My Kind of Country

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

Monthly Archives: August 2011

Classic Rewind: Jim Ed Brown – ‘Ain’t You Even Gonna Cry’

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Album Review: Pistol Annies – ‘Hell On Heels’

Much has been made lately about the lack of solo female artists charting top 30 singles. An alarm was sounded bringing attention to just how few genuine female superstars are working in the genre today. But instead of focusing on the lack of female artists charting big singles, we should be talking about and putting the spotlight on those female artists (solo or not) who are making music that matters whether they receive airplay or are left in the dust.

One of those artists commanding attention is Miranda Lambert’s new trio Pistol Annies. Their debut album Hell on Heels is without a doubt one of the best country albums of 2011 because the attention to detail in the lyrical content rivals anything being released on a major label in Nashville today. Throughout the ten-song project, intricate phrases abound elevating simple stories into pieces of art. Hell On Heels is a listening experience like none other you’ll have all year.

They debuted with the title track earlier this year, an introduction as good as any. I have a little trouble with its three artist structure, but the verse sung solo by Ashley Monroe always bring forth a smile. She’s just delightful and one of the best-kept secrets in Nashville today. But the rest of the album is as good but much better than that song.

Not since Mary Chapin Carpenter released “House of Cards” as the third single from Stones in the Road in 1995, has anyone spoken so honestly and introspectively about life behind closed doors. They’ve stood up and given voice to the women who can’t take it anymore from the men who haven’t got a clue.  No song exemplifies this better than “Housewives Prayer,” which employs a simple yet dark lyric to convey the pain of quiet desperation. One of the best songs of the year, it’s a cautionary tale from a woman fed up with the status of her life – she’s been thinking about going off the deep end because she’s “burning up with all the words she ain’t been saying,” and at her boiling point, she washes pills down with beer and contemplates setting her house on fire.  Inspired by “Holler Annie” Angaleena Presley’s divorce, “Prayer” proves the point that you don’t need much to pack a wallop. Presley’s lead vocal acts as a portal for the audience to feel her pain and the moody musical accompaniment, complete with haunting steel guitar front and center, adds another dimension to her sadness.

“Lemon Drop,” another down on your life song, uses a clever metaphor to sell its central message – you have to endure the bad to get to the good. Using examples of curtains purchased on credit and owning a TV that will take ten years to pay off, it serves as a reminder to anyone going through tough times to remember “they’ll be better days ahead.” The light mix of acoustic guitars and gentle procession coupled with the blending of their voices, gives the song a rather sweet quality, which contrasts with the placement of a lemon in the title, but suggests the optimism the protagonist is holding onto. You come away feeling her situation isn’t a reflection on her because no matter how dire the circumstances may be, she isn’t letting them define her.  When listening to the song, I had to actually stop and think what “life is like a lemon drop” meant. When was the last time that happened? It’s so rewarding not to be able to take lyrics at face value, where you already know what the song’s about because the lyrics are so predictable. This is one of those times I actually like having to work at fully understanding my country music.

“Beige,” another track that made me think, is by and large my favorite song on the whole album. The movie-like nature of the story won me over first, but it was the presentation of that story that blew me away. The song finds a woman on her wedding day, with child, “marrying some boy” in a wrinkled shirt. She’s praying no one will notice her weight gain since a “bride shouldn’t be 
4 months and 3 weeks.” She’s wearing beige because “everyone in this place knows I didn’t wait.” The situation is unfortunate and the song contains some of my favorite lines on the whole album, from her being daddy’s pride and joy to no one “having a ball at the reception hall.”

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Classic Rewind: Webb Pierce – ‘Slowly’

Country Heritage Redux: Webb Pierce

An updated and expanded version of an article originally published by The 9513:

It has been twenty years since Webb Pierce passed away in February 1991, about six months short of his 70th birthday, and yet he still has his diehard legions of fans. For the second half of the twentieth century, Webb Pierce was the most successful recording artist in county music with his records topping the Billboard charts for a total of 113 weeks, with Buck Owens second with 82 weeks at #1. George Strait finally passed Buck Owens in 2007 with 83 weeks at #1, a total still growing, albeit slowly.

Like Eddy Arnold, during the late 1940s, Webb Piece dominated the 1950s, particularly from 1952 to 1957, the period in which all his Billboard #1s occurred. This dominance occurred despite Pierce not having any chart records until after he turned thirty years old.

Unlike the smooth Eddy Arnold, whose vocals (and personality) had appeal across many segments of society, Webb Pierce was a country music performer with one core style. You either liked Pierce or you hated him, but you could not ignore him. He sang in a high nasal tenor that will never come back into vogue in mainstream country music (although the style remains viable in bluegrass), but he selected great songs and could sell even the most maudlin lyric. He was one of the first stars to wear “Nudie Suits,” the colorful rhinestone-studded western wear that became de rigueur for country stars for the next 35 years. His song “Slowly” was the first country hit to feature the pedal steel guitar as played by Bud Isaacs. Then there was the famous guitar-shaped swimming pool.

