My Kind of Country

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

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-

Album Review: Charley Pride – ‘Make Mine Country’

Make Mine Country, Charley Pride’s fourth album, was released via RCA Victor in 1968. The album didn’t produce any singles but featured covers of many notable songs that have become classics. It was produced by Chet Atkins along with Jack Clement, Bob Ferguson, and Felton Jarvis.

The album opens with Jack Clement’s “Now I Can Live Again,” a minor hit for Mickey Gilley the previous year. The uptempo track, about a newly-single man finally putting the sorrow behind him, is brimming with sunshine.

“A Word or Two to Mary,” written by Vince Bulla and Peter Cotton, is a ballad between friends in which a man asks his buddy to compose a letter to the woman he’s leaving behind in death. The track, typical of the era, is beyond creepy and has an inappropriate sing-song melody that clashes with the subject matter.

“If You Should Come Back Today” was also recorded by Johnny Paycheck although I couldn’t find the year he released his version. The honky-tonk uptempo number returns the album to the sunny disposition of the opening track, with a lyric (written by Johnny Mathis and Harlan Howard) about a guy who would forgive his ex if she came back into his life.

Clement also solely wrote “Guess Things Happen That Way,” which Johnny Cash took to #1 the year previous. Pride’s version is slicker sounding than Cash’s, which is the sole difference between the recordings.

The album’s fifth song is “Before The Next Teardrop Falls,” which appears here seven years before Freddy Fender had an international hit with it. Pride’s version is terrible by comparison, a by-the-numbers take that lacks the nuance Fender was able to find within the lyric.

Make Mine Country continues with Clement’s arrangement of “Banks of the Ohio.” The track, drenched in mandolin, feels rushed and like the song before it, lacks any care to bring the emotional qualities out in the lyric.

“Wings of a Dove” was already eight years old when Pride released his version. It’s a solid take, although the arrangement is far too cheesy for my tastes.

“A Girl I Used To Know” was six years old by 1968, a top 5 hit for George Jones that would top the charts as “Just Someone I Used to Know” in a duet recording by Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton the following year. Pride’s version is very good, but hardly an essential take on the song.

“Lie To Me,” which only saw this version by Pride, is another sunny uptempo number. This one is about a guy who wants his woman to confess her love to him, even if she doesn’t truly feel it deep inside.

The regretful “Why Didn’t I Think of That” appears next, with Pride taking on the role of voyeur, watching the way his ex’s new love shows his affection towards her. The track is merely good.

Eight years after Buck Owens took it to #3, Pride unleashes his rendition of “Above and Beyond (The Call of Love).” He handles the song beautifully, allowing it to stand out among the twelve tracks on the album. “Baby Is Gone,” a mid-tempo ballad, closes out the record.

Make Mine Country is a very strong album, with solid takes on some of the hits from the day. Given that it didn’t have any singles, I can only guess it was an obligatory record aimed at fulfilling some clause of his recording contract. I found the album to be bogged down by a few second-rate relationship songs that could’ve been swapped out for a bit more meaty material.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Clinton Gregory – ‘If It Weren’t For Country Music (I’d Go Crazy)’ + ‘Satisfy Me’

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent & Daryle Singletary – ‘American Grandstand’

“Traditional country music is a whole different genre,” Vincent said. “A lot of people will say that there is not a market for traditional country music, but I know that is not true as it has its own niche. I did that traditional country album with Gene Watson not long ago, and I found out that there is a tremendous audience out there for traditional country music. Daryle and I have been doing shows together, and he is so much fun. When everybody hears this new album, they will know how special it is.” – Rhonda Vincent discussing American Grandstand. h/t That Nashville Sound

It’s hard to believe it’s been six years since Your Money and My Good Looks, which helped redefine Vincent’s pedigree beyond bluegrass. American Grandstand is a companion album of sorts to the project with Watson, a chance to recreate the magic all over again. Her friendship with Daryle Singletary goes back 23 years when they were labelmates on Giant Records. One of their earliest collaborations, a cover of Keith Whitley’s “Would These Arms Be In Your Way,” appeared on his self-titled debut album. They’ve collaborated frequently through the years, most recently on “We Must’ve Been Out of Our Minds,” from Vincent’s Only Me in 2014.

