My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Jon Randall

Album Review: Ashley Lewis – ‘Captivated’

captivatedMost of the best female artists seem to come out of bluegrass these days. Singer, songwriter and mandolin player Ashley Lewis is the latest to catch my attention. Although this is her third album, it seems to be her breakthrough moment, setting a record for the number of tracks picked up simultaneously by bluegrass radio. Small wonder, as she has a lovely voice reminiscent of the young Alison Krauss, and is a talented writer who has composed almost all the songs here. The album is produced by fiddle player Jimmy Mattingly, and Jon Randall provides harmony vocals.

Opener ‘Nothing But Ashes’ is a fine song about facing the reality of a fading love affair.

‘Ghost’ is an excellent song with a beautiful melody (co-written with Jon Weisberger) about the pain of an abandoned wife’s memories of love now lost. Ashley has a vulnerable vocal which makes the song entirely believable, as she bemoans her ex’s choice:

Please don’t tell me it was worth the cost

Ashley’s angelic vocal soars on the dramatic Civil War story song ‘Blockade Runner’, backed by Mattingly’s atmospheric fiddle and Sammy Shelor’s banjo. ‘Winter In Wyoming’ is outstanding, a beautifully sung lonesome ballad about separation from a loved one who has followed his dream to Nashville. This is my favourite track.

The charming ‘You Put The Fire in Me’ has a Western Swing feel and features a cameo from Vince Gill on guitar (though sadly not vocals). ‘Blue Ridge Rain’ is delicately pretty, and the sultry ‘Fan The Flame’ and ‘Rivers Rising’ are also good. ‘Convicted’ is quite good but didn’t hold my attention as much as other tracks.

‘Another Place, Another Time’ is a wistful duet with Josh Williams which is excellent. This gentle ballad is actually included in two versions, bluegrass and country, the latter having a very slighter fuller but still tastefully understated production.

She veers into jazz in her instrumentals, which include a Django Reinhardt cover. ‘Mermaid’ also has a jazzy feel which is less to my taste than the rest of the album, although it is impeccably performed. An unexpected cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ is dreamily sung.

Overall, this is a fine addition to the ranks of female bluegrass stars, and well worth checking out.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Bill Anderson – ‘Life!’

lifeVeteran songwriter Bill Anderson’s most recent venture into the recording studio showcases some of his newest songs. Whispering Bill was never known for the quality of his voice, but that means he is not apppreciably worse than in his youth, while his songwriting prowess is still great. He also recruits a few famous friends to help out with vocals on some tracks, which helps with the overall sound.

‘Rhinestone Grindstone’ is a brilliantly and sympathetically observed portrait of a struggling middle aged musician afraid he’s going to die “unfamous and broke” after all, but still doggedly carrying on for his handful of fans. Now,

He can’t write the songs and he can’t hold the notes and he can’t get the girls like before,

a duetting John Anderson (who certainly can still hold the notes and will hopefully be recording again himself soon) sings.

The most entertaining track on the record is probably his humorous collaboration with Joey + Rory, ‘Whisper’, which plays on both their real-life relationship and Bill’s famous nickname. Bill plays marriage counsellor to a squabbling couple, advising them to copy him instead of yelling at one another:

If you wanna make your point and really get through
Don’t raise your voice, just do what I do
Whisper

They all sound as thought they had a great time in the studio, and this would work well live too.

The ubiquitous Willie Nelson duets on the fun tongue in cheek ‘Bubba Garcia’s’, a co-write with Buddy Cannon and Jamey Johnson about a bar and restaurant which combines the Mexican and redneck influences of its owner’s heritage.

‘A Song Like This’ is a slightly quirky song Bill wrote with Brad Paisley, about an uptown woman who finds herself in a honky tonk bar due to a broken heart. Vince Gill inserts a soulful jazzstyle vocal cameo in the middle of the honky tonk tune to represent the woman’s sophisticated background; this is not my favorite side of Gill but he is certainly accomplished at it. Disappointingly, Dailey & Vincent are wasted and barely noticeable harmonising in the background of ‘Dreams Are Easy To Come By’, a pretty love song.

The best of Bill’s solo vocals is ‘Old Army Hat’, a very touching story song about a grandfather who embarrasses his grandson by insisting on constantly wearing his “funny looking worn out army hat” in honor of the comrades who didn’t make it back from WWII. The grandson finds his views change when they visit a war memorial at Washington DC, and he finds serving soldiers respect the old man/ Grandpa then gives his hat away to a little boy, the orphaned son of the victim of a more recent war, saying,

Son just keep it…
You’re a brave little soldier, son
And every soldier needs his very own authentic army hat
For your Daddy who gave everything the least that I can do
Is pass on this old worn out army hat

The song segues into part of ‘America The Beautiful’, with a small choir joining in, which works surprisingly well.

The other songs, good though they are, would undoubtedly sound better with someone else singing. ‘Blackberry Winter’ (written by Bill with Rob Crosby) is a very good if downbeat song comparing a thwarted romance to a cold spell in spring. ‘She Could Ruin My Life’ is quite a sweet song about falling in love, written with Jon Randall and Vicky McGehee. ‘In Another Life’, written with Walt Aldridge is a catchy and melodic but slightly silly little song about meeting someone it feels like he has known before; while the tender ‘When You Love Me’ is a straightforward love song.

Grade: B

Album Review – Lorrie Morgan – ‘Greater Need’

LorrieMorganGreaterNeedIn light of the lukewarm response to War Paint, Lorrie Morgan took a year off to regroup. BNA Nashville released Reflections: Greatest Hits in June 1995, which spawned three singles. The upbeat “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” returned Morgan to #1, while “Back In Your Arms Again” peaked top 5, Morgan’s best showing in over two years. Both are excellent as is “Standing Tall,” a traditional ballad that criminally struck out at #32. All three are essential Morgan cuts and her best singles since the Watch Me era.

With newfound creative juices Morgan replaced Richard Landis with James Stroud as producer for her fifth album. Stroud’s clean contemporary production didn’t quite reverse Morgan’s fortunes at radio, but it helped Greater Need keep some of the momentum she gained from the Greatest Hits project, which went double platinum.

Constant Change wrote the album’s lead single “By My Side,” a duet with Morgan’s then fourth husband Jon Randall. The fiddle heavy ballad is excellent but Randall sounds like a prepubescent Vince Gill with his falsetto-drenched vocal. The track peaked at #18, a far cry better then second single “I Just Might Be,” which hit #45. The track itself is a wonderful bluegrass flavored number that ranks among Morgan’s best tracks. Like “Standing Tall,” it deserved to be a much bigger hit.

Pop-leaning ballad “Good As I Was To You” was the album’s biggest song, peaking at #4, and has since joined “Something In Red” as one of Morgan’s most iconic singles. It’s a dynamo of a song, a sequel of sorts to “Guess You Had To Be There,” with the woman confronting her cheating spouse at a restaurant they used to frequent. Her vocal could’ve displayed more bite, but she sings the hell out of the lyric as it is.

Travis Tritt and Vince Gill join Morgan on the honky-tonk rocker “Stepping Stones,” which is good, but feels like three solo performances thrown together (i.e. as though they all recorded their parts separately), not a cohesive whole. Their vocals are stellar, but the song is pure filler. Much better is a brilliant cover of Billy Walker’s “Don’t Stop The World (If You Don’t Mean To Stay),” written by country music legend Ray Pennington. Morgan and Stroud bring the track to life with a fabulous fiddle and steel drenched arrangement and Morgan’s perfectly nuanced vocal.

