My Kind of Country

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

Classic Rewind: Wade Hayes – ‘The Day That She Left Tulsa’

Album Review: Dwight Yoakam – ‘Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars’

swimmin-poolsDwight Yoakam may be best known for his Bakersfield Sound and California country rock influences, but he was born in Kentucky. Bluegrass influences have occasionally been revealed in odd tracks over the years, but on this first bluegrass album, Dwight revisits a generally fairly obscure selection of his older material and makes it over, with the help of producers Gary Paczosa and Jon Randall. This is not a politely acoustic ‘pretty’ bluegrass set, or a self-consciously traditional one, but a punchy rough-edged one with drive and attitude. The harmonies and backing vocals are actually sometimes a bit rough, but always intense and with a live feel.

The doomladen murder-threatening ‘What I Don’t Know’ (originally from Dwight’s 1988 masterpiece Buenas Noches From A Lonely Room) works really well done bluegrass, with an intensely wailing vocal reminding us of the protagonist’s pain and anger. This track is outstanding. Also excellent is the best known song to get the bluegrass treatment, ‘Guitars, Cadillacs’, while the other one-time hit ‘Please Please Baby’ is lively and entertaining.

The pained ‘Two Doors Down’ (from This Time in 1993) is not vastly different from the original, which is a good thing. Also very good is the delicately melancholic ‘Home For Sale’, featuring a booming bass harmony vocal behind Dwight’s lead.

‘These Arms’ was one of the best songs on 1998’s A Long Way Home, and it works much better here with the bluegrass arrangement and an intense vocal. ‘I Wouldn’t Put It Past Me’, from the same era, is twangier than the original, and ‘Listen’ is brighter; both are improvements.

I quite enjoyed ‘Sad, Sad Music’, but in this case I prefer the fiddle led waltz-time original (on If There Was A Way in 1991) to the speeded up version here, which detracts from the melancholic emotion of the lyric.

I disliked the instrumentation on the original version of ‘Free To Go’ (on 2000’s Tomorrow’s Sounds Today), so the bluegrass version was an automatic improvement, but it’s a relatively uninteresting song. ‘Gone (That’ll Be Me)’ is just okay.

The most eccentric choice is the only non-Yoakam original to be included: a cover of Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’. The melody is not a bluegrass or country one, and it all feels bizarrely out of place, although Dwight sings it with feeling and it may appeal to those with adventurous tastes.

This is an interesting album rather than an essential one, but it is worth hearing for yourself.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Lonestar – ‘Mountains’

Album Review: Lonestar – ‘Mountains’

51thjpiwx8l-_ss500By 2006, the cracks in Lonestar’s commercial armor were beginning to appear. They were scoring Top 10 hits less consistently, their contract with BNA Records was nearing an end, and lead singer Richie McDonald was getting ready to leave the band and embark on a solo career. As a result, 2006’s Mountains feels as though it were phoned in by everyone involved, and there doesn’t seem to have been much effort expended to promote the album.

Mountains did find the band teaming up with a new producer, Mark Bright, and the album’s title track, which became the lead single, was an actually an improvement over Lonestar’s previous few efforts. The mandolin-led number, written by Richie McDonald, Larry Boone and Paul Nelson has a positive thinking theme, a trend during country’s “soccer mom” era, which was much bemoaned at the time, but in retrospect it seems rather benign compared to the trends that succeeded it. The song is catchy, but the lyrics are a bit trite – a problem that plagues many of the album’s tracks. It peaked at #10.

The piano led “Nothing to Prove” was the next single, and it was aimed squarely at the soccer moms, name dropping Van Morrison and detailing the drudgeries of the modern working woman. It was the worst performing single of Lonestar’s career, peaking at #51. BNA seemed to have little interest in promoting the album further, and as a result no further singles were issued.

Artistically, Mountains was a progression down the path the band embarked on with Lonely Grill, towards more pop and AC-leaning material with a little steel guitar thrown into the mix occasionally as an appeasement to country radio and fans. The formula was getting old by this point and the material was generally weak.

