My Kind of Country

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

Category Archives: Album Reviews

Album Review: Josh Turner – ‘Deep South’

After numerous delays, Josh Turner fans finally have a new album to listen to, nearly five years after the release of his previous effort Punching Bag. Deep South, produced by Turner’s longtime producer Frank Rogers, arrived last week.

The current climate at country radio is a difficult one for traditional-based artists. MCA was reluctant to release the album until they were sure they had a hit single on the charts. As a result, I awaited this release with some trepidation, expecting it to be a compromise to the demands of the label and radio and not necessarily the album Josh would make if left to his own devices. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what it sounds like, although after learning that Turner wrote or co-wrote five of the album’s elven songs, it’s difficult to say for sure exactly where the blame lies.

The underperforming lead single, 2014’s “Lay Low”, which climbed to #28 sounds like a bland Keith Urban song,and the follow-up single about a “pretty little homegrown Hometown Girl”, currently residing at #10 on the charts is a similarly trite effort. I recognize that songs like this are a necessary evil for artists to get on the radio so that their albums can be released. But I do expect that when the album eventually appears that there will be some deeper cuts, and that is where Deep South falls short. The Turner-penned title track is a funky-sounding list of cliches about Southern life — fried chicken, back roads,et al. “All About You”, another Turner composition, is much the same, with the word “girl” used gratuitously throughout the song. “Southern Drawl” combines the southern life and hot chick themes:

She’s as pretty as South Georgia peaches
And as hot as any Tennessee June
She’s a treasure underneath that Carolina kudzu
She still outshines a Mississippi moon
When she walks into a room

Her kiss sure drives me crazy
I melt when she says my name
Just one touch can make this old heart sing
But it ain’t the blue sky in her blue eyes
It ain’t good looks at all
It’s the way she says I love you that makes me fall, y’all
In that sweet, soft, slow southern drawl

I was bored by most of this album, which would have put me right to sleep in the hands of a less capable vocalist. It’s disappointing that after a five-year gap between albums that Turner apparently has so little to say. These songs are shallow, dull and cliche-ridden. It wasn’t until the final track “Hawaiian Girl” that I found a song that I could truly enjoy. It’s not deep either, but it has a throwback sound with plenty of pedal steel and is at least a change of pace.

I’ve long maintained that Josh Turner was a gifted artist who was continually let down by less than stellar material. Deep South unfortunately does nothing to change that assessment and if anything, is a big step in the wrong direction.

Grade: C+

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-

Album Review: The Gibson Brothers – ‘In The Ground’

The Gibson Brothers’ insidious blend of bluegrass and folk is deeply rooted in their Northeastern rural background. This album, on Rounder, showcases both their tight high sibling harmonies and an entirely self-penned set of songs, backed by subtle arrangements and their band’s tasteful playing. Both Eric and Leigh Gibson have fine voices, but it is the blend that makes the partnership special, together with their songwriting ability.

The compelling opener ‘Highway’ is about a child pining for his errant father and then following in his restless footsteps. ‘Making Good Time’, a lovely tune about traveling with no specific plan, is one of the highlights. The gentle and heartwarming ‘Remember Who You Are’ offers some loving parting advice to a son leaving the family farm for pastures new, while ‘Little Girl’ is a sweet song addressed to a daughter.

The catchy ‘Homemade Wine’ is a surpisingly uplifting tribute to drinking and hangovers, “washed away by homemade wine”. The upbeat ‘I Can’t Breathe Deep Yet’ picks up the tempo.

‘Fool’s Hill’ is about youthful wildness in small towns and has a pretty tune and optimistic attitude.

‘Friend Of Mine’ is a beautiful ode to the writer’s guitar and indirectly to his own musical gifts.

‘I Found A Church Today’ is a delightful religious song describing a church service leading the narrator back to God.

‘My Quiet Mind’ is a slow, delicate song about hoping to find peace after losing in love, with the ethereal vocals nd beauiful melody making it something very pure and special. The song is the only one to involve a non-Gibson co-writer, Shawn Camp.

