My Kind of Country

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

Album Review: Kenny Rogers – ‘Love Will Turn You Around”

Kenny Rogers’ thirteenth album, Love Will Turn You Around, was his second studio release since parting ways with longtime collaborator Larry Butler. The album, released in 1982, was a platinum-selling success.

The title track, one of my favorites in Rogers’ catalog, was issued as the lead single. The whimsical mid-paced ballad, the theme to his film Six Pack, peaked at #1 on both the Country and Adult Contemporary charts.

The second and final single, “A Love Song” was written and originally recorded by Lee Greenwood on his Inside Out album the same year. The lush ballad, which peaked at #3, is a bit too slow and delicate for my tastes.

Bobby Harden’s “Fightin’ Fire with Fire” is the story of a man being tormented by a woman named Diana and the new flame she’s literally rubbing in his face. “Maybe You Should Know,” composed by Peter McCann, is a forceful confessional from a man to his woman.

The funky R&B leaning “Somewhere Between Lovers and Friends” was co-written by Brent Mehar and Randy Goodrum, who were enjoying ample success during this period writing for everyone from The Judds and Anne Murray to Ronnie Milsap. With that degree of pedigree, it’s odd this wasn’t chosen as a single.

“Take This Heart,” by J.P. Pennington, moves Rogers’ further away from country with a lyric and melody that would’ve perfectly suited Crystal Gayle. The straight-up rock of “If You Can Lie A Little Bit” recalls his work with the First Edition. “The Fool In Me,” another Goodrum co-write (with Dave Loggins), is one of the album’s strongest tracks, complete with horns.

The best album cut on Love Will Turn You Around is closing track “I Want A Son,” co-written by Steve Dorff and Marty Panzer. The reflective ballad isn’t particularly country but that doesn’t diminish its quality in the least.

Love Will Turn You Around is a mixed bag at best, melding a slew of different styles both effective and ineffectively. The title track is the obvious classic and easily the most memorable cut from this set.

Grade: B

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Album Review: Kenny Rogers – ‘Love or Something Like It’

Kenny Rogers’ fourth album, Love or Something Like It, was released in July 1978. The record marked his fifth time working with Larry Butler, who would serve as his producer until 1980. This was his fourth consecutive number one album.

The album produced just one single, the title track, which Rogers co-wrote with his bandmate, Steve Glassmeyer. It’s a mid-tempo number with pleasing percussion and a nice groove. The song spent just ten weeks on the chart before cresting. Deryl Dodd subsequently covered it on Stronger Proof in 2005.

Three more of the album’s tracks were rich with alternative versions by other artists. B.J. Thomas, Sammy Davis Jr. and Tom Jones have also recorded the contemplative ballad “We Could’ve Been The Closest of Friends.” “Sail Away,” which features light touches of R&B, was originally released by Sam Neely in 1977 and again by The Oak Ridge Boys, who took it to #2, in 1979. Far too many artists have sung “Even a Fool Would Go” through the years to list them here, but the string and piano-laced ballad is probably most familiar to country fans courtesy of Charlie Rich, who released it as a single under the direction of Billy Sherill in 1977.

Another notable track, “Momma’s Waiting,” was originally recorded by Rogers with the First Edition in 1970. The intriguing ballad, which Rogers co-wrote with Terry Williams, casts him as a prison inmate saying goodbye to his mother as he’s led off to his execution. The song is both haunting and effective. “Momma’s Waiting” serves as the B-Side to “The Gambler.”

One theory as to why United Artists let Love or Something Like It die after one single is “I Could Be So Good for You,” co-written by Dennis Linde. The track was Rogers’ feeble attempt to cash in on the disco craze, with diminishing returns.

“There’s A Lot of That Going Around” is a solid ballad, with pleasing percussion. The arrangement on “Starting Again” is far more tasteful and country-leaning. The trend continues with “Buried Treasure,” which actually feels like it fits within similar uptempo country songs from the era.

“Something About Your Song” is progressive but inoffensive. The funky “Highway Flier” is a lot to handle and ranks among the weaker tracks, despite committed performances from the session musicians.

Love or Something Like It is a mixed bag with little material worth seeking out. “Momma’s Waiting” is the standout track and while others are good to very good, nothing here is remarkable or rises above the characterization of filler. It doesn’t help matters that the album, forty years in, hasn’t aged well.

Rogers is better than this, which he more than proved with the output he released (including the duets albums with Dottie West) around the time of crafting this album. I’d skip this one, except for “Momma’s Waiting,” and seek out the stronger material from his other late 1970s recordings.

Grade: B-

Song Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘Hollywood’

Ever since debuting “All The Trouble,” Lee Ann Womack has been busy preparing for the Oct. 27 release of her ninth album, The Lonely, The Lonesome and The Gone. She completed a mini acoustic tour with Patty Griffin and starred as the main attraction at AmericanaFest in Nashville, sponsored by The Americana Music Association. Events included the annual Lee Ann Womack & Friends concert and an intimate conversation and performance at The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum moderated by Peter Cooper.

