My Kind of Country

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Album Review: Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell – ‘Old Yellow Moon’

harriscrowellAlthough the prospect of an Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell duets album seemed like an idea that was long overdue, I initially kept my hopes in check, having been disappointed, more often than not, by the recent output of both artists. However, Old Yellow Moon, which was released last week has more than exceeded my admittedly guarded expectations, and is in fact the best collection that either artist has released in quite a long time.

The album was produced by Emmylou’s ex-husband Brian Ahern, who produced her best work from the 1970s and early 1980s, and the songwriting credits read like a Who’s Who in country music featuring names such as Hank DeVito, Roger Miller, Allen Reynolds, Kris Kristofferson, and of course, Rodney Crowell himself. The first two tracks, DeVito’s “Hanging Up My Heart” and an excellent cover of Miller’s “Invitation To The Blues” sound as though they could have been left over from some of those 1970s recording sessions and recently discovered in the Warner Bros. vaults. Kristofferson’s “Chase The Feeling” sounds like an old Everly Brothers tune, and I also quite like “Here We Are”, which Emmylou had previously recorded with George Jones.

I was initially less impressed with “Black Caffeine” a bluesy tribute to the dark bean; it has grown on me with repeated listenings, though I still would not rank it as one of my favorites. I found “Spanish Dancer” to be rather dull. It is closer in style to Emmylou’s post-mainstream music than anything else on the album and is my least favorite here. “Dreaming My Dreams”, the oft-covered Allen Reynolds song made famous by Waylon Jennings, is reworked as a duet. The wear and tear on both artists’ voices is quite apparent on this track, but the seasoned vocals somehow enhance the song rather than detract from it.

“Bluebird Wine” is a Crowell composition that Emmylou recorded for her debut album, 1975’s Pieces of the Sky. This time around it is given an acoustic treatment with Crowell singing lead. The album’s most polished track is Matraca Berg’s “Back When We Were Beautiful”, which is given a simple piano arrangement. The occasional cracks in Harris’ voice add credibility to the tale of an old woman reminiscing about her youth.

Only a little more than two months in, it’s a little premature to be making predictions about the best albums of the year, but it’s difficult to foresee any circumstances under which Old Yellow Moon would not be on my list of year-end picks. I hope that both Harris and Crowell will do more of this style of music in the future.

Grade: A

Album Review: Rodney Crowell – ‘Jewel of the South’

1994’s Let The Picture Paint Itself reunited Rodney Crowell with co-producer Tony Brown, and though they were unable to recapture the commercial spark of Diamonds & Dirt, they collaborated again for the following year’s Jewel of the South. It was the last project they worked on together.

Though not as traditional nor as satisfying as Diamonds & Dirt, Jewel of the South is nonetheless a solid album. Unfortunately, Rodney’s commercial momentum had been lost by this point, and the album did not receive the recognition it deserved. The album’s lone single was “Please Remember Me”, which Crowell wrote with Will Jennings. It stalled at #69. Aaron Neville and Linda Ronstadt later covered the song, as did Tim McGraw, who took it all the way to #1 on the country charts and #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1999. For the record, I prefer Crowell’s version to McGraw’s.

Crowell had a hand in writing eight of the album’s eleven tracks, including the brief Tex-Mex flavored closing track “Que Is Amor” which lists Will Jennings and the late Roy Orbison as co-writers. Clocking it at just over a minute and a half, the song doesn’t doesn’t say much or add much to the album. It is, however, very much the exception because the rest of the album’s tracks are solid. The rock-tinged “Love to Burn” reunites Crowell and Jennings with Hank DeVito; the result is reminiscent of the music Rodney made back in his Warner Bros. days. One of the album’s best tracks is the introspective “Thinkin’ About Leavin'”, which is about musician who apparently gave up life on the road for a marriage and family and is now experiencing some regret. The lyrics seem to serve as a metaphor for Rodney’s declining commercial appeal:

Sometimes I miss the bright lights sometimes I miss the crowd
Sometimes I miss the women sometimes the music loud
Sometimes I miss that world out there so cold hard and unkind
I’ve been thinking about leaving long enough to change my mind

Sometimes I miss the bright lights sometimes I miss the noise
Sometimes I miss the women sometimes the good old boys
Sometimes I miss that world out there so cold hard and unkind
And I’ve been thinking about leaving long enough to change my mind

In addition to Rodney’s original material, there are some well-chosen covers. The Harlan Howard-Buck Owens tune “Storm of Love” is perhaps an attempt to recreate the magic of “Above and Beyond”. It’s not quite as good as “Above and Beyond” but it’s still the album’s best track. There is also a very good rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Candy Man”, complete with a bluesy harmonica solo.

Despite a solid set of songs and Rodney’s connections to the label brass, Jewel of the South was a commercial failure and was Rodney’s last for MCA. It’s still worth listening to and fortunately inexpensive copies are easy to find, including a 2-for-1 import release that also contains Let The Picture Paint Itself.


Grade: B

Album Review: ‘The Rodney Crowell Collection’

Warner Bros. was Rodney Crowell’s label home between 1978 and 1981. During that time he released three albums, none of which was commercially successful and they are all long out of print. Released in 1989 as a means of capitalizing the success that Crowell was enjoying at Columbia Records at that time, The Rodney Crowell Collection is the best available sampler of his Warner Bros. years.

