My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Michael Rhodes

Album Review – Rodney Crowell – ‘Tarpaper Sky’

TarpaperSkyAfter a decade spent making legacy albums, churning out two long anticipated collaborative projects, and writing his memoir, Rodney Crowell has reunited with his late 80s / early 90s brethren (Stuart Smith, Michael Rhodes, John Hobbs, and Eddy Bayers) for his new album. Tarpaper Sky is stunning as a result, consisting solely of original compositions that return Crowell to the straightforward sound that gained him fame in his heyday.

At 63 Crowell’s vocal tone has weathered with age, creating richness that ads reverence to everything he sings. He uses it to his full advantage, along with his genius as a wordsmith, to reflect on life through universal truths.  

“The simple life tastes sweeter now, we have no need to roam,” he sings on “Long Journey Home,” the strum-centric album opener. He’s lamenting on the quieter life he seeks now after a life of living out the self-proclaimed freedom he sought in his younger days. The excellent track is as much an inward expression as a mission statement, drawing the listener into Crowell’s mindset for the whole of the record.

He echoes the virtues of that simpler life on “Grandma Loved That Old Man,” his beautiful commentary on true love. Through vivid imagery, and his brilliance as a storyteller, Crowell brings the couple to life – warts and all – linking their story with the mutual affection that bonds their lives together. The melody, lush with acoustic guitar and organ, has a fabulous bootleg quality to it that takes the song to new heights, making you feel like you’ve stumbled upon something special.

Its clear Crowell is in the midst of a creative resurgence, which, for a man who’s been steadily crafting genre-defining work for more than forty years, is remarkable. “Oh, What A Beautiful World,” a Dylan-era inspired folk tune laced with harmonica, is a biting take on the circle of life that could only come from someone with a lot of life in their years. Crowell certainly fits the bill as he sings, “It’s the truth and the lie, is to live and to die.

Nowhere is Crowell’s wide-eyed soul on fuller display than his magical “The Flyboy and the Kid,” a brilliant hymn about one man’s adoration for his best friend. Crowell lays out his wishes (days filled with honest work, easy answers to all life’s questions, etc) with gorgeous sincerity resonated by the mid-tempo mandolin and upright bass filled melody, which ranks as my favorite on Tarpaper Sky.

The standout number on Tarpaper Sky, and the instance where the album title was born, is “God I’m Missing You,” the Mary Karr Kin co-write done on that project by Lucinda Williams. The wordy ballad, stylistically reminiscent of “Open Season On My Heart,” is a tender masterpiece about the impressions people leave on us in this life, and how they never really go away in death. The mournful ache Crowell brings to the number is pitch-perfect, exceeded only by the lyric, which never falters in fully developing the emotional undertones. “There’s a sanded down moon, in a tarpaper sky” may be my favorite line on the whole album.

Crowell may be in a contemplative mood for much of Tarpaper Sky, but he detours into other territories, too. Lead single “Frankie Please” is a rapid-fire pistol-whip about a man’s blink-and-you-missed-it courtship and subsequent marriage “that happened so fast, they said it wouldn’t last” to a woman named Frankie. Crowell, along with Smith and Dan Knobler, give the tune a 50s shuffle feel complete with Memphis inspired electric guitars. It’s a great song with Crowell deserving credit for keeping up with the vibrant energy of the track.

“Fever On The Bayou,” a co-write with frequent collaborator Will Jennings, has been twenty-years in the making, finally finished when the last verse was born out of an airport run in with songwriter Byron House. The tune is excellent, painting a picture of the Bayou life and the women who live there.

Tarpaper Sky only missteps occasionally, either by general pedestrian-ess or melodies that just weren’t to my taste. “Famous Last Words of a Fool In Love” and “I Wouldn’t Be Me Without You” are fine songs, but the ballads seem too generic for an album with this much thematic heaviness. “Somebody’s Shadow” (a co-write with Quinten Collier) and the self-penned “Jesus Talked To Mama” are too heavy with electric guitars for me to fully enjoy them. But they’re not bad songs at all, just weak spots on an otherwise masterful album.

When I read that Crowell began recording Tarpaper Sky in 2010, I was taken aback since this album feels born as much from the recent resurgence in Americana as his creative rebirth in the wake of Kin and Old Yellow Moon. Crowell’s insistence on going back to basics works in his favor, too, although Tarpaper Sky is a fully modern album and not a retread of Diamonds & Dirt. He’s still a songwriter at the peak of his abilities and after more than forty years, that’s wonderful to see. At it’s best Tarpaper Sky is brilliant in its songcraft and one of the strongest songwriting projects to emerge in quite a long time.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Vince Gill – ‘When Love Finds You’

Vince Gill’s seventh studio album hit shelves nearly two years after his landmark I Still Believe In You. Once again co-produced with Tony Brown, When Love Finds You continued to build on Gill’s newfound superstar status, selling 4 million copies and spawning 6 hit singles, it also built on the singer’s knack for striking the perfect balance between his pop-tinged and traditional country sound.

Meant to recapture the mega success of “I Still Believe In You”, the adult contemporary-leaning ballad “Whenever You Come Around” was showcased as the lead single, and found its way to #2 on the country singles chart in the Summer of 1994. The title track – a #3 hit – follows much of the same electric guitar and synthesizer love song format. The former features Trisha Yearwood singing harmony.

The best showcases for Gill’s fast-fingers guitar playing comes from the album’s pair up-tempo singles. Proving that a lusty ode to womankind can be done right, “What The Cowgirls Do”, written by Vince with Reed Nielsen, rocks hard with a healthy dose of piano and guitar, and the charm of the lyrics – “they love to go all night, and treat you right” – fall just short of chauvinism. Even better is the contemporary country sounds of “You Better Think Twice”, which finds the singer urging a would-be notch on his buddy’s belt to rethink her feelings. Layers of piano and hard-hitting bass playing by Michael Rhodes make it a good time top-tapper. Both songs hit #2 on the country chart.

