Carolina to return her man’s prized possessions – “boots, Bud cap, and signed Dale Jr. poster” (but not before spraypainting them and his Monte Carlo neon green) – Yoakam sounds positively delighted to not be on the receiving end this time. That’s my theory.  And a blistering bluegrass meets rockabilly band jams while it all happens.

Reba & Kelly Clarkson – “Up to the Mountain (Live in Dayton, Ohio)” … I was at this show, but I didn’t capture this video. On their 2 Worlds, 2 Voices Tour, the two spent the entire evening turning their respective hits into duets. The result was a vocal showdown of shouting and warbling for the most part. But they kept their showboating to a minimum on this verse-trading number (and a few others) and with a simple piano backdrop turn in a definitive performance of my favorite Patty Griffin song.

What’s your current fancy on your chosen listening device?

The 25 best albums of the decade

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been compiling a list of our favorite albums of the past decade. We each prepared a list of our 10 favorites, and then we attempted to trim the combined list down to 25 and rank them. There was surprisingly little overlap, and I think it’s safe to say that the final list is quite different from what any of us would have come up with individually. So, without further ado, here are the 25 best albums of the decade, as we see it:

25. Elizabeth Cook — Hey Y’all (Warner Bros, 2002)

Elizabeth Cook was too country for country even in 2002 with her engaging major-label debut. My favourite track is ‘You Move Too Fast’, followed by the charming ‘Everyday Sunshine’, the comparison of her career to that of ‘Dolly’, the sweet ‘Mama, You Wanted To Be A Singer Too’, the singalong about the ‘Stupid Things’ love will make you do, and the irrepressibly optimistic ‘God’s Got A Plan’. — Occasional Hope

24. Wynonna — Her Story: Scenes From a Lifetime (Mercury/Curb, 2005)

Wynonna took an autobiographical approach to her 2005 tour, and the show was filmed and recorded for a live DVD/CD combo set. Beginning with her musical journey as one half of The Judds, Wynonna affectionately recalls her days on the road with her Mom, before moving on to the solo side of her music career, revisiting classic Judds hits like ‘Girls Night Out’ and ‘Love Can Build a Bridge’. The banter in between the songs is reason enough to own the set, but Wynonna’s live take on her own songs like ‘That Was Yesterday’, ‘I Want To Know What love Is’, and ‘Is It Over Yet’ are flawless. — J.R.

23. Bobby Pinson — Man Like Me (RCA, 2005)

This was the richest debut album of the decade, although few record buyers agreed, and singer-songwriter Bobby soon lost his deal with RCA. His gravelly voice had genuine character and emotional depth; perhaps it was too much of an acquired taste for radio beyond one minor hit single. Great overlooked tracks include the reflective title track, showing how hard experiences made the man, the testimony of a sinner saved by a woman’s love in ‘One More Believer’, ‘Ford Fairlane’, perhaps my favorite song of all time about a car, and the wry ‘Started A Band’ about struggling to make it as a musician. — Occasional Hope

22. Brad Paisley — Time Well Wasted (Arista, 2005)

After three promising but somewhat uneven albums, things finally came together with Paisley’s fourth release. This was the first album he released that I felt compelled to buy. It opens with the obligatory novelty tune (“Alcohol”) but it also contains one of the strongest entries in his catalog to date, “When I Get Where I’m Going” which features beautiful harmony vocals by Dolly Parton. — Razor X

21. Sugarland — Love On The Inside (Mercury, 2007)

Masterpiece. That’s the best word I can find to decribe this album. But mere words cannot begin to explain how much I love this album, or how many times I’ve played it in the past 18 months. Jennifer Nettles said it was a set of songs that would play well from ‘Saturday night to Sunday morning’, but I have to disagree. I can’t think of any day of the week, or any time of day this near-perfect set doesn’t play well. With sharp songwriting set among a myriad of subjects, while Nettles wraps her distinctive pipes around the always-catchy lyrics, Love On The Inside is still the best studio album I’ve heard in my years listening to country music, with songs like ‘Genevieve’, ‘Very Last Country Song’, and ‘Fall Into Me’ all getting hundreds of spins in my library. I’ve liked all the singles sent to radio too. — J.R.

