My Kind of Country

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

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- 

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

Album Review: Jessi Colter – ‘That’s The Way The Cowboy Rocks and Rolls’

After detouring with religious and inspirational music on Miriam, Jessi Colter returned to originals for 1978’s That’s The Way The Cowboy Rocks and Rolls. Much like her previous releases, the album was co-produced by her husband Waylon Jennings.

The album arrived too late to capitalize on the success of either Wanted! The Outlaws or her #2 peaking duet with Jennings, “Suspicious Minds.” Thus, the two singles failed to gain any traction at radio. “Maybe You Should’ve Been Listening,” a gentle ballad, peaked at #45. The second and final single, “Love Me Back to Sleep” only reached #91. Jacky Ward would score a #7 hit with the title track, a beautiful steel-drenched mid-tempo number, in 1980.

The main problem with That’s The Way The Cowboy Rocks and Rolls is the album’s lack of commercial viability. The title track and opening number “Roll On” are the only two cuts that can pass as uptempo and either one would’ve been better choices for singles than what Capitol sent to radio. Colter also does well with “Black Haired Boy” and “My Cowboy’s Last Ride,” both very good story songs. The remainder of the album is good, but nothing terribly exciting.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Rita Coolidge and Kris Kristofferson – ‘Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends’

Album Review: Jessi Colter – ‘I’m Jessi Colter’

12776715_f496After her debut failed to gain traction, Jessi Colter went a full five years between albums. She switched labels, from RCA Victor to Capitol Records, and released I’m Jessi Colter in January 1975. The record was co-produced by her husband Waylon Jennings and record executive Ken Mansfield.

Colter composed the entire project herself, which included lead single “I’m Not Lisa,” her most remembered song and biggest hit. The stunning ballad details the anguish of a woman in love with a man who still harbors feelings for his ex:

I’m not Lisa, my name is Julie

Lisa left you years ago

My eyes are not blue

But mine won’t leave you

‘Til the sunlight has touched your face

Not only did “I’m Not Lisa” top the country singles chart, but it hit #4 of the Billboard Hot 100, two major accomplishments that wouldn’t come her way again. Colter would crack the top five just once more with “What’s Happened To Blue Eyes,” the steel-laced second and final single from this album.

The remainder of the album is hit-or-miss, with a diversion into Memphis Soul that detracts from a majority of the tracks. These songs are well-executed, especially “Is There Any Way (You’d Stay Forever),” but the rest (“You Ain’t Never Been Loved (Like I’m Gonna Love You), “Come On In,” and “Love’s The Only Chain”) just aren’t to my taste. I summarily disliked the arrangement on “I Hear A Song,” but the ballad itself is quite lovely. “Storms Never Last” had much the same effect on me.

Colter’s strongest moments on the album are, not surprising, the country ones. “For The First Time” is a glorious slice of honky-tonk, a very welcomed change of pace. She’s even better on the stunning “Who Walks Thru Your Memory (Billy Jo),” the best track by a mile. The steel guitar perfectly frames her gorgeous vocal.

I’m not trying to suggest that I’m Jessi Colter is a bad album, it’s just extremely dated to modern ears, a victim of its era and a project designed to appeal to the popular trends of the time. While she never enjoyed solo success like this again, she struck gold a year later with an appearance along side her husband, Willie Nelson and Tompall Glaser on Wanted! The Outlaws. The album not only solidified the outlaw movement in modern country, but it was the first country album to be certified platinum.

Grade: B

Album Review: Bryan White – ‘Between Now and Forever’

between-now-and-foreverBryan White was an established newcomer when Between Now and Forever dropped in March 1996. The final two singles from his self-titled debut had topped the charts and he was on his way to winning the ACM for Top Male Vocalist and the CMA Horizon Award.

White teamed once again with Kyle Lehning and Billy Joe Walker, Jr for his sophomore set. They led with “I’m Not Supposed to Love You Anymore,” an excellent power ballad written by Skip Ewing and Donny Kees. The song tells of a man conflicted by thoughts of his former flame:

We agreed that it was over

Now the lines have all been drawn

The vows we made began to fade

But now they’re gone

Put your pictures in the shoebox

And my gold ring in the drawer

I’m not supposed to love you anymore

 

Now Sherri says she’s jealous

Of this freedom that I’ve found

If she were me, she would be out on the town

And she says she can’t imagine

What on earth I’m waiting for

I’m not supposed to love you anymore

 

Oh, I shouldn’t care or wonder where and how you are

But I can’t hide this hurt inside my broken heart

I’m fighting back emotions that I’ve never fought before

‘Cause I’m not supposed to love you anymore

Also admirable was the second single “So Much For Pretending,” a break-neck uptempo that became White’s third number one hit. The catchy guitar and drum driven arrangement coupled with the charming lyric make this one of my favorites of his.

White was back in ballad territory for the lowest charting single, the #15 peaking “That’s Another Song.” The ballad of lost love is lovely, with a beautiful steel-led instrumental break framing White’s passionate performance. I wanted to say this was my least favorite of the album’s singles, but I love it as much as anything he released from his first two albums.