During this time, Crowell was best known as a songwriter and as a key member of Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band. He was also steadily gaining respect for his talent as a producer, having produced the records of his then-wife Rosanne Cash. As a recording artist, Rodney only cracked the Top 40 twice during his tenure with Warner Bros., but a quick glance at this album’s tracklist will quickly reveal that the songs themselves were not at fault for his lack of commercial success. Most of the titles were significant hits for other artists, and anyone who was listening to country radio in the late 1970s and early 1980s will be familiar with them. “I Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This” was the title track of his first Warner Bros. album. That same year, Emmylou Harris recorded the song for her Quarter Moon In a Ten Cent Town album, and the following year, Waylon Jennings scored a #1 hit with the song. Emmylou had also recorded “Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight” and sings harmony on Rodney’s version. The Oak Ridge Boys would take this song to #1 in 1979. Emmylou also lends her vocals to a gorgeous rendition of “Voila, An American Dream”, which the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band also recorded. The Dirt Band’s version petered out at #58 on the country chart but reached #13 on the pop chart and was a #3 hit in Canada. The beautiful “Till I Gain Control Again” was a #1 hit for Crystal Gayle in 1982, and “Shame On The Moon”, the song for which Crowell was probably best known during this era, was recorded by numerous Nashville who released albums in 1982 and 1983. It was a huge pop hit for Bob Seger, who took it to the top of the adult contemporary chart, to #2 on the pop chart, and #15 on the country chart.

None of the previously mentioned songs was released as a single by Crowell, but there is a pair of songs on the album that were released as singles, and despite their limited chart success, went on to become hits for other artists: “Ashes By Now” (Lee Ann Womack) and “Stars On The Water” (George Strait). Rodney’s version of the latter did reach #30 on the country singles chart, making it his best chart performance up to that time. There are only three songs on the album that weren’t written or co-written by Crowell, and two of them were also hits for others; Juice Newton took Hank DeVito’s “Queen of Hearts” to #14 on the country chart and #2 on the Hot 100, while Ricky Skaggs scored a #1 country hit with Guy Clark’s “Heartbroke”.

For the most part, Crowell’s recordings are not as good as the better known hit versions by other artists. He is a good, though not truly great, vocalist, but the production on these recordings may be partly to blame for their commercial failure. Most of them have too much reverb and the arrangements are a little too rock-leaning for what country radio favored at the time. One song on which Crowell’s vocals truly shine, however, is “Victim or A Fool”, one of the few songs on the album that did not become a hit for someone else. It’s my favorite track here, possibly because there isn’t another more familiar version with which to compare it.

Though not essential listening, The Rodney Crowell Collection allows the listener an opportunity to hear a number of widely recorded songs in the songwriter’s voice and also helps to explain why he was such a respected producer and songwriter during the era before he achieved his commercial breakthrough. Inexpensive new and used copies are easy to find and are worth checking out.

Grade: B

Album Review: Marty Stuart – ‘Tempted’

Marty Stuart’s second release for MCA was released in January 1991. Like its predecessor, Tempted was produced by Richard Bennett and Tony Brown, and contained a balance of some of Marty’s original compositions and some well-chosen covers that paid homage to country music’s past. It is a little less rockabilly-oriented than Hillbilly Rock, with more emphasis on harmonies and more prominent use of the steel guitar.

The first single “Little Things” was written by Marty and Paul Kennerley. It follows the same template as “Hillbilly Rock” and matched that song’s chart performance, peaking at #8. It was, in fact, Marty’s first Top 10 since “Hillbilly Rock” and his second Top 10 overall. He stumbled slightly with the next release, the ballad “Till I Found You”, which was written by Paul Kennerley and Hank DeVito. It just missed the Top 10, peaking at #12. I’ve always found the song a bit lacking in energy and it’s my least favorite track on the album. Much better is the title track, another Stuart-Kennerley composition, which reached #5, becoming Marty’s highest charting single as a solo artist. It is my favorite of all of Marty’s mainstream singles. “Burn Me Down”, a rockabilly number written by Eddie Miller was the album’s fourth and final single. It too reached the Top 10, topping out at #7.

With the exception of the title track, the real meat of this collection is in the album cuts. Most Stuart albums include a Johnny Cash tune, and Tempted is no exception. This time he chose to cover “Blue Train”. It is a decent performance but even those unfamiliar with the original will instantly recognize it as a Johnny Cash song. It just underscores how difficult it can be to put one’s own mark on an iconic figure’s song, though the intent seems to be to pay tribute to Cash, rather than to reinterpret his work. “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome” which opens the album was written by Bill Monroe and Hank Williams and serves as notice to the listener that Marty Stuart was more than just a mere hillbilly rocker, with a deep respect for country music’s heritage. “Paint The Town Tonight” with its heavy emphasis on the Telecaster and steel guitar is a Stuart original composition that is reminiscent of Buck Owens. It really should have been released as a single. “Half a Heart” is a straightforward country number that is one of two tunes on which Marty collaborated with the then very popular songwriter Kostas. It too should have been released as a single. The album closes with the fiddle-led hoedown number “Get Back To The Country”, which surprisingly was written by Neil Young, a name not normally associated with traditional country music.

Tempted is the best of Marty’s major label efforts, with nine excellent tracks (“Till I Found You” is the only one that falls a bit short) and marks the peak of commercial success. It was his second gold album and the most well received by country radio. It is his only album to contain more than one Top 10 hit. Unfortunately, after “Burn Me Down” he would never again reach the Top 10 as a solo artist, although two collaborations with Travis Tritt did chart inside the Top 10. Tempted is easy to find and worthy of inclusion in any country music fan’s collection.