As good as those up-tempos are, two other singles steal the spotlight on When Love Finds You. The stone country weeper “Which Bridge To Cross (Which Bridge To Burn)”, co-written with the legendary Bill Anderson, tells of a man in love with two women and at a loss over which one to choose. Here, a tinkling honky-tonk piano and a crying fiddle frame Gill’s high lonesome delivery of a stellar lyric. Best remembered today is the perennial “Go Rest High On That Mountain”, featuring Patty Loveless and Ricky Skaggs on harmony. Gill began writing the eulogic ballad after the death of Keith Whitley in 1989 but didn’t finish it until 4 years later following the death of his brother.

There are really no songs here in need of skipping. On the roadhouse-flavored “South Side of Dixie”, co-written with Delbert McClinton, Gill again kicks up his heels and showcases his guitar skills. “If There’s Anything I Can Do” hits just the right groove of pop-country perfection as does “Maybe Tonight”, which Gill co-wrote with his then-wife Janis. Coincidentally, another of the album’s tracks was written with Amy Grant, who would become Vince’s second wife. “If I Had My Way” is a more spiritual and humanitarian love song than a foreshadowing of a romantic relationship, and features a stripped down production.

When Love Finds You found an artist in his commercial prime, and delivering the goods to as many people as he ever would. Vince Gill does not disappoint the masses with this release, be they neo-traditionalist or converted rock and roll fan.

Grade: A-

Buy it at amazon.

Album Review: Gene Watson and Rhonda Vincent – ‘Your Money And My Good Looks’

What happens when you pair the best male country vocalist of the last 35 years with the reigning Queen of bluegrass music ? You get the best album that will be released in 2011. I can think of no recent duet album that I’ve enjoyed as much as this album. Released on the Upper Management Music label, this album contains the warning ‘Contains REAL Country Music’, and truer words never were spoken.

Although Rhonda is a bluegrass artist, and there are touches of bluegrass on a few of the tracks, this basically is a modern traditional country album, with fiddles, steel guitar and truly outstanding vocals, both individually and in harmony with each other.

The title cut is probably the weakest cut on the album. This isn’t to say that Gene and Rhonda don’t sing it well, because they do, but the song itself is nothing special. The next two tracks “Gone For Good”, a slow ballad about breaking up, and “It Ain’t Nothing New” a mid-tempo ballad co-written by bluegrass legend Larry Cordle, are both really good songs, and on many albums they would be the standout tracks but on this album they are merely the hors d’oeuvres.

With the fourth track the album shifts into overdrive with a cover of Gene Watson’s 1976 hit “You Could Know As Much About A Stranger”. I had never thought about this song as a duet, but it works really well, as Gene and Rhonda trade verses and duet on the choruses, accompanied by a lightly updated version of Gene’s original backing.

From here the album covers a 1977 hit written by Cathy Gosdin for her brother Vern Gosdin, “Til The End”. Covering Vern Gosdin is a treacherous task at best, and while I regard Gene Watson as being the superior overall vocalist, Vern Gosdin had no peers at singing melancholy slow ballads. Still Gene and Rhonda do an admirable job on the song.

The Billy Yates-penned “Alone Together Tonight” is a clever twist on the theme of a lonely boy and lonely girl in a honky-tonk. The melody reminds me of the 1982 John Anderson hit “Would You Catch A Falling Star”.

Next up is a cover of Gary Stewart’s 1974 hit “Out Of Hand”. The arrangement and instrumentation are very similar to Stewart’s recording, but with very slight alterations to the lyrics, it makes a very successful male-female duet.

“This Wanting You” was co-written by Bruce Boulton, T. Graham Brown and Bruce Burch. I don’t recall the song being issued as a single but it was one of the standout tracks on TGB’s 1988 album Come As You Were and also appeared on a Bruce Burch collection.

“Making Everything Perfect Tonight” was penned by Rhonda Vincent, a spirited mid-tempo romp about life and one of the joys of domestic life.

“Sweet Thang” was a top five for its author Nat Stuckey in 1966; however, no one remembers Nat’s version anymore because of the spirited version done by the dynamic duo of Ernest Tubb and Loretta Lynn the following year. While the ET-LL version wasn’t a big radio hit, it was a popular concert favorite for years to follow. Gene doesn’t have quite the same degree of ‘rascal’ in his voice that Ernest did, but his vocals are better.

Saving the best for last, Gene and Rhonda demonstrate their blues chops on the old Hank Williams classic, “My Sweet Love Ain’t Around”. The track runs over five minutes so even in the good old days, it wouldn’t have received much airplay. I referred to Gene Watson as the best male vocalist currently performing in country music today but Rhonda Vincent may be the best female vocalist in country music, although most of her efforts have been focused on bluegrass. Rhonda had a crack at becoming a mainstream country star on Giant Records back in the 1990s but was let down by the material the label foisted off on her. Carrie Underwood should listen to this track, as she could learn a lot about singing from Rhonda’s vocals on this track. Carrie has a vocal range very similar to Rhonda’s but with much less command and control of her vocal abilities.

There actually is a ‘bonus track’ on the album, a bluegrass instrumental “Ashes of Mount Augustine, featuring Michael Rojas, Stuart Duncan, Mike Johnson, Michael Rhodes and James Mitchell.

This album won’t be released until June 6, 2011. By then I will have listened to the album a couple dozen times !

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