To say American Grandstand has been a long time coming is an understatement. With the timing finally right, they went into the studio to craft an album that mixes old and new, covers of classic duets interwoven amongst tracks newly-composed. A few of the duets may be oft-covered, but in the care of Vincent and Singletary, are as expertly executed as they’ve ever been. They tackle the mournful nature of “After The Fire Is Gone” with ease and extract the effervesce from “Golden Ring” without issue. “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” is a revelation, one of the strongest collaborative recordings I’ve heard in years.

They also surprise, with a stunning rendition of Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens’ lesser-known “Slowly and Surely.” Also not as famous is George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s “One,” which the pair released in 1996. Vincent and Singletary’s serviceable take is the album’s lead single. Other surprises include Harlan Howard’s “Above and Beyond,” which they deliver flawlessly. A third Jones cover, “A Picture of Me (Without You)” is also very good. “Up This Hill and Down,” which originated with The Osborne Brothers, is excellent.

The remainder of the album consists of the new songs, which include a reprise of “We Must Be Out of Our Minds.” These tracks are all ballads, which varying degrees of tempo. “As We Kiss Our World Goodbye,” about the end of a relationship, feels like the kind of track Singletary would’ve recorded back in the mid-1990s. In any other era, “Can’t Live Life” would be cemented as a standard.

If you can believe it, the rest of the album only slightly pails in comparison to the title track, which showcases Vincent as a songwriter (she wrote it solo). The spellbinding ballad is a grand finale of sorts, detailing the tale of duet partners preparing for their final show and the emotions attached to such an ending. I love how Vincent presents the well-worn themes in a new and exciting light.

American Grandstand is everything you would expect from a Vincent and Singletary collaboration, yet it’s even more deeply satisfying than you could even imagine. In a rare move, they actually sang together in the studio, at the instance of Singetary, who knew immediately that recording separately wasn’t going to work. The pair were born to sing together, even if Vincent’s power overtakes Singletary’s understated charm on occasion. He sounds to me like a modern day incarnation of Whitley, with a voice that has deepened over the years. It proves that Whitley’s influence continues to this day, which only makes this record even more special and essential.

I cannot recommend American Grandstand enough.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Johnny Paycheck – ‘Armed and Crazy’

Johnny Paycheck followed his most successful album, Take This Job and Shove It, with Armed and Crazy exactly a year later. The album was produced, as per usual, by Billy Sherrell.

The record saw two single releases. “Friend, Lover, Wife,” a mid-tempo ballad about a man’s straight-laced other half, peaked at #7. “The Outlaw’s Prayer,” an excellent recitation in which a man is banished from a church because of his appearance, stalled at #27.

The title track is a sonically adventurous mess that fails on every level. The song attempts to extend Paycheck’s outlaw image, but it tries too hard and devolves into a mix of unappealing loud noise. “Mainline” is better, with audible harmonica throughout, but it’s still not very good. “Just Makin’ Love Don’t Make It Love” is an AC-leaning ballad that feels uninspired, to say the least.

“Thanks To The Cathouse (I’m In The Doghouse With You)” has a strong lyric and clever title, but is bogged down by heavy production that intrudes on the overall listening experience. The track would’ve been far more enjoyable if the proceedings had been a bit more tasteful and let the song breathe. “Leave It To Me” isn’t much better, succumbing to Sherrill’s need to get in the way of Paycheck’s performance.

“Me and the IRS” is an excellent workingman’s anthem that perfectly balances comedy and reality. The uptick in quality continues with “Let’s Have A Hand for the Little Lady,” a rocker that succeeds on its melody and Paycheck’s energetic vocal. “Look What the Dog Drug In” is easily the album’s strongest track (along with “The Outlaw’s Prayer”) and would’ve made a terrific single.

