My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: The O’Kanes

Favorite Songs of the 1980s: Part 5

The 1980s got off to a poor start with the early 1980s producing some of the lamest country music ever recorded, as the Urban Cowboy movie wrecked havoc on the genre. Fortunately, there was still good country music being released. The first flowering of the late 1980s “New Traditionalist” movement arrived in 1981 with the first hits of Ricky Skaggs and George Strait, but they remained outliers until 1986 as far as good new artists were concerned. The latter part of the decade, however, produced some truly excellent country music with the 1986 arrival of Randy Travis and company.

Here are some more songs that I liked and remember. See if you recall any of these records.

the okanes“When You Leave That Way You Can Never Go Back” – Sam Neely
This 1983 song reached #77 for a talented performer who spent many years playing the clubs and honky-tonks of Corpus Christi. The song, the reflection of a condemned inmate’s life, looks back at all the bridges he burned beyond repair. The song also was recorded by Bill Anderson and Confederate Railroad.

Dream Lover” – Rick Nelson
Epic reissued Rick’s 1979 cover of a Bobby Darin classic after Rick’s death in a New Years Eve 1985 air crash. It only reached #88 but it gives me a chance to mention one of the fine rock ‘n roll / country singers one last time.

Save Me” – Louise Mandrell
Louise never quite emerged from her big sister’s shadow but this #6 single from 1983 shows that a lack of talent wasn’t the problem.

Wabash Cannonball” – Willie Nelson with Hank (Leon Russell) Wilson
This song is at least as famous as any other song I’ve mentioned in any of my articles. Although the song is often attributed to A.P. Carter, it really is much older than that. Willie and Hank took this to #91 in 1984.

American Trilogy”– Mickey Newberry
Mickey issued a new version of his classic 1971 pop hit in 1988. While it only reached #93, it was good to hear it again on the radio. Glory, Glory Hallelujah forever.

The Sweetest Thing (I’ve Ever Known)“– Judy Kay ‘Juice’ Newton
This #1 hit from 1982 was Juice’s biggest hit. As great as this recording is, the song sounds even better when she performs it acoustically.

Dance Little Jean” – The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
Perhaps my favorite recording by NGDB, it only reached #9 in 1983 but I still hear the song performed today by various and sundry acts, not all of whom are country. The song was the group’s first top ten country hit there would be sixteen in all), although they had pop chart hits dating back to the 1960s.

“Let’s Go All The Way ” – Norma Jean and Claude Gray
A pair of veteran performers teamed up to release this 1982 hit which charted at #68. The song was Norma Jean’s first chart hit back in 1964. This was her last chart hit; in fact, she hadn’t charted since 1971 when this record was released on the Granny White label.

Elvira” – The Oak Ridge Boys
Although not their biggest chart hit, this cover of a Dallas Frazier-penned song from the 1960s , was easily their biggest selling song, reaching #1 in 1981 while hitting #5 on Billboard’s pop charts. Has anyone really forgotten the chorus?

So I’m singin’, Elvira, Elvira
My heart’s on fire, Elvira
Giddy up, oom poppa, omm poppa, mow mow
Giddy up, oom poppa, omm poppa, mow mow, heigh-ho Silver, away!

I didn’t think so …

Oh Darlin’” – The O’Kanes (Kieran Kane and Jamie O’Hara)
This coupling of a couple of singer-songwriters who had not had solo success, resulted in a half dozen top ten records that had a fairly acoustic sound and feel that sounded like nothing else currently being played on the radio. This song reached #10 in 1986. Their next single “Can’t Stop My Heart From Loving You” would reach #1.

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Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Lonesome Standard Time’

1992’s Lonesome Standard Time saw Kathy working with a new producer, Brent Maher, probably best known for his work with the Judds in the 80s. Happily, this didn’t change the overall style, and Kathy was able to maintain her usual standard of high-quality material with a strongly non-mainstream feel.

The punchy title track, written by Jim Rushing and Larry Cordle, draws on the high lonesome tradition of bluegrass to portray the sad emotions of a broken heart, when the sound of a “crying fiddle is the sweetest sound on earth”. The lead single, it just failed to break into the top 10 but is a great track with a committed, energized vocal which opens the album with a real bang.

