Leona Williams was never a star, despite a five-year marriage to Merle Haggard, but I’ve always liked her honeyed voice, and she is still sounding good despite advancing years. After a few years associated with the estimable Heart Of Texas Records, Leona is now going it alone and has released this album on her own Loveshine Records. It was recorded mainly in her home state of Missouri with, I believe, local musicians, who do a fine job, led by producer and multi-instrumentalist Bruce Hoffman, with post-production and the addition of some of the star guests’ contributions in Nashville. It bears what is not the most imaginative title for a bluegrass-influenced album by a country artist, but the music inside is well worth it.
Leona, a talented songwriter perhaps best known for writing ‘You Take Me For Granted’ for Haggard, wrote almost all the material (much of it solo), and it is all pretty good, although not all of it is new. She wrote the mid-tempo lost-love plaint ‘Midnight Blue’ with Terry Gibbs, which opens the set to promising effect.
Three songs (all excellent) are co-writes with Leona’s late husband Dave Kirby. The pensive ‘My Heart Has Finally Said Goodbye’ is an excellent traditional country song, as the protagonist finds equilibrium after losing in love. The optimistic ‘The Good Times Are Ready To Come’, sung as a duet with bluegrass veteran Mac Wiseman, is also great, with a very Depression era feel, about a Kentucky couple looking forward to spending the proceeds of mining wages, with a new road and coal prices up:
We’ll buy some new shoes for the babies
We’ll catch us some new fish to fry
It’s been a long time since us ladies have had enough money to cry
It’ll be hallelujah in Wallins, Kentucky
After the work is all done
It won’t be long till we’re rollin’ in groceries
And the good times are ready to come
The pretty-sounding ‘When I Dream’ was written by the couple with daughter Cathy Lee Coyne (who provides close sweet harmonies throughout). It is another fine song about a woman clinging to a long-past relationship, if only in her dreams.
The affecting ‘Come To See Me Sometimes’ is addressed to a loved one who has died – perhaps Kirby, who died a year or two ago. With its intensely emotional, almost-breaking vocal, this is the highlight of the record. Another favourite of mine is ‘Mama, I’ve Got To Go To Memphis’, which Haggard recorded in 1978 with altered lyrics to suit the gender switch. This version, surely the original intention, is a lovely old-fashioned story of a young woman desperate to track down her ex and “drown some memories”, and leaving her baby, “little Brady” behind with her own mother. It works beautifully as a bluegrass number, and is beautifully constructed and sung, with the narrator’s desperation palpable.
One of Leona’s older songs, the melodic ‘Taste Of Life’, which she previously recorded back in the 80s, feels like the theme tune for the project, said to be inspired by Leona’s childhood memories and her earliest musical roots. Here, she fondly recalls childhood memories of growing up poor but loved, including a reference to listening to Bill Monroe’s music on the radio. It closes with a segue into ‘In The Sweet Bye And Bye’. Cheryl and Sharon White add beautiful harmonies.
Vince Gill duets delightfully with Leona on the up-tempo ‘The Legend’, a cheerful tribute to Monroe (“the greatest name of all” in bluegrass). Monroe’s classic ‘Molly And Tenbrooks’ (actually an adaptation of a 19th century folk song about the fatal showdown between two racehorses, based on a real race) gets a lively workout with cameos from 70s country star Barbara Fairchild, Pam Tillis, and Rhonda Vincent, and the less-well known Melody Hart, a Branson-based singer and fiddle player.
The surprisingly catchy ‘Do Wah Ditty’ has a silly title but is rather engaging, with a midtempo sing along tune featuring Rodney and Beverly Dillard with a husband and wife casting aspersions at one another entertainingly in the verses – she spends too much money on credit, with bright fiddle and Beverly’s claw hammer banjo contributing to the good humor of it all.
‘The Lights Of Aberdeen’ is a song of thanks to Leona’s fans in Scotland, and appreciation for the countryside there, which is clearly heartfelt but is the least effective track overall. The record closes with the traditional ‘Take This Hammer’, an insistent gospel number.
This is a lovely record. It seems to be available only from Leona’s official website, but is worth finding.