My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Lee Ann Womack

Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘Lee Ann Womack’

For a brief time in 1997 it appeared that country music was finally about to re-embrace its roots. Two female artists made their major label debuts that year and appeared to be leading the trend back towards traditionalism: Lee Ann Womack with her self-titled debut in May, and Sara Evans with Three Chords and the Truth in July. As we now know, these albums were something of an anomaly; country music continued its drift popward and both both Evans and Womack would go on to experiment with more polished, pop-oriented sounds. Nevertheless, Lee Ann has earned a reputation as a primarily traditional artist, thanks in no small part to her platinum-selling debut.

Lee Ann’s vocal style has been compared to that of a young Dolly Parton, and late 60s-style sound of the album highlights the similarities. The fiddle and steel guitar are featured prominently throughout the album, and most of the ballads also feature tasteful and restrained string arrangements performed by The Nashville String Machine. The first single, “Never Again, Again” was released two months in advance of the album itself. Lee Ann had great hopes for the record and was reportedly disappointed when it peaked at #23, even though this is a perfectly respectable showing for a debut record. Another ballad, “The Fool”, was selected as the album’s next single. Lee Ann had been reluctant to record it, saying that it was “a good song, but it’s not ‘Never Again, Again'”. But ironically, “The Fool” surpassed “Never Again, Again” on the charts, just missing the top spot and earning Lee Ann her first bonafide hit. The uptempo “You’ve Got To Talk To Me”, written by Jamie O’Hara, was released as the third single, and like “The Fool”, it peaked at #2. Another uptempo number, “Buckaroo” peaked at #27.

Overall, the album highlights Lee Ann’s strength as a ballad singer. There are some truly beautiful moments on the album with songs such as “Am I The Only Thing You’ve Done Wrong”, which Lee Ann wrote with her ex-husband Jason Sellers and Billy Joe Foster, “Do You Feel For Me”, and “Make Memories With Me”, a gorgeous number performed as a duet with her Decca labelmate and fellow Mark Wright-produced act Mark Chesnutt. “Make Memories With Me” should have been released as a single, but Decca was most likely reluctant to send too many ballads to radio. It’s a shame that there haven’t been any subsequent Womack-Chesnutt duets because their voices work very well together.

The album’s weak spots tend to be the uptempo numbers. Though well performed, “Buckaroo” borders on hokey and it’s not difficult to see why it only reached #27 on the charts. The same is true, to a lesser extent, of the album cut “A Man With 18 Wheels”, although “Trouble’s Here” stands in stark contrast with these two numbers. It actually works quite well, as does the Gospel number “Get Up In Jesus’ Name”, the album’s closing track which features background vocals from Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White.

In retrospect, it’s a pity that Lee Ann didn’t debut four or five years earlier; if she had, she’d have likely enjoyed more consistent success at radio. By the late 90s, listeners appeared to be tiring of Faith Hill and Shania Twain, and Lee Ann seemed to be the perfect antidote, but her success was short-circuited by both her own pop ambitions and the emergence of other, younger country-pop divas such as Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift. Nevertheless, Lee Ann Womack remains my favorite album in the singer’s discography. Cheap copies are readily available from Amazon. Buy one if you don’t already own a copy.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Lee Ann Womack – ‘Why They Call It Falling’

Classic Rewind: Lee Ann Womack – ‘The Man Who Made My Mama Cry’

Spotlight Artist: Lee Ann Womack

Lee Ann Womack was born in Jacksonville, Texas, in 1966. Her part-time DJ father encouraged her interest in country music as she grew up. After attending South Plains Community College for a year, where she studied singing country music and sang in the college’s band Country Caravan, she moved on to Belmont College in Nashville where she studied music business and made her first contacts with MCA as an intern, whilst honing her skills as a singer and songwriter. She dropped out of college to marry fellow singer/songwriter Jason Sellers in 1990 and give birth to their daughter Aubrie Lee a year later. This marriage did not last, ending in divorce in 1997, and in 1999 Lee Ann married producer Frank Liddell, with whom she had another daughter.

In 1995 she signed a publishing deal with Tree as a songwriter, and a year later got a recording deal with Decca Records. Her debut album was an immediate success, and launched her as one of the artists most rooted in traditional country music at a time when more pop-influenced artists were dominating the airwaves. She was named the Academy of Country Music’s Best New Female Vocalist. Ex-husband Jason also got a record deal (with BNA) at roughly the same time, but his career failed to take off.

Lee Ann transferred to sister label MCA when Decca closed its door in 1999. Her music was to become more contemporary over the next few years, particularly after she enjoyed a monster hit in the form of the inspirational ‘I Hope You Dance’ in 2000, which swept the wards, winning the CMA and ACM Single and Song of the Year awards, and a Grammy for Best country Song. The song’s crossover success introduced her to a new audience, and brought opportunities including the chance to sing at the award of the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2001 she was CMA Female Vocalist of the Year. However, her fans were disappointed with the direction her music was taking, and her career began to decline.

In 2005 she made a triumphant return to traditional country music with the deliberately retro sound (and artwork) of There’s More Where That Came From, harking back to the glory days of Tammy Wynette in the 1970s, with a selection of material heavy on the cheating songs which had fallen out of favour with country radio in recent years as the industry concentrated on more ‘family friendly’ content and the positive up-tempo numbers ironically decried by Alan Jackson. The album was named the CMA Album of the Year. Three years later she released her most recent album, 2008’s critically acclaimed Call Me Crazy. Her fans have been waiting too long for new music, with the exception of odd tracks like 2009’s rather disappointing single ‘There Is A God’ and the superb ‘Liars Lie’ on the Country Strong soundtrack. However, rumor has it she has been back in the studio and is looking to make a comeback in 2012.

