My Kind of Country

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

Classic Rewind: Ricky Skaggs – ‘Highway 40 Blues’

Album Review: Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer – ‘Not Dark Yet’

In the summer of 2016, under the direction of Richard Thompson’s son Teddy, Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer entered a studio in Los Angeles and made good on a promise to one day record a collaborative album. The result, Not Dark Yet, is a ten-track collection of eccentric covers and one original tune.

The songs span genres, from classic country to rock and even grunge. The album, though, has a unifying sound, with Thompson using flourishes of piano and guitar to bring the tracks together. These aren’t by-the-numbers faithful interpretations, but rather the sisters’ take on these songs.

They open Not Dark Yet with “My List,” solely penned by Brandon Flowers and featured on The Killers second album Sam’s Town in 2006. Their version begins sparse, led by Moorer’s naked vulnerability, before unexpectedly kicking into gear halfway.

The title track was written and released by Bob Dylan in 1998, from Time Out Of Mind. Moorer is a revelation once again, with the perfect smoky alto to convey the despair lying at the center of Dylan’s lyric.

As one might expect, the album explores the feelings surrounding the horrific death of the sisters’ mother, at the hands of their father, who then turned the gun on himself. They were teenagers at the time, a period in one’s life where you arguably need your parents the most. They acknowledge their heartbreak with a trifecta of songs, culminating with the album’s sole original tune, which they composed themselves.

They begin with Nick Cave’s “Into My Arms,” the lead single from his 1997 album The Boatman’s Call. The song, which proves the benefit of turning to rock for expert lyricism, is about a man’s devotion to his woman and the push to bring them together. Lynne and Moorer continue with Kurt Cobain’s “Lithium,” from Nirvana’s 1992 masterpiece Nevermind. The dark ballad, which they make approachable, details the story of a man turning to God amidst thoughts of suicide.

The most personal, “Is It Too Much” was started by Lynne and finished by Moorer. The track details the bond they share as sisters, knowing each other’s pain, and wondering – is it too much to carry in your heart? It’s also one of the album’s slowest ballads, heavy on bass. I’m not typically drawn to these types of songs but they manage to bring it alive.

The remaining five tracks have ties to country music and thus fall more within my expertise. “Every Time You Leave” was written by Charlie and Ira Louvin and released in 1963. The backstory is a tragic one – Ira wrote this for his wife, saying that although they would eventually get back together, their separation was inventible. The wife he was married to at the time, his third, would also shoot him five times after a violent argument. It’s no wonder the pair feel a connection to the song, which they brilliantly deliver as a bass and piano-led ballad.

“I’m Looking for Blue Eyes,” written and recorded by Jessi Colter, was a track from Wanted! The Outlaws in 1976. Lynne and Moorer’s version is stunning, even if the pedal steel is just an accent and not a major player throughout.

Two of the album’s songs first appeared in 1969. “Lungs,” written by Townes Van Zandt, was featured on his eponymous album. The pair interpret the song nicely, which has a gently rolling melody. The album’s most famous song, at least to country fans, is Merle Haggard’s classic “Silver Wings,” which first appeared on Okie From Muskogee. Their version is slightly experimental but also lovely.

The final song is arguably the most contemporary. “The Color of a Cloudy Day” was written by Jason Isbell and is a duet between him and his wife Amanda Shires. The song first appeared at the close of the British documentary The Fear of 13 and was given a proper release as part of Amazon’s “Amazon Acoustics” playlist in 2016. Moorer and Lynne give the song a bit more pep, which isn’t hard given the acoustic leanings of Isbell and Shires’ duet.

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but Not Dark Yet is considered one of the most anticipated roots releases of the year. It’s a beautiful album, and while it won’t be within everyone’s wheelhouse, it’s difficult not to appreciate just how brilliant Lynne and Moorer are as a pair. They are two of our finest voices and have an exceptional ear for song selection. I don’t usually have trouble grading albums, but Not Dark Yet is hard record for which to assign a grade. It might not be completely my cup of tea, but I can’t ignore how expertly it was crafted.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Janie Fricke – ‘He’s A Heartache (Looking For A PLace To Happen)’

Album Review: Janie Fricke – ‘It Ain’t Easy’

By 1982, Janie Fricke’s career was on the upswing. After several years of charting top ten and top five hits, she finally hit #1 with “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me Baby,” the final single from Sleeping With Your Memory. Fricke’s next single, the spectacular “It Ain’t Easy Being Easy,” a commanding countrypolitan ballad, quickly followed suit. The success of the song led to the It Ain’t Easy album, which was released in September.