The pensive ballad ‘Standing Knee Deep In A River (Dying Of Thirst)’ contemplates losing touch with friends not treasured enough. A mature lyric and string laden production make this a bit more AC than most of her work, but the lovely tune, sensitive vocal, and wise lyrics (penned by Bucky Jones, Dickey Lee and Bob McDill) would stand out in any company. Its genre crossing capacity is shown by the fact that blues-rock musician Joe Cocker covered the song in 1994, followed by country veteran Don Williams in 1995. Kathy’s version was the album’s second single and just squeezed into the top 20.

Equally thoughtful, the spiritual ‘Seeds’ (which peaked at #50) takes a philosophical look at human potential, declaring,

We start the same
But where we land
Is sometimes fertile soil
And sometimes sand
We’re all just seeds
In God’s hands

The final single, Nanci Griffith’s uplifting ‘Listen To The Radio’, where country radio acts as the protagonist’s friend and companion while she drives away from her man, performed even more poorly despite being packed full of vocal character – not to mention the presence of Eagle Bernie Leadon on guitar.

The sardonic and catchy ‘Lonely At The Bottom’ had recently been recorded by former duet partner Tim O’Brien in his shortlived attempt at a solo country career. The protagonist is talking to an old friend who has found success has not brought happiness; unfortunately, Kathy informs him, poverty has brought nothing better either. A great acoustic arrangement, Kathy’s playful interpretation supported by call and response backing vocals make this highly enjoyable.

‘Forgive And Forget’ is a mid-tempo Kieran Kane song which sounds potentially radio friendly, and had previously appeared on Kane’s underrated 1993 solo Atlantic album Find My Way Home following the breakup of The O’Kanes. A lively, confident cover of ‘Amarillo’ is also highly entertaining.

The gentle ‘Last Night I Dreamed Of Loving You’ is a beautiful song by country-folk poet-songwriter Hugh Moffatt, given a delicately stripped down production, with the haunting harmonies of Tim O’Brien balancing the raw emotion of the lead vocal.

There are just a couple of tracks which fail to sparkle. ‘Slow Boat’, written by Kathy’s husband Jon Vezner with George Teren is pretty and laidback but a little forgettable. ‘33, 45, 78 (Record Time)’ takes a metaphorical look back at the passing of time.

Despite the relatively disappointing performance of teh singles, sales were good, and it was Kathy’s fourth successive gold record. The limited airplay may mean, however, that more casual fans may have missed out on an excellent album. Luckily, you can make up for that, as used copies are available very cheaply.

Grade: A

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: Foster & Lloyd ‘Foster & Lloyd’

Singer songwriter Radney Foster first teamed up with fellow writer Bill Lloyd in 1986, with the duo’s debut album being released on RCA the following year. Epitomising the diversity of late 80s country radio, Texas-born Foster’s country roots mixed with Lloyd’s pop/rock influences. Foster’s distinctive hard-edged voice generally takes the lead with Lloyd adding Beatles-esque harmonies and playing various guitars and mandolin. The duo produced, and wrote all the material, most frequently together, with a handful of solo compositions tossed in.

The cheerful rockabillyish debut single ‘Crazy Over You’, which had also just been covered by another new act, Ricky Van Shelton, got the new duo off to a great start, peaking at #4 on Billboard. The melodic mid tempo ‘Sure Thing’ also did pretty well, and was their second top 10 hit, and it is pleasant listening but a bit repetitive lyrically.

The third single, ‘Texas In 1880’ (written by Radney alone) hit the roadblocks, and stalled out in the lower reaches of the top 20. It was an interesting song which deserved to do better, giving voice to a contemporary rodeo competitor who draws inspiration from his image of the “wild and free” cowboys of a past era. John Cowan of New Grass Revival sang a guest high harmony.

My favorite song on the album, the excellent ‘What Do You Want From Me This Time?’ (featuring Vince Gill on guitar) took them back to the top 10. It is extremely catchy but withou sacrificing emotional depth. The protagonist tells his ex she is out of luck in her bid to reheat a relationship which is all over as far as he’s concerned:

What do you want from me this time?
What do you think you’re gonna find?
I’m not trying to be unkind
But what do you want from me this time?

