My Kind of Country

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

Album Review: Dixie Chicks — ‘Home’

It is difficult to assess the merits of this album, partially because of the changes in the reference points by which albums are evaluated and partially because of the firestorm that the Dixie Chicks generated by their future comments while playing a small venue in England.

Many commentators regard this album as the Dixie Chicks masterpiece, and while I am not among them, I do regard this as an excellent album that draws the group closer to a roots sound than their previous major label recordings.

At the time of the album’s release in 2002, the world of country music was in turmoil. Slick pop acts like Shania Twain, Martine Mc Bride and Faith Hill were still near their commercial peak, while the neo-traditionalist had lost steam, slowly being replaced by the vapid bro-country that plagued the genre until recently. Conversely, there was a brief resurgence in bluegrass and pre-bluegrass acoustic string band music fuels by the runaway success of the movie Oh, Brother Where Art Thou?

Symptomatic of the cross purposes to which the fan base and the radio stations worked, radio barely played anything from the movie Oh, Brother Where Art Thou? The Dixie Chicks chose to ignore this divide, releasing an album that in places would have fit into a roots classification, but in other places was something else entirely.

Five songs received airplay from Home:

“Long Time Gone”                                     #2 country / #7 pop

“Landslide”                                                       #2 country / #7 pop / #1 adult contemporary

“Travelin’ Soldier”                                     #1 country / #26 pop

“Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)”     #48 country

“Top of The World”                                     did not chart

“Top of The World” was too long for radio to play it, moreover, it was released after the unfortunate comments about President Bush turned many thoughtful Americans, whether or not supporters of Bush.

This album is mostly covers of material written by others. In that vein, the album opens up with “Long Time Gone”. The song, written by Darrell Scott, was originally recorded by Scott on his 2000 album Real Time and tells the story about a young man who left his family and went to Nashville to become a musician. Eventually, he treks back home and settles down to raise a family. The song’s last verse criticizes contemporary country music as being shallow, and despite the upbeat melody, the song’s lyrics are very pessimistic indeed.

Next up is a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide”. There is something terribly appropriate about this cover because the Fleetwood Mac story closely parallels that of the Dixie Chicks in that Fleetwood Mac started out as one thing (a brilliant blues-rock group), changed members and form into a basic pop-rock group, and pretended that the prior version of the group never existed. The song was written by Stevie Nicks, who was not a member of the group’s original lineup,

Bruce Robison’s “Travelin’ Soldier” is probably the best song on the album, a sad song about the correspondence between a soldier and his girlfriend, and his eventual death in combat. The song was first recorded by the writer and later, in altered form by Ty England, but the Dixie Chicks rendition is by far the best version of the song. At the time the group recorded the song Bruce Robinson was the brother-in-law of Emily Robison.

The rest of the album is a mixed bag of covers and originals a bunch of good songs well performed and thoroughly country in sound and instrumentation. Both Martie and Emily are excellent musicians and the supporting cast includes Lloyd Maines on steel guitar and bluegrass wizards Brian Sutton (guitar) Adam Steffey (mandolin), Chris Thile (mandolin solos) plus Emmylou Harris on vocal harmonies. You couldn’t ask for better.

Of the remaining tracks, my favorite is the humorous “White Trash Wedding”. Written by the three members of the group, the song depicts a scenario that has played itself out many times over the years, but does so with humor:

You can’t afford no ring

You can’t afford no ring

I shouldn’t be wearing white and you can’t afford no ring

 

You finally took my hand

You finally took my hand

It took a nip of gin

But you finally took my hand

You can’t afford no ring

You can’t afford no ring

I shouldn’t be wearing white and you can’t afford no ring

 

Mama don’t approve

Mama don’t approve

Daddy says he’s the best in town

And mama don’t approve

You can’t afford no ring

You can’t afford no ring

I shouldn’t be wearing white and you can’t afford no ring

 

Baby’s on its way

Baby’s on its way

Say I do and kiss me quick

‘Cause baby’s on its way

I shouldn’t be wearing white and you can’t afford no ring

There are a few misfires on the album (“Godspeed and “I Believe in Love” are pretty pedestrian and rather uninteresting) but even the misfires are not terrible and the net impression is of an album that contains both serious and amusing material performed with great flair.

A-

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Album Review: Dixie Chicks — ‘Little Ol’ Cowgirl’

The Dixie Chicks’ second album was Little Ol’ Cowgirl. Released in 1992, the album found the original lineup of Robin Lynn Macy, Laura Lynch, Martie & Emily Erwin working through an assortment of original material and covers.

The album opens up with the title track, a spritely western swing number penned by John Ims. Laura Lynch sings the lead with really nice trio harmonizing by Macy and Emily Erwin. We should note that Martie Lynch mostly plays fiddle on this album but whenever the harmony is a trio, she is not singing.

She’s a little ol’ cowgirl from out Texas way

Countin’ the nights ’til the fiddler plays

Workin’ all week just doin’ her thing

 

She likes punchin’ doggies but she loves to swing

And when she hears that backbeat rhythm driftin’ through the door

She can’t talk, she can’t sit still, she can’t stay off of that floor

Kickin’ her heels up lordy look at her twirl

Everybody wants to boogie on down

With the little ol’ cowgirl

Robin Lynn Macy takes the lead on “A Road Is Just A Road”, a cover of a song written by Mary Chapin Carpenter & John Jennings. The song is a med-tempo with ballad, with trio harmony.

“She’ll Find Better Things To Do” comes from the pen of Bob Millard. Macy takes the lead vocal on this mid-tempo modern country ballad about a relationship that has come unraveled. The songs has quartet harmony.

She don’t see no way around it It

He shows every sign of leavin’ her behind

After three days stayin’ out late

It don’t look like he’ll be comin’ home tonight

She wants to cry but pride won’t let her

She’ll find better things to do

 

Leaves her key inside the mailbox

With a note that tells that cowboy where to go …

This is followed by “An Irish Medley” (comprised of “Handsome Molly”, “Little Beggerman” and “Mist On The Moor”). Macy sings the lead with Lynch on harmony on the first two parts with the last tune being an instrumental . Bruce Singleton guests on penny whistle and bagpipes, with J.D. Brown also on bagpipes and Olga Arseniev on accordion.

“You Send Me” was a #1 Pop & #1 R&B hit in 1957 for its writer the legendary Sam Cooke. The song is a dreamy ballad with Laura Lynch handling the lead vocals with the rest joining in on harmonies. Lloyd Maines plays steel guitar on this number.

Darling, you send me

I know you send me

Darling, you send me

Honest you do, honest you do

Honest you do, whoa

 

You thrill me

I know you, you, you thrill me

Darling, you, you, you, you thrill me

Honest you do

 

At first I thought it was infatuation

But, woo, it’s lasted so long

Now I find myself wanting

To marry you and take you home, whoa

“Just A Bit Like Me” is treated as straight-ahead bluegrass. Written by Robin Lynn Macy, this is a really nice song that deserves to be more widely covered. Robin sings the lead with the others joining in on harmony, Dave Peters plays mandolin on this track.

It’s six o’clock in the morning

The sun was ready to rise

And as she closes his lunchbox

She spies the sun in his eyes

She stays at home with the baby

She’s got a dream in her heart

Somewhere her sister is singing

A night is ready to start

 

One’s choosing, one’s cruising

Down the highway of their dreams

While songs are sung her dream’s begun

And she thinks of what it means

To live through her voice, she made a choice

But neither one is free

Am I a lot like her or is she just a bit like me?

“A Heart That Can” was written by Patti Dixon with Laura Lynch singing lead and the rest on harmony vocals. Lloyd Maines plays steel guitar on this track. This track is performed as contemporary Nashville pop-country. Had the song been released on a major label, it likely would have received considerable airplay.

You say I’ve done a lot of good

You’re glad I found you when I did

But I wonder why you keep

Those questions in your head

Oh I think you’re afraid to fall

Someone went and blew the call

 

All I can say is my heart tries hard

Try as hard as I can

You’ll never find that my love falls short

One day you’ll understand

That I’ve got a heart that can

The next track is a cover of Hal Ketcham’s recent hit “Past The Point of Rescue”. Robin sings the lead with trio harmonies. Olga Arseniev plays the accordion. The song is taken at the same tempo as Ketcham’s hit but with different instrumentation, resulting in a very nice recording.

Martie Erwin and Matthew Benjamin composed the mid-tempo swing instrumental “Beatin’ Around The Bush”. David Peters joins in on mandolin and Matthew Benjamin plays guitar.

“Two Of A Kind” was written by John Ims. Laura Lynch sings the vocal (no vocal harmonies) on this lovely medium -slow ballad. Dave Peters and Lloyd Maines appear on this track.

On the road without a friend

Can make you feel life’s loneliness

In a voice that rides the wind

Streaming ‘cross the airwaves

In a simple country song

The one that you don’t hear

Until the moon is full

It was Texas once again

The one about the good old boy

Who’s caught remembering

Images of childhood

And the places that he’d been

Caught up in his questions

Wondering where it would end

 

Another midnight on the highway

Dallas in the distance

Seems I’m always leaving love behind

Singing along with someone

Who’s soul is on the radio

Sounds like me and the good old boy

Are two of a kind

“Standing By The Bedside was written by I. Tucker with Laura Lynch on lead vocals and the rest doing harmonies. Jeff Hellmer guests on piano. The song is a medium temp western swing number. The lyric is religious in nature about a sister who is at death’s door.

The best song on the album is “Aunt Mattie’s Quilt, co-written by Robin Lynn Macy and Lisa Brandenburg. Robin sings the lead with trio harmonies. The song is more of a folksong story-ballad, but

it fits the album nicely. Larry Seyer guests on piano and Dave Peters is back on mandolin.

Aunt Mattie bent a thousand times down the long black rows

Then battled with the angry weeds so little seeds could grow

Come summer Mattie pulled the snow from cruel and cutting bolls

She was patient pale and slender and was only eight years old

Round and round the spinning wheel beneath Aunt Mattie’s boot

She recalled the soil and cotton seeds and summer’s hopeful shoots

Two winters spun out summer’s threads in rich and creamy folds

And she had a bolt of cotton cloth when she turned ten years old

Many acts, in many different genres, have covered the Ray Charles classic “Hallelejah I Love Him (Her) So”. The Chicks take on the song is novel with bass and drums basically carrying the song instrumentally.

Robin Lynn Macy sings lead with the rest joining in on subdued harmony.

The album closes with a Laura Lynch- Martie Erwin composition titled “Pink Toenails”. Laura Lynch lead vocals with the rest on vocal harmonies. Larry Spencer plays trumpet and Jeff Hellmer tinkles the ivories on the jazzy torch song.

Pink toenails, why don’t I have time to paint pink toenails?

I’ve got my pink foam curlers and my pony-tail

My girlfriends have time for their pink toenails

Come nightfall, you’ll be waltzing through my door

When you hear me call and I love the way you say

“I’m your baby doll” and you’ll find me sitting there

In my pink toenails

This is an outstanding album and I am torn as to whether or not I prefer this album or Thank Heavens For Dale Evans.

I originally purchased both albums on cassette and upgraded to CD after wearing out the cassettes. I would give both albums a solid A. On this album Laura Lynch occasionally plays bass but mostly just sings, Robin Lynn Macy is on guitar, Emily Erwin plays bass, guitjo, banjo and Martie Erwin plays fiddle and viola. The Erwin sisters are the stronger instrumentalists and Martie’s instrumental contributions are outstanding. Tom Van Schalk plays percussion/ drums.

 

Spotlight Artist: Dixie Chicks

It is hard to believe but 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the Dixie Chicks. Originally comprised of Laura Lynch, Robin Lynn Macy and sisters Martie Erwin and Emily Erwin, the Chicks (named after a Little Feat song) started off as a more roots-oriented band than is currently the case (similarly Fleetwood Mac started off as a blues-rock band and devolved into a pop act after personnel changes).