Like many performers of his era, years were subtracted from his real age to make him seem younger to the fan base. Most articles written about Pierce during his heyday gave his date of birth as July 8, 1926, an error which was not corrected until the 1980s. He never penned an autobiography, and I’ve never seen a full biography of him, so biographical information remains sketchy. It is known that he had his own radio show on KMLB in 1938 and served in the Army for three years during WWII before moving to Shreveport, Louisiana in 1944, where he supported himself for some years as a shoe salesman at the local Sears store.

Pierce’s first recordings were on the Four Star label in 1949. By 1950 he was appearing at the Louisiana Hayride – a serious competitor to the Opry during the late ’40s and ’50s–where he quickly became a featured performer. Pierce and Hayride founder Horace Logan formed Pacemaker Records as a vehicle to issue his records. None of these records became national hits, but they sold well enough that Decca inked Pierce to a contract in 1951.

The third Decca single, “Wondering,” established Pierce as a major star. It reached No. 1 for four weeks and stayed on the charts for 27 weeks. The song also provided Pierce with the nickname “The Wondering Boy,” which stayed with him throughout his career. The next two singles, “That Heart Belongs to Me” and “Backstreet Affair,” also reached No. 1 for multiple weeks. This was followed by four more top ten records and the eight week No. 1 “It’s Been So Long” (the flip side “I’m Walking the Dog” reached No. 9).

For many artists, a record that reached No. 1 for eight weeks would be a career record, but Pierce was just getting started. Released on October 24, 1952, “There Stands the Glass” was one of six double-sided hits (with the “B” side reaching top ten status) to reach No. 1 for ten or more weeks. A recent CMT poll of Greatest Drinking Songs had “There Stands the Glass” at No. 11, but they are wrong – it is the ultimate drinking song, the ultimate expression of the angst that accompanies those who are trying to forget:

There stands the glass that will ease all my pain
That will settle my brain, it’s my first one today
There stands the glass that will hide all my fears
That will drown all my tears, brother I’m on my way

“There Stands the Glass” was followed by “Slowly” (No. 1 for 17 weeks), “Even Thou” (No. 1 for only 2 weeks), “More and More” (No. 1 for 10 weeks), “In the Jailhouse Now” (21 weeks at the top), “I Don’t Care” (12 weeks at No. 1) and “Love, Love, Love” (13 weeks at the top).

Pierce moved to the Grand Old Opry in 1955, but soon departed because of the requirement that members had to perform twenty-six Saturdays annually to maintain membership. For Pierce, who was commanding thousands of dollars for his personal appearances, this meant losing considerable income. Since he became a star without the Opry’s help, Pierce correctly figured that the monetary loss would not be offset by the prestige of continued Opry membership. Unfortunately, he burned many bridges when he left the Opry.

The onslaught of Rock and Roll in 1955-1956 destroyed many country music careers and put a damper on many other careers. According to Billboard, Pierce’s last No. 1 record was “Honky Tonk Song” in mid-1957, but Pierce adapted and survived. He added drums to his records and picked more up-tempo material, including songs from younger writers such as Wayne Walker and Mel Tillis. He continued to chart top ten records for another decade (other charts had three of his records reach No. 1 during the period of 1959 to 1967). His record of “Bye Bye Love,” recorded at the same time as the Everly Brothers version, was a top ten hit, and the Mel Tillis penned “I Ain’t Never” stayed at No. 2 on Billboard for nine weeks (it dis reach #1 on Cashbox). It was kept out of Billboard’s top spot by Stonewall Jackson’s “Waterloo” and The Browns “The Three Bells.”

Webb’s last top ten hit in 1967 with “Fool, Fool, Fool” which reached #1 on Record World, #3 on Cashbox and #7 on Billboard. Pierce continued to record for Decca from 1967 to 1972, then for Plantation for two years where he had a minor hit with “The Good Lord Giveth (and Uncle Sam Taketh Away),” a song which deserved a better fate than missing the top forty. After 1976, Pierce – having invested wisely in real estate and music publishing – retired from performing (he had been semi-retired for years already). He would record only twice more.

In 1982, Willie Nelson was able to drag Webb into the recording studio for a duet album, which puzzled some since Webb wasn’t one of Willie’s former label mates or Texas compadres, but the recordings make clear the strong influence Pierce had on Willie’s pinched vibrato and vocal phrasing. In 1985 Pierce got together with two old Louisiana buddies, Jerry Lee Lewis and Faron Young, and Florida songwriter Mel Tillis, to record an album called Four Legends. All of the songs on the collection were old Webb Pierce hits.

He died on February 24, 1991 of a heart attack, but would likely have died soon of cancer anyway. The old guard of the Nashville establishment shamefully denied him entry into the Country Music Hall of Fame until ten years after his death. He should have been inducted around 1977.

