My Kind of Country

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

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Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘Sevens’

sevensGarth’s 7th studio album was released in November 1997. Garth’s marketing acumen went a little over the top on the “sevens” theme, with a deliberate 14 tracks, and a special edition of the first 777,777 copies released. It’s a wonder he missed out on releasing it on 7 July. But luckily there was real substance behind all the marketing flash.

The first single, AC ballad ‘In Another’s Eyes’ was a duet with Trisha Yearwood about a secret adulterous affair/unrequited relationship (allegedly inspired by a line in Shakespeare). It may have had special meaning for the pair, both then married to other people and publicly denying any special interest in one another. It also appeared as the token new song on Trisha’s then current compilation Songbook. The single peaked at #2, but while Trisha is a great singer, the song is a bit overblown for my taste.

The breezy drinking song ‘Long Neck Bottle’, a likeable Steve Wariner song which features Steve on guitar. It’s a shame it wasn’t a full duet, as the song is made for that, but Garth chose to double track his own voice instead. (The pair did record a duet together at about this time, ‘Burnin’ The Roadhouse Down’, which appeared on one of Steve’s albums and was a hit single in 1998.) It was Garth’s first #1 since ‘The Beaches Of Cheyenne’ couple of years earlier.

The excellent ‘She’s Gonna Make It’ just missed that peak, topping out at #2. A sensitive look at the aftermath of a painful breakup, concluding

The crazy thing about it
She’d take him back
But the fool in him that walked out
Is the fool that just won’t act

She’s gonna make it
But he never will

Garth wrote this with Kent Blazy and Kim Williams, and there is some pretty fiddle courtesy of Rob Hajacos.

There was only one more single during the album’s main run, the rowdy ‘Two Pina Coladas’, about drowning one’s sorrows with a good time, complete with barroom-style chorus. It’s not exactly a classic, but it’s quite enjoyable with a good-humored singalong feel.

Radio then received ‘To Make You Feel My Love’ (from a movie soundtrack) before returning to Sevens with the pleasant but forgettable AC love song ‘You Move Me’.

A few years later, in 2000, with no new country product to promote and after the flop performance of the ill-conceived Chris Gaines project, the label tried one more single from Sevens. ‘Do What You Gotta Do’ is a cover of a New Grass Revival song which reached #13 for Garth. New Grass Revival’s Sam Bush and John Cowan guest on harmony vocals, while Bush, Bela Fleck and Pat Flynn play their signature instruments of mandolin, banjo and acoustic guitar. The end result is rockier than the original, and lacks its charm, but I applaud Garth’s choice of tribute.

My favourite track is the high lonesome gospel of ‘Fit For A King’, a beautiful song about a homeless street preacher. The harmony singers include Carl Jackson, who wrote it with Jim Rushing.

The passionate ‘I Don’t Have To Wonder’ is a sadder and more subtle (but less immediate) take on the ex marrying another, richer, man than ‘Friends In Low Places’. It was written by Shawn Camp and Taylor Dunn, and is another highlight.

‘Belleau Wood’ tells the story of the unofficial Christmas truce which is said to have occurred on the first Christmas Day of the First World War in 1914. It is genuinely touching, although the tag about seeking heaven on earth feels out of place and anachronistic. ‘A Friend To Me’ is quite a pretty tribute to a close friend which Garth wrote with Victoria Shaw, but the string section is unnecessary.

The charming and self-deprecating ‘When There’s No One Around’ was written by Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott. It’s not typical Garth, and perhaps all the better for it.

‘How You Ever Gonna Know’ (written by Garth with Kent Blazy) is an unexciting midpaced song on his favorite theme of taking chances to live life to the full. Well-meaning but cliche’d, it is basically forgettable filler. ‘Cowboy Cadillac’ is regrettably not the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band song of that title but a pleasantly bouncy and solidly country if somewhat forgettable tune about a favourite vehicle. ‘Take The Keys To My Heart’ has more of a rock influence, and is a bit boring. Cutting these songs would have made it a stronger album.

The album was massively successful, and is one of Garth’s best selling records, with 19 million sales worldwide to date. It’s also surprisingly good, and surprisingly country, although some tracks are disposable.

Grade: A-

Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume III’

will the circle 317 years passed between the original Will The Circle Be Unbroken and Volume II. 13 years after that, in 2002, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band decided it was time for a third instalment, which they released on Capitol. It did not make as much of a stir as either of the previous instalments, but is still a pretty solid collection of bluegrass and oldtime music with some guests old and new.

The opening ‘Take Me In Your Lifeboat’ is beaty bluegrass gospel performed with Del McCoury and his sons. The McCourys are back on the secular ‘Love Please Come Home’, which is well done but not memorable.

I preferred the contributions from bluegrass great Jimmy Martin (1927-2005), who had taken part in both previous versions, and who belies his age with confident upbeat performances here. He sings his own ‘Hold Whatcha Got’ (which Ricky Skaggs had made into a hit in the late 80s), and also the lively ‘Save It, Save It’.

In contrast, June Carter Cash (1929-2003) takes the lead vocal on the Carter Family’s ‘Diamonds In The Rough’, with Earl Scruggs on banjo. She does not sound at all well, and indeed died the following year. Although Johnny Cash (1932-2003) was also in poor health, he sounds much better than his wife on a self-penned tribute to the late Maybelle and Sara Carter, ‘Tears In The Holston River.

Willie Nelson, not involved in previous versions, gets two cuts here. Willie sounds good on ‘Goodnight Irene’, but the tracks is irredeemably ruined by the presence of duet partner Tom Petty. Petty is out of tune and the harmony is embarrassingly dissonant. A cheery Nelson version of ‘Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms’ is better although it does feel a bit perfunctory.