The group initially came together in 1989 when Martie Erwin and Robin Lynn Macy both performed at the Walnut Valley Music Festival, a long-running bluegrass event in Winfield, Kansas. From there the group coalesced with western singer Laura Lynch and Emily Erwin joining the group. The group played bluegrass festivals and busked for tips around the Dallas area. The group adopted the name Dixie Chicks from the song “Dixie Chicken” by the much-revered band Little Feat.

The group created enough of a stir to land a recording contract with the independent label Crystal Clear Sound and issued their debut disc Thank Heavens For Dale Evans in December of 1990. The album, named for legendary western actress Dale Evans, was essentially a straight-ahead bluegrass album, with western themes to some of the numbers. The album sold reasonably well for an independent label album and was available wherever the Texas-based Sound Warehouse chain had locations.

In an attempt to expand their commercial viability the group gravitated to a more commercially viable sound with their second album Little Ol’ Cowgirl released in 1992. While retaining basic bluegrass instrumentation, the album tended more toward ‘Newgrass’ than traditional bluegrass with covers of recent pop-country hits such as “Pat The Point of Rescue” and “Two of A Kind”. At this point, Robin Lynn Macy left the group, preferring to remain with her more roots-oriented bluegrass sounds.

The third album Shouldn’t A Told You That, released in 1993, found the group drifting further toward pop country. The album is competently performed but without Robin Lynn Macy, the group lacked an outstanding lead vocalist.

The group continued performing but without a record deal, although during the period after Macy’s departure the group considered its options. Steel guitar virtuoso Lloyd Maines (who had played on the first two albums) introduced the remaining Chicks to a demo recording from his daughter, Natalie.

Maines thought his daughter would be a good match to replace the departed Macy, and the Erwin sisters agreed, adding Natalie and discarding Laura Lynch (there are varying stories on how friendly a move this was) and changed the style and focus of the group’s sound. Eventually, the new sound of the Chicks came to the attention of Sony Music Entertainment.

The rest is history as the trio found an unprecedented level of success which sustained until an unwise (and unnecessary) public relations error led to a decade of near-exile.

We won’t get into that, but will concentrate on their music for that, after all, should be the focus for our April Spotlight artists

Album Review: John Conlee – ‘Live At Billy Bob’s Texas’

Released by Smith Music in 1999 (it was recorded January 2, 1999), long after the end of Conlee’s years as a hit-maker (his last chart record having occurred nine years earlier), Live At Billy Bob’s Texas serves as a useful recap of Conlee’s career and as an exemplar of John Conlee in live performance.

While the sound quality of the recordings is slightly below that of the studio recordings and Conlee’s voice, at least on this evening, sounded a bit shopworn, the set still shows Conlee for the masterful showman that he is. Moreover, John gives the audience complete versions of his hits, neither the truncated versions often found on live recordings and nor the vapid hits medleys that often plague live recordings. There is one medley among the seventeen song selections but that medley is of the Willie Nelson standard “Night Life” and the Percy Mayfield classic “Please Send Me Someone To Love”, neither song a John Conlee hit.

The remainder of the record is essentially John Conlee’s fifteen biggest hits. Crowd noise is sufficient to let the listener know that this is a live recording, but not so loud as to be intrusive. The band is Billy Bob’s house band augmented by the great Weldon Myrick on steel guitar. My biggest complaint about the band is the somewhat cheesy keyboards of Micky G, but that is but a minor annoyance.

The album opens up with “Common Man” and closes with “I’m Only In It ForThe Love”. All told this album sees John performing his fifteen biggest hits, the medley noted above and Conlee’s last chart hit from 1990, “Doghouse”. In fact until recently, this album was the only place to find “Doghouse”, a much underrated record that would have been a bigger hit had it been released earlier in Conlee’s career.

The man’s in the moon, the cats in the cradle and I’m in the dog house
It never would have happened if my best friend wasn’t such a loud mouth
She’s heard things that she don’t like about my nights out
Now she’s on me like old cheap suit, I’m in the dog house

The dogs eating good and he don’t care
I’m chewing bones in the cold night air
The whole thing seems just a little unfair
There he sits in my favorite chair

I do prefer the studio versions, but for a live album, this is a good representation of John Conlee’s talent and his performance persona. I only had the opportunity to see him in live performance one time, early in his career when he was still largely doing other peoples’ hits, so it is nice to have a live show that is a good career retrospective. Here we have a confident professional putting on a really good show.

Grade: B+

Track List

1. Introduction
2. Common Man
3. Busted
4. Domestic Life
5. Old School
6. Lady Lay Down
7. Dog House
8. Miss Emily’s Picture
9. I Don’t Remember Loving You
10. The Carpenter
11. Backside Of Thirty
12. As Long As I’m Rockin’ With You
13. Friday Night Blues
14. Lay Around And Love On You
15. Rose Colored Glasses
16. Night Life / Please Send Me Someone To Love
17. Got My Heart Set On You
18. I’m Only In It For The Love

Album Review: John Conlee – ‘American Faces’

American Faces was John Conlee’s ninth studio album, and second for Columbia. Released in February 1987, the album reached #16 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, his last top twenty-five album, all of his previous albums having reached at least #22. Three singles were released from the album in “Domestic Life” (#4), “Mama’s Rockin’ Chair” (#11) and “Living Like There’s No Tomorrow” (#55). After “Mama’s Rockin’ Chair” no John Conlee single would ever again reach the top forty.

Although by this time Conlee had established himself as a major country artist with a long string of hits, the country music market was becoming increasingly youth-oriented and at forty-one years of age, Conlee didn’t fit the “handsome hunks and sweet young things” profile that Nashville was marketing at the time. Too bad, as the quality of Conlee’s recorded output remained high.

The album opens with “Domestic Life”, Conlee’s last top ten hit. That song, with its saxophone riffs and lyrics addressing typical Conlee concerns like everyday life and dreams, is a worthy addition to his canon of hits.

Cruising in my Station Wagon
Trying to keep my muffler from dragging
Sometimes it seems so defeating
As I’m hustling to make it to the Cub Scout meeting

I dream about Mexico
Where all the pretty people go
But we’re on a budget that just won’t budge
Not much money but a whole lot of love

Living that domestic life
Happy children and a pretty wife
Our Cocker Spaniel’s always having puppies
How could anybody be so lucky?

“Slow Passin’ Time” is a quiet ballad about the passage of time with a mildly Caribbean feel to the arrangement. The song would have made a good single, as evidenced by Anne Murray’s Top 40 success with the song a few years later

We both had our dreams when we left that sleepy little town behind
Things have gotten so mixed up, I tell you I’ve forgotten mine
It all had something to do with money and a better way of life
When that old alarm goes off it’s getting hard to open our eyes

Oh, but somewhere in my mem’ry the afternoon sun’s hangin’ in the trees
And the sun is comin’ up from the gulf coast on a sultry breeze
You and me, we’re together in a porch-swing state of mind
Lovin’ each other to the rhythm of slow-passin’ time

“Love Crazy Love” features some nice saxophone lines in the accompaniment

“American Faces” is one of those nostalgic songs that would have likely been a hit if released as a single after 9/11. The song is a medium slow ballad. “American Faces” might have seemed like a cynical flag-waver in the hands of a less capable vocalist, but Conlee sings it confidently and comfortably giving the song a finely nuanced performance.

Met a black man down in Memphis with lines on his face that looked like the Mississippi
He was the son of a slave, the father of a PhD
He’d squint his eyes at the new day sun, spit tobacco from a toothless gum
And say “Boys, it’s a good day to be free”

American faces I have seen, American voices I have listened to
They’re a lot like me and you
They’re all red, white or blue
American faces I have seen

Saw a veteran in a halfway house, a monkey on his back and the whole world on his shoulder
On his dresser was a medal and a picture of a long lost friend
He’d won a purple heart when he lost his mind but he’s kept his dreams since 69
That one day he’ll be coming home again

“Faded Brown Eyes” is a very slow ballad that I regard as filler. It is an okay song about a life of disappointment and a faded relationship.

“Mama’s Rockin’ Chair” is one in a long list of “mother songs” and stalled just shy of the Top Ten. It is deserved a better fate. It describes a trip many of us remember taking

When I think of my childhood days
Growing up in the small town USA
The fondest of my many memories
Is that a front porch rocking chair

And all of us children gathered there
Waiting our turn to climb up on Mama’s knee
With her imagination
Around the world she’d take us
With the stories of the places she knew we’d never see

In Mama’s rocking chair
She could a take us anywhere
To a tropical island
Or a snow covered mountain
Or a desert caravan

“It’s Not Easy Being Fifteen” is an interesting song about the difficulties in the passage of the teen years. The song is a slow ballad bears repeated listening.

“I Can Sail To China” is a slow ballad about a man experiencing a breakup. The catch line is ‘I can sail to China on the tears I’ve cried for you’. I like the song as an album cut.

I do not know why “Living Like There’s No Tomorrow (Finally Got to Me Tonight)” was chosen as the album’s third single as I regard it as one of the weaker songs on the album in terms of commercial appeal, as it just wasn’t what radio was playing at the time, although five or six years earlier (think Con Hunley) it would have fit in better. The arrangement is good (nice saxophone work), the song has a strong blues feel to it and Conlee sings it well. The song died at #55, a harbinger of things to come for Conlee.

The album closes with “Right Down To The Memories”, another nostalgic ballad, this one of a man looking back with great fondness at this life with his partner.

Time turns the ashes into diamonds
And then the diamonds into dust
But even time can’t steal the magic
That’s here between the two of us

‘Cause I love you right down to the memories
And I need you right now in my arms
You’ll always be the greatest gift that God has ever given me
Right down to the memories

This album wasn’t Conlee’s strongest album, but John Conlee is always an effective singer and always treats his songs with respect. I would give this album a B+

Track List & Songwriters
Domestic Life (Martin/Harrison)
Slow Passin’ Time (Rocco / Burke / Black)
Love Crazy Love (Deborah Allen / Rafe Van Hoy)
American Faces (Nelson / Nelson / Boone)
Faded Brown Eyes (Reid / Martin)
Mama’s Rockin’ Chair (MacRae / Menzies)
It’s Not Easy Being Fifteen (Curtis)
I Can Sail To China (Grazier)
Living Like There’s No Tomorrow (McBride / Murrah)
Right Down To The Memories (Bogard / Giles)

Album Review: John Conlee – ‘In My Eyes’

Released in 1983, In My Eyes, Conlee’s sixth album, would prove to be John’s most successful album, reaching #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, The album would feature three #1 singles in “I’m Only In It for the Love”, “In My Eyes” and “As Long As I’m Rockin’ With You” , as well as a fourth single “Way Back” that reached #4.

The album opens up with “I’m Only in It for the Love”, a song written by Kix Brooks, Deborah Allen and Rafe Van Hoy, The song was released in June 1983 as the first single and proved to be John’s fourth number one on the country chart. The song is up-tempo and upbeat,

I want you to know you got my full attention
And every move is with my best intention
Before we go on, I thought I ought to mention
I’m only in it for the love

I’m only in it for the love and affection
I think I’m heading in the right direction
I guess the question that I’m really asking
Is do you want a love that’s everlasting?

Next up is a love song, the somewhat pensive “As Long As I’m Rockin’ With You”. This song was the third single from the album. The song was written by Bruce ‘Hey ! Baby’ Channel and Kieran Kane.