You say things have changed but that’s pretending
Baby, love don’t always have a happy ending

Another fine song, ‘Don’t Go Out With Him’, omitted from the LP/cassette version, was to be a hit single for Tanya Tucker and T Graham Brown in 1990 with slightly re-worked lyrics. The original works very well as a picture of unrequited affection. ‘You Can Come Cryin’ To Me’(written by Radney Foster alone) feels like a sequel to this song, as that relationship has ended in literal tears and he offers a shoulder to cry on. It is a very good song and would have fitted in well on his solo album.

‘Hard To Say No’ is a fast-paced almost punkish rocker about finding it hard to resist sexual temptation which explains why Radney Foster once described the duo as a country garage band. It’s not the kind of thing I usually like but it is surprisingly entertaining and probably went down well live. Opener ‘Turn Around’ is pleasant and potentially radio-friendly but disposable mid-tempo country rock addressed to a woman leaving. ‘The Part I Know By Heart’ is not very interesting, while Bill Lloyd’s ‘Token Of Love’ is plain boring.

This debut appeared to herald a bright future for the duo, but their flame was to burn out even more quickly than it did for the Sweethearts of the Rodeo and the O’Kanes. They were to enjoy only one more top 10 single, 1988’s Guy Clark co-write ‘Fair Shake’, the leadoff for their sophomore album Faster & Llouder. The dup disbanded in 1990 after releasing a total of three albums, partly to allow Radney Foster to embark on a solo career. His album Del Rio TX, 1959 was a modern classic and met with much deserved commercial and critical success. His solo career also later faltered, but he has continued to release critically acclaimed music often some way off the mainstream, and he plans to record a live version of the songs on Del Rio TX, 1959 this year.

If you want to investigate the duo’s music, I would recommend either this album or the compilation The Essential Foster & Lloyd, which includes the best seven tracks from this release.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind: The O’Kanes – ‘Blue Love’

A top 10 hit in 1988:

Album Review – The O’Kanes – ‘Tired of the Runnin’

In 1988, The O’Kanes followed up their successful debut album with Tired of the Runnin’ which continued their short hot streak on the charts. It would also mark their commercial peak, as a third album, Imagine That, would come without much fanfare in 1990.

The first single, “One True Love” would peak just inside the top 5 in 1988. The tune perfectly showcases the duos distinct harmonies and features snarly guitar riffs that recall the California rock sounds of Fleetwood Mac and has echoes of Linda Ronstadt in the drum work. The production works to frame the duo vocally, but the lightness of the lyrical bed ultimately leave the song feeling a tiny bit less than memorable.

The second single, “Blue Love” marked the end in their streak of top ten singles, peaking at #10 in 1988. Written by the duo, the song stands as a warning to love and its effects on the human psyche:

One day, your love is, one day your love is, so true

Next day, you’re changin’, next day, you changin’, your mood

I just can’t take it, I just can’t take your blue love

A much better song than the first single, “Blue Love” succeeds on its sing-a-long melody and fusion of lead guitar and drumbeats. Vocally, it seems, the duo are channeling Buddy Holly and as a package the whole thing works.

A third single, “Rocky Road” was also released in 1988 but only managed to peak at #71. That radio ignored the tune isn’t entirely surprising; the nearly seven minute harmonica laced ballad about going down the “rocky road of love” was just out of step enough with the neotraditionalism favored by country radio at the time. But it’s still an outstanding track by all accounts and the folksy production is as delightful to listen to today as it was nearly 25 years ago.

“All Because of You,” another drum and mandolin soaked track is a love letter to the woman who has made life all the better:

Look at me feeling good

Who’d have thought I ever would

See my dreams come to light

See the dark turning bright

For the first time I feel more than good

All because of you

The hopeful message is another album standout and a delight to listen to. The catchy melody draws in the listener making them want to hear the song until the end.