There are a couple of bright spots. “Hey God”, written by McDonald and Tommy Lee James, appealed to the contemporary Christian crowd. Though one of the album’s better tracks, it’s not terribly original, and the bombastic production gets in the way. Like most of the slower songs on the album, this one is turned into a power ballad, and it would have been more effective with a quieter and more stripped-down approach. To a lesser extent they fall into this trap again on the closing track “Always in the Band”, written by McDonald, Ron Harbin and Jerry Vandiver. It seems to be a semi-autobiographical number, perhaps inspired by McDonald’s impending departure from the band. It looks back at a number of significant life events, which always had to take a back seat to the narrator’s obligations to his band mates and fans. The production is restrained and tasteful until the last minute or so, when the swelling strings and power vocals start to become more prominent. Nevertheless, it’s a very good song and an appropriate capstone to the band’s first Richie McDonald era.

Nothing else is of much interest or worthy of commentary, so as a whole this album falls short of expectations.

Grade: C

Classic Rewind: Jean Shepard – ‘If You Can Walk Away’

Single Review: Artists of Then, Now and Forever – ‘Forever Country”

forevercountry-1110x400

The Country Music Association has found a way of honoring their fiftieth anniversary – gather 30 of the genre’s biggest stars from the past, present and future for an unprecedented collaboration. The result is certainly buzzworthy and continues the tradition of the ‘all-star jam’ that saw its beginnings with the original 1972 recording of ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken.’ The trend continued into the 1990s (Think “I Don’t Need Your Rocking Chair” and “One Heart At A Time”) before seemly dying off.

“Forever Country,” as the collaboration is called, blends three country standards – “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “I Will Always Love You” and “On The Road Again” into a single song showcasing each of the artists involved with dedicated solos. The John Denver classic is the bedrock, with the others woven in.

The song succeeds because of Shane McAnally, who subtracts not distracts with his warm production values. He does a superb job of complimenting each artist with a sense of balance that allows each one to shine individually. While they also beautifully come together as a collective whole, it’s obvious that some do shine brighter than others, which is understandable in such a context.

It’s been a long time since the legacy of country music has been honored and I admire the Country Music Association for bringing their theme and mission alive in such a public way. To have all these artists in one place, on one track truly is astonishing. We’ve let history fall by the wayside in recent years as boom era veterans (the last artists to grow up on classic country music) have been pushed out in favor of younger artists who meet demographic needs but have little knowledge of or appreciation for what it took to make their careers possible. This pattern is cyclical and leaves behind those who refer to the past as ‘the good ole days’ when country music still had a soul.m_forevercountrycma

Those unworthy younger performers, of which there are too many to mention, are nowhere to be found, which begs a question – are they subtly making the claim that no one, save Brett Eldridge (who adds is voice to the mix), is truly worthy of carrying the torch for the next generation? It also saves the track from coming off as a laughing stock.

“Forever Country” could’ve exercised a bit more imagination than having Dolly being Dolly at the end, there are legends missing I would’ve liked to have seen included and it’s odd to have Jason Aldean (who was shut out of the nominations entirely) figure so prominently. But the intention and heart of the project is carried out in execution, which is why “Forever Country” shines so brightly. It’s the gimmick that succeeds in not being gimmicky at all. It’s far from the greatest recording I’ve ever heard, but it is a welcomed surprise. I’ll take it.

Grade: A

 

 

Classic Rewind: Loretta Lynn and the Wilburn Brothers – ‘Angel Band’

In Memoriam: Jean Shepard (1933-2016)

This morning we mourn the loss of the legendary Jean Shepard, who passed away at age 82. Her importance to the history of country music, as Paul W. Dennis pointed out, cannot be overstated. She was inducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame, along with Bobby Braddock and Reba McEntire, in 2011.