Although she has only released six studio albums and one Christmas album, with patchy singles success of recent years, Lee Ann Womack has had a remarkable impact on the genre. She is widely regarded as the standard bearer for traditional country among female singers on major labels, and as one of the finest singers in country music regardless of sub-genre. She is in demand to duet with or sing harmony on records by artists of the caliber of George Strait (CMA Vocal Event of the Year ‘Good News, Bad News’) and Alan Jackson (‘Til The End’).

Although she is a favorite of the MKOC writers, we haven’t picked Lee Ann as a Spotlight Artist before now because we’d been hoping that we could tie it in with a new album release. Although I understand she should have a new album released next year, we just couldn’t wait any longer. So over this month we’ll be mixing up our end-of-year coverage with a look at the music of Lee Ann Womack.

Album Review: Vince Gill – ‘These Days’

As we’ve often noted here, it was common practice in the 1960s and 1970s for artists — inside and outside of country music –to release three or four albums a year, unlike the present day when most artists release one album every two or three years. While preparing to work on a new album in 2006, Vince Gill was inspired by The Beatles’ prolific output and decided to put a 43-track four disc collection instead of a single album. Released to tremendous critical acclaim in October 2006, These Days was an ambitious project that showcases the depth and breadth of Vince’s musical taste. It encompasses a variety of genres from rock, pop, jazz, and blues to traditional country and bluegrass. Vince wrote or co-wrote all 43 songs and produced the project himself, with some help from John Hobbs and Justin Niebank. The production team put together a impressive roster of guest artists from both within and outside country music.

The first disc, titled Workin’ On A Big Chill: The Rockin’ Record, is as the title implies, a collection of ten rock and rockabilly tunes. Though the songs are all well performed, I’m not much of a rock fan, so this is my least favorite disc in the collection. I do like the rockabilly number “Nothin’ For a Broken Heart”, on which Rodney Crowell is a guest artist, and even better is the bluegrass-tinged collaboration with the Del McCoury Band, “Son of a Ramblin’ Man”. The rest of the songs on this disc don’t interest me very much, and consequently this one has been played less than the other three.
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Album Review: Vince Gill – ‘Next Big Thing’

Vince wrote or co-wrote all 17 of the songs on 2003’s Next Big Thing, and produced the album himself. It represents a marked return to form after the gloopy lovefest that was Let’s Make Sure We Kiss Goodbye, inspired by Vince’s second marriage to contemporary Christian singer Amy Grant.

He might have had a top 10 hit from his last album, but this album sees him apparently (and presciently) accepting that his time in the spotlight might be over. The beaty and surprisingly upbeat title track (written with Al Anderson and John Hobbs and featuring horns) and the more resigned ‘Young Man’s Town’ (with Emmylou Harris on harmony) both take a look at the fleeting nature of the music business and its fascination with youth and good looks. Both were released as singles, with the brassy party sound of ‘Next Big Thing’ providing Vince with his last top 20 hit and the more reflective ‘Young Man’s Town’ not making the top 40; perhaps the accuracy of the lyric hit a bit too close to home for country radio.

‘This Old Guitar And Me’ is an old musician’s love song to his first instrument and fond memories of his early career. The Leslie Satcher co-write ‘Old Time Fiddle’ is an enjoyable love letter to Cajun music, with appropriate fiddle solo and Leslie herself on harmony. Leslie also co-wrote the tenderly delivered ballad ‘Two Hearts’, where Lee Ann Womack provides the harmony vocal.

‘Someday’, the album’s second single (peaking at #31) is a delicately pretty AC-influenced ballad written with former pop star Richard Marx, wistfully dreaming of the possibility of future love. ‘These Broken Hearts’, written by Vince with his keyboard player Pete Wasner, is a sad ballad about breaking up with someone, with blue-eyed soul man Michael McDonald on harmony. Both songs are set against a string arrangement courtesy of John Hobbs and the Nashville String machine, and are pleasant listening without being truly memorable.

There are a few other less inspired moments, like the throwaway ‘The Sun’s Gonna Shine On You’. The mid-tempo ‘Don’t Let Her Get Away’, written with Anderson, is OK filler which sounds like some of Vince’s RCA recordings with banked but thin harmonies.

A number of the songs brood about failed relationships past. In the contemporary ballad ‘She Never Makes Me Cry’, Vince prefers an unexciting life with his new wife to the ups and downs of a passionate past love. ‘We Had It All’ is a mid-tempo plea to rekindle an old flame with a subtle Tex-Mex feel to the instrumentation. The bouncy and solidly traditional country ‘Without You’ delivers a more cheerful reaction to being single again, with Dawn Sears on harmony.

Dawn also sings a piercing harmony on the best song on the album. ‘Real Mean Bottle’ is a standout tribute to Merle Haggard, with a high lonesome feel and Bakersfield guitars:

It must have been a real mean bottle that made you write the songs that way
A real mean bottle
Poured straight from the Devil
It’s a miracle you’re standing here today

‘From Where I Stand’, written with Anderson and Hobbs, is a classic declaration of fidelity in the face of temptation, set to a beautiful tune with a bluesy harmony from Bekka Bramlett. This is another highlight, which could have been a big hit if released a few years earlier in Vince’s peak commercial period.