Womack also participated in the Build Series in New York City (The interview is on Facebook) and gave a wide-ranging interview with Noisey, a music brand created through Vice with the mission “to document new and exciting music across the globe — from pop’s heavy-hitters to tiny garage bands and everything in between.” Womack vented her frustrations with mainstream Nashville and revealed she had to constantly battle her traditional tendencies with the need to satisfy her major label’s bottom line.

Amongst these performances and interviews, she premiered “Hollywood,” which she also co-wrote with Waylon Payne and Adam Wright. The ethereal ballad finds Womack in familiar territory, as the wife in a disintegrating marriage with a less than forthcoming spouse. Like all her songs, the wife has every clue what’s happening before her eyes, so much so she routinely begs her husband to have a substantive conversation with her, both at the breakfast table:

Morning cup of coffee, not a single word

And if you do say something, it’s only about work

Every time I ask you, you just say we’re good

And in bed, where he admits his anticipation:

We say good night, I love you

We never miss our cue

I ask you if you mean it

You say yes I knew you would

The wife is clearly exhausted from fighting for everything he won’t give her, which Womack brings out in her performance, strong yet breathy. Like any woman who trusts her intuition, the wife only wants one thing out in the open — the truth:

Like the silver screen, its a technicolor dream

We pretend it’s real, but it’s only make-believe

But it’s the killer hook that drives everything home. The wife only doubts herself once, right after he fails to give her the answers she so desperately needs:

Either I’m a fool for askin’

Or you belong in Hollywood

I’ll freely admit it took me a minute when I first heard “Hollywood” to digest the presentation, from the dark production and background singers to Womack’s vocal, which goes in and out from her soprano to her falsetto. But on repeat listenings, I get what’s going on here. This song is so old Hollywood, so Mad Men-esque it’s almost scary. It won’t appeal to everyone, but it eventually finally got me.

Grade: A 

Album Review: Nathan Carter – ‘Time of My Life’

Nathan Carter was all of 21 when he released his third album, Time of My Life, in 2011. The album opens with the title track, a surprisingly effective cover of Green Day’s 1997 pop classic, with lovely Irish touches. His version of “Take Another Little Piece of My Heart” is a solid yet jarring interpretation of Faith Hill’s much-disparaged rendition of the song. The lyric, when taken from a man’s perspective, sounds oddly juvenile.

Carter transforms Don Williams’ “Lay Down Beside Me” into a mid-1990s power ballad. His take, which I like, is so convincing I would’ve expected to hear it grace country radio circa 1995-1996. I’m not so keen on his reading of “Delta Dawn,” which he transforms into a bright country shuffle. He treats “Fishin’ In The Dark” well, but he’s no match for Jeff Hanna or Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

“Where Do You Go To My Lovely” was composed and originally released by British singer-songwriter Peter Sarstdet in 1969. The song is perfect for Carter, who wraps his vibrato around it gorgeously. The beautiful “My Forever Friend” is presented here as a duet with Charlie Landsborough, from who the song originates. “One For The Road” is an excellent and bright sing-a-long brimming with fiddle. “The Dancer,” a mid-tempo waltz, is just as wonderful.

“The Rainbow in Glenfarne” is a moderately paced Irish folk tune that fits nicely with the other bright fiddle tunes on the album. The medley of “Spanish Dancer / Holy Ground / Westmeath Bachelor” might be more of the same sonically, but it’s the fastest track on the record and just a delight.

I wholly recommend the album, even if I found the cover songs to be a bit subpar. As Paul pointed out, these songs are likely new to Carter’s audience, but to my ears they aren’t very good. But Carter possesses a lot of charm and has a strong voice, which carries the album over the finish line.

Grade: B+ 

Album Review: Erin Enderlin – ‘Whiskeytown Crier’

“Ain’t It Just Like A Cowboy,” is a “stop me if you’ve heard this one” tale of a woman jilted by a man who repeatedly abandons her. But Erin Enderlin and her co-writer Heather Little turn the concept on its head. The song isn’t about rodeos, but rather another more universal pain:

He’s holdin’ her like he held me

God I should know better than to cry

The steel-adorned ballad serves as the lead single from Whiskeytown Crier, which finds Enderlin teaming with Jamey Johnson and Jim “Moose” Brown on a collection of songs culled from the female perspective, of the women who inhabit a fictional residential area known as Whiskeytown. Enderlin imagines the album as a newspaper, with the songs serving as the articles.

Whiskeytown Crier consists of many songs where the woman is in various states of dealing with the man who’s left her. He’s a cowboy one minute, the next he’s the self-absorbed litterer at the heart of “Jesse Joe’s Cigarettes,” which she smokes since she has nothing better to do. The feelings are so complex that to deal with them requires a “Whole Nuther Bottle of Wine.” “Till It’s Gone” finds her maxing out on all these pleasures, accented with a stunning twenty-nine-second steel guitar solo.

Her solely-penned “Broken” is a stunner of self-awareness that acts as a prequel of sorts, detailing the woman’s marriage at eighteen to the man who saw in her what she saw in him:

A broken limb

From a crooked family tree

“The Coldest In Town” is a spellbinding duet with Randy Houser that details a disintegrating marriage from both perspectives. It could be the woman from “Broken” when her life falls apart, but it also works as a standalone composition.

