My Kind of Country

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

Monthly Archives: March 2017

Classic Rewind: Steve Wariner – ‘It’s A Crazy World’

Single Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Watered Down’

The term “watered down” is usually used in a pejorative sense in the country music world. It’s generally used to refer to music that has been stripped of its country elements in favor of a more MOR sound that will appeal to a wider audience, but as the title of Trace Adkins’ new single, it seems to suggest a creative renaissance of sorts.

It’s been six years since Trace last had a single in the Top 10 and nine years since his last number one. During that time period country music saw the rise and (hopefully) fall of Bro-country and a lot of other changes that many of us were not happy about. Trace himself bears some responsibility for the genre’s wrong turn, given some of his own questionable musical choices in recent years. It’s nice to see that he is apparently trying to make amends for that with his latest effort. Written by Matt Jenkins, Trevor Rose and Shane McAnally, “Watered Down” is a ballad that finds Trace acknowledging middle age, without wistfulness, regrets or nostalgia. The production is contemporary — heavily dependent on keyboards and a subtle string section — but it is never heavy-handed. He’s well aware that he is no longer a young man, but he’s not quite ready to retire to a life of golf at The Villages just yet:

We still fly like gypsies
Just a little closer to the ground
And we still love our whiskey
But now it’s just a little watered down

Unless I’m reading too much into this, the song seems to be a metaphor for Trace’s career. It’s very possible that he’ll never again have a big radio hit, but he seems content to settle into a new role as one of country music’s elder statesmen. He’s not going to try to maintain the hectic pace of his younger years, but he’s still going to stick around and make music on his own terms. And if “Watered Down” is an indication of the path he’s planning to take from now on, I very much look forward to following him on his journey.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Jessi Colter – ‘Ain’t Making No Headlines’

Album Review: Jessi Colter – ‘The Psalms’

Jessi Colter’s return to the recording studio turns out not to be a new set of her own songs, but a concept album, setting a selection of her favorite psalms to music composed by Jessi herself and her producer Lenny Kaye. A clear labor of love, I am not sure how wide its potential market is, but that is obviously not the point. The arrangements do not fit comfortably into any particular genre. The vocal tracks were cut in 2007-2008, accompanied by Jessi’s piano and Kaye’s guitars, and have now been augmented with various additional instruments. Jessi actually started composing the music spontaneously in the mid 1990s.

‘Psalm 150 Praise Ye The Lord’ opens the album with hushed, awed vocals and a sweeping, sometimes quite loud arrangement which gives a strong impression of being awed by the power of God, although it does not sound particularly joyful.

‘Psalm 75 Unto Thee’ has a gentle contemplative feel and Hammond organ backing. The soothing ‘Psalm 114 And The Mountains Skip Like Rams’ has a lengthy instrumental introduction, extending the track to over eight minutes, but then nothing about this album is conventional.

‘Psalm 99 He Is Holy’ is pensive and understated. ‘Psalm 24 Who Is The King Of Glory’ is similarly thoughtful. ‘Psalm 136 Mercy And Loving Kindness’ is more forceful and feels a little uneven.

Those of you who know your Bible will know that there are only 150 psalms in most translations. ‘Psalm 151 King David’s Last Psalm’ is based on an apocryphal psalm about David’s defeat of Goliath which is accepted as canon by the eastern Orthodox churches. It is an interesting inclusion, although the title Jessi gives it is rather odd.

‘Psalm 21 Be Thou Exalted’ has ethereally wailing backing vocals which counterpoint and almost overwhelm Jessi’s lead vocal in an Eastern way. It’s a long way from country music, but it is effective In its own way. ‘Psalm 45 My Song To A King’ also has a slight Eastern feel with a minor keyed tune, but is more accessible to western ears.

‘Psalm 73 Like A Beast’ offers a glimpse into the recording sessions, with a number of false starts and spoken sections.

‘Psalm 23 The Lord Is My Shepherd’ is of course the best known of the psalms, and to be honest I prefer some of the existing musical settings to Jessi’s, both musically and lyrically, although it is pleasant enough.