Paul Nelson, Gayla Borders, and Jeff Borders’ “Reading My Heart” is a fairly ordinary lyric but Stroud gives it a wonderfully fiddle and steel drenched mid-90s arrangement that elevates the somewhat mundane number. Nothing can save “She Walked Beside The Wagon,” not even its generous helping of steel. The lyric is prodding, especially in the second verse, when reference is made to JFK’s funeral. Morgan sings it well, but that’s about it.

In concept, “Back Among The Living” is great. Morgan is singing about finding the space within a broken heart to get back out there again, but the melody fails to elevate the somewhat lackluster lyric. Morgan has the experience to bring the song to life, but she’s failed by a piano heavy production that lacks enough noticeable steel guitar flourishes to make it stand out. Similarly “I Can Buy My Own Roses” has a wonderful concept, but the idea has been done so much stronger on countless other songs throughout the years. Morgan is let down again by a less then stellar lyric that never quite reaches it’s full potential. Thankfully “Soldier of Love” has a wonderful thumping production, confident vocal, and above average lyric to help it stand out.

I so wanted to give Greater Need an A, as the strongest tracks are among Morgan’s best. But there are too many instances where either the production or lyric hinder enjoyment enough to be problematic. That being said it’s still a good album overall and well worth cherry picking from.

Grade: B+ 

Spotlight Artist: Lorrie Morgan

lorrie-morgan-07During Monday night’s broadcast of An Intimate Evening with Eddy Stubbs featuring Vince Gill and Paul Franklin, Gill said:

“Our very earliest memories of why we love country music so deeply is because of when it hit us.” 

I’ll never forget hearing Lorrie Morgan sing “What Part of No” when I was five and being hooked. I was a fan of the Eagles before then, but Morgan’s 1993 #1 hit was my first exposure to country music and began a reverence for 1990s country that still holds strong today. From Morgan I discovered Alan Jackson, Collin Raye, and George Strait. Needless to say, the music seeped into my soul and became an integral part of who I am.

But Morgan was the artist who started it all. She was born, ironically, Loretta Lynn Morgan June 27, 1959 about a year before that other Loretta Lynn charted with “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl.” She was born in Nashville to country singer George Morgan, who’d taken his sole #1, and signature song, “Candy Kisses” to the top ten years earlier. I remember hearing Morgan say the similarities between their names were pure coincidence.

Morgan made her Grand Ole Opry debut at age 13 singing “Paper Roses,” and her father passed away in 1975. She subsequently took over his band, only to leave two years later and join Little Roy Wiggins. Morgan then held a receptionist and songwriting job at Acuff-Rose Music before joining Ralph Emery’s morning television show as a featured vocalist.

Her music career began in 1978 when she charted a single with minor success. A similarly received and electronically dubbed duet with her dad followed, as did opening slots on tours featuring the likes of Jack Greene and Jeannie Seely. Morgan was also a regular singer on Nashville Now, part of the Opryland USA Bluegrass Show, and a touring duet partner of George Jones. She scored another minor hit in 1984, the same year she became the youngest person to ever join the Grand Ole Opry.

Morgan was already divorced from George Jones’ former bass player when she met and married up and coming country singer Keith Whitley in 1986. The couple had a son, her second child, a year later. Whitley was notoriously known for his drinking and Morgan was said to have handcuffed them together with a bathrobe tie while they slept, in order to keep him from getting up to drink. She hit the big time when, now under the care of RCA Nashville, her single “Trainwreck of Emotion” went top 20 in 1988. The follow-ups were more successful – “Dear Me” hit #9 and “Out of Your Shoes” went to #2.

She was in the middle of an international tour and on her way to Alaska when she received the call that Whitley had died May 9, 1989. Morgan rushed back to Nashville. Two days later, May 11, her debut record Leave The Light On was released. That week Morgan gave an emotional performance of her hit “Dear Me” on the Grand Ole Opry, and famously accepted his CMA Single of the Year Award for “I’m No Stranger To The Rain” that fall.

Morgan reached another milestone when her single “Five Minutes” became her first #1 in 1990. That same year she charted with “Till A Tear Becomes A Rose,” a duet with Whitley. They’d win the CMA Vocal Event of the Year Award for their record that same year. She also married a one-time truck driver for Clint Black, and released Something In Red in 1991. The title track, a top 15 hit, would become her signature song.

Her third album Watch Me dropped in 1992, featuring her second #1 “What Part of No.” She divorced her third husband the following year and took up with Dallas Cowboys Quarterback Troy Aikman. Watch Me became Morgan’s third consecutive platinum album, making her the first female artist to reach that feat.

Morgan was now a hit with the fans, as displayed in her win for Female Vocalist of the Year at the 1994 TNN/Music City News Awards (a win she’d repeat several times), the fan voted award show that’s since morphed into the CMT Video Music Awards. Her fourth album War Paint, released that May, saw three singles tank on the charts. A Greatest Hits album and her final #1, “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” followed a year later. She was also romantically involved with US Senator and Actor Fred Thompson.

A fourth marriage, to country singer Jon Randall, took place in 1996. A duet between the pair, “By My Side,” went top 20 and led Morgan’s Greater Need album, which also included the top 5 “Good As I Was To You.” Morgan embarked on a headlining tour with Pam Tillis and Carlene Carter that summer. Her final big hits came from Shakin’ Things Up in 1997 – “Go Away” went top 5, while “One Of These Nights Tonight” peaked top 15. She released her autobiography, Forever Yours, Faithfully that fall.

Her hits may’ve dwindled, but the spotlight was shining bright. A duet with Sammy Kershaw (1999’s “Maybe Not Tonight”) led to the pair’s wedding in the fall of 2001. They released a duets album and Morgan said she’d never get divorced again. Their tumultuous six-year marriage (Morgan’s fifth) was a mess – they constantly fought, he allegedly tried to kill her, and broke up only to make up numerous times. She released an independent album, Show Me How in 2004.

The past decade has been the tamest of Morgan’s career. She filed for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy in 2008, and married her sixth husband beachside in 2010, the same year she was set to perform on Broadway in Pure Country, a part that never came to fruition. She’s currently touring as one half of the duo Grits and Glamour with Tillis. The pair released their long-awaited duets project Dos Divas late last month.

Hope you enjoy our (drama free) look back at Lorrie Morgan’s career throughout the month.

Album Review: Pam Tillis – ‘Rhinestoned’

rhinestonedAfter parting ways with Sony following the release of her 2002 tribute album to her father, Pam Tillis took a five-year hiatus from the recording studio. The time off did her some good from an artistic standpoint; Rhinestoned, which was released in the spring of 2007 on her own Stellar Cat imprint, easily trumps her last couple of uneven releases for Arista.

Surpisingly, Tillis only has songwriter credits on two of the album’s eleven tracks, though she did share production duties with Gary Nicholson and Matt Spicher. Many artists have difficulty getting access to first-rate material by the time the major label phases of their careers have ended, but this is decidedly not the case here. Rhinestoned boasts an impressive roster of songwriters, including Leslie Satcher, Lisa Brokop, Jon Randall, Matraca Berg, Gary Harrison and Bruce Robison. Pam’s brother Mel Jr. co-wrote one track with her.

My favorite track is the lovely opening number “Something Burning Out”, penned by Leslie Satcher, which finds Tillis lamenting a lost love and avoiding anything to do with fire — namely candles, the fireplace, and cigarettes — which remind her of happier times. I like to contrast this song to “Don’t Tell Me What To Do”; the earlier song finds Tillis defiant and determined to party away her troubles, whereas “Something Burning Out” finds her more weary and resigned to her situation. Also quite good is “Band In The Window”, the first of the album’s two non-charting singles, which takes a humorous look at the bar scene, the patrons who hang out there, and the aspiring musicians who perform there.