Another great song is the Celtic flavored “If I Could Be There” which was covered by Emmylou Harris on her Live At the Ryman album from 1992. The sparse production made up of fiddle, mandolin and guitars works like magic to frame the duo vocally and draws the listener into the story of a person’s obligation to their work taking precedence over where they wish they could be:

If I could be there

I’d be there tonight comforting you

This road I’m on is so far away, too far away

If God would grant me wings to fly

I’d be in your arms by and by

If I could be there

I’d be there tonight comforting you

The funky “Highway 55,” which opens with a distinct plucking of strings, was nothing like I was expecting. I love the overall mood of the track and the harmonies elevate it to a higher level. Plus the overall sound is very reminiscent of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. But in context with the rest of the project, it doesn’t quite work.

Much like “Highway 55,” “All My Heart” features a similar funky arrangement but it’s paired with a somewhat haunting vocal. In comparison to the rest of the album the song is a little strange and stands out because of it. It’s safe to say it isn’t one of my favorite songs on the project.

Another weird song, “Isn’t That So” has somewhat of a party vibe suggested by what appears to be steel drums in the opening. Like “All My Heart,” this song also doesn’t gel with the rest of the project.

The bluegrass heavy title track features a driving melody in sharp contrast to the story of a fatherless boy. The story is quite effective and does a nice of job of outlining the effects of growing up without a father figure. I wasn’t sold on the contrast in lyrics and production at first, but the fast-paced melody succeeds in highlighting the fact this guy is still running his way through life sort of as a vagabond.

The album nicely picks up again with “I’m Lonely” which retains the sound featured on the singles. It’s hard to see why this wasn’t released instead of “Rocky Road” as it most likely would’ve extended the duo’s time in the top 10 by at least one more song.

All and all Tired of the Runnin’ is an above average collection of music from an underrated duo with a short chart life. I hadn’t heard their music prior to writing this review and liked most of what I heard. Unfortunately the album is out of print, but it’s worth seeking out a copy if you can find it.

Grade: B+ 

Classic Rewind: The O’Kanes – ‘Daddies Need To Grow Up Too’

Album Review: The O’Kanes – ‘The O’Kanes’

The O’Kanes brought the sibling-style close harmonies pioneered by the Louvin Brothers into the late 20th century. They were not in fact brothers, but the unrelated singer-songwriters Jamie O’Hara and Kieran Kane. But their voices melded exceptionally well and they created a little magic during their relatively short partnership in the 1980s. Writing together from 1984-1985, they worked on the material for their debut album, which was eventually released in 1986 when the New Traditional movement had made room for artists like this, who were a step outside the mainstream, combining very traditional country and more modern influences.

Their very close Louvin Brothers styled harmonies, catchy tunes, punchy and often acoustic bluegrass-influenced instrumentation and well-written lyrics were simultaneously modern yet retro, and a breath of fresh air. The material was almost all written by the duo. When their self-titled debut album was released in 1986, Jamie O’Hara had just enjoyed a #1 as writer of the Judds’ ‘Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout The Good Ol’ Days)’, and the material he and Kieran Kane wrote together is consistently just as good.

Their debut single, the insistent mid-tempo ‘Oh Darlin’ (Why Don’t You Care For Me No More?)’ was a top 10 hit in 1986. The protagonist is baffled by the change in his loved one, when he hasn’t changed at all. A similar tempo and vibe took ‘Can’t Stop My Heart from Loving You’ all the way to #1. This time the protagonist is helplessly in love with a woman who he accuses “ you treat me badly and make me blue”, but the hypnotic edge makes the sad tale positively catchy.

The next single, another top 10 hit, is my favourite track. ‘Daddies Need To Grow Up Too’ is the affecting story of an absent father who regrets his choices and now promises his child he will change his ways:

You’re the hero in my eyes
You see
Daddies need to grow up too
Learn what they should and they shouldn’t do
In a way we’re a lot like you
We need some understanding
Daddies stumble
Daddies fall
We don’t really know it all
Gonna try to make it up to you
Daddies need to grow up too

The fourth single, the charming love song ‘Just Lovin’ You’, hit # 5. It has a lovely slightly old fashioned vibe, which is a delight to listen to. ‘When I Found You’ is another romantic ballad, but one which gains added impact from comparing the protagonists’ newfound happiness to past “love proved untrue”:

When I found you I lost the emptiness
So painfully locked away in my heart
Gone was the despair
That dreams don’t come true …