‘Psalm 72 Arise O King Of Old’, the final selection, is perhaps my favorite musically, with a very pretty melody.

This album is very hard to classify, so I shall not attempt to give it a grade. It will not be everyone’s cup of tea, and is really more of a religious aid than a listening experience, but it has much to offer those who want to hear a largely contemplative spiritual exercise, and perhaps to share in it.

Classic Rewind: Jeannie Seely – ‘I’m Still Not Over You’

Album Review: Jessi Colter – ‘Live From Cain’s Ballroom’

Jessi Colter released Live from Cain’s Ballroom in 2013. The album her first live set, taken from a concert she performed with aid from her son, Shooter Jennings.

The eighteen-track set actually features just eleven songs, interspersed between six interludes and an intro. I wasn’t deeply familiar with Colter’s back catalog before we spotlighted her this month, so I really didn’t know what to expect from her output. I liked what I heard and I’m glad to hear her here, still in fine voice, with vim and vigor.

“I’m Not Lisa” is as sublime as I expected it would be, sparse and a beautiful showcase for the power she still possesses vocally. Similarly great is “What Happened To Blue Eyes,” another of her earlier hits.

Jennings joins her on two songs, both of which are very good, although not my taste. Jennings really isn’t a ‘country’ singer, or at least he leans on his growl and bluesy sensibilities for these recordings.

The tracks with Jennings are indicative of the album as a whole, which I wouldn’t classify as country in any noticeable way. The bluesy stylings work well for Colter, who truly does shine throughout this set. “Rainy Day Women” is a revolution, with sly guitar work brilliantly framing Colter’s slinky twang. “Storms Never Last” is also another of the highlights.

As a whole, Live From Cain’s Ballroom does little for me musically. I’ve never truly been into the guitar and piano-heavy bluesy style Colter is performing for the audience at this show. I can’t fault anything with the album itself, and it’s nice to have a recording of Colter in concert. The band is as strong as Colter, which makes this a winning set for fans of this style.

Grade: A- 

Classic Rewind: Jessi Colter – ‘I Belong To Him’

Classic Rewind: Trisha Yearwood and friends – ‘I’m Talkin’ Love’

Album Review: Josh Turner – ‘Deep South’

After numerous delays, Josh Turner fans finally have a new album to listen to, nearly five years after the release of his previous effort Punching Bag. Deep South, produced by Turner’s longtime producer Frank Rogers, arrived last week.

The current climate at country radio is a difficult one for traditional-based artists. MCA was reluctant to release the album until they were sure they had a hit single on the charts. As a result, I awaited this release with some trepidation, expecting it to be a compromise to the demands of the label and radio and not necessarily the album Josh would make if left to his own devices. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what it sounds like, although after learning that Turner wrote or co-wrote five of the album’s elven songs, it’s difficult to say for sure exactly where the blame lies.

The underperforming lead single, 2014’s “Lay Low”, which climbed to #28 sounds like a bland Keith Urban song,and the follow-up single about a “pretty little homegrown Hometown Girl”, currently residing at #10 on the charts is a similarly trite effort. I recognize that songs like this are a necessary evil for artists to get on the radio so that their albums can be released. But I do expect that when the album eventually appears that there will be some deeper cuts, and that is where Deep South falls short. The Turner-penned title track is a funky-sounding list of cliches about Southern life — fried chicken, back roads,et al. “All About You”, another Turner composition, is much the same, with the word “girl” used gratuitously throughout the song. “Southern Drawl” combines the southern life and hot chick themes:

She’s as pretty as South Georgia peaches
And as hot as any Tennessee June
She’s a treasure underneath that Carolina kudzu
She still outshines a Mississippi moon
When she walks into a room

Her kiss sure drives me crazy
I melt when she says my name
Just one touch can make this old heart sing
But it ain’t the blue sky in her blue eyes
It ain’t good looks at all
It’s the way she says I love you that makes me fall, y’all
In that sweet, soft, slow southern drawl

I was bored by most of this album, which would have put me right to sleep in the hands of a less capable vocalist. It’s disappointing that after a five-year gap between albums that Turner apparently has so little to say. These songs are shallow, dull and cliche-ridden. It wasn’t until the final track “Hawaiian Girl” that I found a song that I could truly enjoy. It’s not deep either, but it has a throwback sound with plenty of pedal steel and is at least a change of pace.