The album’s fourth single, the uptempo “Sittin’ On Go” impacted country radio twenty years ago this week. It’s yet another worthy turn from White and a perfect slice of uptempo radio fodder. The song deservedly hit #1 and retained its impact for years, at least on my local country station here in Boston.

I’ve owned this album since its release; I was nine at the time, a point in my musical journey in which I primarily listened to the radio hits a record had to offer. But I distinctly remember being enamored with the title track, a mid-tempo ballad co-written by White. I still find the track appealing although it is a bit more thickly produced and less subtle than the ballads released as singles.

The remaining uptempo numbers – “Nickel in the Well” and “A Hundred and One” are typical mid-1990s album filler. White also co-wrote “Blindhearted,” a ballad with nice flourishes of steel and “On Any Given Night,” just more of the same steel-fueled pop balladry.

I hold anything Mac McAnally writes in the highest of regard, as he composed “Café On The Corner,” one of the strongest down-on-your-luck working man tunes of the 1990s, and the best of the sub-genre I’ve ever heard. To Between Now and Forever he contributes “Still Life,” a ballad I wouldn’t have given a second look but for he wrote it. The track begins shaky, and is not McAnally even close to his best lyrically, but hits its stride in the second verse when the story, about a man stuck without his woman, takes a memorable turn:

The chances were given to get on with livin’

The truth is that he never tried

And no one ever sees him most folks don’t even

Remember which one of ’em died

But he still denies it, he closes his eyes and

 

It’s still life without you and I still hold on

What it feels like you can’t go by that

It’s still life, still life without you

Oh, still life, still life without you

Between Now and Forever is above average as far as squarely mainstream releases go. The set is very solid and the singles were worthy of release. White would have success as a writer when Diamond Rio took his co-penned “Imagine That” into the Top 5 in 1997. He would score just two more notable hits, both coming the following year. He would hit #4 with his own “Love Is The Right Place” and #6 as Shania Twain’s duet partner on “From This Moment On,” which later abandoned his contributions in favor of a solo pop-focused rendition of the now-classic love song. He would fade away at dawn of the new millennium.

Between Now and Forever captures an artist at their artistic peak, a time when everything worked for hits and platinum level sales. White was never truly a hot comity in country music although those from this era will remember his music, especially “Sittin’ On Go.”

Grade: A

Album Review: Little Big Town – ‘The Breaker’

the-breakerI sit here in amazement that five years have come and gone since Little Big Town scrapped Wayne Kirkpatrick for Jay Joyce and ensured they wouldn’t face the commercial disappointment that greeted 2010’s The Reasons Why ever again. They’ve since proven themselves to be a shameless mainstream act out for success at the expense of creative credibility.

You cannot deny they’ve achieved their greatest success in these years, winning every Vocal Group of the Year award for which they’ve been nominated. “Girl Crush” was another triumph, but disastrously overblown. I do like the song, but I’m more than glad to see its reign has come to an end at long last.

I last reviewed Pain Killer, which was easily among the worst mainstream country albums this decade. Their pop detour last spring, Wanderlust, was even worse. But I’ve been a fan of theirs for eleven years since I first heard “Boondocks” in 2005. I don’t know what keeps me coming back, especially in this era of their career, but here I am again.

Little Big Town has reunited with Joyce for The Breaker, their bid to regain their country momentum, which has proven successful thus far. Lead single “Better Man” is their fastest rising, zipping up the airplay chart at a breakneck speed unusual for them. It doesn’t hurt that the ballad, penned by Taylor Swift, is the best they’ve ever recorded. “Better Man” doesn’t break any new ground for Swift, she’s actually retreading much of what she’s already written, but I’m thrilled to see her finally return to form, if even for a one off. “Better Man” has the substance missing from her pop catalog.

The Breaker finds Little Big Town in the post-”Girl Crush” era, one in which they double down on Lori McKenna, in hopes of lightening striking twice. The album features no less than five of her writing credits. In anticipation of the album, they previewed “Happy People,” which she wrote with Hailey Waters. The track, mid-tempo pop, generalizes the characteristics of happy people, with a laundry list of signifiers:

Happy people don’t cheat

Happy people don’t lie

They don’t judge or hold a grudge, don’t criticize

Happy people don’t hate

Happy people don’t steal

Cause all the hurt sure ain’t worth all the guilt they feel

 

Happy people don’t fail

Happy people just learn

Don’t think that we’re above the push and shove

We just wait their turn

They always got a hand

Or a dollar to spare

Know the golden rule what you’re goin’ through

Even if it never been there

“We Went to the Beach” was the album’s second preview, is a refreshing change of pace with Philip Sweet on lead vocals. The track may seem like it has much in common with “Pontoon,” “Day Drinking” and “Pain Killer,” but it’s nowhere near as vapid. The ballad has a wonderfully engaging melody that perfectly frames Sweet’s buttery voice.

The third and final preview, “When Someone Stops Loving You,” is another of McKenna’s co-written offerings. The tastefully produced ethereal ballad is a showcase for Jimi Westbrook, who elevates the 1970s soft rock undertones with his smooth yet pleasing vocal turn.