She would top out at #4 with “You Don’t Know Love,” a similarly styled ballad that was equally as strong. Fricke returned to the top, and provided a change of pace, with the excellent uptempo “He’s A Heartache (Looking For A Place To Happen).” I actually first heard this song a few months ago, when I was flipping through the radio dial and happened upon the faint signal of a college radio station that was playing it. I was too enthralled with what I was hearing to actually process what was happening. It was a cool moment.

The remainder of the album is a mixed bag, with varying degrees of quality. The ballads “Tell Me A Lie” and “A Little More Love” are very good and I like “Trying To Fool a Fool.” The rest of the tracks veer uptempo and just aren’t that strong, coming off as fluff. Songs like “Too Hard on my Heart” and “Heart To Heart Talk” aren’t bad, they’re just too lightweight for my taste. The same goes for “Love Have Mercy” while “Who Better Than an Angel” is just mediocre.

It Ain’t Easy isn’t a terrible album in the least, but there is too much padding and not enough meat. The singles are incredible, but the album tracks fail to elevate the record to a higher artistic level. At least the sound is great, which is a testament to Bob Montgomery and his countrypolitan stylings, which are always in good taste, even if they sound dated today.

Grade: B

 

Classic Rewind: Lacy J Dalton – ‘Crazy Blue Eyes’

Single Review: Tanya Tucker – ‘Forever Loving You’

The Glen Campbell-Tanya Tucker relationship was the gift that kept on giving to tabloid publishers in the early 1980s. A middle-aged legend past his commercial peak hooked up with a rising starlet half his age. In a more cynical age, it might have been suggested that the entire affair was concocted by publicists to keep the singers in the headlines. Except it wasn’t and when it ended, it ended badly, with a violent drug-induced brawl that left the reputations of both Campbell and Tucker in tatters. Neither was ever able to completely live it down; the affair was considered by most to be Campbell’s midlife crisis and Tucker’s youthful indiscretion.

It’s not a period of their lives that one would expect either party to look back on fondly. However, recent events have suggested that there was more to the messy relationship than the tabloid headlines led us to believe. Last Tuesday, August 8th, Campbell died after a six-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease. The next day, Tucker released a new single — her first in eight years — which is a tribute to her late partner. Written by Tanya with Michael Lynn Rogers and Rusty Crowe, “Forever Loving You” is probably the most deeply personal single of her career. A beautiful piano and pedal steel-led ballad, it is an expression of regret that things didn’t turn out differently, that lays to rest any lingering doubts that Tanya’s feelings for Glen were sincere, and that she never quite got over him:

I never stopped loving you even after all these years,
I still feel you next to me at night when you’re not here.
Oh, how your sweet songs stay with me even after all this time
Your memory’s right here in my heart, forever on my mind
.

Tanya is in good voice; the lyrics are deeply emotional and the melody is beautiful; this used to be a sure-fire formula for a monster hit. We all know that isn’t going to happen in today’s radio environment, but it’s a must-have for fans of both Glen and Tanya. A portion of the proceeds are going towards Alzheimer’s research, which is, of course, a cause well worth supporting. The track can be downloaded from iTunes and Amazon.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Janie Fricke – ‘You Don’t Know Love’

The later bluegrass arrangement of the 1980s hit:

Album Revew: Janie Fricke – ‘Sleeping With Your Memory’

1981 saw a change of producer for Janie, with Jim Ed Norman taking up the reins from Billy Sherrill for Sleeping With Your Memory. The result was incrased success for her on radio and with the industry – Janie would be named the CMA Female Vocalist of the Year in 1982.