Wherever I’m goin’, wherever I’m stayin’
It doesn’t matter, long as I’m stayin’ with you, stayin’ with you
I’m always happy, whatever I’m doin’
It doesn’t matter, long as I do it with you, do it with you

I may never have much silver and gold
But, I’ve got something more precious and warmer to hold
And that old rockin’ chair don’t scare me, like it used to
It doesn’t matter, as long as I’m rockin’ with you

“Together Alone” is filler about a marriage that seems to be unraveling, but nicely sung by John.

It wasn’t like Conway Twitty to miss a hit, but Conley pulled “In My Eyes” from Conway’s 1982 Dream Maker album. It is a really nice ballad:

She just a woman a hundred pounds of flesh and blood
Quick with a smile warm with a touch for me
she’s just a woman and not the least or the most desired
But she’s set one man’s heart of fire and it’s me that she wants to please

And in my eyes god never made a more beautiful girl
In my eyes there’s no one more lovely in all of the world
And she looks at me at times with such surprise
When she sees how special she is in my eyes

“Waitin’ For The Sun To Shine” was the title track of Ricky Skaggs’ 1981 album for Epic. The song was written by Sonny Throckmorton and while Ricky did not release it as a single, the song received quite a bit of airplay. Ricky’s version is better but John acquits himself well on the song:

I been standing underneath this dark old cloud
Waiting for the sun to shine
Waiting for the sun to shine in my heart again

I been throwing a lot of good love away
Waiting for the sun to shine
Waiting for the sun to shine in my heart again

Oh, I’m just waiting for the sun to shine
I’m just waiting for the sun to shine
I know it will be sometime
But I’m just waiting for the sun to shine

“Lay Down Sally” is an Eric Clapton song that has been covered by numerous pop and country artists . Conley’s version is a nice change of pace for the album.

“Way Back” was the fourth single pulled from the album – it reached #4 but perhaps could have done better with a little different arrangement. The song is a nostalgic look back at a relationship that has changed over time, and not for the better.

“New Way Out” was a Randy Sharp tune that was a single for Karen Brooks in 1982. The song would prove to be her biggest hit, reaching #17. It is a good song and John does a credible job of covering it.

I know how hard she’ll take it
When she finds out I can’t stay
So I don’t want to have to tell her
If there’s any other way.

Is there any new way out?
Where hearts are never broken
(Is there any new way out)
Where no one’s ever hurt in anger
(Is there any new way out?)
And harsh words are never spoken
(Is there any new way out?)

“Don’t Count The Rainy Days” is a song more associated with Michael Martin Murphey, who released the song in August 1983 and had a top ten hit with it.

The album closes with Mickey Newberry’s “American Trilogy”, today used as patriotic flag-waver, but far less over-exposed at the time this album was issued. John’s version is perhaps my favorite of all the versions I’ve heard.

As time went on John Conlee’s sound became more solidly country. This is a very good album which I would give an A.

Album Review: John Michael Montgomery – ‘Letters Fom Home’

Letters From Home was John Michael Montgomery’s [“JMM”] ninth studio album, and his third released on the Warner Brothers label. Released in April 2004, JMM’s career its downhill slide. Although the album charted reasonably well (#3 country /#31 all-genres), sales were tepid and the album received no RIAA certifications. There would be one more studio album (released in 2008) that charted poorly.

In the wake of 9/11 there were many patriotic songs released, a few quite good and many being little more than jingoistic flag wavers. This album features one of the better such songs in the title track, Tony Lane and David Lee’s “Letters From Home”. This song transcends the politics of the moment with a timeless, understated, but emotionally moving portrayal of a soldier at war, whose soul scorching daily grind is eased by news from family and friends back home. The song does not mention any politicians or villains by name, so in a sense it is a universal song that could apply to any soldier at any time in our nation’s history. The song soared to #2 country and would rise to #24 on the pop charts (the best showing ever for a JMM single) and its rise on the charts is commensurate with its quality.

My dearest son, it’s almost June
I hope this letter catches up with you
And finds you well
It’s been dry
But they’re callin’ for rain
And everything’s the same old same
In Johnsonville
Your stubborn old daddy
Ain’t said too much
But I’m sure you know
He sends his love

And she goes on
In a letter from home

I hold it up and show my buddies
Like we ain’t scared
And our boots ain’t muddy
And they all laugh
Like there’s something funny
‘Bout the way I talk
When I say, “Mamma sends her best, y’all”
I fold it up and put it in my shirt
Pick up my gun and get back to work

And it keeps me drivin’ on
Waitin’ on letters from home

Only one more single would be released from the album, “Goes Good with Beer” which peaked at #51. The song undoubtedly would have been a bigger hit had it been released during JMM’s heyday. As it was, it barely received any airplay in my part of the country.

Flat tire on the interstate
Too many nights of workin’ too late
Had a run in with an old memory
No, it ain’t been the best of weeks

But it goes good with beer and the Friday night atmosphere
Of this cross-town bar where the cars all get steered to
And it goes hand in hand with my
Crazy buddies and this three-piece band
And the pretty girls and the games we play and the smoke and mirrors
Yeah, troubles come, but they go good with beer, yeah, they do, yeah

I think that the mid-tempo ballad “That Changes Everything” would have made a good single, but I also think that the label regarded the title track as a fluke hit (or last hurrah), and had lost interest in JMM by this time. Moreover, JMM’s sound and production were getting more country at a time when country radio was viewing acts like Rascal Flatts and Jason Aldean as representing the epitome of country music. Billy Currington also recorded the song as an album track but I like JMM’s version better.

I said, “I know a shrimp boat captain out of Galveston”
I’ve been thinkin’ I’d go down and work for a spell
Oh, you never can tell it just might suit me fine
Spend some time out on the bay
But then there’s always cowboy work in Colorado
And I was thinkin’ that that just might be the thing
Make a little pocket change I figure what the heck
Ain’t nothin’ standin’ in my way
But then she smiled at me

Looked a while at me
And that changes everything
That’s a whole “nother deal
That puts a brand new spin
On this ole rollin’ wheel
That’s some powerful stuff
That’s a girl in love
And that’s one thing
That changes everything

This is a pretty decent album, which I would give a B+. The production by Byron Gallimore and JMM features Tom Bukovac on electric guitar, Mark Casstevens on banjo, Stuart Duncan & Larry Frankin on fiddle, mandolin, Paul Franklin on steel guitar, dobro, and Glen Worf on bass among the many fine musicians utilized on the album.

Track Listing

“Good Ground” (Bill Luther, Bob Regan, Naoise Sheridan) – 4:09
“Letters from Home” (Tony Lane, David Lee) – 4:27
“That’s What I’m Talking About” (Paul Nelson, Tom Shapiro) – 3:24
“Look at Me Now” (Mike Geiger, Vicky McGehee, D. Vincent Williams) – 3:22
“Goes Good with Beer” (Casey Beathard, Ed Hill) – 4:26
“Cool” (Harley Allen, Brice Long) – 3:38
“It Rocked” (Marty Dodson, Paul Overstreet) – 3:50
“That Changes Everything” (Lane, Lee) – 3:57
“Break This Chain” (Jim Collins, Billy Yates) – 2:52
“Little Devil” (Blair Daly, Danny Orton) – 3:47

Album Review: John Michael Montgomery — ‘Home To You’

By the time Home To You, John Michael Montgomery’s [“JMM”] sixth studio album release for Atlantic, was released in May 1999, JMM’s career was on the downslide. Although the album received generally favorable reviews, the marketplace told a different story as the album would only reach #16 on Billboard’s country albums chart (and #135 on the all-genres chart) and would fail to reach even gold certification. None of the singles were blockbuster hits and two of the four singles released from the album (“Nothing Catches Jesus By Surprise” and “You Are”) failed to crack the top forty.

The album opens with “Love Made Me Do It”, a generic up-tempo rocker. This is followed by another generic up-tempo rocker in “Hello L.O.V.E.”, which was the first single off the album – it reached #15 and was an okay song but nothing special.

The next song “Home To You” would prove to be the biggest single released from the album, reaching #2 and also placing on the Hot 100.

I get up and battle the day

Things don’t always go my way

It might rain but that’s okay

I get to come home to you

 

Sometimes life may get me down

And I get tired of getting kicked around

I feel lost in this maddening crowd

But I get to come home to you

 

You are my best friend

And you are where my heart is

And I know at the day’s end

I get to come home to you

I can’t quite put my finger on it, but most of this album feels like JMM has ‘mailed it in’. The ballads mostly are rather bland and unexciting and the vocals are unconvincing, perhaps residual effects of prior throat problems. JMM’s phrasing seems to be a problem throughout the album and the production is too slick and glossy.

I would regard “When Your Arms Were Around” as the best song on the album, certainly the best ballad:

I was stone cold convinced

You were holding me down

I could chase my wildest dreams

With you not around

But I was crazy to think

That I could hold my own

Cause I started to crumble

The minute you were gone

 

When your arms were around

They held my world together

They kept me safe and sound

Right through the roughest weather

I guess I just lost touch

With the man in me you found

I was strong as I could be

When your arms were around

I also found the Waylon Jennings-penned “Nothing Catches Jesus By Surprise” notable for its interesting lyrics:

Catching Babe Ruth, catching Roger Maris

The way you caught my eye in Paris, Tennessee

Fell in seduction; well I’m seduced

You sell a war then we sell the truth.

It’s the truth

So baby just close your eyes nothing catches Jesus by surprise

 

Confusin’ love for heated passion,

Got what I want, but no satisfaction.

Ain’t it funny how things can change.

We’re amazed how they stay the same.

So baby just close your eyes nothing catches Jesus by surprise

I liked JMM’s earlier albums; however, the trend was for the albums to become increasingly more formulaic as time progressed, with ever slicker production. I purchased the album when it initially was released but in today’s environment, I would likely only purchase the three songs highlighted above. I would give this album a C+

Album Review: John Michael Montgomery — ‘Kickin’ It Up’

Released in January 1994, Kickin’ It Up was JMM’s second album release for Atlantic, and would prove to be John Michael Montgomery’s [“JMM”] most successful album release reaching #1 on Billboard’s country and all-genres charts. The album’s success was fueled by the first single was the romantic ballad “I Swear” which reached #1 country/#42 pop and it was the number one country song of the year per Billboard. This single was followed by “Rope the Moon” (#4), “Be My Baby Tonight” (#1) and “If You’ve Got Love” (#1).

The album opens with “Be My Baby Tonight” a spritely up-tempo number that was the third single on the album.

Could ya would ya ain’t ya gonna if I asked you

Would ya wanna be my baby tonight

Yeah I’d take a chance slow dance make a little romance

Honey it’ll be alright

Girl you got me wishin’ we were huggin’

and a kissin’ and a holdin’ each other tight

So could ya would ya ain’t ya gonna if I asked you

Would ya wanna be my baby tonight

This is followed by “Full-Time Love”, a mid-tempo ballad.

Gary Baker & Frank Myers, a pair of singer/songwriters who were put together as a duo by MCG/Curb Records. The pair released an album the following year as Baker & Myers with limited success; however, both continued to have success as songwriters, together and apart, but nothing else ever reached the success of “I Swear”. In addition to JMM’s huge hit, the song would be covered later by an R&B group All-4-One and also would be covered by other artists in languages other than English. The various versions of the song would sell in excess of 20 million copies.

‘ll give you everything I can

I’ll build your dreams with these two hands

We’ll hang some memories on the wall

And when there’s silver in your hair

You won’t have to ask if I still care

‘Cause as time turns the page

My love won’t age at all

 

I swear

By the moon and stars in the sky

I’ll be there

I swear

Like the shadow that’s by your side

I’ll be there

Next up is “She Don’t Need a Band To Dance,” a rather generic mid-tempo ballad that JMM performs well. This is followed by “All In My Heart,” a nice ballad of longing in which the protagonist imagines a love as he wishes it to be. I think that “All In My Heart” would have made a nice single for someone:

 I sit here tonight

And look in your eyes

For that old familiar flame

That love that burns

Makes my wolrd turn

Two hearts beating the same

Is it all in my mind

Or is it harder to find

I feel like I’m in the dark

I thought it was real

But I’m starting to feel

Like it must be all in my heart

 

I’m a fool for believing

But I just keep dreaming

While we just keep drifting apart

Trying to make something

Where there’s really nothing

I guess it’s all in my heart

“Friday at Noon” is up-tempo filler probably designed for line dancing – it’s pleasant but nothing exceptional.