The mid-paced ‘Look Who’s Crying’ is about a man taking pleasure when the tables are turned and the woman who left him wants to come back:

Look who looks like her whole world is over
Who’s lookin’ now to cry on someone’s shoulder
Telling me that people change
And how much I still look the same
Til suddenly (til suddenly)
I’m laughing (I’m laughing) out loud
Look who’s crying all those big tears now

It has a traditional country structure with bluegrass instrumentation, and effective call and response vocals. It is one of my favorites here.

The wistful post-breakup ‘Everywhere I Go’ is another fine track, written by Eric with his son Kelley.

The set closes with the moving title track, perhaps the best song on the album. It is a mournful reflection on family, change and the fate of small farmers, and a tribute to their late father.

This album is an excellent one from start to finish.

Grade: A+

Album Reviews: Jessi Colter and Waylon Jennings duets

There currently isn’t much available by this duo, and they did not record much together since their voices really didn’t blend all that well.

Leather & Lace was issued on vinyl & cassette by RCA in February 1981 and features the following ten songs:

01) You Never Can Tell (C’est La Vie)
02) Rainy Seasons
03) I’ll Be Alright
04) Wild Side Of Life
05) Pastels And Harmony
06) I Believe You Can
07) What’s Happened To Blue Eyes
08) Storms Never Last
09) I Ain’t The One
10)You’re Not My Same Sweet Baby

All American Country was issued on CD by BMG in 2003 and features the following ten songs:

Suspicious Minds
Under Your Spell Again
I Ain’t The One *
Storms Never Last *
Wild Side Of Life *
You Never Can Tell (C’est La Vie) *
Sight For Sore Eyes
I’ll Be Alright *
What’s Happened To Blue Eyes *
You’re Not My Same Sweet Baby *

Songs marked by * also appear on Leather & Lace.

There are only four actual duets on Leather & Lace (01, 04, 08, 09) with Jessi being solo on 02 and 06 and Waylon being solo on the remaining four songs.

All American County has the four duets on Leather & Lace plus “Suspicious Minds”, “Under Your Spell Again” and “Sight For Sore Eyes” are duets, meaning that the modern era CD is the better collection if you are looking for actual duets. This CD is still readily available, whereas Leather & Lace has been out of print for a long time.

Waylon & Jessi did not have a tremendous amount of chart success as a duet, with “Wild Side of Life” (a medley of Hank Thompson’s hit and Kitty Wells’ answer song) reaching #10 in 1981 and “Storms Never Last” reaching #17” in 1981. The only other top twenty hit was “Suspicious Minds”, the old Elvis #1 pop hit from 1969 reaching #2 in 1976.

Truthfully, while I am a big Waylon Jennings fan, neither of these albums is particularly satisfactory. I would regard the best song (found on both albums) as “You Never Can Tell”, a Chuck Berry song from 1964. The solo efforts on Leather & Lace (especially the Waylon tracks) are throw-aways so I would give Leather & Lace a C. I would give All American Country a B for having more duets and better songs.

Album Review: Sunny Sweeney – ‘Trophy’

After falling in love with Brandy Clark’s Twelve Stories, Sunny Sweeney tapped Dave Brainard to produce Trophy, which grapples with misery and longing, tackling the well-worn themes with exciting twists and turns. Brainard works to nicely compliment Sweeney’s firecracker personality, giving us a sound far meatier than Clark’s, but in no way less sublime.

Our first taste, which Occasional Hope lovingly reviewed, is the astonishing “Bottle By My Bed,” a heartbreaking tale about Sweeney’s struggles with infertility co-written with Lori McKenna. I, too, have a very personal connection to the track, which details the anguish felt when “you never never wanted something so bad that it hurts.”

Sweeney begs the bartender to reserve judgment and just “Pass The Pain” on the album’s brilliant steel-drenched opener, a decade-old neotraditional ballad she felt was potentially too country for a modern audience. She recorded the song, which features an assist from Trisha Yearwood, at the insistence of her rock-leaning father.

