My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Joey Martin

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

Occasional Hope’s top 10 albums of 2013

This year has seen some excellent albums released. I had to leave off my final top ten fine records by Amber Digby, Ashley Monroe, Jamie Richards, Julie Roberts and Eric Strickland. The most notable thing for me has been the resurgence in artistic terms at least, if not commercial ones, of great female voices. Last year none of my top albums was from a female artist. This year there are four solo women (all excellent writers as well as singers, although one chose to release predominantly covers this time), four male leads, and two mixed duos, and while I don’t like quotas or judging for anything other than the quality of the music, increased diversity of life experience can only be good for the variety of experiences reflected in the music.

10. Old Yellow MoonEmmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell
The long awaited reunion project was a delight, and well worth the wait. Seeing them live was a personal highlight of my year.
Best tracks: ‘Dreaming My Dreams’, ‘Here We Are

roots of my raising gregory9. Roots Of My RaisingThe Clinton Gregory Bluegrass Band
Another project presenting country classics with bluegrass arrangements. Clinton Gregory’s underrated tenor matches his fine fiddle playing, and his excellent vocal interpretations make this one worth hearing.
Best tracks: ‘New Patches’, ‘Roots Of My Raising’, ‘I Never Go Around Mirrors’

8. Made To LastJoey + Rory
While not really groundbreaking, the latest from husband and wife duo Joey Martin and Rory Feek contains some beautiful songs, tastefully produced. The couple may slow down their busy schedule next year and they are expecting their first baby together in the spring, but this (and the year’s earlier religious album) will keep fans going.
Best tracks: ‘Just A Cup Of Coffee’, ‘Now That She’s Gone’, ‘50,000 Names’ with a bonus mention for ‘The Preacher And The Stranger’ on Inspired.

showin my roots7. Showin’ My RootsDonna Ulisse
A delightful mix of country and bluegrass on a collection of the songs which inspired Donna. She’s a fine bluegrass singer and songwriter – but her majestic alto is petrfect for traditional country, and setting them against beautifully played bluegrass abackings is the best of both worlds.
Best tracks: ‘If That’s The Way You Feel’, ‘Somebody Somewhere Don’t Know What He’s Missing Tonight’, ‘In The Good Old Days When Times Were Bad’

6. Brothers Of The HighwayDailey & Vincent
The best duo in bluegrass return with their first secular album of new material since 2009. This is spectacular playing and singing, a masterclass in bluegrass.
Best tracks: ‘When I Stop Dreaming’, ‘Hills Of Caroline’, ‘Brothers Of The Highway’

i let her talk5. I Let Her TalkErin Enderlin
It only had nine tracks, which lost it a few points, but the outstanding quality of the songs and Erin’s strong voice meant this forced its way onto my top 10 list.
Best tracks: ‘I Let Her Talk’, ‘Get That At Home’, ‘Last Call’, ‘Monday Morning Church

4. The HighwayHolly Williams
Hank Jr’s daughter comes of age as an artist with this fine singer-sogwriter record. Her sultry voice, the tasteful production and excellent songs combine to make a memorable listening experience.
Best Tracks: ‘Giving Up’, ‘Drinkin’’, ‘Waiting On June

randy3. Influence Vol 1:- The Man I AmRandy Travis
Randy Travis has seemed to be on a downward spiral both personally, with well-publicised troubles with the law and an increasingly concerning alchol problem, and professionally, with his voice showing disturbing signs of deterioration. His health took a turn for the worse this year, but his Haggard-heavy album of classic covers was an unexpected highlight of the year. The man who was at the heart of the revival of more traditional styles of country music in the 1980s reveals his greatest influences, and is back in better voice than he has been for some years. the slightly lopsided selection of material may be a casualty of his health issues – perhaps more recording sessions were planned. I only hope that he recovers and a Volume 2 may be a possibility.
Best tracks: ‘What Have You Got Planned Tonight, Diana’, ‘I’m Always On A Mountain When I Fall’, ‘Someday We’ll Look Back