The album also contains two muscular southern gothic murder ballads. “Caroline” is the sadistic tale of a teenage pregnancy and a father’s revenge on the man who made her a mother. “Baby Sister” shows blood is thicker than love, with a shocked sibling proclaiming:

I knew you were a pistol

But I never knew you owned a gun

“The Blues Are Alive and Well” purposely evokes Merle Haggard. “Home Sweet Home” finds a woman enjoying the pleasures of the United States – a game at Wrigley Field, Broadway Shows – but finding comfort in her southern roots, where she prefers to live. “His Memory Walks on Water” is a tale of innocence – a little girl remembering her dad, a degenerate, in death as the man he never was on Earth. To his youngest daughter, though, he was everything.

Enderlin also included two covers to round out the set. She turns in a competent reading of “Till I Can Make It On My Own,” which is very good but could’ve been more subtle. Her take on Gram Parsons’ “Hickory Wind” is excellent.

Whiskeytown Crier is a very fine album that could’ve stood less intrusive production on occasion, namely eliminating the intrusive electric guitar that permeates “Jesse Joe’s Cigarettes.” But the music shines through, putting the focus on Enderlin’s apt storytelling, right where it should be.

Grade: A

Album Review: Lisa McHugh – ‘A Life That’s Good’

Lisa McHugh released her sophomore album, A Life That’s Good, in October 2014. The title track, co-written by Sara Siskind and Ashley Monore, is a sweet ballad about personal fulfillment that first appeared early on in the second season of Nashville.

The album is ripe with covers. McHugh opens with “Applejack,” in which she more than adequately channels Dolly Parton. She turns to Trisha Yearwood with “She’s In Love With The Boy,” wrapping her innocent twang around the timeless tale of Katy and Tommy’s burgeoning love. As if to cover all ends of the spectrum, McHugh turns in a fine rendition of “Any Man of Mine,” which typically sounds like cheesy karaoke outside of Shania Twain’s hands.

A Life That’s Good proves McHugh to favor bright and uptempo material, which makes Vince Gill’s “Feels Like Love” the perfect addition to this set. Also excellent is Red-era Taylor Swift’s “Stay Stay Stay.” McHugh improves on Swift’s album track with a far more organic arrangement and mature performance vocally. Kacey Musgraves’ “My House” is also a delight, although I wish McHugh had settled for a bit less mimicry in her inflections.

On an album of curious covers, closing track “On The Road Again,” which has always been one of my favorite songs, stands above the rest. Her version of the Willie Nelson classic is excellent, infusing her own personality while keeping the essence of the song alive.

“Ireland” continues the album’s bright vibe, with an uptempo love song brimming with gorgeously ear catching fiddle. The cautionary “Hey I’m A Woman” finds McHugh delivering a stern warning to her man that she’s not just one of the guys. “What You Get Is What You See” might just be my favorite vocal of McHugh’s on the whole album. “Night Train to Memphis” is bluegrass in mainstream 1990s country style and every bit as wonderful as you might expect. “Hillbilly Girl” is cheesy but not without its charms.

McHugh does slow the pace on occasion, although those moments are rare. “Home to Donegal,” a power ballad, has good intentions but is way too loud and feels a bit staged. “All of Me” is a misplaced cover of John Legend’s song, far too pop, for placement on such a solidly country album. Steel Guitar-laced ballad “Left to Love,” which perfectly displays her sweet voice, is much better.

McHugh is a delight and I quite enjoyed listening to A Life That’s Good. It’s impossible to listen to her and not fall under her spell. There’s truly nothing not to like about what she’s given us here. I only wish she wasn’t so reliant on covering such well-known songs and was putting the focus, instead, on developing her own artistry. But I really can’t complain when an album sounds this good and this country.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Mary Chapin Carpenter – ‘Houston’

Mary Chapin Carpenter responds to Hurricane Katrina with a track as timely today as it was in 2006:

BREAKING NEWS: Don Williams Dead at 78

Read the story here

Album Review: Robert Mizzell – ‘Mama’s Rocking Chair’

2011 was a good year for Louisiana Born Irish country singer Robert Mizzell. He was inducted into the Shreveport Walk of Stars, which recognizes achievement in the world of country music, and is the highest honor his home city could bestow upon him. He also released his eighth album, Mama’s Rocking Chair, a collection of thirteen songs, many of which were classic country covers.

Among the tracks are three George Jones songs from his years recording for Musicor. The earliest, “Things Have Gone to Pieces,” written by Leon Payne, was his first single for the label, peaking at #9. Mizzell gives an excellent reading of the ballad, which nicely stands up to Jones’ recording. The other two were culled from Jones’ 1970 album Will You Visit Me On Sunday. The title track, written by Dallas Frazier is about a prison inmate and the woman he loves on the outside. Charlie Walker’s “Rosie Bokay,” tells the story of a man falls for an enigmatic bartender. Both are also excellent and devoid of the intrusive touches on Jones’ versions.