According to Billboard, Webb Pierce was the No. 1 country artist of the 1950s and the No. 7 artist of the 1960s. He charted 96 songs, 80 of which reached the Top 40, and 54 of which reached the Top Ten. His thirteen number one records stayed there for a cumulative total of 113 weeks–second all-time only to Eddy Arnold with 145 weeks (86 of Eddy’s weeks occurred during the 1940s). His 1955 recording of the old Jimmie Rodgers song “In the Jailhouse Now” is the third ranking county single of all time with 21 weeks at No. 1 and 34 weeks in the Top Ten.

Amusingly, Carl Smith, a Columbia recording artist (and 4th most popular country artist of the 1950s), recorded an album titled There Stands The Glass in 1964 in which he recorded twelve of Webb’s hits and never mentioned him on the album cover (which has several paragraphs of liner notes) or the record label (except on the songwriter credits of several songs)!

Discography
Much of Webb’s recorded output has been unavailable for years. Most of the albums on vinyl are typical Nashville product – one or two hit singles, some covers of other artists’ hits and some filler. If you like the songs listed on the album cover, you’ll probably like the album. Webb With A Beat from 1960 may be his strongest album and shows Webb transitioning his sound to a more modern approach, re-recording several of his older hits in the process. If you find the album Webb Pierce’s Greatest Hits, released on Decca in 1968, it is a really fine album (in fact, the first Webb Pierce album I ever purchased) but it is mostly re-recordings of his earlier hits as Decca had all of its major stars re-record their older hits to take advantage of modern stereo technology. If you find a copy of the Plantation album Webb Pierce and Carol Channing, please do Webb’s family a big favor – buy it and destroy it. You cannot imagine how bad Carol’s vocals are on this album!

There are now quite a few CDs available of Webb’s pre-1958 output (European copyrights expire in 50 years so in Europe those recordings can be released without paying royalties), but very few of the post 1958 recordings are available, although they are slowly beginning to appear:

1. 20th Century Masters – The Millennium Collection: The Best of Webb — a budget collection, digitally re-mastered. Only 12 songs but they are the biggies in their original versions. The Plantation recordings have been endlessly leased out to other labels – unless I know the source, I assume that the off-label recordings of Webb are leased from Plantation.
2. Webb Pierce – Greatest Hits: Finest Performances — these are re-makes recorded for Plantation during the middle 1970s. They are not bad, but they lack the sparkle of the original recordings and Pierce’s voice had dropped in the interim.
3. King of the Honky-Tonk: From the Original Master Tapes — released by the Country Music Foundation in 2000, this was the first effort to get the original Decca hits back in print. Eighteen hits, great sound and a useful booklet. Now out of print, but it can be located with a little effort.
4. A Proper Introduction to Webb Pierce: Groovie Boogie Woogie Boy — British reissue label, 28 tracks, mostly pre-Decca material, some with overdubs. Worth owning. Apparently out of print but still can be found.
5. The Wandering Boy (1951-1958) [BOX SET] — The Holy Grail for Webb Pierce fans — a deluxe Bear Family boxed set — four CDs, 114 tracks with great sound and an interesting, but somewhat disjointed booklet. Covers all of Webb’s recordings through 1958 with a few alternate takes of songs such as “Slowly” where you can see the Pierce style developing.
6. Hux Records out of the UK recently released Fallen Angel / Cross Country – a two-fer which collects a pair of early 1960s albums. This album might be considered post-peak as far as the hits were concerned but Webb was still at his vocal peak
7. Audio Fidelity had a two-fer of Sweet Memories / Sands of Gold from the mid-1960s available about fifteen years ago. Audio Fidelity remixed the two album to push Pierce’s vocals further front in the mix and suppressed the background vocals and strings, greatly improving both albums. This one is hard to find, but you might get lucky.

And don’t forget Caught in the Webb, a tribute album released in 2002, produced and organized by Gail Davies, featuring 21 of Webb’s hits performed by guests, including: Dale Watson, The Jordanaires, Mandy Barnett, Charley Pride, Rosie Flores, George Jones, Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris, Robbie Fulks, Joy Lynn White, Allison Moorer, Matt King, Crystal Gayle, Del McCoury Band, Lionel Cartwright, Guy Clark, Gail Davies, Willie Nelson, BR549, Billy Walker, Kevin Welch, Trent Summar, Pam Tillis, Deborah Pierce (Webb’s daughter) and the Carol Lee Singers. Proceeds of this album benefited the Minnie Pearl Cancer Research Center.

Classic Rewind – Trace Adkins – ‘Till The Last Shot’s Fired’

Relased in 2009 as a a charity single benefiting the Wounded Warrior Project, ‘Till The Last Shot’s Fired” peaked at #50 on the country singles chart based on unsolicited airplay. That same year Trace performed the song on the ACM Awards telecast and had the highlight of the evening:

Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘X’

By 2008 I had lost a lot of faith in Trace Adkins as an artist. But then he released the mistitled X (it is the Roman number 10, and was supposedly to mark this as his 10th release – but they only reached that number if you count greatest hits compilations).