2. BakersfieldVince Gill and Paul Franklin
I wouldn’t necessarily have associated Vince Gill’s honeyed tenor with the Bakersfield sound, but his labor of love collaboration with steel player Paul Franklin was a revelation. Vince’s heartfelt interpretations of these classics breathes new life into them.
Best tracks: ‘Holding Things Together’, ‘Branded Man’, ‘But I Do’, ‘Together Again

12 stories
1. 12 StoriesBrandy Clark

The songwriter has been very successful in recent years selling her songs to more mainstream acts, but it turns out she kept her best songs for her own album. She serves up a dozen believable slices of life on her debut album, a pointed reminder that at its best country music is the genre which records real lives in troubled times. Ranging from the quirky wit of single ‘Stripes’ to dark cheating songs like ‘What’ll Keep Me Out Of Heaven’, and taking in the soothing sweetness of ‘Hold My Hand’ and ‘Just Like Him’, this is one of those rare albums without a weak track, and one which demonstrates that contemporary country can be great. Brandy also has a rich, expressive voice. Much-deserved critical acclaim has not yet been matched by sales – but this is an outstanding record.
Best tracks: ‘What’ll Keep Me Out Of Heaven’, ‘In Some Corner’, ‘Take A Little Pill’, ‘Pray to Jesus’, ‘Just Like Him

Album Review: Joey + Rory – ‘Inspired: Songs Of Faith And Family’

inspiredHusband and wife Joey + Rory are open about their shared deep religious faith, with the couple reading the bible together daily, so it was no surprise when they announced they were planning their first religious record. Their first release for gospel label Gaither Music Group contains less familiar fare than one often encounters on religious albums, not all of it overtly spiritual, although they rely less on Rory as a songwriter than on their previous work. You can always rely on Joey + Rory for tasteful production, and this time Rory takes the chair, with the help of guitarist Joe West. The record was recorded in a friend’s home studio, with mainly unknown musicians plus a few starry guests, and there is a quiet homespun feel which works well.

Joey and Rory share the leads fairly evenly, as they did on their last album. Although this wastes the fact that the duo’s greatest asset is Joey Martin’s beautiful voice, this time around two of Rory’s leads are my favourite tracks.

One of these highlights is the thought-provoking and non-judgmental story song ‘The Preacher And The Stranger’, recorded live and acoustic. The title characters are a troubled preacher and a passing stranger taking refuge from a storm in the former’s church. As the pair talk

About how life’s unfair sometimes
Trying to make sense of how God works

the preacher shares his sorrow and bitterness at the death years earlier, confessing,

I prayed so hard to Jesus to save my only son
It seems all I do these days is question why
Now I stand here every Sunday and preach to everybody else
I talk a lot about forgiveness
But I can’t do it myself

In an ultimately moving if unlikely coincidence, the visitor turns out to be the repentant drunk driver who killed the preacher’s son so many years before.

There is no facile resolution, but the song’s non-judgmental approach implies forgiveness, though not asked for, will be proffered, and perhaps the preacher will gain peace himself. This remarkable song was written by Jerry Salley and Carl Cartee.

I also very much liked Rory’s warm-hearted cover of ‘Long Line Of Love’, a sweet Paul Overstreet/Thom Schuyler song about love passing down through the generations, which was a chart topping single for Michael Martin Murphey back in 1987. ‘It’ll Get You Where You’re Goin’’, written by Jerry Salley with Kelley Lovelace, also uses the theme of a loving family, with a father giving his son an old car at 16 and a Bible when the boy leaves home a couple of years later. The attractive melody and Rory’s believable vocal gives charm to an unoriginal theme. Rory’s own song ‘Hammerin’ Nails’ seems to be an autobiographical tribute to his hard working father laying the foundation of a happy family life as he builds the family’s dream home.