McKenna is one of four writers on “Free,” a sonically adventurous ballad celebrating the not-so-novel idea that the best aspects of life don’t cost anything. “Lost In California,” is the only contribution solely by the Love Junkies, who co-wrote “Girl Crush.” The song, which should definitely be a single, is an excellent sultry ballad and one of the album’s strongest tracks outside of “Better Man.”

Karen and Kimberly join the Love Junkies on “Don’t Die Young, Don’t Get Old,” is a pleasant ballad with interesting finger snaps and their gorgeous harmonies. They continue to slow the pace on “Beat Up Bible,” an acoustic guitar-led ballad showcasing Schlapman singing lead. The track is very good albeit a bit bland. The title track, another one with Sweet singing lead, has a nice lyric but could’ve used a bit more life in the production.

The main difference between The Breaker and previous Little Big Town albums is the suppression of uptempo material, which is surprising given the current climate of mainstream country. The album isn’t devoid of such songs and numbers like “Night On Our Side,” aren’t not only terrible, they’re out of place. “Driving Around” isn’t much better and harkens back to a Little Big Town this album works so hard to leave behind. “Rollin,’” in which Westbrook sings lead, doesn’t even sound like them.

The Breaker is the beginning of a new chapter for Little Big Town, one that finds the band slowing the pace to highlight the substance they’ve brought back to their music. The Breaker is far from a perfect album, but it is a step in the right direction, even if that step has more in common with 1970s soft rock than country music.

Grade: B

Album Review: Lari White – ‘Wishes’

wishesLari White’s most consistent success as a solo artist came in June 1994 with the release of her sophomore album, Wishes. RCA Nashville, in an effort to turn White into a hot comity, had her record with Garth Fundis, who turned in a squarely commercial album aimed at grabbing the attention of country radio. The efforts paid off – Wishes notched three top ten hits and was certified Gold.

The lead single was the earworm “That’s My Baby,” a collaboration between White and her husband Chuck Cannon. The track excuses happiness, which is palpable from both the production and lyric to White’s exhilarating performance.

Even better is the stunning “Now I Now,” a powerful empowerment anthem which finds White assuming she’d be lost without her man, should he leave her. They go their separate ways and she realizes she’s just fine on her own. White’s authoritative liberation brilliantly guides the recording, which is elevated by Don Cook’s signature procession and Paul Franklin’s gorgeous flourishes of Steel.

White and Cannon reunite on the final single, “That’s How You Know (When You’re In Love).” The track doesn’t pack as distinctive a punch, although it features Hal Ketchum on harmony. It still peaked at #10, which is a testament to White’s star power at the time.

While the singles display a confident and liberated modern woman, the album cuts display the restlessness that got her there. White co-wrote these songs, mostly with Cannon, whom she married shortly before the album was released. They find her longing; optimistic her man will one day love her back. She declares her “Wishes” with the title track and ponders an alternative reality on “If You Only Knew.” White further tears down the walls, flat out declaring she wants to be “Somebody’s Fool.”

“When It Rains” finds White imagining a man haunted by thoughts of his ex while “Go On” has her frustrated it’s taking him so long to leave. “It’s Love” is the album’s sole misstep; a throwaway cut that should’ve been excluded from the album entirely (it was smartly omitted from the cassette version).

Wishes is a spectacular album with flawless execution. The stark ballads (“Wishes,” “If I’m Not Already Crazy,” “When It Rains” and “If You Only Knew”) are as brilliantly engaging as the uptempo material (“That’s My Baby,” “Somebody’s Fool” and “Now I Know”) and most every song is smart and articulate.

White exemplifies just how diverse the women of the 1990s truly were. Each one, especially her immediate contemporaries, had their own flavor and distinctive perspective. White stood out by fitting in, almost too well, which likely caused her to coast below the likes of Trisha Yearwood or Faith Hill. That’s a shame because she can deliver a lyric just as good and if not better than anyone. Wishes, if you missed it the first go around or haven’t heard it in a while, is worth a second look. It’s just that good.

Grade: A+

Album Review: The Whites – ‘A Lifetime in the Making’

mi0001612026In 2000 the soundtrack to the film O, Brother Where Art Thou? came from nowhere to sell eight million copies, on the strength of the Soggy Bottom Boys’ classic rendition of “Man of Constant Sorrow.” The record went on to claim the Album of the Year Grammy and kick off a mini-revival of acoustic based sounds within country music. This was the period of time in which Nickel Creek first came to prominence and Alison Krauss saw renewed acclaim for her music. The Whites weren’t necessarily a part of this although they did contribute an excellent rendition of “Keep On The Sunny Side” to the soundtrack.

They released A Lifetime in the Making, their twelfth album, in August, just before the craze hit. The record, their only for Ricky Skaggs’ Ceili Records, was lovingly produced by Jerry Douglas. The album, which retains the acoustic feel for which they’re best known, is an impeccable collection of songs from beginning to end.

