My Kind of Country

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

Category Archives: Album Reviews

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+

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Album Review: Hayes Carll — ‘What It Is’

One listen to Hayes Carll’s What It Is and it becomes abundantly clear he’s using these twelve songs, his first new music in three years, to express himself fearlessly. The album is a split personality with one parts love, Carll is engaged to Allison Moorer, whom he plans to wed later this year, and one parts social commentary.

Not surprisingly, it’s the latter that wins the fight for dominance, and while it may seem repetitive to hear another artist use their music to vent their frustrations, or as Carll puts it “get off the sidelines,” few execute as uniquely and memorably as he does here.

The first of these songs is the solely written “Times Like These,” an effective rocker about our current political climate and how Carll desires “to do my labor, love my girl and help my neighbor while I keep a little hope in my dreams” which he says is “sure getting hard brother in times like these.” Less successful is the eccentric “Wild Pointy Finger,” which begins strong:

It points at the fever and the accomplishes of man

It points at all the problems it don’t understand

It points at Persians across the sea

It points at anybody who thinks differently than me

If you’re marching to your own drum or kneeling in the news

My wild pointy finger is probably pointing right at you

But dissolves into a bizarre rant weighted down by unwieldily symbolism. He rebounds nicely with the excellent “Fragile Men,” in which he talks directly to those who feel the world is undermining their ideals. Carll turns inward on “If I May Be So Bold,” the record’s thesis statement, where he sings about no longer standing in the shadows:

I’ll make my way if I should be so bold

Bold enough to make a difference

Bold enough to say I care

Bold enough to keep on trying

Even when the wills not there

There’s a whole world out there waiting

Full of stories to be told

And I’ll heed the call and tell ‘em all

If I may be so bold

“Jesus and Elvis,” the album’s best-known song thanks to Kenny Chesney, who included it on Cosmic Hallelujah in 2017, is one of those compositions. The title originated with co-writer Matraca Berg, but the story of the bar and its patrons, which is rich with the tiniest of details, from the “neon cross and the string of Christmas lights” to the camaraderie between “old friends,” is all Carll’s.

He bridges the gap between the album’s two halves on the gorgeous “American Dream,” where he uses everyday observances (summer sunshine, tumbleweeds, dresses on a clothesline waiting for Saturday night) to paint an idyllic picture of his life in Texas. The romantic side of the album, largely bolstered by his romance with Moorer, also his co-producer and frequent co-writer, finds him as relaxed as Johnny Cash in the presence of June Carter.

Carll is at his most tender on the sparse “I Will Stay,” the album’s masterpiece and the essence of true love, a relationship ballad where he vows to be there for Moorer through the good times and the bad. He goes back in time on “Beautiful Thing,” a shot of bluesy adrenaline that details the combustion he felt in the infancy of their courtship.

Although Moorer co-wrote “None’ya” with Carll, the song his tribute to her, his perspective on the woman he’ll soon call his wife. He shares intimate details of their lives together, like how she painted the ceiling of their front porch turquoise in order to keep out evil spirits because it’s “the way we do it the south,” and captures her essence in all its eccentricities with beauty and sensitivity.

Given the self-doubt he hints at in “I Will Stay,” it’s safe to assume Moorer is the one taking the lead on “Be There,” which paints a less than optimistic view of the couple’s relationship. The banjo-driven title track, in which she provides background vocals, serves as a reminder that “what it was is gone forever, what it could be god only knows, and what it is, is right here in front of me, and I’m not letting go.”

Carll’s very character is at the heart of the cautionary “Things You Don’t Want To Know,” which is directed at Moorer and his fans and warns against asking questions that can lead to uncomfortable truths you might not be ready to hear.

What It Is may be a record of two halves, showcasing distinctly different sides of a fascinating and complicated man, but it works as a cohesive whole thanks to Moorer and co-producer Brad Jones, who infuse the album with an urgency that binds the songs together with a softness and aggression that reveal Carll’s unwavering assurance in his ideals.

What It Is is a journey worth taking from beginning to end, with not a single pit-stop along the way.

Grade: A 

Album Review: John Michael Montgomery — ‘Leave A Mark’

By the late 1990s, John Michael Montgomery was still plugging away with solid radio singles. Atlantic followed What I Do Best with his first Greatest Hits package, which featured the single “Angel In My Eyes.” The ballad, which is in line with the sound of his most previous work, hit #4 in 1997.

Like most artists at the time, Montgomery had to adjust his sound to fit within the pop invasion that had overtaken the genre. He released his fifth album, Leave The Mark, in 1998, just as Shania Twain was beginning her dominance with Come On Over. To my ears, at least as far as the singles were concerned, the changes resulted in some of his most paired down work to date.

The album’s first single “Love Workin’ On You,” which stalled at #14, is a lightweight uptempo ditty. He would hit the artistic jackpot, at least as far as mainstream songs are concerned, with the album’s other two singles, both of which featured ample steel guitar and peaked inside the top 5. The mid-tempo “Cover You In Kisses” and the romantic “Hold On To Me” have aged beautifully, with the latter being among the strongest love songs of his career, easily eclipsing his signature hits.

