My Kind of Country

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

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

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

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

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

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

1977: Southern Nights — Glen Campbell (Capitol)

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

1997: We Danced Anyway — Deana Carter (Capitol)

2007: Beer In Mexico — Kenny Chesney (BNA)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Week ending 3/18:17: #1 singles this week in country music history

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

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

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

1967: Where Does The Good Times Go — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1977: She’s Just An Old Love Turned Memory — Charley Pride (RCA)

1987: Baby’s Got A New Baby — S-K-O (MTM)

1997: We Danced Anyway — Deana Carter (Capitol)

2007: Ladies Love Country Boys — Trace Adkins (Capitol)

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

2017 (Airplay): Sober Saturday Night — Chris Young feat. Vince Gill (RCA)

Album Review: Jessi Colter – ‘Mirriam’

Though you’d never know it from the title, 1977’s Mirriam is a collection of inspirational and religious-themed tunes, all composed by Jessi Colter. Her chart success had tapered off since the high point she’d reached two years earlier with “I’m Not Lisa”, but but thanks to the success of 1976’s Wanted! The Outlaws, she had gotten back on the radio with “Suspicious Minds”, a duet with Waylon Jennings that had reached #2. It seems odd, therefore, that Capitol would follow up that success with a religious album which was bound to have more limited commercial appeal.

Like Jessi’s earlier Capitol albums, Mirriam (a title chosen to honor Jessi’s birth name), was produced by Ken Mansfield. This time, however, Richie Albright stepped as co-producer, a role previously held by Waylon. Waylon does appear in the musician credits, however, both as a guitarist and as a background vocalist on “I Belong to Him”, the album’s sole and non-charting single. Roy Orbison is also credited as a background vocalist on this track. Steel guitar great Ralph Mooney is once again onboard as well.

Some of the songs are more overtly religious than others. The opening track “For Mama” is, as the title suggests, a tribute to Jessi’s mother. “Put Your Arms Around Me” and “I Belong To Him” could be taken as either love songs or prayers, while others such as “God, If I Could Only Write Your Love Song” and “New Wine” are unquestionably spiritual. “There Ain’t No Rain” is a rollicking gospel number complete with a choir and is one of the album’s standout tracks, but I think “I Belong To Him” is probably my favorite.

Mirriam wasn’t as well received critically or commercially as Jessi’s earlier work, but it provides an interesting look at the more devotional side of country music’s premier female outlaw. While nothing here reaches the level of greatness, it’s an album that grows on the listener with repeated playings. It is available on a two-disc collection along with Jessi’s two subsequent albums That’s The Way A Cowboy Rocks and Rolls and Ridin’ Shotgun.

Grade: B

Week ending 3/11/17: #1 singles this week in country music history

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

1957 (Jukebox): There You Go/Train of Love — Johnny Cash (Sun)

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

1967: Where Does The Good Times Go — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1977: Heart Healer — Mel Tillis (MCA)

1987: Mornin’ Ride — Lee Greenwood (MCA)

1997: Me Too — Toby Keith (A&M)

2007: Ladies Love Country Boys — Trace Adkins (Capitol)

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

2017 (Airplay): Better Man — Little Big Town (Capitol)

Single Review: Zac Brown Band – ‘My Old Man’

The Zac Brown Band have always maintained that they are not a strictly country band; however, they they have been one of the few (mostly) bright spots at country radio over the past decade.  With the release of the polarizing Jekyll + Hyde album, they ventured into the world of EDM and reggae.  It didn’t seem to hurt them commercially but it did alienate many of their fans.  The Band now seems to be extending an olive branch to those fans with their new release, “My Old Man”.

Written by Zac Brown with Niko Moon and Ben Simonetti, “My Old Man” is the latest in country music’s long-standing tradition of honoring one’s parents.  It channels old chestnuts as “Coal Miner’s Daughter”, “Daddy’s Hands”, “That’s My Job” and “Love Without End, Amen” and delivers essentially the same message as those classic songs.  While it doesn’t break any new ground, it does take the initial steps needed to get country music in general – and the Zac Brown Band in particular – back on track artistically.