The disc kicks off with “Always Comin’ Home,” a dobro and mandolin drenched uptempo Gospel number, written by Don Gillion. They continue in this vein on “Jesus is the Missing Piece,” a mid-tempo ballad in which Buck takes over the lead vocals. “Key To The Kingdom” is stunning, with Sharon’s soaring and throaty lead vocal commanding attention.

Billy Joe Foster, a Bluegrass musician who died in 2013 aged 51, is represented with two tracks. “Texas To A T” is acoustic Western Swing while “Before The Prairie Met The Plow” is a gorgeous bluegrass ballad nodding to Midwestern sensibilities. “How Many Moons,” which was co-written by Claire Lynch, wonderfully showcases their family harmonies.

Patty Loveless originally recorded “I Miss Who I Was (With You)” on The Trouble With The Truth. Both versions are excellent and I was glad to see that Loveless’ recording retained the organic elements of the song. The Whites had the first version of “Old Hands,” another tune about farming life. I’ve never heard of Adam Brand, but he nicely covered the song two years later. Emmylou Harris joins the band for a stunning rendition of Mother Maybelle Carter’s “Fair and Tender Ladies.”

Buck White solely wrote “Old Man Baker,” a strikingly good uptempo instrumental. “Apron Strings” is an appealing ballad about the stronghold our mother will always have on our lives. The album’s final track, “The Cowboy Lives Forever,” is a breakneck uptempo number about an everyman who found his home on the Western Plains.

There truly aren’t words to describe the high quality of A Lifetime in the Making. The album is superb through and through even though it hardly breaks new ground within this style. I’ve never spent any time with The Whites, despite always knowing who they were so reviewing this album was a treat. I highly recommend it for those who may have missed it the first go-around or just want to listen to it again. You won’t be disappointed.

Grade: A

EP Review: Jenny Gill – ‘The House Sessions’

the-house-sessionsThe House Sessions, Jenny Gill’s debut EP, finds her drawing on personal experience as she strives to establish her own voice separate from her esteemed pedigree. Her father, who most everyone knows is Vince Gill, produced the album at the home studio for which the six-song set finds its name.

The material that comprises The House Sessions finds Gill transported to the past while specific memories tied to the lyrics. The gorgeous “Whisky Words,” a ballad concerning an ex who’s all talk, was birthed from her time working at a publishing company tasked with pitching songs to others. It comes across as a record that would’ve been popular in the early-2000s when it likely would’ve done quite well.

“Lean On Love” finds Gill exercising her bluesy side in homage to Bonnie Raitt whom she cites as a primary influence. The tune is excellent, tastefully produced and subtly evocative. “Lonely Lost Me,” the lead single, which features harmonies by Sheryl Crow, is a jazzy ballad that settles into an intoxicating and memorable groove.

Gill’s husband, Sony/ATV executive Josh Van Valkenberg, inspired the title of “Look Where Loving You Landed Me” when he sang the line on their honeymoon. The track is a terrific ballad melding her blues and jazz influences with the personal touches (references to the beach) that keep the song from feeling generic.

The most adventurous track on The House Sessions is Motown classic “The Letter,” which was originally recorded by The Box Tops fifty years ago. I do find it strange that Gill would choose to add a cover song to an EP when she could’ve added another original instead, but she handles the track with ease while showcasing additional aspects of her voice.

Gill freely admits that the gospel-tinged “Your Shadow” is the album’s most personal number. The song tackles the heavy emotions surrounding her good fortune at being Vince’s daughter. The track also contains the most memorable line on the whole project:

And someone will say, I’ll never compare

And I’ll pour my heart out and no one will care

And I’ve got to find a dream that will shine on its own

In the light of your shadow

While it is easy to compare an offspring to their famous parents, Gill doesn’t have that problem on The House Sessions. She makes the album her own with an authentic sound true to her voice and influences. She recorded the album in a week; utilizing studio time her father gave her as a Christmas present. I’m glad he was involved in shaping the sound of the record because the final mixing is clear and clean, devoid of excess. He let each song breathe and find itself musically, which rewards the listener with a rich experience that puts the song, and not ego, front and center.

The House Sessions, which has been available digitally since September, is getting another push this month with renewed publicity and a video for “Lonely Lost Me.” I wouldn’t categorize the project as country per se, as it melds those sensibilities with jazz and blues to find its own place within the musical space. Ultimately genre classification doesn’t matter since The House Sessions wonderfully succeeds in showcasing Gill as a fully formed artist and writer. I look forward any new music she chooses to release in the years to come.

Grade: A

Single Review: Marty Stuart – ‘Whole Lotta Miles (With A Million More To Go)’

maxresdefaultAs I began writing this review, I started thinking about the last time a real truck drivin’ anthem made a play at country radio. I had to go back twenty years for Sawyer Brown’s cover of the Dave Dudley classic “Six Days on the Road.” Before that, all I could think of was Alabama’s “Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler).”

There used to be a time, long since in the rearview mirror, when mainstream country music cared about the working class, the blue collar folks who make their living keeping our country afloat each and every day. It’s hard to believe there used to be an era when paychecks and harsh realities outweighed the scantily clad country girls fulfilling the fantasies of horny teenage boys.