“Rope The Moon” was the second single off the album and a really outstanding ballad. This is followed by another outstanding ballad “If You’ve Got Love”, the final single released from the album.

The album closes with a nice ballad “Oh How She Shines” and “Kick It Up” which was likely a dance floor favorite.

JMM’s sound would become more solidly country over time but this album features pretty solid country production with the likes of Stuart Duncan on fiddle and mandolin, Paul Franklin on steel guitar, Brent Mason on electric guitar, Glen Worf on bass and John Wesley Ryles on harmony vocals (except on “I Swear” and “Rope The Moon where ‘Handsome Harry’ Stinson provides the harmony vocals).

While this album is only slightly better than its predecessor, the presence of four big hits, including the mega-hit “I Swear”, propelled this album to quadruple platinum status and greatly increased his sales profile in Canada. I would give this album an A-

Classic Album Review — ‘The Carl Smith Anniversary Album: 20 Years of Hits’

During the late 1960s-early 1970s, Columbia Records tried to mine their back catalog of songs by releasing two album sets with gatefold covers. These typically took three different directions:

A) Mixed artists compilations of singles, album tracks (often Columbia artists covering hits of artists on other labels).

B) Compilations of an artists’ miscellaneous older singles and album tracks into a two-album set. In some cases (The World of Ray Price comes to mind) the singles would represent remakes of the original hits recorded in stereo and often with slick ‘Nashville Sound’. In other cases (such as The World of Johnny Cash, The World of Lynn Anderson, The World of Tammy Wynette or The World of Flatt & Scruggs) the compilation consisted of album tracks from out of print albums with perhaps a few singles mixed in 1960. C) Re-recordings of an artist’s greatest hits, but not utilizing the slick ‘Nashville Sound” production often associated with country production of the period. I can think of only two albums that fit

C) Re-recordings of an artist’s greatest hits, but not utilizing the slick ‘Nashville Sound” production often associated with country production of the period. I can think of only two albums that fit in this category. One of these albums was The World of Johnny Horton, where Columbia had some material in the can which had light post-production applied to some tracks after Horton’s premature death in 1960.

The other album was The Carl Smith Anniversary Album: 20 Years of Hits. 

Largely forgotten today, or remembered as the father of Carlene Carter, during the 1950s Carl Smith was a huge star, ranking behind only Webb Pierce, Eddy Arnold and, Hank Snow among the stars of the 1950s. His songs were solidly country; however that was nothing revolutionary or pioneering about his sound as many of Carl’s hits could have fit comfortably on 1940s country playlists. Although his success fell off sharply after rock & roll hit, still he persevered long enough to roll up 93 chart hits by the time he retired in the mid-1970s.

Although Carl had a very good voice, there was too much east Tennessee in Carl’s voice for him to make the Jim Reeves/Eddy Arnold/Ray Price turn toward pop balladry and his voice was far too deeply masculine for him to record the effeminate sounds of rock & roll or doo wop. Still he continued to have a number of top twenty hits during the 1960s. Although Merle Haggard is given deserved credit for the western swing resurgence of the 1970s, Carl’s music had been turning toward western swing sounds during the latter 1960s.

With this album, many of Carl’s biggest hits were recast as western swing, with other songs given a more jazzy feel just short of western swing.

Here are the songs on the album with some comments on each:

“Hey Joe” was a 1953 hit for Carl, spending eight weeks at #1 in 1953. This recording has a definite swing arrangement.

“Back Up Buddy” reached #2 for Carl in 1954 

“She Called Me Baby” was a minor hit for Carl (#32 Billboard / #20 Record World) in 1965. The song was a cover of a Patsy Cline hit from 1962 and Charlie Rich would take the song to #1 in 1974. The arrangement on this version differs little from Carl’s 1965 recording with some extra horns being the main difference.

“Deep Water” would prove to be Carl’s biggest hit of the 1960s, reaching #6 on Record World and #10 on Billboard in 1967. Written by Fred Rose and recorded by Bob Wills (among others), this version differs little from Carl’s 1967 recording, with some extra horns being the main difference. 

“Foggy River” was the follow-up to “Deep Water” breaking into the top twenty. The arrangement is an up-tempo modern country arrangement minus the strings of the Nashville Sound. Kate Smith had a pop hit with the song in 1948.

“Pull My String And Wind Me Up” was a top twenty hit for Carl in 1970. I recall hearing this on the radio so I think that this was the jazzy version released as a single. 

“Heartbreak Avenue” was released as a single in1969. The song is a slow ballad and features a bluesy arrangement and vocal by Carl. 

“Good Deal Lucille” was a single released in 1969 that broke into the top twenty. The version on this album swings a little harder than the single release.   

“It’s All Right” was not released as a single but has a nice swing feel with some nice saxophone. 

“I Love You Because” was a #3 pop hit for Al Martino in 1963 and was recorded as an album track that same year by Jim Reeves (and was released as a posthumous Jim Reeves single in 1976). The song was written by blind country singer Leon Payne and reached #4 for Leon in 1949. Carl’s 1969 release reached #14 – the single was very similar to this recording. Basically, the steel guitar is the lead instrument for much of this track.   

“I Overlooked An Orchid” was an early recording for Carl Smith. Released in 1950, the song never charted but was a regional hit for Carl, and apparently sold quite well despite its lack of chart activity. The song would become a #1 hit for Mickey Gilley in 1974.   

‘Mister Moon” was Carl’s second hit from 1951, a song that reached #4 and spent 17 weeks on the charts. The song features standard country production but no strings or background singers.

“I Feel Like Cryin’” reached #7 in early 1956 as the B side of “You’re Free To Go” which topped out at #6. Again the song features standard production minus strings, but with some harmony vocals. 

“There She Goes” reached #3 for Carl in 1955 and spent 25 weeks on the charts. Jerry Wallace would have a pop hit with the song in 1961. Once again the song features standard production minus strings, but with some harmony vocals. 

“Let Old Mother Nature Have Her Way” was Carl’s fourth chart hit for 1951 and his biggest ever hit reaching #1 for eight weeks and spending thirty-three weeks on the charts. This recording is a slow ballad with a jazzy, but not western swing, feel to it.   

“Loose Talk” was Carl’s last #1 single reaching the top in early 1955 and staying there for seven weeks during its thirty-two week chart run. The song would be a big hit for the duo of Buck Owens & Rose Maddox in 1961 and become a country standard. The song was written by Freddie Hart and verges on western swing in this version.

“Are You Teasing Me” is a cover of a Louvin Brothers song that reached #1 for Carl in 1952, his third consecutive #1 record. This version is given a jazzy arrangement. 

“Don’t Just Stand There” was the following up to “Let Old Mother Nature Have Her Way” and it also spent eight weeks at #1, although it faded off the charts after only twenty-four weeks. I would describe this recording as solidly western swing. 

“If Teardrops Were Pennies” reached #8 for Carl in 1951, his third charted single of the year. Porter & Dolly would take the song to #3 in 1973. 

“I Betcha My Heart I Love You” dates back to Bob Wills, and while no one ever had a hit with the song, it was a staple of many country bands for years. Wanda Jackson had a nice recording of the song, but Carl’s rendition here really swings. Carl himself recorded the song in 1950 but without any chart action.

The Carl Smith Anniversary Album: 20 Years of Hits remains one of my favorite albums, one that I pull out and play frequently. Over the years I have dubbed it onto cassette tapes and also made digital copies of the album. To my knowledge, it has only ever been released on vinyl.

Carl Smith is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and while his 1950s output has been adequately available his post-1950s output has been shamefully under-represented in the digital era.

Album Review: Midland — ‘Midland’

NOTE: Occasional Hope reviewed this upon release. Paul’s view of the album appears below: 

I know I’m a little late to the party in discovering this late 2017 release but I rarely listen to over-the-air country stations these days.

Other than my brother Sean, who knows my tastes in folk, jazz & pop standards (but knows little about country or bluegrass music), none of my family or friends give me music as a birthday or Christmas present. So much to my surprise, I received this CD at Christmas from a nephew of mine who claimed this to be “old style” country music. Of course, my nephew is only 18 so his idea of “old style” country might have been Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban, and Jason Aldean, whereas my definition differs considerably.

Well, it has been a really busy last few weeks for me so it wasn’t until a few days ago that I got around to popping On The Rocks into my CD player (prompted by the fact that I would see my nephew again in two weeks). Much to my surprise, I found myself listening to a real country record, one actually coming out of Nashville.

No, this is not a country record of the sort that could have been played in the classic country period (1944-1978), but it would definitely have fit into the country playlists of the period 1979 – 2005. Instead of a band whose influences were the likes of Eagles, Marshall Tucker and, James Taylor, I was hearing a band that was influenced by Alabama, Diamond Rio, Bellamy Brothers, Clint Black and perhaps John Anderson or Keith Whitley.

I do not know much about this act and perhaps they would tell you of other influences but I can definitely hear traces of the acts cited above. Moreover, this album has the sound of a country album, with prominent steel guitar, audible lyrics and, strong melodies.

Three singles were released to radio. The first single “Drinkin’ Problem” went to #3 on the US Country Airplay chart and went to #1 on Canadian Country chart. The song is an excellent low-key ballad with a good melody and nice steel guitar.

One more night, one more down

One more, one more round

First one in, last one out

Giving this town lots to talk about

They don’t know what they don’t know

 

People say I’ve got a drinkin’ problem

That ain’t no reason to stop

People sayin’ that I’ve hit rock bottom

Just ’cause I’m living on the rocks

It’s a broken hearted thinkin’ problem

So pull that bottle off the wall

People say I got a drinkin’ problem

But I got no problem drinkin’ at all

The second single was “Make A Little” which reached #15 and #12 respectively on the charts referenced above. The song is a mid-tempo rocker that would make a good dance floor number:

 It’s a hard living, tail kicking

Trip that we’re all on, but I’m betting

We can find a little sunshine in the night

It’s a back breaking, soul taking

Road we walk, so what are we waiting for

Baby let’s turn off the lights

‘Cause girl, there’s just not enough love in the world

 

So we should make a little

Generate a little

Maybe even make the world a better place a little

We could turtle dove, Dixie land delight

You know it can’t be wrong when it feels so right

It all comes down to you and me, girl

There’s just not enough love in the world

So we should make a little

Then make a little more tonight

The final single was “Burn Out” which reached #11 on The US Country Airplay chart but inexplicably just barely cracked the forty in Canada. This is probably my favorite song on the album

Watchin’ cigarettes burn out

‘Til all the neon gets turned out

There’s nothing left but empty glasses now

It’s all flashes now

Smokin’ memory that ain’t nothin’ but ashes

In the low lights

These done-me-wrong songs hit me so right

I was so on fire for you it hurts how

Fast a cigarette can burn out

I think that the following two songs would have made good singles: “Electric Rodeo:”

 It’s a lonely road

Two for the pain and three for the show

You put your life on hold chasin’ layaway dreams

That ain’t all they seem

With a hotel heart just tryin’ to find a spark

 

Electric rodeo

We’re paintin’ on our suits

We’re pluggin’ in our boots

We’re ridin’ high tonight

On Acapulco gold

And the rhinestones shine

Just as bright as diamonds

Underneath the lights

Electric rodeo

and “Out of Sight:”

Clothes ain’t in the closet, shoes ain’t under the bed

I should’ve believed her when she said what she said

“You’ll never change I know you never will”

I just sat there watching tailights rollin’ over the hill

I called her mama and I called her best friend

They said “She called it quits, so boy don’t call here again”

Up and down these streets lookin’ for her car

Tried to make it back home, but ended up at the bar

 

She’s gone (she’s gone, so long) never coming back

So gone (so gone, so gone) the train went off the track

And all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put me and my baby back together again

So long (she’s gone, so long) that’s the way it goes

She’s gone (so long, so long) and everybody knows

That I’m going crazy one night at a time

She’s out of sight and I’m out of my mind

The band consists of Jess Carson (acoustic guitar & background vocals), Cameron Duddy – (bass guitar & background vocals) and Mark Wystrach (lead vocals), with all three members being involved in the writing of eleven of the thirteen songs with Carson being involved as a co-writer on all thirteen songs, with an occasional assist from outside sources. The band is supplemented by some of Nashville’s finest studio musicians with Paul Franklin and Dan Dugmore swapping steel guitar duties, often carrying the melody line.