She bookends with the stunning “Unsaid,” a heavily orchestrated ballad written with Caitlyn Smith following the suicide of a friend who was a father of two young children. While the track doesn’t chronicle his story, it lays bare her feelings towards the circumstances:

There’s so much left unsaid

Cuts to the bone to see your name written in stone

Wish I could get it off my chest

Shoulda let go of my pride when I still had the time

Dammit it hurts these words I left unsaid

Sweeney has said Chris Wall’s “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight” is her favorite country song ever. The track, a fiddle-drenched waltz popularized by Jerry Jeff Walker, boasts an engaging melody and killer hook:

And I play classical music when it rains,

I play country when I am in pain

But I won’t play Beethoven, the mood’s just not right

Oh, I feel like Hank Williams tonight

I also love “Nothing Wrong With Texas,” another of the four tracks she and McKenna co-wrote for Trophy. The song, an ode to Sweeney’s home state, is an effortless fiddle and steel adorned mid-tempo ballad.

The pair also wrote two distinctly different numbers about Sweeney’s marriage to her second husband Jeff Hellmer, a police sergeant in Austin, Texas. “Grow Old With Me” is a breathtaking love song, in which Sweeney promises, “grow old with me and I’ll keep you young forever.”

The other song is the feisty title track, written in response to Hellmer’s ex calling Sweeney a ‘trophy wife.’ She proves her worth in the situation with a clever, albeit cunning, retort:

I know what you called me

That word fits me to a T

You just think I’m pretty

And you’re just full of jealousy

I don’t make him play the fool

Put him on a pedestal

Something you would never do

Yah, he’s got a trophy now

For putting up with you

Like “Trophy,” the rest of the album trends uptempo, with in-your-face barn burning honky-tonkers. “Better Bad Idea” is a moment of levity, which finds Sweeney on the prowl to be naughty, hoping her man can top the mischief she’s thinking up on her own.

“Why People Change” is an excellent take on failed relationships, with Sweeney questioning why couples can drift apart. The lyric is well-written, and the engaging melody is nothing short of glorious.

I haven’t been this richly satisfied with an album probably since Twelve Stories. With Trophy, Sweeney has crafted a whip-smart and mature record nodding to tradition while correctly pushing the genre forward. Trophy is what happens when everyone steps aside and puts the focus deservedly on the music, where it belongs.

Grade: A+

Sunny Sweeny was also interviewed on Rolling Stone Country

Album Review: Jessi Colter – ‘Ridin’ Shotgun’

Jessi’s career slowed down in the late 70s as her radio success fizzled out and she and Waylon had their first (and only) child, Shooter, in 1979. However, in 1981 she recorded a popular album of duets with Waylon (Leather and Lace). This prompted her to return to the studio on her own account, and she resumed her deal with Capitol. Waylon shared production duties with Randy Scruggs.

Although jessi’s duets with Waylon had been hits, it turned out that country rado was now really only interested in jessi as Waylon’s wife. Her solo singles were roundly ignored, with the most successful release from this album, ‘Holdin’ On’, peaking at #70. This is a nice quite upbeat song about splitting up, written by Jessi and Waylon with Basil McDavid.

McDavid is the main co-writer for the album, with another five songs credited to him and Jessi. The charming love song ‘Ain’t Making No Headlines (Here Without You)’ about coping with separation was also covered by Hank Jr, with slightly altered lyrics.