The lead single was ‘Do Me With Love’, written by John Schweers. A bright perky slice of pop-country, this rather charming song (featuring Ricky Skaggs on backing vocals although he is not very audible) was a well-deserved hit, peaking at #4. Its successor, ‘Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me Baby’, was Janie’s first chart topper. It was written by fellow country starlet Deborah Allen with rocker Bruce Channel and Kieran Kane (later half of the O’Kanes). It’s quite a well written song, but the pop-leaning production has dated quite badly, and Janie’s vocals sound like something from musical theater.

Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Homeward Bound’ is given a folk-pop-country arrangement which is quite engaging (Ricky Skaggs multi-tasks on this song, contributing fiddle, mandolin and banjo as well as backing vocals), but I’m not quite sure I entirely buy Janie as the folk troubadour of the narrative. The Gibb brothers (the Bee Gees) had some impact on country music by dint of writing songs like ‘Islands In The Stream’ for Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, and their ‘Love Me’ is a very nice mid-paced ballad.

Janie sings Larry Gatlin’s sensitive ballad ‘The Heart’ beautifully; Larry and one of his brothers add backing vocals. The arrangement is swathed with strings, and the overall effect is fairly Adult Contemporary in style, but the track is a fine showcase for Janie’s lovely voice. The wistful ballads ‘Always’ and ‘If You Could See Me Now’ are also impeccably sung. The title track is a downbeat ballad about coping with a breakup, and is quite good, though not very country.

‘There’s No Future In The Past’, written by Chick Rains, is a very strong ballad about starting to move on, which I liked a lot despite the early 80s string arrangement. The closing ‘Midnight Words’ is fairly forgettable.

While this is not the more traditional side of country with heavy use of strings and electronic keyboards, it is a good example of its kind with some decent song choices, and Janie was starting to find her own voice.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Vern Gosdin – ‘Jesus Hold My Hand’

Week ending 8/12/17: #1 singles this week in country music history

1957 (Sales): Bye Bye Love — The Everly Brothers (Cadence)

1957 (Disc Jockeys): Bye Bye Love — The Everly Brothers (Cadence)

1967: I’ll Never Find Another You — Sonny James (Capitol)

1977Rollin’ With The Flow — Charlie Rich (Epic)

1987: One Promise Too Late — Reba McEntire (MCA)

1997: Carrying Your Love With Me — George Strait (MCA)

2007: Never Wanted Nothing More — Kenny Chesney (BNA)

2017: Body Like a Back Road — Sam Hunt (MCA)

2017 (Airplay): Do I Make You Wanna — Billy Currington (Mercury)

Classic Rewind: Janie Fricke – ‘It Ain’t Easy Being Easy’

Classic Rewind: John Conlee – ‘Friday Night Blues’

Album Review: Janie Fricke – ‘I’ll Need Someone To Hold Me When I Cry’

Janie Fricke’s commercial fortunes began to change with the release of her fourth LP in 1980. I’ll Need Someone To Hold Me When I Cry found her working with a new producer, Jim Ed Norman, and recording stronger material. Although the Urban Cowboy pop-country trend was en vogue in Nashville at the time, Janie actually bucked the commercial trend and went in a more traditional direction. Although not eschewing string arrangements entirely, the songs on this album are much less slickly produced than her earlier work. There is audible steel and fiddle throughout — the latter instrument being played by up-and-comer Ricky Skaggs who also provided background vocals on the album’s first single and Janie’s breakthrough hit “Down To My Last Broken Heart”, which eventually climbed to #2 on the Billboard country singles chart.

The album’s second single, a remake of Ray Price’s 1962 hit “Pride”, didn’t fare quite as well, landing at #12. Although it missed the Top 10, it performed as respectably as a remake of an old traditional county dog could be expected to in the early 80s. Janie rebounded nicely when the album’s title track became the third single, which made it to #4 in the US and was a #1 hit in Canada. Written by Bob McDill and Wayland Holyfield, “I’ll Need Someone To Hold Me (When I Cry)”, with its simple lyric and stripped down-production was the song that caused me to take notice of Janie Fricke and it remains one of my favorites today.

