My Kind of Country

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

Monthly Archives: March 2010

Classic Rewind: Emmylou Harris – ‘Two More Bottles Of Wine’

Album Review: Alan Jackson – ‘Freight Train’

I was distinctly underwhelmed by Alan’s last album, Good Time, and as a result I was concerned about what to expect this time around, especially as I wasn’t impressed by the lead single. Thankfully the album is a considerable improvement. Alan has written most of the songs again, but he seems to have regained his muse, which was noticably lacking last time around. Keith Stegall is in the producer’s chair as usual; always reliable, he does one of his best jobs here, making every song sound good.

After that initial sense of apprehension, then, it was with a great sense of relief that I heard this album kicking off with some fiddle as ‘Hard Hat And A Hammer’ (one of the tracks which was pre-released on iTunes) opens the album with one of the best of Alan’s trademark tributes to the working man, described here as the “kind of glue that sticks this world together”. In the outro, he even remembers to include a nod to the working woman.

In contrast, there is a paean to the joys of escaping from it all for a life at sea in ‘That’s Where I Belong’.

That lead single and current top 20 hit ‘It’s Just That Way’ is one of the few songs not written by Alan himself; it comes from producer Keith Stegall, Vicky McGehee and Kylie Sackley, and is one of the record’s dullest moments. Alan sings it beautifully, but the song is just plain dull. I cannot imagine why it was thought a suitable first single. The only other song as lackluster on this set is Alan’s own ‘Big Green Eyes’.

A more enjoyable love song is the beauty and cheerful ‘I Could Get Used To This Lovin’ Thing’; it breaks no new ground lyrically but is enjoyable to listen to. The closing ‘The Best Keeps Getting Better’ is a more mature appreciation of a love which has grown stronger and deeper over time despite ups and downs, which is clearly addressed to Alan’s wife of 30 years – the perfect anniversary song:

We thought the best would be behind us
But the best keeps getting better all the time

We learned how to love
And how to make up
And found what it takes to be enough
Like a 30 year old wine
Hearts intertwined
The best keeps getting better all the time

I love you now more than ever

Alan draws more inspiration from his family with ‘After 17’, a tender portrait of his daughter as a young woman growing up, and “suddenly a child no more” as she tries to “find her place in this crazy world”.

The other love song here is the charming ‘True Love Is A Golden Ring’, which Alan wrote with Roger Murrah a few years ago and gave his nephew Adam and his wife and singing partner Shannon (the Wrights) to record on their excellent self-titled eight-track EP. Alan’s own version, which should bring this lovely song to a wider audience, features Rhonda Vincent on backing vocals, way back in the mix.

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Classic Rewind: Vern Gosdin – ‘Til The End’

Finding your fix

In these times of un-fulfillment for the country music fan, I’m finding myself turning to my other favorite genres and artists for comfort.  The country fan that listens only to country music is rare, even among listeners like me for whom country is by far the primary source for music.  My tastes run to the extreme sometimes: from Alice Cooper to Amy Grant and from zydeco to the blues, and a lot in between.  I’m certainly not one of those ‘I’ll listen to anything’ fans; my preferences, while eclectic, are strongly defined.  And I would think that’s the case with all of us passionate music fans.

So, on to my original thought: finding great music outside country’s umbrella when the mainstream – and even the indies – just aren’t doing it for you at the moment.  Last Fall, I bought an impulse collection – a 3-CD collection from Linda Ronstadt.  I had only heard her own singing a couple of times, but I knew her songs from covers by the likes of Reba McEntire, Trisha Yearwood, and Martina McBride.  Terri Clark had a hit with Linda’s ‘Poor, Poor Pitiful Me’ early in her career.  Trisha Yearwood, especially, speaks very, very highly of Ronstadt.  And I know Hank Williams Jr. once name-checked her in one of his many hits.  But Hank Jr. name-checks everybody.  But with all that high praise from some of my favorite artists, I figured a bargain Linda Ronstadt collection would be worth my money.  After all, with 40 songs, I was bound to find something I liked.  Needless to say, like so many others before me, I was instantly drawn to Linda’s really big, really emotive voice.  Further listening to her catalog has also shown me that she has an incredible ear for material as well.