‘Whippoorwill River’, written with Dean Dillon, gently recalls childhood memories of life with his father. Vince’s daughter Jenny keeps things in the family by singing the harmony. A fictional look at family comes from the fiddle-led ‘You Ain’t Foolin’ Nobody’, written with Reed Nielsen, is addressed to the protagonist’s motherless daughter who is running wild in a small town.

The album closes with the mellow and reflective farewell to a dying friend, ‘In These Last Few Days’, with wife Amy Grant on harmony. It was the fourth and last single to be released, but did not perform very well.

Sales were disappointing, with the record his first not to reach at least gold status since he signed to MCA, but that is no reflection on the quality of the music. The album could perhaps have done with a bit of weeding, as there are a few forgettable songs, but overall this was a strong release with a lot of worthwhile material. It’s easy to find, and well worth adding to your collection if you have previously overlooked it.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Vince Gill – ‘Guitar Slinger’

It’s been half a decade since Vince Gill released a new album. On that occasion, he came out with four at once, with the critically acclaimed box set These Days. This time around the same team of Vince, John Hobbs and Justin Niebank has created a more concentrated effort with 15 tracks, recorded in Vince’s home studio. Vince’s vocals sound thoroughly energised and invested in the material, all of which he wrote or co-wrote, and which I feel is more consistent in quality than that on These Days. It is definitely a mature work, with a number of the songs focussed on the prospect of death, but never a depressing one.

The joyous and amusing title track opens proceedings with a bang with many references to Vince’s life ranging from his “contemporary Christian singer” wife to last year’s Nashville floods (“half my stuff’s in the Cumberland River”. This really conveys the sheer joy of making music. In the equally lively up-tempo ‘All Nighter Comin’’ (written with Chris Stapleton and Al Anderson, and only on the deluxe version) a newly unemployed truck driver sets aside his troubles for the evening. Despite the depressing background, the mood is uplifting, and either of these songs would sound great on the radio.

The beautifully sung lead single ‘Threaten Me With Heaven’ is a tender but confident gospel ballad written with Vince’s wife Amy Grant, Will Owsley (who tragically committed suicide last year) and Dillon Osborn. Owsley and Amy also co-wrote the mid-tempo AC ‘When Lonely Comes Around’, which is pleasant but forgettable. Amy and Vince duet on their song ‘True Love’, an AC ballad which pays tribute to their relationship, “true love that found us in time”. It isn’t a particularly interesting song, but the authenticity of the emotions make it touching beyond its merits. Amy’s daughter Sarah Chapman sings harmony.

Talented singer-songwriter and now a Pistol Annie, Ashley Monroe wrote two songs with Vince. The excellent ‘If I Die’, a beautifully constructed reflection on mortality and what comes after, is one of the best tracks on a fine record. Her other contribution, ‘Who Wouldn’t Fall In Love With You’ is a low-key, tender love ballad with a pretty melody and Ashley’s distinctive voice evident on harmony.  Lee Ann Womack, meanwhile, provides tasteful backing vocals on ‘Lipstick Everywhere’, a retelling of a passionate one night stand with no subsequent regrets or repercussions. Another fine artist, Texas traditionalist Amber Digby co-wrote ‘One More Thing I Wished I’d Said’, dwelling with regret on the missed opportunities in a failed relationship. Sadly, she doesn’t sing on the track, but Dawn Sears makes a good substitute. These two are only included on the deluxe version, which is well worth the additional cost.

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All about the image?

The latest episode of CMT’s current reality competition, CMT’s Next Superstar, which you can catch up with on the CMT website if you havent been watching the show live, focussed on image. Viewers saw the five surviving competitors each getting a makeover and doing a photo shoot for an album, as well as recording a classic song, before selling themselves to staff at Warner Music, whose votes counted towards that week’s elimination. Image seems to be increasingly important in marketing country music today, and has been ever since music videos became a major way of selling artists.

While an artist’s looks and fashion choices have nothing to do with the quality of their music, they do help to form the general public’s expectations, particularly for a new artist. If New Singer X is pictured wearing jeans and a cowboy hat, I do expect to hear something different from what I expect to hear from New Singer Y, whose outfit is indistinguishable from his/her pop star counterparts.

Modern traditionalists like Alan Jackson and George Strait may seem to pay little attention to image matters, but their style is as (or more) effective in it its way by signalling to the audience that here is an unquestionably country singer. The neo-traditional wave of the early 90s fizzled out in a sea of “Hat Acts”, many of them fine artists in their own right, but they tended to merge into one to many listeners when they shared a similar look and musical style. Chris Young, one of the brightest young traditionalists, often wears that cowboy hat, although Strait-style Easton Corbin does not. Compare him to, say, Jimmy Wayne or the men in Lady Antebellum, who have a much more “fashionable” appearance – and a much less country sound. Of course, it can be misleading; other cowboy hat wearers include rocker Jason Aldean. Sometimes the cowboy hat is a visual equivalent of singing lyrics about how country you are, without necessarily being supported by the music. In the 90s, Marty Stuart was making energetic country rock, but was keenly carrying on country traditions by wearing Nudie style outfits reminiscent of veterans like Porter Wagoner. It was only later that he returned to more traditional musical styles.