A sparsely arranged ballad consisting of acoustic guitar, a little fiddle, a subtle string arrangement and the Band’s trademark harmonies, “My Old Man” opens with the narrator’s boyhood reminiscences of his father.  In the second verse, the narrator is grown with a son of his own.  The third verse reveals that the narrator’s father has passed away.  The narrator expresses hope that he can live up to the example that was set for him, and looks forward to an eventual reunion with his father in the afterlife.

“My Old Man” was produced by Dave Cobb, best known for his work with Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson.  It’s the refreshing glass of water that  fans have been crying out for during a long drought in the bro-country desert.  I look forward to hearing the Band’s forthcoming album.

Grade:  A

Week ending 3/4/16: #1 singles this week in country music history

92df52cf5d67b83799c3a62467aef3291957 (Sales):Young Love — Sonny James (Capitol)

1957 (Jukebox): There You Go/Train of Love — Johnny Cash (Sun)

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

1967: I’m a Lonesome Fugitive — Merle Haggard (Capitol)

1977: Say You’ll Stay Until Tomorrow — Tom Jones (Epic)

1987: I Can’t Win For Losin’ You — Earl Thomas Conley (RCA)

1997: Running Out of Reasons to Run — Rick Trevino (Columbia)

2007: Ladies Love Country Boys — Trace Adkins (Capitol)

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

2017 (Airplay): Better Man — Little Big Town (Capitol)

Album Review: Jessi Colter – ‘A Country Star Is Born’

51sgd4uaavl-_ss500Whatever optimist gave this album its title jumped the gun just a little, for although it marks the official beginning of Jessi Colter’s recording career (not counting two prior singles issued under her birth name), it would be another five years before her commercial breakthrough that propelled her to stardom.  Released in 1970, A Country Star Is Born was her first and only solo album for RCA.  She was presumably signed to the label because her husband Waylon Jennings was already on its roster, but the album’s  lack of commercial success suggests to me that she perhaps was not a huge priority for RCA.

The album was produced by Chet Atkins and Waylon Jennings, and upon the first listening, one might be a bit confused as to why it didn’t perform better in the marketplace.   In order to understand why, one has to bear in mind the way it would have been perceived back in 1970.   The album follows the standard practice of the day of using one or two hit singles to drive sales and padding it with covers of recent hits for other artists and perhaps some original songs by the artist and/or producer.   In this case, the lead (and non-charting) single was one of Jessi’s original compositions “I Ain’t The One”, performed as a duet with Waylon.    The second single was “Cry Softly”, another Colter original that also failed to chart.  Its melody is somewhat similar to “I’m Not Lisa”, which would become her breakthrough career record a few years later.  It’s a decent song that might have enjoyed some success if a more established artist had released it.

Filling out the rest of the album are three more songs Jessi wrote — all credited to her real name Miriam Eddy:  the uptempo “If She’s Where You Like Livin'”, the mid tempo “Don’t Let Him Go”, and the bluesy “It’s All Over Now”, none of which were strong enough to be considered for release to radio.  Along with these originals are two excellent songs written by Harlan Howard, which might have had hit potential had they not been relatively recent releases for other artists.  “Too Many Rivers” had been a Top 20 pop hit for Brenda Lee in 1965 and “He Called Me Baby” had been a minor posthumous hit for Patsy Cline in 1964.  The latter would go on to be recorded by many other artists and would eventually (with a pronoun change) become a big hit for Charlie Rich in 1974.   The album’s best track “It’s Not Easy” had previously been recorded by its composer Frankie Miller.  “Healing Hands of Time” was a non-charting Willie Nelson single from 1965.

I enjoyed all of the album’s songs, but I get the distinct impression that RCA only made a half-hearted effort to promote it.  Pairing her up with Waylon for her first release was a reasonable strategy.  It’s surprising that “I Ain’t The One” didn’t at least enter the charts.  A great song it is not, but his star power at the time was sufficient that it should have garnered some attention from radio.  When it failed, it was almost inevitable that the next single would also tank, since Jessi Colter was still an unknown entity.  Why they didn’t have more songs to try and promote her is somewhat puzzling.