Grade: A

Album Review: Sweethearts of the Rodeo – ‘One Time, One Night’

The duo’s sophomore album, released in 1988, continues largely in the same vein as their successful debut disc — combining elements of country and rock with tight harmonies that proved very popular with radio programmers and listeners. Like its predecessor, One Time, One Night was produced by Steve Buckingham, but co-producer Hank DeVito was nowhere to be found this time around. Janis Gill continued to hone her songwriting skills, contributing two compositions co-written with Don Schlitz and one with Gail Davies. Among the collaborations with Schlitz was the album’s lead single “Satisfy You”, an uptempo Cajun-flavored number that continued the Sweethearts’ string of Top 10 hits. It peaked at #5, as did the next single, “Blue to the Bone”, which allowed them to showcase some impressive harmony singing that was somewhat reminiscent of a female version of the Everly Brothers, whose “So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)” is covered here. The Sweethearts are joined by Vince Gill for what is, in my opinion, one of the very best versions of this song, aside from the 1960 original. It is one of the standout tracks on the album and one of my favorites.

The duo also pay homage to the Beatles with their cover version of the Fab Four’s “I Feel Fine”, which they took to #9. It was the Sweethearts’ seventh consecutive Top 10 hit and they seemed to be on an unstoppable commercial roll when they suddenly and unexpectedly lost their momentum. Their next single, the Don Schlitz/Craig Bickhardt number “If I Never See Midnight Again” fizzled out at #39. This is a beautiful song with gorgeous harmonies that deserved to chart much higher. The song could quite possibly be about the same character in the duo’s earlier hit “Midnight Girl/Sunset Town”, also written by Don Schlitz, after she’s sown her wild oats. Now a little older and wiser, she’s found true love and is ready to forsake the party scene forever:


Now I don’t care if the party starts without me
And when the clock strikes twelve, drink a toast to this old friend.
I’ll be sleeping with my darling’s arms around me
And I don’t care if I never see midnight again.

At the time I thought that, as the album’s fourth and final single, the record might not have received the same promotional push from the label as the earlier releases had. That is still a possibility, but the fact remains that it marked the end of the duo’s winning streak, and they would never chart inside the Top 20 again.

Among the album cuts, “Gone Again”, the tune that Janis wrote with Gail Davies, is the most interesting. It talks about the whirlwind pace of life on the road and the personal sacrifices that come along with fortune and fame, something that the Sweethearts could likely very easily relate to at the time. “You Never Talk Sweet”, which is the other Gill/Schlitz song on the album, is also quite good. The album’s sole misstep is the Wally Wilson/Kevin Welch number “We Won’t Let That River Come Between Us”, which seems a bit forced and doesn’t quite work for me.

The Sweethearts of the Rodeo did not enjoy a long run at the top of the charts. They released two more albums for Columbia, 1990’s Buffalo Zone and 1992’s lackluster Sisters. Neither produced any hits and they were dropped from the Columbia roster. One Time, One Night is the best of their four major-label releases. It is not available digitally, but inexpensive CD copies are easy to find. It’s worth seeking out, along with their debut disc.

Grade: A

Album Review: Sweethearts Of The Rodeo – ‘Sweethearts Of The Rodeo’

The stagename adopted by the Oliver sisters was a nod to the seminal Byrds album, and fittingly the music the duo produced in their hitmaking days was energetically sunny country rock rooted in their California background.  The distinctive booming alto of Kristine Arnold takes the lead on all their work, supported by her older sister Janis Gill (then married to Vince).  Their debut record on Columbia, halfway between an EP and a full length album with just eight tracks, was produced by Hank DeVito (who also plays steel guitar) and Steve Buckingham, and they produced a sound which was very radio friendly.  The truncated length may have short-changed purchasers, but no less than five of the eight tracks were reasonably successful singles, getting their career off to a great start.

Their effervescent and beaty debut single ‘Hey Doll Baby’ was a cover of an old R&B number previously recorded by the Everly Brothers, given a rockabilly style makeover.  It just missed the top 20, but was a sign of better things to come, with an irresistibly catchy beat making up for unremarkable lyrics.  Equally catchy, but a much better song, ‘Since I Found You’ was written by the not-yet-famous Foster & Lloyd.  A bright mid-tempo love song about a one-time partier wanting to settle down for the first time now that the protagonist has met the right person, it gave them their first top 10 hit, reaching #7 on Billboard.

The next single, ‘Midnight Girl/Sunset Town’, did a little better, peaking at #4.  It was a very good Don Schlitz song about a restless young woman who feels trapped in her small town and dreams of late nights.  Its chart run was matched by Paul Kennerley’s ‘Chains of Gold’, an excellent song about the true value of love which is my favourite track:

Chains of gold
Ruby rings
Without love
Don’t mean a thing

All I want is someone to hold
True love means more than chains of gold

In fact these two #4 hits were to prove their highest ever charting hits.

Janis wrote ‘Gotta Get Away’, a pacy number about a woman afraid to let go and fall in love in case it works out badly.  This is less memorable than their other singles, but is quite enjoyable and was another top 10 hit.  The heartbroken ‘Everywhere I Turn’, which she wrote with Michael G Joyce, has a strong vocal from Kristine and is a pretty good song, but its rushed tempo detracts from the emotions and makes it feel like filler.

‘Chosen Few’, written by John Jarvis and Don Schlitz has a syncopated jerky rhythm which doesn’t really work for me.  They finish up with the stark and stripped down ballad ‘I Can’t Resist’, written by DeVito with Rodney Crowell.  This shows they had more to offer than country-rock, and also showcases Janis’s harmonies.