The jaunty “Sick, Sober and Sorry” was a duet for Lefty Frizzell and Johnny Bond in 1951. Mizzell reprises it here, beautifully, as a duet with Martin Cleary. John Prine’s “Grandpa Was A Carpenter” is newer, first seeing release by him in 1973 and again in 1989 from The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. 2. Mizzell once again turns in an equally wonderful performance. Also very good is his version of Rodney Crowell’s “Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight,” which came to prominence through recordings by Emmylou Harris and The Oak Ridge Boys.

The plight of Irish immigrants in the 1950s is covered on “Paddy,” an Irish folk ballad given a traditional arrangement. Also gut wrenching is “The Orphan Train,” a brutal ballad. The title track, a mid-tempo fiddle drenched ballad, is another excellent story song. “What We Don’t Have” and “Can You Hear Me Now” are pure honky-tonk.

Also featured on Mama’s Rocking Chair is Mizzell’s biggest hit to date at the time, the upbeat “I Ain’t Fallin’ for That” and “Cajun Dance,” a fiddle heavy ode to his Louisiana heritage written specifically for him by Peter McKeever. Of the two,“Cajun Dance,” which opens the album, is the stronger song, which recalls the line dance craze of the early 1990s.

Mama’s Rocking Chair, as a whole, does a great job of mixing both old and new cohesively. I thought it was a bit too clean and precise in execution, but it’s a fine album worth checking out. Individual tracks are available on YouTube and the album is also on Itunes.

Grade: A-

“Every Little Thing” and Carly Pearce’s fabricated fairy tale

The deeper I lean into the marketing of mainstream country music, The more I’m seeing the blatant manipulation. It’s no secret that Keith Hill’s comment that women are the tomatoes on the salad was offensive and misogynistic, but it was also, unfortunately, spot on. Women, unless they are members of a group, duo or collaboration also featuring men, have been shut out of even marginal airplay. Miranda Lambert is justifiably pissed at her diminishing returns, even as her music veers more and more towards Americana.

Media outlets that cover mainstream country have been celebrating the success of Carly Pearce’s “Every Little Thing” with Rolling Stone Country saying she “defied the odds with risky song” in a recent headline. I’ll admit, it’s against the norm, in this current climate, to release a ballad and have it succeed. The slower a song is the less likely it will fall under what is deemed “radio friendly.” That logic is nothing new.

But what’s baffling is the suppression of the truth. Carly Pearce is succeeding on her own merit about as much as Thomas Rhett. This grand success story? It’s all courtesy of iHeart Media and their “On The Verge” program. “On The Verge” exists to help struggling artists succeed and pretty much guarantees them a #1 hit. It’s the only reason former American Idol runner-up Lauren Alaina scored a chart topper with “The Road Less Traveled” seven years after her debut album bombed into oblivion. There’s absolutely no fairy tale here, no reason to cheer or even get excited. These feats are political manipulations swept under the rug disguised as major success stories.

We’re at a crisis point right now with female artists. Not only are none getting airplay, there really aren’t any in the mainstream sector for radio to embrace. Brandy Clark and Sunny Sweeney would never get airplay for the latest music, in any era, since they’re 40 years or older. Ashton Shepherd didn’t connect, with her heavy twang, so MCA dropped her. Ashely Monroe was told, on her last radio tour, that “On To Something Good,” was dead on arrival. Kacey Musgraves has done next to nothing to endear herself to the mainstream audience beyond wearing crazy outfits and adorning her sets with neon cacti. She will join Harry Styles on tour next year. Will Maren Morris connect? Possibly, as she’s already building a following. But I would think she’d have to prove herself as more than the “80s Mercedes” singer. “I Could Use A Love Song” has done that for me, but it’s only a step in the right direction for her to take as she contemplates her follow-up to Hero.

About the only person, we can count on is Carrie Underwood, who is currently in between albums. Time will tell if her newly minted deal with Capitol Nashville, the label that refused to sign her as a pre-teen back in 1996, will yield further success. I can’t imagine her being blackballed but I never thought Dixie Chicks would fall from grace like that either. In this market, anything is possible.

Is there a solution or silver lining in all of this? I honestly have no idea. I never imagined mainstream country music would ever be in this bad a shape in my life. It took until I got to college to see why Luke Bryan has been able to succeed like he has. He’s tapped into an audience previously ignored by country music, those who love to socialize and party and be high on life. He’s like the male Taylor Swift in that sense. He’s found his audience and he’s running with it all the way to the bank.

This era is the building block for whatever comes next. Has anyone else noticed the glaring oddity of Sam Hunt’s “Body Like A Backroad?” The song has succeeded without a music video, parent album or physical release of any kind. I can’t remember any other massive song that lacked even one of those three elements. These are uncharted waters and they’re reaping big rewards.