Dwight Yoakam (another newcomer to the series) is great on his two tracks. He shows his Kentucky roots on the mournful and authentic ‘Some Dark Holler’. He is outstanding on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ ‘Wheels’, which he makes sound like. Vince Gill’s ‘All Prayed Up’ is an excellent piece of up-tempo bluegrass gospel.

Emmylou Harris sings her ex-husband Paul Kennerley’s ‘I’ll Be Faithful To You’, a sweet declaration of eternal love, exquisitely. She also duets with Matraca Berg (Mrs Jeff Hanna) on Berg’s folk-styleode to the river running through Nashville, ‘Oh Cumberland’. Alison Krauss exercises her angelic tones on ‘Catfish John’.

Iris Dement sings beautifully on her own nostalgic ‘Mama’s Opry’. Ricky Skaggs and Rodney Dillard team up for the pacy folk of ‘There Is A Time’. Band members’sons Jaime Hanna and Jonathan McEuen (who were the duo Hanna-McEuen at the time) are a bit limp for me on ‘The Lowlands’, a folky Gary Scruggs song.

Sam Bush takes it high mountain lonesome on Carter Stanley’s ‘Lonesome River’. ‘Milk Cow Blues’ is taken back to its blues roots and features Josh Graves and Doc Watson. Watson also sings the traditional ‘I Am A Pilgrim’. More contemporary is ‘I Find Jesus’, penned by Jimmy Ibbotson. ‘Roll The Stone Away’ (written by Jeff Hanna with Marcus Hummon) uses religious imagery but it is a bit dull. The Nashville Bluegrass Band take on A. P. Carter’s ‘I Know What It Means To Be Lonesome which is OK.

Gravel-voiced bluesman Taj Mahal and legendary fiddler Vassar Clements guest on the good-humored ‘Fishin’ Blues, which is mildly amusing. Taj Mahal and Alison Krauss guest on this album’s take on the title song which falls rather flat with Alison sounding a bit squeaky and therest of them dull and lifeless.

This album lacks the groundbreaking nature of Volume I, and the cosy atmosphere of either previous set, making more of a standard collection of older material. There are definitely some tracks well worth hearing, and I’d still be interested if there was a Volume 4.

Grade: B+

Album Review: John Cowan – ‘Sixty’

sixtyJohn Cowan is best known to country fans as the lead singer of New Grass Revival in the late 1980s, but he is a musician with broad tastes, and this latest solo album covers a number of bases.

‘The Things I Haven’t Done’ (featuring bluegrass banjoist Alison Brown) mixes bluegrass the country-rock of the 1960s/70s. The plaintive song looks back at a life’s choices. ‘Why Are You Crying’ is in similar vein, with an airy Cowan vocal, and is played by Chris Hillman, Bernie Leadon, and John Mcfee of the Doobie Brothers (who also produces). ‘Rising From The Ashes’ is a bit less memorable, but quite pleasant.

My favourite track is an inspired cover of the Marty Robbins’ hit ‘Devil Woman’. Cowan’s vocal is spectacular and I love this. His voice also soars on the beautiful ‘Feel Like Going Home’, backed by a melodic, churchy piano. A sultry Dixieland jazz version of ‘Miss The Mississippi (And You)’ works well and is something of a grower.

‘Helplessness Blues’ is a curious 60s style folk-rock number, with some weird sound effects and hippyish lyrics, but that soulful voice saves it.

The churchy gospel ‘Happiness’, featuring Sam Bush from New Grass Revival, and Bonnie Bramlett on vocals, rambles a bit but its questioning but soulful vocal is compelling:
Now that I’ve found peace at last
Tell me, Jesus, will it last?

‘Who’s Gonna Cry For You’ features Alison Krauss, but wasn’t what I expected from that collaboration, rather it’s a slow bluesy soul song with brass backings, with Alison barely audible. It was well done of its kind, but I was disappointed because I would have loved to have heard the pair of them on a high lonesome bluegrass song.

‘Sugar Babe’ is basically an instrumental with a few vocal spots inserted, allowing Cowan to showcase the playing of friends including Sam Bush, Ray Benson, John Jorgenson (from the Desert Rose Band) and rock harmonica player Huey Lewis.

This eclectic album is not quite what I expected, but it is beautifully sung and played, and I enjoyed it a great deal.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Carlene Carter – ‘Carter Girl’

carlenecarterCarlene Carter’s own music is vastly different from that of her famous family, so when plans were announced for a Carter Family tribute album, I wasn’t expecting a collection of faithful-to-the-original remakes. On one hand it makes sense to update these old classics, many of which date back to the 1920s, for the benefit of modern audiences. And who better to do so than the heiress to the Carter Family musical legacy? On the other hand, changing them too much runs the risk of alienating fans. Although she does take some liberties with the arrangements, for the most part Carter and producer Don Was get things right, although there are a few production missteps along the way.

Carter Girl, which was released last week on Rounder Records boasts an impressive lineup of guest artists from Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Kris Kristofferson and Elizabeth Cook to Sam Bush and the late Cowboy Jack Clement. The song selection is impeccable, consisting mostly of old chestnuts written by A.P. Carter, Helen Carter, June Carter Cash, and of course Mother Maybelle. Carlene herself gets songwriting credit on two numbers: “Me and the Wildwood Rose”, a remake of a recording she included on her 1993 album I Fell In Love and “Lonesome Valley 2003″, an old A.P. Carter and Al Anderson number which gets some updated lyrics.

The album’s main weakness is that some of the updated arrangements are too heavy-handed with the percussion, which doesn’t suit some of these old songs. This is immediately apparent with the opening track “Little Black Train”, which I instantly disliked. Upon hearing it, I was convinced that the entire album was going to be a disaster. The production on “Blackie’s Gunman” is also a bit cluttered. I did not initially like her take on her mother’s composition “Tall Lover Man” at all, finding the production a bit heavy-handed, but it’s been growing on me with repeated listenings.