Slightly different versions of the bluesy title track bookend the album. ‘Ridin’ Shotgun (Honkin’)’ features backing vocals and harmonica and ‘Ridin’ Shotgun (Tonkin’)’. ‘Hard Times And Sno-Cone’ is a little quirky; its precise meaning is unclear but with its references to a man who ‘called her a woman but he knew she was a child’, it may possibly have been inspired by Jennifer Harness, Jessi’s teenage daughter by her first marriage to Duane Eddy. She had had a baby at just 15, who Jessi and Waylon helped to raise alongside their own son Shooter, just a year older, and married soon afterwards. The most interesting of the McDavid co-writes is the airy ‘Jennifer (Fly My Little Baby)’, to and about Jennifer. Jennifer and Waylon both guest on vocals, making this a real family affair, with Jennifer singing:

Mama don’t worry about Jennifer
Jennifer’s gonna be fine
I know it won’t be easy
Mom I’m gonna give it a try
You gave me some dreams
Now I’ve got wings and I’m headed for the sky
I have the trust in you to have the faith in me
So come on won’t you watch me fly…

Jessi and Waylon then advise:

To all you mamas and daddies
Who have a Jennifer you love so
If you wanna hold on to her
First you gotta learn to let her go

Jessi throws in a pair of very current covers: Waylon’s 1981 hit ‘Shine’, and Corbin/Hanner’s spiritual ‘On The Wings Of My Victory’, later recorded by Glen Campbell. She also takes on a much older song, the delicately pretty ‘A Fallen Star’.

‘Somewhere Along The Way’, the only solo Jessi Colter composition on this album, is a subdued ballad about regret for past choices. Co-producer Randy Scruggs contributed ‘Nobody Else But You’, a pretty love song with a lilting melody.

The album is available on a three-album/double CD with Mirriam and That’s The Way A Cowboy Rocks And Rolls.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Marty Stuart – ‘Way Out West’

Way Out West, the new album by Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives is one of the more eclectic albums I’ve encountered in recent years. I’m not sure who the target audience is, or even if there is a target audience.

There are those who would assert that the West has as much of a claim to the origins of country music as does Bristol, Nashville and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Certainly the cowboy heritage has made its way into the country persona, perhaps more so with the fashion than the music, but in any event Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and the Sons of The Pioneers are safely enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame, as is Bob Wills.

It is hard to know how to assess this collection of songs. There are vocal tracks and instrumental tracks, some tracks which are traditional sounding western ballads and at least two which seem almost psychedelic. The band flits between sounding like a good country band to having overtones of The Ventures, Duane Eddy, Don Rich, Grady Martin and more.

The album opens up with “Desert Prayer – Part 1” which sounds like some sort of chant with what sounds like sitar. This is followed up by “Mojave” an instrumental track that sounds like Nokie Edwards meets Duane Eddy.

The third track is “Lost On The Desert” is the story of an escaped robber who heads to the desert to reclaim the money he stole, tormented by the devil before he can find the money. I can mentally hear Marty Robbins singing this song, but I don’t think Marty Robbins ever recorded the song. Johnny Cash did, record the the Billy Mize-Dallas Frazier song, however, on his 1962 album The Sound of Johnny Cash.

A burnin’ hot su,n a cryin’ for water, black wings circle the sky
Stumblin’ and fallin’, somebody’s callin’, you’re lost on the desert to die
I had to give up and they took me to jail but I hid all the money I got
Way out on the desert where no one could get it and I left a mark at the spot
Then I got away and I ran for the desert the devil had taken control
I needed water but he said I’d make it near the money is a big waterhole
A burnin’ hot sun…

Just up ahead is where I left my mark or it may be to the left or the right
I’ve been runnin’ all day and they’ll catch up tomorrow, I’ve got to find it tonight
Then up jumped the devil and ran away laughin’, he drank all the waterholes dry
He moved my mark till I’m running in circles and lost on the desert to die
A burnin’ hot sun…
(Lost on the desert to die) lost on the desert to die (lost on the desert to die)

“Way Out West” is 5:42 long, and is a strange tale of the narrator having (or hallucinating) a number of experiences, while under the influence of pills. Somehow I mentally can hear Jefferson Airplane singing this song.

“El Fantasma Del Toro” sounds like Santo & Johnny are providing the music for this instrumental.