As for the album tracks, “Little Cowboy Cries” details a broken home through the eyes of a boy who believes his daddy’s leaving is his fault. “I Don’t Want This Song to End” is Hallmark schmaltz, but tender and sincere. “I Couldn’t Dream” and “It Gets Me Every Time” are sexualized love songs on both ends of the spectrum. The former is a ac-leaning ballad, while the latter is horrid up-tempo pop.

The uptempo “You’re The Ticket” isn’t horrible, the arrangement has the redeeming qualities of ample fiddle and steel guitar, but the lyric leaves much to be desired.  A chance meeting between exes is at the heart of “I Never Stopped Loving You,” an above average ballad co-written by Mark Willis. Montgomery handles it was ease, committing a strong vocal to the track.

The album concludes with the title track, a reflective ballad doused in dobro. I was quite expecting a horrible uptempo rocker, but this one is actually very good. It would’ve worked well as a single.

Leave A Mark is a mixed bag of an album that misses more than it hits. I do like most of Csaba Petocz production choices throughout, he co-produced the album with Montgomery, although the lyrical content is lazy and weak at best on most of the songs. But Leave A Mark gave Montgomery two more top 5 hits, one of which is among his finest singles, and went gold, so all wasn’t a total loss.

Grade: B

Album Review: John Michael Montgomery – ‘What I Do The Best’

JMM’s career started to take a downturn in the mid 1990s. ‘Ain’t Got Nothin’ On Us’, the lead single from his fourth album, was a sad disappointment, peaking at #15, his lowest charting single ever. It’s a shame, because it is a rather charming jazzy western swing number with some very nice fiddle. It was written by Jim Robinson and Wendell Mobley.

My favorite song on the album was rather more successful. ‘Friends’, written by Jerry Holland, reached #2. It is a beautiful sounding ballad with a pained Montgomery facing the loss of love and an ex who wants to keep him around in a non-romantic way:

You say you want to be friends
That’s a newly sharpened blade
That’s a dagger to the heart
Of the promises we made
That’s a chapter full of pain
A season full of rain
A dark and stormy night
Spent all alone

Friends get scattered by the wind
Tossed upon the waves
Lost for years on end
Friends slowly drift apart
They give away their hearts
Maybe call you now and then
But you wanna be “just friends”

You say you love me very much
And you’ll always hold me dear
Those are the sweetest words
I never wanna hear
What’s a love without desire
A flame without a fire
Can’t warm me late at night
When I need you most

A subdued opening builds in emotion and power through the song.

‘I Miss You A Little’, a rare JMM co-write, was the third single, and was anther top 10 hit. It is a downbeat song about loss which is very good. The final single from the album was ‘How Was I To Know’, which just missed the top spot but is a rather bland adult contemporary tune.

He also wrote ‘A Few Cents Short’, a very nice midpaced song about someone too hardpressed financially to contact his loved one:

Lookin’ for spare change to put gas in my car
But what I’ve found won’t get me very far
Seems lately the low times have hit me pretty hard
‘Cause I’m a few cents short from gettin’ to where you are

I’m a few cents short of holding you in my arms
And a few cents short of keepin’ us from falling apart
Ain’t it funny how the money can change our lives
‘Cause I’m a few cents short from losing you tonight

So I walked to a pay phone down the road
But a few dimes and a nickel is all I hold
The operator wants more money to place my call
But I’m a few cents short

Some lovely fiddle ornaments the song.

My favorite of the remaining tracks is the vibrant and very retro shuffle ‘Lucky Arms’, envying his ex’s new love. The title track is a very nice mid paced love song. ‘I Can Prove You Wrong’ is a tender ballad offering true love to a woman who has been hurt in the past.

In the quirky ‘Cloud 8’, written by Byron Hill and Tony Martin, the protagonist has lost in love and compares himself to those still happily on Cloud 9. ‘Paint The Town Redneck’ is quite an entertaining song about letting loose on a Friday night after a hard week’s work.

The album was certified platinum, which was a significant reduction from his previous efforts. However, it is a solid effort which I enjyed a lot.

Grade: A

Album Review: John Michael Montgomery — ‘John Michael Montgomery’

John Michael Montgomery was under pressure when he and Scott Hendricks entered the studio to record his third album in 1994. The monster success of “I Swear” was so impactful he not only won ACM and CMA honors, but he also performed the song at the Grammy Awards. It pushed sales of Kickin’ It Up past 4 million units and cemented his place in country love song history.

He was also coming off of two consecutive #1s when Atlantic released “I Can Love You Like That” to country radio in February 1995. The romantic ballad, a companion piece of sorts to “I Swear,” hit #1 and was also covered by the R&B group All-4-One. It’s one of my favorite contemporary country songs of the 1990s.

Montgomery switched gears completely in May, with the release of the breakneck-paced “Sold (The Grundy County Auction Incident).” The song tells the story of a guy who attends an auction in Grundy County, Tennessee. While there he lays eyes on a woman named Heather, who consumes his thoughts, and becomes his big prize.

“Sold” is an excellent record with superb instrumentation that allowed Montgomery to diversify and showcase a playful charm he wasn’t able to display on his signature ballads. The audiences loved the song so much it also hit #1 and was named Billboard’s biggest country single of the year, a feat that wasn’t even bestowed upon “I Swear.”