Carlene and Don Was may have pushed the envelope a little too far on some of these numbers but they more than compensate for those excesses on the ones they get right, which is the rest of the album. She does a stunning version of “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight”, which features harmony vocals by Elizabeth Cook. Willie Nelson is her duet partner on “Troublesome Waters”, and Vince Gill provides the harmony on “Lonesome Valley 2003″, which is the centerpiece of the album. The original tune dates back to the 1930s. Carlene wrote the updated and deeply personal lyrics, which deal with the 2003 death of her mother June Carter Cash as well as the death of Johnny Cash four months later.

Production missteps aside, Carter Girl is a very fine tribute and a great introduction to one of the most influential families that country music has ever known.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Johnny Cash – ‘Out Among The Stars’

johnnycashThere hasn’t been any shortage of “new” Johnny Cash music in the decade since the Man In Black’s death. But unlike most of those releases, this week’s Out Among The Stars isn’t a reissue, an alternate take, a demo or a recording made during the singer’s declining years when he was long past his vocal peak. Rather, Out Among The Stars is a full-fledged studio album that was mostly recorded in the 1980s and produced by Billy Sherrill. The nearly completed album was discovered two years ago by John Carter Cash, who was in the process of mining the Sony archives while trying to catalog his parents’ extensive discographies. He brought in some additional musicians, including Marty Stuart, Buddy Miller and Carlene Carter, to bring the project to completion. The final product was released last week.

Normally, news of this sort would be cause for great celebration but any excitement about the album had to be tempered with the knowledge that the 1980s were, as even the most die-hard Cash fans will admit , a period in which the singer released mostly less than stellar work. Add to that the fact that Billy Sherrill had been the producer behind “The Chicken In Black”, widely regarded to be one of the worst singles of Cash’s career, and no one was quite sure what to expect.

Considering that Out Among The Stars was mostly recorded in 1984, while Cash’s career was in the middle of a long dry spell and just two years before Columbia dropped him from its roster, it isn’t surprising that the album was forgotten. But those who were braced for the worst will be pleasantly surprised because it is far superior to most of his output from that era. So far the album has produced one non-charting single, “She Used To Love Me a Lot”, which David Allan Coe took to #11 in 1984. It was written by Charles Quillen with Dennis W. Morgan and Kye Fleming. Morgan and Fleming were one of Nashville’s top songwriting teams of the day, having written many hits for Ronnie Milsap, Barbara Mandrell and Sylvia.

Many other top 80s songwriters teams are also represented. Ed and Patsy Bruce contributed “After All”, a pop-tinged ballad that was a departure from Johnny’s usual fare and Paul Kennerley and Graham Lyle wrote “Rock and Roll Shoes”. Johnny himself contributed the sentimental “Call Your Mother” and the inspirational “I Came To Believe”, which was written while Johnny was struggling with addiction and completing a stint at the Betty Ford Center. Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman wrote the tongue-in-cheek “If I Told You Who It Was” about a country music fan who has a fling with a female Opry star after changing her flat tire. No names are named, but the lady’s identity is revealed (for those old enough to recognize it) by an uncredited vocal appearance near the end of the song. It’s not Dolly Parton; that’s all I’m going to say.

Although traditionalists like to claim Cash as one of their own, The Man In Black was no purist and frequently pushed the boundaries of the genre. In this collection he sticks close to his country roots, and unlike many of his records, there is plenty of steel guitar on this album. Among the most traditional tunes are two excellent duets with June Carter Cash — “Baby, Ride Easy” and a cover of Tommy Collins’ “Don’t You Think It’s Come Our Time”. Johnny sounds relaxed and refreshed on these tracks, and June is also in fine vocal form. “Baby, Come Easy” features harmony vocals by Carlene Carter and “Don’t You Think It’s Come Our Time” features some excellent picking by Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Bryan Sutton. Waylon Jennings joins Johnny for a faithful-to-the-original cover of the Hank Snow classic “I’m Movin’ On”. Jennings’ presence elevates a performance that otherwise wouldn’t be particularly memorable.

The album closes with a remixed version of “She Used To Love Me A Lot” that was produced by Elvis Costello. Not surprisingly, this version isn’t country but it is in keeping with some of Cash’s genre-pushing efforts. It doesn’t really add anything to the album, however, and I could have done without it. “I Came To Believe” would have been a more appropriate closing track, but that is the only negative thing I can say about an otherwise exceptional album.

It is unlikely that Out Among The Stars would have fared well commercially had it been released thirty years ago. It was not then and is not now what mainstream Nashville wanted. It won’t produce any big radio hits, but now there is a greater appreciation of Johnny Cash than there was in 1984. Sony is giving the release the promotional effort it deserves and I imagine it will sell quite well.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Alison Krauss – ‘Too Late To Cry’

too late to cryAlison’s debut album for Rounder records was produced by the label boss Ken Irwin. It was recorded when she was just 14 years old, and released in 1987. Understandably, she does not sound like a fully formed artist, with her voice sounding lights and insubstantial compared to her more mature work. However, the material is excellent, with almost all the songs written by her mentor John Pennell, while the musicians backing Alison include future Union Station member Jerry Douglas on dobro and Sam Bush on mandolin.

The wistful ‘If I Give My Heart’ is a pretty ballad about falling in love for the first time which I like very much and is probably my favourite track. The title track has a wistful lyric set to an attractive fiddle tune. ‘Foolish Heart’ and ‘On The Borderline’ also have attractive melodies, and ‘Don’t Follow Me’ is quite engaging.

‘Gentle River’ is also pretty and melodic, and works the best of the non-Pennell numbers, although Alison’s vocal is more piercing than gentle. ‘Sleep On’ (written by Illinois music professor Nelson Mandrell) is a little, yes, sleepy. While it is a lovely song, the key is a little higher than seems to be comfortable at times on the beautiful Rodney Crowell ballad ‘Song For The Life’ (billed here under the title ‘Song For Life’), and the lyric is too mature to be convincing from such a young (and very definitely young sounding) singer. I’d like to hear Alison rerecord this song sometime.