While I do not regard any of the tracks on the album as being timeless classics, I at least liked all of the tracks on the album since I never hit ‘skip’ on any of them. If you wonder whatever happened to that good country music of my early-to-middle adulthood youth (i.e. through the late 1970s and the 1990s), then give this CD a listen. I look forward to their next album.

Album Review: Trisha Yearwood — ‘Let’s Be Frank’

It is always nice to encounter new music from Trisha Yearwood, one of the best female vocalists of the pre-millennial generation of country singers. While I would have preferred to have new country music from Ms. Yearwood, I really can’t complain about an album dedicated to the music of Frank Sinatra.

Frank Sinatra was such an omnipresent force in the music I heard growing up, that I find it hard to believe that it has been over twenty years since his death on May 14, 1998. Arriving on the scene in the mid- 1930s Frank continued to have hit records into the early 1980s. Along with Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra is one of the four faces that would belong on a Mount Rushmore of classic pop music (some would insert Perry Como, Joe Williams. Mel Torme or Tony Bennett alongside Crosby and Sinatra but this is my Mount Rushmore). Sinatra recorded for RCA (technically these were issued as Tommy Dorsey Orchestra featuring Frank Sinatra), Columbia, Capitol, and Reprise/Warner Brothers. The A&R Director at Columbia was Mitch Miller, who was somewhat addicted to novelty songs and tended to pander to the pop market. Disgusted, Sinatra left Columbia for Capitol, determined to record only quality material. The Capitol and Reprise recordings are chock full of good material. Perfectionist that he was, Sinatra often re-recorded past material, usually bringing a new slant to the material, whether in orchestration, time signatures or approach. None of Sinatra’s remakes could be described as dreary or inferior.

In making this album, Trisha Yearwood has selected eleven songs that Sinatra sang over the course of his long career plus one new song. The album opens up with “Witchcraft”, a top twenty pop hit from 1957, written by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh. It would be difficult to top Frank’s recording but Ms. Yearwood gives it a really good effort.

“Drinking Again” is a song I associate with Dinah Washington, one of the most soulful R&B singers ever. I like Yearwood’s version (and Frank’s version, too); however, neither version measures up to the Dinah Washington recording. Sinatra’s version is fairly obscure, appearing on several Sinatra sampler albums and anthologies.

Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen were among Sinatra’s favorite songsmiths, both separately and together. “All The Way” appeared in the film The Joker Is Wild and the song received the 1957 Academy Award for Best Original Song. It reached #2 on Billboard’s airplay charts and is a song that Sinatra would revisit several times. Trisha does a fine job with the song giving a properly nuanced delivery.

“Come Fly With Me” was the title track to one of Sinatra’s biggest albums, reaching #1 in the US and #2 in the UK in 1958. The song was not released as a single but it is a very well known song – if Billboard had charted album tracks, this song, with a swinging arrangement by Billy May, undoubtedly would have been a hit. Trisha does not swing with quite the flair of Sinatra (who does?) but she does a more than satisfactory job with the song.

Nobody associates “(Somewhere) Over The Rainbow” with Frank Sinatra, and although Sinatra recorded E.Y. Harburg’s classic song for Columbia in the mid-1940s, Frank would have been the first to tell you that the song forever belongs to Judy Garland. Sinatra version had the sort of ‘Hearts and Flowers’ arrangement that Columbia’s Axel Stordahl was known for, and Yearwood follows the same approach. Her version is very good, with an understated ending but I would have picked another song for this album.

“One For My Baby” is what Sinatra called a ‘saloon song’. A saloon is one of the last places I would expect to find Trisha Yearwood and while she does a nice job with the song, she does not imbue the song with the sense of melancholy that Frank breathed into this Johnny Mercer classic:

 It’s quarter to three

There’s no one in the place

Except you and me

So set ’em up Joe

I got a little story

I think you should know

We’re drinking my friend

To the end

Of a brief episode

Make it one for my baby

And one more for the road …

 

You’d never know it

But buddy I’m a kind of poet

And I’ve got a lot of things

I’d like to say

And when I’m gloomy

Won’t you listen to me

Till it’s talked away

Well, that’s how it goes

And Joe I know your gettin’

Anxious to close

 

And thanks for the cheer

I hope you didn’t mind

My bending your ear

But this torch that I found

It’s gotta be drowned

Or it’s soon might explode

Make it one for my baby

And one more for the road

George & Ira Gershwin created “They All Laughed” back in 1937 for the film Shall We Dance starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Ginger sang the song in the movie and it is a perfect fit for Trisha. While I would not regard this as a Sinatra song (he recorded once, in 1980, as part of his rather odd Trilogy: Past Present and Future album), there is no doubt that Trisha does a superlative job with the song.

 They all laughed at Christopher Columbus

When he said the world was round

They all laughed when Edison recorded sound

They all laughed at Wilbur and his brother

When they said that man could fly

They told Marconi

Wireless was a phony

It’s the same old cry

They laughed at me wanting you

Said I was reaching for the moon

But oh, you came through

Now they’ll have to change their tune

They all said we never could be happy

They laughed at us and how!

But ho, ho, ho!

Who’s got the last laugh now?

“If I Loved You” was a Rodgers & Hammerstein song from the Broadway musical Showboat. Again it is not especially thought of as a Sinatra song, although he recorded it for Columbia and Capitol, but, it is a nice song that Trisha handles well.

 If I loved you,

Time and again I would try to say

All I’d want you to know.

If I loved you,

Words wouldn’t come in an easy way

Round in circles I’d go!

Longin’ to tell you,

But afraid and shy,

I’d let my golden chances pass me by!

Soon you’d leave me,

Off you would go in the mist of day,

Never, never to know how I loved you

If I loved you.

“The Man That Got Away” is another Judy Garland classic, this time from the pens of Harold Arlen & Ira Gershwin. Sinatra sang it as “The Gal That Got Away” but it works better from the feminine perspective, and I prefer Trisha’s version to Frank’s version.

“The Lady Is A Tramp” is a Rodgers & Hart composition from the play Babes In Arms. Trisha sings the song from the feminine perspective, and while the song works better sung from the masculine perspective, the main problem is that Trisha simply doesn’t swing as well as Sinatra.

“For The Last Time” is the only new song on the album, written by Trisha Yearwood and her husband Garth Brooks. It is a very good, but not great, song that Sinatra might have recorded as an album track. I am impressed that they came up with a song that could fit Sinatra’s milieu.

The album closes with “I’ll Be Seeing You”, a song written by Sammy Fain and Irvin Kahal in the late 1930s. While the song was huge hit for Bing Crosby and for the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra featuring Frank Sinatra, Sinatra very much liked the song and also recorded the song for Columbia and Capitol. He also featured it in concert

I’ll be seeing you

In every lovely summer’s day

In everything that’s light and gay

I’ll always think of you that way

 

I’ll find you in the morning sun

And when the night is new

I’ll be looking at the moon

But I’ll be seeing you

This is a very nice album indeed and I would give it an A-, docking it very slightly for some errant choices in material as regards Sinatra. That said, the arrangements are very good to excellent, and the musical accompaniment is excellent (unfortunately my copy is a digital download so I do not have a list of the musicians) and the songs are fine exemplars of well-crafted songs. This album will likely appeal more to fans of classic pop/pop standards than to fans of either traditional country or modern country but I would recommend the album to anyone interested in hearing the magic that occurs when an excellent vocalist is paired with worthy material.

Our Country Heritage: The Statler Brothers

It is hard to believe that it has been over 16 years since the Statler Brothers announced their retirement; however when they retired they really meant it. Since 2003 Don Reid has written some books, co-authoring one book with older brother Harold Reid but little else has been heard from Harold and virtually nothing from Phil Balsley. The fourth Statler, Jimmy Fortune was ten years younger than Don Reid and fifteen years younger than Harold Reid and Phil Balsley, so he chose to pursue a solo career. Fortune still performs today, sometimes in conjunction with Dailey & Vincent or other bluegrass acts.

We take country music groups for granted as there have been many successful such acts over the years, with the Oak Ridge Boys, Exile, Restless Heart, Shenandoah, Alabama, Sawyer Brown, Old Dominion and other acts following in the Statler Brothers’ footsteps. While there had been vocal groups before the Statler Brothers, those groups had either been cowboy groups such as The Sons of The Pioneers, The Oklahoma Wranglers (a/k/a The Willis Brothers) and Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage, or else gospel groups such as the Chuck Wagon Gang, The Blackwood Brothers or The Oak Ridge Quartet (from which sprang the Oak Ridge Boys).

Indeed, even the Statler Brothers started out as a gospel group using the name the Kingsmen, changing their name when a west coast group had a hit with a song titled “Louie, Louie”. During this period the group consisted of the Don Reid(lead vocals), Harold Reid (bass vocals), Phil Balsley (harmony vocals) and Lew DeWitt (high tenor vocals). Although the Don usually sang lead vocals, on many songs each member would sing lead on a verse. Because of his unique soaring high tenor, sometimes Lew DeWitt would be the lead on a song.

By that time, the Statler Brothers had already become associated with Johnny Cash and were no longer performing strictly as a gospel group, experimenting with secular music, often novelties. They would remain on the road with Cash from 1963 to 1971 and were signed to Cash’s label Columbia Records from 1964-1969. In 1965 the group scored its biggest ever hit with DeWitt’s “Flowers on the Wall,” which went #2 country / #4 pop was a huge seller internationally and won a Grammy. Subsequent singles for Columbia did not reach that level of success although novelties “Ruthless” and “You Can’t Have Your Kate and Edith, Too” both reached the top ten.

The Statlers signed to Mercury in 1970, find their sound and milieu almost immediately, aided by expert production by Jerry Kennedy, who had helped resurrect the career of Jerry Lee Lewis. Tapping into America’s longing for more peaceable times, the Statler Brothers embarked on a series of albums, dealing with nostalgia in its many forms, while also embracing more modern themes and occasionally some gospel music. Although the group wrote much of its own material, they also used outside material, both new and old, both country and pop in their quest for quality material. From 1970 through 1982 the group charted 36 singles, 17 of which made the top ten (8 into the top five) and another 10 of which reached the top twenty.

In 1983 Lew DeWitt dropped out of the group after battling Crohn’s disease for many years. DeWitt had been missed a number of dates in 1982 and had spotted Jimmy Fortune as a worthy replacement. When DeWitt dropped out, Fortune slid easily into the group. DeWitt had a brief remission from Crohn’s and pursued a solo career but the remission was brief and by 1990 DeWitt had passed away from complications of the disease.