The first single, the gospel-inflected ‘Muddy Water’ presents a troubled sinner seeking renewal in baptism. It’s a bit more heavily produced than necessary, but largely enjoyable although it peaked just outside the top 20. There is room for some sheer frivolity when a jaundiced Trace, just divorced, decides next time he might as well ‘Marry For Money’, in a humorous song written by Dave Turnbull and Jimmy Melton. This did a little better on the charts, reaching #14, the same peak as the rather more serious ‘All I Ask For Anymore’. ‘All I Ask For Anymore’ (written by Casey Beathard and Tim James) is a mature reflection on the changing desires that come with growing up, from shallow youthful selfishness to a grown man’s concerns for his wife and children. Trace delivers perhaps the finest pure vocal performance of his career supported by a swelling string arrangement. The similarly themed ‘Happy To Be Here’ (written by Jason Matthews, Jim McCormick and Mike Mobley) is a bit too heavily produced but not bad.

Two of the songs are outright modern classics. ‘Til The Last Shot’s Fired’ was not a single, but gained some attention when Trace sang it live at the ACM award show. A superb song by Rob Crosby and Doug Johnson, this explores the sacrifice of soldiers who have died, mostly in vain, starting with a Confederate soldier falling outside Nashville in the Civil War, and taking us through Omaha Beach on D-Day, Vietnam and Afghanistan:

Say a prayer for peace
For every fallen son
Set my spirit free
Let me lay down my gun
Sweet mother Mary, I’m so tired
But I can’t come home
Til the last shot’s fired

Trace’s vocal is perfectly understated and conveys the sense of defeat which imbues the song’s longing for an end to conflict. The West Point choir joins the chorus at the end, embodying the unresting souls of their predecessors, but they sound perhaps just a little too rehearsed and polite for the part they are playing.

If anything, the bleak look at alcoholism and denial penned by Larry Cordle and Amanda Martin, ‘Sometimes A Man Takes A Drink’, is even better as it remorselessly catalogs a man’s battle with alcohol, with the alcohol winning:

Sometimes a man takes a drink
So he can just throw his head back and laugh
At the things he can’t change
Like the bills he can’t pay
And all of those ghosts from the past
It’s the crutch he leans on
When things have gone wrong
Life didn’t turn out like he planned
Sometimes a man takes a drink
Oh but sometimes a drink takes the man

This is a masterpiece, with a superb vocal from Trace (who has had his own issues with drinking in the past).

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Classic Rewind: Bonnie Raitt & John Prine – ‘Angel From Montgomery’

Week ending 8/27/11: #1 singles this week in country music history

1951: Hey, Good Lookin’ — Hank Williams (MGM)

1961: Tender Years — George Jones (Mercury)

1971: I’m Just Me — Charley Pride (RCA)

1981: I Don’t Need You — Kenny Rogers (Liberty)

1991: You Know Me Better Than That — George Strait (MCA)

2001: Austin — Blake Shelton (Giant)

2011: Just A Kiss — Lady Antebellum (Capitol)

Classic Rewind – Hurricane Irene Edition: Marie Osmond – ‘Like A Hurricane’

To all our readers on the East Coast — stay safe:

Classic Rewind: Skeeter Davis – ‘I Can’t Help You, I’m Falling Too’

An answer song to yesterday’s Classic Rewind:

Album Review: Connie Smith – ‘Long Line of Heartaches’

When I interviewed Connie Smith in March 2009, we both lamented the current state of country music, particularly the fact that an entire generation of fans — and performers — are unaware of the genre’s rich heritage. “It’s not their fault,” she commented, “because no one taught them.” With Long Line of Heartaches, her first studio album in 13 years, she undertakes the task of finally showing the younger generation how it’s done. The 12-track collection is both a homage to tradition and a sampling of what country music might once again (hopefully) become.

Comparisons to Smith’s husband Marty Stuart’s recent Ghost Train are inevitable. Both albums were produced by Stuart and feature a generous sampling of the couple’s original compositions. In addition, both albums seek to recreate the traditional sound, while maintaining a contemporary feel, and both albums were recorded in RCA’s legendary Studio B, where most of Connie’s 1960s classics were created.

Long Line of Heartaches makes no concessions to the latest radio trends, perhaps in acknowledgement that it is unlikely to receive much mainstream airplay. As such, no singles have been released. Instead, Stuart and Smith concentrate on creating a collection that sounds right at home with Connie’s 60s hits; the steel guitar is up front and center, as it should be, throughout the album. And as with Ghost Train, they’ve managed to recreate that sound without sounding dated or retro.