The album’s first two singles were such memorable hits, it left little room for “No Man’s Land” to make a significant impact. The mid-tempo ballad, about a woman adjusting to a life ‘nothin’ like she had planned,’ is a competent yet unremarkable story song in the vein of Toby Keith’s superior “Upstairs Downtown.” It performed well at radio, hitting #3, but it was forgotten as soon as it fell from the charts.

“Cowboy Love,” which hit #4, is an attempt at rekindling the charm of “Be My Baby Tonight,” and while it was moderately successful at the time, it has aged horrendously. Both songs unfortunately represent the very worst of 1990s country, a time when honky-tonk had been brought to the dance floor by people in cutoff t-shirts with denim for days. The whole aesthetic is a parody of the genre’s best traditions.

The quality of the singles only got worse with “Long As I Live,” which is a feeble attempt at adding another romantic ballad to his repertoire. The ballad is embarrassingly awful, with a cliché Hallmark lyric. It hit #4, which is a testament to Montgomery’s power with country radio at the time.

The most notable album track, “Holdin’ Onto Something,” was recorded by Jeff Carson the same year and released as a single in 1996, where it peaked at #6. Carson’s record holds significant nostalgic value for me, which clouds my judgement on its quality. Montgomery does well with the song, but Hendricks fails him with a very generic arrangement. Listening now, I can easily hear Tim McGraw singing this song during this time period, possibly bringing it to #1.

“High School Heart” is typical of contemporary ballads from the time period. It’s cheesy, but the track does still have its merits. It tells the story of a man reminiscing on his romantic past, specifically his high school days, and all that’s changed in the years since then. The twist in the chorus is the girl he loved back then is his wife today, still loving him with a high school heart. Montgomery sells the story competently, but I would very much like to hear it with a far more dynamic vocalist and a more memorable arrangement.

“Just Like A Rodeo” is so bad, it’s hard to believe it even exists, especially during this time period, when the gatekeepers knew better. In the lyric, a man is in throws of sexual intercourse comparing riding his girl to a cowboy riding a bull. It’s even more horrid than “She Thinks My Tractors Sexy” but has only been matched or eclipsed by the bro-country era, where honestly, it would probably fit right in.

“Heaven Sent Me You” has the arrangement, filled with steel, and the committed vocal from Montgomery to be a sure-fire hit. It was likely buried because the lyric is second-rate, especially as his romantic ballads are concerned.

“It’s What I Am” never really saw the light of day, but it is a watershed moment for what was to come within the next ten to twelve years. The track has Montgomery wearing his southern pride on his sleeve, singing:

I got my first guitar when I was just a boy

I was playing the blues instead of playing with toys

Listening to the Opry and dreaming of the neon lights

So it was late to bed and early to rise

I worked the field all day and the crowd all night

My finger on the trigger and Nashville in my sights

I’m the real thing and I sing songs about real life

 

And I never heard a fiddle called a violin

Never really worried if I fit in

Country ain’t what I sing it’s what I am

This hat ain’t something I wear for style

These boots have been around a while

Country ain’t what I sing it’s what I am

 

I learned to drive on a dirt road

Cruised the strip on rock and roll

And drove around on “Miles and Miles of Texas”

And as I grew Daddy showed me now

To earn a living by the sweat of my brow

But he never made me follow in his steps

He said work hard and let the good Lord do the rest

Montgomery and Hendricks needn’t worry, as this album matched Kickin’ It Up and was also certified quadruple platinum. If I had to guess, it was “Sold” and not “I Can Love You Like That” that contributed more to the sales. The album itself is of very varying quality, with the two songs I just mentioned being the only real standouts.

Grade: B-

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: John Michael Montgomery – ‘Life’s A Dance’

John Michael Montgomery’s debut album was released in October 1992. It sold 3 million copies, launching him as a bona fide star, although it does not sound particularly distinctive. At the time I personally was not blown away, and to be perfectly honest it still sounds rather generic to me, but since that era of country music was a strong one, Montgomery has a decent voice and there are some good songs, it sounds much better set against today’s music.

The title track and lead single, ‘Life’s A Dance’ was a promising start for the newcomer, launching him to a #4 hit. Written by Allen Shamblin and Steve Seskin, it is a simple mid paced tune about finding your path In life by accepting whatever comes. It is agreeable listening but not all that memorable.

The follow up, ‘I Love The Way you Love Me’, written by Victoria Shaw and Chuck Cannon, was JMM’s first chart topper. It played to his greatest strengths vocally as a smoothly crooned romantic ballad, leaning in the AC direction, with instrumentation which sounds a bit dated now. A pop cover of the song by Irish boyband Boyzone was a big hit in Europe in 1998.

Finally, ‘Beer And Bones’ was less successful, peaking just outside the top 20. Written by country songwriting legend Sanger D Shafer and Lonnie Williams, it is the most hardcore honky tonk song on the album, with raw vocals.

The singles, and three other tracks, were produced by Doug Johnson. ‘When Your Baby Ain’t Around’ is pleasant mid-tempo filler. ‘Line On Love’ is quite a nice if rather generic song about life lessons learnt from growing up in the country. ‘Dream On Texas Ladies’ is a very pretty waltz which is a cover of a minor hit for Rex Allen Jr in 1984.