The dragging melody makes Richard Leigh’s ‘My Life Is Based On A True Story’ rather boring as a listening experience, although its emotional response to the Gospel is clearly sincerely shared by Rory.

Joey sings the hymn ‘In the Garden’ with equal reverence and a careful attention to the lyrics which reflect her deep-rooted faith. She also sings ‘Amazing Grace’ to the faint strains of an organ backing. ‘Are You Washed In The Blood’ picks up the pace, with Rory and the Isaacs singing call-and-response backing vocals. A cheerful feel with handclapping makes this track enjoyable, but it perhaps lacks emotional depth. Gospel legend Bill Gaither helps out on harmonies on the equally cheery and handclapping ‘I’m Turning To The Light’, written by Stephanie Davis, which worked better. ‘Leave It There’ is another hymn, about casting burdens on the Lord, which I hadn’t heard before but liked.

The biggest star guest is Josh Turner, who duets with Joey on ‘Gotta Go Back’, which he wrote with Rory. Both singers sound gorgeous on a song with a gentle melody, with Turner’s resonant bass contrasting with Joey’s beautiful voice, and aurally this is wonderful, with a pensive fiddle line underpinning the vocals. The lyric expresses a wistful desire to regain the innocence of earlier times, before modern day cares (ranging from career pressure to fear of terrorism and school attacks) impinged, without offering any answer as to how this could be achieved.

Joey, Rory and Rory’s daughter Heidi wrote the idealistic ‘I See Him’ about finding God in the details of ordinary life, which is quite pleasant.

There is a gentle positive mood to this record. It should appeal to existing fans of Joey + Rory, and to those who like their religious music understatedly reverent but non-preachy.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Joey + Rory – ‘His And Hers’

For Joey + Rory’s third studio album, they have stayed with producer Gary Paczosa, who helmed last year’s charming Christmas album. As with that Christmas record, Paczosa does a good job, but not quite as sparking a sound as that given to their first two albums by Carl Jackson. Joey’s voice is what sets this duo apart, and it was a little disappointing that this time around she and Rory have split the lead vocals equally (hence the choice of title). I can appreciate they want to underline the point that this is an equal partnership professionally as in life, but while Rory’s voice is perfectly listenable and he shows fine interpretative skills here, Joey is one of the best female vocalists around at the moment. Another slight disappointment was that the delightful ‘Headache’, released as a single last year, didn’t make the final cut.

I have already written about the somber lead single, the stunning ‘When I’m Gone’, and this impresses me more each time I hear it. There are two other really outstanding songs here, both written by Rory with the impressive Erin Enderlin.

The title track tells the story of a couple slowly growing apart, lyrically very similar to the song of the same title recorded some years ago by John Anderson, but the sweet melody and Joey’s subtle vocal set this apart:

All a husband and wife
Have left of a life
That had such a beautiful start
Are two kids torn apart
And two broken hearts
His and hers

Also excellent, ‘Waiting For Someone’ has a woman who meets the perfect man while waiting in a bar for a blind date (perhaps). It seems in fact to be a more subtle ‘The Chair’ situation, as she winds up telling the man she has been talking to,
I was waiting for someone like you”.

A perfectly constructed lyric and delicate tune are interpreted beautifully by Joey’s sultry but vulnerable vocal.

The other songs on which Joey sings lead are pretty good if not quite up to that standard. Kent Blazy and Leslie Satcher’s ‘Let’s Pretend We Never Met’ is a swinging flirtatious number with a wife trying to jazz up her tired marriage, which is quite fun. ‘Love Your Man’ is a pacy and quite enjoyable song encouraging another married woman to persevere with loving her husband, which Joey helped Rory and his daughter Heidi to write. ‘He’s A Cowboy’ is a tribute to the titular cowboy, which doesn’t bring anything new to a wellworn theme, but is beautifully sung with Jon Randall Stewart on backing vocals.

