My Kind of Country

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

Classic Rewind: Shelby Lynne – ‘Tell Me I’m Crazy’

Album Review: Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell – ‘The Traveling Kind’

81BsXZt8UsL._SX522_Whether the medium is literature, film or music, sequels rarely live up to the reputations of the original projects they follow. For that reason and because both Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell have been known to experiment with a variety of musical styles, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I heard that they were teaming up for a second duets album. While The Traveling Kind isn’t quite as good as 2013’s Old Yellow Moon, it’s an example of a sequel done properly. It also, thankfully, finds them sticking more closely to their country roots than many of their post-commercial peak projects.

Recorded in Nashville last July and produced by Joe Henry, The Traveling Kind consists of eleven tracks. Rodney had a hand in writing nine of them, three of which include Emmylou as a co-writer. While I didn’t much care for the bluesy “Weight of the World”, their other two compositions (with co-writer Corey Chisel — the title track and the steel guitar-laden “You Can’t Say We Didn’t Try”, are excellent. I particularly enjoyed the duo’s take on “No Memories Hangin’ ‘Round”, Rodney’s 1979 composition that was originally a Top 20 hit for Rosanne Cash and Bobby Bare.

My favorite track is “Just Pleasing You”, a Crowell co-write with Mary Starr that sounds a lot like an old Hank Williams song with a tune that faintly resembles “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)”. Almost as good is “If You Lived Here You’d Be Home Now”. Both are sure to please fans who miss the way country music used to sound.

Only two tracks come exclusively from outside songwriters: “I Just Wanted To See You So Bad” is an uptempo and quite enjoyable Lucinda Williams song, and “Her Hair Was Red”, is a Celtic-tinged number by Amy Allison which is a perfect vehicle for Emmylou.

The entire album is tastefully and sparsely produced, with an emphasis on acoustic instruments, with very little assistance from backing vocalists. Unlike a lot of “duet” projects, Harris and Crowell actually sing with — as opposed to around — each other. It is a quiet album that never allows the production to get in the way of the songs. I highly recommend it for fans of both artists, as well as for any country fans are dissatisfied with modern country radio’s typical offerings.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Shelby Lynne – ‘Another Chance At Love’

Album Review: Allison Moorer – ‘Alabama Song’

alabama songI was disappointed when Shelby Lynne abandoned country music as she had seemed to have so much unrealised potential. But just as she did so, her younger sister emerged, with just as good a voice but a more rootsy sound and more subtle approach. She was launched upon the public with her song ‘A Soft Place To Fall’, a beautiful ballad which appeared on the soundtrack of Robert Redford’s film The Horse Whisperer, and its Oscar nomination gave Allison a national platform when she performed it at the awards ceremony. A tenderly delivered song about seeking temporary comfort in an old love, it is, quite simply, beautiful with a melancholic undertone.

Allison Moorer’s debut album was launched on MCA in 1998, produced by her husband and regular cowriter Doyle “Butch” Primm and Kenny Greenberg. Allison and Primm wrote the majority of the songs together. The overarching mood is gently sad, and the majority of the songs are melodic ballads with steel guitar prominent in the tasteful arrangements.

‘Pardon Me’ is an excellent pained country ballad with lovely steel about struggling to understand a breakup, with the occasional tart line:

You say you’ve lost the love you felt for me
Well baby, you won’t find it if you leave

She is defiant again in ‘Set You Free’ as the ex is on his way out the door – or is it mere face-saving bravado?

In ‘I Found A Letter’ (a standout), the protagonist finds herself a betrayed wife who knows the sweet love letters were based on a lie. Later, in deeply melancholic mood, she decides it’s ‘Easier To Forget’ than dwell on the heartbreak of the past, backed up by the weeping sadness of the steel guitar. The loungy ballad ‘Tell Me Baby’ is less country, but very well performed, and another take on love and loss.

‘Call My Name’ dwells on the ongoing sorrow from a long-gone love (possibly dead). The album closes with the most downbeat song of the lot – the bleakly funereal ‘Is Heaven Good Enough For You’, which may have been inspired by her parents’ tragic death, although it does not address it specifically.