This was a very promising debut by a duo with a distinctive sound, a little harder edged and less sentimental than their more successful rivals the Judds could be.  Used copies of this are available very cheaply, and it’s worth checking out.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Vince Gill – ‘The Way Back Home’

Vince’s third and last release for RCA (in 1987) was almost a full length album, with nine tracks. Produced by Richard Landis and recorded in LA, with West Coast country-rock musicians like Jay Dee Maness on steel, and an all-star cast of backing singers including Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, and Vince’s wife Janis and her sister Kristine Arnold (who as the Sweethearts of the Rodeo were rising stars at the time). Unfortunately, too many are used together, with an almost choir effect on some tracks which is not suited to the material, most of which Vince wrote or co-wrote.

One exception was the first single and biggest hit from the album, peaking at #5 on Billboard. The sympathetic look at a modern day ‘Cinderella’ who the protagonist might just take away from her neglectful husband, was written by Reed Nielsen. While it is catchy and likeable, it is largely forgotten today, and lacks the weight of Vince’s classics.

The perky ‘Let’s Do Something’ did rather less well at #16; it is quite enjoyable but a bit too much is going on in the production. The playfully up-tempo ‘Everybody’s Sweetheart’ just missed the top 10, peaking at #11. It complains, just a little tongue in cheek when he says he should keep her “barefoot and pregnant all the time”, in order to keep at home a wife the protagonist never sees thanks to her pursuit of stardom. It appears to have been partly inspired by Vince’s relationship with Janis.

‘The Radio’ is a classsic lonesome Vince Gill ballad with lovely soaring vocals. It only just scraped into the top 40, almost certainly because with Vince halfway out of the door, the label was disinclined to promote it. It is much better than that peak would imply. Also very good, although perhaps a little sentimental for some tastes, the beautifully sung title track reflects on the tragedy of missing children. Emmylou Harris’ distinctive harmony is haunting, although the choir effect of massed backing vocals on the chorus is a bit too much; they should have kept it stripped down with just Emmylou supporting Vince.

There is a certain amount of filler, including ‘Baby, That’s Tough’, a rather underwhelming co-write with Texas songwriting great Guy Clark. ‘Losing Your Love’ is a pleasant ballad with an attractive melody, written with Hank DeVito and Rhonda Kye Fleming, while ‘Something Missing’, written by Vince with Michael Clark, is boring. ‘It Doesn’t Matter Any More’ is a cover of an old Paul Anka pop song.

This was a step in the right direction. The next, and a defining one, was Vince’s move to MCA, where Tony Brown took over production duties. This resulted in his first masterpiece, When I Call Your Name, which I reviewed back in 2009 as part of our look back at the Class of ’89: http://mykindofcountry.wordpress.com/2009/04/05/class-of-89-album-review-vince-gill-when-i-call-your-name/

Used copies of the CD are available very cheaply.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Rosanne Cash – ‘King’s Record Shop’

Released in August 1987, King’s Record Shop was one of Rosanne’s most successful albums and her last collection of all-new mainstream country material before she parted ways with Nashville and began to release less commercial music in the singer-songwriter mode. Named after a record shop in Louisville, Kentucky, owned by Gene King, the younger brother of Pee Wee King (of “Tennessee Waltz” fame), it became her second gold album — her first since 1981’s Seven Year Ache, and the first time in country music history that an album by a female artist produced four #1 hits.

Like most of her previous albums, King’s Record Shop was produced by Rodney Crowell and is an eclectic mix of country, rock, and pop, drawing upon the talents of songwriters from both inside and outside the Nashville community, as well as some of Cash’s and Crowell’s original compositions, and one from Rosanne’s famous father, the Man In Black himself. The first single, “The Way We Make A Broken Heart” had been recorded a few years ago as a duet between Rosanne and the song’s writer John Hiatt. Rosanne’s solo version is pop-country perfection; something about the arrangement and Rosanne’s performance is reminiscent of Patsy Cline. It quickly became her sixth #1 hit and remains my all-time favorite Rosanne Cash recording. The second single, a cover of Johnny Cash’s 1961 hit “Tennessee Flat Top Box”, has become one of Rosanne’s best-loved recordings. She recorded it at Crowell’s suggestion, unaware that her father had written it; she had been under the impression that it was an old song that had long been in the public domain. Today it is one of her best-remembered hits, along with “Seven Year Ache”, and is one of the most traditional offerings in her catalog.

“If You Change Your Mind”, written by Rosanne with Hank DeVito, was the album’s third single. It hasn’t aged as well  as some of the other songs on the album, primarily due to the somewhat intrusive drum machine that is present throughout the track, but it is nonetheless a very well-written and well-performed song. I recall being initially somewhat less enthusiastic about the fourth and final single, “Runaway Train”, but over the years I have come to appreciate it for the well-written masterpiece that it is. Though less rooted in country music than the other singles, its lyrics are rich with imagery, using a runaway train as a metaphor for a relationship spiraling out of control. It was written by John Stewart (not the guy from The Daily Show on Comedy Central), who had become well-known as a member of The Kingston Trio in the 60s, and as the writer of the 1967 Monkees hit “Daydream Believer”.