“That Was A Heartache”, a Bruce Robison co-write with Leslie Satcher, is another favorite. Pam performs it well, but it deserved a wider audience than she was able to reach at this point of her career. I’d like to see a mainstream artist cover this tune, though I can’t think of anyone from the current crop of artists who could do it justice, and country radio would probably not be interested in it anyway. Kellie Pickler did recently cover “Someone Somewhere Tonight”, a pretty but unmemorable and slightly dull ballad.

Pam co-wrote “Life Sure Has Changed Us Around” with Gary Nicholson, a track on which she duets with fellow performer John Anderson. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to pair these two up but they sound very good together and I wouldn’t mind hearing more collaborations from them. The Matraca Berg – Gary Harrison tune “Crazy By Myself” is given a Dixeland jazz arrangement, which provides a nice change of pace, though the production on the track is a little heavy-handed.

“Bettin’ Money On Love” is the album’s most unusual track. It is mostly spoken and not sung. I’m not a huge fan of spoken word songs, but this one has a really good fiddle track and I have to admit it is well done. Tillis portrays a bar owner — perhaps the same bar depicted in “Band In The Window” — who has banned football viewing from her establishment and goes on to recount the tale of her ex-lover who gambled away Tillis’ beloved Mustang on a football game.

Rhinestoned was apparently intended to be a 1970s-style “hippie country” record, and though I’m not sure it really succeeds on that level, it is a very entertaining and well-performed collection of songs that proved that while her hitmaking days may be behind her, the world hasn’t heard the last of Pam Tillis. And for that we are most grateful.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Ashley Monroe – ‘Like A Rose’

like a roseAlthough shes’s still in her 20s, it’s been a long haul for Ashley Monroe, who has been one of the best kept secrets in country music for far too long. Signed to Sony while still in her teens, her singles failed to make much headway, even when she duetted with Ronnie Dunn. Her album for Sony was critically acclaimed but only released digitally in 2009 in a half-hearted kissoff by the label a couple of years after they had dropped her. Teaming up with superstar Miranda Lambert and songwriter Angaleena Presley as the Pistol Annies has definitely raised her profile among country fans.

Her return to a major label, Warner Brothers, was one of the most exciting pieces of news last year, and I have been eagerly anticipating this album. Vince Gill produces with Justin Niebank, and they do a great job showcasing Ashley’s pretty voice. She co-wrote every song here.

The autobiographical title track and current single, which Ashley wrote with Guy Clark and Jon Randall, has an inspirational sweetness about overcoming the pain instilled in her family by the death of her father when she was 13. It is a charming track, but sadly does not appear to have made much headway with radio. The melancholic ‘She’s Driving Me Out Of Your Mind’, also written with Jon Randall, is another highlight, sounding like a lost-love country classic.

The ironic ‘A Dollar Short And Two Weeks Late’, a co-write with Shane McAnally, sounds sweet (especially with Rebecca Lynn Howard’s harmonies) but has a lyrical edge which would have made it a good fit for Ashley’s work with the Pistol Annies. Here Ashley portrays a young woman living in a conservative town who finds herself pregnant by her now-absent lover:

When you’re living in sin I guess
Sometimes that’s just what you get

So the man is gone
What a damn cliche
And my mama says
Looks like I gained some weight
Landlord’s at the door
And says the rent can’t wait
But I’m a dollar short
And two weeks late

The delicately folksy ‘Used’ (written with Sally Barris and previously included on Ashley’s digital release Satisfied) sings the praises of experience, comparing it to cherished old possessions.

The catchy but lyrically controversial ‘Weed Instead Of Roses’ is an enthusiastic endorsement of walking on the wild side of life with the protagonist’s love interest (and the drugs are the least of it, with Ashley calling for her lover to get out the “whips and chains”). Musically, this is great, but I can’t imagine it on the radio. The overt S&M references here are repeated more circumspectly with a reference to Fifty Shades Of Grey in the fabulous ‘You Ain’t Dolly (And You Ain’t Porter)’, a wittily tongue-in-cheek duet with Blake Shelton with an ultra-traditional feel musically. It’s the best thing Blake has done in years, and was clearly written especially for him with its allusions to The Voice TV show. It is one of two songs Ashley wrote with Vince Gill; the other is the lively tale of teenage criminal on the run, ‘Monroe Suede’, which is unexpectedly upbeat and highly enjoyable.

I was a little bored by ‘You Got Me’, an AC-sounding co-write with Karen Fairchild with a rather dreary minor-keyed melody, organ replacing steel guitar, a heavy-handed string arrangement and Little Big Town on surprisingly muddy backing vocals. Also on the more contemporary side, but making more impact, is the introspective ‘The Morning After’, written with Lori McKenna and Liz Rose about the depressing aftermath of a drunken teenage night when the protagonist “lost everything that mattered”. Jon Randall and Andrea Zonn harmonize.

The most disappointing thing about Ashley Monroe’s new album is that there are only nine tracks, which seems unnecessarily mean. This is a fine record, but I’m not sure how commercially viable it is. I really hope it does well, because Ashley is one of the most interesting young artists around, and I want to hear more from her.

Grade: A-

Album Review: John Corbett – ‘Leaving Nothin’ Behind’

leaving nothin behindWhen a successful actor turns his hand to music, the result is often met with accusations of vanity projects. But I thought John Corbett’s first album, back in 2006, was a good record on its own merits, with the actor showing off a smoky voice with an interesting tone and although he doesn’t write he clearly has a good ear for material. His latest effort is also worthwhile. The album is produced by Gary Paczosa with Corbett’s friend Jon Randall Stewart, who wrote the best song on Corbett’s first project (‘Cash’) and also contributed most of the songs on this one – and that level of quality material helps make the album stand out. Corbett’s smoky voice is fairly distinctive, backed up by the harmonies of Randall, Sarah Buxton, Jessi Alexander and John Cowan, while the overall sound is contemporary but not over-produced.

Perhaps my favourite track is the dark-timbred Western story song ‘El Paso’ (not the Marty Robbins classic of the same name but perhaps a sequel) which Randall wrote with John Wiggins. The narrator is falsely accused of murder:

There ain’t no judge and jury
And there damn sure ain’t no proof
But the sheriff’s needing someone in that noose
Even though I told the truth

I wasn’t even in El Paso
When they gunned that cowboy down
I was in the arms of Rosa
Sleeping safe and sound
So remember when you hang me
All I’m guilty of
Drinking cheap tequila
And falling in love

The track is given a Western style production and allows Corbett to show off the lower extent of his vocal range, and is a real highlight.

Wiggins also co-wrote the reflective metaphorical ‘Me And Whiskey’ about a man’s ongoing on-and-off problems with alcohol. This is another excellent song. ‘Cocaine And Communion’, a Leslie Satcher co-write, tells the age old story of the struggle between addiction and God with a mother’s prayers eventually winning out:

I’ve hung out with the Devil
Like I never knew the Lord
But I was not raised a rebel
And I don’t wanna be a rebel any more

The tenderly sung and very touching story song ‘Dairy Queen’ tells a story about a woman who never forgets her first love (who died in Vietnam), and despite a happy marriage

There’s a part of her still belongs to him

‘Steal Your Heart’ is a likeable breezy declaration of love which opens the album to confident effect, written by Randall with Gary Nicholson and Paul Overstreet. A line from the song lends the album its title.

‘Name On A Stone’ was written with Bill Anderson, and relates a father’s funeral with no mourners beyond family, prompting the protagonist to decide he must leave something of substance behind when his own time comes.

The upbeat ‘Backside Of A Backslide’ was written with Randall’s wife Jessi Alexander and Chris Stapleton, about a husband begging his wife to let him back yet again. Its irrepressible optimism has a lot of charm, and I wouldn’t bet against it succeeding.