Armed and Crazy is a strange album full of adventurous production that usually is not in service of the song. Sherrill used many of the techniques that were popular in the day and they don’t hold up to modern times. I can see why this album wasn’t a smash hit, it just doesn’t have a magical spark. There are a few good tracks, but that’s not enough to save the album as a whole.

Grade: B- 

Song Reviews: Sara Evans – ‘Marquee Sign’ and ‘Words’

It was last summer when Sara Evans made the announcement she had signed a recording contract with Sugar Hill Records. The move was designed to reunite Evans with her former A&R partner Tracey Gershon, a former record executive with UMG and a judge on Nashville Star the year Miranda Lambert placed third.

I was shocked when I heard the news. Had Sugar Hill Records lost their integrity? Why would they sign an artist as mainstream as Sara Evans? It turns out there was a bit more to the deal – Evans has gone on to form her own imprint, Born To Fly Records, with Gershon serving as a member of her A&R team.

Free of Sony’s constraints, I was excited to hear the first taste of Words, which is being touted for two main reasons – it’s her first independent album and it features a whopping fourteen separate female songwriters among the writing credits. The pedigree, on paper at least, seems high.

In reality, though, lead single “Marquee Sign,” co-written by Evans, Jimmy Robbins and Heather Morgan, is nothing more than a continuation of the sleek pop-country from her most recent Slow Me Down era, which did in fact slow down whatever momentum she had gained from “A Little Bit Stronger” (which appears on Words in acoustic form, as if it needs to reappear seven years later) to a screeching halt.

I’m smart enough to know that I should expect nothing when it comes to releases like “Marquee Sign.” Just because Words is an independent album, from Evans‘ own imprint, where is the incentive and guiding force that demands it has to be quality? She has to know she won’t get significant airplay, but that sadly isn’t enough for a reverse of course and a change of direction.

“Marquee Sign” might be a terrible song, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. It’s still characteristically Sara Evans. I do wish it was more “Backseat of a Greyhound Bus” or “Suds In The Bucket” Sara Evans, but those days are fourteen years in the rearview mirror.

In the lead up to Words, Evans has also issued the title track (co-written by Robins, David Hodges and Jake Scott), a ballad that makes ample use of her falsetto and trades twang for acoustic pop. The presentation is a breath of fresh air that presents Evans in a new light. On this track, at least, I give her credit for giving us something different that isn’t more of the same. “Marquee Sign” is nothing more than a doubling down of what hasn’t worked for her creatively or commercially in the past few years.

‘Marquee Sign:’ C

‘Words:’ B-

Album Review: Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit – ‘The Nashville Sound’

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’m always amazed at the frequency by which Jason Isbell releases new music, every two years, a pace largely unheard of for an artist of his ilk and prestige who isn’t bound by the regimental restrictions of mainstream country music. For most singer/songwriters, pouring their soul into an album feels like an exhaustive process, yet for Isbell, easily the most masterful artist in the Americana vein, it feels like a piece of cake. And yet, he only gets more nuanced and complex with each passing record.

The Nashville Sound, produced by Dave Cobb in RCA Studio A, has an urgent aggression that puts sound to the deep political divide that has risen in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as President. Isbell began writing and recording this past January, which allowed him to tackles this unrest from different angles while exploring varying perspectives.

Isbell’s observations often veer personal, as on “White Man’s World,” a bluesy rocker in which he uses his wife and daughter as a catalyst for conveying his fears about the future under the male dominant Trump administration. The track brilliantly traverses these feelings both externally and internally, jumping from disappointment (“I thought this world could be hers one day, but her momma knew better”) and anger (“I’m a white man living in a white man’s nation, I think the man upstairs must’a took a vacation”) to optimism (“I still have faith, but I don’t know why maybe it’s the fire in my little girl’s eyes”).

“Hope The High Road” generalizes the anger with words of encouragement, providing an anthemic message to anyone who feels they fell on the losing side of 2016. His message, that he hopes “the high road leads you home again, to a world you want to live in,” is heightened by his smart admission – he’s singing as much to himself as he is to them.