Second Fiddle (To An Old Guitar) (#5, 1964):

Slippin’ Away (#4, 1973):

 

 

 

Week ending 9/24/16: #1 singles this week in country music history

steve-holy-countrymusicislove1956 (Sales): Crazy Arms — Ray Price (Columbia)

1956 (Jukebox): Hound Dog/Don’t Be Cruel — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1956 (Disc Jockeys):Crazy Arms — Ray Price (Columbia)

1966: Almost Persuaded — David Houston (Epic)

1976: I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You — Jim Ed Brown & Helen Cornelius (RCA)

1986: Got My Heart Set on You — John Conlee (Columbia)

1996: So Much For Pretending — Bryan White (Asylum)

2006: Brand New Girlfriend — Steve Holy (Curb)

2016: Peter Pan — Kelsea Ballerini (Black River)

2016 (Airplay): Peter Pan — Kelsea Ballerini (Black River)

Classic Rewind: Lonestar – ‘Walking In Memphis’

Classic Rewind: Reba McEntire – ‘You Life Me Up’/Only You’, first Tonight Show appearance

This is Reba’s first of many Tonight Show performances.

 

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘For the Good Times: A Tribute to Ray Price’

51vwrr-zq3l-_ss500Having outlived many of his contemporaries, Willie Nelson is well on his way to being the last man standing among his generation of country performers. His latest effort is a tribute to the late Ray Price. It is the latest in a long line of tribute albums from Willie, but an especially poignant one given his own advancing age and his lifelong friendship with Price, which began with Willie’s stint as one of Price’s Cherokee Cowboys band members in the 1960s.

The legendary Fred Foster came out of retirement to produce the collection, and Bergen White was responsible for all of the string and orchestral arrangements. Country music fans of a certain age will no doubt recall seeing White’s name on virtually every country album in the 70s and 80s that featured strings, as most of them did in those days.

Even at his peak, Willie was never in Price’s league as a vocalist and at 83 his vocal abilities are greatly diminished, and it is most likely for this reason that The Time Jumpers were brought in to join Willie on half of the album’s tracks, providing fiddle steel and background vocals, which in some cases are badly needed. Ray Price started his career as a hardcore honky-tonker, and in later years he was a crooner of middle-of-the-road ballads which often featured lush orchestral arrangements — despite having once been a harsh critic of countrypolitan and the Nashville Sound. The Time Jumpers are featured primarily on the more hardcore country numbers such as “Heartaches by the Number”, “I’ll Be There”, “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me”, “Crazy Arms”, Bill Anderson’s “City Lights” and Roger Miller’s “Invitation to the Blues”.

All of the songs are beautifully produced and lovingly performed, never straying far from Price’s original renditions. Willie sounds better on some tracks than others; he is at his best on “Heartaches by the Numbers”, “Night Life” (his own composition) and “City Lights”. His age-imposed limitations are most apparent on some of the more vocally challenging numbers. “Faded Love” isn’t the easiest song to sing and also not one I immediately associate with Ray Price, although his 1980 duet version with Willie enjoyed greater success on the singles chart than any other. Presumably that is why it was included. Similarly, “Make the World Go Away” is a song more closely associated with Eddy Arnold, although Price did enjoy a #2 hit with it in 1963, two full years ahead of Arnold’s chart-topping version. It’s given (appropriately) the full orchestra treatment here with the backing chorus doing so much of the vocal heavy lifting it could almost be billed as a duet.

The album contains two songs with which I was not previously familiar: “It Will Always Be” and “I’m Still Not Over You”. Both were written by Willie and the latter was a top 10 hit for Price in 1967. Both are decent but not as memorable as the others on the album.

For the Good Times is a bittersweet affair. It’s forty minutes of some of the best music to ever come out of Nashville, but it is of course very sad that Ray Price is no longer with us, and to hear Willie in decline. But aside from Willie’s vocal limitations (which can mostly be overlooked considering his age), I can’t find fault with anything on this album.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Jason Eady – ‘ AM Country Heaven’

Album Review: Lonestar – ‘Coming Home’

lonestar_-_coming_homeLonestar released their sixth studio album in 2005. They had enjoyed enormous success in the ten years since their debut, but Coming Home featured the band in the beginnings of their commercial decline. This transition period saw them switch producers to Justin Niebank and score just one top ten single.