The remaining four tracks were produced by Wyatt Easterling. ‘A Great Memory’ is an excellent Dean Dillon/Trey Bruce song on which JMM sounds like fellow-Kentuckian Keith Whitley. Whitley’s influence is also evident on ‘Nickels And Dimes And Love’, a tender memoir of love in poverty which was later cut by Vern Gosdin. It was written by Johnny MacRae and Steve Clark, who also contributed ‘Every Time I Fall (It Breaks Her Heart)’, a tribute to a woman standing by a flawed man.

Finally, ‘Taking Off The Edge’, written by Larry Cordle and Larry Shell, is an enjoyable and rather sexy up-tempo number.

John Michael Montgomery had not quite found his own voice on this album, but it is a generally enjoyable record.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Cody Johnson – ‘Ain’t Nothin’ To It’

After half a dozen self released albums since 2006, and building his career in his native Texas, 31 year old Cody Johnson makes his major label debut with this Warner Brothers record. It is an excellent album, showcasing a fine voice, great songs and perhaps offering mainstream country a way forward by mixing traditional country with some contemporary vibes. Cody’s long term producer Trent Willmon helms the project.

The lead single, ‘On My Way To You’ is a warm romantic ballad reflecting on, and not regretting, all the mistakes of the past. It is a very nice song, written by Brett James and Tony Lane, and is sung beautifully.

The title track, written by Leslie Satcher and David Lee, is a slow meditation on life and how to live, with some lovely fiddle.

‘Fenceposts’ is a lovely song about a young man inviting his sweetheart to settle down and make a life with him on their own farm. In ‘Understand Why’, written by Neil Medley and Randy Montana, a jaded Johnson seeks solitude after romantic failure.

A gorgeous low-key cover of Roger Miller’s ‘Husbands And Wives’ (familiar to younger fans from the Brooks & Dunn version) was recorded live. Radney Foster’s ‘Noise’ is a bit busy for my taste, but an enthusiastic take on Charlie Daniels’ ‘Long Haired Country Boy’ is great, with Johnson coming across like a young Travis Tritt. The sultry ‘Nothin’ On You’ (written by producer Willmon with Barrett Baber) channels Gary Allan. The energetic ‘Honky Tonk Mood’ is written by Chris Stapleton and Al Anderson, and is also very good.

‘Monday Morning Merle’, written by Lance Miller, Bart Butler and Brad and Brett Warren. It is a sad song about a man hiding a broken heart during his working week with the help of music:.

Wednesday spins the Beatles
Thursday is the Eagles
“Take It Easy” ’til that Friday rocks his world
After Saturday ol’ Jackson Browne
Is Sunday morning coming down
Then he’s right back to missing that girl
Turns up ‘Misery and Gin’
Here we are again
Monday morning Merle

Monday morning Merle
Lets that ol’ broken heart get back to work
He hides all the holes and the hurt
Under the dirt on his shirt
And the only way that he can get
Through the days and the regret
Is a song full of truth
With some words he never said
With those whiskey remedies
And those old school melodies you can’t forget

Brice Long, Carlton Anderson and Wynn Varble wrote ‘Where Cowboys Are King’, a fond tribute to Texas. ‘Y’all People’, about good-hearted country people, is dedicated to Cody’s fans, and could play well on country radio.

‘Doubt Me Now’, written by Casey Beathard and Mitch Oglesby, is a country rock defiance of those who have doubted the protagonist’s chances:

People like you got nothin’ better to do
Than throw rocks at things that shine
Well, you oughta be chasin’ your own dreams
‘Stead of shootin’ holes in mine

It annoyingly finishes with an electronic fadeout, but is a pretty good song until that point.

Johnson wrote two songs himself. ‘Dear Rodeo’ is a thoughtful retrospective on his first-love former career as a rodeo rider:

Dear rodeo
I’d be lyin’ if I tried to tell you I don’t think about you
After all the miles and the wild nights that we’ve been through
The Lord knows we had a few

Dear rodeo
I’d like to say that I took the reins and rode away
No regrets, no left-unsaids, just turned the page
Oh, but you know better, babe

Between them almost-had-’ems and the broken bones
The dream of a buckle I’ll never put on
I’m jaded
Whoa how I hate it
But somehow the highs outweigh the lows
And I’d do it all again
Even though
We both know
I’d still have to let you go

So dear rodeo
I tried like hell to tell myself it was all your fault
I held on tight with all my might
I just couldn’t hang on
And that’s hard to hang your hat on…

I’d like to think you miss me too
But I know you don’t
Oh, but that don’t change the past
And that don’t change the truth
I’m still in love with you

This is a definite highlight.

The album closes with Johnson’s other writing credit, ‘His Name Is Jesus’, a simple statement of faith.

This is a strong entry onto the mainstream scene, which I hope does well. Do check it out.

Grade: A-

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: Dolly Parton – ‘Dumplin’

Dolly Parton’s latest project is the soundtrack to a new Netflix movie about a plus-size teen and Dolly fan who enters a beauty pageant run by her judgmental mother.