RCA released two more solo singles in 1971 and 1972  (not on this album) — including “I Don’t Want To Be a One Night Stand” which would become Reba McEntire’s debut single a few years later.  There were also two minor hit duets with Waylon (“Suspicious Minds” and “Under Your Spell Again”), but it would be five years and a label change later before the world learned who Jessi Colter was.

A Country Star Is Born is available for download and streaming and is worth a listen.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Sylvia – ‘It’s All in the Family’

sylviaSylvia Hutton (aka Sylvia) was a hot newcomer when I first became seriously interested in country music in the early 1980s.  She enjoyed a string of hits from 1979 through 1987 and then largely disappeared from public view when she was dropped from the RCA roster.  During her hit-making days she was often criticized – with some justification – for being too slickly produced, but I always felt that there was more to her and her music than her detractors gave her credit for.   She re-emerged in 1996 when she released an album on her own independent label.  She has recorded only occasionally over the past 20 years, but the music she has released during that period has had the substance that many felt was lacking in her major label days.

It’s All in the Family is her first full-length album in 14 years and the fourth for her Red Pony Records imprint.  About halfway through 2016 I had heard that she had a new album on the way and checked her website from time to time for updates.  Somehow I managed to miss its release and hence, the delay in reviewing it.  But better late than never.

Like its predecessors, It’s All in the Family is a highly introspective collection of serious songs.  There are no catchy numbers like “Nobody”, “Drifter” or “Snapshot” to be found, although it does occasionally have a less artsy and more commercial feel than her earlier independent work.  Her longtime collaborator John Mock is back on board as her co-producer. He also plays a majority of the instruments on the album, from guitar, banjo and mandolin to the bodhran, tin whistle and concertina.  On the instrumental number “Grandpa Kirby Runnin’ the Hounds”, he and Stuart Duncan play the fiddle and banjo that belonged to Sylvia’s grandfather Connie D. Kirby, who had played at local barn dancers in the early part of the 20th century.  There is also a little pedal steel here and there, and quite a few of the tracks feature an orchestral arrangement consisting of cello, violin, viola, clarinet and French horn.  The orchestra, although tastefully restrained, provides a little more oomph than the more stripped-down sound of Sylvia’s other Red Pony albums.

As the title suggests, It’s All in the Family is mostly a look back at Sylvia’s childhood and family history.  Sylvia had a hand in writing nine of the album’s twelve tracks. She recounts her memories of passing trains in “Every Time a Train Goes By” to a mother’s reminiscences and advice to a daughter on her wedding day in the title track, and the final moments of an elderly woman on her deathbed in the closing track, “Do Not Cry For Me”.  The Celtic-flavored “Immigrant Shoes” recalls the arrival of Sylvia’s ancestors at Ellis Island.  The inside album cover is decorated with photographs from Sylvia’s family album, dating as far back as 1911, through a 1984 photo of her with her musician grandfather.

Although there are no direct references to specific events, many of the songs deal with overcoming adversity, failed relationships and difficult circumstances, and one gets the distinct impression that Sylvia has faced her fair share of challenges.  She remains optimistic through it all, however, stating in “A Right Turn” that it was “worth every long hard mile”.  Although she occasionally feels discouraged as in “Hope’s Too Hard”, written by Kate Campbell, she ultimately concedes in “Here Lately” that given the chance to do things over, she wouldn’t change a thing.  One of the album’s more mainstream-sounding songs, featuring some nice pedal steel, advises to “Leave the Past in the Past”.  “Cumberland Rose”, a 2011 single written by Craig Bickhardt and Jeff Pennig, also appears on the album even though it doesn’t qite fit in with the theme.

It’s All in the Family is a collection of well-crafted songs, beautifully sung and tastefully produced, that lays to rest for once and for all the myth that Sylvia was just another pretty face.   It’s more thoughtful and cerebral than anything that gets played on the radio these days, and with its folk and Celtic influences may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but those who remember and enjoyed Sylvia’s 80s music will like this collection.