Jon Randall’s songs are rounded out by a few obscure but interesting covers; the Bellamy Brothers’ ‘Rainy, Windy, Sunshine’ (a rodeo rider’s letter from the road to a lover) is pretty good with a relaxed vocal. ‘Satin Sheets’ is not the Jeanne Pruett hit but a sardonic Southern rocker about the celebrity lifestyle written by Willis Alan Ramsey which Waylon Jennings recorded in the 70s; it’s probably my least favorite track here but performed with enthusiasm.

The only new outside song without Jon Randall’s hand is also good. ‘Tennessee Will’, written by Pat McLaughlin and Adam Hood, which has a relaxed feel, rootsy arrangement and atmospheric southern mood.

If Corbett was serious about pursuing a country music career, this is radio-friendly enough for commercial success. As a labor of love, it is a highly enjoyable record, and as a bonus, it is an effective showcase for the songs of one of Nashville’s finest songwriters.

Grade: A

Album Review: Travis Tritt – ‘Down The Road I Go’

travistritt1998’s commercially disappointing No More Looking Over My Shoulder was the first album of Travis Tritt’s career that did not earn gold or platinum certification. It also marked the end of his tenure at Warner Bros. Records. At the turn of the millennium he signed with Columbia and released Down The Road I Go, which brought about a change in his commercial fortunes, at least temporarily.

Travis had a hand in writing seven of the album’s eleven tracks, and once again served as the project’s co-producer with Billy Joe Walker, Jr. The first single release for his new label was the gorgeous ballad “Best of Intentions”, which returned him to the Top 10 for the first time in four years. It was also his first #1 since 1994’s “Foolish Pride” and was his fifth and last chart-topper. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed most of Tritt’s ballads but if pressed, I would probably choose “Best of Intentions” as my favorite.

Now back in country radio’s good graces, Tritt followed up the success of “Best of Intentions” with the Darrell Scott-penned “It’s A Great Day To Be Alive” an optimistic and upbeat number that had previously been recorded by Jon Randall. It just missed the top of the chart, leveling off at #2, as did the soulful “Love Of A Woman”. “Modern Day Bonnie and Clyde” tells the story of a man who finds himself on the wrong side of the law when a woman he picks up at a gas station robs a convenience store. Comparing themselves to the famous 1930s outlaw duo, the two go on the lam and are eventually apprehended by the police. The fun tune peaked at #8 and was the last Top Ten hit of Tritt’s career.

Down The Road I Go is one of Tritt’s more consistent and enjoyable albums in no small part due to the lack of Southern Rock tunes that permeated most of his earlier work. The album cuts are all well written and within the realm of what was considered mainstream country in the early 2000s. I particularly like the harmonies on “I Wish I Was Wrong” and the two tunes that Tritt penned with Charlie Daniels – “If The Fall Don’t Get You” and the closing track “Southbound Train”, which has just a hint of Southern Rock. I also quite like “Never Get Away From Me (For Waylon and Jessi)”, which sounds very much like something Waylon Jennings might have released a quarter century earlier.

Down The Road I Go
is one of the very few Travis Tritt albums that I still play all the way through. Although he released two more albums for Columbia, it marks his last hurrah as a hitmaker. It’s worth picking up even if you are just a casual fan as all of his major hits for Columbia can be found here.

Grade: A

Album Review: Sweethearts of the Rodeo – ‘Restless’

It’s been sixteen years since we last heard any new music from the Sweethearts of the Rodeo, but the sister duo of Kristine Arnold and Janis Oliver is finally back with a brand new collection of songs that was well worth the wait. The independently released project was co-produced by the Sweethearts with Dave Pomeroy.

Less rootsy than the duo’s two albums released by Sugar Hill in the 90s, Restless is more reminiscent of the country rock they were known for during their commercial heydey on Columbia Records. It is, however, a quieter and more low-key album than their 80s work.

Don’t expect any chart hits from this collection, but that is no reflection on the album’s quality; simply put, it knocks the socks off almost anything else Nashville has to offer these days. Their harmonies sound as fresh as they did when they first hit the charts in 1986 with “Hey Doll Baby”. The album offers up a healthy dose of country rock and rockabilly with songs such as “You Can’t Hold Me Back”, “Too Little Too Late”, “Gone to Kentucky” and the excellent title track. It takes a more soulful turn with “What Does Love Mean To You” and “Maybe Tonight”, which Janis wrote with ex-husband Vince Gill. His version, which I like better, appears on his 1994 album When Love Finds You.

There isn’t a bad song on this album, so it’s hard to pick favorites, but if pressed I would likely choose “Hopeless Rose”, a story about a “whiskey fool” in love with a lady of easy virtue, which was written by Jon Randall, Jessi Alexander and Ashley Monroe. The closing track, a remake of The Youngbloods’ 1969 pop hit “Get Together” is surprisingly effective.

As good as it is to hear from these old favorites again, an element of frustration sets in while listening to Restless. While it’s unrealistic to expect that the Sweethearts of the Rodeo would ever be able to stage a huge commercial comeback, it does make one wonder why today’s headliners seem incapable of finding material this good. I’ve always liked the Sweethearts of the Rodeo, but I never expected that they would release one of the year’s best albums, but that is exactly what they’ve done. I hope we hear from them again long before another sixteen years passes by.

Restless is primarily available as a digital download, but CD copies are available from the Sweethearts’ website. Buy a copy; this album deserves the support of every fan who remembers when good country music could be taken for granted.

Grade: A

Album Review: Dierks Bentley – ‘Home’

It was inevitable that Dierks Bentley’s follow-up to 2010’s Up On The Ridge would be a more radio-friendly project; I was slightly fearful that he would offer up a collection of mindless party songs in the vein of “Sideways” in order to get back in the good graces of country radio programmers.  What I didn’t expect was an album that was more mainstream while retaining many of the bluegrass-flavored elements of its predecessor.  This is likely the handiwork of Jon Randall, who produced Up On The Ridge, and who is back on board to share production duties with Luke Wooten and Dierks’ longtime producer Brett Beavers.

The similarities to Up On The Ridge are immediately apparent from the first notes of the opening track “Am I The Only One”, (reviewed by Occasional Hope last April) which reached #1 last September.   It starts off with a prominent banjo track, though the slightly too loud electric guitars take over by the time the song ends.   “Gonna Die Young” takes a similar approach, though this song works less well overall; the production is a little more heavy-handed and there is a slight hip-hop rhythm to the lyrics. “5-1-5-0″ and “Heart of a Lonely Girl” both sound as though they could have been recorded during the Up On The Ridge sessions.

One of the album’s highlights is the title track and current single, which was selected as the official song of Dierks’ native Arizona’s Centennial Commission.  Written by Dierks with Brett Beavers and Dan Wilson in response to the shooting of U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords last year, the song breaks from the rock-grass formula of the album’s first three tracks. It currently resides at #6 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. I reviewed the single back in October. Since that time, former Drive-By Truckers member Jason Isbell has accused Bentley of plagiarism, citing similarities between “Home” and his own “In a Razor Town”. Listen here and decide for yourself.

Things take a less serious turn when Dierks advises a friend who is about to get engaged, about the slippery slope he’s embarking on, in “Diamonds Make Babies.” I’d like to see this one become a single, but I’m inclined to think that the generic, play-it-safe “In My Head” will be the next track sent to radio. On the bluesy “When You Gonna Come Around”, Dierks is joined by Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild. Though their voices blend well together, the tune itself borders on bland. As the least country-sounding track on the album, it too could be a contender for a future single release.

Dierks saves the best for last. The closing track “Thinking of You” is a beautiful acoustic number, which at just over seven minutes is too long. After an extended instrumental break, it fades out after about five and a half minutes, only to fade back in several seconds later with a verse sung by a very young child, presumably Dierks’ daughter. Some will find this precious, but I could have done without it.