Nudie’s elaborate bejewelled and embroidered outfits were almost a uniform for the biggest country stars of the 1950s and 60s, even though they were a world removed from their poverty-stricken rural roots. Porter Wagoner is perhaps the most famous wearer, but even Hank Williams, whose heart wrenching music might seem far removed from image considerations, famously wore a Nudie suit adorned with musical notations. When Gram Parsons encouraged the Byrds to venture into country music with the seminal country-rock album Sweetheart Of the Rodeo, he wore a custom-made Nudie suit with designs of marijuana leaves – combining an appeal to rebellious 60s teenagers with the “country star” outfit. But for most of their wearers, the outfits symbolized showmanship and stardom, just as Loretta Lynn always wore evening gowns on stage and most of her album covers. Using an identifiable image as shorthand to signal an artist as country is thus nothing new. The young Patsy Cline wore western-style dresses, and had to be persuaded to dress in a more sophisticated way when her music began to adopt more pop influences. Dolly Parton’s highly artificial image helped to make her an international superstar in the 70s and 80s, and is still instantly recognised today across the world, even among those who have heard little of her music. In contrast, when last month’s Spotlight Artist Emmylou Harris started her solo career after Gram Parsons’ death, she looked more like the folk singer she had been as a girl, with her long hair hanging down unadorned, whereas most of her contemporaries had big hair – often wigs.

Record labels invest money in artwork for CDs, in order to attract attention on store shelves. It’s never made much of a difference to me, and I would assume not to most passionate fans who spend a lot of time listening to the music, but it may help bring in more casual purchasers. I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but my own brother once asked for a record for Christmas, purely because he liked the picture on the cover and was intrigued to see how the music reflected it. Going back to CMT’s Next Superstar, one young female contestant was quite rightly criticized for picking a picture of herself smiling for the title ‘Cold Cold Heart’, just because she thought it made her look prettier than other pictures from the photo-shoot. Songwriter Wynn Varble, who is 50 years old and not exactly competing for heart-throb of the year, went for a simple honest look which would tell any potential purchaser that this was a country record.

Changing musical styles can also be flagged by a changing image. When Lee Ann Womack moved in a poppier direction in the early 200s, she took on a more overtly sexy look (left); then when she defiantly reverted to a retro style in 2005 with There’s More Where That Came From, she went for an equally retro 70s country album cover style (right). The music is, of course, what really matters, but the image helps signal the direction. Similarly, Reba progressed from traditional country and a semi-cowgirl look in the 1980s to a much more sophisticated style, both aurally and visually, in the 90s.

How much does an artist’s image affect what you expect to hear? Have you ever been surprised – pleasantly or otherwise – by a disconnect between the album cover and the music inside?

Classic Rewind: Lee Ann Womack – ‘Get Up In Jesus’ Name’

The Blue Against The Grey: Remembering the Civil War

150 years ago today, Confederate troops attacked Fort Sumter near Charleston, South Carolina, marking the first military action in the bloodiest conflict in American history. From 1861 to 1865, the Civil War divided the nation, states and even family members, and its repercussions are still felt to the present day. It has been romanticized like no other era in US history — particularly in the South — having been the topic of countless novels, films and songs over the years. Country artists in particular have frequently commemorated it.

Johnny Cash, one of country music’s greatest storytellers, told of how the war divided families and pitted brother against brother when he offered up this medley in a 1969 installment of his ABC variety show:

The First Battle of Bull Run, fought on July 21, 1861 resulted in a humiliating defeat for the Union Army and quickly laid to rest any hopes harbored by either side that the conflict would be over quickly, as Johnny Horton recalled:


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2011 ACM award predictions

The major country music awards are scattered through the year, so a new one seems to come along every few months. The Academy of Country Music is presenting its awards for achievement in 2010 in Las Vegas on April 3 on a televized show hosted by Reba McEntire and Blake Shelton. The West Coast based ACMs don’t have quite the prestige of the CMAs, awarded in November, but they have one advantage, in that their eligibility period is the previous calendar year, where the CMA and Grammy organizations have a strange mid-year cutoff which can make it hard to work out exactly what is eligible. On the downside, a few years ago in a misguided attempt at currying popularity with the public, the ACM decided to allow an online fan vote to determine the Entertainer of the Year and New Artist titles. This has been partially modified this year.

Entertainer of the Year

Jason Aldean
Toby Keith
Miranda Lambert
Brad Paisley
Taylor Swift

Keith Urban

Occasional Hope: There were loud squawkings from the fans of Carrie Underwood when she was omitted from the nominations this time, having won the title for the past two years. This is a partially fan-voted category this year, and with Carrie’s absence factored in, I think Taylor Swift is a slam-dunk for the victory, with her enormous and youthful fanbase. Surprise nominee Jason Aldean has earned platinum status for his last two albums and a string of top hits, so although I am underwhelmed by his heavy rocking brand of country, he might just have enough of a fanbase, and have the commercial impetus to impress the industry enough to achieve a surprise win. But the talented Miranda Lambert had a great year last year, and she would be my personal choice.

Razor X: This seems like it will be Miranda‘s year. If the award were entirely based on fan votes, Taylor Swift would be a very strong contender, but I think that because industry votes will be counted as well, they’ll offset the fan voting.