Linda Ronstadt’s catalog is possibly the most diverse among her contemporaries, and I readily admit that I don’t fully appreciate her forays into jazz and traditional Mexican music, among other styles she’s tackled.  However, I do find her to be an able performer of opera, rock, pop, and even country.  Linda charted 5 top 10 country singles in the ’70s, along with 3 #1 country albums.  That’s a better country track record than a lot of artists, but her real commercial success came in the mid to late ’70s when she was hailed ‘the highest paid woman in Rock’, and the genre’s ‘first lady’.  Not many singers or musicians from outside the country world have been as accepted by the country music industry as Ronstadt was.  I’ve now acquired a box set and 7 studio albums from Linda.

I’m still finding new music to add to my collection these days.  Admittedly, a lot of it is only new to me.  But I’m also finding that the more new artists that I add to my library lately, the fewer and fewer decidedly country artists I am adding.  Linda Ronstadt is just the brightest and best among many new non-country additions to my rotation.  And even when I do add a country artist, it seems to be one whose charting days are well behind them.

Are you digging deep into the catalogs of country’s older hit-makers?  Or, are you seeking out independent music or looking to other genres for your musical fix?

Here’s two of my favorite finds so far in the Linda Ronstadt collection:

‘Willin’, a real, old-fashioned trucking song, complete with nods to uppers and illegal backroad hauls.

‘It’s So Easy’, a 1977 hit for Ronstadt written by Buddy Holly and Norman Petty.

Classic Rewind: Skip Ewing – ‘The Gospel According To Luke’

Album Review: James Dupre – ‘It’s All Happening’

Louisiana paramedic James Dupre has become something of a youtube phenomenon with his covers of country classics.  He has now managed to use that exposure to record an album in Nashville, produced by Kyle Lehning and Jerry Douglas (who also contributes dobro and lap steel), with a fine set of musicians and some well-chosen songs, mostly from Nashville songwriters.  Most are set to a broadly similar slowish-mid-tempo, with a laid back feel.  James has a warm voice with a pleasing tone and relaxed style with phrasing which is often reminiscent of Alan Jackson or Don Williams.

The outstanding song is the melancholy ‘Ring On The Bar’, written by Byron Hill and Brent Baxter, a beautifully constructed lyric set to a beautiful, gentle melody, about the aftermath of a failed marriage which opens the set.  The title hook refers in the opening verse to the watermark left by the protagonist’s beer as he thinks over his situation, and later to the wedding ring he abandons there:

There’s a ring on the bar
One that’s shiny and gold
The symbol of a promise
And the heart that he broke

It’s the one thing she left
When she packed up the car
It was light on her finger
Now it’s heavy on his heart

And the ring shines bright in the colored light
Of a lonesome neon star
When its closing time he’ll leave the hurt behind
With a tip in the jar and the ring on the bar

That bartender’s gonna think someone forgot it
And he’ll wonder who could be that big a fool

Another fine song on the theme of a man struggling with the aftermath of a failed relationship is ‘Alright Tonight’, written by Tom Douglas and Casey Beathard:

I can’t stand to think of you with anybody else
There ain’t a bottle or a bar so far that seems to help
Today was not a good day to convince myself that I’m alright
Hey but I’m alright tonight

I guess I really should have called before
I showed up drunk at your front door
I had to see with my own eyes
That you’re alright tonight

Perfectly understated in its conflicting emotions, we really don’t believe him when he says that he’s “alright”, tonight or at any other time.

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Classic Rewind: Kitty Wells – ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonky Angels’

Week ending 3/27/10: #1 singles this week in country music history

1950: Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy — Red Foley (Decca)

1960: He’ll Have To Go — Jim Reeves (RCA)

1970: The Fightin’ Side of Me — Merle Haggard (Capitol)

1980: Why Don’t You Spend The Night — Ronnie Milsap (RCA)

1990: Hard Rock Bottom of Your Heart — Randy Travis (Warner Bros.)