Grade: A

Week ending 2/25/17: #1 singles this week in country music history

elvis-june-25-1977-21957 (Sales):Young Love — Sonny James (Capitol)

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

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

1967: Where Does The Good Times Go — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1977: Moody Blue — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1987: Straight to the Heart — Crystal Gayle (Warner Bros.)

1997: A Man This Lonely — Brooks & Dunn (Arista)

2007: It Just Comes Natural — George Strait (MCA)

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

2017 (Airplay): Seein’ Red — Dustin Lynch (Broken Bow)

Album Review: Alison Krauss – ‘Windy City’

51paza96cml-_ss500I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first heard that Alison Krauss was about to release a new album.  Although I have always greatly admired her talent, her choices have not always aligned with my tastes. Her penchant for extremely slow tempo songs can grow a bit dull after a while, and more often than not I have not liked her artistic stretches – her 2007 collaboration with Robert Plant, for example.  Adding to my skepticism is the fact that Windy City was to be an album covering ten classic songs; I’ve lost track of the number of artists who have released similar projects over the last decade or so.  The concept no longer holds the inherent appeal it once did.

That being said, I was very pleasantly surprised when I finally sat down to listen to Windy City.  Krauss and producer Buddy Cannon managed to avoid falling into the trap of selecting well-known songs that have been over-recorded by others, instead opting for mostly more obscure deep cuts.    Only two of the songs were familiar to me.   Also surprising was the fact that none of these songs – including the Osborne Brothers and Bill Monroe covers — is performed in a bluegrass style.  There is however, a lot of prominent pedal steel and more uptempo material than we typically hear from Alison.  It’s a very different sound for her and it is very effective.

The opening track and lead single is “Losing You”, a richly melodic ballad that is perfectly suited to Alison’s voice.  There is a subtle and tasteful string arrangement along with the pedal steel.  Originally a pop hit for Brenda Lee in 1963, at times it sounds like another more famous song that was also released that year:  Skeeter Davis’ “End of the World”.   Another Brenda Lee cover “All Alone Am I” appears later in the album.

“It’s Goodbye and So Long to You” is an uptempo number that was a hit for both The Osborne Brothers and Mac Wiseman.   The harmonies hint at its bluegrass origins, but it is performed here a straight country with just a hint of Dixieland jazz.   My favorite tune is the title track, which is also taken from The Osborne Brothers’ catalog.  I don’t know what year this song was originally released, but Alison’s version sounds like something out of the Nashville Sound era, although the strings are more restrained than what we typically heard from that period.   “Dream of Me”,  originally a hit for Vern Gosdin in 1981,  is my second favorite.

“I Never Cared For You” was written and originally recorded by Willie Nelson in 1964.  His only single for Monument Records, it was popular in Texas but not well known elsewhere.  Alison’s version has a slight Spanish flavor to it.   She also pays tribute to the great Roger Miller, overlooking some more obvious choices in favor of the ballad “River in the Rain”, which Miller wrote for the 1985 Broadway musical Big River.

The two best known songs on the album:  “Gentle on My Mind” and “You Don’t Know Me” are tailor-made for Alison.  One can imagine her singing both of these songs without even having heard her versions.    The former was made famous by Glen Campbell in 1967 (although it was not a huge chart hit for him).  The latter, written by Cindy Walker, has been recorded many times, most famously by Eddy Arnold in 1956.

The deluxe version of the album contains four extra tunes, all “live” versions of songs from the standard release.  By “live” they mean live in the studio, not live in concert.  They are all well done but not sufficiently different to really be interesting.  That is the album’s only misstep, and it’s a minor one.   There is also a Target exclusive version of the album with two more cuts:  “Til I Gain Control Again” and “Angel Flying Too Close To the Ground”.   Windy City,is an outstanding album and it deserves the support of all of us who have complained about the direction of country music in recent years.  It won’t generate any big radio hits but I do hope it sells well. I would like to hear more music in this vein from Alison in the future.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Michael White – ‘Familiar Ground’

4187bvloazlAs the composer of such songs as Blake Shelton’s “The Baby”, Mark Wills’ “Loving Every Minute” and Michael Ray’s “Kiss You in the Morning”, Michael White has been more successful as a songwriter than as a performer, but he did record briefly for Reprise Records in the early 1990s. Familiar Ground, his sole album for Reprise (or anyone else as far as I can determine) was released in 1992. It produced three chart singles, one of which reached the Top 40, but failed to establish him as recording artist.