Marty Stuart is looking to resurrect the long-forgotten subgenre with “Whole Lotta Highway (With A Million Miles To Go).” Who better to take on this challenge than a man who has had traditional country music coursing through his veins since birth? Stuart is the master, a fact he’s proven time and again in his career and has turned into an art form over the past ten years.

“Whole Lotta Highway (With A Million Miles To Go)” is a very good song and I have no doubt everyone brought his or her ‘A’ game to make this work. My problem is, I can’t get past the sound of this record at all. The wall-of-sound production drowns the song in loud twangy and steel guitars that could’ve been pleasant if they were turned downed in order to let the lyric, and Stuart’s vocal, breathe. There’s nothing wrong with the pacing or the melody, the song itself is just too damn loud.

It’s a shame, but then again, I do hold Stuart in a class of his own with expectations no normal human could ever reach. I’m still highly anticipating Way Out West, although my expectations have been slightly lowered after hearing “Whole Lotta Miles.”

Grade: B

Single Review: Rodney Crowell feat. John Paul White and Rosanne Cash – ‘It Ain’t Over Yet’

maxresdefaultThe celebrity marriage is the stuff of legend in country music, where iconic pairs either come together as the loves in each other’s lives or break apart as fame and fortune stuck their formidable wedge where it shouldn’t belong. The success rate hasn’t been high, which should be expected, from pairs in such an industry.

One such union is that of Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash. The pair met when he produced three tracks on her European-Only debut album. She would venture to California to play with his band The Cherry Bombs. They married in 1979 and had their first child in 1980 and moved to Nashville the following year. Cash and Crowell would divorce in 1992.

They’re back together twenty-five years later for “It Ain’t Over Yet,” which finds Crowell tracing their love story in song, from his perspective:

For fools like me who were built for the chase

It takes a right kind of woman to help you put it all in place

It only happened one in my life but man, you should have seen

Her hair two shades of foxtail red

Her eyes some far-out sea blue-green

With stark honesty, he goes on to blame himself for their demise:

I got caught up making a name for myself

You know what that’s about

One day your ship comes rolling in

The next day it rolls right back out

And you can’t take for granted

None of this shit

The higher up you fly boys

The harder it is you’re gonna get hit

Cash takes the reins on the final verse:

I’ve known you forever and ever and ever it’s true

If you came by it easy you wouldn’t be you

You make me laugh

You make me cry

You make me forget myself

I do love the message that in love as in life, we’re only human:

It ain’t over yet

Ask someone who oughta know

Not so very long ago

We were both hung out to dry

It ain’t over yet

You can mark my word

I don’t care what you think you heard

We’re still learning how to fly

It ain’t over yet

There’s so much about this song to admire. “It Ain’t Over Yet” is devoid of animosity, which is remarkable, and paints time as an almighty healer. Crowell, as a songsmith, has never been sharper with his imagery or conviction.

The record itself, though, suffers from overcrowding. As much as I admire John Paul White’s contributions, and his buttery vocal is gorgeous, what is he doing here? He plays an intermediary in an intimate moment that would’ve ultimately shone brighter if it were left to Crowell and Cash alone. That version would’ve been transcendent. This one is a hair slightly below, although still very much worthy.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Tift Merritt – ‘Stitch of the World’

stitch-of-the-worldStitch of the World, Tift Merritt’s third release for Yep Roc Records, emerged at the end of her marriage to her longtime drummer Zeke Hutchins, a life change that prompted her to return home to North Carolina. The album came together in just four brisk days during the third trimester of her first pregnancy.

Merritt gained reassurance from Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam, the sounding board who signed off on the material, co-produced the album and became the project’s loudest voice. His wail can be heard on first single “Dusty Old Man,” a rollicking carefree bluesy barnburner that opens the ten-song set.

He also joins Merritt for three collaborations. “Something Came Over Me” is a stunning steel-drenched ballad while “Eastern Light” is acoustic driven and gorgeously stark. “Wait for Me” is a sonic blend of the two and equally as striking.

She garnered inspiration for “Love Soldiers On” while witnessing the monotonous work of ranch hands. She concluded that love lies in our ability to keep on going, a worthy sentiment from a pitch-perfect lyric. “Heartache Is an Uphill Climb” is an exquisite ballad of difficult introspection. The title track was born in California when she witnessed landscapes and skies that didn’t seem real. The song is wonderful although the sonic elements can seem a bit heavy at times.

My favorite track on the album is “My Boat,” which features a nice driving beat and a wonderful lyric adapted from Raymond Carver’s poem “Water Comes Together With Other Water.” I couldn’t really get into either “Icarus” or “Proclamation Bones,” but they are both worthy tracks nonetheless.

Sonically speaking, Stitch of the World isn’t my style of music within the country realm. But Merritt’s adult female perspective is intoxicatingly beautiful and a reminder of why she shouldn’t go so long between solo sets. I highly recommend checking this album out.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘Cage The Songbird’

cage-the-songbirdThe mid-1980s found Crystal Gayle shifting record labels yet again. Elektra shuttered in 1982 during the chart reign of True Love, which Razor X reviewed earlier this week. Another significant shift was the addition of Jimmy Bowen, who shared a producer credit with Allen Reynolds.