No matter how positively he spins the message, “Hope The High Road” bleeds with the same blistering anger that drives the majority of The Nashville Sound. It suggests hope as a process, not an absolute or a right. Isbell also knows the hope can seem distant, especially when a person’s reality is limited by circumstance. “The Cumberland Gap,” one of Isbell’s trademark character sketches, lays bare the struggles of a man suffocated by the extensive promise and bleak reality of mountaintop coal mining. Isbell’s brilliance is how masterfully he’s able to paint dire circumstances around men with smart moral compasses. Andy was undoubtedly the friend we all wish was in our lives. This man, who remains nameless throughout, is a son for the ages. He’s desperate for greener pastures but thinks how his mom would react. He’s the only family member left to care for her.

Another such illustration, “Tupelo,” examines the hopes we hold onto to get us through life, as told through the story of a drunk who imagines a better life with a woman in the titular Mississippi town. Isbell never allows us insight into whether or not the woman is real or a made-up construct in the man’s mind, allowing us to feel this guy’s struggle alongside him.

Isbell brings his internal struggle to the surface on “Last of My Kind,” which examines his first person perspective on trying to find his place in this world. This thought process continues on “Anxiety,” a brutally honest look at how fear can paralyze our psyche and contribute to feeling restless and lost.

As much as The Nashville Sound confronts our desire for a sense of place, it also seeks to examine personal relationships. A friendship with Ryan Adams led to “Chaos and Clothes,” a song about his 2016 divorce from singer and This Is Us actress Mandy Moore.

“Something To Love,” which Isbell wrote for his two-year-old daughter Mercy, is a rare moment of levity, anchored by the sunny fiddle played by his wife, fellow singer-songwriter Amanda Shires. That Nashville Sound isn’t necessarily a strict country album, but “Something To Love” is no doubt a country song.

As if it’s even possible, there is one song on The Nashville Sound that ranks above the rest and belongs in the upper echelon of Isbell’s legacy. That track is “If We Were Vampires,” a stunning love song about a couple’s appreciation for one another knowing that time will ultimately tear them apart:

If we were vampires and death was a joke

We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke

And laugh at all the lovers and their plans

I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand

 

Maybe time running out is a gift

I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift

And give you every second I can find

And hope it isn’t me who’s left behind

 

It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever

Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone

Maybe we’ll get forty years together

But one day I’ll be gone or one day you’ll be gone

“If We Were Vampires” is Isbell at his best, giving the world a song that stands up to “Elephant,” which I’ll always consider his crowning achievement as an artist. His best songs, ten of which appear here, are like punches to the gut in all the best ways. The Nashville Sound is a brilliant album from beginning to end.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Johnny Paycheck – ’11 Months 29 Days’

Johnny Paycheck released his first outlaw album, 11 Months 29 Days in 1976. He hadn’t yet caught on in this vein, proven by the fact the album spawned four low-charting singles and peaked at #40 upon release.

Frank Dycus and Larry Kingston wrote the lead single, “The Feminine Touch,” an odd critique on manhood. The dreary arrangement and Paycheck’s vocal are eerily reminiscent of George Jones, which I can’t tell is on purpose or not. The track itself just isn’t very good. It peaked at #56.

“Gone At Last,” the second single, is better although I could’ve done without the dated female voices on the chorus. I did enjoy the jaunty melody, which is brimming with flourishes of harmonica. The track stalled at #49.

The title track, which hit #44, was the album’s next radio offering. The prison-themed lyric, which Paycheck co-wrote with Billy Sherill, is very good. The track itself is dated beyond repair, with what sounds like an annoying horn throughout the proceedings.

The final single, “I Can See Me Loving You Again” was a Jerry Foster and Bill Rice co-write that reached #44. It’s nice ballad that makes good use of Paycheck’s honest and tender vocal performance. The production, complete with piano, is dated to modern ears, but the track is very good.