Alison’s voice sounds painfully thin on the rather dull ‘In Your Eyes’, but a couple of instrumentals allow Alison to show off her fiddle skills.

Overall, this record shows the real promise of a remarkably talented young artist at the dawn of her career. It’s probably only for completists, but it is quite pleasant.

Grade: B

Album Review: Donna Ulisse – ‘Showin’ My Roots’

showin my rootsFor the past few years former country singer Donna Ulisse has been making a name for herself as a bluegrass singer-songwriter. I’ve enjoyed her music in that vein, but a small part of me hankered after the neotraditional country singer she started out as. Now she has combined the two sides to her music in a nod to her musical roots, re-imagining the country classics she grew up listening to, in a bluegrass setting, with a few bluegrass songs thrown in. The result is a joy to listen to.

Donna produced the record with acoustic guitarist Bryan Sutton. The band consists of some of the finest bluegrass studio musicians: Sutton, Scott Vestal on banjo, Rob Ickes on dobro, Andy Leftwich on fiddle and mandolin, and either Viktor Krauss (on most tracks) or Byron House on upright bass.

A pair of new songs bookend the album, both written by Donna with her husband Rick Stanley. The charming title track sets the mood and dwells on the influence on her of Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens, Dolly Parton and Carter Stanley. Fayssoux Maclean sings harmony. ‘I’ve Always Had A Song I Could Lean On’ is a fond reminiscence of a music-filled childhood.

Donna plays tribute to Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette with confident, sassy versions of ‘Fist City’ and ‘Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad’, both of which I enjoyed very much. A thoughtful and convincing take on Dolly Parton’s ‘In The Good Old Days When Times Were Bad’ acts as Donna’s nod to both Dolly and to Haggard, whose cover influenced this version.

Donna’s husband is a cousin of Carter and Ralph Stanley, and Donna’s version of the Stanley Brothers’ ‘How Mountain Girls Can Love’ is bright and charming. The finest moments on this album are the ballads. A beautifully measured version of Ralph Stanley’s deeply mournful ‘If That’s The Way You Feel’ is my favorite track. Larry Cordle and Carl Jackson add harmonies to this exquisite reading.

Almost as good, ‘Somebody Somewhere (Don’t Know What He’s Missing Tonight)’, a Loretta Lynn hit written by Lola Jean Fawbush, is lonely and longing, with the gorgeous tone Donna displayed on her 1990s country records, and a very spare, stripped down arrangement. Absolutely wonderful.

Donna is sincere and compelling on ‘Wait A Little Longer Please, Jesus’, a favorite of her father. I also enjoyed the traditional ‘Take This Hammer’ (the first song Donna ever sang in public, as a small child) with guest Sam Bush sharing the vocals. A sweet and tenderly romantic ‘Send Me The Pillow That You Dream On’ is delicately pretty.

‘I Hope You Have Learned’ was written in the 1950s by Donna’s great-uncle Gene Butler, who spent a short period in Nashville working as a songwriter. It is a high lonesome bluegrass ballad whose protagonist is in prison for murdering a romantic rival, and wants to know if the spouse will be waiting on release. Donna twists the genders around but otherwise this is faithful to the original, recorded by Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe.

The only disappointment for me was Rodney Crowell’s ‘One Way Rider’, which boasts sparkling playing by the musicians, but although Donna tackles it with enthusiasm, it feels a little characterless despite John Cowan’s harmony providing some flavor.

This is one of a number of excellent bluegrass/country albums to emerge this year, but Donna’s beautiful, expressive vocals, which are at their best on this album, make this one not to be missed. Her interpretative ability means that she brings her own contribution even to the best-known songs, and this is thoroughly recommended.

Grade: A+

Country Heritage: Merle Travis

merle travisIt troubles me no end that the artistry of Merle Travis has been lost in the sands of time. It troubles me, but does not surprise me, as Travis–the victim of changing tastes and a lifelong battle with John Barleycorn–had largely disappeared from the airwaves by the time I started really following country music in the mid-60s. Although the general public lost sight of Merle’s genius, he has fared better in the esteem of Nashville’s pickers and singers and has been cited as a primary influence by many of the world’s best pickers, including Chet Atkins, Doc Watson, Earl Hooker, Scotty Moore and Marcel Dadi.

Chet Atkins admired and initially tried to emulate the Travis style, once commenting that it was fortunate that he did not have as much opportunity to hear Travis growing up as he would have liked or his own style might have become a clone. The great Arthel “Doc” Watson thought so much of Travis that he named his son Merle after him. Glen Campbell’s parents were such big fans that they reportedly gave their son the middle name “Travis.” The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had him as a featured performer on their classic Will the Circle Be Unbroken album issued in 1972.

Travis was born and raised in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, a coal mining center that would prove to be the source of inspiration for many of his finest musical compositions. In the hard and bleak life of a coal mining town, he found escape in the guitar–an instrument played by his brother Jim, who was also believed to have made Merle’s first guitar.

Music was one of the few recreations available in the area of western Kentucky, particularly during the heights of the Great Depression. There were many guitar players in the vicinity of Muhlenberg, and Travis freely acknowledged his debt to such earlier players as black country blues guitarist Arnold Shultz, and more directly to guitarists Mose Rager, a part-time barber and coal miner, and Ike Everly, the father of Don and Phil Everly. The Travis style eventually evolved into the ‘Travis Pickin’’ style of playing a steady bass pattern with the thumb and filling out some syncopated rhythms with the fingers of the right hand. Meanwhile, he developed a “talking bluesman” style of singing that was instantly recognizable by the perpetual smile in his voice. Read more of this post

2012 CMA Awards: our predictions

The 46th annual Country Music Association annual awards ceremony will take place on November 1, 2012 at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. The show will air live on ABC television again this year and is presented by the pairing of Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, who will take over hosting duties for the fifth consecutive year. Eric Church and his massive hit “Springsteen” lead the list of nominees, with Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton close behind him.