“Old Mexico” might be likened to “El Paso” in reverse, with the cowboy heading to Mexico where there isn’t a price on his head. There is some nice vocal trio work – this may be my favorite song on the album, and could have been a hit forty years ago, especially if Marty Robbins recorded it.

“Time Don’t Wait” is a good song, a little more rock than country, with a lyric that speaks the truth as we all know it.

“Quicksand” has a very martial sounding introduction before lapsing into a more standard rock sound.

“Air Mail Special” is the oldest song on the album, having been composed by Benny Goodman, James Mundy and Charlie Christian. For those not aware of the writers, Benny Goodman was probably the greatest jazz clarinetist ever and Charlie Christian was the first great electric guitar player. I assume that Mundy wrote the lyrics later since neither Goodman nor Christian were lyricists.

Left New York this morning early
Traveling south so wide and high
Sailing through the wide blue yonder
It’s that Airmail Special on the fly
Listen to the motors humming
She is streaking through the sky
Like a bird that’s flying homeward
It’s that Airmail Special on the fly
Over plains and high dark mountains
Over rivers deep and wide
Carrying mail to California
It’s that Airmail Special on the fly
Watch her circle for the landing
Hear her moan and cough and sigh
Now she’s coming down the runway
It’s that Airmail Special on the fly

Marty’s band is indeed superlative, and with “Torpedo” they are in their best Ventures mode. As far as I know the Ventures were strictly an instrumental group, and Torpedo is a fine instrumental.

“Please Don’t Say Goodbye” reminds me of something the Wagoneers might have recorded a couple of decades ago.

If you like the Flying Burrito Brothers “Whole Lotta Highway (With A Million Miles To Go)” definitely fits that vibe. Marty does a fine job. I must admit that it is nice to hear a new truck driving song again – the subgenre has nearly disappeared.

“Desert Prayer – Part 2” is just an interlude.

I really liked “Wait For The Morning” which features really nice vocal harmonies with a song that is a slow western-styled ballad, although not especially western in its subject matter. Lovely steel guitar work closes out the song.

“Way Out West” (Reprise) closes out the album – the reprise is largely instrumental and sounds like something from one of the spaghetti western soundtracks.

Unfortunately I do not have the booklet for the songs on this album, so mostly I don’t know who wrote which songs, or what additional musicians played on the album besides the Fabulous Superlatives. Mike Campbell, former guitarist for Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, produced and achieved a remarkable panoply of sounds. The Fabulous Superlatives are superlative, and Marty is in good voice throughout. I wouldn’t especially cite this album as being particularly thematic – it’s more a collection of songs loosely based on western themes.

B+

Album Review: Jessi Colter – ‘That’s The Way The Cowboy Rocks and Rolls’

After detouring with religious and inspirational music on Miriam, Jessi Colter returned to originals for 1978’s That’s The Way The Cowboy Rocks and Rolls. Much like her previous releases, the album was co-produced by her husband Waylon Jennings.

The album arrived too late to capitalize on the success of either Wanted! The Outlaws or her #2 peaking duet with Jennings, “Suspicious Minds.” Thus, the two singles failed to gain any traction at radio. “Maybe You Should’ve Been Listening,” a gentle ballad, peaked at #45. The second and final single, “Love Me Back to Sleep” only reached #91. Jacky Ward would score a #7 hit with the title track, a beautiful steel-drenched mid-tempo number, in 1980.

The main problem with That’s The Way The Cowboy Rocks and Rolls is the album’s lack of commercial viability. The title track and opening number “Roll On” are the only two cuts that can pass as uptempo and either one would’ve been better choices for singles than what Capitol sent to radio. Colter also does well with “Black Haired Boy” and “My Cowboy’s Last Ride,” both very good story songs. The remainder of the album is good, but nothing terribly exciting.

Grade: B

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

Album Review: Jessi Colter – ‘Diamond In The Rough’

Released in July 1976, Diamond In The Rough was Jessi’s third album for Capitol, and her third album release in eighteen months. Like her first two Capitol album, it reached #4 on Billboard’s Country Albums Chart. Unlike its two predecessors, it generated no significant hits – the only single released, “I Thought I Heard You Calling My Name”, died at #29. Basically sales-wise this album coasted on the success of the first two Capitol albums.