Timing is everything. If Familiar Ground were being released today, we’d all be talking about Michael White as a new standard bearer for traditional country music, much in the way that Mo Pitney and William Michael Morgan are. But 25 years ago when the music still usually sounded country and there was no shortage of talent, Michael White simply did not stand out from the pack. It’s regrettable because he has a very fine voice, that is reminiscent of Tracy Lawrence, with occasional touches of Aaron Tippin and Keith Whitley.

The lead single “Professional Fool” was the album’s biggest hit and one of the best songs on the album. It peaked at a very respectable-for-a-first-release #32. A more uptempo number may have been a better choice to introduce a new act to radio. Reprise tried that strategy with the next two singles: the title track which was penned by White and “She Likes to Dance”, which peaked at #43 and #63 respectively. “Familiar Ground” is a decent small-town homage, but it’s barely distinguishable from dozens of other similar songs. “She Likes to Dance” is a bit of lightweight fluff.

All of the songs are good, but my favorites are the ballads: “Back to Texarkana”, “If I Had a Mind To”, and “The Boy Next Door” who is overlooked by the object of his affections. I also enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek swing number “One of My Near Mrs.” I can imagine Tracy Lawrence singing this one.

I’d never heard of Michael White prior to preparing for this month’s spotlight feature. I’m very pleased and pleasantly surprised to have come across this overlooked gem. Used cheap copies are readily available.

Grade: A

Week ending 2/18/17: #1 singles this week in country music history

mark-620x4001957 (Sales):Young Love — Sonny James (Capitol)

1957 (Jukebox): Singing the Blues — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

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

1967: Where Does The Good Times Go — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1977: Near You — George Jones & Tammy Wynette (Epic)

1987: How Do I Turn You On — Ronnie Milsap (RCA)

1997: It’s a Little Too Late — Mark Chesnutt (Decca)

2007: Watching You — Rodney Atkins (Curb)

2017: Better Man — Little Big Town (Capitol)

2017 (Airplay): Star of the Show — Thomas Rhett (Valory)

Album Review: Jeannie Seely – ‘Written In Song’

61wcxdrzxl-_ss500Grand Ole Opry star Jeannie Seely, best known for her 1966 hit “Don’t Touch Me”, enjoyed only moderate success as a recording artist, but many do not realize that she is also an accomplished songwriter. Written In Song, her latest collection, was released last month. It consists of 14 tracks, all of which were written or co-written by Seely. Twelve of the songs were previously recorded by other artists, while two were newly written for this project. None of them, however, had ever been recorded by Jeannie herself, until now.

In the 1960s, Monument Records had marketed Seely as “Miss Country Soul”, which was likely in part an acknowledgement that her initial success had occurred outside the realm of country music. “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is”, the oldest song on this album had been a 1964 R&B hit for Irma Thomas. The other 13 selections are strictly country. At age 76, Seely’s voice is a little rough around the ages at times, but not enough to detract from my enjoyment of the album.

I have to admit that I wasn’t previously familiar with any of the songs on this album. “Leavin’ and Sayin’ Goodbye” was a Top 10 hit for Faron Young in 1971 and had also been recorded by The Time Jumpers. Kenny and Tessa Sears, widower and daughter of the late Dawn Sears, join Jeannie on this track, which is one of the album’s standouts. Aside from that, none of the others seem to have been major hits that are well remembered today. I suspect that most of them were album cuts that were never released as singles. Nevertheless, they are all worthy of another listen. My favorite tracks are “Senses”, a co-write with Glen Campbell that features local harmonies by Marty Stuart and Connie Smith, “Sometimes I Do”, which had been recorded by Ernest Tubb, and “Enough to Lie”, which had been recorded by Ray Price. On a number that had been recorded by her old duet partner Jack Greene, Seely promises “You don’t need me, but you will.”