The couple contributed five original songs to the album, including the title track, which opens the set. It’s a traditional country shuffle that sets the tone for the entire album, serving notice that this isn’t going to be the typical Nashvegas pop fare. “The Pain of a Broken Heart” was written by Stuart and Smith several years ago, on the same day they wrote “Farmer’s Blues” which Marty recorded with Merle Haggard. The uptempo waltz has a melody that is reminiscent of “The Long Black Veil”, albeit at a faster pace. Connie steps outside of her comfort zone just a bit for “Blue Heartaches”, which proves that she’s as comfortable tinging her country wtih blues as she is at singing straight honky-tonk. Of all the songs she and Marty have written, Connie says this is one of the ones of which she is most proud. My favorite of the Stuart-Smith compositions, however, is “I’m Not Blue”, which they co-wrote with the famed songwriter Kostas. It’s a little more contemporary than the other songs they wrote for the album, and I can’t help but think that somebody could have a big hit on their hands if they covered this song.

In addition to their own compositions, Stuart and Smith armed themselves with stellar material from an impressive line-up of outside songwriters. Harlan Howard and Kostas’ “I Don’t Believe That’s How You Feel” has been recorded many times; Tanya Tucker included it on her 1997 disc Complicated. It’s usually given a Tex-Mex feel complete with mariachi horns, which Connie and Marty omitted on this version. The legendary Dallas Frazier makes a contribution with “A Heart Like You”. Written after a 30-year hiatus from songwriting, it contains one of country music’s all-time great lines — “what’s a heart like you, doing in a fool like me?”, which one wonders why someone didn’t think of before. “My Part of Forever” is another beautiful ballad, which, surprisingly, was originally recorded by Johnny Paycheck. But my favorite song on the album by far is “That Makes Two of Us” which was written by Kostas along with Patty Loveless and Emory Gordy, Jr. This is a beautiful number, impeccably sung, and in a sane world it would be a monster hit. The album closes with a stripped-down, acoustic hymn “Take My Hand”, on which Connie is joined in harmony by her three daughters.

Dolly Parton once named Connie Smith as country music’s greatest female singer in her now famous quote, “There’s really only three female singers in the world: Streisand, Ronstadt and Connie Smith. The rest of us are only pretending.” That may have been an exaggeration, but only a slight one and as strong a case can be made for Smith’s greatness today as when Dolly first spoke those words many years ago. There isn’t a single dud among the twelve tracks on this album. It’s great to have new music from Connie Smith; hopefully she can be persuaded to record more frequently. I don’t want to have wait another 13 years for her next record.

Long Line of Heartaches
can be purchased from Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Sunny Sweeney – ‘Concrete’

Sunny Sweeney’s “From A Table Away” hitting country radio’s top 10 gave me a ray of hope for my chosen genre’s future. The initial stalling of the second single release from her Concrete album made me realize just how fickle commercial Nashville really is. Still, artists like Sweeney and the like-minded Miranda Lambert with her Pistol Annies in tow make me think it’s the woman’s time to roar and turn the charts on their heads. Country’s newest crop of leading men seem content to continue playing a game of redneck one-upmanship while the women leapfrog ahead of them artistically. I remember this same gender stagnation in the mid-90s, just before a slew of female country singers became across-the-board superstars and sold a combined 14 gazillion records. If history repeats itself, her latest set has Sunny Sweeney poised to be in the front-running pack of the next country female commercial onslaught.

The steel guitar-infused “From A Table Away” gave Sweeney her first top 10 hit with a lyric that finds the other woman opening her eyes to the realities of her situation when she spots her love interest in an intimate night out with is wife.  Several of the album’s songs were inspired by the singer’s divorce, and none more than the shuffling “Staying’s Worse Than Leaving”, and it is currently sitting inside the top 40 as the second single.  Where “From A Table Away” serves as a coming-to-terms for the other woman, “Amy” is an honest confrontation between the two women in a man’s life, and is by-and-far the best account of this situation by song I’ve heard.  While the hit single told the tale from a somewhat-shocked other woman’s point of view, “Amy” finds the other woman standing her ground. With all her self-assured Texas demureness, Sweeney sings of knowingly loving another woman’s man. Her realization of the situation is right on – “If you’d look right at him you might see, he loves you he never loved me“, and even though she’s letting go without a fight she coyly adds “if you don’t love him Amy, let him leave“. Despite Amy’s feelings about it all, Sunny’s believability as a woman scorned and the acoustic and steel guitar fill of the track make me root for the cheaters to prosper.  Country radio needs all three of these songs to make a big impact on their charts.

“Mean As You” kicks hard with its continuous drum track, but above that you hear a kick-ass lyric about another steel magnolia who just wants you to know all the things she might do if she were as low-down as the man who done her wrong.  As much steel as drums and more of that Texas twang, combined with the biting cleverness of the lyrics, make it another winner.  Another contender for mainstream appeal is the the more contemporary “It Wrecks Me”, though it’s a weaker plot and it’s just more final-single material than filler.