I lost my sorrow when I found you

‘Gonna Walk That Line’ is an irresistible declaration of love and commitment by a bad boy who has changed his ways and is prepared to settle down at last:

I’ve never been too good at doin’ right
Done mostly wrong most all my life…

I used to be a tomcat out on the prowl
Baby I’m just your puppydog now

The haunting ‘Bluegrass Blues’, the first song the duo wrote together, has a more downbeat attitude. ‘When We’re Gone, Long Gone’ is a quietly philosophical semi-gospel song with a very retro feel. The one song not written by the duo is a cover of the Elvis Presley hit ‘That’s Alright, Mama’, treated with an unexpected delicacy which makes an over-familiar song sound new.

The duo’s relatively short life means they have been largely forgotten, but the music on this album sounds as fresh today as it did in the 80s, and is well worth reviving. For what it’s worth, they are my personal favourite of the duos we’re spotlighting this month.

The CD is out of print, and not all tracks appear to be available digitally, but it’s worth tracking down if you can find a copy.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: The O’Kanes – ‘Can’t Stop My Heart (From Loving You)’

Spotlight Artist: 80s Duos

This month we’ve decided to do something a little different; instead of spotlighting a single artist for the entire month, we’ll be taking a look at the careers of several of the duos that came to prominence during the 1980s:

1.  David Frizzell & Shelly West

This duo’s pedigree was impressive; he was the younger brother of the legendary Lefty Frizzell, while she was the daughter of Dottie West and the wife of another Frizzell brother.   Together they charted 11 singles on the Billboard country charts between 1981 and 1985, the first and best known of which was “You’re The Reason God Made Oklahoma”.  That #1 single had been featured in the Clint Eastwood film Any Which Way You Can, and released on the Viva label, which was distributed by Warner Bros.   They were awarded the CMA’s Duo of the Year trophy twice, and both Frizzell and West scored some solo hits during this period, though neither’s career was to enjoy any longevity.  Shelly’s divorce from Allen Frizzell may have been partially responsible for the end of her professional relationship with David.

2.   The Judds

The most commercially successful of the duos we’re spotlighting this month, the story of this mother-daughter act is well known.  Record producer Brent Maher’s daughter was hospitalized and under the care of nurse Naomi Judd in the early 1980s, which provided the opportunity for Naomi to give Maher a demo tape, leading to a live audition and on-the-spot signing with RCA/Curb.   The Judds were an immediate success, scoring 15 #1 singles between 1983 and 1990.  During that time, they also won seven Academy of Country Music awards, nine CMA trophies, and five Grammys.   A bout with Hepatitis C prompted Naomi’s retirement in 1991, while Wynonna went on to enjoy a highly successful career as a solo artist.  During the 20 years since Naomi’s retirement, the two have occasionally reunited in concert and in the studio.

3.  Sweethearts of the Rodeo

Sisters Kristine Arnold and Janis Gill sang together as children in California and began performing as The Oliver Sisters when they were teenagers.  They later renamed their act after the title of the classic album by The Byrds.   Both women married musicians; Kristine’s husband is Leonard Arnold of the band Blue Steel,  while Janis is the ex-wife of Vince Gill.   The Sweethearts of the Rodeo signed with Columbia Records in 1986, and for a brief time were one of the hottest acts in country music.  Their debut single “Hey Doll Baby” peaked just outside the Top 20.  Their second single “Since I Found  You” reached the Top 10.  Six more Top 10 hits followed.   Though they were never top record sellers, they were staples at country radio in the late 80s.  Their first two albums for Columbia racked up a number of radio hits, but after that the hits began to taper off.   After two more albums failed to generate any more hits, Columbia dropped the Sweethearts from its roster in 1992.  They re-emerged the following year on Sugar Hill Records, for whom they recorded two critically acclaimed albums in 1993 and 1996.