The rest of the album is a little more pop-oriented. The best of the album cuts is Janie’s take on Churchill Kohlman’s “Cry”, which had been recorded numerous times by a variety of pop and country artists. Johnnie Ray had scored a #1 pop hit with it in 1951, it had been a #3 country hit for Lynn Anderson in 1972, and Crystal Gayle would take it to the top of the country charts in 1987. Janie’s version could have been a hit but it was rare in those days to release a fourth single from an album, and the fact that it would have been the second remake (after “Pride”) to become a single may be one of the reasons it was overlooked.

“Enough of Each Other”, about a couple falling in and out of love is also quite good. “Every Time a Teardrop Falls” is a piano and orchestra ballad that is a little bland and probably the album’s weakest track, although I can’t honestly say that any of the songs are bad. “Blue Sky Shining”, the closing track is quite pretty but also a bit on the bland side.

I’ll Need Someone To Hold Me When I Cry was Janie’s first charting album and a huge step in the right direction. She was still yet to peak commercially, but this is the album that set her on the right path. With the exception of “Pride”, everything she released from this point forward reached the Top 10, until the New Traditionalist Movement finally stopped her momentum in 1986. The album is available on a double disc along with its three predecessors. While I wouldn’t necessarily run out and buy the other three, I’ll Need Someone To Hold Me When I Cry makes the collection worth purchasing.

Grade: A –

Classic Rewind: Janie Fricke – ‘Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me Baby’

EP Review: Justin Payne – ‘Coal Camp’

West Virginia native Justin Payne’s new release is a concept EP about life in coal mining country which is well worth hearing, although it focusses more on domestic aspects than on the industry itself. Payne, whose day job is as a coal mine electrician, is a strong singer and excellent songwriter who wrote every one of the six songs, and imbues them with his real life experiences.

The opening ‘Growing Old’ is a reminiscence of growing up in a loving and hard working but poverty stricken family, full of precise details and emotional underpinning, then counterpointed with harder times today with a drug blighted countryside. A wistful fiddle solo adds to the reflective mood.

The tender ‘Holler Home’ is about the return home to the “green rolling hills of West Virginia” and the protagonist’s wife after too long an absence. ‘Miner’s Soul’ soothes the fears of a miner’s wife.

The gentle sounding but incisive ‘Make A Little Time’ is about fatherhood in a coalmining family. ‘Piece Of My Life’ is a thoughtful consideration of the importance of family, and protecting the children from the harsh reality of the mines. Along the way is a resigned critique of the country music business:

My friends all call me crazy
And say to leave this place behind
“You need to pack ‘em songs to Nashville, son
And auction off a piece of your life”

But that town don’t understand me
No, they don’t like my kind
They don’t care about the truth down there
And they don’t deserve a piece of my life

This is possibly the highlight of an album with no weak points.

The record closes with the catchy ‘The Mines’, where a toe-tapping tune complete with accordion counterpoints a sometimes gloomy lyric.

Every song here is excellent, and this record is very highly recommended. I rarely call an album flawless, but I can’t find anything to criticise here.

All the album proceeds will go to food banks in West Virginia.

Grade: A+

Classic Rewind: Prairie Oyster – ‘I Don’t Hurt Anymore’

Album Review: Janie Fricke and Johnny Duncan – ‘Nice ‘n Easy’

Nice ‘n’ Easy was released in October 1980, in response to significant demand for an album that collected the earlier Johnny Duncan recordings that prominently featured Janie Fricke, whether or not Janie was actually credited on the original recordings. It also served as a true duets album.

The album actually falls neatly into two categories: (1) new recordings made in order to have enough tracks to complete an album and give customers who already had the earlier tracks a reason to purchase this album, and (2) the earlier hit singles. The new recordings are on side one of the album, with the older tracks being on side two.

Billy Sherrill was the producer of the album. While albums of this era often did not provide musician credits, the album cover notes tell us that on side one the background singers were Lea Jane Berinati, Jackie Cusic, Larry Keith and Steve Pippin whereas on side two the Nashville Edition provided the background harmonies.

Side one opens with “He’s Out of My Life”, a song written by Tom Bahler. Pop artist Michael Jackson recorded the song on his 1979 album Off The Wall and released it as a top ten pop single. The original title was “She’s Out of My Life”, retitled for duet purposes with Duncan and Fricke swapping verses but most of the song told from the male perspective. I think it is a bit of an overwrought ballad (Bahler wrote it after breaking up with his girl friend) but it works. The song was a #20 country hit for Johnny & Janie in 1980.