That lone top ten, “You’re Like Coming Home” peaked at #8. The mid-tempo rocker is perfect radio fodder and I quite enjoy the beat, but the lyric lacks depth. Power balled “I’ll Die Tryin,” which likely would’ve been a big hit just a few years earlier, stalled at #48. Consequently, both of the singles were recorded by Emerson Drive on their What If album a year earlier.

Coming Home featured twelve tracks, with five co-written by Richie McDonald. The best of these is “Too Bottles of Beer,” a lovely mid-tempo fiddle and steel soaked ballad about a couple bonding over the titular beverage. The rest have good production values offset by terrible lyrical compositions. McDonald’s bandmate Michael Britt co-wrote “Noise,” which is lyrically identical to the Kenny Chesney hit of the same name, but a totally different song. It’s a far better presentation than Chesney’s take on the topic, which peaked at #6 earlier this year.

Coming Home is a squarely commercial album packed with filler and little worth. It’s a far cry better than anything coming out of Nashville these days, which is a plus, but it still doesn’t make for essential listening. Despite the annoying repetitiveness, I do like “I Am A Man,” which has a good message. But I couldn’t find much of anything that truly blew me away.

Grade: B-

Classic Rewind: Lonestar – ‘Front Porch Looking In’

Album Review: Lonestar – ‘Let’s Be Us Again’

lets-be-us-againBy the time Lonestar released Let’s Be Us Again in 2004, the country music landscape had been brutally transformed from a country music with ever increasing rock elements into essentially rock music with country elements such as fiddle and steel guitar tossed into the mix, often gratuitously. Most of the fiddle heard during this are seemingly more Cajun than country, and lead guitar solos often seemed to owe nothing at all to country music.

In order to maintain radio airplay Lonestar co-opted the rock sounds while trying to maintain some country elements. The transition really began in 1999 with the Lonely Grill album, which had its sales buoyed by the remarkable success of “Amazed”, clearly their career hit.

The cost was high as each succeeding album was less country than its predecessor and more superficial. Gone was the Texan honky-tonk swagger, replaced by power ballads and Eagles-like country rockers. Worse yet, the John B Stetson hats and cowboy boots were replaced by attire that would have worked for N’SYNC or New Kids on The Block.

This is not to say that Let’s Be Us Again is a bad album, far from it. It is simply isn’t a very good album, the next to the last gasp of a band losing its way. In the short run the move paid off, but after two more top ten albums, the bands sales would slide toward the abyss. The song charted at #4.

The album opens up with “County Fair”, a pleasant if pointless rocker that is little more than a laundry list of things that one might do at a county fair. Some of the guitar riffs sound stolen from “Sweet Home Alabama” but with some fiddle tossed in.

Twenty bucks buys ten coupons
Two ears of corn and one ride on
The tilt-a-whirl with your favorite girl
Keep on walking down the midway
Three-eyed goats and games to play
Step right up, carny says try your luck
You can tell the sweet smell of summer in the air
Whole town shuts down, everybody’s gonna be there

Next up is “Class Reunion (That Used To Be Us)” a look back at how people have changed over the decade since graduation. The song was issued as a single and reached #16. While I think the lyrics celebrated a tenth reunion, I think it would be more meaningful in the context of a twentieth or later reunion.

I had a drink with some buds, played a lot of catch up
Danced with my date from the prom
But as hard as I tried until I closed my eyes
Everybody I knew was gone
There was Mr. Finch – he taught English and French
He was dancing with a couple of canes
And that homecoming queen, yeah, the girl of my dreams
S He didn’t even remember my name

That used to be us; we used to be cool
With the music cranked up, hanging out after school
That used to be Jill, that used to be Joe
Tell me, where in the world did we all go?
That used to be us

I would describe “Let Us Be Us Again” as a straight ahead subdued power ballad – it could have been sung by any band but Richie McDonald had a hand in writing it, so Lonestar recorded it.