Not every track is stellar. “Tip It On Back”, about finding an escape from life’s daily trials and tribulations, and “Breathe You In” are both throwaways, but overall, Bentley succeeds in creating a sound that is contemporary while deeply rooted in country and bluegrass. There is plenty here to appeal to country radio, without alienating longtime fans.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘I Hope You Dance’

Lee Ann Womack’s most commercially successful album features crystalline vocals, an ambitious selection of material ranging from the traditional sounds closest to her heart to Americana to adult contemporary influences which barely escape being bland.

The title track was a massive crossover hit, thanks to the combination of the song’s message, very AC sounding, sophisticated production, and the lovely and obviously heartfelt vocal which Lee Ann directed to her two young daughters. The counterpoint of the Sons of the Desert (singing a different set of lyrics) is unusually set against the sweetness of Lee Ann’s optimistic vocal. The song’s ubiquity has led to some backlash, but I think it still stands up for what it is: a genuinely inspiring wish for a child to live life to the full and not regret any missed opportunities. And its message is worth hearing:

Loving might be a mistake but it’s worth making

Lee Ann’s only #1 hit, ‘I Hope You Dance’ registered platinum, won a stack of awards for both Lee Ann and its writers Mark D Sanders and Tia Sillers, crossed over to hit the top of the AC chart, and even got some pop and international airplay. It may not be her best record, but it is undoubtedly her best-known, particularly among non-country listeners.

The next single was a contrast in style and mood, a gutsy version of Rodney Crowell’s onetime minor pop hit ‘Ashes By Now’, which peaked for Lee Ann at #14. It’s one of her less country recordings, but undoubtedly technically an impressive achievement with Lee Ann successfully navigating the song’s awkward jerky rhythms, jaded mood and shifting intensity.

It was back to the ballads with ‘Why They Call It Falling’, another excellent song, written by Don Schlitz and Roxie Dean. It contrasts the thrill of falling in love with the devastation of subsequent heartbreak, and Lee Ann’s vocal is masterly, although the strings are a bit overwhelming in places. It peformed similarly to its immediate predecessor, and reached #13.

The last and best single, however, failed to make it into the top 20. The intense ‘Does My Ring Burn Your Finger?’ is a superb Buddy and Julie Miller song with a stinging lyric. Production on this track (one of three from the hands of Lee Ann’s husband Frank Liddell) is edgy but organic, with Lee Ann’s high lonesome wail just right for the starkness of the lyric addressed to the faithless spouse, with the Millers on harmony vocals.

Liddell’s other tracks are another Julie Miller song, the ponderous ‘I Know Why The River Runs’, which I could live without, and the infinitely better ‘Lonely Too’, written by Texas singer-songwriter Bruce Robison. This is my favorite on the record, a beautiful downbeat song, given a quietly impassioned delivery. The melody is quite lovely, with some strong fiddle from Aubrey Haynie and Larry Franklin and harmony vocals from Jon Randall making this a great sounding track. Lee Ann gently rebukes the careless lover who cannot understand why she is coping so badly:

You tell me you wondered if I was okay
Well, that’s a damn fool thing to say…

And you seem so surprised that I’m feeling this way
How am I so lonely today?
If you’d ever loved me the way I loved you
You would be lonely too

There are several other gems here.

The gorgeous ‘The Healing Kind’ opens the album with a subtle portrayal of disconsolate heartbreak which just won’t go away. This is a great song written by bluegrass singer/songwriter Ronnie Bowman and Greg Luck. Lee Ann’s exquisite vocal is backed by tasteful acoustic instrumentation and Ricky Skaggs’ harmonies, as she reveals a broken heart that hurts more every day, concluding bleakly as she meets yet another cold December alone,

Guess I’m just not the healing kind

Equally fine is the delicate Tammy Wynette styled ‘Stronger than I Am’ written by former singer Bobbie Cryner. A beautiful melody and tasteful strings sweeten a heartbreakingly incisive lyric about an abandoned wife who contrasts her failure to cope with live without her man, to her little girl’s innocence,

She finally learned to say goodbye
She’s sleeping through the night
She don’t wake up crying
And she’s walking on her own
She don’t need no one holding to her hand
And I hate to admit she’s stronger than I am

She’s just like her old man
Stronger than I am

Perhaps the most traditional country number included, the vivacious ‘I Feel Like I’m Forgetting Something’ is a co-write by Lee Ann with Wynn Varble and Jason Sellers. The copyright date is 1997, so one suspects it was left over from one of her previous albums. A chirpy mid-tempo number with a lot of personality about getting over an ex, it isn’t the best song here, but it was well worth reviving. Less successful is ‘After I Fall’, written by producer Mark Wright with Ronnie Rogers and Bill Kenner, which is the blander side of adult contemporary and falls completely flat.

‘Thinkin’ With My Heart Again’ is a pretty but melancholy sounding song written by Dean Dillon, Donny Kees and Sanger D Shafer with another delicate vocal conveying the complex emotions brought out when encountering a former love. An airy acoustic cover of ‘Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good’ (a chart topper for Don Williams back in 1982) ends the album on a high, with Ronnie Bowman and Dan Tyminski singing harmony.

Thanks to the juggernaut of the title song, this remains Lee Ann’s best selling album, earning triple platinum status. The singing is outstanding throughout, and although the material is mixed, there is a lot of good stuff here, making it worth finding a cheap copy.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Leslie Satcher – ‘Gypsy Boots’

Leslie Satcher is one of my favourite current songwriters, and she is also a fine singer with a velvety tone who can tackle both understated ballads and full-on attack songs with attitude. When she first came to Nashville from Texas, she did so with the aim of becoming a recording artist, before discovering her talent writing, and she has released two previous albums – the excellent Love Letters in 2001 and Creation in 2005. After a long delay, she has returned to the studio to record some of her more recent compositions, and it has proved to be worth the wait.

A couple of the songs are familiar. The title track has been recorded by Terri Clark, who co-wrote it with Leslie and Jon Randall. It’s not a favorite of mine, but Leslie’s version is funky and assertive with a strong rhythm and backing vocals effectively quoting the Motown classic ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’, which give it real impact. The unapologetic ‘Tough’ was written for Kellie Pickler and is her most recent top 30 single; the original is okay but has struggled on the charts somewhat, and Leslie’s voice has more force behind it.

The mid-tempo ‘Where I Am’ (written with Michael P Heeney) is on a similar theme to ‘Gypsy Boots’ about a restless spirit with no particular destination in mind (and “only Jesus knows where I am”). It is, however, a much better song, which could easily be a hit if recorded by a major label artist.

The gently sung and pretty sounding ‘Reasons To Hang On’ (written with Stephanie Chapman) has Leslie affirming the joys of life, possibly to someone struggling to find reasons to live:

What more do you want?
You wanna hear the voice of God?
He’d just tell you to hang on
If he could get you on the phone
Oh what’s it gonna take for you to find your faith,
To wake up before they’re gone,
Your reasons to hang on?

The unusual and charming mid-tempo ‘Sing Like Loretta Lynn’ is written with Jim Lauderdale and tells of an angel’s night time visit to a similarly despondent woman, making her forget her broken heart with a vision of the music-filled streets of Heaven. There are also a couple of good but more conventional religious songs, ‘In The Shadow Of Your Wings’ and the very pretty ballad ‘Rock Of Your Love’ (written with Al Anderson and Vince Gill, and previously recorded by Vince on his These Days set in 2006).