Maybe you know where we’re going from here. I know I probably shouldn’t care, and I have spent the majority of this year focused on independent releases, but I do. I can’t help it. It’s in my nature as female artists have always been my favorite, the ones I listen to most frequently. I guess Angaleena Presley and her fellow Pistol Annies said it best:

Dreams don’t come true

They’ll make a mess out of you

They’ll hang around the darkest corners of your mind

They’ll beat your heart black and blue

Don’t let anyone tell you they do

Dreams don’t come true

 

I hate to put a damper

On the fairy tale you pictured

I shoulda known all along that

Glass slippers give you blisters

Album Review: Natalie Hemby – ‘Puxico’

Natalie Hemby, Dean Dillon to Miranda Lambert’s George Strait, released her debut album back in January. The album, seven years in the making, is the musical accompaniment to a documentary she produced about her hometown of Puxico, Missouri. Hemby solely composed each of the project’s nine songs.

Hemby opens the album wonderfully, with the folksy tones of “Time-Honored Tradition,” a jaunty uptempo number about her longing for “kindred town filled with good company.” Said town ultimately goes through a “Grand Restoration,” in which the past and present beautifully collide to bring a sense of history into the modern day. She gets the sentiment right on “Worn,” a characteristic she gives to “the finer things worth keeping,” but I could’ve done with a more interesting execution. Similarly rudimentary is lead single “Return,” which details the idea that you need to get away in order to fully appreciate your life back home.

“Lovers On Display” is one of many relationship-centric tunes on Puxico. The simplistic ballad is an appealing dissertation on love, using carnival imagery to evoke innocent romance. The ambiguous steel drenched “This Town Still Talks About You” is a brilliantly heartbreaking reminder that a person’s presence can be alive and well even if they aren’t physically present. Our minds aren’t so lucky, as Hemby points out in “I’ll Remember How You Loved Me,” which says memories fade but we never forget love.

The love, or really praise, for “Cairo, IL” is a big reason why I decided to finally listen to Puxico. The gorgeous ballad, a tribute to a long abandoned ghost town, is considered one of the best country songs released this year:

All the fields are flooded up to Highway 51

Illinois is coming ’cross the bridge where the Old Ohio was

Don’t look away, it will be gone

 

Kentucky and Missouri, a trinity of states

Nothing’s in a hurry ’cept the water in between the rising banks

Oh nothing moves but nothing stays

Where the longing for the leaving and the welcome-home receiving join

Still I’ll keep driving past the ghost of Cairo, Illinois

 

She used to be a beauty back in 1891

After Fort Defiance, now she’s weathered by the river and the sun

She’s still around but she is gone

 

Where the longing for the leaving and the welcome-home receiving join

Still I’ll keep driving past the ghost of Cairo, Illinois

The lyric is simple, and the song itself is very quiet, but the hook does pack a nice punch. I probably enjoy “Ferris Wheel,” a track Faith Hill recently featured in her Instagram Stories when Hemby was scheduled to open up for her and Tim McGraw on a recent Soul2Soul tour stop, even more. The steel-drenched ballad, which has a lovely and inviting melody, is far and away my favorite track on the album.

On the whole, Puxico is a very strong album and a wonderful introduction to Hemby and her personal style. I just found it to be a bit too sing-song-y in places and some of the songs could’ve been more complex. I kept comparing her, in my head, to Kacey Musgraves, which I’m having a hard time shaking.

But, that being said, this is an album well-worth checking out.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Janie Fricke – ‘After Midnight’

(NOTE: After Midnight was the second album in which Fricke changed the spelling of her name to Frickie. She made the adjustment after being annoyed with mispronunciations of her name 

Following the chart topping success of Black and White, Janie Frickie’s career began to decline. The new traditionalists movement of the late 1980s all but whipped her countrypolitan stylings off the radio and thus she struggled to gain traction with her singles. 1987’s After Midnight was Fricke’s first album not to produce a top 20 hit.

As was customary, two singles were released from the album. “Are You Satisfied,” a mid-tempo bluesy ballad with Frickie’s voice in top form, stalled at #32. The thickly produced and slower paced “Baby You’re Gone” fared worse, hitting #63. It was the first single of Fricke’s career to miss the top 30 entirely.

The album also features “From Time to Time (It Feels Like Love Again),” a duet with Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers. The power ballad, which features horns, hit #21 as a single from his Partners album, which was released the same year.

Frickie turns in one of her strongest vocal performances on “I Hurt,” a stunning steel-drenched number reminiscent of something Reba McEntire would’ve recorded during this time period. “I Don’t Like Being Lonely” also features steel guitar and a lot of percussion. “Teach Me How To Forget” is more of the same, an expertly executed power ballad with forceful vocals and production.

“If I Didn’t Care” is soaring and lounge-like, with strings and distinct echoes of Patsy Cline. “My Eternal Flame” retains a countrypolitan vibe updated for the time period. “Nobody Ever Loved Me So Good” is more of the same while “It Won’t Be Easy” might be the album’s most traditional-minded number.

After Midnight is an excellent album, even if the production feels out of place for the current trends of the era. The lack of variation is the album’s sole downfall, with ten songs that all fit within the same production and tempo. If anything the production gives Fricke room to sour, turning in some of the strongest vocal performances of her career.