On awards night, look for a musical tribute to Willie Nelson and The Band Perry to debut the first taste of their Rick Rubin produced sophomore album. There’s also talk that Female Vocalist nominee Kelly Clarkson will debut “Don’t Rush” on the telecast, a duet with Vince Gill featured from her Greatest Hits, Chapter One album in stores Nov. 19. Also look forward to a duet from Tim McGraw and Faith Hill (which I’ve heard is during the Nelson tribute), and solo performances from each.

Entertainer of the Year

Jason Aldean
Kenny Chesney
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton
Taylor Swift – Jonathan Pappalardo, J.R. Journey

The usual solid yet unspectacular group. Carrie Underwood fans are likely fuming at yet another snub, while everyone else will bark at the inclusion of Swift, a two-time winner and the incumbent, for her increasing lack of country credibility. But Aldean is the nominee to watch, as his recent stadium tour announcement will likely endear him to voters in the years to come.

Jonathan Pappalardo: I’ll bet on the safest choice this time around and say Taylor Swift is going to win. Chesney may have had the biggest tour, and Aldean is on fire right now, but Swift has the lock on this category.

J.R. Journey: Taylor Swift now not only represents about one-fourth of the total United States GDP, she also hawks makeup, perfume, and shoes on the side. And she just had the #1 song in 12 countries. I say Swift is most likely to succeed on CMA night.

Female Vocalist of the Year

Kelly Clarkson
Miranda Lambert – Jonathan Pappalardo
Martina McBride
Taylor Swift – J.R. Journey
Carrie Underwood

Kelly Clarkson, really? She did score a #21 hit with the country version of “Mr. Know It All” so her nomination is somewhat, albeit very marginally, justified. She has yet to fully embrace a career in country music. McBride is a snoozer scoring her 14th consecutive nomination and 15th overall as her career takes a downward spiral. See, this is what happens when all the great female artists of late (Kimberly Perry, Jennifer Nettles, Shawna Thompson) are members of duos and groups.

Jonathan Pappalardo: While I’d love to see this award go to Clarkson (to tick off the industry if nothing else), she’s a pop singer who’s done a bang up job covering country songs in concert. That’s about it. Miranda Lambert, meanwhile, is the biggest star in country music right now that actually looks and sounds country. And her intuition to form the Pistol Annies proves she’s not afraid to take creative risks. Its her award to lose, and I don’t foresee that happening.

J.R. Journey: Taylor Swift is the likely winner here for pretty much the same reasons she’ll win Entertainer of the year. Miranda Lambert’s new solo music is way below her usual standards this year and I think Carrie Underwood’s dog already had its day in this category, so I don’t see voters leaning toward either of them. 

Male Vocalist of the Year

Jason Aldean
Luke Bryan
Eric Church
Blake Shelton - Jonathan Pappalardo, J.R. Journey
Keith Urban

Another somewhat standard list until you take into account Urban is here in place of red-hot Dierks Bentley. Bentley’s exclusion, which comes on the heels of three back-to-back #1 hits is shocking. Urban should be joining Brad Paisley and been made to sit this one out this year.

Jonathan Pappalardo:  There’s seemingly no stopping Blake Shelton right now despite one mediocre single after another. He’s the biggest star here next to Jason Aldean and the all around better vocalist. He’ll sail to his third straight win no problem.

J.R. Journey: Blake Shelton is coming off two consecutive wins here and his visibility remains higher than Aldean’s, the next closest competitor. Long shots for the win Luke Bryan and Eric Church are still newcomers and first time nominees leaving Keith Urban the longest shot “veteran” slot. For my money, Shelton will repeat a third time here.

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Country Heritage: 25 from the ’80s

This article will focus on some artists who either had a very short period of great success or had an extended run of near-success. In other words, I cannot justify an entire article on any of them.

Deborah Allen was born in 1953 in Memphis, and probably has had greater success as a songwriter, having written hits for artists including Tanya Tucker, Sheena Easton and Janie Fricke. As a performer, RCA had the bright idea of dubbing her voice onto old Jim Reeves recordings to create duets. The three duets released as singles – “Don’t Let Me Cross Over,” “Oh, How I Miss You Tonight” and “Take Me In Your Arms And Hold Me” – all went Top 10 in 1979-80. As a solo artist, Allen charted 10 times with three Top 10 singles: “Baby I Lied” (1983–#4), “I’ve Been Wrong Before” (1984–#2) and “I Hurt For You” (1984–#10).

Baillie and The Boys were a late 80s act which charted 10 times between 1987 and 1991 before disappearing from the charts. Seven of their hit records went Top 10, with “(I Wish I Had A) Heart of Stone” (1989–#4) being the biggest. Kathie Baillie was the lead singer, and while initially a trio, the group became a duo in 1988 with few people able to tell the difference.

Debby Boone is one of two answers to a trivia question – name the two families that have had a #1 pop record in each of three consecutive generations. One answer is obvious – the Nelson family – big band leader Ozzie Nelson (“And Then Some”, 1935), Rick Nelson (“Poor Little Fool”, 1958 and “Traveling Man”, 1960) and Rick’s sons Gunnar and Matthew Nelson (recording, under the name Nelson, “Love and Affection”, 1990).
The Nelson family answer works top down and bottom up as the members of the chain are all blood relatives. In the case of Debby Boone’s family, it only works top down. Debby (“You Light Up My Life“, 1977), father Pat Boone (seven #1s from 1955-1961 including “Love Letters In The Sand“) and grandfather Red Foley – no blood relation to Pat Boone but a blood relation of Debby’s (“Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy”, 1950).