As for the remaining songs, the album finally kicks into high gear with “The Woman Who Put Me Here,” an excellent barroom anthem complete with a welcomed backing of steel guitar. “I Sleep With Her Memory Every Night” is another high point, a ballad, complete with nice touches of fiddle to accompany a lyric about a lost love. “I’ve Seen Better Days,” also another ballad, is slightly dreary but very good as well.

11 Months 29 Days is an average album at best, with songs that may be okay on their own but are taken down by dreary uninviting production trappings. While I didn’t like this one very much, it may appeal to Paycheck collectors’ more than average fans.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Johnny Paycheck – ‘Shakin’ The Blues’

Bear Family Records issued Shakin’ The Blues in May 2006 as a collection comprised of recordings Johnny Paycheck made for Decca, Mercury, and Todd between 1958-1964. Much like the previous sets, the album leans heavily on hardcore honky-tonk and finds Paycheck echoing the styles of both Ray Price and Faron Young.

None of these recordings were ever issued as singles or reissued on LP or CD. What sets this compilation apart is the last nine songs, which are carbon copies of hits from the day meant to sound interchangeable with the hit recording. The chosen songs, which include “Hello Walls” and “Above and Beyond” are good, but they’re nothing special or essential.

The rest of these recordings, of which there are 20, are fantastic. I particularly enjoyed the jaunty “The Old Man and the River” and “Story Behind The Photograph,” which clearly demonstrates the influence of Young on his vocal style.

There are simply too many tracks to highlight them all, but Paycheck shines brightest on the honky-tonk numbers, which I found to be the most inviting of the bunch. There are a number of Nashville Sound era songs and while they’re good, there’s really nothing about that style that has held up to modern ears.

When I went back and read Razor X’s review from earlier this week, I took particular note of his comment regarding the sound quality of these Bear Family reissue recordings. It’s the latter part of this project, tracks 17-19, that stand out the most in this regard. That, unfortunately, contains the cover tunes, which truly sound awful. I, too, wish some delicate remastering had taken place, at least to aid in one’s enjoyment and appreciation of what Paycheck had recorded during this era.

To my ears, Shakin’ The Blues is a very uneven set of songs, diminished primarily in terms of sound quality and then Nashville Sound era trappings. The honky-tonk numbers, of which there are many, are fantastic and well-worth seeking out. They shine the brightest amongst the muck that surrounds them. This is still a worthy set, essential in the sense that it captures an icon in his formative years. These are important recordings, regardless of the quality.

Grade: B

Album Review: Don Williams – ‘One Good Well’

Don Williams released his first album on RCA Records, One Good Well, in April 1989. The album, produced as per usual by Garth Fundis, prolonged his career with a series of very successful radio offerings.

The title track, a mid-tempo love song composed by Mike Reid and Kent Robbins, was issued as the lead single. It was followed by Bob McDill’s “I’ve Been Loved By The Best,” a gently rolling ballad about a love for the ages. Both songs, of superior quality, peaked at #4.

The third single, “Just As Long as I Have You,” which covered similar ground both thematically and sonically, also peaked at #4. The song, written by Dave Loggins and J.D. Martin, had originally peaked at #72 when Loggins released his own version with Gus Hardin in 1985.

The fourth and final single, “Maybe That’s What It Takes,” was slightly slower and a bit more lush than its predecessors. It stalled at #22 despite a well-written lyric by Beth Nielsen Chapman.

“Learn To Let It Go” is a jaunty pace changer, written by Reid with Rory Bourke. The arrangement, accented with dobro and fiddle, feels so tailor made to Keith Whitley I had to double check he wasn’t one of the track’s co-writers. Williams, unsurprisingly, wears the style well.

He goes uptempo again on “Why Get Up,” co-written by Bill Carter and Ruth Ellsworth. The track, complete with honky-tonk piano and an ear-catching lyric, is reminiscent of “It Must Be Love.”

Williams himself contributed “Cryin’ Eyes,” a gorgeous ballad concerning the reasons couples drift apart. Another of his solely-written numbers, “We’re All The Way” is more optimistic, tackling the well-worn theme of commitment. “Broken Heartland,” by Gene Nelson, keeps the pace slow on a ballad about feeling deflated when love doesn’t work out.