In the compelling story song ‘Josephine’ (on of Rory’s own compositions), he voices the letters of a Civil War Confederate soldier separated from his wife, wracked by guilt over killing a young enemy soldier and anticipating his own death. This is excellent.

‘A Bible And A Belt’ was written by Rory with Philip Coleman and sounds autobiographical. I’m not a big fan of correlating religion and corporal punishment, so this one’s positive, nostalgic feel doesn’t quite work for me, but it is nicely put together with Rory’s finest vocal.

I really like ‘Teaching Me How To Love You’, which rich-voiced teenager Blaine Larsen (who was discovered by Rory) recorded back in 2005. I was disappointed and a little surprised he never broke through, but while Blaine’s version sounds better than Rory’s on a purely aural level, I couldn’t be convinced by the delivery from an 18 year old talking about all the life lessons taught by past loves, and Rory’s maturity makes it infinitely more believable.

The jazzy ‘Someday When I Grow Up’, written by Rory with Tonya Lynette Stout and Dan Demay has a father refusing to mature, and is quite amusing with an interesting instrumental arrangement, but has Rory’s least impressive vocal performance. A similarly slightly flawed but lovable man is the protagonist of a charming relaxed cover of Tom T Hall’s love song ‘Your Man Loves You, Honey’ ( a #4 hit for the singer-songwriter in 1974), and this is highly enjoyable in a Don Williams/Alan Jackson style.

‘Cryin’ Smile’ is a bit of a list song (written by the team of Phil O’Donnell, Gary Hannan and Ken Johnson), but Rory’s invested vocal lifts this song about those emotional and sometimes bittersweet moments in life.

As expected, this sounds good, but although there are a number of standout tracks, overall the material falls just a little short of their first two albums. But at its best, there are some great songs, and the duo remains one of my favourite acts in country music.

Grade: A-

Television Review – ‘The Joey + Rory Show’

For those old enough to remember, Country Music has a long history with the variety show. Everyone from Porter Wagoner to the Wilburn Brothers, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, The Statler Brothers and even Barbara Mandrell (along with her sisters Louise and Irlene) graced America’s TV sets at one point or another.

This tradition has long since ended as the format died out over the past thirty years. The downfall in this type of programming meant generations of country fans wouldn’t have the opportunity to see their favorite performers on TV each week and get a chance to pull back the curtain to see the person behind the celebrity.

But thanks to RFD-TV, the format is coming back strong. The traditionally structured Marty Stuart Show has been showing his, and Connie Smith’s, brand of country music for a couple of years now, and The Joey + Rory Show debuted two weeks ago.

Mixing homespun wisdom and old-fashioned charm, The Joey + Rory Show is the perfect showcase for the husband and wife duo residing in Pottsville, Tennessee. Filmed on their farm and in their restaurant Marcy Jo’s Mealhouse, they make you feel like you’ve gone back to the simpler ideals of the 1950s/1960s when America’s beating heart resided in Mayberry.

This simplicity gives the show its pulse and encases each episode in a sincere authenticity that feels genuine opposed to concocted from a network executive.  Each thirty-minute episode (13 comprise the first season) is broken into segments from musical performances, comedy sketches, and cooking demonstrations, to an inside look at their life and marriage.

The music-centric portions of the program are the show’s strongest, with the “Story Behind The Song” feature standing as the highlight of the half-hour. By combining the couple’s instinctive storytelling abilities with acoustic versions of songs they’ve written, you glean a much-appreciated insight into the lives of the duo. I loved hearing Rory talk openly about the seven-year journey it took to get “A Little More Country Than That” recorded, and how the royalty checks from Easton Corbin’s #1 hit afforded them a new tin roof on their 1890s farmhouse. I also enjoyed hearing Joey tell the story of how the couple met and hearing her sing “A Night To Remember,” the yet-to-be recorded song written about that experience.