The enjoyable and energetic ‘And The Well Run Dry’ is a story song co-written with Jim Beavers, sung with aggressive attack. It tells the story of a moonshining woman who finds religion, something which kills the party mood in the technically dry town:

She sold beer to the just gettin’ started
Shine to the too-far-gone
Whiskey to the broken hearted and the ones just holdin’ on…

Y’all, she had the whole town out there getting high
Til she got Jesus
And the well run dry

The effervescent ‘Somethin’ ‘Bout Your Lovin’’ written with Al Anderson and Delbert McClinton has a fun rockabilly feel with lots of Jerry Lee Lewis styled piano. ‘Delta Wedding’ is a slower sultry Southern blues which offers an atmospheric and closely observed picture of a shotgun wedding on a hot summer day in Mississippi, with a melting cake and a bride whose fancy hairdo “even Jesus wouldn’t mess with”:

And she’s just about covered up what they’ve just about covered up
All for a nail biting bundle of joy

The melancholic ‘Lonely Doesn’t Know How To Leave’ (also written with Anderson) has a soothing vocal as the protagonist stays up all night dwelling on her sadness.

Leslie’s voice is shown off by the completely acappella solo delivery (and occasionally spoken) of the closing story song about her father’s journey to visit relatives, ‘Georgia Trip ‘56’, which is a tour de force. There are also impressive harmonised acappella opening to ‘If I Had Wings’, a delicate ballad with a lovely tune, and ‘Where That Train Was Going’, a gripping story song written with Jon Randall, which has a bluesy feel.

This record is a joy from start to finish, although the overall feel is a bit bluesier and less traditional than one might expect from her songs written for others.

Grade: A

It is widely available digitally. Hard copy CDs can be obtained from Leslie’s website or from CDBaby, where you can also hear brief clips of the songs:

http://www.lesliesatcher.com/

http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/lesliesatcher2

Amazon also sells the CD version, but at a higher price.

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.

Some hidden treasures of 2010

I restricted my top 10 singles list for the year to tracks which were formally released as singles, but a lot of the best music of the year was hidden away on albums. So to finish up our review of the year in country music, here are my favorite tracks from albums released this year. I’ve restricted the selection to one per artist (not counting duets), and I’ve excluded the albums which made it to my top 10 albums list to avoid too much duplication and to prevent the list being too long.

20. Trace Adkins – ‘Still Love You’ (Cowboy’s Back In Town)
Moving to Toby Keith’s label seems to have encouraged the talented but often artistically misguided Trace Adkins to give in to his worst instincts, but there is still some decent material on his latest album. This ballad swearing enduring love (written by love song specialist Jeff Bates with Robert Arthur and Kirk Roth) is a little heavily orchestrated, but has a great, understated vocal from one of the best voices around. It’s a shame the rest of the album wasn’t up to the same standard.

19. Gretchen Wilson – ‘I’m Only Human’ (I Got Your Country Right Here)
Gretchen has just scored an unexpected Grammy nomination for ‘I’d Love To Be Your Last’ from her self-released I Got Your Country Right Here, prompting general bewilderment from country fans online. But while that track isn’t bad, this song is rather better, a plaintive bar-room tale of a woman trying to resist the temptation of dalliance with a married man, which Gretchen wrote with Vicky McGehee, Dave Berg and Rivers Rutherford.

18. Jon Wolfe – ‘Play Me Something I Can Drink To’ (It All Happened In A Honky Tonk)
If you think Easton Corbin sounds like George Strait, you need to check out the Strait stylings of Jon Wolfe on his strong independent debut album. I particularly liked this classic country style bar room song (written by Kevin Brandt and Bobby Terry) about a guy seeking to get his broken heart temporarily cured by whiskey and a jukebox stocked with Hank and Jones.

17. Jamie Richards – ‘Half Drunk’ (Sideways)
A great song from a Texas-based artist about trying to get over an ex by drinking, but running out of money halfway through.

16. Miss Leslie – ‘Turn Around’ (Wrong Is What I Do Best)
A lovely steel-led heartbreak ballad written by honky tonker Miss Leslie herself, but sounding as though it could be a forgotten classic from the 60s.

15. Shawn Camp – ‘Clear As A Bell’ (1994)
This lovely song was my favorite from Shawn’s “lost” album which was resurrected from the Warner Bros vaults this year.

14. Zac Brown Band – ‘Martin’ (You Get What You Give)
Jamey Johnson personified a guitar in the title track of The Guitar Song, but Zac Brown sang a love song about one on their latest release. Charming and unusual.

13. Gary Allan – ‘No Regrets’ (Get Off On The Pain)
I’ve been disappointed by Gary’s musical direction over the past couple of albums, but the heartbreaking honesty of this touching song expressing his feelings about his late wife (which he wrote with the help of Jon Randall and Jaime Hanna) was a reminder of his excellent early work.

12. Jolie Holliday – ‘I’ll Try Anything’ (Lucky Enough)
A gorgeous cover of a sad song previously recorded by its co-writer Amber Dotson about struggling to cope with lost love. I can’t find a link for you to listen to the studio version, but here she is singing it live (after a nice version of ‘San Antonio Rose’. And as a bonus, here she is singing ‘Golden Ring’ live with Randy Travis.

11. Curly Putman – ‘Green Green Grass Of Home’ (Write ‘Em Sad – Sing ‘Em Lonesome)
The songwriter’s own version of his classic prisoner’s dream is as convincing as any version I’ve herd of this celebrated song.

10. Toby Keith – ‘Sundown‘ (Bullets In The Gun, deluxe version)
Toby is always a bit hit and miss for me, but this surprisingly restrained live version of the sultry folk-country classic is a definite hit.

9. Darin & Brooke Aldridge – ‘The Last Thing On His Mind’ (Darin & Brooke Aldridge)
I loved this husband and wife team’s sweet bluegrass album and this somber Easter song (written by Dennis K Duff) was the highlight for me.

8. Teea Goans – ‘I Don’t Do Bridges Anymore’ (The Way I Remember It)
Teea Goans’ retro independent release featured this lovely classic-styled ballad, written by Jim McBride, Don Poythress and Jerry Salley. Her voice is sweet but not that distinctive, but this breakup song is definitely worth hearing.

7. Catherine Britt – ‘Sweet Emmylou’ (Catherine Britt)
The Australian singer’s latest album was a bit hit and miss for me, but there were some very strong moments, including Catherine’s lovely version of her tribute to the healing power of the music of Emmylou Harris, which she wrote some years ago with Rory Feek. It has been released as a single in Australia.

6. Bill Anderson – ‘The Songwriters’ (Songwriter)
My favorite comic song of the year is the legendary Bill Anderson’s celebration (more or less) of songwriters’ lives, complete with the protagonist’s mother’s preference for a career as drug dealer for her son. Bill isn’t much of a singer, but this song (co-written with Gordie Sampson)is irresistible.

5. Randy Kohrs – ‘Die On The Vine’ (Quicksand)
One of the first songs to grab my attention this year was this lovely song warning a son against taking refuges from trouble in alcohol, written by famed dobro player and songwriter Randy Kohrs with Dennis Goodwin.

4. James Dupre – ‘Ring On The Bar’ (It’s All Happening)
I loved this sensitively sung low-key mid-tempo Byron Hill/Brent Baxter song about a man trying to figure out what happened to his marriage from youtube discovery James’s independent debut album, produced by Kyle Lehning.

3. Lee Ann Womack – ‘Liars Lie’ (Country Strong soundtrack)
I’m beginning to get impatient for a new album from Lee Ann, and this soundtrack cut has really whetted my appetite. This excellent song, written by Sally Barris, Morgane Hayes and Liz Rose, and the combination of Lee Ann’s beautiful vocals and the harmony from Charlie Pate, a pure country production (thanks to Lee Ann’s husband Frank Liddell and Chuck Ainlay), and a fine song make this a sheer delight.