I’ve long maintained that Josh Turner was a gifted artist who was continually let down by less than stellar material. Deep South unfortunately does nothing to change that assessment and if anything, is a big step in the wrong direction.

Grade: C+

Classic Rewind: Jessi Colter – ‘I’d Rather Have Jesus’

Week ending 3/25/17: #1 singles this week in country music history

1957 (Sales):Young Love/You’re The Reason I’m In Love — Sonny James (Capitol)

1957 (Jukebox): Young Love — Sonny James (Capitol)

1957 (Disc Jockeys): Young Love — Sonny James (Capitol)

1967: I Won’t Come In While He’s There — Jim Reeves (RCA)

1977: Southern Nights — Glen Campbell (Capitol)

1987: I’ll Still Be Loving You — Restless Heart (RCA)

1997: We Danced Anyway — Deana Carter (Capitol)

2007: Beer In Mexico — Kenny Chesney (BNA)

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

2017 (Airplay): Dirt On My Boots — Jon Pardi (Capitol)

Classic Rewind: Merle Haggard – ‘If I Could Only Fly’

Classic Rewind: Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings – ‘I Wish I Was Crazy Again’

Album Review: Jessi Colter – ‘Out of the Ashes’

Out of the Ashes was released in 2006, four years after the death of Waylon Jennings, and with the exception of a 1996 children’s collection, was Jessi Colter’s first album in 22 years. She teamed up with Don Was, who had a reputation for reinvigorating the careers of other veteran artists both inside and outside of country music. He was best known for his work with Bonnie Raitt and had also worked with Waylon, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson both as individuals and as members of The Highwaymen.

Out of the Ashes is not a straight country album. It is heavy on blues and roots rock, with a touch of Gospel occasionally thrown into the mix. Jessi wrote or co-wrote nine of the album’s twelve tracks. It has an earthier sound than her earlier work and her voice sounds grittier but is still in fine form. It is a concept album but only in the very loosest sense. It is about grieving and eventually emerging from that grief and moving on. It opens with a cover of the Gospel song “His Eye Is on the Sparrow”, given a bluesy treatment, and moves on to the sassy, bluesy “You Can Pick ‘Em”. The piano-driven “The Phoenix Rises” is a beautiful ballad about rebirth and new beginnings and is my favorite. The similarly-themed mid-tempo “Out of the Rain”, performed with its writer Tony Joe White is an older song dating back to the 1980s. Waylon had supplied vocals on an unreleased version and they are incorporated into this version. It signals that Jessi has moved on and is ready to explore new relationships, and she takes the plunge headfirst on the steamy “Velvet and Steel”.

Other favorites include the ballad “The Canyon” — about a couple ready to go their separate ways, and told metaphorically from the point of view of a horse:

Don’t lay your bridle on my shoulder
Don’t bring your bit to my mouth
Don’t lay your blanket on my body
Just take your saddle and move out.

The album closes with another Gospel number “Please Carry Me Home”, performed with Jessi’s co-writer and son Shooter Jennings. The track had previously been included on a multi-artist anthology of songs inspired by the film The Passion of the Christ.

The only track I didn’t care much for was the cover of Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”, which seems slightly out of place, with its ambiguous references to people “getting stoned”. It’s not clear if this is a drug song or people being pelted metaphorically with stones, or both.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this collection, but the more I listened to it the more I liked it and I ended up enjoying it much more than I expected to. It is available on streaming services and can also be downloaded or purchased on CD.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Gene Watson – ‘The Great Divide’

Album Review: The Gibson Brothers – ‘In The Ground’

The Gibson Brothers’ insidious blend of bluegrass and folk is deeply rooted in their Northeastern rural background. This album, on Rounder, showcases both their tight high sibling harmonies and an entirely self-penned set of songs, backed by subtle arrangements and their band’s tasteful playing. Both Eric and Leigh Gibson have fine voices, but it is the blend that makes the partnership special, together with their songwriting ability.