He’s out of my life
He’s out of my life

And I don’t know whether to laugh or cry
I don’t know whether to live or die
And it cuts like a knife
He’s out of my life

It’s out of my hands
It’s out of my hands

To think the two years he was here
And I took him for granted, I was so cavalier
Now the way that it stands
He’s out of my hands

Track two is the title cut “Nice ‘n’ Easy” written by Alan Bergman, Marilyn Keith and Lew Spence. The song is best known for Frank Sinatra’s 1960 recording. The Sinatra album Nice ‘n’ Easy was nominated for a Grammy in 1960 and Frank took the title track onto the pop charts that year. Charlie Rich had a minor pop hit with it in 1964, and in later years country radio sometimes played the track (or a later 1970 Epic re-recording of it). It would be blasphemy to suggest that any of the covers were better than Sinatra’s recording (they weren’t) although Rich’s recording was nearly as good.

Let’s take it nice and easy
It’s gonna be so easy
For us to fall in love

Hey baby what’s your hurry
Relax and don’t you worry
We’re gonna fall in love

We’re on the road to romance – that’s safe to say
But let’s make all the stops along the way

The problem now of course is
To simply hold your horses
To rush would be a crime
‘Cause nice and easy does it every time.

Paul Anka is often thought of as a late50s-early 60s teen idol, but he was much more than that, providing a number of classic songs to other artists such as “My Way” to Frank Sinatra and “Guess It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” to Buddy Holly. “(I Believe) There’s Nothing Stronger Than Our Love” is a song that Paul kept this song for himself, recording it as a solo (#15 pop / #3 AC) in 1975 and later as a duet with Odia Coates. It works fine as a duet.

I believe there is nothing stronger than our love
I believe there is nothing stronger than our love
When I’m with you Baby
All my worries disappear

Troubles that surround me
Disappear when you are near
When you need my loving
I’ll be there

“Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes)” is a 1960 song written by Clyde Otis, Murray Stein and Brook Benton. It was originally recorded as a duet by Dinah Washington and Brook Benton, and reached #5 pop / #1 R&B. Later recordings include Jerry Lee Lewis & Linda Gail Lewis, Charlie Louvin & Melba Montgomery, Michael Buble (with Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings) and Kevin Mahogany. Obviously it works as a duet, and it works for Duncan and Fricke, although they do not bring the soulfulness to the song that Dinah & Brook achieved, nor the excitement of the Jerry Lee & Linda Gail recording. By the way, if you are unfamiliar with Brook Benton and/or Dinah Washington, you really should check them out.

“Loving Arms” was written by Tom Jans and is a ballad of longing and loneliness that has been recorded many times, initially by Dobie Gray, then Elvis and many times since then including the great Etta James and acts such as the Dixie Chicks. To my knowledge no one has ever had a big hit with the song.

If you could see me now
The one who said that he’d rather roam
The one who said he’d rather be alone
If you could only see me now

If I could hold you now
Just for a moment if I could really make you mine
Just for a while turn back the hands of time
If I could only hold you now

I’ve been too long in the wind, too long in the rain
Taking any comfort that I can
Looking back and longing for the freedom of my chains
And lying in your loving arms again

This concludes side one of the album. You will note that none of these songs were initially country songs, although all were songs of a good pedigree. By 1980, for better or worse, the ‘Nashville Sound’ era had passed and none of the songs featured string arrangements. The production could best be described as pop-country with steel guitar used mostly as background shading.

Side two collects the Johnny Duncan hits that featured Janie Fricke. Since these songs have already been discussed earlier I will simply touch them lightly.

“Come A Little Bit Closer” was a cover of a Jay & The Americans hit that Johnny and Janie took to #4 in 1977. This song was billed to both of them.

“It Couldn’t Have Been Any Better” went to #1 for Johnny in 1977, his second #1. The string arrangements on this recording are by Bill McElhiney.

“Atlanta Georgia Stray” was not released as a single for Johnny Duncan. It appears on Johnny’s 1977 album Johnny Duncan.