Also outstanding are the opening numbers, live performances of tracks from their excellent His and Hers album due July 31. They showcased the Kent Blazy and Leslie Satcher co-write “Let’s Pretend We’ve Never Met” in the premiere and Rory’s “The Bible and a Belt” last week, opposite ends of the His and Hers spectrum that highlight Joey’s comedic strengths and Rory’s rich family oriented storytelling.

Each week the duo also showcases guest performers, personal favorites of their choosing. By highlighting lesser-known performers, they spotlight a more refreshing crop of talents like Bradley Walker, the wheelchair bound traditional country and Bluegrass singer and 2007 IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year. The inclusion of these such performers, opposed to drawing from a pool of more established acts, exposes the viewer to artists they may not have known before and I welcome, as well as appreciate, any and all opportunities to be exposed to fresh talent not connected to mainstream Nashville.

As a whole The Joey + Rory Show is unapologetically Joey  and Rory and if you’re not a fan of the couple’s aw shucks persona and simple lifestyle, then the broader moments of the program may not be for you. The weakest moment on the program remains an Andy Rooney style comedy commentary by their neighbor and friend Wynn Varble, an established country songwriter (“Waitin’ On A Woman,” “Have You Forgotten,” “Sounds Like Life To Me”). His southern sense of humor comes off a tad Hicky for my tastes. And while I love the charm of their cooking segments, like the Coca Cola Cake demonstrated in the first episode, they aren’t broad enough recipes to appeal to everyone. That isn’t a big issue, though, since I really enjoy these aspects into Joey’s other job as a restaurateur with Rory’s sister Marcy.

Overall, The Joey + Rory Show is a wonderful yet unconventional variety show bubbling with the personality both Joey Martin and Rory Lee Feek bring to the table each week. They wanted to create great family programming and they certainly achieve that objective tenfold, giving fans a very enjoyable look at what they’re about in all aspects of their life, proving they’re a natural at everything they do.

The Joey + Rory Show airs Friday nights at 9 EST on RFD-TV, Rural America’s Most Important Network

Grade: A- 

Occasional Hope’s Top 10 Singles of 2010

I’ve been moderately encouraged by the singles released this year compared with 2009, which seemed to offer a particularly disappointing crop. While there was plenty of dross around this year, there was some good music as well. Some of my picks of the year were even hits, with my personal #1 single hitting the top of the Billboard charts.

10. Stealing Angels – ‘He Better Be Dead’

This up-tempo rant about the guy who doesn’t call back after that promising romantic evening features the lead vocals of Loretta Lynn’s granddaughter Tayla. She’s not in the same league as the legend, but this is a fun, sassy single which introduced us to a talented trio. It didn’t make the Billboard top 40, but gained some airplay.

9. Tammy Cochran – ‘He Really Thinks He’s Got It’
This entertaining single from Tammy’s excellent independent 2009 album 30 Something And Single was released this year. Sadly (if unsurprisingly), with no label support it failed to chart, but it is a wry look at dating hell.

8. Joey + Rory – ‘That’s Important To Me’

A revival of a song from Joey Martin’s independent solo album has become the latest single for the husband and wife duo who emerged on 2008’s Can You Duet. It is being ignored by radio, but has a lovely clean production with Joey’s earnest vocals shining. She is one of my favorite female vocalists at the moment.

7. Martin Ramey – ‘Twisted’

This Curb duo’s only single to date seems to have sunk without a trace, but it made an impact on me if no one else. Brad Martin (formerly signed to Epic as a solo artist) and singer-songwriter John Ramey have pleasant but individually unremarkable voices, but their harmonies blend together very attractively, and are very reminiscent of 80s predecessors the O’Kanes. Their label affiliation means we may be waiting some time for more music, but I’ll be keen to hear more.