2000: How Do You Like Me Now — Toby Keith (DreamWorks Nashville)

2010: Hillbilly Bone — Blake Shelton with Trace Adkins (Warner Bros.)

Week ending 3/27/10: #1 albums this week in country music history

1965: Buck Owens – I Don’t Care (Capitol)

1970: Merle Haggard and The Strangers – Okie From Muskogee (Capitol)

1975: Olivia Newton John – Have You Never Been Mellow (MCA)

1980: Kenny Rogers – Kenny (United Artists)

1985: Ray Charles – Friendship (Columbia)

1990: Ricky Van Shelton – RVS III (Columbia)

1995: Garth Brooks – The Hits (Capitol)

2000: George Strait – Latest Greatest Straitest Hits (MCA)

2005: Kenny Chesney – Be As You Are (BNA)

2010: Lady Antebellum – Need You Now (Capitol)

Classic Rewind: Connie Smith – ‘Nobody But A Fool’

Classic Rewind: Willie Nelson and Ray Charles: ‘Seven Spanish Angels’

When is a singer-songwriter not really a singer-songwriter?

These days we often see singers signed to a major label getting credit on a high proportion of songs they record, usually credited alongside one or more full-time songwriters. While some of these are no doubt genuine contributions, it appears that in some cases the artist’s contribution is minimal.

In a fascinating recent article (linked to on Wednesday by the 9513) on the decline of solo-written songs in Nashville, the songwriter Craig Wiseman is quoted saying:

“There are a lot of artists co-writing now with professional writers, and in some ways I applaud that. Sometimes, though, the motivations aren’t quite so pristine. As the business has been decimated, money and how to get money has permeated every aspect of it. Most of the time — not all of the time — when you have three people or more in a room, one of them is an artist who is there to ensure the cut.”

Peter Cooper, author of the article in question, goes on to say,

There are times in Nashville when an artist sits in such a room, says, “I had a bad date last week” or “I get sad when it rains,” and then watches as the two professionals do the bulk of the work on a song that will, when released, be credited to all three.

I am sure this pernicious practice does not apply to all artists who write, and I am cautious about casting suspicion publicly on named individuals for the reasons stated above. It is certainly not new for songs’ true authorship to be concealed. In the 50s it was not uncommon for songs to be bought and sold outright. The unscrupulous publisher and label boss Bill McCall got his name (or, rather, that of a pseudonym) on a number of the songs he published – and then made his artists record them. As we saw during our coverage of Patsy Cline in January, that could be damaging to an artist’s career.

Frank Liddell, Miranda Lambert’s producer and Lee Ann Womack’s husband, is quoted in a follow-up piece saying,

I think perhaps the real problem we face today is the quality of the writing abilities of some of the people out there in these co-writes. There have always been politics in this business and there has always been bad music and marginal songwriting. This is nothing really new. But it does seem that there are a lot of great writers out there whose work is being overlooked because they really don’t know how to play the game. I also think a lot of artists are encouraged to write for financial reasons that would be better off recording outside songs.

Meanwhile another recent comment on the same lines came from veteran songwriter Bobby Braddock, noting,

“A lot of times when people co-write, one will often write more than the other”

It would be unfair to name names suspected of coasting on their “co-writers”’ coat tails (and depriving them of their full compensation) simply because if you aren’t there in the room, you don’t know what’s actually gone on. It would be wrong simply to tar all artists with the brush of suspicion, as many do actually turn out to be good songwriters. All those singer who turned to a songwriting career after putting their own dreams of stardom aside, who we looked at last week, obviously had the skills required, and the same must be the case for some of those still successfully performing.

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Classic Rewind: The Judds – ‘Mama He’s Crazy’

Album Review: Alan Jackson – ‘Like Red On A Rose’

Reliable, consistent, neo-traditionalist, new traditionalist, self-penned tunes – that’s so often how Alan Jackson’s music is described. Like Red On A Rose stands out from the pack of Jackson albums then as a unique and beautiful album of ballads and love songs with a wonderful mix of thoughtful, tender and reflective interpretations of songs by several  writers.