2. Chris Young – ‘Chiseled In Stone’ (Voices EP)
Song for song, this young neotraditionalist’s three song EP of covers was the most impressive release of the year, allowing Chris to exercise his outstanding baritone voice on really top quality material – something sadly missing on his two full length albums. This Vern Gosdin song was my favorite of the three, but his takes on Keith Whitley’s ‘I’m Over You’ and John Anderson’s ‘Swingin’ were also great.

1. Alan Jackson ft Lee Ann Womack – ‘Til The End’ (Freight Train)
This particular treasure is not very well hidden, as although it hasn’t been released as a single it gained sufficient attention to get a well-deserved nomination as Musical Event of the Year at the recent CMA awards. This exquisite reading of another Vern Gosdin classic was by far the best thing on Alan’s latest (and possibly last) album for Arista.

Do you have any special favorite album tracks from this year which haven’t gained the attention they deserve?

Album Review: Brad Paisley – ‘American Saturday Night’

Brad Paisley’s 5th Gear album marked the beginning of a subtle shift to a more contemporary sound, a trend that continued with his follow-up album, 2009’s American Saturday Night, his least traditional-sounding album to date. The familiar tongue-in-cheek pick-up tunes, semi-rowdy party and fishing songs, and odes to domestic harmony are still present, but the electric guitars are amped up a little more than on previous albums. The end result is somewhat of a mixed bag; there are plenty of enjoyable moments but overall the album is the weakest in Paisley’s catalog.

Brad co-wrote all of the songs on the album, many of them with long-time collaborators Chris DuBois (who is also credited as executive producer), Ashley Gorley, Kelly Lovelace and Tim Owens. Although this group of songwriters has served Paisley well over the past decade, his continued reliance on them is the most fundamental flaw of this album. This time around, they seem to have run out of things to say, and as a result, much of American Saturday Night is a rehash of previous Paisley albums. The lead single “Then” is virtually a reincarnation of “She’s Everything” from 2005’s Time Well Wasted; “Water” seems to be a slightly less crass version of “Ticks”, and “Anything Like Me” is strikingly similar to “Letter To Me.” This play-it-safe approach worked well as far as radio was concerned; all of these tracks made it to either #1 or #2 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, and “Then” was certified platinum for digital sales exceeding one million downloads.

The singles “American Saturday Night” and “Welcome To The Future” are more original. The former is a celebration of the melting pot that is America and is my favorite of the cuts that were released to radio. “Welcome To The Future” received a lot of attention when it was released for its reference to the historic 2008 US presidential election. The song doesn’t quite work because it attempts to tie a breakthrough moment in race relations to the marvels of modern technology that dominate the first half of the song. Though the writers undoubtedly had good intentions, the triumph over decades of social injustice is trivialized by the comparison to smart phone apps and video conferencing.

Not only does American Saturday Night borrow heavily from the themes explored in Brad’s previous albums, it also relies on some of the same production gimmicks, namely the rowdy party chorus on the end of “Catch All The Fish”. While this may have worked well on previous records such as “Alcohol” and “I’m Gonna Miss Her”, it seems like out of place here. How many people can there possibly be on board that fishing boat anyway? But despite the production misstep, “Catch All The Fish” is one of the best tracks on the album,with some excellent steel guitar and fiddle playing by Randal Currie and Justin Williamson, respectively. Ditto for “The Pants.” Another favorite is “No”, which was co-written by Bill Anderson and Jon Randall. Although it is bound to invite some comparisons to Garth Brooks’ “Unanswered Prayers”, it at least explores some territory that is uncharted for Brad.

Despite its flaws, American Saturday Night is not a bad album, but it seems doomed to become one of Brad’s least memorable albums due to its lack of originality. Most of what he has to say here, he has said before, and more effectively. For his next project, I’d like to see him to take a few more risks instead of playing it safe, and perhaps engage the talents of some outside songwriters in order to gain a fresh perspective.

American Saturday Night is widely available from retailers such as Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: B-

Classic Rewind: Lorrie Morgan & Jon Randall – ‘By My Side’

Album Review: Brad Paisley – ‘ Mud On the Tires’

Brad’s third album, released in 2003, saw him cementing his status as a star whose music combined comedy and serious songs, and one who genuinely appreciated country music tradition.

Lead single ‘Celebrity’ is a hilarious and sharp sideswipe at reality TV shows and those chasing fame for the sake of it (and the perks), with Brad playing the talentless wannabe with an irony entirely missed when one of the hapless contestants on the generally woeful final season of Nashville Star covered it on the show:

You can act just like a fool
And people think you’re cool
Just ‘cause you’re on TV

Brad also picked a Chris DuBois/Chris Wallin song which approaches a similar theme from a slightly different angle with the quirky ‘Famous People’, where he plays the part of an ingenuous countryman who brings a visiting movie star down to size a little.

The straight-faced ‘The Cigar Song’ is based on an old joke about a man who successfully claims on the insurance for “losing” some fine Cuban cigars in “a series of small fires”. The insurance company gets the last laugh, though, with a prosecution for various counts of arson. The broadest comedy is reserved for the return of Bill Anderson and George Jones (who featured on ‘Too Country’ on Part II), joined this time by Little Jimmy Dickens on the silly but funny deliberately muddled narration ‘Spaghetti Western Swing’, which also serves as a showcase for guest Redd Volkaert’s electric guitar. I enjoy this track but probably wouldn’t want to listen to it too often.

Second single ‘Little Moments’ was the first in what has become a tradition of Brad Paisley odes to domesticity, reportedly directly inspired by his new wife, actress Kimberly Williams-Paisley, who also starred in the video. Written by Brad with Chris DuBois, it has some charm with its loping phrasing and heartfelt delivery, and the theme had not yet outworn its welcome. Also in the happy family life vein is ‘Ain’t Nothin’ Like’, written by Wynn Varble and Don Sampson). The latter has an engagingly bouncy production and good humored feel, but is marred by an irritating small-child chorus. The pedestrian ‘That’s Life’ appears to be meant to be amusing, but falls flat (with comedians Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi unimpressive on unrecognisable backing “yeah yeah yeahs” and occasional yelled interjections). Only Frank Rogers’ inventive production saves these songs.

The exquisitely sad duet with Alison Krauss, ‘Whiskey Lullaby’, one of the few outside songs included here, was the third single. It was a wise decision to record this Bill Anderson/Jon Randall song, which has become a modern classic and may be the song for which Brad is best remembered a generation hence. The single itself has sold a million copies, and won various awards. It tells the story of a man whose failed marriage leads him into a life destroyed by alcohol and eventual death; then the woman who left him is overwhelmed by guilt and grief and also uses whiskey as her mode of self-destruction. The acoustic instrumentation is bolstered by Krauss on viola, Jerry Douglas’s dobro, and Union Station’s Dan Tyminski on backing vocals.

The first three songs were all big hits, but none reached the top of the Billboard singles chart, all peaking at # 2 or 3. The only chart-topper from the album was to be the title track (another Chris DuBois cowrite), to my ears the least interesting of the four, but a very popular single which was certified gold.

Much better is the restrained tenderness of the love song ‘Somebody Knows You Now’, which strains Brad’s voice to the limit, only adding to the authenticity of the emotion. I also like the traditional-meets contemporary feel of of ‘Hold Me In Your Arms (And Let Me Fall)’, addressed to a girl who is reluctant to date the protagonist. Vince Gill lends harmony support.

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Single Review: Dierks Bentley – ‘Draw Me A Map’

A lot of artists have been going bluegrass lately, but most of them are singers past their commercial peaks with no realistic hopes of mainstream radio play, however good the music is. Dierks Bentley is rare in diverging from the demands of radio to take an artistically rewarding detour down the backroads of bluegrass, while still a major contender, and challenging country radio to play something a little different from its usual fare. The fascinating meld of bluegrass, country and other music on his Up On The Ridge album has just been rewarded with Dierks’ first CMA nominations for Album of the Year and Male Vocalist. (He won the Horizon award back in 2005, but had been ignored ever since.)