Debby Boone may be a direct direct descendant of the American pioneer Daniel Boone. She is distantly related to two stars of American television, Richard Boone (Have Gun, Will Travel, Hec Ramsey) and Randy Boone, (The Virginian and Cimarron Strip).

Enough with the trivia – Debby charted on the country charts thirteen times from 1977-1981 although most of those were pop records that happened to chart country. Starting in 1979 Debby started consciously recording for country markets. “My Heart Has A Mind Of Its Own” reached #11 in early 1979. The next three records did relatively nothing but the first single issued in 1980 “Are You On The Road To Loving Me Again” finally made it to the top. She would chart four more singles before turning to gospel/Christian music.

Larry Boone is best known as a songwriter, having cuts by Kathy Mattea, Don Williams, Tracy Lawrence, Rick Trevino, George Strait, Shenandoah, Marie Osmond and Lonestar. As a singer, he wasn’t terribly distinctive – sort of a George Strait-lite.  Boone charted 14 singles from 1986-93, with only 1988’s “Don’t Give Candy To A Stranger” reaching the Top 10. The other Top 20 singles were “I Just Called To Say Goodbye Again” and a remake of “Wine Me Up” – both of which reached their peak chart positions in 1989.

Dean Dillon charted 20 times from 1979-93, with his biggest hit being “Nobody In His Right Mind (Would’ve Left Her)” which reached #25 in November, 1980. During 1982 and 83, RCA paired Dillon with fading star Gary Stewart, hoping for the kind of magic that was later achieved when Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn were paired together. No real hits came of this collaboration, but the recordings were quite interesting and are available on CD.

Fortunately for Dillon, he is a far better songwriter than singer. His hits as a writer include George Jones’ “Tennessee Whiskey,” and more than a dozen George Strait Top 10s. In fact, Strait has recorded over 50 of Dillon’s songs, ensuring that the wolf will never again knock at Dean Dillon’s door.

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Album Review: Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers – ‘At The Ryman’

With her singles increasingly ignored by country radio as a new generation swept in, Emmylou decided to disband the Hot Band and make a new start. She launched the replacements by recording a live album, at the Ryman Auditorium, historic home of the Grand Ole Opry, which was at the time basically disused. One of the big tests of any artist who sounds good recorded is whether the voice holds up in a live setting. Emmylou Harris’s certainly does, and over her career she has released several live recordings. However, typically of Emmylou, she has never chosen the most trodden path and released a concert of her greatest hits, performed in close imitation of the records. Her 1981 album Last Date, which produced three hit singles including the #1 title track, had consisted of all new material (or at least covers she had not done before). It was not a true live album, though, as the tracks were taken from a series of live dates with her legendary Hot Band. This album, similarly, is not a single gig, but was recorded over three days, 30 April-2 May 1991, and released early the following year. Producers Allen Reynolds and Richard Bennett, and the engineers who worked on the project, deserve special credit for making the final result a seamless whole which sounds like an authentic representation of the experience of seeing Emmylou in concert with her new band.

The material is, once more, all covers of songs she had not previously recorded, mixing up country classics, bluegrass, folk and rock, given an acoustic makeover by Emmylou’s new lineup, the Nash Ramblers. The group, easily as talented as the Hot Band at their hottest and without the assistance of electricity, comprised progressive bluegrass virtuoso Sam Bush on mandolin and fiddle; Roy Huskey Jr on upright bass; West Coast veteran Al Perkins on dobro and banjo, Canadian Larry Atamaniuk on drums and percussion, and a talented young Texan named Jon Randall Stewart on acoustic guitar, mandolin and taking the high tenor harmony, although all four contribute vocals where necessary. Their playing and singing are impeccable throughout. The audience seems to enjoy the occasion rather politely.

For my money. the concert seems to take a while to get going, opening with an enjoyable but fairly sedate version of Steve Earle’s ‘Guitar Town’, followed by a plaintive ‘Half As Much’. ‘Cattle Call’ is prettily and tastefully performed, with delicate yodeling. The chugging ‘Guess Things Happen That Way’ (a Cowboy Jack Clement song made famous by Johnny Cash) is enjoyable, but sounds a little too cheery for the resigned stoicism of the lyric.

It really picks up with a subtly impassioned ‘Hard Times’, dating from the 1850s, which Emmylou opens with a crystalline accapella phrase, and which is one of my favourite tracks. There is more contemporary folk music on a socio-political theme with Nanci Griffith’s idealistic but frankly depressing ‘It’s A Hard Life Wherever You Go’, battling racism and sectarian hatred, segueing into the low key Civil Rights theme of ‘Abraham, Martin and John’, a 60s tribute to Messrs Lincoln, King and Kennedy, all of course victims of assassination. Emmylou also covers rock star Bruce Springsteen’s downbeat and down-tempo memories of a working class child remembering the ‘Mansion On The Hill’ overlooking the town and factories. I must admit would have rather have heard the Hank Williams gospel song of the title, as this is beautifully done, but feels a little lifeless. Southern rock gets a nod with an enjoyable take on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Lodi’, although perhaps it feels a little too good humored for the stagnated frustration expressed in the lyrics.

The bluegrass songs have a lot more life, with lovely, sparkling playing as Bill Monroe’s suitably Celtic sounding instrumental ‘Scotland’ allows the band to stretch out while Emmylou buck-danced with the Father of Bluegrass himself (this is where the video version, which I haven’t seen, would come in handy). The mood carries over into the charming western themed ‘Montana Cowgirl’. There is more Monroe with the driving ‘Walls Of Time’ which he wrote with onetime Bluegrass Boy Peter Rowan, which is okay. Better is a committed performance of ‘Get Up John’, with lyrics written by Marty Stuart and Jerry Sullivan for a Bill Monroe tune, with the Nash Ramblers singing call and response vocals.