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The ones that got away

Bobbie CrynerHave you ever thought an artist was just so good they were destined for stardom, especiallly when they seemed to have a major label behind them, but then watched as … nothing actually happened? They had the voice, sometimes their own songwriting ability or musicianship, great material, a label which seemed supportive, and yet it just didn’t work out. Over the years I’ve been listening to country music that’s often happened to me. Here are a few of my favorite ‘stars in the making’ whose careers never really got going over the past 20 years, organised chronologically. I’ve limited it to artists who were signed to a major label which invested at least enough time, money and effort to release an album, but who never achieved more than one top 30 hit single.

Donna Ulisse had a beautiful alto voice and released a fine neotraditional album, Trouble At The Door, on Atlantic in 1991. None of the singles reached the top 60 on Billboard. After she lost her deal, Donna moved into bluegrass, and I reviewed her recently released second bluegrass album here earlier this year.

Joy WhiteOne of the best albums of 1992 was Between Midnight And Hindsight by Joy White on Epic – Joy’s strong, distinctive voice and intense approach was matched to some great material, but the singles (which included ‘Cold Day In July’, subsequently covered by the Dixie Chicks) all flopped. She moved to Columbia and rebranded herself as Joy Lynn White for 1994′s Wild Love, another strong set which failed to produce anything approaching a hit. She has recorded sporadically since for independent labels, but her later music is less commercial and less immediately appealing. I think she may have been a little ahead of her time, as her style would have appealed to Dixie Chicks fans.

Rhonda Vincent may seem like a strange choice for this list, but technically she qualifies. After a string of bluegrass albums for Rebel in the very early 90s, Rhonda spent several years trying to make it as a mainstream country artist. She released two excellent albums, Written In The Stars on Giant Records in 1993, and Trouble Free on Warner Bros in 1996. The singles made no impact whatsoever, and in 2000 Rhonda returned to her first love, bluegrass. She has gone from strength to strength since.

I have always been surprised that Bobbie Cryner‘s career never took off. She had a beautiful voice and wrote and picked some fine material to record, but two different labels tried and failed to make her into a star. Both her self-titled debut on Epic in 1993 and Girl Of Your Dreams on MCA in 1996 are well worth seeking out, even though none of the singles reached the top 50. She continued to write for other artists through the 90s.

Neotraditionalist Ken Mellons, had a promising start when his ‘Jukebox Junkie’ (one of the poorer songs on his self-titled debut album) was a top 10 hit in 1994. His hopes of stardom were dashed when none of the other singles from his two Epic albums hit the top 30, and he then made the serious mistake of signing to Curb. Six years later, after a handful of singles and one further album, the good but misleadingly titled The Best Of (it was actually all new material apart from a horrendous dance mix of ‘Jukebox Junkie’), he escaped. He released an independent album in 2004.

Keith PerryAnother of the 90s hat acts who I really liked was Wesley Dennis, who released a very good Keith Stegall-produced record on Mercury in 1995, which was spurned by radio. That was the last we heard of him. Keith Whitley soundalike Keith Perry had a very nice record on Curb in 1999 whose singles yet again failed to make an impact; I understand he also recorded an inspirational album for the same label a few years later, but I haven’t heard that.

Elizabeth Cook Hey Y'allElizabeth Cook‘s distinctive voice was probably too country for country radio, as she had no hit singles from her excellent Warner Bros album Hey Y’all in 2002. She has gone on to garner critical esteem from her independent releases, most recently Balls, making her another artist to do better without a major label.

Two of my favorite singles in 2004 came from artists on this list. After I heard Australian Catherine Britt‘s top 40 hit ‘The Upside Of Being Down’ I waited anxiously for her RCA debut album. And I waited. And waited. It was eventually released in 2006, I believe in Australia only, and she is now based back home in Australia. Julie Roberts‘ debut single ‘Break Down Here’ is still her only top 30 hit, although her label Mercury released two good albums, the first of which has been certified gold. She is still on the label roster, but as no new material has been released since 2006 one doubts she will stay there much longer.

Bobby Pinson Man Like MeThe last name on my list is Bobby Pinson, who had a top 20 hit with ‘Don’t Ask Me How I Know’ in 2005. Sadly, none of the other singles from his excellent Man Like Me on RCA did as well, and he was soon cut loose. I suspect his problem was that he was too similar to Eric Church, another new artist at the time, although I preferred Bobby’s work. He subsequently released an independent album, and seems to be doing well as a songwriter, co-writing extensively Toby Keith and the members of Sugarland.

Which artists can you think of who you expected to be stars, who never made it?

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