6. Jerrod Niemann – ‘What Do You Want’

The follow-up to Jerrod’s catchy pop cover and breakthrough hit ‘Lover, Lover’ was one of the highlights on Jerrod’s rather mixed album Judge Jerrod and the Hung Jury – really good contemporary country. The plaintive lead vocal, Rachel Bradshaw’s pretty harmony, and organ melody seep into your consciousness as Jerrod tries to find out what his ex is trying to do by keeping on making contact. The single is still rising in the charts.

5. Sammy Kershaw – ‘Better than I Used To Be’

The title track of 90s hitmaker Sammy’s latest independent album (and its lead single) is a deeply honest song about a man who has let people down in the past, but is man enough to admit to his failings, and to turn his life around. Sadly his return to the recording studio was not met with commercial success, but this lovely, mature song (written by Brian Simpson and Ashley Gorley) stands up well with his past classics.

4. Jamey Johnson – ‘Playing The Part’

This downbeat look at the real cost of chasing fame in Hollywood only just squeezed into the top 40 of the Billboard country singles chart, but it is one of the most memorable singles of the year. It’s not quite as good as ‘High Cost Of Living’, which was my personal #1 single of 2009, but a very fine song nonetheless.

3. Miranda Lambert – ‘The House That Built Me’

Miranda’s star has risen steadily over the past five years, but 2009′s Revolution took her to a new level. I was less impressed than some by that album (mainly due to issues with the sound mixing), but this acoustic guitar-led smash is one of the best things on it. The sensitive ballad about returning to a childhood home to reminisce and regain the emotional wholeness of childhood was one of the biggest hits of the year, and the CMA Song (and Video) of the Year. It was written by Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin.

2. Dierks Bentley – ‘Draw Me A Map’

Dierks Bentley made a rare brave artistic choice for a major label artist this year when he released an album incorporating bluegrass and other roots influences and asked radio to play the singles. The singles have been only modest successes, with this second single struggling to get out of the 30s, but they have at least received some exposure – and Dierks was nominated for three CMA awards on the strength of the album. It remains one of the most beautiful singles of the year, with Alison Krauss’s heavenly harmony and the haunting fiddle adding special touches.

1. Zac Brown Band – ‘Highway 20 Ride’

The Atlanta band with one foot in the Caribbean has become one of the most interesting acts in country music over the last couple of years, and they were rewarded this year with Grammy and CMA awards for Best New Artist, and an array of other nominations. They have become a staple at country radio, and have defied the latter’s fondness for things to stay the same by having each successive single represent a different side of their music – with five of the six singles to have completed their run to date hitting #1 on Billboard, and the other only just failing to do so. This is my favorite of their singles to date, and was their third #1 hit, reaching its peak in April this year. Written by lead singer Zac Brown with his frequent songwriting partner Wyatt Durette and inspired by the latter’s regular journeys taking a son to visit his mother, the downbeat ballad is my favorite single of the year. It embodies the essential truth common to all the greatest country songs; in this case portraying family breakdown and the impact of the son’s relationship with his father.

I reviewed it just after its release at the end of last year, and said then that if it was a hit it would go some way to restoring my faith in country radio. It was indeed a success, and overall this has been a better year for singles than 2009. So perhaps the tide is turning.

Group Spotlight: the new New Traditionalists

This month we’re trying something a little different with our Spotlight Artist feature. We thought we would look at some of the major label artists who have been carrying the torch for more traditionally rooted styles of country music in the past decade, but none of whom have released enough music for us to spend a whole month on individually. For want of a better term, we’ve been calling them “the new New Traditionalists”, as these artists are a generation younger than the original New Traditionalists of the late 80s and early 90s. Most of them are on major labels, with a few on respected independent labels, but they have all made some impact on the scene.