The success of King’s Record Shop is impressive, partly because it does not fit the neotraditionalist template that had a firm grasp on Nashville at the time. It’s a carefully assembled collection of pop, rock, and a handful of songs that were just country enough to be accepted by country radio. Columbia made wise decisions in choosing the singles — as evidenced by the fact that all four were chart-toppers — in stark contrast to today, when an album’s worst and least-interesting tracks are commonly sent to radio. The album cuts of King’s Record Shop are more experimental in nature (though “Rosie Strikes Back” had the potential to be a hit single), reflecting Rosanne’s tastes which often fell outside the realm of country music. Among the more interesting cuts are her own composition, the introspective “The Real Me” and Rodney Crowell’s “I Don’t Have To Crawl”, which had previously been recorded by Emmylou Harris. Also enjoyable is “Rosie Strikes Back” in which the narrator urges a battered woman to flee from an abusive relationship. Less interesting are “Somewhere, Sometime”, which was written by Rosanne, the rocker “Green, Yellow and Red” and Benmont Tench’s “Why Don’t You Quit Leaving Me Alone”, which closed out the original version of the album.

The album’s 2005 re-release includes three bonus tracks: “707”, which had been the B-side of “The Way We Make A Broken Heart”, and live versions of “Runaway Train” and “Green, Yellow and Red”. None of these tracks is worth buying the album over again if you already have the 10-track original version.

Prior to 1987, I’d enjoyed listening to Rosanne’s radio hits, but it was King’s Record Shop, or more specifically “The Way We Make A Broken Heart”, that finally compelled me to buy one of her albums. It remains the best album in her catalog, and I’ve always thought it was a pity that she didn’t do more music in this vein before changing direction.

Grade: A-

It is easy to find, if you don’t already have it, from vendors such as Amazon and iTunes, and worth adding to your collection.

Album Review: Rosanne Cash – ‘Seven Year Ache’

Rosanne Cash’s first inroads on the country charts came from the minor hits on Right Or Wrong, but it would be Seven Year Ache, with its disparate themes of melancholy and female-empowerment, coupled with exceptionally cerebral material, that set the standard for Cash’s next decade of recording. The memes set here, of folk singer-songwriter sensibilities meets modern pop-country production, have since been repeated by the likes of Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lucinda Williams, Patty Griffin, and any number of other fringe-favorites.

I’ve already written about this album’s first single and its impact on me as a country fan.  Even today, with a seriously out-dated production – the kind of synthetic hand-clap percussion employed here went out with the Atari, and for many of the same reasons – the track still packs a mighty, meaty punch. The dark, contemplative mood of the song – the internal monologue of bewildered, yet determined individual – is offset by the breezy melody and the entire affair is framed by a looping and driving steel guitar track supplied by Hank DeVito. Cash reportedly wrote the song after a fight with then-husband and producer Rodney Crowell.  The songwriter herself says of the lyric:  ”That’s one of those gifts you only get once in life.  I wrote it in about an hour. I just poured my soul out into the song.”  She bared a lot of herself in the process, but gave us, in my opinion, one of the greatest lyrics of our time.  In 1981, “Seven Year Ache” hit #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart, #6 on the Adult Contemporary list, and #22 on the Hot 100.  It’s been covered several times over the years, most notably by Trisha Yearwood (with Cash featured on vocals, providing the harmonies Emmylou Harris sang on the original recording) on 2001’s Inside Out.

The second single and second #1, Leroy Preston’s “My Baby Thinks He’s A Train”, more than any other track Rosanne Cash has recorded save for covers of the Man In Black’s songs, is a testament to Johnny Cash’s musical influence on his oldest daughter.  The steady and chugging back beat is accompanied by blistering guitar work, and progressive lyrics like:

He eats money like a train eats coal
He burns it up and leaves you in the smoke
If you wanna catch a ride, you wait ’til he unwinds
He’s just like a train, he always gives some tramp a ride

“Blue Moon With Heartache” is the only song here besides the title track Cash herself put pen to paper to create. On this brooding number, the results were less satisfying. The story of a woman living in a troubled relationship, and daydreaming about leaving, is played out amid the intrusive electric piano and a swelling, but hushed, string arrangement.  This, too, topped the country singles chart, but a much better candidate for the final single would have been “You Don’t Have Very Far To Go”, written by Merle Haggard and Red Simpson. “Go” is the most traditional country song on the album with steel guitar flourishes and no signs of pop or rock influences, and while simple in form is an effective heart’s-breaking lyric.

At times, Cash seems bent on pushing the boundaries of a female country album as far as she possibly can, in both form and function. Listening to the roadhouse rocker “What Kinda Girl”, clearly as influenced by Ronstadt and The Rolling Stones as by Loretta Lynn and The Tennessee Three, the cheeky lyrics – “I don’t wear pajamas and I don’t sniff glue” – and butchered-grammar rhyme scheme will turn your head on the first few listens, but the track loses much of its appeal soon after you’re over the cheap tricks.  “Only Human” may be the first time, and maybe still the only, instance of a woman using the word “stoned” on a mainstream country album. Keith Sykes’ honest lyric is marred somewhat by the straight ’80s pop production and the loud backing vocals, but is a marvelous song nonetheless that finds the narrator lamenting her own mortality for the anguish it indirectly causes. Another miss is  “I Can’t Resist” which ventures into easy-listening territory with Phil Kenzie’s saxophone playing and the singer’s detached vocal. “Where Will The Words Come From” with Crowell and Harris providing perfectly desolate harmonies, save for a minimal amount of the era’s background noise, follows the singer’s more recent sounds with its spare production.