The song was recorded by Kenny Price for RCA in 1969 and made the country charts. I was living in England in 1969, but when I returned to the USA in 1970, I recall the song receiving some airplay as an oldie. I really liked Kenny’s version, but Fricke and Duncan do a reasonable job with the song. Bergan White does the string arrangements

On the Greyhound bus trip home I was feelin’ all alone
When a long haired gal sat down next to me
She said she was Atlanta bound, kill some time, maybe kick around
Cause it sounded like a friendly place to be

From Chicago to Kentucky we just talked awhile
And somewhere in between I was captured by her smile
But why I left the bus in Nashville has been a mystery till today
Cause for two years I’ve been tracking down that Atlanta Georgia stray

“Thinkin’of A Rendezvous” was Johnny’s first #1 county hit in 1976. Bergan White did the string arrangements.

“Stranger”,also from 1976, was Johnny’s second top ten hit reaching #4 country.

I do not mean to downplay Janie Fricke’s contributions to the songs on side two, but they were released as Johnny Duncan records and Janie’s role was less prominent on some of them than on some of the others.

In retrospect, most of our readers will think that the success of these recordings was due to Janie Fricke, since Johnny Duncan dropped out of the music scene for family reasons during the 1980s and then died too young in 2006. He had a significant career and some big hits that did not feature Janie Fricke, including several of my favorites.

Janie, of course, went on to have a brilliant career and is still active today

This album has never been released on CD. The hit singles are available on several Johnny Duncan CDs and possibly some various artist collections. As best as I can tell, the tracks from side one are not available anywhere.

Johnny Duncan and Janie Fricke were both very polished performers and I think most listeners would find the tracks on side one very interesting indeed. This is a well produced album that I would give a B+

BREAKING NEWS: Glen Campbell 1936-2017

The country legend has passed following a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s Disease. He was 81-years-old.

Classic Rewind: Janie Fricke – ‘Do Me With Love’

Album Review: Joe Nichols – ‘Never Gets Old’

Joe Nichols, once one of the standard bearers for real country music, seemed to have lost his way of recent years – or to have been forced from it by record label politics. On losing his major deal, he signed to the big independent label Broken Bow, who proceeded to release a number of frankly bad tracks as singles which were largely ignored by radio. Those have been forgotten without trace, and find no place on Joe’s debut album for the label, heralded with talk of a return to more traditional sounds, which naturally caused me to have considerable expectations of the record.

The true lead single, the title track, is a delightful return to form for Joe. A gently midpaced love song, it may not make waves at radio, but will satisfy real country fans. The rather charming ‘I’d Sing About You’ is another attractive love song with some nice fiddle. I very much liked ‘This Side Of The River’, with the protagonist declaring he is very happy with his current life and in no rush to make it to the next world. Celtic pipes add a spiritual flavor. ‘Breathless’ is also quite nice though not as memorable. ‘So You’re Saying’ is a relaxed chat-up number with a nice tune.

‘Girl In The Song’ is another pleasant love song, although the production is unsympathetic. This is also a problem with the sexy ‘Hostage’, which Joe doesn’t really sell. Much worse is the awful bro-country ‘Tall Boys’, no doubt left over from the sessions which produced the jettisoned singles.

The best track is ‘Billy Graham’s Bible’, an excellent love song repeated from Joe’s last album Crickets. Perhaps this revival is a sign to its being selected as a single. Another highlight, ‘We All Carry Something’, is a moving semi-story and partly religious song written by Westin Davis and Justin Weaver about the pain and scars of hard lives.

A likeable cover of the Dierks Bentley album cut ‘Diamonds Make Babies’ (a Chris Stapleton co-write) works really well for Joe, showcasing his playful side. Another cover, also with comic intent, is one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever heard. ‘Baby Got Back’ was originally a controversial rap song in the early 90s. Joe somehow manages to make it sound like a (very) country song in terms of melody, vocal and instrumentation (although the lyrics are still somewhat offensive in a bro-country way). Southern comedian Darren Knight guests with some spoken interjections taking a different angle. I am left speechless by this track, but do give it points for at least sounding country.

So this album is still something of a mixed bag, but on the whole it is a step back in the right direction for Joe.

Grade: B+