4.  The O’Kanes

Jamie O’Hara and Kieran Kane recorded three albums for Columbia between 1986 and 1990.  Six of the nine singles released during that period charted in the Top 10, including their best known hit “Can’t Stop My Heart From Loving You”, which reached the #1 spot in 1987.  Jamie, a native of Toledo, Ohio, had penned “Older Women”,  which had been a #1 hit for Ronnie McDowell in 1981 and  The Judds’ signature hit “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout The Good Old Days)”, which won a Grammy for Best Country Song in 1986.  The two met while working as songwriters for the same publishing company.   They disbanded in 1990 and resumed their solo careers.  Brooklyn-born Kane eventually went on to become one of the founders the independent Dead Reckoning Records.

5.  Foster & Lloyd

Country rockers Radney Foster and Bill Lloyd recorded three albums together for RCA between 1987 and 1990, and in the process scored nine charting singles, four of which reached the Top 10.   Prior to landing their own record deal, they wrote “Since I Found You”, which became the breakthrough hit for The Sweethearts of the Rodeo.   Foster & Lloyd’s biggest hit was 1987’s “Crazy Over You”, which rose to #4.  Perhaps a bit too offbeat for conservative country radio in the late 80s, they were more of a critical, rather than commercial, success and disbanded in 1990.   Lead vocalist Radney Foster subsequently signed with Arista Records and enjoyed a moderately successful solo career, while Bill Lloyd went back to earning a living as a session musician.  They reunited in 2011, with the release of It’s Already Tomorrow, their first album together in over 20 years.

As always, we hope that this spotlight will provide our readers with a pleasant trip down memory lane, or perhaps inspire them to explore music that they may have overlooked or are too young to remember.

Classic Rewind: The O’Kanes – ‘One True Love’

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: The Gibson Brothers – ‘Help My Brother’

On what I believe is their tenth album, the bluegrass-singing brothers from rural New York state (Leigh and Eric) offer compelling tenor vocals with an edge and the kind of close harmonies only siblings can produce, fine songwriters with an ear for melody and the willingness to put the song at the center, and serve it sensitively with the right vocals and instrumentation for that particular song.

This album (their second for Compass Records) is produced by the brothers with their bass player Mike Barber. The excellent, and never overpowering, solid bluegrass backing comes mainly from the brothers’ band. Eric plays banjo and Leigh guitar, and the band is rounded out by Clayton Campbell’s fiddle (whose playing sings beautifully over the rhythmic instruments) and Joe Walsh’s mandolin, with Mike Witcher guesting on dobro on a couple of tracks. There is an interesting selection of material, just over half of it written by one or both of the brothers.

Leigh sings lead most frequently, but Eric sings lead on and wrote my favorite song, the wistful ‘Dixie’, asking Vegas era Elvis if he would go back to the innocent happiness of youth, “back before your hair was black, before they called you King”, and to the arms of his first sweetheart. It is immediately followed by the other song he wrote alone, the faintly Byrdsish ‘Frozen In Time’, which is less memorable musically, but has quite a quirky lyric about a quietly lonely man “living in the past”:

My clothes don’t fit the fashion of the day
That’s all right, nobody’s watching anyway

The vibrant title track, written by Leigh, is an idealistic declaration of changing one’s life to help others:

Call it compassion, call it charity
I call it living like living should be

Leigh duets with Claire Lynch on his own ‘Talk To Me’, a soothing song about a marriage in a little trouble due to lack of communication, but not beyond salvation, while Alison Brown takes over the banjo strings. My favorite of Leigh’s solo compositions is the closing track, the historical ‘Safe Passage’, about his ancestors, a Scots family who emigrate to Canada, whose son or grandson then fights in the American Civil War and settles on a farm in upstate New York. The story ends with the brothers themselves, having left the family farm for another kind of journey, for a life in music.

Leigh and Eric teamed up with Tim O’Brien to write the thoughtful and mature confessional of ‘Want vs Need’:

I want an encore, a standing ovation
A crowd that laughs at everything I say
I want a hit song that everybody’s singing
I just walk out to the mail to get my pay

But I just need my own song
One that I love singing
A simple song that takes me down the road

This reflection is inspired by a woman the protagonist has taken for granted, leaving, but overall the mood on this album is a fairly happy one. Even the extremely bleak lyric of ‘One Car Funeral’, which the pair wrote with Jon Weisberger about a man who has touched other’s lives so little he has no one to mourn his death, is married to a surprisingly cheery tune which keeps the mood upbeat. Perhaps this is the point: that this man has touched life so little that even the singer and musicians don’t care.