The prevailing theme here is one of roadhouse partying and a good time, though not all the results are as satisfying.  The punchy “Drink Myself Single” wouldn’t sound at all out-of-place on Gretchen Wilson’s second or third album release, while “Worn Out Heart” with its rhythm-driven framing and cheeky lyric falls flat of its reach.  Likewise, the very contemporary-leaning “Fall For Me” finds the singer asserting a kind of arrogant confidence that is uncharacteristic of the rest of the album.

In a perfect world, every female album to come out of Nashville would feature this slathering of traditional instrumentation amid recurring themes of cheating, drinking, broken hearts, all delivered by Sweeney’s charming earthy twang.

Grade: A

Buy it at amazon.

Classic Rewind: Hank Locklin – ‘Please Help Me, I’m Falling’

Classic Rewind: Trace Adkins – ‘Songs About Me’

Album Review: Ashton Shepherd – ‘Where Country Grows’

Ashton Shepherd was the youngest of the artists we spotlighted last year as the “new New Traditionalists”. At last, three years after she emerged on the scene, she has released her second album, which marks a serious bid for mainstream success by a talented young singer-songwriter. It is produced, like her first record, by Buddy Cannon, who does a fine job balancing contemporary and traditional elements of Ashton’s sound and emphasizing her unique voice.

The insistent lead single ‘Look It Up’ (written by Angaleena Presley and Robert Ellis Orrall), which I reviewed at the end of last year, has Ashton coming on scornfully like a modern Loretta Lynn. This works tremendously well, and it is a shame it was not a monster hit for Ashton rather than peaking just inside the top 20 – although that made it her biggest hit to date.

It is one of only two tracks not written by Ashton. She is developing well as a songwriter, and I am pleased to see her working with other writers to hone her own gifts, building on the untutored natural talent she showed on her debut three years ago.  Former artist and recent Sugarland collaborator Bobby Pinson helps writing a couple of country-living themed numbers. The title track and current single is a bit predictable as Ashton pays tribute to her rural roots, but the up-tempo ‘More Cows Than People’ on the same theme is quite entertaining, with colorful details rooting the song in a specific reality. This one isn’t a generic southern small town. I also like the relaxed but catchy ‘Beer On A Boat’. Written by Marv Green, Ben Hayslip and Rhett Akins, some of the lyrics might sound leering sung by a man, but Ashton makes it wholesome and charming. These four originally appeared on an EP earlier this year, which Razor X reviewed in anticipation of the album.

The best of the new songs is the sultry ‘That All Leads To One Thing’, one of Ashton’s solo compositions. It has a southern gothic Bobbie Gentry feel. A tormented married woman addresses the husband who is obviously cheating. With a vibe too dark for today’s country radio, it is one of the highlights on the record.  The upbeat ‘Tryin’ To Go To Church’ (written with Shane MacAnally and Brandy Clark) is lively and entertaining tune about struggling to live right in the face of various temptations (like the “husband-stealing heifer” she has to “set right”), and is reminiscent of ’70s Linda Ronstadt.

‘I’m Just A Woman’ is a ballad about being a woman, and specifically a wife and mother; the lyrics are not particularly deep or insightful, but the extraordinarily intense vocal makes it sound better than it is. The ballad ‘While It Ain’t Raining’ is equally intense to the point of verging on the over-dramatic, and although the song itself is well written (by Ashton with Troy Jones) a slightly more understated approach might have been more effective. Both tracks have backing vocals from Melonie Cannon (Buddy’s daughter and an exceptional talent in her own right).

‘I’m Good’ is a fine song which Ashton wrote with Dale Dodson and Dean Dillon. Like ‘Look It Up’, it is presented from the point of view of a woman refusing to forgive the man who has hurt her, but with a mellower feel musically as she concentrates on affirming her own strength and moving on. Her enunciation is oddly over emphasized – a feature of her vocals some criticized on her first album, which seems to have been intensified on this track in particular. ‘Rory’s Radio’ fondly recalls teenage memories of listening to the radio while driving with her older brothers, and has some slightly awkward phrasing.

I thought Ashton’s debut was enormously promising, the voice of a fresh new talent while still unmistakably country. This is more commercial, and will hopefully gain her some radio play, but although this is an encouraging step forwards, I feel she is still a work in progress, with her best yet to come.

Grade: B+

Buy it at amazon.

Classic Rewind: The Hager Twins – ‘Silver Wings’

Country Heritage Redux: Jim and Jon Hager

An expanded and updated version of an article originally published by The 9513

Our culture today seems to create personalities famous mostly for being famous, persons with little discernible talent who nevertheless capture the public eye for a while. Paris Hilton and the Kardashians come to mind, but there are others. At first glance the Hager Twins might seem to fall into this category, particularly since they didn’t have the big hit records or have a television show of their own, but a second look reveals an act composed of two of the greatest showman ever to grace a country music stage.

Jon Hager (August 30, 1941 -January 9, 2009) and his twin brother, Jim (August 30, 1941–May 8, 2008), had a long, successful career entertaining audiences for a period of nearly forty years.