Grade: A

 

Album Review: Janie Fricke – ‘The First Word In Memory’

Janie Fricke’s ninth album, The First Word In Memory, was released in August 1984. In accordance with her previous efforts, the album was produced by Bob Montgomery.

The album produced two singles, both of which were ballads. The string heavy “Your Heart’s Not In It” was Fricke’s sixth #1 hit. The title track, which was bogged down by clunky backing voices, peaked at #7.

Sandwiched between them was the brilliant “A Place To Fall Apart,” her collaboration with Merle Haggard, the second single from his album It’s All In The Game. Fricke’s contributions to the chart-topping ballad are slight at best, she barely sings alone at all, which I find odd given her stature as a prominent hit maker at the time.

“Talkin’ Tough” opens the album strong, in mid-tempo. “One Way Ticket” kicks up the tempo even more, would’ve made an excellent choice for a single and likely would’ve done very well. “First Time Out of the Rain,” which puts the album back into string-heavy ballad territory, is also very good.

The rockish production of “A Love Like Ours” is dated to modern ears, but Fricke delivers the barnburner flawlessly. The same can easily be said for “In Between Heartaches,” another standout cut on the record. “Another Man Like That” is another ballad, but a welcomed change with muscular opposed to lush accompaniment. “Without Each Other” is an ear-catching uptemo duet with Benny Wilson while “Take It From The Top” is a striking piano ballad.

Listening through The First Word In Memory, I regard it as a missed opportunity on the part of Columbia. The album is peppered with very strong material and yet two of the record’s most mediocre ballads were released as singles. There was a chance here to showcase another side of Fricke’s artistry and they blew it.

Columbia’s mismanagement aside, Fricke and Montgomery crafted an excellent and engaging album that nicely holds up 33 years later. There’s a definite 1980s sheen, but it doesn’t distract from any of the material.

Grade: A 

Album Review: Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer – ‘Not Dark Yet’

In the summer of 2016, under the direction of Richard Thompson’s son Teddy, Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer entered a studio in Los Angeles and made good on a promise to one day record a collaborative album. The result, Not Dark Yet, is a ten-track collection of eccentric covers and one original tune.

The songs span genres, from classic country to rock and even grunge. The album, though, has a unifying sound, with Thompson using flourishes of piano and guitar to bring the tracks together. These aren’t by-the-numbers faithful interpretations, but rather the sisters’ take on these songs.

They open Not Dark Yet with “My List,” solely penned by Brandon Flowers and featured on The Killers second album Sam’s Town in 2006. Their version begins sparse, led by Moorer’s naked vulnerability, before unexpectedly kicking into gear halfway.

The title track was written and released by Bob Dylan in 1998, from Time Out Of Mind. Moorer is a revelation once again, with the perfect smoky alto to convey the despair lying at the center of Dylan’s lyric.

As one might expect, the album explores the feelings surrounding the horrific death of the sisters’ mother, at the hands of their father, who then turned the gun on himself. They were teenagers at the time, a period in one’s life where you arguably need your parents the most. They acknowledge their heartbreak with a trifecta of songs, culminating with the album’s sole original tune, which they composed themselves.

They begin with Nick Cave’s “Into My Arms,” the lead single from his 1997 album The Boatman’s Call. The song, which proves the benefit of turning to rock for expert lyricism, is about a man’s devotion to his woman and the push to bring them together. Lynne and Moorer continue with Kurt Cobain’s “Lithium,” from Nirvana’s 1992 masterpiece Nevermind. The dark ballad, which they make approachable, details the story of a man turning to God amidst thoughts of suicide.

The most personal, “Is It Too Much” was started by Lynne and finished by Moorer. The track details the bond they share as sisters, knowing each other’s pain, and wondering – is it too much to carry in your heart? It’s also one of the album’s slowest ballads, heavy on bass. I’m not typically drawn to these types of songs but they manage to bring it alive.

The remaining five tracks have ties to country music and thus fall more within my expertise. “Every Time You Leave” was written by Charlie and Ira Louvin and released in 1963. The backstory is a tragic one – Ira wrote this for his wife, saying that although they would eventually get back together, their separation was inventible. The wife he was married to at the time, his third, would also shoot him five times after a violent argument. It’s no wonder the pair feel a connection to the song, which they brilliantly deliver as a bass and piano-led ballad.

“I’m Looking for Blue Eyes,” written and recorded by Jessi Colter, was a track from Wanted! The Outlaws in 1976. Lynne and Moorer’s version is stunning, even if the pedal steel is just an accent and not a major player throughout.

Two of the album’s songs first appeared in 1969. “Lungs,” written by Townes Van Zandt, was featured on his eponymous album. The pair interpret the song nicely, which has a gently rolling melody. The album’s most famous song, at least to country fans, is Merle Haggard’s classic “Silver Wings,” which first appeared on Okie From Muskogee. Their version is slightly experimental but also lovely.

The final song is arguably the most contemporary. “The Color of a Cloudy Day” was written by Jason Isbell and is a duet between him and his wife Amanda Shires. The song first appeared at the close of the British documentary The Fear of 13 and was given a proper release as part of Amazon’s “Amazon Acoustics” playlist in 2016. Moorer and Lynne give the song a bit more pep, which isn’t hard given the acoustic leanings of Isbell and Shires’ duet.