It is very much the pop side of Dolly’s music, with little country sounding about it. Producer Linda Perry, an extremely successful songwriter and producer from the pop world, perhaps best known for writing ‘Get The Party Started’ for Pink! and ‘Beautiful’ for Christina Aguilera, clearly has little facility for or understanding of country music.

A number of the songs are co-writes with Perry especially for the film. ‘Girl In The Movies’ is a nice but rather repetitive song with a warm lyric about a girl with big dreams which ties into the film themes. ‘Red Shoes’ is charming and passionate. A more country production would have worked better on these songs. ‘Who’ is a pretty song about discovering first love. ‘Push And Pull’ is about a troubled relationship (perhaps, from the film synopsis, the young heroine and her mother).

Willa Amai is a young Californian singer and protegee of Perry. Her duet with Dolly on the latter’s 70s pop hit ‘Here You Come Again’ is a bit over produced, but not bad, and Dolly sounds great on the track.

‘Here I Am’, originally on Dolly’s iconic Coat Of Many Colors album, is performed here as a duet with Australian pop star Sia. Dolly’s voice is crystal clear and beautiful; Sia’s deeper voice is soulful and powerful, and the overall effect is rather good, with a faintly gospel air. It is one of the best moments on this album.

I also really enjoyed ‘Why’, a rhythmic and spiritual duet with gospel legend Mavis Staples. It has a Dolly in the 80s feel to it, with a gospel overlay, catchy melody and a powerful lyric:

I often wonder what I’m doin’ here
There must be a reason
But it’s not always clear
Why was I born,
Wwhat’s my purpose in life
There is an answer to my question why
(Well, well, well)

I wonder why we can’t love and be free
Let everyone be all that they wanna be
Judge not lest you be judged,
Let heaven decide
Still we don’t do it, and I wonder why

I know I’m not perfect but nobody is
There’s things more important topping my list
Acceptance and kindness and doin’ what’s right
We would if we could, whoa, why don’t we try

I wonder why we can’t just love and be free
Let everyone be all that they wanna be
Judge not lest you be judged,
Let heaven decide
Still we don’t do it, and I wonder why

I wonder why we can’t just speak out and say
I see you my brother and I love you that way
Just be who you are with purpose and pride
‘Cause God loves us all and I bet he wonders why
We can’t love one another the way that we are
Why we are blinded from seeing that far
Let’s light the fire
Spread love with the light
We’re walkin’ in darkness, no good reason why

I wonder why we can’t just let them be free
Let everyone be all that they wanna be
My brothers, my sisters, come walk by my side
Oh I will if you will
Oh why don’t we try

You know love is the answer to my question why
But still we don’t do it
And I wonder why

Rhonda Vincent adds harmonies on the urgently optimistic ‘If We Don’t’, another of the Perry co-writes, which encourages making a difference. There is some actual fiddle on the song, from Alison Krauss, but it doesn’t really showcase the vocals. Not bad, though.

‘Holdin’ On To You’, a duet with Elle King, who has previously worked with Dierks Bentley, is very pop indeed, and I hated it. Dolly’s pop hit ‘Two Doors Down’ is very busy in this brassy incarnation; I can imagine it works in the context of the movie.

Miranda Lambert duets on a version of Dolly’s first ever hit, the Curly Putnam-penned ‘Dumb Blonde’, which does sound like a country record. Unsurprisingly to regular readers, I much prefer Dolly’s original version of her classic ‘Jolene’, but the new re-recording is actually very effective. Dolly’s vocal is somber and underlines the sadness of the story of the betrayed woman begging her rival for pity, and the string arrangement is dark and powerful.

So it sounds as if this set of recordings would work well for its main purpose, as a movie soundtrack, and also as an album in its own right for Dolly’s pop and international fans. It has less to offer fans of her more country material, but may still be worth a listen.

Grade: B

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.

Album Review: Bill Anderson — ‘Anderson’

Bill Anderson released his 72nd album last September. It wasn’t until last weekend when he hosted and performed on a new episode of Country’s Family Reunion on RFD-TV that I was finally inspired to review it.

The song he performed on the show was the album’s lead single, the fantastic “Everybody Wants To Be Twenty-One,” which he co-wrote with Jamey Johnson, who joins him on it. The somber ballad is about the passage of time, with Anderson and Johnson singing:

The young wish they were old and

The old wish they were young

Everybody wants to be twenty-one

“Everybody Wants To Be Twenty-One” begs to be covered by either George Strait or Kenny Chesney, who a few years ago would’ve had a major hit with it. He continues in a reflective mood on “Old Things New,” in which he sings about playing records from the 1950s, calling old friends, and taking photos of his departed wife out of the drawer to put back on display. He’s taking old things and making them new and taking stock of his life as it is in the present moment.