Emmylou recalls her 70s peak with a really beautiful version of the wistful ‘Like Strangers’ (one of many Boudleaux Bryant songs made into classic Everly Brothers records, and my favorite track on the album). The spiritual ‘Calling My Children Home’ (co-written by another great bluegrass musician Doyle Lawson) is sung exquisitely acappella with the band members on harmony. I also love Emmylou’s version of the O’Kanes’ ‘If I Could Be There’, with Jon Randall Stewart’s ethereal high harmony; it sounds gentler and more wistful than the original (also great).

There is a nice finish with ‘Smoke Along The Track’ with effective train sounds and appropriate lyrics about moving on.

Sales of this fine record and the accompanying video were disappointing and airplay nonexistent, but the album won Emmylou a Grammy. It also helped to inspire interest in the neglected historic Ryman Auditorium itself, which was restored and reopened as a concert venue in 1994.The CD is easy to find inexpensively. The video was never released on DVD but unused copies of the VHS tape seem to be around.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘Cowgirl’s Prayer’

Often a new record deal presents the opportunity for an artist to go off in a different direction and explore new territory, but 1993’s Cowgirl’s Prayer is more of a transitional album in Emmylou Harris’ career. Her first release for Elektra/Asylum was once again produced by Allen Reynolds and Richard Bennett, and follows the same basic template of 1990’s Brand New Dance, using mostly stripped down arrangements and understated performances. As she had done in the past, Emmylou had members of her band and some marquis name guest stars perform on the record. Nash Ramblers members Sam Bush, Al Perkins, Jon Randall Stewart and Roy Husky, Jr., all made appearances, while Alison Krauss, Suzanne Cox, and Trisha Yearwood all contributed harmony vocals and Kieran Kane lent his guitar-playing skills.

Never one to blindly follow trends, Emmylou resisted the then-current fashion of releasing beat-driven, slickly produced and often too-loud music meant to appeal to those on club line-dancing floors. Cowgirl’s Prayer is largely a quiet affair, which, along with Emmylou’s advancing age (by Nashville standards) at a time when country music had begun to become youth-obsessed made the album’s chances for success an uphill climb. It was largely met with indifference by radio, which is a shame because it contains some of the best performances of Emmylou’s career.

The rocker “High Powered Love”, which is not one of my favorites in the collection, was the first to be sent to radio. It stalled at #63. “Thanks To You” , written by Jesse Winchester fared slightly worse, peaking at #65. In between these two singles, a cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Crescent City” was released, and it failed to chart at all.

I like the album cuts in this collection much better than the radio singles. Particularly good are a tastefully produced and beautifully performed version of the old Eddy Arnold and Cindy Walker Classic “You Don’t Know Me”, and “Lovin’ You Again”, in which Emmylou portrays the long-suffering lover whose partner is gone for long stretches of time but always turns up when he has nowhere else to go. The best track on the album is “Prayer in Open D”, which Emmylou wrote herself. It begins as an expression of sorrow and despair:

There’s a valley of sorrow in my soul
Where every night I hear the thunder roll,
Like the sound of a distant gun
Over all the damage I have done.
And the shadows filling up this land
Are the ones I built with my own hand
There is no comfort from the cold
Of this valley of sorrow in my soul.

But by the end of the song, the bleakness gives way to hope:

There’s a highway risin’ from my dreams,
Deep in the heart I know it gleams
For I have seen it stretching wide,
Clear across to the other side
Beyond the river and the flood,
And the valley where for so long I have stood.
With the rock of ages in my bones
Someday I know it will lead me home.

The track is mostly acoustic-guitar led, along with a tasteful string section arranged by former Hot Band Member Emory Gordy, Jr..

There is a spiritual theme throughout the album, from the title and “Prayer in Open D”, to “The Light” and “I Hear A Call” to the Southern-spiritual flavored “Thanks To You”, on which Trisha Yearwood sings harmony, to “Jerusalem Tomorrow”, which is the most unusual track in the collection. It tells the story of a faith healer in Biblical times, who is essentially put of out business by, and eventually becomes a follower of, Jesus Christ. It’s an interesting tale, but I’m not a big fan of songs that are spoken rather than sung, so this is the one track I tend to skip over.

Cowgirl’s Prayer charted higher on the albums chart than Brand New Dance (#34 for Cowgirl’s Prayer vs #45 for Brand New Dance), but it was largely regarded as a commercial disaster. It is primarily remembered as the catalyst that caused Emmylou to make an unfortunate, in my view, change in musical direction; her next release was 1995’s controversial and more rock-oriented Wrecking Ball, which began a 13-year era in which Emmylou’s music drifted further away from the traditional country for which she had become famous. Although 2008’s All I Intended To Be, was in some ways a return to form, Cowgirl’s Prayer remains the last of the old-style Emmylou Harris albums. It’s still easy to find at Amazon and iTunes and well worth purchasing if you missed it the first time around.

Grade: A -

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.

Album Review: Darius Rucker – ‘Charleston, SC 1966′

The best thing about Darius Rucker’s second country album is what was most marked about his first: the singer’s gravelly yet flexible voice. More notable this time is the solid and often inventive contemporary country production helmed by Frank Rogers, who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite mainstream producers, with an excellent ear for the right instrumentation for any given song, and balancing commercial considerations with artistic merit. Rogers also currently produces Josh Turner (whose latest, Haywire, sounds gorgeous despite some lacklustre material) and Brad Paisley, who makes a guest appearance here. Where it falls down a little is with the lack of ambition and limited emotional palette, and it is interesting that all of these artists (each of them lucky enough to be happily married in real life) seem to have a reluctance to tackle much heartbreak or darkness in their music. Darius co-wrote every song, most frequently collaborating with Rogers, and although the material is pretty good, and more consistent than that on Learn To Live, there are no modern classics here. Possibly a few outside songs would have raised the bar. The album’s title (Darius’ place and date of birth) is an obvious nod to Radney Foster’s superb Del Rio, TX, 1959 – a rather rash idea, as it raises expectations it cannot deliver. Instead of aiming for excellence, Darius is apparently happy to settle for something that is merely good: well-performed, mainly mid-tempo, mainly positive, radio-friendly material in the center of today’s country music. And he does succeed in that rather better than many of his contemporaries.