The up-tempo shuffle ‘The One That Got Away’ (a co-write with Kostas) is much more upbeat musically, with Allison sounding quite cheerful although it’s another song about a broken heart.

The wearied ‘Long Black Train’ (not the Josh Turner hit) is about struggling to make it in Nashville, and being ready to give up the dream and head back home. The wistful title track also yearns for home.

This is not a happy album, but it is a great one which deserves to be better known. I wish Allison had kept on in this vein.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Shelby Lynne – ‘Feeling Kind Of Lonely Tonight’

Album Review: Zac Brown Band – ‘Jekyll + Hyde’

Social-Profile-Icon-ndash-576-X-576-_zpslo9jbbovSince debuting eight years ago, Zac Brown Band has been a bright light on the increasingly barren landscape of mainstream country music. Ballads “Highway 20 Ride,” “Colder Weather” and “Goodbye In Your Eyes” join rompers “As She’s Walking Away” and “The Wind” as some of the strongest radio singles of the period. I’ve always loved Brown’s affable voice and his instance that fiddle prominently factor into the core of his band’s harmonic sound.

Still, the need for change has always been there. Zac Brown Band is quick to grow complacent, retreading musical ground when they should be pushing to elevate to the next level artistically. Uncaged, for example, beat their island-themed subset into the ground with the ear piercing “Jump Right In.”

Like clockwork, they’ve managed to do it again. Jekyll + Hyde is their widest album yet stylistically, covering everything from EDM and rock to jam band and, yes, more of those island rhythms. In turn, it mixes a hodge-podge of everything with a lot of retreaded ground.

The album opens with the wailing “Beautiful Drug,” which attempts to cross-pollinate by mixing EDM with acoustic country instrumentation. They venture into acid rock on the disastrous second single (it was a #1 on the Billboard Rock Chart) “Heavy Is The Head,” which features an assist from Soundgarden lead vocalist Chris Cornell. They further hone this sound on “Junkyard,” another slice of head pounding acid drivel.

Lead single “Homegrown,” while not a complete misstep, is the worst song they’ve ever sent to country radio. The suffocating production, complete with harmonies lifted from Eagles “The Long Run,” is only compounded by a lyric that’s too rudimentary to be interesting. Brown, Niko Moon, and Al Anderson ingeniously give third single “Loving You Easy” a catchy chorus to distract from the fact the song is nothing more than blandly warmed-over 1970s soft rock, a slower sonic counterpart to “Keep Me In Mind.” The jam band aesthetic continues on groovy love songs “One Day” and “Young and Wild.”

Brown employs a hoard of songwriters, a tradition in modern pop music, to help with two of the album’s tracks. “Wildfire,” which is co-written with Eric Church, follows in the same musical vein as “Homegrown” and feels primed to be a single. “I’ll Be Your Man (Song for a Daughter),” presumably written from Brown’s personal experience (he has four of them), explores a pop-leaning waltzing style complete with staccato beats.

The resurrection of their island-theme signature comes in the form of “Castaway.” A breezy ukulele and steel drum soaked jam that continues the escapism of “Knee Deep,” the song beautifully evokes the intended feeling in a way that feels somewhat fresh yet cheesy at the same time. They go a step further by fully exploring horn-laden Swing on “Mango Tree,” a duet with pop vocalist Sara Bareilles. The upbeat jazzy grove fits Brown like a glove, which surprised even me.

The remainder of the album showcases how Zac Brown Band fares when they revisit what they’ve already done musically, but with fresh eyes. Life affirming “Remedy” preaches love as the answer with ribbons of Celtic influence. Discourse continues on “Tomorrow Never Comes,” a bluegrass romp delivering the same central message as the Garth Brooks classic. “Bittersweet” tells a dark tale about lost love with a melody that recalls, but adds a bit more meat to, their penchant for tracks with a delicate acoustic softness.