The album’s two new numbers allow Jeannie’s sense of humor to shine through. “Who Needs You” casts her in the role of a jilted lover, who is comforting herself with alcohol and shopping — standard operating procedure for a country song. Then comes the song’s final verse which discloses that she’s been enjoying a little marijuana as well. It’s hardly a shocking revelation in this day in age — and as Seely points out in her spoken disclaimer before starting the final verse, it’s legal now in many states — but it sure wasn’t what I was expecting to hear on this album. The closing number is “We’re Still Hanging In There, Ain’t We Jessi”, which name drops the names of many famous women of country music — from Audrey Williams and Jan Howard to Tammy Wynette and Jessi Colter — who survived difficult relationships with some of country music’s famous men. Her own failed marriage to Hank Cochran is also referenced, all in an upbeat, tongue-in-cheek manner. Jan Howard and Jessi Colter both lend their voices to the track.

Written In Song is a surprisingly fresh-sounding album. It’s mostly traditional country, with plenty of fiddle and some fine steel guitar work, but it manages to avoid sounding retro despite the fact that many of the songs are fifty or more years old. I’m sure that many listeners, like me, will be hearing these songs for the first time. If it is something you don’t want to spend money on, it is available on streaming services such as Amazon Unlimited and is worth checking out.

Grade: B+

Week ending 2/11/17: #1 singles this week in country music history

morris10-21957 (Sales):Singing the Blues — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1957 (Jukebox): Singing the Blues — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

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

1967: Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind) — Loretta Lynn (Decca)

1977: Near You — George Jones & Tammy Wynette (Epic)

1987: Leave Me Lonely — Gary Morris (Warner Bros.)

1997: It’s a Little Too Late — Mark Chesnutt (Decca)

2007: Watching You — Rodney Atkins (Curb)

2017: Better Man — Little Big Town (Capitol)

2017 (Airplay): Guy With A Girl — Blake Shelton (Warner Bros.)

Album Review: Reba McEntire – ‘Sing It Now: Songs of Faith and Hope’

rebaReligious albums, like Christmas albums, are sometimes a hard sell to fans because there is inevitably much overlap in song selection with other artists’ Gospel collections. Reba McEntire avoids falling into that trap with Sing It Now: Songs of Faith and Hope, which was released last week. The generous two-disc collection is evenly divided between traditional hymns and more contemporary inspirational songs. As long as thirty years ago, I can remember Reba saying she wanted to a Gospel album; finally, she has reached a point in her career where commercial pressures have eased enough to allow that dream to become a reality.

Reba produced the collection with Rascal Flatts member Jay DeMarcus. The first disc contains most of the old familiar favorites beginning with “Jesus Loves Me” – the first song Reba sang in public at age four, and progressing on to other standards such as “Oh, How I Love Jesus”, “When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder”, “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art”. She is joined by family and friends on a few tracks: her mother and sisters provide the harmonies on “I’ll Fly Away”. The Isaacs appear on a mash-up of “In The Garden” and “Wonderful Peace” and Kelly Clarkson and Trisha Yearwood lend their voices to “Softly and Tenderly”, which closes out the first disc. This track was released as a single in December. It didn’t make the country charts but did reach #43 on the Christian chart. All of these songs are tastefully arranged; the production is appropriately sparse and traditional. Reba and DeMarcus push the envelope slightly on “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, which features some nice steel guitar work (an instrument we rarely hear on Gospel albums). The only tune on the first disc that I didn’t particularly care for was “Oh Happy Day”, on which the production is a cluttered mess of too-loud horns, saxophones and a Gospel choir. Clocking in at more than five and a half minutes, it goes on way too long.