Opening track ‘This’ is very reminiscent of much of Brad Paisley’s recent material, a paean to current domestic happiness along the lines of ‘Bless The Broken Road’:

Thank God for all I missed
Cause it led me straight to this

Written with Rogers and pop writer (and outgoing American idol judge) Kara DioGuardi, it is a perfectly competent and aurally pleasing but perhaps rather unambitious number which really epitomises this album. Also rather Paisleyesque in its domesticity is the sweet married love song ‘Might Get Lucky’ which Darius wrote with his hero Radney Foster and Jay Clements. This has a warmth and genuineness which is rather appealing. Both songs should find a ready home on country radio. ‘The Craziest Thing’ is another love song to a wife, which is less successful, managing to make walking on fire sound rather dull, despite a bouncy production. Paisley himself duets with Darius on the mildly witty carefree vacation song ‘I Don’t Care’, which the two wrote together with Chris DuBois; this breaks no new ground but is likeable and a surefire hit single in the making for next summer.

There is a welcome change of pace, and equally welcome move to something more emotionally ambivalent, with the languid ballad ‘Whiskey And You’, a love song which compares the protagonist’s need for his woman to a need for alcohol:

Ain’t nothing I can do
But come crawling back to
Whiskey and you
I never asked you to love me
I never begged you to stay
But I never want you to leave me

Also very good, and a bit more complex emotionally than the rest of the album, is ‘Things I’d Never Do’, written by Darius, Rogers and Clay Mills, with its wistful feel. The mortified protagonist, stuck in a hotel room, regrets past choices to do the kind of the things he would never have thought himself capable of:

I’d never leave the perfect girl
Or rip apart the perfect world
Just up and leave in the middle of a song

This is very effectively and subtly done, and my favorite track. Mills also cowrote ‘I Got Nothin’, a resigned response to a failing marriage where there just might be something to revive, which I also like. ‘We All Fall Down’, written with Kim Tribble, is a subdued and rather downbeat acknowledgment of inevitable and universal failure, which is another highlight for me, although it is certainly not commercial.

Closing track ‘In A Big Way’, written with Casey Beathard, expresses a traveler’s longing for home and family, and sounds possibly autobiographical (and it’s nice to hear someone namechecking Charley Pride alongside George Jones rather than one of the usual suspects). The tuneful and good-humored ‘Southern State Of Mind’, written with Ashley Gorley and Chris DuBois, is partly another homesick ode to home,

“where they drink sweet tea and they raise you to be polite”

and partly a declaration that he takes his southernness with him wherever he goes.

Lead single and #1 hit ‘Come Back Song’, written with Chris Stapleton and Casey Beathard, is quite a nice plea for forgiveness and reconciliation. I like it more than Darius’s last few singles, but it is not one of the more memorable songs on this album. ‘Love Will Do That’ is a nice example of Frank Rogers’ production, with some nice banjo from Bela Fleck and mandolin from Sam Bush, but is lyrically uninteresting. ‘She’s Beautiful’ is flat out boring and might have been dropped from the set with no ill effect.

This is in many ways a safe record. It is well made, pleasant to listen to, and should yield another brace of hits for Darius, but he doesn’t really take any chances with the material. I’m not sure I’ll remember it all that long after it’s left my current releases playlist. It seems disappointing in comparison to what I believe Darius is capable of (or to Del Rio, TX, 1959), but taken purely on its own merits it’s a pretty good record, particularly when set against many of his chart rivals.

Grade: B

Album Review: Trisha Yearwood – ‘Hearts In Armor’

Trisha’s second album, released in 1992, is still my favorite. Garth Fundis’s production is sympathetic, with a number of special guests who support the record without overwhelming it. Trisha, who I regard as one of the most naturally gifted vocalists in country music and a subtle and tasteful interpreter of emotion, was at the peak of her vocal powers and interpretative ability, and the song selection was excellent.

The hypnotically bluesy lead single ‘The Wrong Side of Memphis’ (written by Gary Harrison and Matraca Berg) was a big hit, peaking at #5, with a semi-autobiographical tale of a young singer on her way to Nashville. The instrumentation is punchy without being over-produced, with harmony vocalists including Raul Malo, whose Mavericks’ bandmate Robert Reynolds was shortly to become Trisha’s second husband. It is atypical of the album as a whole, which is focussed on failed and failing relationships, a theme perhaps resulting from Trisha’s own recent divorce from her first husband.

Harrison also co-wrote (with Tim Mensy) ‘Nearest Distant Shore’, a beautiful ballad addressed empathetically to a friend (or perhaps to the protagonist’s inner self) trapped in a destructive relationship, and advising:

You vowed you would not fail
But this ain’t success
It’s a living hell
There’s nothing left to lose
You’re already alone

Swim to the nearest distant shore
There’s only so much a heart can endure
You gave it your best
Forgive yourself
You can’t hold on anymore
It’s not as far as it might seem
Now it’s time to let go of old dreams
Every heart for itself
Swim to the nearest distant shore

Trisha perfectly conveys the intensity of the emotions here without ever seeming melodramatic, supported by Garth Brooks’ harmony.

The second single, and the album’s biggest hit, adhered to the general mood, while being less obviously personal. The exquisitely sung ‘Walkaway Joe’, featuring a harmony vocal from former Eagle Don Henley, tells the cautionary tale of a young girl who makes a catastrophic choice of boyfriend (“the wrong kind of paradise”). Ignoring her mother’s words of warning, she finds out the hard way when he robs a gas station and then abandons her. It peaked at #2 on Billboard, making it the album’s biggest hit, and was nominated for a Grammy.

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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

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