J.R. Journey: I’m assuming the members will win the battle in the combination membership/fan voting for the Entertainer race this year. Paisley may well hold his own in the online voting pools too, but I think he’ll outdistance the others as the overall vote-getter.

Top Male Vocalist of the Year

Jason Aldean
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton

George Strait
Keith Urban

O.H.: Brad Paisley has won this title for the last four years. I can’t see anyone pushing him out this time either. I can’t say I feel very enthusiastic about this category despite the underlying talent of those nominated. None of the nominees produced particularly memorable music in 2010 – Blake Shelton may be the reigning CMA Male Vocalist and half of country music’s favorite courrent love story, but I think the ACM likes to differentiate itself from the CMAs occasionally. I liked ‘Twang’, but it under-performed at radio.

J.R.: In addition to his co-hosting duties, Blake Shelton seems poised to finally unseat Brad Paisley as the reigning Male Vocalist this year.

R.X.: Blake Shelton . Again, I think the ACMs will follow the CMA’s lead. It’s time for some new blood in this category and I just can’t see the award going to Aldean. At least I hope not.

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Recording new lows

Much has been said lately about plummeting music sales.  Country Universe has you covered with the latest numbers. This is effecting every genre, and country is no exception.  Each week the Billboard 200 album chart posts a new record low for the top-selling album. Everyone is looking for the silver lining. Shutting down massive file-sharing sites is really little victory in the long-term because these music pirates are finding new avenues to infringe copyrights even as I write this. I won’t try to kid myself that low, low record sales are anything but primarily caused by illegal downloading, but I am of the persuasion that there are other fixes than injunctions against the major culprits. Country music has been in the valley before, only to rise to glory time and time again.

Historically, when sales and listenership began to dwindle, the powers on Music Row raised up and began working to solve the problem.  When the rock and roll invasion in the 1950s brought country music sales to a standstill at the end of the decade, and more and more radio stations stopped programming the music, executives and producers opted to polish the sound of the music they created.

Born to compete commercially with rock and roll, the Nashville Sound embodied the lush, string-filled sounds of pop music from a couple decades past.  Artists like Brenda Lee, Glen Campbell and Bobby Bare found as much success on the pop charts as the country charts during this time.  By the 1970s, when the public began to tire of the slicker side of country from the likes of Crystal Gale, Kenny Rogers and others, there came a group of renegades who decided to turn up their amplifiers and sing about gritty, real-life subject matter.  We called them outlaws.  Then came Urban Cowboy, practiced by most of the same artists from the pre- and post-outlaw time, was yet another incarnation of the Nashville Sound.  The antidote for that overstated Urban Cowboy era was of course the New Traditionalist movement of the 80s.  And then you all know the story of Garth Brooks and the 90s, when CDs were still on the shelves, and were flying off daily.  We watched as country music became the popular music of the day.

Today, the biggest-selling artists remain middle-of-the road starlets like Lady Antebellum, Sugarland, Taylor Swift, and Jason Aldean.  These artists have taken an adult contemporary approach, aiming their music squarely for the top 40. Lady Antebellum is the very definition of a MOR act, straddling the line between pop/rock and country, while posting impressive sales numbers.

Like Lady A, Sugarland’s sales remain strong – 4 straight platinum CDs – but they’ve done it with the same ratio of mostly influences not indigenous to Music City.  Sugarland started out a very promising act in the pop-country field.  Their music sparkled with life, their lyrics were smart and original, and Jennifer Nettles brought with her an attention-grabbing vocal.  Their sound has evolved outside the sparkling pop-country of their first releases into the bombastic and shouted antics of The Incredible Machine. Now, like the industry that gave them a foothold, the duo seems to be in a sort of identity crisis, with no decided musical direction these days.  Their lack of focus, aside from the production, is the biggest fault with their most recent album, yet consumers have rewarded their uncertainty with a million purchases.

But that’s not all there is.  Lee Ann Womack has never matched the sales of her crossover mega-hit ‘I Hope You Dance’ with her acclaimed traditional releases in the past couple of years, but continues to crank out quality, country music in the traditionalist sense.   Sure, there are others – Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson are making some inroads – but I don’t see that either of them is doing much to change the tide.  Johnson can’t get on the radio with the singles from his latest album, no matter how good they are.  And Lambert is swimming in a sea of pseudo-twangy pop stars.  It’s still a wonder she’s made it as far as she has.  I certainly root, root, root for her continued success, but I wonder if her contributions to traditional country are enough.

After two decades of pop-country at the forefront, aren’t we overdue for a change of the tide once again?  I’d say we’re almost a decade behind the cycle.  I can’t be the only one who’s noticed.

Something to look forward to

We spent part of last month rounding up the best and worst of 2010. Now we’re into a brand new year, it’s time to start looking forward again, and wondering what the year ahead may hold in store.

Newly crowned CMA Entertainer of the Year Brad Paisley’s This is Country Music has a release date in March, with the lead single already on its way up the charts. Current Arista labelmate Alan Jackson is reportedly considering his future options now that he has fulfilled his obligations to the label, and perhaps we will see him moving to pastures new like Martina McBride and Trace Adkins, although either way I don’t really expect a new album from him this year. Ronnie Dunn has already been into the studios for his contribution to the Country Strong soundtrack, and is working on his solo album. I doubt he can expect Brooks & Dunn levels of success for this, even if he was the voice of the duo’s hits, but I’m looking forward to hearing what he comes up with.