Alongside the new songs, there are several relatively obscure covers, my favorite of which is the O’Kanes’ country hit ‘Just Lovin’ You’ (#5 in 1987). There are also an enjoyable, slightly raucous take on Jim and Jesse’s ‘I’ll Love Nobody But You’, and a beautifully sung low key version of the religious song, ‘He Can Be Found’ (recorded by the Louvin Brothers on their classic Satan Is Real album).

Ricky Skaggs shares lead vocals and harmonies with the brothers on the new but very traditional sounding trio, ‘Working As We Rise’, which recalls the melody of ‘I’ll Fly Away’. I also really liked Chris Henry’s cheerful rambling song about ‘Walking West To Memphis’ to be reunited with a more sedate loved one, the kind who drinks lemonade rather than her lover’s choice of whiskey, but has a powerful enough attraction to drag him from his gambling ways, even if he has to walk all the way from Nashville.

This is a very good collection of material, sung and played beautifully, which grows with every listen.

Grade: A

Buy it at amazon.

Occasional Hope’s Top 10 Singles of 2010

I’ve been moderately encouraged by the singles released this year compared with 2009, which seemed to offer a particularly disappointing crop. While there was plenty of dross around this year, there was some good music as well. Some of my picks of the year were even hits, with my personal #1 single hitting the top of the Billboard charts.

10. Stealing Angels – ‘He Better Be Dead’

This up-tempo rant about the guy who doesn’t call back after that promising romantic evening features the lead vocals of Loretta Lynn’s granddaughter Tayla. She’s not in the same league as the legend, but this is a fun, sassy single which introduced us to a talented trio. It didn’t make the Billboard top 40, but gained some airplay.

9. Tammy Cochran – ‘He Really Thinks He’s Got It’
This entertaining single from Tammy’s excellent independent 2009 album 30 Something And Single was released this year. Sadly (if unsurprisingly), with no label support it failed to chart, but it is a wry look at dating hell.

8. Joey + Rory – ‘That’s Important To Me’

A revival of a song from Joey Martin’s independent solo album has become the latest single for the husband and wife duo who emerged on 2008’s Can You Duet. It is being ignored by radio, but has a lovely clean production with Joey’s earnest vocals shining. She is one of my favorite female vocalists at the moment.

7. Martin Ramey – ‘Twisted’

This Curb duo’s only single to date seems to have sunk without a trace, but it made an impact on me if no one else. Brad Martin (formerly signed to Epic as a solo artist) and singer-songwriter John Ramey have pleasant but individually unremarkable voices, but their harmonies blend together very attractively, and are very reminiscent of 80s predecessors the O’Kanes. Their label affiliation means we may be waiting some time for more music, but I’ll be keen to hear more.

6. Jerrod Niemann – ‘What Do You Want’

The follow-up to Jerrod’s catchy pop cover and breakthrough hit ‘Lover, Lover’ was one of the highlights on Jerrod’s rather mixed album Judge Jerrod and the Hung Jury – really good contemporary country. The plaintive lead vocal, Rachel Bradshaw’s pretty harmony, and organ melody seep into your consciousness as Jerrod tries to find out what his ex is trying to do by keeping on making contact. The single is still rising in the charts.

5. Sammy Kershaw – ‘Better than I Used To Be’

The title track of 90s hitmaker Sammy’s latest independent album (and its lead single) is a deeply honest song about a man who has let people down in the past, but is man enough to admit to his failings, and to turn his life around. Sadly his return to the recording studio was not met with commercial success, but this lovely, mature song (written by Brian Simpson and Ashley Gorley) stands up well with his past classics.

4. Jamey Johnson – ‘Playing The Part’

This downbeat look at the real cost of chasing fame in Hollywood only just squeezed into the top 40 of the Billboard country singles chart, but it is one of the most memorable singles of the year. It’s not quite as good as ‘High Cost Of Living’, which was my personal #1 single of 2009, but a very fine song nonetheless.

