Ken Mellons was a Sony artist in the mid 90s, whose biggest hit was ‘Jukebox Junkie’, and he has also spent time signed to Curb. I always liked his incisive and emotional voice and pure country-style, and thought his albums had a lot of great cuts which never got the exposure they deserved. Like the better known Joe Diffie he is now trying to make a career in bluegrass. His late father was apparently a big bluegrass fan and always wanted his son to make a bluegrass record. The musicians are some of the best bluegrass pickers out there, including Adam Steffey on mandolin, Rob Ickes on dobro and Darrin Vincent on bass, and they do an excellent job, with producer Joe Caverlee on fiddle. Ken still sounds as good as he did in the 90s, and he has picked some fine outside material to record here alongside his own songs.
I first heard the Luke Bryan co-written title track as recorded earlier this year by indie artist Jamie Richards, with whom Ken has written and from whom I suspect he may have picked up the song. I didn’t much like it then, but this version has a cheery charm and works really well with the bluegrass instrumentation and backing vocals from Darrin Vincent and Larry Cordle (who is, incidentally quoted in the liner notes). The up-tempo ‘Take It Like A Man’, written by producer and fiddle player Joe Caverlee with Wendell Mobley and Kenny Beard, about a sexy girlfriend, is not that interesting lyrically but has some delightful instrumental fills and a great vocal.
Much better is an understated cover of ‘Still They Call Me Love’. It’s not quite as intense as the version on Gene Watson’s most recent release, Taste Of The Truth, but still very good, with thoughtful phrasing and Vince Gill and Sonya Isaacs on harmony. The vibrant ‘Tennessee’, a classic bluegrass number from the pen of Jimmy Martin and Doyle Neukirk, pays tribute to Ken’s home state, with Darrin and Rhonda Vincent and Daryle Singletary on call-and-response backing vocals.
Also pure bluegrass is the didactic but lovely ballad ‘Don’t Neglect The Rose’, written by Emma Smith and previously recorded by Larry Sparks, with bluegrass stars Dale Ann Bradley and Steve Gulley on backing vocals. Bradley and Gulley also sing backup on ‘Blue Wind’, written by the SteelDrivers’ Chris Stapleton and Mike Henderson. This is a fine country ballad which sounds lonesome but is actually a committed love song about holding on to your loved one through the winter:
There’s a blue wind that comes out of nowhere
It cuts to the heart and the bone
But it can’t cut the vine between your heart and mine
It’s the strongest that I’ve ever known
I don’t care how hard the rain falls
I don’t care if the weather turns cold
Honey, I’ll keep you warm through the eye of the storm
No matter how blue the wind blows
Ken, an accomplished songwriter who wrote much of his major label material, co-wrote six of the twelve tracks this time. He gives a sparkling bluegrass makeover to ‘Memory Remover’, one of his old songs, written with Jimmy Melton and Dale Dodson in 1991 and recorded originally on his second album, Where Forever Begins, in 1995, as a straight honky tonker.
One of the highlights is the mournfully anthropomorphic ‘I’m Just A House’, written by Ken with Billy Lawson. This offers the testimony of the building to a shattered relationship, with an intensely emotional vocal:
You can tell no one’s lived here by looking at me now
Looks like love’s never been here
I’m just a house
It’s enough to make you believe buildings really do have feelings.
My favorite track is the more conventional lost love ballad ‘A Cold One Can’t Cure’, written with John Northup and Billy Lawson, with more tasteful backing vocals from Dale Ann Bradley and Steve Gulley. This would have fitted in nicely on Ken’s country records, as he admits the drink isn’t helping:
I’ve lost all my strength in the bottle
Now it’s in the healing hands of the Lord
I’m down here on my knees
Please deliver me
Cause this is one a cold one can’t cure
I’m three out of six and I’m still hurtin’
I knew after two it wasn’t working
Just let the teardrops pour
I ain’t wasting any more
Cause this is one a cold one can’t cure
Ken also cowrote the entertaining uptempo ‘Tennessee Ridge Runner’ with Larry Alderman and Chris Myers. The woman of the title runs away with “my money and my mind”, not to mention his heart. He wrote the tender love song ‘Still Brand New’ with wife Kristy Jo and Steve Gulley. This tender tribute to a 30 year marriage is clearly rooted in reality, and features Sonya Isaacs on harmony. The last of Ken’s songs closes the album on an equally positive note with the bright gospel of ‘King Of All Kings’, with Vince Gill, Sonya Isaacs and Daryle Singletary filling out the quartet.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable record which should appeal to traditional country fans as well as bluegrass ones. It’s one of my personal favorite releases this year.
The digital version seems to be the easiest to find; if you prefer a hard copy, then it can be ordered directly from Ken’s website.