The Sony group has relied on American Idol to pick up new artists with a built-in fanbase for several years; this tie-in has now ended, with the group now planning to be associated with Simon Cowell’s rival X Factor show (launching in the fall), and the Idol link now picked up by the Universal Music Group (country imprints are MCA and Mercury). The most successful of these signings is of course Carrie Underwood, whose pattern of releases to date suggests a new album at the end of 2011. I don’t expect any change in direction from her high-energy pop-based style, but more intriguing are the things Kellie Pickler has been saying about her third album being more firmly rooted in traditional country music. I haven’t been particularly impressed by her music to date, but I’m willing to keep an open mind. The latest Idol alumnus to go country after the show is Texan Casey James, who finished third on last year’s Idol and is now with BNA (as the Casey James Band); his roots seem to be more blues than country but he may be worth watching out for. RCA will be releasing a second album from the previous year’s third place finisher Danny Gokey; his debut sold pretty well but failed to set the radio alight or to connect with more traditional country fans.

RCA has lost one of its superstar acts in the form of Martina McBride. It will be interesting to see what (if any) effect Martina’s move to Republic Nashville has on her music: a determined attempt to regain the limelight following the relative under-performance of her last album and recent singles by appealing to modern radio tastes a la Reba’s recent work, an artistic resurgence, or just more of the same? Sunny Sweeney’s Republic debut is also keenly anticipated.

Sticking with RCA, Sara Evans’s long-delayed new album (originally announced for January 2010) is now due to come out in March, taking its title, Stronger, from her Country Strong cut, which is rising up the charts. Again, we’ll have to wait to see if she is trying to get radio play by concentrating on her pop crossover style, or returning to her country roots. I suspect the former, particularly since she has been working with Taylor Swift’s producer Nathan Chapman. My favorite RCA artist at the moment is Chris Young, and I hope he will be back in the studios this year, as his breakthrough second album was released in September 2009. I feel his material to date has (with a few exceptions) not been worthy of his great voice, and I hope that now he can claim two #1 hits, he can demand the very best of what Nashville’s songwriters have to offer.

Reigning CMA Male and Female Vocalists of the Year Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert have a wedding to plan, but Miranda in particular will be expected to produce a follow-up to her acclaimed 2009 release, Revolution. Blake divided his 2010 output into two “Sixpak” EPs (neither of them very good, the first producing just one single), and it will be interesting to see if he sticks with this template or reverts to a fullscale album in future.

I hope this will be the year Ashton Shepherd finally breaks through commercially. The prolific George Strait tends to release an album a year, so with nothing new in 2010 he is overdue for a new album. Joe Nichols has a Greatest Hits set out soon, so I assume Show Dog Universal has stopped promoting 2009’s Old Things New, and perhaps we can look forward to something new later in the year. But the artist I’m most hoping for new music from is Lee Ann Womack, especially after her stellar contribution to the Country Strong soundtrack.

Over at Curb, it seems that Tim McGraw may finally be out of his contract. LeAnn Rimes’s Vince Gill-produced covers set was supposed to be released last year, but may appear this year, although I’m not inspired by what we’ve heard so far. Heidi Newfield is also supposedly due to have her second solo effort for the label out this year. I’d like to hear more from talented duo Martin Ramey and Star de Azlan, but as it’s Curb I’m not exactly holding my breath in anticipation.

One of my favorite artists, Randy Travis is celebrating the 25th anniversary of his groundbreaking Storms Of Life with his second duets album, the success of which will depend partly on the choice of duet partners. Legends who have new music in the works include Dolly Parton and Charley Pride. And of course, I’m also hoping to hear some great music from new acts.

What are you most looking forward to this year?

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?

Christmas Rewind: Lee Ann Womack – ‘The Christmas Song’

Razor X’s Top 10 Singles and Tracks of 2010

2010 saw the release of a lot of good country music, very little of which actually made it to country radio. As such, my list will include some of my favorite singles as well as some album cuts that I would have liked to have been released as singles.

10. As She’s Walking AwayZac Brown Band featuring Alan Jackson

On the surface, this is just another one of those positive message songs that country radio likes so much these days, but the tight harmonies and guest vocals from Alan Jackson save this record from being trite. Keith Stegall’s stellar production helps this #1 hit stand out from the pack.

9. From A Table AwaySunny Sweeney

Sunny’s toned down her twang just a bit in an attempt to appeal to more mainstream tastes. The strategy seems to be working as she is on the verge of breaking the Top 20 for the first time. While this is not my favorite song from Sunny, it’s one of the best releases by a female artist this year. Hopefully she will finally get some well-deserved recognition.

8. Over YouBlake Shelton

This is the best cut of Blake’s career, and it sounds even better coming on the heels of the execrable “Hillbilly Bone” and “Kiss My Country Ass.” Unfortunately, very few people will get to hear it, as it was only available through iTunes as a bonus track with pre-order purchases of his recent Loaded: The Best of Blake Shelton. Hopefully it will resurface on another album sometime in the future.

7. Draw Me A MapDierks Bentley

The second single from his bluegrass project Up On The Ridge wasn’t mainstream enough to garner much radio airplay. Stalling at #33, it was Dierks’ worst performance to date on the singles chart. Nevertheless, it’s probably my favorite of the singles he’s released thus far in his career.