3. Miranda Lambert – ‘The House That Built Me’

Miranda’s star has risen steadily over the past five years, but 2009’s Revolution took her to a new level. I was less impressed than some by that album (mainly due to issues with the sound mixing), but this acoustic guitar-led smash is one of the best things on it. The sensitive ballad about returning to a childhood home to reminisce and regain the emotional wholeness of childhood was one of the biggest hits of the year, and the CMA Song (and Video) of the Year. It was written by Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin.

2. Dierks Bentley – ‘Draw Me A Map’

Dierks Bentley made a rare brave artistic choice for a major label artist this year when he released an album incorporating bluegrass and other roots influences and asked radio to play the singles. The singles have been only modest successes, with this second single struggling to get out of the 30s, but they have at least received some exposure – and Dierks was nominated for three CMA awards on the strength of the album. It remains one of the most beautiful singles of the year, with Alison Krauss’s heavenly harmony and the haunting fiddle adding special touches.

1. Zac Brown Band – ‘Highway 20 Ride’

The Atlanta band with one foot in the Caribbean has become one of the most interesting acts in country music over the last couple of years, and they were rewarded this year with Grammy and CMA awards for Best New Artist, and an array of other nominations. They have become a staple at country radio, and have defied the latter’s fondness for things to stay the same by having each successive single represent a different side of their music – with five of the six singles to have completed their run to date hitting #1 on Billboard, and the other only just failing to do so. This is my favorite of their singles to date, and was their third #1 hit, reaching its peak in April this year. Written by lead singer Zac Brown with his frequent songwriting partner Wyatt Durette and inspired by the latter’s regular journeys taking a son to visit his mother, the downbeat ballad is my favorite single of the year. It embodies the essential truth common to all the greatest country songs; in this case portraying family breakdown and the impact of the son’s relationship with his father.

I reviewed it just after its release at the end of last year, and said then that if it was a hit it would go some way to restoring my faith in country radio. It was indeed a success, and overall this has been a better year for singles than 2009. So perhaps the tide is turning.

Classic Rewind: Kieran Kane with Emmylou Harris and Barry and Holly Tashian – ‘Oh Lonesome You’

This song was originally recorded by Kieran Kane as part of the 80s duo the O’Kanes. It was later covered by Trisha Yearwood.

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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Classic Rewind – The O’Kanes: ‘Tired Of The Running’

Album Review: Sara Evans – ‘No Place That Far’

After the traditional sound of Three Chords And The Truth had failed to break Sara at radio, there was some modification and a slightly smoother, glossier sound for her second album in 1998, but without breaking away completely from her traditional roots by any means. The production chair passed from Pete Anderson to Norro Wilson and Buddy Cannon, a partnership with experience on both pure country and pop-country sides of the fence and a track record creating hits.

Leadoff single, the insistent mid-tempo Jamie O’Hara song ‘Cryin’ Game’, did no better than its predecessors, but it is a good pop-country song with a fine vocal as Sara tells a lover he’d better treat her right or she’ll be gone. I think Jamie (formerly half of the O’Kanes duo in the late 80s) sings backing vocals here. The long-awaited breakthrough came for Sara when the title track, an impressive ballad co-written by Sara herself with Tom Shapiro and Tony Martin, was selected as the next single. It was a #1 smash hit. A delicately subdued opening leads to a big chorus, with Vince Gill prominent on harmony.

Disappointingly, the third and last single, Sara’s last release of the 90s, ‘Fool, I’m A Woman’, which she wrote with Matraca Berg, was less successful, failing to reach the top 30.  It is another contemporary-sounding song, but an engagingly peppy one about a woman’s prerogative to change her mind about love, addressed to a boyfriend treating her badly.  I think this is the track featuring Martina McBride on backing vocals, although Martina is very low in the mix and is basically indistinguishable.

Altogether, Sara co-wrote almost half the material on this album, including the very traditional country gospel ‘There’s Only One’, which she wrote with the brilliant Leslie Satcher.  Closely banked female harmonies (possibly from Sara’s sisters) help this track close the set on a high as she declares God’s love is the only thing that matters.  Although the song itself is not as memorable, I also love the traditional sound of the lost-love ‘These Days’, which Sara wrote with Billy Yates, and on which Alison Krauss sings prominent harmony.

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