Disc Two contains more modern religious-themed songs, mostly performed in the pop-country style for which Reba is well known. I particularly liked the title track and the current single “Back to God”, which first appeared on Randy Houser’s 2008 debut album. A Houser co-write with Dallas Davidson, Reba’s version of “Back to God” currently resides at #25 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, although it has yet to appear on the airplay chart. “There Is a God” — also quite good — is a remake of the 2009 Lee Ann Womack single. “God and My Girlfriends” sounds as though it could have appeared on any Reba album released during the past twenty years. Not as overtly religious as the title suggests, it probably would have stood a chance of being a hit a few years ago, but probably not now. The upbeat “I Got The Lord on My Side” sounds like an old-time revival song; it was written by Reba and her mother Jackie McEntire.

“Angel on My Shoulder”, which features a banjo and drum machine suffers from the clichéd production that we’ve heard too much of in mainstream country in recent years. The song itself is not bad, but it is probably the weakest in the collection. “From the Inside Out” is a pretty but somewhat lifeless ballad.

Reba is one of the best female vocalists that country music has ever known and she’s always been one of my favorites. I’ve been critical of many of her musical choices over the past decade or so as she seemed more concerned with chasing trends and maintaining a presence on the radio than just singing good songs. Sing It Now shows that when she puts aside commercial considerations and works with good material, she is still second to none. Despite one or two minor missteps, Sing It Now is a great collection and hopefully a sign of the direction that this talented lady will be going in the future.

Grade: A-

Album Review: The Whites – ‘Give a Little Back’

51rbd9bcgvl-_ss500_pjstripe-robin-largetopleft00The Whites continued to record only sporadically when their stint as a major label act ended. 1996’s Give a Little Back, appeared nearly a decade after their final release for MCA/Curb. Released by the independent Nashville-based Step One Records, it has a more contemporary, less down-homey feel to it than their earlier work. Even at their commercial peak, The Whites were somewhat at odds with the mainstream. It does not seem to have been a serious attempt to reignite their recording career; no singles were released and the album received little promotion, but it is an impressive effort given the small-label constraints they had to work with.

I’m guessing that Give a Little Back was produced for a mere fraction of the cost of a typical major label release of the day, but no corners whatsoever were cut where the session musicians were concerned. Some of Nashville’s finest — Jerry Douglas (dobro), Buddy Emmons (pedal steel), and Ricky Skaggs (mandolin and fiddle) — appear in the musician credits.

The songs themselves are also quite good and are a mixture of both old and new from a cover of The Louvin Brothers’ “Steal Away and Pray” to more contemporary fare by Karen Staley, Jerry Fuller and John Hobbs, all well known composers of the day. Allmusic lists “I’d Jump the Mississippi”, a song written by George Jones, on the tracklist but it does not appear on the iTunes version of the album.

The Whites’ radio singles all featured Sharon as the lead singer, but she shares the spotlight just a little with her father – who is a surprisingly good vocalist on “Whose Heart Are You Breaking Tonight” and “Give Love an Inch” – and her sister Cheryl who sings lead on “Slow Dancin’”, “Til This Ring Turns Green” and “Try a Little Kindness”. The latter is best known as a hit for Glen Campbell, but The Whites had previously recorded it as a bluegrass song in the 70s when they were still relatively unknown. Cheryl is not the vocalist that Sharon is. The two numbers on which Buck sings lead are similar in arrangement to the uptempo material Ricky Skaggs released when he first emerged as a mainstream artist in the early 80s. I thought that Ricky might have produced the album, but Ray Pennington is the credited producer.

Martina McBride fans will recognize “Walk That Line”, a song that was included on Martina’s 1992 debut album. The Whites version, with Sharon singing lead, is faithful to Martina’s original version. I slightly prefer Martina’s version because it’s more familiar to me but The Whites’ version is also very good. My favorite track is the upbeat “I’ve Changed the Lock on My Heart’s Door.”
Give a Little Back shows that The Whites still had a lot to offer after their hitmaking days ended and makes one wish that they had recorded more frequently in the post-major label phase of their career.