Seven Year Ache was an album of firsts for Cash, not just in style and substance, but for being her first #1 charting album, housing her first #1 country singles, and her first pop hit.  It also marks the singer’s first instance of finding her artistry. Despite the missteps in production, which can easily be blamed on the release date as much as the artist and producer, this is a collection of great songs that set the stage for the first phase of a remarkable career.

Grade: A-

The album was released as a 2-for-1 with Rosanne’s U.S. debut album and has been re-released on CD and for digital download.

Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘Elite Hotel’

The success of Pieces of the Sky sent Emmylou Harris from relative unknown folk-rocker to A-list country star.  Still, the texture of her second album remained the same hodgepodge of rock covers, country classics, and original songs that had served Harris so well on her debut. Elite Hotel brought many firsts in Harris’ career, including her first Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance in 1976, her first #1 album, and first #1 single in ‘Together Again’. Elite Hotel, like its predecessor would be certified gold. Adding to her precious metal collection, Harris collected her first gold single with ‘Together Again’.

‘Together Again’ is a cover of Buck Owens’ chart-topper. Owens version was an originally a B-side to his ‘My Heart Skips a Beat’. ‘Together Again’ topped the charts for Buck in 1964 – replacing the A-side on the charts – and by April 1976, became the first of six number-ones for Emmylou Harris. Celebrating the song’s charting power, Owens and Harris recorded a duet, ‘Play Together Again, Again’, a few years later.  Emmylou offers a similar melancholy take, imbuing the tear-soaked lyric with an understated sadness.  Hot Band member Glen D. Hardin provides an elegant honky tonk piano arrangement against the crying pedal steel of Hank DeVito, leaving the track timeless.

At radio, the album spawned another top 5 and a second #1.  The mostly acoustic ‘One of These Days’, with its sweet ode to wanderlust, features a winning dobro solo, and landed at #3 as the second single.  A cover of Don Gibson’s many-times-a-hit ‘Sweet Dreams’ gave Harris her second #1, and while technically proficient, I find Emmylou’s live recording, like so many others, bland compared to Patsy Cline’s definitive take on the song.  The eclectic blend of quality material on her albums reflect that Harris has always taken the album approach to record-making as opposed to the singles practice.  Here, she ably mixes rock with classic country, approaching each track with a traditional or acoustic touch.

Her work with Gram Parsons is more prevalent on Elite Hotel than ever before.  She offers a somber take on The Flying Burrito Brothers’ ‘Sin City’, slowing the track down a full beat.  Johnathan Edwards provides harmony on a traditional country version of ‘Wheels’, with a driving steel guitar track.  Edwards later released two albums on Warner Brothers, both produced by Brian Ahern.  ‘Ooh Las Vegas’, from Parsons’ posthumous Grevious Angel album, gets a smoking bluegrass arrangement.

Rodney Crowell’s exquisite ‘Til I Gain Control Again’ anchors the original material included here, and also provides the best showcase for Emmylou’s interpretive abilities.  The vulnerable confessional of the lyrics are never conveyed better, through countless covers, than on this string and steel mesh of goodness.  Crowell also co-wrote the only Harris contribution to the album, the tongue-in-cheek ‘Amarillo’, with its raw roadhouse sound.

Continuing to show off the versatility of herself and her famed Hot Band, Harris offers The Beatles’ ‘Here There and Everywhere’.  Here, the song is complimented by a hushed string section and the sparing use of an electric guitar. It too charted on the country singles chart as the B-side to ‘Together Again’. But more notably, ‘Here’ hit the top 5 of the Canadian Adult Contemporary chart, and it found a home inside the U.K. Top 40.  Likewise, a swinging jaunt into Hank Williams’ ‘Jambalaya’ is greeted with the vocal verve the singer brings to each track, and each musician is allowed a chance to shine on this one.

Elite Hotel proved Emmylou Harris’ most success album to date commercially, and ignited her hot streak at country radio.  But most importantly, it provided a showcase for the team of crack musicians she had assembled and for her own lofty artist visions.

Grade: A

Buy it at amazon.

Spotlight Artist: Emmylou Harris

Emmylou Harris was not born to be a country singer. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1947, daughter of an Air Force officer, she grew up in North Carolina and Virginia. She dropped out of college to pursue a career as a folk singer, inspired by the 60s revival of traditional folk music in America. After releasing one album, Gliding Bird (suppressed for years) and following the failure of her first marriage, her life took a defining turn when she met Gram Parsons in 1971 (recommended by Chris Hillman who had been impressed by Emmylou when he saw her in concert). Parsons, an alumnus of the seminal country-rock bands The Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, introduced Emmylou to country music. Emmylou’s haunting harmonies added a touch of magic to Gram’s more shambolic vocals, and her vocal contributions to the two albums on which they collaborated, GP and Grievous Angel, were so significant to their sound that (although billed as solo Parsons records) they were really a duo act. Parsons, a self-destructive soul addicted to drugs and alcohol, died of an overdose in 1973, and, traumatic though this loss was, Emmylou was freed to pursue her own star.

She signed to the Warner Brothers imprint Reprise Records (a contract which was passed to Warner when the smaller label was closed), and began working with producer Brian Ahern, who she was to marry in 1977. Starting with 1975’s Pieces Of The Sky, Emmylou Harris released a sequence of now-classic albums through the 70s, notable for their selection of material: country and bluegrass classics, rock covers, and new songs; for the extraordinary singing and harmony work; and for the superb musicianship mostly from her own Hot Band. Her work was critically acclaimed and also well received on country radio, with a string of hits including five #1s. She won her first Grammy in 1976 for her second album, Elite Hotel.

