My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Ronnie McCoury

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: Dierks Bentley – ‘Up On The Ridge’

I’ll confess that I’ve had my reservations about this long-awaited fifth studio album from Dierks Bentley. Originally Dierks and Capitol had planned to release two albums this year — a bluegrass album and a “regular” country album. When it was announced that the plans had been changed, that only one album would be released and that it would be bluegrass-influenced but not exactly “pure” bluegrass, I feared that the label was back-pedaling due to a lack of confidence that bluegrass would sell in today’s market. My fears were not allayed with the single release of the somewhat disappointing title track. My main gripe was the overly-processed harmony vocals. I’m not a bluegrass purist; I’m not bothered at all by the inclusion of electric and percussion instruments, but Alison Krauss’ usually distinctive voice was unrecognizable and it just sounded out of place on a bluegrass(ish) recording.

It was, therefore, a tremendous relief to hear the remainder of the album, which is a lot closer to what I’d had in mind all along. Dierks is joined by an impressive guest roster of musicians from both the bluegrass and mainstream country communities; Alison Krauss, Ronnie and Del McCoury, The Punch Brothers, Sam Bush, Jamey Johnson, Miranda Lambert, and Kris Kristofferson are among the artists lending their talents to the project, which was produced by Jon Randall Stewart, an accomplished musician in his own right.

The album is an interesting mixture of of traditional songs such as “Fiddlin’ Around” and “You’re Dead To Me” and more progressive fare such as “Fallin’ For You” and “Pride (In The Name Of Love)”. There are also touches of folk and rock on a reworked version of Bob Dylan’s “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)” on which Dierks is joined by progressive bluegrass band The Punch Brothers. The Punch Brothers also contributed to the more traditional “Rovin’ Gambler” as well as the aforementioned “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” which also features Del McCoury and sounds like something from a SteelDrivers album. There are even some modern classical elements, a Punch Brothers trademark, included on “Pride”. The Punch Brothers are a band that I’m going to have to check out more thoroughly in the future.

Bentley shares co-writing credit on five of the album’s twelve tracks, four of them with producer Stewart. The remaining songs come mainly from the catalogs of some of Nashville’s finest songwriters: Shawn Kemp, Paul Kennerley, Verlon Thompson, Tim O’Brien, Kris Kristofferson and Buddy and Julie Miller. Thompson wrote “Bad Angel” along with Suzi Ragsdale. On this track, Dierks is joined by Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson, who both provide fine vocal performances on one of the best tracks on the album. Kristofferson contributes a characteristically rough duet vocal on his 1969 composition “Bottle To The Bottom”. Closing out the album is “Down In The Mine”, one of the songs Bentley and Stewart wrote together. It’s reminsicent of the often-recorded Merle Travis classic “Dark As A Dungeon.” Stewart and Sonya Isaacs provide beautiful harmony vocals. As the song and the album wind down, it just left me wanting more.

The title track is currently at #25 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart. Whether it will gain enough momentum to reach the Top 10 remains to be seen, as does whether or not subsequent singles will chart well. It would be nice to hear some of these songs on the radio; they provide a much-needed antidote to the ubiquitous pop-country currently rulilng the airwaves. In the end, though, I suspect that this may be one of those albums that manages to sell well without a lot of radio support. But regardless of its fate at radio and retail, Up On The Ridge is an excellent example of artistry and an essential purchase for any serious country music fan.

Up On The Ridge is available at retail stores, as well as at Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: A

Album Review: Patty Loveless – ‘Mountain Soul II’

mountainsoul2Country radio’s love affair with Patty Loveless began winding down around 1997, with the release of the single “You Don’t Seem To Miss Me”. The record met with resistance by some radio program directors, who requested the release of an alternate version, without the harmony vocals provided by George Jones. Loveless refused to remix the record; it stalled at #14 and she never again had another Top 10 hit. Her commercial appeal may have waned, but freed from the constraints and pressures imposed by radio, Loveless has blossomed as an artist and released some of the best music of her career. In 2001, she released a critically acclaimed bluegrass album, and this week, Mountain Soul II, the long awaited sequel, finally hits store shelves.

Though mostly acoustic, the subtle use of some non-bluegrass instrumentation — electric guitar, pump organ, and pedal steel guitar — prevent Mountain Soul II from qualifying as a true bluegrass album, and Loveless and her label, Saguaro Road Records, have been careful not to refer to it as such. In press releases, they describe it as Appalachian, bluegrass, and country combined. Regardless of the label, it is a worthy successor to Mountain Soul, and unlike many sequels, it holds its own against the original.

Many of the players from the original Mountain Soul — Jon Randall, Rebecca Lynn Howard, and of course, Loveless’ producer and husband Emory Gordy, Jr. — are back on board this time around. Loveless is also joined by special guests Del and Ronnie McCoury, Vince Gill, and Emmylou Harris.

The opening track and lead single for the album is a cover of the Harlan Howard classic “Busted”. Recorded many times in the past by artists such as Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, and John Conlee, Loveless’ version restores Howard’s original lyrics, which contain references to coal mining, rather than cotton farming, referred to in the other recorded versions. The lyrics were originally changed at the request of Johnny Cash, but coal mining is a better fit with the acoustic arrangement and bluegrass harmonies provided by the McCourys. Even better are the vocal performances that the McCourys contribute to the old standby “Working On A Building”, which is the most purely bluegrass song on the album.

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