The substitution of Fortune into the lineup added an additional quality songwriter and provided a brief upsurge in the group’s fortunes. While the group had consistently been near the top of the charts only “Do You Know You Are My Sunshine” had reached #1 for the Statlers while DeWitt was in the group. The group would have three more #1 singles, all on songs penned by Fortune (“Elizabeth”, “My Only Love”, and “Too Much On My Heart” but after 1985, radio increasingly turned to younger acts – the last top ten record would be “More Than A Name On The Wall” (about a mother visiting the Vietnam War Memorial to see her son’s name).

Although radio lost interest, The Nashville Network (TNN) did not, and the group hosted a television series for 1991-1998. Although the show’s ratings remained high throughout, new ownership really had no interest in country music and discarded most of TNN’s programming.

The Statler Brothers were the first vocal group to have sustained success in country music (I should note that the Oak Ridge Boys pre-date the Statler Brothers, but they remained a gospel group until 1977). While modern-day country acts seem unaware of the Statler Brothers, their influence on bluegrass has been strong, with Dailey & Vincent being strong proponents of their music and always including several Statler songs in live performance. The Statler Brothers were probably the first country music act to transfer the genre’s tendency toward nostalgia from a rural to a suburban setting. Kurt Vonnegut referred to them as “America’s Poets”. Moreover, the group stayed together unlike many groups which seemed to have a revolving door of group members.

Discography 

Vinyl records were the format in which recordings for the Lew Dewitt years were issue. The material on Columbia is pleasant, but the group was still finding its way. I have all of the Mercury albums featuring Lew DeWitt and I regard all of them as priceless treasures. Unfortunately, most of the CDs featuring DeWitt are anthologies that also include the Jimmy Fortune years. The Statler Brothers website does have a four-CD set featuring the group’s first eight albums on Mercury – it sells for $49.95. It is a little pricey but if all you have heard is the radio hits, this is a great place to examine the depth and breadth of the group’s talent.

Actually, I could make the same comment about the Jimmy Fortune years – mostly it is anthologies that are available, but because Jimmy’s entire tenure with the group falls into the digital era, used CDs can be found with a little effort. I will say that the albums of the Jimmy Fortune period tend to be less interesting as albums, although the singles remained strong. I would stay away from the Farewell Concert album which sounds very rushed as if the boys couldn’t wait for the show to be over.

The Statlers continued to issue some recordings after their tenure with Mercury (later Polygram) was over. Some of these recordings can be found on their website.                                                         

The best reissues of 2018

It wasn’t a great year for reissues but there were some bright spots. As always our British and European friends lead the way. Also, please note that these can take a while for foreign titles to become available from US suppliers, so it may be into 2019 before these are generally available.

In those cities that still have adequate recorded music stores (sadly, a rare commodity these days), it can be a real thrill finding a label you’ve not encountered before reissuing something you’ve spent decades seeking. It can be worthwhile to seek out the foreign affiliates of American labels for recordings that the American affiliate hasn’t reissued. For example, there are Capitol recordings not reissued in the US that are available on the UK or European EMI labels. For the rest of us, scanning the internet remains the best alternative.

Unfortunately as the sales of physical CDs continue to plummet, so does the willingness of labels, domestic and foreign, to invest in reissuing material by second and third tier artists. Still missing in action are the catalogues of such significant artists as Liz Anderson, Wilma Burgess, Johnny Darrell, Jack Greene, The Hager Twins, Freddie Hart, Warner Mack, Kenny Price and David Rogers. While there has been a slight uptick in vinyl sales and reissues, most of that has been of only the very top selling artists (and at $22 to $33 per title).
Anyway …

The British label Jasmine issued a number of worthy country releases:

Billy WalkerWell, Hello There – The Country Chart Hits and More 1954-1962. The album features most of Billy’s biggest Columbia hits in decent sound.

Johnny CashChange of Address – The Single As and Bs 1958-1962. This release is somewhat redundant as it collects the A&B sides of Cash’s first sixteen Columbia singles. The songs are available elsewhere, but it is nice to have the singles all in one place.

Kitty WellsI Heard The Juke Box Playing. This two CD set features Kitty’s 1950s solo hits plus a bunch of (not readily available) duets with the likes of Roy Acuff, Webb Pierce and Red Foley. While much of this material had been available in the past, it had been allowed to slip out of print so it is nice to have it available again.

The Collins KidsRockin’ and Boppin’. Lorrie and Larry Collins were teenage rockabilly artists backed by the cream of California’s country musicians. Their material has been unavailable for quite a while.

Jasmine isn’t specifically a country label with much of their output being R&B and Rock ‘n Roll, but their country reissues are always welcome. Jasmine also issued an early Homer & Jethro collection from their recordings on King Records, a Lee Hazlewood collection and several mixed artists albums during 2018.

Another British label, Ace Records, usually does a nice job with reissues. Unfortunately, 2018 was a sparse year for country reissues with a Johnny Lee Wills reissue (available only as a digital download) being about it this year.

The British Hux label had a light year as far as country reissues was concerned issuing nothing (that I have been able to find), but they did have a mid-2017 release that slipped my notice last year, a nice Dickey Lee reissue comprised of Dickey’s first two RCA albums from 1971 & 1972 in Never Ending Song Of Love / Ashes Of Love. Dickey Lee was far more successful as a songwriter than as a recording artist, but this pair features four of his hits plus some other songs he wrote including “She Thinks I Still Care”.

The British Humphead label has received criticism for using needle drops but they’ve gotten better at the process and in many cases, theirs are the only available (non-remake) recordings by the artist.

In October Humphead issued the Connie Smith collection My Part of Forever (Vol. 1), comprised of mainly her 1970s recording including tracks recorded for Warner Bros., in the mid-1990s, Sugar Hill in 2011, and rare lost radio performances from the early 1970s. Many of these tracks have been previously unavailable – a real find.

Humphead also had released a three CD Ed Bruce collection and a two CD best of the Kentucky Headhunters collection.

The British BGO label finished its reissue series of Charley Pride’s RCA catalogue with its two CD set consisting of The Best of Charley Pride Volumes 1-3 and Charley Pride’s Greatest Hits VI. At this time virtually everything from Charley Pride’s landmark RCA tenure is now available on CD, either from BGO or from other sources.

BGO also released a two CD set of Charlie McCoy’s first four albums on Monument (The Real McCoy / Charlie McCoy / Good Time Charlie / The Fastest Harp In The South). They are good, but rather more harmonica than I care to listen to at one sitting,

Other BGO sets can be found here.

Germany’s Bear Family Records has been the gold standard for reissues; however, this was a rather quiet year on the country side of the business. On the other hand, the one truly significant set released is a doozy. Bear had previously released vinyl and CD boxed sets on the legendary Lefty Frizzell. In October Bear released a greatly expanded twenty CD set titled An Article From Life – The Complete Recordings. The original Bear set was beyond great and if I had unlimited cash reserves I would buy this set which includes the following:

• Every 45, 78, and LP track from Lefty’s entire career. Every unissued session recording
• Newly-discovered demos and non-session recordings
• Newly-researched biography and discography
• Many previously unseen photos from the Frizzell family’s archives
• A new designed 264 page hardcover book!
• Many previously unissued recordings – a total of 12 CDs of music.
• An audio book on 8 CDs with Lefty’s life history, written and read by his brother David.

As for domestic reissues our friend Ken Johnson helps keep the folks at Varese Vintage on the straight and narrow for their country releases. This year Varese only had one country album released which occurred in November, when Varese issued the John Denver collection Leaving On A Jet Plane. This isn’t really country, but Denver was heavily played on country radio., These tracks come from the 1960s when Denver was part of a late edition of the Mitchell Trio and part of the successor group Denver, Boise and Johnson. The collection features John’s first recordings of “Leaving On A Jet Plane”.

Although not really a reissue, Yep Rock released a nice Jim Lauderdale/ Roland White collaboration that had never before been released. We reviewed it in September 2018 here.

Sony Legacy controls the rights to Columbia/CBS, Epic, RCA, Monument and some other labels as well. In May 2018, Sony Legacy released Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring ’70s, a nice two CD set of “Outlaw Era” country. The thirty-six song collection is hardly essential but it is a nice introduction to the era, showcasing the obvious artists along with the likes of Marcia Ball, Rodney Crowell, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Willis Alan Ramsey. This label seems to be Willie Nelson’s current label for new material

Omnivore Recordings spent several years releasing the recordings of Buck Owens. In May of this year they released The Complete Capitol Singles: 1967-1970, a two CD set that seems to have completed their coverage of Buck’s peak period. Since then they have issued Country Singer’s Prayer, the never released last Capitol album, and Tom Brumley’s Steelin’ The Show, featuring Buckaroo and Buck Owens tracks on which Tom’s pedal steel was prominently featured. Neither of the latter two albums are essential but the Brumley collection highlights just what a great steel player was Tom Brumley.

Earlier in 2018, Omnivore released a Don Gibson collection featuring most of Don’s hits on Hickory plus some album tracks.

***

I suppose I should again say a few words about the Gusto family of labels. It appears that Gusto still is in the process of redesigning their website, but plenty of product can be found from other on-line vendors or from retail outlets such as Pottery Barn and various truck stops along the Interstates.

As I mentioned previously, with the exception of the numerous gospel recordings made by Porter Wagoner during the last decade of his life, there is little new or original material on the Gusto Family of labels. Essentially, everything Gusto does is a reissue, but they are forever recombining older recordings into new combinations.

Gusto has accumulated the catalogs of King, Starday, Dixie, Federal, Musicor, Step One, Little Darlin’ and various other small independent labels and made available the music of artists that are otherwise largely unavailable. Generally speaking, older material on Gusto’s labels is more likely to be original recordings. This is especially true of bluegrass recordings with artists such as Frank “Hylo” Brown, The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Stringbean and Curley Fox being almost exclusive to Gusto.

After 1970, Gusto’s labels tended to be old age homes for over-the-hill country and R&B artists, and the recordings often were remakes of the artists’ hits of earlier days or a mixture of remakes of hits plus covers of other artists’ hits. These recordings range from inspired to tired and the value of the CDs can be excellent, from the fabulous boxed sets of Reno & Smiley, Mel Street and The Stanley Brothers, to wastes of plastic and oxides with numerous short eight and ten song collections.

To be fair, some of these eight and ten song collections can be worth having, if they represent the only recordings you can find by a particular artist you favor. Just looking at the letter “A” you can find the following: Roy Acuff, Bill Anderson, Lynn Anderson, Eddy Arnold, Leon Ashley, Ernie Ashworth, Chet Atkins and Gene Autry. If you have a favorite first or second tier country artist of the 1960s or 1970s, there is a good chance that Gusto has an album (or at least some tracks) on that artist.

Album Review: Dailey & Vincent — ‘The Sounds of Christmas’

Those who have access to the RFD network have undoubtedly seen Dailey & Vincent’s weekly half-hour show. Those who have not seen the show nor seen the dynamic duo in person probably think of the duo as a bluegrass act but they are far more than that.

Yes, both Jamie Dailey & Darrin Vincent “D & V”) have bona fide bluegrass credentials. Dailey spent a decade as y the lead vocalist and guitarist for Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver from 1999-2008. Darrin Vincent was a musician with Ricky Skaggs’ legendary band Kentucky Thunder and was also part of the famous bluegrass family group The Sally Mountain Show with his sister Rhonda Vincent. Rhonda, of course, is the Queen of Bluegrass having won numerous IBMA and SPBMA awards including seven Entertainer of the Year awards between the two organizations.

Bluegrass they may be, but Gale Mayes, Angie Primm, Aaron McCune, and Josh Cobb are far more than that, having absorbed many other forms of music into their collective souls. They have assembled a cast of excellent musicians and can field several variants of a vocal quartet, including a group that can easily replicate the sound of the legendary Statler Brothers.

The album opens with “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” which features some excellent saxophone and honors the rocking spirit of Brenda Lee’s original recording from 1958. Johnny Marks wrote the song. Jamie Dailey takes the lead on this number.