Despite the forceful beat and familiar lyrics which made the album’s title track and lead single, ‘Up On The Ridge’ appear to be its best bet on radio, it peaked disappointingly outside the top 20. He is following it up with perhaps the album’s best track, the entirely more subdued and graceful ‘Draw Me A Map’. Dierks wrote the song with his producer Jon Randall (aka Jon Randall Stewart), and they created an extremely fine record together. All too often these days country singles have well-written lyrics but poor production, or a great melody but bland lyrics; it’s a delight to hear a song where everything works together.

The acoustic production is restrained enough to let the beautifully constructed lyrics breathe. Like its predecessor, it is not pure bluegrass, with drums and cello in the mix as well as more familiar bluegrass instrumentation, including Ronnie McCoury’s mandolin, Scott Vestal’s banjo and Randy Kohrs’ dobro, all beautifully played but never overshadowing the song.

This is a very serious sounding record, with a melancholy sense of longing and a Celtic touch to the melody, especially the fiddle line in the instrumental section at the end of the song. The protagonist has lost his way in his relationship and is floundering and he’s wondering how to find safe harbor again. We don’t know exactly what went wrong or how he is at fault; the detail of the past isn’t important compared to the sense of desolation felt in the present, and the hope that the future may bring a way back home. He dares not even ask for forgiveness for this mysterious wrong, because he isn’t sure she cares enough to give it:

If I took for granted that I held your heart
I’d beg forgiveness, but I don’t know where to start

While it is addressed to, and in the presence of, the lover he is trying to regain, is she even listening? The sadness imbuing Dierks’ vocal makes the response to his plea unknown, unknowable, but somehow there doesn’t seem to be much hope here. The pensive mood is perfectly realized. Dierks’ voice is at its best on this single, with an interesting grainy quality underpinning the heartfelt emotion of his delivery, with tasteful harmonies from Alison Krauss delicately ornamenting the track.

Let’s hope that Dierks’ CMA nominations are translated into radio play for this beautiful song. It’s certainly one of my favorite singles of the year.

Grade: A

Listen to it here.

Album Review: Bill Anderson – ‘Songwriter’

Even at the height of his stardom, it was widely acknowledged that “Whispering” Bill Anderson wasn’t much of a singer. But he was, and remains, an excellent country songwriter, who continues to get cuts by some of today’s biggest stars. He has just recorded a dozen of his latest songs on an independently released record, co-produced with multi-instrumentalist Rex Paul Schnelle, who plays electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin, banjo, piano, and keyboards and sings backing vocals – basically every instrument but drums, bass and steel.

The songs are all co-writes, and I was struck by the generosity with which Bill puts his own name last in the credits each time. His vocals are no stronger than one might expect, but on most of these songs it doesn’t matter. Half the songs are comedic, and do not demand great singing; in some of the others the limitations of his voice is put to good use.

The stall is set out with the opening track ‘It Ain’t My Job To Tote Your Monkey’, co written with the album’s producer Rex Schnelle and Rivers Rutherford. It’s a very witty riposte to someone who’s never satisfied whether it’s because:

So the government’s crazy and the weather’s all wrong
The radio ain’t playing country songs
Grits won’t cook in the microwave
And you’re mad about the price of gas these days
You can’t get a signal on your mobile phone
Your dog ran off and your wife came home

Also laugh-out-loud funny is the episodic ‘That’s When The Fight Broke Out’ which recounts a hapless husband’s many ill-judged remarks in a series of one-liners. A sense of humor is not necessarily conducive to a happy marriage.

‘Good Time Gettin’ Here’ is a good-natured recital from the kind of guy who wastes most of his time having fun, declaring from high school graduation to his arrival at the gates of heaven:

I’m not sure where I’ve been or where I am or where I’m going
But I sure had a good time gettin’ here

Written with Jamey Johnson and Buddy Cannon, this entertaining song could easily be a hit single for someone like Brad Paisley.

Speaking of Brad, he co-wrote and plays electric guitar on the rather vulgar ‘If You Can’t Make Money’ with Jon Randall also co-writing. The advice for economic hard times is to make love instead of money:
We can’t get a break, can’t get a job
We need to get the opposite of laid off

This is one of the songs where the vocal limitations are a problem, making the song sound sleazy.

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Single Review: Dierks Bentley – ‘Up On The Ridge’

Dierks Bentley has a longstanding interest in bluegrass, and has included a bluegrass track on each of his four major label albums to date. Last year it was announced that he planned to record two albums this year – a bluegrass side project and a mainstream album. As he started the process he and producer Jon Randall (the songwriter and one-time major label artist now billed by his full name Jon Randall Stewart) found the two projects came together, and the end result, due next month, was a single record which melded country, bluegrass and other influences. The title track has been released as the lead single and gives us our first glimpse into what will be on offer.

I’ve always liked Dierks’ voice and he sounds committed here. The tune doesn’t have much range, but the strong driving rhythm grabs hold of the listener from the start and never let’s go. I really like the instrumentation (slightly beefed up bluegrass) on this, but I really didn’t care for the minor keyed chorus and particularly the backing vocals (allegedly courtesy of Alison Krauss but she is almost unrecognizable, stripped of all her sweetness). I was a little disappointed that the production of a bluegrass-inspired project did not sound quite as acoustic and natural as I had hoped it would, with some incongruous and artificial echoey effects in the chorus, at the very start of the song and in the last verse. They do not destroy the song for me, but they did seem unnecessary and a counter to the joys of the musicianship. This would probably work better live, where studio intrusion would be discarded.

Written by Dierks with Angelo Petraglia, the lyric is about the joys of the countryside, but it differs from the standard country living songs. For a start it is a refreshing change to have a song about the countryside actually sounding country (or bluegrass), and that alone would make this stand out. However it isn’t really a ‘country pride’ song at all – the narrator clearly lives in the city and is only heading out to the hills for the night:

Let’s blow out these city lights
Let’s just leave it all behind
Get up where the air is still
You can hear the whippoorwill
Start a fire, pass the shine
Won’t be home till mornin’ time

I might quibble about the categorization of air on the ridge being still; every hilltop I’ve ever been on has been very windy with the stiller air on more protected lower ground. After the first verse’s attractive picture of sharing music and drink around a bonfire, the main part of the song is an appeal for the protagonist’s girl to join him, although, to be picky again, there doesn’t seem to be much hope for privacy. This aspect of the song is underlined in the video with its good-humored depiction of smiling pickers playing in a field overnight to a crowd of young people dancing strikes an inclusive note, with several romantic couples forming. This has great charm, does perhaps mean the focus of the original song changes to the more inclusive approach of the first verse.

Dierks’ dog Jake, who gets a cameo in the video, is well-known to his fans as he has appeared in several of his master’s previous videos and been photographed in album liner notes, making the front cover of his self-titled debut. One of my favorite things about this song was the name-check for Jake, which sounds as though it may be based on actual experience:

Hear old Jake start to howl
When he hears that ol’ hoot owl

I loved his first two albums, but felt he had lost his way a little artistically in more recent years, although he is still massively successful on country radio. Based on the evidence of this single, he has found an adventurous new path by incorporating bluegrass into his sound and making an album based on artistic concerns rather than commercial ones and I am extremely interested to hear the new album. This is a potentially risky move; Dierks has been very popular with radio programmers in recent years, but as a group they have been reluctant to embrace anything far from mainstream pop-country. If country radio makes this the hit it deserves to be, it will bring a welcome freshness to the airwaves.

Grade: B

Buy ‘Up On The Ridge’ from amazon mp3.

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