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but Not Dark Yet is considered one of the most anticipated roots releases of the year. It’s a beautiful album, and while it won’t be within everyone’s wheelhouse, it’s difficult not to appreciate just how brilliant Lynne and Moorer are as a pair. They are two of our finest voices and have an exceptional ear for song selection. I don’t usually have trouble grading albums, but Not Dark Yet is hard record for which to assign a grade. It might not be completely my cup of tea, but I can’t ignore how expertly it was crafted.

Grade: A

Album Review: Janie Fricke – ‘It Ain’t Easy’

By 1982, Janie Fricke’s career was on the upswing. After several years of charting top ten and top five hits, she finally hit #1 with “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me Baby,” the final single from Sleeping With Your Memory. Fricke’s next single, the spectacular “It Ain’t Easy Being Easy,” a commanding countrypolitan ballad, quickly followed suit. The success of the song led to the It Ain’t Easy album, which was released in September.

She would top out at #4 with “You Don’t Know Love,” a similarly styled ballad that was equally as strong. Fricke returned to the top, and provided a change of pace, with the excellent uptempo “He’s A Heartache (Looking For A Place To Happen).” I actually first heard this song a few months ago, when I was flipping through the radio dial and happened upon the faint signal of a college radio station that was playing it. I was too enthralled with what I was hearing to actually process what was happening. It was a cool moment.

The remainder of the album is a mixed bag, with varying degrees of quality. The ballads “Tell Me A Lie” and “A Little More Love” are very good and I like “Trying To Fool a Fool.” The rest of the tracks veer uptempo and just aren’t that strong, coming off as fluff. Songs like “Too Hard on my Heart” and “Heart To Heart Talk” aren’t bad, they’re just too lightweight for my taste. The same goes for “Love Have Mercy” while “Who Better Than an Angel” is just mediocre.

It Ain’t Easy isn’t a terrible album in the least, but there is too much padding and not enough meat. The singles are incredible, but the album tracks fail to elevate the record to a higher artistic level. At least the sound is great, which is a testament to Bob Montgomery and his countrypolitan stylings, which are always in good taste, even if they sound dated today.

Grade: B

 

BREAKING NEWS: Glen Campbell 1936-2017

The country legend has passed following a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s Disease. He was 81-years-old.

Album Review: Janie Fricke – ‘Love Notes’

Despite enjoying success singing as a featured vocalist on songs by Johnny Duncan and Charlie Rich, Janie Fricke couldn’t launch a sustainable solo career in the late 1970s. None of her albums during this period charted, including her sophomore record Love Notes, which appeared in 1978.

She wasn’t exactly hitting it out of the park with country radio, either, although she wasn’t doing horribly. Three distinctly different ballads were released as singles. The theoretical “Playing Hard To Get” hit #22 while the MOR “Let’s Try Again” rose to #28. Sandwiched between them was the steel soaked “I’ll Love Your Troubles Away for Awhile,” which peaked at #14, her first trip into the top 20 as a solo artist.

Steel is heard amongst heavy orchestration on “Somewhere To Go When It Rains,” a ballad about a woman her friend turns to when his life is in turmoil. Fricke follows with the attractive ballad “River Blue” and the lush and pleading “Let Me Love You Goodbye.”

The theatrics continue on piano ballads “Love Is Worth It All” and “You’re The One,” which aren’t particularly country. “Stirrin’ Up Feelings” is a nice change of pace, with a bit more tempo and the welcomed inclusion of drums into the mix. “Got My Mojo Working” is a slow build, where sparse production gives way to thicker sounds as the track progresses.

While there is nothing wrong with the Billy Sherill produced Love Notes, it isn’t a particularly strong album by any means. Fricke sings gorgeously throughout, but she hadn’t found her identity yet as an artist. It would be a few more years until that would happen, which makes Love Notes an important stepping stone in her career projection. Without that context, there really isn’t anything essential here to grab the listeners‘ attention.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Charley Pride – ‘Sweet Country’

Charley Pride released his seventeenth album, Sweet Country, via RCA Victor in 1973. It was helmed, as per usual, by Jack Clement.

The album spawned two singles, both of which topped the charts. The honest, “A Shoulder To Cry On,” a ballad about a man taking advantage of a friend’s emotional support, was lovingly written by Merle Haggard (he recorded his own version, on It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad) a year earlier). “Don’t Fight the Feelings of Love,” written by John Schweers, is an excellent country shuffle.

No less than three of the album’s ten tracks were penned by Ben Peters, who had given Pride his career hit (“Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’”) just two years earlier. “The Happiest Song on the Jukebox,” a bright traditional tune, is both a study in familiarity and contrast. This is Pride’s signature style, yet the lyric contradicts everything we’ve come to know about jukebox songs. Trading sad songs for happy ones isn’t something you hear every day. Peters also contributed “Just To Be Loved By You,” a pleasant string-laced ballad and “Tennessee Girl,” a mid-tempo ode to the woman and lifestyle left behind in hopes of greener pastures that never materialized.