“Mary Did You Know”, written by Christian humorist Mark Lowry has become a Christmas classic since its first appearance in 1991. This may be the best version I have heard of the song. I think that Darrin takes the lead on this song.

“Road To Bethlehem” features Dolly Parton singing harmony and taking the lead on the second verse. Jimmy Fortunate and Jeff Bates wrote this mid-tempo ballad.

“Go Thee Down” is a nice ballad about the first persons to see the Christ child

“Let It Snow” is an old warhorse from the pens of Frank Sinatra’s favorite tunesmiths Sammy Kahn & Jule Styne. Although not specifically a Christmas song, this fan favorite, first recorded by Vaughn Monroe in 1945 reached #1 in January 1946 and has been associated with the holidays since then. Dailey and Vincent give the song an upbeat jazzy interpretation with brass and full orchestration.

“The Spirit of Christmas is typically associated with Ray Charles. Dailey & Vincent give it a straight-ahead treatment (there is no point trying to be more soulful than Ray Charles) and succeed nicely

Christmas is the time of year
For being with the one’s we love
Sharing so much joy and cheer
What a wonderful feeling
Watching the one’s we love
Having so much fun

I was sitting by the fire side
Taking a walk through the snow
Listening to a children’s choir
Singing songs about Jesus
The blessed way that he came to us
Why can’t it remain

“The Carol of the Bells” is usually cast as an instrumental so it is interesting to hear it performed as a vocal ensemble. “It’s a Very Merry Christmas: is a rather bland generic song that serves as a placeholder for the humorous and jazzy “Mr. Grinch”

“Mr. Grinch” was featured in the television special How The Grinch Stole Christmas that originally aired in 1966 and featured the legendary Boris Karloff as the voice of the Grinch. Thurl Ravenscroft was the actual singer (best known as the voice of Tony The Tiger in the Kelloggs commercials) on the soundtrack. I’m not sure that anyone could actually equal Ravenscroft, but it is fun to hear the song again.

“Frosty The Snowman” is another upbeat Christmas classic. Written by Walter “Jack” Rollins and Steve Nelson, the song was first performed by Gene Autry in 1950. I prefer Autry’s version, but D & V do a nice job with the song.

Next up is a medley of traditional Christmas carols consisting of “Hark The Herald Angels Sing”, “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” and “Joy To The World” This medley is performed as a vocal quartet and sounds much the way I recall the Statler Brothers performing such tunes – very nice indeed.

It is hard to mess up “Jingle Bells” and D&V do a nice job with the song giving a Statler-esque spin to the number.

“Little Town of Bethlehem” is a standard carol that D&V treat respectfully. Piano is the dominant instrument on the track.

The album closes with a rocking Southern gospel rendition of “Go Tell It On The Mountain with bass singer Aaron McCune leading the way.

The additional vocalists on this album include Gale Mayes, Angie Primm, Aaron McCune, and Josh Cobb.

While there are some acoustic instruments on this album, dobro, mandolin, and banjo are not among them, so this album truly cannot be classified as bluegrass. I am a bit annoyed that nowhere on the disc or the packaging is the songwriters listed. If I have left the songwriter unidentified, it is because I could not find the information elsewhere

The review for this album is in accordance with how most will hear this album. Those lucky enough to purchase this at Cracker Barrel Restaurants will find two bonus tracks mixed within the album. “Silver Bells” is a fairly standard quartette treatment of an old Christmas favorite. “Tonight It’s Christmas” features Ricky Skaggs originally surfaced on Alabama’s album Christmas. It is a very nice track that should be more widely known:

The factories are all shut down and the shopping malls are all closed

And the busy streets are all empty except for the falling snow

And in the small towns, in the cities families gather as one

‘Cause the night of love and sharing they look forward to has come

 

’cause tonight is Christmas, tonight is love

Tonight we celebrate god’s one and only son

Tonight there’s hope for peace on earth eternally

Tonight is Christmas and the world’s in harmony

But across the seas two armies stare down at each other’s guns

Each believing in their cause enough to die or kill the other one

But tonight there’ll be no shooting, not a drop of blood will spill

They will cease their fire this silent night in the name of peace and goodwill

Sounds of Christmas defies categorization by genre – it is simply a great Christmas album, There is nothing new or revolutionary about the album, but it is excellent and I I like this album a lot. While it is not bluegrass and not necessarily country on every track, my tastes in Christmas music tend toward the very traditional and toward the religious meaning of the holiday. This album fits the bill completely.

Album Review: Rosanne Cash — ‘She Remembers Everything’

I am not a big Rosanne Cash fan, having found myself liking only about half of her output during her country singles commercial peak period of 1978-1990; however, since taking her focus off the singles market she has become a very interesting artist. Her 2009 album The List was a fine effort and her last album, 2014’s The River & The Thread (released on Blue Note), was truly an outstanding album.

Ms. Cash returns with her second album release for Blue Note, She Remembers Everything. Blue Note is a record label primarily known for jazz having been home to the likes of John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Horace Silver. While I would not regard Rosanne Cash as a classic jazz artist, her current work fits comfortably within the confines of modern jazz vocals. I suspect that I am much more of a jazz fan than most country listeners, and while this album should get some airplay from jazz stations, I suspect that you will need to buy this album if you want to hear the album and don’t listen to over-the-air jazz radio.

The title track is particularly striking as Cash sings about a woman who has survived a deep, but unidentified, trauma:

 Before it all went dark

Was she like a streak of fire

A pane of glass, a beating heart?

The use of minor piano chords creates a somber effect, with no likelihood of a happy ending in the lyrics.

Fortunately, the rest of the album is less somber although somewhat inconsistent. I purchased the Deluxe Edition via digital download. Below is how I would rate the individual tracks (on a 5-star scale):

  1. The Only Thing Worth Fighting For [with Colin Meloy] (3 stars)
  2. The Undiscovered Country (5 stars)
  3. 8 Gods Of Harlem [with Elvis Costello & Kris Kristofferson] (3 stars)
  4. Rabbit Hole [with Colin Meloy] (4 stars)
  5. Crossing To Jerusalem (4 stars)
  6. Not Many Miles To Go (4 stars)
  7. Everyone But Me (5 stars)
  8. She Remembers Everything [with Sam Phillips] (4 stars)
  9. Particle And Wave (5 stars)
  10. My Least Favorite Life (4 stars)
  11. Nothing But The Truth (Bonus Track) (4 stars)
  12. Every Day Feels Like A New Goodbye (Bonus Track) (4 stars)
  13. The Parting Glass (Bonus Track) (4 stars)

This is a very personal album for Cash, with little in the way of political overtones. “Everyone But Me” is a gentle ballad that sounds as if Rosanne could be singing it to her departed parents. “Crossing To Jerusalem” is a hopeful track about (eventual) personal solace.

I actually like the individual tracks more than I like the album because of the largely unvarying tempos. “Not Many Miles To Go” is as close as this album gets to an up-tempo number. I suspect that each listener will have personal favorites that vary from mine. I have found that in my listening, that I tend to listen to three or four tracks at a time, then returning later for more. There is much to contemplate in these lyrics and the album’s tracks are best heard when the listener can give proper attention.

Introducing: The Malpass Brothers

And the winner of the 2018 CMA Entertainer of the Year is ….. The Malpass Brothers!

Well not really, but if the CMA had a shred of integrity left, the Malpass Brothers would have at least been nominated.  This is not a knock against this year’s winner Keith Urban, who is an excellent rock guitarist (with very little country in his playing) and a passable (but very overrated) vocalist with a decent sense of humor, but having seen both perform, Urban is miles (or kilometers) behind in the ability to entertain.

So who are the Malpass Brothers? According to their website:

As young boys, Christopher and Taylor Malpass soaked up the music of their granddad’s phonograph records. Christopher earned his first talent show trophy at age 7, and Taylor was playing mandolin by the time he was 10. Today, they promote the work and music of classic country artists they treasure while creating new music and making their own mark in the lineage of a rich American cultural heritage.

With sincerity, honesty and an utter ease on stage that belies their years, their smooth vocal blend and skillful musicianship layer infectiously into the deep respect they pay to legends who have paved the way. Add the funny, off-the-cuff quips between the two 20-something siblings, and the engaging concert becomes a magnetic time-traveling journey to when a calmer rhythm reigned supreme.

The Malpass Brothers toured with the late Don Helms, former steel guitarist for Hank Williams, have opened for music legend Merle Haggard on multiple tours and appeared on stages from the Shetland Islands to Ryman Auditorium to Merlefest. Gifted musicians and songwriters, the brothers have shared billing with artists including Ray Price, Willie Nelson, Doyle Lawson, Rhonda Vincent, Marty Stuart, Doc Watson and more. The title cut video from their “Memory That Bad” album hit CMT Pure Country’s Top Ten.

The above quote gives but a small hint as to what the Malpass Brothers are all about. Although there are other young country traditionalists who are true to the traditions of real country music, most of them are faithful to the traditions of the country music of the 1970s and the new traditionalists movement that kicked off in 1986 and held sway for about 12-15 years. North Carolina natives Chris and Taylor Malpass are torch carriers for the sounds of the country music of the 1950s through 1975 with occasional rockabilly overtones, and a lot of humor in their performances. Chris normally sings lead and Taylor typically plays electric lead and mandolin

After spending about seven years opening for Merle Haggard, the Malpass Brothers started working the bluegrass festivals along with other more normal venues. Although there is nothing at all bluegrass about their music, there is an interesting dynamic at work in the world of bluegrass which is that while there is a schism (of sorts) between the traditionalist “true grass” advocates and more modernist “newgrass” fans, both groups love the music of traditional country artists such as George Jones, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Loretta Lynn and the Louvin Brothers and it rare to find a group in either the truegrass or newgrass camps that does not include the music of the pre-1975 period in their repertoire.

From what I’ve written above, you may think that the Malpass Brothers are nothing more than a covers band, but in fact, their repertoire is a mixture of covers and originals written by the brothers. In fact, their most recent album Live At The Paramount Theatre (taken from a PBS Documentary), features six original tunes along with three Merle Haggard songs, Lefty Frizzell’s “If You’ve Got The Money I Got The Time”, Ernst Tubb’s “Walking The Floor Over You” and the Jimmie Rodgers classic from the 1930s (later covered by Crystal Gayle) “Miss The Mississippi and You”.

This album also includes a live performance of their CMT hit “Memory That Bad” which was written by Chris and Taylor Malpass.

For more information check their website: https://themalpassbrothers.com/

Meanwhile, I’ve stacked three of their CDs in my changer and will be listening to some real country music. I will see them again in February 2019

Below are some YouTube clips:

“Hoping That You’re Hoping:”

“Luther Played The Boogie:”

“Half A Mind:”

 

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘King Of The Road: A Tribute To Roger Miller’

Roger Miller was unique in terms of his all-around abilities as an entertainer. He could write off-beat and humorous songs then turn around and write a masterpiece of a straight ahead ballad. The nearest thing to him in terms of his compositional abilities was Shel Silverstein, but unlike Silverstein, who was a terrible singer, Roger was an outstanding vocalist and musician. People who have heard Roger’s concert in Birchmere, VA, about a year before he died can attest that Roger Miller barely even needed a guitar in order to keep and audience entertained.

Because Roger was so offbeat, tributes to him and his music have been rare – many of his most famous songs barely lend themselves to being covered. One of the few tributes I’ve seen was Tim O’Brien’s O’Brien Party of Seven – Reincarnation: The Songs Of Roger Miller, released about six years ago and featuring members of Tim’s family. It is a great album, but Tim and his family mostly stayed away from the more famous songs, and delved deeper into the Roger Miller catalogue.