He continues the theme on “Thankful,” a brilliant ballad in which he lists everything that matters to him including his more than fifty years in country music where the universe has allowed him the opportunity to live in Nashville, where he’s been able to write songs that have morphed into standards and become a legend of the Grand Ole Opry. But, in his eyes, those things pale in comparison to the folks he’s been able to entertain all these years:

For without you life wouldn’t mean a doggone thing

And I’d just be a singer with no song to sing

A wounded bird grounded with a broken wing

I’m thankful that none of that is true

cause most of all I’m thankful for you

“Thankful,” which is tastefully presented with beautiful ribbons of steel guitar throughout, is one of three cuts Anderson wrote solo. “Dixie Everywhere I Go” is an intimate conversation between a bartender and a customer, a man who moved to Buffalo from the South. The customer explains to the barkeep how he takes his southern upbringing, Dixie as he refers to it, wherever he travels. Turns out the barkeep also has a Dixie, a woman he loves. The lyric is very good and engaging, although the multiple meanings of the word Dixie are a bit cutesy for my taste.

The third of Anderson’s solo cuts is “Something To Believe In,” a list song about needing the tried-and-true in life. The Harmonica-laced “Dead To You” finds Anderson single, after his woman severed ties, making it clear she never wants anything to do with him again. He clearly wants to win her back, but clearly doesn’t know what to do. He co-wrote the ballad with John Paul White, who has made quite the career for himself in the Americana realm since The Civil Wars disbanded a number of years ago.

The harmonica makes another appearance, this time on “Watchin’ It Rain,” a mournful ballad about a man devastated in the wake of his woman walking out on him. The track is depressing and slow, with a moody bluesy undertone that fits nicely with the lyrics.

He reverses the sad tone on “That’s What Made Me Love You,” a traditional country ballad led by twin fiddles, steel guitar, and a lyric in which he lists all the things that endears him to his woman. Anderson’s vocal didn’t have enough twang for me, but other than that, this is one of the many standout tracks on the album.

“Practice Leaving Town” puts such a clever spin on the traditional breakup song, it’s amazing it hasn’t already been written before. Anderson sings of man in a relationship that’s clearly on the rocks. Neither party has the courage to end things for good, but he knows it’s coming so he fires up his “gettin’ out of dodge pickup” and drives “about fifty miles” before turning around. The relationship may or may not ever officially end, but if it does, he’ll know exactly what he’ll do and where he’ll go.

The album’s brilliance continues on “The Only Bible,” in which Anderson, in a co-write with Tim Rushlow, introduces us to Norman, a man Anderson actually went to college within Athens, Georgia. As he puts it, Norman wouldn’t attend church or go to a bible study because he felt they were full of hypocrites and fools who would talk the talk but wouldn’t walk the walk. Norman wanted people to lead by example every day since “we may be the only Bible someone ever reads.”

The only time the album deviates from its charted course is on “Waffle House Christmas,” which Anderson co-wrote with Erin Enderlin and Alex Kline. The song is a charming and humorous tale about a family displaced on Christmas morning after the tree caught on fire and the turkey burned to a crisp. They check into a motel and venture to the local Waffle House to salvage what’s left of the day. A video, which prominently featured Enderlin and Tanya Tucker, was popular this past holiday season.

“Waffle House Christmas” is an excellent addition to the album and a welcomed change of pace. Anderson typically leans heavy and serious and while it may have benefited from some lighter tunes, it’s a wonderful album of quality country music. I don’t think the majority of the songs lend themselves to repeated listenings for me, many are the “if you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it” type of songs, but there isn’t a clunker in the bunch.

In the press materials for the album, Anderson said by album 72, many would assume he’d just mail it in, which he says isn’t the case. He certainly didn’t mail it in at all. The only crime here is that the album has flown so low under the radar it’s all but been overlooked. I highly recommend checking it out for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.

Grade: A

Album Review: Catherine Britt – ‘Catherine Britt & The Cold Cold Hearts’

Australian country singer Catherine Britt released one of my favorite albums of the 21st century, 2006’s Too Far Gone. Unfortunately, although it was intended as her breakthrough into the US mainstream, it failed to hit a chord with radio, and she returned to her homeland, where over time her music diverged from her early traditionalism to a more Americana influenced sound. Last year she reunited with her first producer, Australian country legend Bill Chambers, and returned to her musical roots with a set of mainly self-penned material combining traditional country sounds and lyrics deeply rooted in Australian soil and inspired by a recent battle with breast cancer.

The opening ‘Red Dirt’ draws on her Australian heritage for a sunny song about travelling in the Outback. An upbeat tune and optimistic lyrics are backed by charming harmonies. ‘Troubled Kind’ is similarly charming and inspired by Catherine’s travels around Australia with her husband in a camper van. In ‘Bush TV’ she lyrically ponders the beauties of her own back yard.

‘Where You Gonna Go’ draws on blues and gospel as Britt offers a devastating critique of someone who has betrayed their friends and values in the interest of fame:

All you care about is fame
Where you gonna go when you got no name?

What’s there for you on the other side?
What’s there for you when you’ve lost your pride?
Someday you’ll see when it’s too late
When all your real friends have gone away…

The mountain you climb is only so high
The poison you drink will one day run dry

‘Too Hot To Just Quit’ is a lovely song about someone pondering their own “seeking out all of the hard choices” in life. Also filled with thoughtful regret is the gentle waltz ‘Young In All The Wrong Ways’. This co-write with Bill Chambers is another highlight with a gorgeous mandolin-laced melody and insightful lyrics:

When you only
Drink to get drunk and you’re lonely
So you don’t wanna stop and you know
Deep down it’s true what they say
And I’m told I’ve still got so much life to live
It’s only beginning but I feel 100 years old today

Cause I was young in the wrong ways
And that was just yesterday
No, I don’t wanna grow up
But I don’t wanna slow down
Well I’m not quite old enough
To feel like I’ve played enough
I’m not ready to grow up
But I don’t want to stay
Young in all the wrong ways

Written with Adam Ackerly and Brooke McClymont, the airy ‘I’m Not Ready’ defies mortality and expresses Catherine’s remaining hopes for the future.