I really do not feel like doing a song by song analysis of this album since most of the rest of the songs are simply okay, mostly generic with some good melodic hooks. Skipping to track eleven we find the song that typifies the album in the rather wordy, “Mr. Mom”. The song isn’t bad, in fact it is rather amusing, but it seemed to appeal more to people who really didn’t much care for country music in general or Lonestar in particular. I knew the end was near for Lonestar when my wife opined that she liked the song. “Mr. Mom” would prove to be the last #1 for Lonestar and, although two more scattered top ten records would follow, the band started losing traction after this song.

Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah
Lost my job, came home mad
Got a hug and a kiss and that’s too bad
She said, “I can go to work until you find another job”
I thought I like the sound of that
Watch TV and take long naps
Go from a hard working dad to being Mr. Mom

Well, Pampers melt in a Maytag dryer
Crayons go up one drawer higher
Rewind Barney for the fifteenth time
Breakfast at six, naps at nine
There’s bubblegum in the baby’s hair
Sweet potatoes in my lazy chair
Been crazy all day long
And it’s only Monday, Mr. Mom

Track twelve is “From There To Here” with Randy Owen of Alabama making a guest appearance, on an up-tempo song celebration of love. Randy, of course, is a superlative vocalist and this song is right up his alley:

Brothers Wilber and Orville Wright
Built wings out of wood and steel
Folks said that thing’ll never fly
They said, “Watch, I bet it will”
We’ve been defyin’ gravity now goin’ on a hundred years
It was paper wings, faith, and dreams
That’s how we got from there to here

A nickel brought a soda pop way back then
And a movie only cost a dime
He came home with a scar and a purple heart
She waited all that time
Today they’ll cut a golden wedding cake
How’d they made it all those years?
It had to be tough; they just said it was love
That’s how they got from there to here

You either do or you don’t believe
That it can or can’t be done
An ounce of faith and a touch of grace
And it can happen to anyone

If I had to pick a best song from the album, it would be “Somebody’s Someone” which harkens back to what the band had been doing earlier in their career. The song was never released as a single but charted due to random unsolicited airplay. Richie McDonald wrote this song by himself and without the posturing that often happens in co-writes, turned out a really meaningful song, probably the best song he has ever written. Coming so closely on the heels of 9/11, the song undoubtedly struck a chord with many listeners and definitely should have been released as a single:

Turn to the six o’clock news – another soldier dies
Tried to hide it, but I couldn’t help it: I had to cry
When my little boy asked me, “daddy, was he your friend”
I said, “no, I didn’t even know him”

[Chorus]
But he was somebody’s someone, a neighbor, a husband
A brother, a father, and a mother’s only son
He was an uncle, a cousin, somebody’s best friend
And I’m sure at times a shoulder to lean on
He was somebody’s someone

So I sat there in that chair and helped him understand
How this brave young man gave his life for our land
And although he’s someone we’ll never know
To you and me he is a hero

[Chorus]

To the world he was a total stranger
Who kept us safe and out of danger
But now he’s just a picture on TV
Somebody’s memory

[Chorus]

He was somebody’s someone

Up until this point I had purchased Lonestar albums as they were released, but this album marked the end of my Lonestar purchases. I give this album a C+ mostly on the strength of the last three cuts on the album, which I regard as the strongest.

Classic Rewind: Waylon Jennings – ‘I’ve Always Been Crazy’

Retro Album Reviews: New and old music from some veteran artists in 2007

last of the breedBack in the days writing for the 9513 Blog, I would post occasional reviews on Amazon. We are republishing updated versions of some of those reviews here.

LAST OF THE BREED – HAGGARD, NELSON & PRICE

This may be the Holy Grail of classic country recordings. Three legendary figures in Ray Price, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, singing twenty-two selections containing some of the greatest country songs ever written, although not necessarily the biggest hits of Willie, Ray or Merle (except a cover of Ray’s “Heartaches by the Number”). On eleven (11) of the tracks all three artists appear. Ray and Merle each have a solo (Ray’s with Vince Gill assisting), and the rest feature two of the three (with Kris Kristofferson assisting on “Why Me”). The backing band consists of top current session men and some legends who played in the bands of the legends such as Buddy Emmons and Johnny Gimble. Plus the legendary Jordanaires can be heard on several tracks.