Grade: A

Week ending 2/4/17: #1 singles this week in country music history

220px-danseals-21957 (Sales):Singing the Blues — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1957 (Jukebox): Singing the Blues — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

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

1967: There Goes My Everything — Jack Greene (Decca)

1977: Let My Love Be Your Pillow — Ronnie Milsap (RCA)

1987: You Still Move Me — Dan Seals (EMI America)

1997: Nobody Knows — Kevin Sharp (Asylum)

2007: Watching You — Rodney Atkins (Curb)

2017: Blue Ain’t Your Color — Keith Urban (Capitol)

2017 (Airplay): Guy With A Girl — Blake Shelton (Warner Bros.)

Spotlight Artist: The Whites

After featuring more than 100 artists over the past eight years of writing for this blog, it’s becoming more challenging to find interesting artists to spotlight. This month we decided to do something a little different. When discussing possibilities, it occurred to us that there have been quite a few country music acts that have shared the surname White. Since none of them really has a discography large enough to write about for an entire month, we’ve decided to do a group spotlight and feature the best work of each:

the-whites1. The Whites are a family act consisting of Buck White and his daughters Sharon and Cheryl. Buck played piano for Ernest Tubb and Hank Snow in the 1950s. He and his wife Pat performed in Texas and Arkansas with another couple and were known as The Down Home Folks. Their daughters joined the family act in the 1960s. The family relocated to Nashville in 1971 and Pat retired from the group shortly thereafter. Buck White and the Down Home Folks released a few independent albums in the 70s and in 1978 Sharon and Cheryl were invited by Emmylou Harris to sing harmony vocals on her Blue Kentucky Girl album. Sharon married Ricky Skaggs in 1982 and the following year the group, now known as The Whites, released their first major label album on Curb Records in partnership with Warner Bros. The album yielded four Top 10 hits, including “You Put The Blue In Me”, “Hangin’ Around”, “I Wonder Who’s Holding My Baby Tonight”, and “Give Me Back That Old Familiar Feeling”. The following year they moved to Curb/MCA and enjoyed another handful of hits, which tapered off by the end of the decade. They joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1984 and have been one of its flagship acts ever since.

larigreengrillecu2. Lari White, a native of Dunedin, Florida, grew up singing gospel with her family, and in 1988 she was a winning contestant on The Nashville Network’s You Can Be a Star. She was awarded a recording contract with Capitol, but was dropped from the label when her debut single failed to chart. She joined Rodney Crowell’s band in 1991 and he produced her first album when she landed a deal with RCA the following year. She released three albums for RCA, and scored three Top 10 hits in the process: “That’s My Baby”, “Now I Know”, and “That’s How You Know (When You’re In Love)”. She released one album for Lyric Street in 1998 and has released a pair of independent albums after leaving that label.

mwhite23. Michael White is the son of songwriter L.E. White, who wrote some of Conway Twitty’s hits. Michael’s composition “You Make It Hard To Take The Easy Way Out” was released as the B-side of Twitty’s 1973 hit “You’ve Never Been This Far Before”. Michael’s brief stint with Reprise Records in the early 90s produced one album and a few singles, one of which (“Professional Fool”) reached the Top 40.

p_tqj4. Joy Lynn White, also known as simply Joy White, is a critically acclaimed singer who released two albums for Columbia and one for Mercury in the 1990s, before moving to indie labels in the early 2000s. Her 1993 single “Cold Day In July” reached the lower rungs of the Billboard country singles chart and was later a hit for The Dixie Chicks.

bryan-white5. Bryan White enjoyed a string of hits in the 90s as an Asylum Records recording artist, beginning with “Eugene You Genius” which was released when he was just 20 years old. In 1995 he enjoyed his first #1 hit with “Someone Else’s Star”. In 1998 he teamed up with Shania Twain for the duet “From This Moment On”. By the time his fourth album was released, his commercial momentum had slowed, so he took a five-year sabbatical from the music business. He returned in 2009 with the independently released Dustbowl Dreams and is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to finance the release of a new album.

We hope that you will enjoy revisiting — or discovering for the first time — the work of this group of artists during the month of February.

Classic Rewind (Bonus Edition): Crystal Gayle – ‘Three Good Reasons’