Born in Chicago, the brothers were adopted by Jack and Frances Hager. Jack Hager was a Methodist minister; Frances was a schoolteacher. Raised in the Chicago area, Jim and Jon attended Maine Township High School in Park Ridge (Class of 1959), graduating one year ahead of Harrison Ford. Hillary Rodham Clinton also graduated from Maine Township High School, albeit a half-dozen years later.

As might be expected, Jim and Jon first sang in their father’s church choir. Later, as teenagers, they sang on a Saturday morning television show on WGN-TV. Both brothers served in the United States Army and while in the military performed at Officers’ Clubs and NCO Clubs in the United States and Europe.

After leaving the military, the Hager brothers moved to California and performed at Ledbetter’s Night Club in Los Angeles. They also worked at Disneyland, where their unique act caught the attention of Alvis Edgar “Buck” Owens, the biggest name in country music at the time. Owens signed them to contracts with his organization, and the Hagers served as an opening act for Buck for several years and occasionally opened for other Capitol acts such as Tex Ritter (father of the late John Ritter), Billie Jo Spears, Lefty Frizzell and Wynn Stewart.

In 1969, the Hager Twins became regular cast members on Buck Owens’ biggest ever vehicle Hee Haw. The Hagers appeared on the first episode and stayed with the show for 19 years. They also signed with Buck’s label, Capitol Records, landing a few hits starting with “Gotta Get To Oklahoma (‘Cause California’s Gettin’ To Me)” which reached #41 and according to Billboard, became their biggest single. According to Cashbox, their third single “Goin’ Home To Your Mother” was their biggest hit, reaching #41 on Cashbox. I suspect that “Goin’ Home To Your Mother” is their best remembered song as that is the one I’ve heard most played in the years since it was released.

Interestingly enough, the Hagers had the only charted version of Merle Haggard’s song “Silver Wings” (Haggard’s recording was on the B-side of “Working Man Blues”).  While the big hit records never materialized for Jim and Jon Hager, various other opportunities presented themselves; the duo found work in Hollywood and on television, including appearances on an episode of The Bionic Woman, the television-movie Twin Detectives, and spots in many TV commercials. In 1987 they co-hosted Country Kitchen with Florence Henderson on The Nashville Network.

I had the pleasure of seeing the Hager Twins perform live twice since 2000. Prior to that, I saw them with Buck Owens on two of his appearances in London in 1969 and 1970. Whether appearing as a supporting act or as headliners, Jim and Jon Hager were two of the most effective entertainers ever to grace a stage. Equally adept at music or comedy, anyone who ever saw them will concur that they could have received numerous CMA “Entertainer of the Year Awards.” They were that good.

Jim Hager died in May 2008 as a result of a heart attack. This proved to be a crushing loss from which his brother Jon never recovered. Jon’s health went into a spiral, until he was found dead in his Nashville apartment eight months later. Jon is survived by a daughter.

Discography

There is nothing available by the Hager Twins on CD except for two songs (“I’m Jesse James” and “Six Days On The Road” on the Sundazed release Buck Owens Live In Scandinavia. At their live shows the Hagers sold a CD issued on the Southern Star Records label that contained none of their hits. This may have been a self-issued disc as it came in a clamshell cover with no printed insert.

On vinyl, there apparently are six Hagers albums; however, I’ve only seen (and purchased) three album:

The Hagers, Capitol ST-438 (1969)
Two Hagers Are Better Than One, Capitol ST-553 (1970)
The Hagers, Elektra 7E-1021 (1974)

Musicstack currently lists a bunch of 45s plus a few albums, including one issued on the Barnaby label titled Music From The Country Side (1972) that I’ve never seen.

Probably the best way to obtain music from the Hager Twins is by purchasing the various Time-Life DVDs of Hee Haw. While the Hagers are not the stars of the shows, they do appear with some frequency. These are available from various sources.

Classic Rewind: Reba McEntire – ‘Lonely Alone’

“Lonely Alone” is a track from Reba’s If You See Him album. During her 1998 tour of the continent with Kenny Rogers, it was released as a single in Australia and also in the U.K. During her tour of Australia with Kenny Rogers, the song charted somewhere in the low 60s on the ARIA charts.  Here’s Reba singing the song on the CMA 40th Anniversary show.

Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Songs About Me’

By 2005, the quality of Trace Adkins’s music had dwindled to new lows. He had finally reached instant-add status with country radio, but like Blake Shelton today, had compromised his music, especially his radio singles, to reach the top. That trend continued with Songs About Me. It may have earned double platinum certification, but it’s easily the most controversial album of his career.

At the time the second single, “Arlington” was climbing the charts (it peaked at #16), Adkins’s record label decided to pull the plug on the military ballad and rush-release “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” to country radio. There was much talk that “Arlington,” a first person story of a soldier buried in the national cemetery, offended military families due to the first person account. But on the flip side, the country music world considered the song a surefire #1 hit. While I understand where the controversy stems from, I personally don’t think it was warranted. It’s easily one of Adkins’s best performances and deserved its due.