By the time Cage The Songbird came along in October 1983, Gayle was recording for Warner Bros. exclusively with Bowen, who had officially taken over for Reynolds after ten albums. The resulting record was squarely within the trends of the era, following the likes of Rosanne Cash and Emmylou Harris by featuring a Rodney Crowell song, which by this time had become one of the hottest songwriters in Nashville. The album also featured cuts by Elton John and Hugh Prestwood among others, and while it maintained a glossy sheen, Cage The Songbird was loaded with well-chosen material.

The Prestwood cut, which opened the album, was issued as the lead single. “The Sound of Goodbye” is an excellent and bright uptempo contemporary number that ranks among my favorites of hers. It hit #1, as did the album’s third single, Tim Krekel’s lightweight rocker “Turning Away.” Gayle just missed the top spot with “I Don’t Wanna Lose Your Love,” an adult contemporary-leaning piano ballad by Joey Carbone. The fourth and final single, “Me Against The Night,” a nice mid-tempo ballad, peaked at #4.

Crowell, who was Gayle’s labelmate at the time, contributed “Victim or a Fool,” a ballad he recorded on his eponymous album two years earlier. Gayle brought an urgency to her version, courtesy of the electric guitars and driving tempo, that contrasted with the sadness Crowell highlighted with his interpretation. Both recordings are interesting although you can’t ignore Gayle’s commercial sheen – the lyric is all but buried beneath the noise.

John supplied the title track, a ballad he wrote with Bernie Taupin and Davey Johnstone. The lyric, which recounts a celebrity’s tragic life and death, was a reimagining of Édith Piaf’s passing as if she had committed suicide. The tone may be grim, but Gayle delivers a gorgeous performance of a spectacular song.

“Take Me Home” was lifted from the soundtrack of a Francis Ford Coppola movie of the same name. The album consisted of duets and solo performances by Gayle and Tom Waits, who composed the songs himself. The ballad is stunning and excused from not being country at all, thanks to its origin.

Norman Saleet, another composer far outside the country realm, shows up on Cage The Songbird with “On Our Way To Love,” a ballad outside of my tastes. Saleet is best known for writing Air Supply’s “Here I Am (Just When I Thought I Was Over You)” and you can hear that influence in the melody here as well.

Of the prominent producers in country music through the years, I probably like Bowen’s work the least. He’s not distasteful to his artists, but his bland tendencies have marred his work significantly. His choices aren’t in the least bit country, either, which probably aids in my overall dissatisfaction. To that end, I really wanted to enjoy Cage The Songbird and I do find many of the album’s tracks, especially “The Sound of Goodbye” very appealing. But while I can mostly appreciate the crossover aspects, the majority of the ballads just don’t hold my attention.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Brandy Clark feat. Sam Tsui – ‘Love Can Go To Hell’

Brandy Clark reimagines the second single from Big Day In A Small Town as an acoustic ballad. Sam Tsui, a 27 year old graduate of Yale University and YouTube cover sensation, provides the assist. The track has been nominated for Best Country Solo Performance at next month’s Grammy Awards.

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘We Should Be Together’

we-should-be-togetherThe end of the 1970s saw Crystal Gayle in a point of transition as she left United Artists for Columbia. Her sixth and final album for longtime label, We Should Be Together, was released in mid-June.

The album, helmed as per usual by Allan Reynolds, produced two top ten hits. Lead single “Your Kisses Will” came from a recording session three years prior in November 1976. It peaked at #7 upon release. The song was written by Van Stephenson, a then unknown singer/songwriter who would go onto a solo career with MCA Records in the 1980s, while continuing to compose hits for other artists. In 1992 he joined Henry Paul and Dave Robbins in the formation of Blackhawk, his biggest success as an artist. He passed from Melanoma in 2001 at age 47. “Your Kisses Now” was the start of his career.

Another 1976 recording session produced “Your Old Cold Shoulder,” which peaked at #5. The track reunited her with Richard Leigh and was a rare instance where a single by the pair did not top the country singles chart. Leigh had another track on the album, “Too Deep For Tears,” a lovely piano ballad.

Harlan Howard provided “Time Will Prove That I’m Right,” a jaunty horn-drenched slice of ragtime complete with honky-tonk piano. Reynolds wrote the title track, an excellent up-tempo number. Gayle and Bill Gatzimos had two cuts on the album, the re-record of “Beyond You” and “Through Believing In Love Songs,” a lush ballad without much pep. “Sneakin’ Out The Back Door” is one of the records’ most uptempo numbers.

The album itself is very good, although a bit too pop-leaning for my tastes. I just couldn’t get into the AC balladry this time around. But this is a solid set from Gayle nonetheless.

Grade: B+

Single Review: Alison Krauss- ‘Losing You’

hqdefaultFor her first solo LP in seventeen years, Alison Krauss’ prerogative was to make a country album featuring songs older than her. She enlisted the aid of Buddy Cannon, who brought the recording sessions to life in 2013. The ten-track collection, Windy City, will finally see release on February 17.