King of The Road: A Tribute to Roger Miller
is a two disc set featuring snippets of dialogue from Roger along with covers of 34 of his songs as performed by various artists. The covers of straight ahead country songs work best as few artists have the ability that Roger had to let vocal scats and odd phrasings simply roll of his tongue. Among the odder songs tackled on disc one are “Chug A Lug” (Asleep at The Wheel with Huey Lewis), “Dang Me” (Brad Paisley), “Kansas City Star” (Kacey Musgraves), “You Ought a Be Here With Me” /“I’ve Been A Long Time Leaving” (Alison Krauss & The Cox Family) and In The Summertime” (Shawn Camp /Earls of Leicester) . All of these songs are competently performed but sound a bit forced except Shawn Camp’s take on “In The Summertime” since Camp simply treats the song as a straight ahead county song. The Krauss / Cox song would have been better had they performed it as separate songs and not made a medley of it.

For me the disc one the standouts are Loretta Lynn’s take on “Half A Mind”, a hit for her mentor Ernest Tubb, Mandy Barnett’s “Lock Stock and Teardrops” and the religious song “The Crossing” as performed by Ronnie Dunn and the Blind Boys of Alabama.

Dwight Yoakam does a fine job with his co-write “It Only Hurts Me When I Cry” but you’d expect no less since it was a hit for him.

Disc two is more of the same, some banter, goofy songs, and some straight ahead ballads. Cake makes a complete mess of “Reincarnation” (the only decent cover I’ve had was by Jim Nabors as Gomer Pyle, USMC) and I didn’t like Toad The Wet Sprocket’s take on the old George Jones hit “Nothing Can Stop My Loving You” (also decently covered in the 1970s by Patsy Sledd). Jamey Johnson & Emmylou Harris do a nice job on “Husbands and Wives”.

John Goodman, who never claimed to be a singer, reprises “Guv’ment” from the play Big River. Ringo Starr, also not a compelling singer, gives the right vibe to “Hey Would You Hold It Down?”

For me the two best songs on disc two are the Dolly Parton & Alison Krauss recording of “The Last Word In Lonesome Is Me” and Flatt Lonesome’s exquisite “When Two Worlds Collide”, easily the best performance on the album.

This album offers a good overview of the depth and breadth of the songwriting talents of Roger Miller. While I wasn’t all that impressed with all of the performers on the album, all of them clearly gave their performances their best efforts.

I mostly enjoyed this album and would give it a B+ but if this is your first exposure to Roger Miller, I would strongly suggest picking up one of Roger’s currently available collections of Smash/Mercury recordings.

Album Review: Kathy Mattea — ‘Pretty Bird’

Kathy Mattea had a decent run as a mainstream country artist, enjoying a string of top twenty records that ran from 1986 through 1995. This run included four number one records with “Eighteen Wheels and A Dozen Roses” being the 1988 CMA Single of the Year. Kathy was the CMA’s Female Vocalist of the Year for 1989 and 1990.

Kathy Mattea has always been difficult to pigeonhole as a performer. Never a truly traditional country singer, she was able to come close enough to gain acceptance from country radio for over a decade, although by 1990 her sound was drifting into Americana territory as “Where Have You Been” and “Time Marches On” would demonstrate. After a while, she gave up on getting radio airplay and started focusing on making interesting music. Her most noteworthy album of the last decade was 2008’s Coal, a fine bluegrass collection of songs depicting the trials and tribulations of the men (and women) whose lives depend on coal.

Pretty Bird is only Kathy’s second album in the last decade and her first in six years. The album was produced by Tim O’Brien (Hot Rize, Earls of Leicester) for the Thirty Tigers label (essentially an independently produced album with Kickstarter helping to fund the effort) but while Tim is intimately associated with bluegrass, this album would barely qualify as newgrass. It is, however, a fine album that finds the fifty-nine-year-old Mattea in fine voice.

The album opens up with “Chocolate On My Tongue” a whimsical tune by Oliver Wood about life’s small pleasures. I would describe the song as folk music.

Sittin’ on the front porch, ice cream in my hand

Meltin’ in the sun, all that chocolate on my tongue

That’s a pretty good reason to live

Pretty good reason to live

Sittin’ in the bathtub, hi-fi playin’ low

Diggin’ that Al Green, well you must know what I mean

That’s a pretty good reason to live

Pretty good reason to live

Next up is the only song that was ever a huge hit for anyone, Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe”. Anyone who was listening to AM radio in 1967 knows just how ubiquitous was this song, charting high on the pop, country, easy listening and R&B charts in the US and reaching the top fifteen or better throughout the English speaking world.

“Mercy Now” comes from the pen of Mary Gauthier. Other than the presence of steel guitar, this slow ballad sounds like folk-(quasi) gospel. I like the song a lot and will need to check more into Gauthier since I am not that familiar with her.

 My father could use a little mercy now

The fruits of his labor fall and rot slowly on the ground

His work is almost over, it won’t be long, he won’t be around

I love my father, he could use some mercy now

My brother could use a little mercy now

He’s a stranger to freedom, shackled to his fear and his doubt

The pain that he lives in is almost more than living will allow

I love my brother, he could use some mercy now

Jesse Winchester penned “Little Glass of Wine” a slow introspective ballad given an acoustic treatment on this album. I wouldn’t want to hear an entire album of similar material but the sing fits well within the context of this album

Little glass of wine, you’re oil on my flame

Shy of the sunlight, hiding your shame

And many, many tears, the number is sublime

Shall stain a woman’s bosom, for a little glass of wine

As soon as you learn that you don’t live forever

You grow fond of the fruit of the vine

So here is to you and here is to me

And here is to the ones we’ve left behind

“He Moves Through The Fair” is an acoustic folk ballad performed by Kathy with only an acoustic guitar as accompaniment. The song is about a wedding that never took place, although what happened to the betrothed is unclear.

“Saint Teresa”, a Joan Osborne composition is a grittier song, open to interpretation.

“This Love Will Carry”, a Dougie MacLean composition, is a nice endeavor that perfectly suits Mattea’s voice. The songwriter sings harmony vocals on the track. I really like the song although I cannot imagine a time in which it would be considered worthy of release as a single:

 It’s a thin line that leads us and keeps us all from shame

Dark clouds quickly gather along the way we came

There’s fear out on the mountain and death out on the plain

There’s heartbreak and heartache in the shadow of the flame

 

This love will carry

This love will carry me

I know this love will carry me

The strongest web will tangle, the sweetest bloom will fall

And somewhere in the distance we try and catch it all

Success lasts for a moment and failure’s always near

You look down at your blistered hands as turns another year

“October Song” was written by Kathy’s husband Jon Vezner. Jon has never done Kathy wrong with his songs and this dreamy but regretful reverie about a lost love is right up her alley:

And when at last I drift asleep, those dreams of you

Come back to keep me

Wishing I were lying in your arms

Those memories of when we made love

Are just so hard to let go of

Who am I supposed to be

When there’s so much of you in me

Vezner also penned “Tell Me What You Ache For”, a penetrating look at life and love. Vezner is definitely a poet at heart:

It doesn’t interest me what kind of job you got

Where you eat or where you shop

The kind of car you drive

It doesn’t interest me how big a house you own

What I really want to know

Is what makes you come alive

I don’t want to talk about

How your future’s all planned out

That isn’t what it’s all about to me

 

Tell me what you ache for

Tell me what you wait for

Tell me what you long for

What you’re holding on for

Tell me what you’re dreaming

What would give your life real meaning

You’ve been afraid to pray for

Tell me what you ache for

“Holy Now” is a mid-tempo song with some observations on the state of religion. This is followed by “I Can’t Stand Up Alone” written by Martha Carson, who was a huge gospel music star during the 1950’s, best known for “Satisfied.” Martha was the favorite gospel singer for many country singers including Connie Smith, Kitty Wells, Sonny James and many others. Kathy’s voice does not have the power that Carson had, but she does a very nice job with the song

 One of these days I’m gonna take a vacation

To a quiet and a peaceful shore

And I’ll cool my feet in those crystal waters

Where I won’t have to work anymore

 

‘Cause my burden has got a little heavy

Till I can’t stand up all alone

I must lay my head down on one strong shoulder

‘Cause I can’t stand up all alone

No, you can’t stand up all by yourself

You can’t stand up alone

You need the touch of a mighty hand

You can’t stand up alone

The album closes with “Pretty Bird”, written by Hazel Dickens, a folk singer who wrote of the lives of coal miners and their families. This song is not about coal miners per se but you can read much into the lyrics, which urge the pretty bird to fly away to freedom. The song is performed a cappella.

This is not my favorite Kathy Mattea album although I would consider it to be very good with thoughtful lyrics about serious topics. A few more up-tempo songs would have helped but I suspect that I will revisit this album often, a few songs at a time.

Grade: B+

Complete song lyrics can be found here

Album Review: The Earls of Leicester — ‘Live at the CMA Theater’

I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been able to see almost all of my radio heroes in live performance with three notable exceptions. One of those, Ernest Tubb, I simply was unable to see. Another, Sammi Smith, I had purchased the tickets to see her perform but the show was canceled and she died before the show was scheduled to take place.

The third exception involved Flatt & Scruggs. My father had been transferred to the UK in January 1969 and Flatt & Scruggs were slated to be the headliners at the First International Festival of Country Music to be held at the Empire Pool (Wembly Stadium) on April 5, 1969. Dad purchased the tickets for us to go; however, by the time the festival took place, Flatt & Scruggs had split up and we had to content ourselves with a six-hour show that included Bill Anderson & The Po Boys, Phil Brady & The Ranchers, Wes Buchanan, Larry Cunningham & The Mighty Avons, George Hamilton IV, The Hillsiders, Jan Howard, Loretta Lynn & her stage show, Merrill Moore, Orange Blossom Sound, John Wesley Ryles, Conway Twitty & The Lonely Blue Boys and Charlie Walker.

While I never did get to see Flatt & Scruggs, in November 2017, I got to see the Earls of Leicester perform at the Rodeheaver Boys Ranch / Bluegrass Festival in Palatka Florida. For ninety mesmerizing minutes Jerry Douglas (dobro) and his crew of Charlie Cushman (banjo & guitar), Shawn Camp (lead vocals & guitar), Johnny Warren (fiddle), Barry Bales (bass) and Jeff White (mandolin) transported the listener and breathed life into the truly classic repertoire of Flatt & Scruggs.

The Earls of Leicester perform only the music of Flatt & Scruggs circa 1954-1965, but they are far from being either a cover band or tribute band as they have updated the Flatt & Scruggs sound (mostly due to improved recording technology) while breathing new life into the music and remaining true to the spirit of the original recordings. Most importantly, they are having fun and their infectious joy at performing the music permeates every rack. None of the members of this ensemble can be said to be imitating members of Flatt & Scruggs Foggy Mountain Boys, but they are absorbed into the music.

Live At The CM Theater was recorded in February 2018, only I few months after I saw them in Palatka and features essentially the same program I saw a few months earlier. The recording opens with “Salty Dog Blues”, the very track that Flatt & Scruggs used to open their famous Carnegie Hall concert. From that point forward the band goes through a solid program of Flatt & Scruggs favorites. While each member of the band takes the role of one of the Foggy Mountain Boys at no point are any of them referred to on stage any name but their own.

Basically Shaw Camp takes Lester Flatt’s spot in the band, Charlie Cushman, a marvelous music musician who spent years in Mike Snider’s comic group takes Earl Scruggs role. Jerry Douglas handles the Josh Graves role, Jeff Whites takes Curley Seckler’s role, Barry Bales steps in for Cousin Jake Tulloch and Johnny Warren takes his father Paul Warren’s place in the pantheon.

This is a wonderful album that I have listened to continuously for about two weeks now. I am not sure when I will take it out of my player – perhaps never.

Grade: A+