McDill and Bucky Jones are responsible for the album’s final song, “Flowers Won’t Grow (In Gardens Of Stone).” The somber ballad is an excellent steel drenched number, one of the album’s best.

One Good Well is, like all of Williams’ albums, a masterful recording. There isn’t a flaw I can find among these ten songs. I don’t think I’ve encountered another artist who is truly this timeless. You can listen to a Williams recording of any era and feel like it was just recorded today. He is easily one of the most remarkable country singers I have ever heard.

But if I was going to nitpick, I would call out One Good Well for not being memorable enough to stand out. While every song is indeed excellent, there’s nothing truly transcendent among these ten tracks. It’s a slight criticism, which I won’t hold against him, that is worth noting. Only Williams could get away with not taking any chances.

Grade: A+

Single Review: William Michael Morgan – ‘Missing’

Last year, I threw the William Michael Morgan’s single “Missing” into my year-end Top Ten. It had just been released as a single and had caught my year for its unapologetic nod to traditionalism. “Missing” is the kind of song that even seven years ago would’ve been a massive hit.

George Strait likely would’ve been the one to propel it up the charts, and it probably would’ve been a “B” single in his hands, against his catalog. But it’s a winner for Morgan, who turns in a performance that measures up to Strait and rightfully stands on its own.

To my ear there isn’t a negative thing I can say about this record. It’s currently my favorite song at country radio and one of the only bright spots going into this summer season.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Don Williams – ‘Expressions’

Don Williams released his eighth album, Expressions, in August 1978. He co-produced the album, once again, with Garth Fundis.

Expressions contains three of Williams’ most iconic singles. “Tulsa Time,” written by Danny Flowers, is a honky-tonk barnburner that took Williams out of his signature sound with ease and sophistication. He was back in his comfort zone for the beautiful self-penned “Lay Down Beside Me,” one of his most beloved ballads. The final single, Bob McDill’s “It Must Be Love” was another gorgeous uptempo number. “Tulsa Time” and “It Must Be Love” hit #1 while “Lay Down Beside Me” peaked at #3.

The singles each have versions by other artists. Eric Clapton and Pistol Annies both have versions of “Tulsa Time” and Alan Jackson brought “It Must Be Love” back to #1 in 2000. Kenny Rogers lent his voice to “Lay Down Beside Me,” as did Alison Krauss, in an ill-advised duet with rock singer John Waite.

“I Would Like to See You Again” is a lovely mid-tempo ballad accented beautifully with gentle mandolin flourishes. “You’ve Got a Hold on Me,” about a love gone by, is an AC-leaning mid-tempo number with nice accents of steel.

“Tears of the Lonely” is a lush ballad with striking piano and ear-catching percussion. “All I’m Missing Is You” picks up the tempo nicely and tells the story of a guy who does the things he used to do with an old love, missing her all-the-while. “Give It to Me” is a nice, lush song about love. He showcases his exceptional talents as a vocalist on the masterful “When I’m With You,” one of the strongest of the album’s ten songs.

Expressions captures a master at the height of their prowess when the artistic and the commercial are in near perfect balance. He also won his only industry awards as a result of this album – CMA Male Vocalist of the Year (1978) and ACM Single Record of the Year (“Tulsa Time,” 1979).

Expressions is as close to a flawless album as I’ve ever heard, from an artist who has never hit a sour note in his career. It’s just an exceptional record through and through.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Angaleena Presley – ‘Wrangled’

These past couple of years have seen Pistol Annies go their separate ways, as Ashley Monroe tried to gain traction with The Blade and Miranda Lambert continued to rack up Female Vocalist of the Year trophies, publicity split from Blake Shelton and poured her soul into The Weight of These Wings, released last November. Their bandmate Angaleena Presley is the group’s true outlier, the musical anomaly that doesn’t quite fit any particular mode.