After working with Keith Stegall as the producer on all of his previous albums, Jackson opted to try something different.  He approached Alison Krauss about possibly making a bluegrass album. Instead, Krauss’s song selection and production resulted in an album that lets Jackson’s vocal talent and skill come to the fore in a more acoustic style. This album truly features Alan’s warm, intimate, subtle and honest voice – arguably one of the best in country music. One phrase from ‘The Firefly’s Song’ sums up the overall production well: Sometimes less is more.

Like Red On A Rose was released in September of 2006, following Jackson’s Gospel album, Precious Memories.  Both albums were a departure from his reliable and a bit predictable style, though not a departure from Jackson’s personal history.  He grew up singing Gospel in church, and Jackson’s interpretation of the introspective songs on Rose give you the sense that he’s lived their stories in one way or another personally.

The overall mood of the album calls for a glass of your favorite full-bodied beverage and a quiet evening of reflecting on the richness of deep love, both kept and lost, and the blessings of life in general from the maturity of having lived a good portion of it already — thus, the album cover. But though the mood is fairly consistent throughout the album, the musical styles are somewhat varied.

‘Anywhere On Earth You Are’ sets the tone with a smokey road-weary ballad followed by the aptly titled and bluesy ‘Good Imitation Of The Blues’. Jimmy Holiday’s ‘Don’t Change On Me’ is a gospel-flavored number complete with choir-sounding back-up and gospel organ in the mix. John Pennell’s country waltz ballad ‘As Lovely As You’ has some lovely acoustic guitar.

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Classic Rewind: George Jones & Lorrie Morgan – ‘A Picture of Me Without You’

Some suggestions for reviving music sales

Much has been written about the decline in album sales, which are gradually being supplanted by digitally downloaded individual tracks. The music industry is being returned — kicking and screaming — to a more singles-based business model, which has resulted in a big decrease in revenues. In attempting to reverse this trend, the major labels have begun a variety of experiments with way they release and distribute music. Universal Music Group recently announced that they will be lowering the prices of CDs. Warner Bros. and Curb have opted  to have their artists release two or three albums of shorter duration within a few months of each other, as opposed to the traditional method of releasing a full-length album every two or three years.

As discussed recently on The 9513, with the new Blake Shelton release, Warner Bros. Nashville has unveiled the “SixPak”, an album containing six rather than the usual 10 or 12 tracks. In other words, an EP, but don’t let them hear you say that. Curb Records recently announced a similar strategy for Jo Dee Messina’s oft-delayed upcoming album, which will now reportedly contain seven new tracks and two live versions of older hits, to be folllowed by one or two more EPs later in the year. Apparently the hope is that fans, new and old alike, will be less resistant to buying a shortened album at a reduced price.

I’m skeptical of this strategy’s prospects for success. For one thing, it seems to be targeting the wrong market segment — the one that still buys music on CDs, and would probably prefer to have more and not less music on each disc, as the Universal strategy apparently recognizes. I’m sure Jo Dee Messina’s fans will be happy to see any new music from her at all and will buy the EP, but in all likelihood these are the same fans who would have purchased a full-length album. I don’t see how music buyers who are only interested in the radio hits will be persuaded to forgo the individual downloads in favor of buying a set of 6 or 7 songs. The music industry seems intent on trying to sell to this segment of the market something it apparently does not want — albums.
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Classic Rewind: Pam Tillis – ‘All The Good Ones Are Gone’

Album Review: Alan Jackson – ‘What I Do’

Written by Jordan Stacey.  - J.R.

After having a very successful run in the early 90′s most “hat acts” faded away toward the end of the decade in favor of the crossover artists like Shania Twain. Alan Jackson however, was able to keep his success going and while there’s no telling what it was that kept him in the spotlight, I would credit his continued output of high quality material along with his masterpiece album Drive. Throughout the rest of the decade he put out many albums that attracted a lot of attention. However with his major hits Drive and  Greatest Hits II on one side, and his artistic adventures Precious Memories and Like Red On A Rose on the other, What I Do was kind of ignored in the grand scheme of things.