The compelling opener ‘Highway’ is about a child pining for his errant father and then following in his restless footsteps. ‘Making Good Time’, a lovely tune about traveling with no specific plan, is one of the highlights. The gentle and heartwarming ‘Remember Who You Are’ offers some loving parting advice to a son leaving the family farm for pastures new, while ‘Little Girl’ is a sweet song addressed to a daughter.

The catchy ‘Homemade Wine’ is a surpisingly uplifting tribute to drinking and hangovers, “washed away by homemade wine”. The upbeat ‘I Can’t Breathe Deep Yet’ picks up the tempo.

‘Fool’s Hill’ is about youthful wildness in small towns and has a pretty tune and optimistic attitude.

‘Friend Of Mine’ is a beautiful ode to the writer’s guitar and indirectly to his own musical gifts.

‘I Found A Church Today’ is a delightful religious song describing a church service leading the narrator back to God.

‘My Quiet Mind’ is a slow, delicate song about hoping to find peace after losing in love, with the ethereal vocals nd beauiful melody making it something very pure and special. The song is the only one to involve a non-Gibson co-writer, Shawn Camp.

The mid-paced ‘Look Who’s Crying’ is about a man taking pleasure when the tables are turned and the woman who left him wants to come back:

Look who looks like her whole world is over
Who’s lookin’ now to cry on someone’s shoulder
Telling me that people change
And how much I still look the same
Til suddenly (til suddenly)
I’m laughing (I’m laughing) out loud
Look who’s crying all those big tears now

It has a traditional country structure with bluegrass instrumentation, and effective call and response vocals. It is one of my favorites here.

The wistful post-breakup ‘Everywhere I Go’ is another fine track, written by Eric with his son Kelley.

The set closes with the moving title track, perhaps the best song on the album. It is a mournful reflection on family, change and the fate of small farmers, and a tribute to their late father.

This album is an excellent one from start to finish.

Grade: A+

Classic Rewind: Jessi Colter – ‘Without You’

Album Reviews: Jessi Colter and Waylon Jennings duets

There currently isn’t much available by this duo, and they did not record much together since their voices really didn’t blend all that well.

Leather & Lace was issued on vinyl & cassette by RCA in February 1981 and features the following ten songs:

01) You Never Can Tell (C’est La Vie)
02) Rainy Seasons
03) I’ll Be Alright
04) Wild Side Of Life
05) Pastels And Harmony
06) I Believe You Can
07) What’s Happened To Blue Eyes
08) Storms Never Last
09) I Ain’t The One
10)You’re Not My Same Sweet Baby

All American Country was issued on CD by BMG in 2003 and features the following ten songs:

Suspicious Minds
Under Your Spell Again
I Ain’t The One *
Storms Never Last *
Wild Side Of Life *
You Never Can Tell (C’est La Vie) *
Sight For Sore Eyes
I’ll Be Alright *
What’s Happened To Blue Eyes *
You’re Not My Same Sweet Baby *

Songs marked by * also appear on Leather & Lace.

There are only four actual duets on Leather & Lace (01, 04, 08, 09) with Jessi being solo on 02 and 06 and Waylon being solo on the remaining four songs.

All American County has the four duets on Leather & Lace plus “Suspicious Minds”, “Under Your Spell Again” and “Sight For Sore Eyes” are duets, meaning that the modern era CD is the better collection if you are looking for actual duets. This CD is still readily available, whereas Leather & Lace has been out of print for a long time.

Waylon & Jessi did not have a tremendous amount of chart success as a duet, with “Wild Side of Life” (a medley of Hank Thompson’s hit and Kitty Wells’ answer song) reaching #10 in 1981 and “Storms Never Last” reaching #17” in 1981. The only other top twenty hit was “Suspicious Minds”, the old Elvis #1 pop hit from 1969 reaching #2 in 1976.