Don Williams is responsible for “The Shelter of Your Eyes,” which he recorded the following year on his Volume One album. Pride does a surprisingly decent job with the dobro accented ballad, especially since he and Williams don’t have similar styles at all (in all fairness, no one captures the mellow conversational tone Williams brought to his music).

“I’m Learning to Love Her,” written by Johnny Duncan, is as honest and forthright a love song as I’ve ever heard. The protagonist is talking with his old love about his new flame, admitting that he’s simply “learning to love her in time.” George Strait knows “You Can’t Make A Heart Love Somebody,” but with a little patience, Duncan and Pride believe it’s possible to come around.

“Along the Mississippi,” an ode to happy memories along the titular river, is an engaging and ear-catching mid-tempo number. “Love Unending” is a sonically adventurous love song, with a man making promises to the woman he hopes will confess her love to him. “Pass Me By” is a piano and steel drenched ballad in which a guy wants something more, but if the woman can’t give it to him, he hopes she’ll just leave him alone.

Of the three albums I reviewed this month, Sweet Country shows the most progression in Pride’s development as an artist. The Nashville Sound era trappings are gone, due to the changing tides in mainstream country, and the music itself is less cheesy. This is the style of Pride’s music I prefer and thus Sweet Country is indeed excellent.

Grade: A

Album Review: Charley Pride – ‘Did You Think to Pray’

Produced by Jack Clement and released in 1971, Did You Think To Pray was Charley Pride’s first gospel album. The album, which emerged at the height of Pride’s popularity, hit #1 and was certified Gold.

Despite his goodwill with country radio, his previous six singles had been chart toppers,  Pride could only get the album’s sole single to #21. “Let Me Live” has a strong lyric about the guidance of God’s love, but a melody that leaves much to be desired. The song takes a bizarre and jarring turn halfway, turning from a simple ballad into a gospel rave and back again.

The title track, which opens the album, preaches about the power of prayer. The track is somewhat overwrought and brought down by the heaviness of the background vocalists and what appears to be a low humming throughout.

The album kicks into high gear with Pride’s spirited take on “I’ll Fly Away.” The fiddle is a perfect accompaniment for the backing vocalists who join Pride throughout. Also fantastic is his banjo-drenched take on “Angel Band,” one of the album’s strongest tracks. “Whispering Hope” is also fantastic, with Pride channeling Jim Reeves.

Pride gets back to preaching on “Take Time out for Jesus,” which is heavy-handed but otherwise excellent. The melody is inviting and draws you right in. The confessional “Jesus, Don’t Give Up On Me,” finds Pride hoping for redemption after failing to heed his own advice.

“The Highway Leads to Glory” is about the journey, and it’s glorious. His take on the oft-covered “The Church In The Wildwood” is of similarly high quality. The album closes with “Lord, Build Me a Cabin in Gloryland,” which retains the album’s winning ways.

Apart from a couple of moments that get the album off track, Did You Think To Pray is an excellent recording, gospel, secular or otherwise. It’s well worth checking out if you want to hear it again after many years or are just discovering it for the first time.

Grade: A

Single Review: Brandy Clark – ‘You’re Drunk’

It’s about time I let you in on a little secret. I’m always clamoring for new releases from Brandy Clark. When my local record store didn’t carry Live From Los Angeles this past Record Store Day, I went online and was able to secure the final copy at Bull Moose Records in New Hampshire.

I’m also still finding additional nuances in Big Day In A Small Town more than a year since it was released. I only recently uncovered the brilliance of “Since You’ve Gone To Heaven,” a track I had initially failed to understand in any concrete way. Brandy Clark isn’t just one of the strongest songwriters to come along this decade. She’s one of the greatest contemporary voices in country music, achieving an equal footing with the likes of Gretchen Peters, Matraca Berg, Bobbi Cryner and Lori McKenna.

Clark is adding to her legacy with “You’re Drunk” a staple of her live show and an outtake from the sessions for Big Day In A Small Town. The story goes that she never took the song seriously until she cut it, the track didn’t fit the vibe of the album and she had to find a way to get it out.

While I’m glad it’s out there, I’m thrilled it didn’t make the album. “You’re Drunk” is an outtake for a reason – it’s shallow, far too contemporary and lacks Clark’s overall distinctiveness. “You’re Drunk” feels undeveloped in a “Girl Next Door” sort of way, trying to be clever without really packing any significant punch.

Her work with Shane McAnally (they co-wrote this with Josh Osborne) has been incredible – the pair wrote “Since You’ve Gone to Heaven” together – but this feels like it’s dripping with McAnally’s influence and not in a good way. The production and overall vibe is far more “American Kids” than “Last Call” or “Follow Your Arrow.”

That being said, “You’re Drunk” isn’t terrible. It’s found a proper home as an outtake, where it belongs, and not the anchor to a new album, like the one consisting solely of drinking songs she wants to do at some point. I’ll give her a pass for this. It’s an outtake and nothing more. Even Brandy Clark doesn’t have to hit it out of the park every time she’s up at bat.

Grade: B-