Of course, when “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” came into the picture, all was forgotten about the debacle with “Arlington.” It stirred up an even bigger ruckus and caused even greater debate about sexism and the boundaries of country music. It didn’t help that the almost R-rated music video made Shania baring her midriff, Reba wearing her red dress, or Lorrie Morgan strutting around her bedroom in “Something In Red” all seem like a non-issue. That he scored a monster hit with this song (it peaked at #2) only proves that country music (and its fan base) has veered away from its ideals.

There is nothing about this song I care for whether it be the subject matter or the disastrous production values. That a dance version was created only sank this one lower in my book. In his defense of the song, Adkins said he would’ve recorded it for his debut Dreamin’ Out Loud had it been available at the time. I would’ve liked to see him get away with that in 1996.

But the most alarming thing of all was who wrote “Badonkadonk” – Jamey Johnson, Randy Houser, and Dallas Davidson. I can see where the Davidson influence comes in, he did co-write “Country Girl (Shake It For Me)” with Luke Bryan, but the Johnson and Houser connection always throws me. Why would two of the best traditional voices recording country music today write something so offensive to the traditions of country music? It just doesn’t seem characteristic of them to me. To be fair, I understand “Badonkadonk” is all in good fun, but I take the ideals of country music very seriously, and in no way does this song fit with someone who’s a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Even Dixie Chick Natalie Maines saw the writing on the wall at the time – she openly wondered where the Chicks music would fit on country radio between “Badonkadonk” and Joe Nichols “Tequlia Makes Her Clothes Fall Off.”

Apart from the disastrous third single, which actually doesn’t fit in context with the rest of the album, Songs About Me gets more right than wrong. While there are a couple of filler power ballads, most of the tunes are understated and showcase the path I want Adkins to travel down with his music.

The title track, a song about singing about who you are, is the only “power” song he actually got right. The rock like production of heavy guitars and drums suits the passion he exudes in his vocal performance. The aforementioned “Arlighton” is a masterpiece and a lesson in using your voice to execute a powerful vocal track.

I also enjoyed “My Heaven” a song in which Adkins lists out what his idea of heaven is – a wood framed house with a porch swing with the kids playing in the yard eating watermelon and spending time with his wife. While the title might suggest more religious undertones, it’s actually a sweet tale made even stronger by the soft mandolin and understated production. I love that he sounds like he’s trying here to create a special moment and not just mailing it in for the sake of filling out an album. While not as memorable as other tunes on the subject, it’s a sweet tale that actually works. I enjoy the marriage here of his voice and the production – instead of reacting like oil and water, they work to compliment themselves nicely. He should record in this vein more often, or at least release these kinds of moments as singles.

“Metropolis,” another highlight (also recorded by its songwriter Anthony Smith in 2003 and Sammy Kershaw in 2008), finds Adkins playing the role of a man trying to make a living and juggle his career and his family. On songs like this, the way he manipulates his voice makes you believe the story he’s trying to convey. A prequal of sorts to “My Heaven,” “Metropolis” should’ve been a single and reminds me a lot of his future monster smash “You’re Gonna Miss This” but without the flash. I love the gorgeous guitar-laced production that helps opposed to hinder his vocal.

In contrast, “I Learned How To Love From You,” hits some but not all of the right notes. A good showcase of his voice, the strings and paino create a mix that overbears the lyrical content and Adkins’s emotional delivery of the song. I might’ve enjoyed it more had it been more starkly produced and a bit toned down. But it is going in the right direction of where Adkins should be as an artist.

As for the duds, “Baby I’m Home” is exactly the kind of immature song you’d expect from Adkins, especially in this period of his career. As he proves on “Arlington” and “My Heaven,” he’s above such trite lyrics as “She’s got 100 candles burning/she’s got next to nothing on,” or at least I want him to be. It’s songs like “Baby I’m Home” (and “Badonkadonk” of course) that keep my appreciation for Adkins quite low. Why is it that all men of a certain age can sing about is hot women?

“Find Me A Preacher,” recorded as “Somebody Find Me A Preacher” by Chad Hudson in 2008, is overwrought and the in your face mix of loud guitars and drums distract from Adkins’s performace. It isn’t too bad, considering how little feeling he puts into the song. As far as album cuts go, this is second-rate filler. I liked how Hudson makes his tale believable, Adkins just seems like he’s trying to fill out an album.

In the end, Songs About Me is a pretty consistent project split down the middle between questionable choices, and moments of growth. Given that this project gave the world “Badonkadonk,” I wasn’t expecting a whole lot of artristy, but was proven wrong by most of what Adkins has to offer this time around. Songs About Me still didn’t convert me into a diehard fan, but a few of the better moments came awfully close.

Grade: B 

Classic Rewind: Trace Adkins – ‘Muddy Water’