Joe Nichols was the first of our selected artists to debut on the country charts. Born in Arkansas in 1976, he got a couple of unsuccessful record deals in his early 20s before breaking through in 2002. He was an immediate success with his smooth baritone, ear for a melody, and pure country instincts. In 2003 he won the CMA Horizon Award. He has released five studio albums for Universal South, the most recent of which, last year’s Old Things New, produced his third #1 single, ‘Gimmie That Girl’. He has revealed his good musical taste by his choice of covers of lesser known classic country songs on his albums. A struggle with alcohol slowed down his career for a while in the second part of the last decade, but he seems to be back at the top, and is one of the brighter spots on country radio. His latest single, ‘The Shape I’m In’, has just been released.

Dierks Bentley (a year older than Joe) was the next to come to our attention, when his debut single ‘What Was I Thinkin’ reached #1 in 2003. Six more #1s have followed, with a string of other hits, and his first two albums went platinum. He was the ACM’s Top New Artist in 2004 and won the Horizon Award in 2005. He has managed to balance traditional country leanings with a commercial sound, writing much of his material. Notably, and almost uniquely among current chart acts, he has made a habit of including a bluegrass track on each album until this year, when his fifth studio album on Capitol, Up On The Ridge saw him make a temporary change of direction completely incorporating bluegrass and Americana influences into his sound, bravely defying the trends of country radio. The latest single is ‘Draw Me A Map’. He also has a sideline as a radio host, broadcasting on The Thread every Monday at 2pm CST and you can tune in online.

A few months after the release of Dierks’ debut album, Josh Turner’s Long Black Train came rolling down the line. The darkly religious title track was only a modest radio hit, but it and Josh’s unforgettable deep bass voice made a massive impact, and sales were impressive. He was nominated for the Horizon Award in 2004, but lost out to Gretchen Wilson. Three of his singles have hit #1, and his second album Your Man has been certified double platinum. His fourth MCA record, Haywire, came out earlier this year, and the second single ‘All Over Me’ is currently in the top 10.

TV reality shows may sometimes be sneered at but they can showcase genuine talent. Tennessee-born Chris Young, a decade younger than the other guys on this list, won the 2006 season of Nashville Star thanks to a fine classic baritone voice and his original song ‘Drinkin’ Me Lonely’. The show has not been as successful at launching country artists as the multi-genre American Idol, and Chris’s first album failed to make an immediate impact. Happily, his label, RCA, had faith in the young singer, and persevered until ‘Gettin’ You Home (The Black Dress Song)’, the second single from his second album became his first real hit just last year. He has cemented his neotraditional credentials with his excellent EP Voices, and is a nominee for this year’s CMA New Artist of the Year.

Jamey Johnson’s career has been the most chequered of all this month’s artists. He had a hit with the sentimental ‘The Dollar’ in 2006, but then everything went wrong. The follow-up single flopped, label BNA dropped him, his marriage broke up, and his life collapsed. But this all cued one of the most startling turnarounds in recent years. Jamey channeled his personal disasters into some of the most intense music in Nashville at the moment. He was seeing success as a songwriter with songs like George Strait’s hit ‘Give It Away’, and in 2008 Mercury picked up That Lonesome Song, the album he had recorded independently and re-released it. ‘In Color’ became one of the most memorable hits of the year, and although other singles were not as radio friendly, Jamey sold 650,000 copies of the critically acclaimed album. His much-anticipated new double album, The Guitar Song, is due out this month.

Sunny Sweeney is the least commercially successful of the group so far. Her debut album (recorded independently, like That Lonesome Song) was re-released by Big Machine in 2007. Critically admired if not yet accepted on radio, her music is unmistakably hardcore country. She has now been transferred to Big Machine’s daughter label Republic Nashville, and her second album is hotly awaited. The lead single, ‘From A Table Away’, is her first to chart, and shows her refining her style.