‘Met My Match’ is a deeply romantic song about unexpectedly finding one’s soulmate.

The album’s one cover is Fred Eaglesmith’s country-blues ‘I Like Trains’.

I mentioned the folky ‘The River & The Gum’ in my list of favorite album tracks of 2018. Proceedings come to a close with ‘Coalmine’, a story song written with Bill Chambers.

This is a great return to form for Catherine Britt, and I warmly recommend it.

Grade: A+

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: The Mavericks — ‘Hey! Merry Christmas!’

What I love about The Mavericks is you always know what to expect from their music. You’re always going to get something radically different than you could even imagine, which has been even more true with their most recent albums. Hey! Merry Christmas! is no exception, and only proves, once again, that Raul Malo can sing anything and everything, regardless of style.

The album opens with a joyous ode to the season, “Christmas Time (Is Coming ‘Round Again),” with follows in the company of “The Most Wonderful Time of The Year” and “Happy Holidays.” The listener is transported to another place and time, in classic Mavericks’ style.

“Santa Does” and “I Have Wanted You for Christmas” are both excellent in their own ways, whether celebrating the omnipresent one in the red suit or tributing a love that has endured through the generations. The album’s first ballad, the beautifully sparse “Christmas For Me (Is You)” is a revelation, with Malo committing to record a spellbinding R&B and jazz style vocal you have to hear to believe.

The R&B and jazz influence continues on “Santa Wants To Take You for a Ride,” a sensual and slinky double entendre that works, despite objectification. The mournful “Christmas Without You” is in more of a traditional Christmas style and finds Malo engulfed in Christmas cheer he can’t enjoy while also mending a broken heart. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is a cover of the classic, which is well executed, but a bit too bombastic for my ears.

The title track, which appears next, swerves the album out of its detour into the emotional wrought and back into the light. It’s not my favorite song on the album, but it is very, very well done. “One More Christmas” is unremarkable at best, while the closing number “Happy Holiday,” which Andy Williams made famous, has been given the most eccentric treatment I’ve ever heard. The song, which typically exudes brightness and joy, has been stripped bare to reveal an almost suicidal underbelly I can only regard as interesting.

In my time as a Mavericks fan, I’ve come to enjoy their 1990s output more than their more recent stuff. Maybe it’s because I’m a fan of Don Cook’s signature production style or I just like their country stuff better, but I’ve had a difficult time embracing their latest works. But I have to say I really enjoy Hey! Merry Christmas! There are some excellent original tracks on here that add a bit of punch to the holiday music market and make this album well worth checking out if you haven’t heard it yet.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Aaron Watson — ‘An Aaron Watson Family Christmas’

Country traditionalist Aaron Watson has been promising his fans a family Christmas album for a while now, and in 2018 he finally got it released. The ten-track album, which features Watson singing with his wife and three children, mixes eight holiday standards with two original songs.

One of those originals, “Lonely Lonestar Christmas” is the only song Watson wrote for the album. The mid-tempo ballad, about a sad sack who is facing Christmas alone, has a surprisingly humorous tone for the subject matter. The fiddle and mandolin prominently featured throughout is a nice touch, too.

The second original, “She Starred At Him All Night” comes from the pen of Drew Womack, who rose to fame with Sons of the Desert in the late 1990s. The song retells the familiar story of Mary and Jesus Christ, with Mary in awe of this miracle boy she created. The track has good bones and a pretty melody. The lyric, which Womack drowns in lazy repetitiveness and Christmas signifiers, leaves much to be desired.

Watson’s take on “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” is charming, with his children (Jake (age 12), Jack (age 10) and Jolee Kate (age 8)) adding a nice assist to keep the song playful and fun. Jolee Kate takes the lead on “Christmas Time Is Here,” a traditional ballad, while her brother Jack joins in for a nice recitation about halfway through. Jake joins his dad for a fun rendition of “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer.”

Watson’s wife Kimberly joins him on two songs. The first is the oft-covered and recently ridiculed  “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” which has always grated on my nerves. The other, “Jingle Bells,” is an excellent take on the song. Kimberly’s breathy vocal doesn’t work for me on the duet at all, but she adds some nice harmony to the latter.

The family comes together for ‘A Watson Family Greeting’ to close the album. It’s their take on “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” which is elongated by instrumental beds of lovely ribbons of fiddle. Watson does much of the heavy lifting himself, with his kids joining in by the end. It comes complete with a ‘hidden track,’ a recitation by one of his sons.

Watson handles the final two songs solo. “The Christmas Waltz” and “Silent Night” are both excellent and two of the album’s highlights.