I’ve been longing for new music from Krauss ever since Paper Airplane back in 2011, hoping she would give us something new, not another ballad-driven album with Union Station. I love when she plays with tempo and texture and doesn’t rest comfortably in her signature style.

To kick off the new set, Krauss has graced us with ‘Losing You,’ the Brenda Lee classic from 1963. Lee’s hit recording, it should be noted, wasn’t a country one – it peaked top 10 in pop and adult contemporary. It’s an excellent recording, too, with Lee singing the fire out of the torch ballad, which was perfectly produced by Owen Bradley.

In approaching anything with Krauss’ voice on it, it’s very easy to be swept away by the beautiful marriage of the arrangement with her angelic vocal. The result is stunning – Cannon perfectly complements her with lush AC-leaning tones that afford her opportunity to soar. Technically, this record is perfection.

But like most cover tunes, I have trouble deciphering the newness that separates this version from the original. We all know Krauss is otherworldly, but does she bring enough of a bite to her vocal to allow us into the complexities within the lyric? Or is beauty masking our judgment towards thinking critically about the recording? I truly cannot find anything wrong with it, although I cannot get Paul tearing apart her Don Williams’ covers out of my head. I loved those (especially ‘You’re Just A Country Boy’) as much, if not more so than ‘Losing You.’

I cannot wait to see what the rest of Windy City has in store. ‘Losing You’ is a fantastic first taste of what appears is going to be another early highlight of this already interesting year.

Grade: A

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘Crystal Gayle’

crystalgaylecrystalgayleCrystal Gayle released her eponymous debut album in February 1975. The legendary Allen Reynolds produced the record, which was her first for United Artists. It peaked at #25.

The first single was “Wrong Road Again,” written by Reynolds. The short ballad is lyrically generic, but found significance sonically. The heavy orchestration was a sharp diversion from sounds typically associated with country music at the time. The gamble, which became a genre norm going forward, paid off – the song rose to #6.

She wouldn’t receive as a warm a reception with the album’s other two singles. “Beyond You,” which she co-wrote with Bill Gatzimos, is a gorgeous piano ballad that petered out at #27. The far more appealing, and a lot more country, “This Is My Year for Mexico” peaked at #21.

Reynolds also contributed “Loving You So Long Now,” an excellent guitar-driven mid-tempo number reminiscent of his work with Waylon Jennings. Gayle also shines on Paul Craft’s “Counterfeit Love (You Know I Got It),” a gentle uptempo number. Canadian Country Singer Ray Griff, who passed away earlier this year, wrote the jaunty and steel drenched “Gonna Lay Me Down Beside My Memories.” Singer/songwriter Marshall Chapman is behind the fantastic “A Woman’s Heart (Is A Handy Place To Be).”

I also love the ear-catching “Hands,” which may have a slightly cutesy lyric, boasts the strongest production work on the entire album. Crystal Gayle also features the first rendition of “When I Dream,” which Gayle would rerecord as the title track to her 1978 album. Issued as a single it would peak at #3. I much prefer the version found here, which finds the song in a more organic setting, with a nice cadence. Lush ballad “You,” written by Dolly Parton was the only song on the album not quite to my tastes.

As we know from Occasional Hope’s excellent review of I’ve Cried The Blue Right Out of My Eyes, these aren’t Gayle’s first recordings. Paul also pointed out United Artists issued three low-charting singles prior to the release of “Wrong Road Again,” her fourth single for the label. But these are the songs that saw Gayle as the artist she would become, her own woman, outside of her sister’s shadow. Reynolds has crafted an excellent showcase for her while simultaneously contributing to a changing landscape in country music (I always refer to as ‘slick country,’ although a more fitting moniker may exist) that wouldn’t be properly rectified for another decade. But it’s still a fabulous album, that nicely fits into the greater legacy of the genre.

Grade: A

EP Review: J.P. Harris (with Nikki Lane, Kristina Murray, Kelsey Waldon and Leigh Nash) – ‘Why Don’t We Duet In The Road’

jpharris_duet_largeweb_1024x1024J.P. Harris, whose sound is described as ‘booming hippie-friendly honky-tonk,’ found the inspiration for Why Don’t We Duet In The Road in the collaborative spirit of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s seminal Will The Circle Be Unbroken. The EP finds Harris covering iconic duets with some of Nashville’s most innovate female singer/songwriters, in an effort to bottle his experiences in Music City with a record aimed at prosperity over commercial viability.

Harris hunkered down in Ronnie Milsap’s former studio to record the four-track album, which he self-produced in a single six-hour session. What resulted is rough around the edges, fueled by twangy guitars and a gorgeous interpretation of outlaw country.

No one better exemplifies the modern outlaw spirit than Nikki Lane, who burst onto the scene in 2011 blending rockabilly and honky-tonk. She teams with Harris on “You’re The Reason Our Kids are Ugly,” which finds the pair embodying the spirit of Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn’s 1978 original. Harris’ choice of Lane to accompany him is a smart one. You can hear her ballsy grit as she uses her smoky alto to channel Lynn’s feisty spirit without sacrificing her distinct personality.