The Jason Isbell composition “Dress Blues” is easily the album’s most hyped moment, a rare instance where a mainstream artist uses their platform to elevate the stature an independent singer/songwriter. The proceedings are marred by a production that favors slick over raw, but it doesn’t hinder the overall beauty of the song, which features harmonies by Jewel. It says a lot about the quality of an album when its strongest track comes courtesy of an outside songwriter.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Shelby Lynne and George Jones – ‘Take Me’

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Orthophonic Joy’

orthophonic joyThis project seems to have been in the works for some time, as I remember hearing about it last summer with a projected release date of October 2014. Now at last it has made its way into the world, and it was worth the wait.

It is a tribute to the 1927-8 recording sessions in Bristol, Tennessee, which really created country music as a recording genre, with the artists including Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. A generous 18 tracks, spread across two discs, interspersed with spoken segments by Eddie Stubbs, veteran Opry compere. The songs are performed by a range of latterday luminaries, while Stubbs provides informative commentary which is well worth listening to, with small snippets from the original recordings. Carl Jackson acts as producer, and the musicians do a wonderful job recreating the original backings.

The Carter Family were one of the great successes of early country music, and several of the songs they sang at Bristol are included in this project. Emmylou Harris takes on ‘Bury Me Under The Willow’, another traditional song which was the first song the Carters recorded. Ashley Monroe’s version ‘The Storms Are On The Ocean’ is very charming and one of my favourite tracks here. Rock (and occasional country) singer Sheryl Crow sings ‘The Wandering Boy’ very well.

Vince Gill isn’t the most obvious choice to play the part of Jimmie Rodgers, but ‘The Soldier’s Sweetheart’ is a ballad well suited to his plaintive vocal, and this WWI ballad is another highlight.

Ernest ‘Pop’ Stoneman was already an established recording artist when he contributed to the Bristol sessions with various musical partners. One of the songs he performed, the religious ‘I Am Resolved’, is performed here by the Shotgun Rubies, with bluegrass singer Val Storey’s sweet, tender lead vocal.

Religious songs were a very important element of the repertoire of these early musicians. Bluegrass legend Doyle Lawson and his band Quicksilver tackle the traditional gospel tune ‘I’m Redeemed’, originally recorded by the little known Alcoa Quartet, a local acappella group, whose name came from the steelworks where two of the men worked.

Dolly Parton sings ‘When They Ring Those Golden Bells’, recorded at Bristol by the Reverend Alfred Karnes, and does so with great sincerity. Karnes’ selections are well represented in this project. The roots of country, blues and gospel all draw from the same well and blues musician Keb Mo’ performs a soulful version of ‘To The Work’, with the help of a 12 year old protege. The Church Sisters take on the slow ‘Where We’ll Never Grow Old’.

Marty Stuart brings great energy to the banjo tune ‘Black Eyed Susie’, originally recorded by a local farmer. Comedian and banjo player Steve Martin is joined by the Steep Canyon Rangers for the Tenneva Ramblers’ comic ‘Sweet Heaven When I Die’. Glen Campbell’s children Shannon and Ashley sing Blind Alfred Reed’s tale of a real life train tragedy, ‘The Wreck Of The Old Virginian’, and do a fine job.

Larry Cordle sings ‘Gotta Catch That Train’, supported by the Virginian Luthiers, a band led by a grandson of the fiddler on the original session. Bluegrass star Jesse McReynolds, now 85, and another grandson of an original musician from the Bristol sessions, plays that grandfather’s fiddle on ‘Johnny Goodwin’ (now better known as The Girl I Left Behind’), one of the tunes he recorded.

Superstar Brad Paisley is joined by producer Carl Jackson for a beautifully played and nicely harmonised version of ‘In The Pines’. Jackson takes the lead on the murder ballad ‘Pretty Polly’, recorded at Bristol by the uneducated farmer B F Shelton, who also recorded the moonshine fuelled ‘Darling Cora’. 20 year old newcomer Corbin Hayslett sings and plays banjo on the latter, and he has a very authentic old-time style which defies his youth.

The Chuck Wagon Gang close proceedings with the choral ‘Shall we Gather At The River’, the last song recorded at Bristol, joined by the massed artists involved in this project.