Truthfully, while I am a big Waylon Jennings fan, neither of these albums is particularly satisfactory. I would regard the best song (found on both albums) as “You Never Can Tell”, a Chuck Berry song from 1964. The solo efforts on Leather & Lace (especially the Waylon tracks) are throw-aways so I would give Leather & Lace a C. I would give All American Country a B for having more duets and better songs.

Classic Rewind: Lorrie Morgan – ‘I’ll Take The Memories’

Album Review: Sunny Sweeney – ‘Trophy’

After falling in love with Brandy Clark’s Twelve Stories, Sunny Sweeney tapped Dave Brainard to produce Trophy, which grapples with misery and longing, tackling the well-worn themes with exciting twists and turns. Brainard works to nicely compliment Sweeney’s firecracker personality, giving us a sound far meatier than Clark’s, but in no way less sublime.

Our first taste, which Occasional Hope lovingly reviewed, is the astonishing “Bottle By My Bed,” a heartbreaking tale about Sweeney’s struggles with infertility co-written with Lori McKenna. I, too, have a very personal connection to the track, which details the anguish felt when “you never never wanted something so bad that it hurts.”

Sweeney begs the bartender to reserve judgment and just “Pass The Pain” on the album’s brilliant steel-drenched opener, a decade-old neotraditional ballad she felt was potentially too country for a modern audience. She recorded the song, which features an assist from Trisha Yearwood, at the insistence of her rock-leaning father.

She bookends with the stunning “Unsaid,” a heavily orchestrated ballad written with Caitlyn Smith following the suicide of a friend who was a father of two young children. While the track doesn’t chronicle his story, it lays bare her feelings towards the circumstances:

There’s so much left unsaid

Cuts to the bone to see your name written in stone

Wish I could get it off my chest

Shoulda let go of my pride when I still had the time

Dammit it hurts these words I left unsaid

Sweeney has said Chris Wall’s “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight” is her favorite country song ever. The track, a fiddle-drenched waltz popularized by Jerry Jeff Walker, boasts an engaging melody and killer hook:

And I play classical music when it rains,

I play country when I am in pain

But I won’t play Beethoven, the mood’s just not right

Oh, I feel like Hank Williams tonight

I also love “Nothing Wrong With Texas,” another of the four tracks she and McKenna co-wrote for Trophy. The song, an ode to Sweeney’s home state, is an effortless fiddle and steel adorned mid-tempo ballad.

The pair also wrote two distinctly different numbers about Sweeney’s marriage to her second husband Jeff Hellmer, a police sergeant in Austin, Texas. “Grow Old With Me” is a breathtaking love song, in which Sweeney promises, “grow old with me and I’ll keep you young forever.”

The other song is the feisty title track, written in response to Hellmer’s ex calling Sweeney a ‘trophy wife.’ She proves her worth in the situation with a clever, albeit cunning, retort:

I know what you called me

That word fits me to a T

You just think I’m pretty

And you’re just full of jealousy

I don’t make him play the fool

Put him on a pedestal

Something you would never do

Yah, he’s got a trophy now

For putting up with you

Like “Trophy,” the rest of the album trends uptempo, with in-your-face barn burning honky-tonkers. “Better Bad Idea” is a moment of levity, which finds Sweeney on the prowl to be naughty, hoping her man can top the mischief she’s thinking up on her own.

“Why People Change” is an excellent take on failed relationships, with Sweeney questioning why couples can drift apart. The lyric is well-written, and the engaging melody is nothing short of glorious.

I haven’t been this richly satisfied with an album probably since Twelve Stories. With Trophy, Sweeney has crafted a whip-smart and mature record nodding to tradition while correctly pushing the genre forward. Trophy is what happens when everyone steps aside and puts the focus deservedly on the music, where it belongs.

Grade: A+

Sunny Sweeny was also interviewed on Rolling Stone Country