Pistol Annies have reunited this year on Gentle Giants: The Songs of Don Williams, in which they contribute their take on his classic “Tulsa Time.” They’ve also come together for the opening track of Presley’s sophomore record Wrangled, which was produced by Oran Thornton. The track, “Dreams Don’t Come True” is a steel-laced ballad concerning the dark side of stardom:

I thought

There’d be a man in a suit and a ten-gallon hat

He’d give me a deal and a red Cadillac

And I’d make hit records and get hooked on drugs

But I wound up pregnant and strung out on love

 

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 thought

I’d change the world with three chords and the truth

I’d be like Elvis but with lipstick and boobs

My bra would be floatin’ in a guitar-shaped pool

And I’d flip the bird to them whores in high school

The lyric is brilliant and it’s nice to hear the band’s harmonies again, but the track is so cluttered and weighted down, I’m finding it difficult to extract the enjoyment from it I so desperately want to. Wrangled continues in that tradition throughout its twelve tracks, presenting a sonic landscape I honestly found challenging to take a liking to. But the significance of these songs makes Wrangled hard to ignore.

Presley uses Wrangled as a vehicle for venting the frustrations and anger she feels towards society and an industry she feels unjustly spit her out. At 40, she’s dictating her own rules and refusing to play nice.

Those emotions come to light on “Mama I Tried,” which finds Presley and Thornton revising the themes (and signature riff) of the Merle Haggard classic. The lyric is directed at the music industry, and while fantastic, the presentation (littered with cumbersome electric guitars) is far too loud for my taste:

I came so close so many times

And I’ll never get back the best years of my life

Empty proposals, all talk, no show

It’s getting too hard to keep holding on

Now you’ve got to let it go

 

Mama I tried, Mama I tried

I cheated and I lied

I painted up my face like a rodeo clown

And I choked on cheap perfume as I spread myself around

I strutted my stuff at every juke joint in town

Always the bridesmaid, never the bride

Mama, Mama, I tried

She continues with her self-written confessional “Outlaw,” in which lays bear (with help from Sheryl Crow) her true nature:

Grass looks greener, the money does too

It sure looks easier for the chosen few

Mama always said God broke the mold when he made me

And I’ve spent my whole damn life tryin’ to fit back in

 

I don’t wanna be an outlaw

I don’t wanna be a renegade

I wanna be a straight-shootin’ high-falutin’ rider on the hit parade

It’s too hard to live this way

I don’t wanna be an outlaw

I don’t wanna be a renegade

 

If you think I’m brave, you’re sadly mistaken

Every fight I’ve ever fought, every rule I’ve ever broke

Was out of desperation

I’d just as soon be

Another face in the crowd of people who are scared of me

Presley examines her life as a performer on “Groundswell,” which pairs her desires with a nice banjo riff. She spends the song feeling almost hopeful:

I gotta make it through these Alabama pines

‘Cause I’ve got a house to clean and bedtime story to tell

One more song, one more show

One more penny in the well

One whisper leads to one yell

Groundswell

Groundswell

The treatment of women by modern society is at the heart of “Good Girl Down,” which Presley co-wrote with rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson. The blistering rocker, which uses noise to drown out Presley’s vocal, is a pointed and sharp feminist anthem:

I’m not just a pretty face

not a flower in a vase

its a mans world and I’m a lady

and they’ll never appreciate me

 

They’re gonna take the time to get to know who I am

frankly boys, I don’t give a damn

I’ve got my head on straight

 

You can’t get a good girl down

You can’t get a good girl down

She’s got not secrets and she’s got no lies

She’ll burn you out with the truth in her eyes

She’s standing on solid ground

You can’t get a good girl down

Wrangled also features Guy Clark’s final song, which he and Presley co-wrote together. “Cheer Up, Little Darling,” which features an intro of Clark speaking the first verse, is sparse and a nice breath of fresh air.

She teams with Chris Stapleton on “Only Blood,” a brilliant ballad that dissects a couple’s marriage, his cheating, and their inevitable confrontation. The track, which features an assist from Stapleton’s wife Morgane, is not only one of Wrangled’s strongest tracks, but it’s one of my favorite songs so far this year.