I would have liked the liner notes to be included with the digital version of the album, but Stubbs’ knowledgeable discussion betwee songs makes up for this lack. This is a very educational album which brings home the significance of the sessions and their place in music history. It is also highly enjoyable listening, beautifully played, arranged and produced.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Shelby Lynne – ‘Don’t Cross Your Heart’

Album Review: Shelby Lynne – ‘I Am Shelby Lynne’

220px-I_Am_Shelby_LynneIn 1998, Shelby Lynne moved to Palm Spring, California to work with producer Bill Bottrell on her seventh studio album. A year later the results of those sessions emerged as I Am Shelby Lynne. The project remains her magnum opus, a singular work that cathartically unleashed her wild abandon and announced her arrival as a fully-formed artist who finally found her own identity.

Lynne unleashed the heavily produced 60s throwback “Your Lies” as the project’s lead single, with crashing drums and drenching strings startling the listener awake. The slow-burning “Leavin,” in which she recites the verses in a sexy whisper, came next. The final single found her embracing radio-friendly pop, with hints of Bonnie Raitt in her vocal performance. “Gotta Get Back” was justly rewarded and became the project’s only sizeable hit, peaking at #26 on the Hot AC chart.

The three singles, all of which are uniquely excellent, couldn’t be more different yet sonically cohesive enough to work as small pieces of the larger puzzle that is I Am Shelby Lynne. Of even greater significance, “Your Lies” and “Leavin,” open the album hitting the listener with an adventurous sonic sucker punch that takes us on a unique and joyous journey to parts unknown.

That unfamiliar territory led south to Hollywood, where the producers of Bridget Jones’ Diary plucked the ethereal ballad “Dreamsome” for use in the film. It’s an ambiguous selection for an otherwise upbeat romantic comedy, but it works splendidly as a stand-alone recording.

Lynne had a hand in co-writing each of the tracks on I Am Shelby Lynne, including eight with Bottrell. The pair cover vast lyrical acreage, from the esoteric stream-of-consciousness of “Life Is Bad” to the emotional confrontation of “Thought It Would Be Easier.” She subtly addresses her new direction on “Where I’m From,” declaring “never far away from Alabama frame of mind.”

“Why Can’t You Be” is a contextually vague thumper that works from the prospective of Lynne lamenting the end of a romantic relationship, but evolves into brilliance if she’s actually singing about herself, painting the picture that it’s her who’s “the only enemy.” “Lookin’ Up” foreshadows the journey to come, offering sonic glimpses into such projects as Just A Little Lovin’ and I Can’t Imagine. The lyric itself seeps with delicious venom and finds Lynne on the warpath for “the next thing that brings me down.” The original edition of I Am Shelby Lynne closes with “Black Light Blue,” a too-slow string drenched ballad that continues Lynne’s penchant for esoteric stream-of-consciousness songwriting.

To commemorate the album’s fifteenth anniversary, Rounder Records released a deluxe edition complete with six previously unreleased songs and a concert DVD. The six unearthed tunes including a seven minute acoustic ballad entitled “The Sky Is Purple,” in which Lynne addresses her teenage years through a revelatory vocal performance. “Should’ve Been Better” is a pep infused slice of funk, “Wind” is gorgeous pop ballad, and “She Knows Where She Goes” is melodically country. “Miss You Sissy” and “Bless The Fool” lean smooth jazz.

The relationship between Lynne and Bottrell, who also helmed Sheryl Crow’s Tuesday Night Music Club, recalls Emmylou Harris’ reinvention with Daniel Lanois on Wrecking Ball. Like Harris’ seminal classic, I Am Shelby Lynne is a masterpiece that showcases Lynne in her most unbridled form. She richly deserved the Best New Artist Grammy Award she won courtesy of this project, even though, after six previous albums, she logically shouldn’t have been eligible at all.

Lynne hasn’t reached these heights since, but she also hasn’t tried, which is the mark of an astute artist. I Am Shelby Lynne is the rare album that stands in a class by itself where no other project by its maker can even come close to surpassing its brilliance. I Am Shelby Lynne is an ageless beauty.