Ray Price has had the lowest profile of the three over the last ten or so years, but even at 81 years of age, he is one of the most effective singers on the planet. It is no knock on either Willie or Merle to say that neither is in Ray Price’s league as a pure singer – no one else is either. Maybe this CD will sell well enough to introduce a new generation to the music of Ray Price. If so, it will have done everyone a big favor.

To summarize: Buy It.

Grade: A+

THE RAY STEVENS BOX SET

Good recordings of classic Ray Stevens material but quite a few remakes that lack the sparkle of the originals. In a nutshell, if it was originally issued on Curb or Clyde, it’s probably the original recording but if it was issued on Mercury, Barnaby, Monument, MCA or RCA then it’s likely a remake.

If you haven’t heard these recordings before, or its been a long time since you’ve heard them, beware – you may bust a gut laughing.

Even with the remakes, it’s well worth purchasing.

Grade: B+

16 BIGGEST HITS – JIMMY DICKENS

While it could have been better, this collection gives a balanced look at Jimmy’s career. Best known for his diminutive size and novelty tunes, Jimmy was a superior ballad singer as tunes such as “My Heart’s Bouquet”, “Just When I Needed You”, “Take Me As I Am (Or Let Me Go)”, “We Could” and “Violet And A Rose” amply demonstrate. Yes, the novelties are here as well as a few of the jump tunes, but it’s the ballads that will enhance your appreciation of Little Jimmy Dickens. I would like to see a more encompassing collection, including more of his hillbilly boogie and his recordings on MCA /Decca, but until that happens this is a fine collection.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Lonestar – ‘I’m Already There’

Album Review: Kevin Denney – ‘Something In Between’

something-in-betweenYou may remember Kevin Denney, a neotraditional country artist who had a handful of modestly performing singles on the Lyric Street label in the early years of the new millennium. Since then he has worked as a songwriter, and at last has produced new music of his own. His voicve has echoes of fellow Kentuckian Keith Whitley.

The likeable mid-paced opener ‘I Want The Real Thing’ sets out Kevin’s stall, accepting no substitutes for tasty but unhealthy food, and also rejecting internet romance and video games in favour of real love and playing music.

Tracy Byrd previously recorded ‘Cowboy And A Dancer’ ten years ago, an excellent story song about a pair of life-weary Texans in search of new lives in California, and finding one together. Kevin’s own version is very nice indeed, with a sympathetically delivered vocal.

‘Ain’t Gonna Hurt Nobody But Me’ is a neatly observed song about a man in a bar, knocking back the drinks and struggling in the aftermath of a breakup.

The philosophical ‘Everybody Just Calm Down’ recommends a slower and more peaceful way of life. The same theme emerges in the relaxed Kenny Chesney style beach song ‘Get A Lotta Living Done’, in which a city guy turned beach bum.

The lilting ‘Even The River’ is a look at a dying small town, where everyone with any ambition wants to leave :

I feel just like that water
Even the river runs away from this town

The sun don’t ever shine around here
It’s always empty lonesome and grey
One old blinking caution light
About the only thing working all day
There’s for sale signs in the windows
And they’re shutting down the mill

The title track is about finding a balance between extremes in life, with a religious twist. ‘Everybody Grew Up But Me’ looks back on childhood and the different paths taken by a group of friends, with the protagonist leading the life of a struggling musician. The gritty ‘Honky Tonk Highway’ also lauds the life of a country musician.

‘I’m That Country’ is a good natured paean to the joys of rural life, which unlike too many songs of this nature does actually sound very traditional country. The musical namedrops, too, are bluegrass and traditional country: Merle Haggard, Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, and J D Crowe. ‘What Does God Look Like’ is rather a sweet song about children’s understanding of God, although it doesn’t really go anywhere.

The album closes with an acoustic cover of Denney’s biggest hit, ‘That’s Just Jessie’.

This is a very nice, fairly low key album from an artists who deserved to be a much bigger success.

Grade: B+