Joey + Rory are perhaps the most surprising success story. Lead singer Joey Martin was signed to Sony in the early years of the decade, but nothing ever materialized. She was dropped after she married songwriter Rory Lee Feek, and in 2008 they entered the CMT contest Can You Duet, despite never having sung together before. The couple finished in third place, but Joey’s outstanding voice and the couple’s obvious chemistry led to a deal with the respected independent label Vanguard. A critically acclaimed album came out later that year, and the irresistible ‘Cheater, Cheater’, which they had performed on the show, was a top 30 hit. They won this year’s fan-voted ACM award for Best New Duo, and the appropriately titled Album # 2 is due this month. They’ve also been nominated in the CMA Duo of the Year category again despite limited mainstream exposure.

Finally, our youngest contender is singer-songwriter Ashton Shepherd, a young wife and mother born in Alabama in 1986. Her debut album on MCA elicited two modest hit singles in 2008, and she is reportedly working on a follow-up.

Another artist who fits our criteria is Easton Corbin, just rewarded with a CMA Single of The Year nomination for his breakthrough hit ‘A Little More Country Than That’; Razor X reviewed his debut album earlier in the year. Easton is also up against Chris Young for this year’s New Artist award.  Also making waves on the Texas music circuit is honky-tonker Amber Digby, a fine singer and songwriter who’s released 4 albums on the independent Heart of Texas Records.

All these artists, and the fact that they are gaining real success, give us renewed hope that the future of country music isn’t going to completely lose touch with its roots.  We’ll be telling you more about them and their contemporaries all month long.

Album Review: Joey Martin – ‘Strong Enough To Cry’

joeymartin1Joey + Rory were my favorite duo on last year’s Can You Duet, but I felt a little guilty about hoping they would win, because I couldn’t help feeling Joey was really a solo singer, with Rory just there to support her. I would have been perfectly happy if she had built on the exposure of the TV show to release a solo record, but of course the pair went on to record one of the best albums of 2008 in The Life Of A Song.

Before Can You Duet, though, Joey was indeed a solo singer. Before she married Rory, she was signed for a while to Sony Records, who dropped her without releasing any material, and in 2005 she recorded a solo album. It was originally released on the couple’s own Giantslayer Records; available as a digital download after Can You Duet was aired; and when Joey + Rory were signed to promote retailer Overstock, they cannily managed to persuade the store to stock the album in CD format.

I have just managed to get hold of a copy, and I’m not disappointed. The songs are not as good as those on the exceptional The Life Of A Song, but there is a pretty good selection, and overall this is a good album by one of the best female country singers to emerge in the last decade. Joey has one of those voices that could really only be country, with a distinctive timbre.

The album kicks off with a few bars from the classic ‘Have I Told You Lately That I Love You’, sung by Joey’s mother June Martin (who has a pretty good, slightly old-fashioned voice) accompanied by her father Jack. Further snippets from this recording are inserted between a few of the other tracks. Technically, the album starts with Joey inviting her parents to play the song, and ends with them all chatting and giggling in the studio. This was probably intended to underscore the charming home-made feel of the project, but comes across as a little self-indulgent, and by the second listen I was distinctly irritated. This aside, there is a strong family element to the record. Although Rory does not sing on it, the harmony singers include June Martin and Rory’s daughter Heidi, and even Rufus, the family dog, gets in on the act. Rory produces (with one Bill McDermott), and of course contributes his songwriting talent.

The best songs are the title track and ‘See You There’, which are the first (real) track and the penultimate one. ‘Strong Enough To Cry’ is an excellent song co-written by Rory with veteran songwriter Max D. Barnes, and showcases Joey’s excellent voice; this cut could easily be a hit single. ‘See You There’ is almost too personal, and may be too much for some, as it tells the story of the early death of Joey’s brother; some of the detail feels rather like trespassing on someone else’s private grief, and some of the rhymes feel a little too obvious, but the song has a real emotional impact. Joey and Rory wrote this song together, as they did ‘Nothing To Remember’, a charming song with a pretty tune and a good hook (“I’d rather have something to forget than nothing to remember”).

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