Grade: A+

Classic Rewind: Johnny Cash – ‘The Ten Commandments’

Week ending 5/16/15: #1 singles this week in country music history

hqdefault1955 (Sales): In The Jailhouse Now — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1955 (Jukebox): In The Jailhouse Now — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1955 (Disc Jockeys): In The Jailhouse Now — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1965: Girl On The Billboard — Del Reeves (United Artists)

1975: She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles) — Gary Stewart (RCA)

1985: Somebody Should Leave — Reba McEntire (MCA)

1995: I Can Love You Like That — John Michael Montgomery (Atlantic)

2005: My Give A Damn’s Busted — Jo Dee Messina (Curb)

2015: Girl Crush — Little Big Town (Capitol)

2015 (Airplay): Say You Do — Dierks Bentley (Capitol)

Classic Rewind: Shelby Lynne – ‘Things Are Tough All Over’

This was Shelby’s biggest country hit:

Classic Rewind: S-K-B – ‘This Old House’

Album Review: Shelby Lynne – ‘Restless’

51aMwLjN8yLShelby Lynne parted ways with Epic after three albums, all of which underperformed commercially, citing a lack of creative control as one of the reasons for her departure. She’d decided that if country radio wasn’t going to embrace her, she at least wanted critical acclaim and the freedom to go in different musical directions if she so chose. Temptation, her first post-Epic release had little to do with country music, but the follow-up Restless, is a different story. It is widely regarded as a western swing album, but it also has some elements of blues, as well as some more mainstream fare which suggested that Shelby hadn’t completely given up on the idea of having some radio hits.

Restless was issued by a different label than Temptation — originally issued by Magnatone and later re-released by Curb, but retained most of the personnel that had worked on the previous album. Brent Maher was back on board as producer and, along with Jamie O’Hara, as a co-writer on several of the album’s tracks. Shelby herself had a hand in writing six of the album’s ten tracks. I was slightly underwhelmed by the opening track and lead single “Slow Me Down”, which was the album’s only charting single, peaking at #59. It was followed up by the non-charting and more mainstream “I’m Not The One”, which really deserved more attention and likely could have been a hit for a more established artist. “Another Chance at Love”, the final single, is a pure western swing number which is excellent but probably not the most commercially viable choice in a radio environment which at the time was preoccupied with the crossover music of Shania Twain. “Hey Now, Little Darling” might have been a better choice, but by this time it was quite obvious that radio wasn’t much interested in anything Shelby had to offer.

I’m a big western swing fan, so there is much here for me to like: the title track, “Reach For The Rhythm” and “Swingtown” are all excellent. The blues-laced “Just For The Touch of Your Hand” is not quite as good but still enjoyable. It sounds tailor-made for Wynonna Judd, which is not surprising given Maher’s and O’Hara’s long association with Wynonna and The Judds. The pop-tinged ballad “Wish I Knew” is well performed but seems out of place on this album. The album’s best track is the underrated Jamie O’Hara gem “Talkin’ To Myself Again”, which had become the final Top 20 hit for Tammy Wynette almost a decade earlier.

Like its predecessors, Restless was a commercial disappointment and resulted in the end of the country phase of Shelby’s career and the beginning of a series of albums that explored various styles of pop. It is however, my favorite Shelby Lynne album. If you are only going to own one of her albums, make it this one.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Shelby Lynne – ‘Lie Myself To Sleep’

Album Review: Chris Stapleton – ‘Traveller’

imagesUpon learning that Chris Stapleton had penned a solo deal with Mercury, I assumed that the resulting album would be an eclectic and decidedly non-commercial one in the Americana vein – the sort of thing I like to listen to occasionally for a change of pace but not on a regular basis. Now that Traveller has finally been released I have to say that it comes as a somewhat of a surprise — and a pleasant one at that. While he does cover a number of musical styles, it is a much more polished affair than what I was expecting. Afew years ago it would have been considered a mainstream effort, though Stapleton’s voice is a bit too rough to enjoy widespread commercial success in any era.