Emmylou’s live bands have been a large part of her success over the years. The legendary Hot Band in the 70s and 80s had a changing but always stellar lineup, starting with Elvis Presley’s guitarist James Burton(succeeded by the British born virtuoso Albert Lee, writer of ‘Country Boy’), pianist Glen D Hardin, steel player Hank De Vito, and bassist Emory Gordy Jr. One significant member was singer songwriter Rodney Crowell on rhythm guitar for three years. When Crowell moved on to start his own solo career, he was replaced by the multiple instrumentalist Ricky Skaggs, who brought a bluegrass influence to the band before launching his own spectacular career in country music.

From 1979 onwards, Emmylou, always eclectic, began to experiment further, with the pure country Blue Kentucky Girl, the bluegrass Roses In The Snow, an acoustic Christmas album (Light Of The Stable), live recordings (Last Date), even the odd disco song on 1983’s more rock-influenced White Shoes. Her marriage to Ahern broke down, and in 1985 she released the underrated concept album The Ballad Of Sally Rose, with a storyline very loosely inspired by her early career with Gram Parsons, all of which she wrote with English-born songwriter Paul Kennerley, who also took over as her producer, and soon became husband #3 (the couple divorced in 1992). The record was a commercial failure, although one song, ‘Woman Walk The Line’, was later picked up by other artists (Highway 101 and Trisha Yearwood have both recorded it).

She had collaborated frequently on other artists’ records throughout her career (and brought them in to sing on her own), but in 1987 she combined with her friends Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt to record the acclaimed, and platinum selling, Trio, and she also recorded a solo country gospel record, Angel Band, produced by longtime Hot Band member Emory Gordy Jr, with Vince Gill singing harmony.

Notwithstanding the success of Trio, her solo star was waning by this point, and in 1991 Emmylou made another major change, replacing the Hot Band with a new acoustic group called the Nash Ramblers. Their musicianship was just as high quality, including Sam Bush on fiddle and mandolin, and a young singer/guitarist then billed as Randy Stewart who was later to pursue a solo career as singer and songwriter Jon Randall, and is currently known by his full name, Jon Randall Stewart. This lineup gave Emmylou’s music a new impetus, and they recorded a Grammy winning live album at the Ryman (her last release on Warner Brothers). However, commercial success was still diminishing, and after the relative failure of 1993’s Cowgirl’s Prayer on Warners subsidiary Elektra, Emmylou made the most radical change yet in her music.

In 1995 she turned to rock producer Daniel Lanois to create the controversial Wrecking Ball. This album’s connections with country music are limited, but it brought Emmylou acclaim from outside the genre, and earned her a Contemporary Folk Grammy. Another new band, Spyboy, featured guitarist Buddy Miller. A live album, Live In Germany 2000, has just been released (I think in Germany) and showcases this period. She was to continue in the vein for the next few years, investing more in her own songwriting than she had done earlier in her career. 2008’s All I Intended To Be, her most recent album, reunited Emmylou with Brian Ahern, and combined elements of her more recent style with aspects of her classic work of the 70s. A new album (Hard Bargain) is due later this month on Nonesuch Records, another Warner Brothers subsidiary which has released Emmylou’s solo work since 2003. She will appear on the Letterman Show to promote it on April 27. Also hot off the presses, a new imported budget box set brings together five of her classic albums, all of which we plan to feature as part of our coverage.

Emmylou Harris was inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 2008. She was the CMA Female Vocalist of the Year in 1980, and has won numerous Grammy’s. At her peak she was able to appeal to both country and non-country audiences without compromising her music, and she introduced new generations to artists like the Louvin Brothers. Even when I haven’t cared for some of her changes in direction, they were clearly rooted in her artistic vision rather than in the hunt for sales figures. During April we hope to share with you some of the highlights of the career of one of the most adventurous and significant artists in country music in the past 40 years.

Album Review: Brooks & Dunn – ‘Hillbilly Deluxe’

Hillbilly DeluxeAfter the success of Red Dirt Road, the duo had issued a second volume of Greatest Hits, and unusually the new singles released from that (‘That’s What It’s All About’ and ‘It’s Getting Better All The Time’) had done very well. Their next studio album, 2005’s Hillbilly Deluxe, shares its title with a Dwight Yoakam album from the 1980s. Brooks & Dunn’s take focuses rather more on the second part of the title than Dwight’s, with a very glossy feel. The tracks featuring Ronnie Dunn on lead were co-produced with industry veteran Tony Brown, but the overwhelming impression of this album is that Brooks & Dunn had got into something of a rut, and this album offers yet more of the same.

The leadoff single, the rocked up and (unintentionally?) ironically titled ‘Play Something Country’ was certified gold in its own right, and was what now appears to be their last ever #1 single. The song was written by Ronnie with his favored writing partner Terry McBride, and was allegedly inspired by Gretchen Wilson. The pair also wrote the ballad ‘She’s About As Lonely As I’m Going To Let Her Get’, a pretty good song about resolving to be the new love of a woman encountered in a bar, which features a fine Ronnie Dunn vocal with slightly (and unnecessarily) amped up production. ‘Just Another Neon Night’ has a similar feel and another barroom theme. Less successful is the part-spoken and also heavily produced ‘Whiskey Do My Talking’, which is just not very interesting.