The least familiar of Harris’ collaborators is likely Americana darling Kristina Murray, who joins him for an excellent reading of George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s “Golden Ring.” The pair is brilliant together, with Murray emerging as a revelation with her effortless mix of ease and approachability. I quite enjoyed the arrangement, too, which has the perfectly imperfect feel of a band completely in sync with one another.

Harris is the star on “If I Was A Carpenter,” which finds him with the criminally underrated Kelsey Waldon. Her quiet assertiveness, which could’ve used a touch more bravado, is, unfortunately, no match for his buttery vocal. Waldon’s contributions are by no means slight; he’s just magnetic.

The final selection, Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner’s “Better Move It On Home,” finds Harris with the most recognizable vocalist of the bunch, Leigh Nash. She’s best known as the lead singer of Sixpence None The Richer, the band that hit #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the iconic “Kiss Me” in 1998. She’s since gone on to a solo career, which includes a country album released in September 2015. She taps into that grit here, and erases any notion of her pop sensibilities, but proves she doesn’t quite measure up to Parton on the 1971 original. The pair had an uphill battle ahead of them from the onset and they didn’t quite deliver.

That being said Why Don’t We Duet in the Road is a fantastic extended play highlighting five uniquely talented vocalists. If country artists continue to churn out releases of this high a quality than 2017 is going to be a very good year, indeed.

Grade: A

NOTE: Why Don’t We Duet in the Road is offered as a random colored double 7” limited to 500 copies, which as of press time are about halfway to sold out. Rolling Stone Country also has the tracks accessible for streaming, which I highly recommend. The EP is also available on iTunes as of January 6.

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Favorite Singles of 2016

My favorite singles of the year run the gamut from commercial to obscure and everything in between. Keep reading for career moments from Tim McGraw and Reba McEntire to shining examples of why Lori McKenna and Brandy Clark are more than expert songwriters.

unknown10. Chris Young Feat Cassadee Pope – ‘Think Of You’

Young deserves credit for searching within his own genre for a female collaborator. He deserves praise for co-writing a song that doesn’t use Pope as
window dressing, but rather as a means of furthering the story. This tale of a once-great couple isn’t revelatory, but it’s catchy as hell.

 9. William Michael Morgan – ‘Missing’

The influence George Strait said was absent from country radio came roaring back to life with William Michael Morgan’s follow-up to “I Met A Girl.” “Missing” is an astonishing single in that it makes little compromise to the modern landscape. Warner Bros deserves credit for releasing something this country to radio. Time will tell if they respond favorably.

 500x5008. Kelsey Waldon – ‘All By Myself’

Among its many achievements, a few of which you’ll see highlighted further down, 2016 introduced Kelsey Waldon, a killer traditionalist, to the masses. “All By Myself” is a stern warning to fakers, a biting assessment of authenticity and a woman’s empowerment anthem for the current generation. 

7. Mary Chapin Carpenter – ‘Something Tamed, Something Wild’

The most common criticism I’ve heard about Mary Chapin Carpenter’s more recent works is she ‘lacks a pulse.’ It may be true to an extent, but I’m not hearing it here. This introspective examination of existential curiosity is one of her finest in recent memory. The parent album it comes from is her best in more than a decade.

6. Time Jumpers – ‘Kid Sister’

Vince Gill’s tribute to Dawn Sears is both personal and touching.

record-year-cover5. Eric Church – ‘Record Year’

Not since “The Song Remembers When” has a song about songs been this clever or powerful. Church proves he’s a master once again, name checking legends at every turn and laying out a jovial tale of heartbreak both ear catching and believable. “Record Year” is undoubtedly the best mainstream single of the year.

 4. Lori McKenna – ‘Wreck You’

The lead single from The Bird and the Rifle is this masterful look at sabotage in which the woman is admitting fault, with brutal candor – “Something between us changed, I’m not sure if its you or me But lately all I do seems to wreck you.”

unspecified-13. Tim McGraw – ‘How I’ll Always Be’

2016 found Tim McGraw in an artistic renaissance, with his strongest back-to-back singles in twenty years. He succeeded in a climate unfavorable to substance without conceding to modern pressures. “Humble & Kind” is the better lyric. But “How I’ll Always Be” shines melodically. Not since “Just To See You Smile” has McGraw sounded this good on record. 

2. Brandy Clark – ‘Love Can Go To Hell’

The genius is in the delivery. Brandy Clark sings this so deadpan, it’s easy to miss the dark humor underneath the surface. I totally missed it, but when it hit me, I never heard this the same way again.

reba-1024x10241. Reba McEntire – ‘Just Like Them Horses’

Tim McGraw wasn’t the only one in the throws of an artistic reawaking in 2016. This tale of a dying man giving positive reassurance to the loved one he’s leaving behind may’ve been too much for radio to bare, the unique take on ‘if you love me, let me go’ too smart for the masses.

Reba eulogized her father with this tune before committing it to record, which only solidified the emotional undertones she brought forth in her performance, her strongest vocal since “If I Had Only Known” twenty-five years ago. “Just Like Them Horses” is just that good, a bone-chilling highlight from a career with far too many to count.