Sure, the first two singles went Top 5 and the other two both made it to #18, but when talking about Alan in the 00′s What I Do is unjustly left out of most conversations; even his weakest album, When Somebody Loves You, gets more press writing.  What I Do, like every single Alan Jackson album, was certified gold by the RIAA.  It would eventually go platinum as well.  To date, Jackson has released 13 studio albums, all of which have gone gold or better, including his covers and gospel albums.  It’s also worth mentioning that 12 of these have sold over 1 million copies (and several going into multi-platinum status), with 2005′s adult contemporary-leaning Like Red On A Rose stopping short of platinum, but still moving over half a million copies to earn its own certification.  Such is the star power of Alan Jackson, and the consistency of good to great material in his catalog throughout his career.

This particular album was released September 9, 2004, and is one of the strongest albums Alan recorded in the past decade. It’s one of the albums I reference when I am talking about how traditional country should have evolved. There’s your drinking songs (‘Strong Enough’), your love songs (‘If Love Was A River’), your religious song (‘Monday Morning Church’), honky tonk song (‘Burnin’ The Honky Tonks Down’) and your country ditty (‘The Talkin’ Song Repair Blues’).

Now while I think very highly of this album, I do know why it is the least talked about album. It hits every note it’s supposed to, it sounds great, with Alan delivering every song in his signature delivery. However that’s the problem, there was nothing new on this album; it’s a strong collection of songs that we’ve unfortunately all heard before. Most of these songs sound like you could insert them on the four previous albums he’d released and they’d fit right in. Consistency is great, look what it’s done for George Strait; he’s rarely experimented with his sound and he’s now one of the most successful country singers in history. Alan though has done more or less the same throughout his career but this is the first album where it’s so strongly felt.  Fifteen years into your career is about when taking risks should be done – which he did on his next three albums.

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Classic Rewind: Alan Jackson ft Patty Loveless – ‘Monday Morning Church’

Single Review: Blake Shelton – ‘All About Tonight’

So after just one single, the #1 duet with Trace Adkins, Blake Shelton’s label is abandoning support of his only-just-released ‘SixPak’ Hillbilly Bone in favor of the lead single from the second installment, due in August. The most interesting thing about this release is, sadly, not the song itself, although this is perfectly adequate and better than much of what makes playlists these days, but what it means for the marketing of Blake’s work. It really cannot be designed to sustain the sales of Hillbilly Bone, unless the label plans to return to the latter later on, switching between the two SixPaks.

Blake’s new single, a paean to partying with no thought for the consequences, is a cheerful mid-tempo number which I do at least like better than ‘Hillbilly Bone’, and I believe is written by Rhett Akins, Dallas Davidson and Ben Hayslip.

The protagonist is wilfully ignoring the prospects of a hangover, as he opens the song with the frank admission:

Don’t bother telling me what I got comin’ in the morning
I already know
I got some feel-good pills and a red Gatorade by my bed ready to go

Right now he only cares about the fun he intends to have right now, drinking and dancing until the bar shuts down, then moving on to wherever else in open.

It has a similar superficially good-humored feel masking some slightly unsavory attitudes. What could be more romantic than this drunken approach to a woman?

Hey pretty thing, I’ve been looking at you since the moment that you walked in
I’ve got some wild ass buddies that love spending money
And I see you brought a couple of friends
Just tell me your name, I don’t need your number or a date next Saturday

It is only thanks to Blake’s charm that this comes across as good-humored rather than offensive.

Blake’s voice sounds really good and the production is not overdone, so this is perfectly listenable, apart from a very slightly irritating a-ha interjected in the middle. If more substantial material was on offer alongside it, either on the radio, or on the second SixPak, it might even be a refreshingly fun change of pace. But Blake’s recent output has not offered enough variety, and this doesn’t change anything. It is disappointing when he proved earlier in his career that he was capable of better things.

Ultimately this is a song which unintentionally embodies its message – it is fun for the moment but will be forgotten tomorrow, metaphorically speaking.

Grade: B

Listen to the song.

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