6. I’m Over YouChris Young

This acoustic version of the Keith Whitley classic was released as part of Young’s Voices EP, a project that showcases his powerful voice better than his two full-length albums, and serves notice that this newcomer is one to watch.

5. That’s Why I Write SongsJamey Johnson

This stripped-down tribute to Nashville’s greatest songsmiths, recorded on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium, is the best track from Johnson’s excellent two-disc collection The Guitar Song.

4. The House That Built MeMiranda Lambert

In a year when female artists underperformed at radio, Lambert stands out as the exception to the rule with her breakthrough hit, which I reviewed earlier in the year.

3. Highway 20 RideZac Brown Band

I was a little slow to warm up to these Georgia boys, but this heart-wrenching tune about a divorced father coping with separation from his son is the one that won me over. It was actually released to radio in late 2009, so technically it shouldn’t qualify for this list, but I’m including it since it hit #1 in 2010.

2. ‘Til The EndAlan Jackson and Lee Ann Womack

This remake of Vern Gosdin’s classic is the highlight of Jackson’s excellent Freight Train album, a project that saw two of its weakest tracks released as singles. Why this one wasn’t released is a head-scratcher. It did, however, receive a nomination for Musical Event of the Year from the Country Music Association.

1. I Run To YouMarty Stuart and Connie Smith

The best track from Stuart’s Ghost Train collection is so good, it’s breath-taking. Though not released as a single, it has earned the husband and wife team a Grammy nomination.

Overall, I think 2010 was a better year for country music than 2009, so here’s hoping that things continue to improve throughout 2011.

Single Review: Alan Jackson – ‘Ring of Fire’

Some songs take on legendary status nearly as big as their singers.  Of course, even the Music City folk-lore that surrounds the composition and recording of Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire’ doesn’t rival the Man in Black’s stature, ‘Ring’, however, is a fascinating story in itself.  History tells us that June Carter co-wrote the tune with Merle Kilgore, putting her feelings for Cash down in the process.  Other sources may tell you that it was actually Cash who co-wrote the song and gave half to the financially-strapped Carter.

Whichever side you believe, or who the author of the lyrics are, the fact remains that the blossoming love affair between Johnny Cash and June Carter was the inspiration for the original creation.  Johnny Cash’s passionate delivery of the horn-infused track – according to his biography, the idea to frame the verses with horns came to Cash in a dream – is the kind deemed untouchable by cover standards, as any subsequent recording would almost always walk a fine line between irrelevance and tribute. Alan Jackson’s recent take on the tune, the only previously unreleased track on Jackson’s current 34 Number Ones set, unfortunately falls somewhere in between the two.

Jackson’s own catalog lends him an air of believability few on Music Row can match, and he offers up his best bass vocal here, channeling Cash with all high might. But try as he might, Jackson just can’t fill the shoes he’s planted himself in this time. The addition of Lee Ann Womack’s harmony in the chorus add a depth to Jackson’s own enjoyable performance, but the lack of horns make the melody almost unrecognizable to me, and a chunky guitar fill adds little more than filler noise.  Two of the best neo-traditional country music voices of their generation tackling a timeless country classic all add up here to much less than the sum of their parts.

Grade: C-

Listen here.

Classic Rewind: Lee Ann Womack – ‘A Little Past Little Rock’

Album Review: ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter: A Tribute to Loretta Lynn’

Multi-artist tribute albums are more often than not hit-or-miss; rarely does one like all of the contributing artists or their interpretations of the hits of the person being honored. Columbia Records’ newly released tribute to Loretta Lynn, marking her 50th anniversary as a country music artist, is no exception, although it does contain a fair share of surprises. I cringed when I saw certain names among the credits, but in a few instances found that their tracks were among the album’s highlights. Likewise, some of the tracks I was looking forward to were somewhat disappointing.

The opening track, performed by Gretchen Wilson, falls into the latter category. On the surface, “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)” seems like an ideal song for her, but her rendition surprisingly lacks the passion and spark that I was expecting. Instead, she sounds like a better-than-average amateur on karaoke night. Lucinda Williams’ take on “Somebody Somewhere (Don’t Know What He’s Missing Tonight)” was also a let-down. She slurs the lyrics so badly that I found myself wondering if she really had those few little drinks referred to in the first verse prior to entering the studio.

On the other hand, the album contains quite a few pleasant surprises, not the least of which is Faith Hill’s reading of “Love Is The Foundation”. I’ve never been a huge Faith fan, and I considered her contribution to 1998’s Tammy Wynette tribute album to be one of the lowlights of that uneven project. This time around, however, she proves that she can deliver the goods. Loretta praised Faith’s performance of the song recently, and after hearing it, I have to concur that it was quite good. I was more than apprehensive about the artists who from outside the world of country music. I’d never heard of Paramore before and was expecting not to like their take on “You Ain’t Woman Enough To Take My Man”, but instead found their stripped-down, acoustic guitar arrangement to be quite effective. The White Stripes’ recording of “Rated X”, recorded several years ago, is the track that can be credited with spawning the Van Lear Rose album. I’d not heard it before, and though they’re not quite my cup of tea, the song works much better than I thought it would.