While she had a hand in writing each of the twelve tracks on Wrangled, Presley wrote three solo. The title track revisits one of my favorite themes, quiet desperation, with the intriguing tale of a housewife who feels she “might as well be hogtied and strangled/tired of wakin’ up feelin’ like I’ve been wrangled.”

Presley follows with “Bless My Heart,” the most honest woman-to-woman song since Pam Tillis & Dean Dillon’s “Spilled Perfume.” Presley plays the role of the aggressor, tearing the other woman down at every delicious turn:

Listen here honey, I know you mean well

But that southern drawl don’t cover up the smell

Of your sweet little goody-goody

Spoiled rotten daddy’s girl act

Your two-faced trash talkin’ tongue

Might as well be an axe

 

You’d knock a girl down

So you could feel tall

You’d burn Cinderella’s dress

So you could feel like the hottest girl at the ball

You’re a beauty mark on the human race

And if you bless my heart I’ll slap your face

 

It’s evolution honey, and in case you didn’t know

The more you learn, the more you grow

When you’re livin’ in a bubble

You can bet that it’s bound to burst

You’re going to pay for every time

You didn’t put the greater good first

The most adventurous track on Wrangled is “Country,” which features hip-hop artist Yelawolf. The track is a mess, but the lyric is genius. The track was composed in parody to the trends on modern country radio. In a twist, it’s the verse rapped by Yelawolf that helps the message truly resonant:

There used to be a place downtown

Where they threw nut shells on the floor

But they cleaned up and went corporate

And now I don’t go there no more

My mama bartended that place

When it was a dive and alive

But they sold it out to retire

And chase that American Pie

Now we got no Hank and Johnny

No Waylon playin’, Dwight Yoakam on radio

Just a crazy load of these country posers

I suppose a couple are real

But they’ll never make it

So thank God for Sturgill Simpson

‘Cause Music Row can fuckin’ save it

But I’m fuckin’ gettin’ it son

Wrangled closes with the gospel rave “Motel Bible.” I’ve never said this before about a project, but this truly is a difficult album to assign a grade to. Each of the twelve tracks, including “High School,” are lyrically brilliant and demand to be heard. But puzzling production choice mare more than a few of the songs, leaving the listener wanting a more delicate approach in order to fully appreciate what they’re hearing. But if you can look past that flaw, Wrangled is this year’s Big Day In A Small Town – a record for the ages by a female artist with an unabashed adult perspective. It hasn’t yet charted and likely won’t find much of an audience, but that doesn’t distract from its high quality. I just wish the production didn’t get in the way.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Don Williams – ‘Volume Three’

Don Williams’ breakthrough album, appropriately titled Volume Three, arrived in 1974 under his new label Dot/ABC. The album, which he self-produced, helped hone the laid-back sound that defined his career.

The Al Turney-penned “I Wouldn’t Want To Live if You Didn’t Love Me” was Williams’ first of his seventeen #1 hits. The track is an excellent mid-tempo ballad accented with steel. Although the album is credited to Williams as the producer, Allen Reynolds oversaw this track. It marked his first #1 as a producer. The second and final single, “The Ties That Bind” is slower than its predecessor but no less lovely. It peaked at #4.

Williams solely penned four of the album’s songs. “Fly Away” is mid to uptempo dobro-laced number, which could pass for having a slight spiritual bent. The sonic touches are similar on “Goodbye Really Isn’t Good at All,” which makes wonderful use of his gorgeous baritone. “Such a Lovely Lady” is one of his signature love songs and a high-quality one at that. He continues in the same vein, yet again, on “Why Lord Goodbye,” which features an ear-catching steel solo.

As with every album by Williams, there isn’t a stinker in this bunch nor can I find any fault with this recording at all. Like the two previous volumes before it, Volume 3 is a brilliant early example of what makes Williams such a unique artist with a style virtually unmatched. I have to also give him credit for his production choices, which sound as fresh today as they did forty-three years ago.

Grade: A