Watson describes the album as “Sinatra on the farm,” which fits the album perfectly. He sticks to his wheelhouse wonderfully, resisting the temptation to veer into big band territory. I highly recommend checking this one out, as it has its considerable charm, although I probably won’t be revisiting it much. Don’t get me wrong, I love it for what it is, but the contributions by kids, while cute, don’t really lend themselves to repeated listenings, year-after-year.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Rodney Crowell – ‘Christmas Everywhere’

If you’re tired of every Christmas album containing mostly the same old songs, this is the Christmas album for you. Every song is a Rodney Crowell original, and the mood is neither sentimental nor jolly.

The record opens with ‘Clement’s Lament (We’ll See You In The Mall’, sung by a syrupy sweet female duo, belying the ironic lyric pointing out the contemporary commercialisation of Christmas when “The season starts in August now“. The title is a nod to Clement Moore, author of ‘The Night Before Christmas’.

In the frantic ‘Christmas Everywhere’, a co-write with John Jorgenson, Rodney is a harried father complaining about the competing demands and wishes of all around him (while “Daddy wants a stiffer drink”. The pace shifts midway to allow a slow dreamy cameo from guest Lera Lynn before the tempo increases again but the tone changes again to a newly cheery Rodney embracing all the season entails. A lovely arrangement holds it all together, just about, but this is a very odd confection and definitely not playing it safe.

‘Very Merry Christmas’ is a rock jam with not much in the way of lyrics, which I could happily live without. ‘Christmas In Vidor’, an angry, dark and definitely not family-friendly take on the season in a troubled town in Texas (“that’s ash, that ain’t snow”) with spoken vocals from Rodney and his co-writer poet Mary Karr, is an outtake from the pair’s duet album a few years back. ‘Let’s Skip Christmas This Year’, another Karr collaboration, is rather better, with an upbeat tongue-in-cheek feel.

‘Christmas In New York’ is a downbeat reflection on Christmasses past and a lost relationship. The soulful jazz of ‘When The Fat Guy Tries The Chimney On For Size’ reassures a child that Santa really does exist.

Chuck Cannon co-wrote ‘Christmas Makes Me Sad’ opens with jolly Christmas music, but a downbeat lyric has a newly lovelorn protagonist expecting to

Spend my silent night alone

Also sad is the delicately mournful ‘Merry Christmas From An Empty Bed’, a moving duet with Brennen Leigh as a couple muse separately on the failure of their love while decorating for Christmas:

Brennen
Somehow I thought believing in our love would make it grow
And God knows faith can cover up a multitude of sins
But you wouldn’t let me in

Rodney
She learned to read my lies like tea leaves in a cup…

Now she’ll never know
How much I loved her so

This I excellent. I also very much liked ‘Christmas For The Blues’, another sad reflection on failed romance which is pure country. ‘Come Christmas’ is a simple, pretty song with a folky tune, the latter being composed by Rodney’s young granddaughters Adeline and Iris Brue.

The final track, the playful ‘All For Little Girls And Boys’ was written when Rodney’s own children were young. Three of his daughters sing along.

This is an ambitious and very different Christmas album. Not everything is to my taste, but it’s worth giving it a listen to see if you like it.

Grade: A-

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.

Album Review: Kayla Ray – ‘Yesterday & Me’

Singer-songwriter Kayla Ray’s lovely second album was released back in May. This has been such a busy year I haven’t had time to review as much music as I would have liked, but starting to consider my albums of the year I thought this really needed to be covered in detail. Tastefully produced by Jason Eady in traditional country style with plenty of steel guitar and fiddle, the record showcases her rich voice and outstanding songwriting. Growing up in Texas, she spent some time working with legendary fiddler Johnny Gimble, and Johnny’s son Dick plays bass on this album.

Kayla wrote most of the songs herself. One of the exceptions is the engrossing story song ‘Rockport’, which opens the album and sets the tone. It tells the tale of two lovers whose hard backgrounds in Arkansas overshadow their lives. The other is one of my favorite tracks, a gorgeously steel-laden ultra-traditional Keith Whitley song called ‘Once A Week Cheaters’. It is a duet with Colton Hawkins, who has a great, mournful voice and I would like to hear more from.

My favorite of Kayla’s own songs is the weary litany of ‘Things Only Years Can Teach A Woman’. ‘Fair Warning’, an outstanding introspective story song about an abusive relationship.
Another duet, this time with an older-sounding female vocalist called Tifni Simons, ‘Red River Valley’s Run Dry’ is another absorbing story song with nice fiddle.

‘Magnolias In Springtime’ is a slow ballad about a country singer who has unexpectedly found the joy of love, with a number of song titles quoted.

In the title track she regrets the changes time has brought to a relationship. ‘Camel Blues’ ponders a breakup where fault lies on both sides. The sultry ‘I’m Still A Woman’ is the agonised lament of a troubled woman.

The tempo picks up with ‘Hell Of A Day To Drink All Night’, where Kayla’s tone shifts from its usual mellow warmth to raucous as she rattles her way through a hangover. The rapid paced ‘Pills’ lauds the local pharmacy and prescription medicines, somewhat tongue in cheek.

Finally, ‘1963’ pays a fond tribute to Kayla’s grandparents.

This is an excellent album, leaning to the more introspective side, but pure country in its backings and arrangements.

Grade: A+