There are, of course, some famous names that seem perfectly matched for such a project, that do not disappoint: Lee Ann Womack contributes “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl”, which sounds like it could have actually been recorded in 1960, when Loretta’s original version was released, and Reba McEntire’s “If You’re Not Gone Too Long” is the best offering in the collection. Reba manages to accomplish the near-impossible — putting her own stamp on a Loretta Lynn classic. Producer Buddy Cannon gives the old honky-tonk number a Western swing feel, which suits Reba perfectly, and The Time Jumpers — a band that includes Kenny Sears, Vince Gill and Paul Franklin, among others — are superb. If only Reba would include tracks like this on her own albums. The two Conway and Loretta duets that are included — “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” performed by Alan Jackson and Martina McBride and “After The Fire Is Gone” performed by Steve Earle and Allison Moorer, with Moorer doing the heavy lifting — are also quite good.

Like most tribute albums, Coal Miner’s Daughter has its share of clunkers. In addition to the aforementioned Lucinda Williams track, Carrie Underwood’s “You’re Looking At Country” is sung with an affected and very exaggerated twang which is quite grating, and Kid Rock’s “I Know How” is simply unlistenable. Trust me, he does not know how.

The album closes with the title track, and Loretta’s signature song, performed by Loretta herself along with Miranda Lambert and Sheryl Crow and produced by John Carter Cash and Loretta’s daughter Patsy Lynn. Loretta is in good voice and more than holds her own against the two younger vocalists.

If I’d been in charge of overseeing this project, I’d have excluded a few names and included a few others that did not appear. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to include Paramore, and that indeed would have been a loss. Coal Miner’s Daughter isn’t without its flaws, but it is a more than adequate tribute to country music’s most important female artist and is well worth a listen.

Grade: B

Album Review: ‘Country Strong’ soundtrack

The newest country-themed film, Country Strong is due out next January, with an early release just before Christmas in Nashville and LA. The music is much more mainstream than it was in Crazy Heart, the last such movie, and indeed two singles are currently in the lower reaches of the country charts. The tracks are all new recordings, some from actors in the film, others from a selection of country artists. A variety of producers have been used, and the music ranges from traditional to pop country.

Actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays a successful country singer in the movie, sings four of the songs. Her singing is perfectly competent, if a little colorless; it’s hard to say without seeing the film whether this is in character with the part she’s playing. The theme tune is one of the two radio singles. It’s a pleasant enough generic contemporary song, produced by Byron Gallimore, which makes it perfectly convincing as a hit single. Vince Gill and Patty Loveless sing backing vocals but are too far back in the mix to be heard. ‘Coming Home’ is a rather boring and awkwardly phrased pop-country ballad written by Bob DiPiero, Tom Douglas, Hillary Lindsey and Troy Verges, and drowned in strings. Gwyneth rocks out Gretchen Wilson-style in ‘Shake That Thing’ (written by Mark Irwin, Josh Kear and Chris Tompkins), and while this is yelled and tuneless, it should be pretty convincing in the context of the movie. She duets with Tim McGraw (who also has a role in the film) on the breakup-themed rock ballad ‘Me And Tennessee’, written by Paltrow’s real-life rock star husband Chris Martin, who also plays acoustic guitar on the track.

Oddly, McGraw does not get any solo cuts here; maybe Curb wouldn’t allow it. Starlet Leighton Meester (best known for her TV role in Gossip Girl) covers a Rascal Flatts song, ‘Words I Couldn’t Say’, which is less histrionic than the original, but not particularly interesting, and Leighton’s vocals sound rather processed and like a slightly more tuneful Taylor Swift. The best of the actors’ songs is the gruff-voiced Garrett Hedlund who is very effective on ‘Chances Are’, a very good song written by Nathan Chapman, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose, and produced by Frank Liddell and Luke Wooten. I understand Hedlund’s role is as a singer-songwriter, and he certainly sounds the part here on this drawled, half-rueful confession of a man’s inadequacies:

I used to give a damn
I used to try real hard but I’ll give in tonight, chances are
One foot on the narrow way and one foot on the ledge
Sifting through the devil’s lies for what the Good Book says
If I’m going anywhere
I’ll probably go too far
Probably away from you, chances are

This track was the real surprise package on this record.

Country fans will be most interested in the new tracks from established artists. We’ve already heard Sara Evans’ latest single, ‘A Little Bit Stronger’, a pleasant but rather bland positive ballad about coping with adversity, which has grown on me since it was first released as the lead single for both this album and Sara’s long-awaited next solo album (said to be entitled Stronger and possibly now due early next year). Her voice at least sounds lovely on this Tony Brown-produced and Luke Laird/Hillary Lindsey/Hillary Scott-penned number. Like Sara, Faith Hill has been silent for some time, and returns here with a forgettable AC-leaning ballad, ‘Give In To Me’, produced by Jay Joyce, which is soothing and sounds as though it will be background music for a love scene, and goes on a bit too long.

Chris Young and Patty Loveless team up on a duet written by Marv Green and Troy Olsen, and was produced by James Stroud, which must have been the original theme song. ‘Love Don’t Let Me Down’ was the original title for the movie, and it is a decent song, but not a particularly memorable one. It feels like a waste of this pairing of two of the best voices in country music. Trace Adkins reminds us he really can sing well on the reflective Natalie Hemby/Troy Jones song ‘Timing Is Everything’. Nicely produced by Kenny Beard with some lovely fiddle from Larry Franklin, this fine song about the role of chance in our lives is sensitively interpreted by Trace, and rather better than most of the material on his current album.

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