There was one departure from formula, in the shape of ‘Believe’, which Ronnie wrote with Craig Wiseman, and which was the album’s second single. Surprisingly, ‘Believe’ only reached #8 but had much more impact than that suggests. It sold in high numbers, also being certified gold, and was widely acclaimed as the duo’s best single in years, also winning the CMA Single of the Year award in 2006. The Academy of Country Music rewarded Ronnie and Craig by naming it Song of the year in 2005. It opens as a story song with a conversational low key vocal on the verses and a big chorus, with a churchy organ backing and gospel backing vocals at appropriate moments which support Ronnie rather than taking over as is sometimes the case when gospel choirs are used in country records.

The follow-up single, ‘Building Bridges’, featuring harmonies from Sheryl Crow and Vince Gill, was an attractive song with a pretty tune. It was a Hank DeVito /Larry Willoughby song, versions of which had been unsuccessful singles for both Willoughby and DeVito’s ex-wife Nicolette Larson in the 80s. Brooks & Dunn’s version did much better, and reached #4, and it was named the ACM’s Vocal Event of the Year in 2007.

The title track was the last single, and performed more disappointingly, topping out at 16. The chorus talks about “slick pick up trucks”, and this frankly boring and formulaic Southern rock style track feels altogether too slick for comfort. Ronnie Dunn is a great singer, but he needs better material than this to let him shine. He got it with my favorite track, the sensitive lost-love ballad ‘I May Never Get Over You’. Almost as good is the tender Darrell Brown/Radney Foster song ‘Again’, about falling in love, which closes the album on a positive note. It’s a shame neither of these was released to radio.

Kix was largely sidelined here; he only got four lead vocals to Ronnie’s nine, none of them on particularly memorable songs, and three of his tracks were the original songwriter demo recordings. Most of the money invested in this album must have gone on some of the big production numbers on Ronnie’s tracks. The harmonica-led ‘My Heart’s Not A Hotel’, written by Rob Crosby and Allen Shamblin, and co-produced by Mark Wright, is quite a nice song with the kind of vulnerable lyric suited to Kix’s voice, about a man in love with a woman who is basically using him as a convenient option, but disappointingly he sounds rather uninvested vocally. Kix sounds better on the original demo of his own mid-tempo ‘One More Roll Of The Dice’, which he produced with co-writer Tom Shapiro, but the song is filler and once again the production is too heavy for my tastes. ‘She Likes To Get Out of Town’, written and produced with Bob DiPiero, is both generic Brooks & Dunn and over-produced.

The story song ‘Her West Was Wilder’ from the same team is more interesting, but would have been better still with more low key production. It tells of a woman who is just a little too much for the narrator to hold:

Every time I looked in those faraway eyes
I could see me getting left behind…
Where the wild wind blows and anything goes
As long as it’s over the line
I gave her my best
But her west was wilder than mine

While this was one of the duo’s less inspired efforts, there was enough here to appeal to their entrenched fanbase. The album reached #1 on the country charts and sold platinum.

Grade: C+

Album Review: Patty Loveless – ‘Honky Tonk Angel’

Honky Tonk AngelPatty Loveless’ third album, released in 1988, marked her real commercial breakthrough. It was her first gold-seller (and eventually reached platinum status), and it also built on her growing success on country radio. No less than five of the ten tracks were released as singles – an unusually high number at the time. It is a testament to the strength in depth of the material that every single one was a top ten hit.

Whereas Patty’s first two albums had been co-produced by Tony Brown with Emory Gordy Jr, this time Brown took sole charge, and he delivered a commercial, radio-friendly record with enough traditional influences to fit perfectly with the tune of the times. The title alone was something of a statement of intent, as a phrase which does not appear on any of the lyrics of the songs, but one which called to mind Kitty Wells’ 50s classic ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels’. A predominantly up-tempo set of material drew on Patty’s rock-singing past and her mountain background, intermixed with some soaring ballads which showed off her beautiful voice and emotive interpretative ability.

The opening track, and lead-off single, was the beaty country-rock ‘Blue Side Of Town’, written by Hank DeVito and Paul Kennerley. It was followed by the pleading ballad ‘Don’t Toss Us Away’, written by rock musician Bryan MacLean, and previously recorded by the country-rock group Lone Justice featuring MacLean’s sister, future pop star Maria McKee, on vocals. Brown’s production and Patty’s vocals transformed it into a pure country song, one which allowed Patty to stretch out vocally and show how she could emote, supported by Rodney Crowell on harmony vocals, as she begs:

Don’t toss us away so thoughtlessly
It just ain’t right
Oh can’t you see
I still love you
I want you to stay
Darlin’ please, don’t toss us away

Patty’s first #1 single was the engaging up-tempo ‘Timber I’m Falling In Love’, one of several tracks here to benefit from Vince Gill’s prominent harmonies. It was also the first #1 for its writer, Kostas. The same combination of Kostas as writer, Patty on lead, and Vince Gill on harmony (together with bluegrass vocalist Claire Lynch) was responsible for the fourth single, the full-blooded ballad ‘The Lonely Side Of Love’. Only reaching #6, it was the least successful of the singles from the album, and is one of Patty’s less well remembered songs today, but it is still a fine recording.

Kostas wrote a third track on the album, the loungy ‘If You Think’, which is beautifully interpreted by Patty as a love song with an underlying hint of sadness as the protagonist defends her love against her lover’s doubts. The final single was my favorite, as Vince Gill’s harmonies again helped ‘Chains’ to the top of the chart. The downbeat lyrics about a woman emotionally tied to a hopeless love are married to an effervescent sound which is utterly irresistible.

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