Produced by Dave Cobb, Traveller consists of a generous 14 tracks, twelve of which were written or co-written by Stapleton. Among the two that he didn’t write are a bluesy cover of “Tennessee Whiskey” and “Was It 26″, a Don Sampson composition that sounds like it would have been at home on Jamey Johnson’s That Lonesome Song album. Although his rendition of “Tennessee Whiskey” isn’t quite in alignment with my taste, Stapleton deserves credit for putting his own stamp on the song rather than doing a note-for-note reproduction of George Jones’ classic 1983 recording.

Longtime readers will not be surprised to hear that my favorite tracks are the more country-leaning ones. I particularly liked the stripped-down “Whiskey and You”, “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore”, and “Nobody To Blame” which sounds like a rediscovered Travis Tritt recording from the 90s. The album’s best track is “More of You” a beautiful mandolin-laced ballad which features a harmony vocalist that sounds a lot like Emmylou Harris. I’m a little less enthusiastic about the Southern rock numbers “Parachute”, “Might As Well Get Stoned” and “Outlaw State of Mind”, although I can’t actually say that I didn’t enjoy these songs.

I don’t expect Traveller to spawn any big radio hits but I think it’s one of those albums that might sell well despite a lack of airplay. I certainly hope so because it deserves to be heard.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: John Conlee – ‘Busted/Doghouse’

Album Review: Shelby Lynne – ‘Temptation’

temptationAfter three albums had failed to break Shelby Lynne, she parted ways with Epic. Her music had always been a little more eclectic than most of her peers, but now she began to experiment more. Although it was still marketed as country music and recorded in Nashville with seasoned session musicians, her work with producer Brent Maher for her new label Morgan Creek (in association with Mercury Records) drew more deeply from the wells of jazz and big band than even the countrypolitan end of country music.

She was still marketed as a country artist, but unsurprisingly the country radio which had been unreceptive to her more conventional material was even less so to her new direction. Lead single ‘Feeling Kind Of Lonely Tonight’ got minimal airplay, peaking at a dismal #69 on the Billboard country chart, although it has a catchy tune and arrangement and is quite enjoyable. Interestingly, Brent Maher wrote or co-wrote all but two of the songs, most of them with Jamie O’Hara.

‘Tell Me I’m Crazy’, one of the two outside songs, didn’t chart at all, although it is a very nice Patsy Cline style ballad written by Mike Reid and Rory Michael Bourke, and is beautifully sung.

Even better is my favourite song on the album (not coincidentally, the only other song Brent Maher had no hand in). ‘I Need A Heart To Come Home To’ is a lovely sad ballad written by John Barlow Jarvis and Russell Smith about loneliness and the temptation of reconnecting with an old flame:

Something happened the night you kissed me
My will to love was born again
Your tenderness has convinced me
What a lonely fool I’ve been

I need a heart to come home to
Give me all the love I never knew
I need a heart to hold on to
I need a sweet sweetheart like you

Both song and performance are excellent, and the track featured on the soundtrack of hit movie True Romance.

Shelby co-wrote the title track with Maher and Jamie O’Hara, and this bold, brassy tune is a bit lacking in melody or real emotional impact, with an assertive attitude which doesn’t quite fit the self-searching lyric. The trio also wrote the similarly styled ‘Some Of That True Love’, where the swing arrangement fits the song better.

The understated mid-tempo ‘Little Unlucky At Love’, written by Maher and O’Hara, is quite good, but the pair’s ‘Come A Little Closer’ and ‘Don’t Cry For Me’, written by Maher alone, are forgettable big band.

I disliked the bluesy, soul-influenced ‘The Rain Might Wash Your Love Away’ (written by Maher with Don Potter and Don Schlitz, mainly for its annoying spoken segments. However the sophisticated minor-keyed jazz ballad ‘Where Do We Go From Here’ is very well done.

This is one of those records which is tough to assign a letter grade to. It is well sung and played, and Shelby sounds thoroughly engaged with her material, but most of it is not really to my personal tastes. As a jazz-inflected record for a general audience, it is very good; but it has little to do with country music other than the personnel.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Shelby Lynne – ‘I Love You So Much It Hurts’

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