Since the last single from the prior album had died at #50, it is pretty clear that the forward momentum her career received from “I’m Not Lisa” had already been lost. From this point forward none of her solo albums would crack the top forty and none of her singles would reach top twenty status.

Diamond In The Rough
is not a bad album but I am not sure as to the identity of the target audience since the song selection seems rather random.

The title track “Diamond in the Rough” written by Donnie Fritts (a long-time veteran of Kris Kristofferson’s band) and Spooner Oldham, is a bluesy ballad that is much closer to being piano jazz than anything resembling country music.

“Get Back” a Lennon-McCartney composition, was a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic in 1969, with Billy Preston’s energetic electric organ giving the song an energy that the Beatles had seemingly lost. Jessi’s rendition is not terrible, but is lethargic and not very interesting.

Better is Jessi’s “Would You Leave Now”, a lovely ballad, exquisitely sung by Jessi. The background features some gentle steel guitar amidst a light string accompaniment.

Although it was a massive hit, I never liked “Hey Jude”, the second Lennon- McCartney song on the album). Jessi sings it well, but at 7:16 the song is simply too long. Had she shortened it to about four minutes, I might have actually liked her gentle approach to the song, but at some point I simply lost interest – the only thing of interest in the coda is the fiddle.

Another Jessi Colter composition follows in “Oh Will (Who Made it Rain Last Night)”. This is another lovely ballad about the pain of leaving, this more of the folk variety rather than jazz. Jessi’s piano is impeccable and the song is quite lovely, just not country.

Oh Will who made it rain last night?
Who could take blue from my sky and paint it black night?
Who’s telling me to look so I’ll see the tears for years we will cry?
Talk to me Will.
You never told lies; who made it rain last night?

Lee Emerson’s “I Thought I Heard You Calling My Name” was the chart single from the album and is a country break-up song. I heard this song quite a bit upon its release and was surprised to find out later that this topped out at #29. There is an interesting story behind Lee Emerson’s death, but I won’t go into that here. Porter Wagoner and George Strait (Strait Out of The Box) both recorded the song.

I said goodbye to you this mornin’
With only these words to explain
I said I’d found someone I love better
But I still hear your voice call my name
I thought I heard you callin’ my name
Funny, I still feel this way.
Your voice seem so close, but I knew
That by now you were many miles away
I walk through the streets of the city
People passing by think it’s so strange
I’m talkin’ but there’s no one beside me
I thought I heard you call my name

“Ain’t No Way” by Tere Mansfield is a good country ballad which I think could have been a decent single. The problem for Jessi, is that she doesn’t have a really forceful voice, but on this song she gets across enough power to sell the song.

Obviously Jessi really loved Waylon, sticking with him through good times and bad times. “You Hung the Moon (Didn’t You Waylon)” is exhibit number one for this proposition. Too personal to be a single, the song leaves the listen with no doubts as to its sincerity.

You did hang the moon, didn’t you Waylon?
` You did hang that moon, didn’t you Waylon?
Weren’t you the one they called the seventh son?
You did hang the moon, didn’t you Waylon?

You take so many words and bring them all home with one
You walk into my room and it lights up like the sun
Each step you take leads a way for someone
And I know you’d never do love wrong

“Woman’s Heart is a Handy Place to Be” by Cort Casady and Marshall Chapman is a jog-along ballad with a story to tell about a charmer who can never be faithful, but whom the narrator wants anyway . Jessi does a nice job with the song, but Crystal Gayle also recorded the song to better effect.

He’s a charmer
He’s broken every heart that’s tried to hold him
It’s tearin´ me apart to know I want him
Knowin´ I can never tell him so

He’s a loner
Runnin´ from a friend to find a stranger
It makes me weak it makes me wonder
Will I ever make it on my own
Will I ever make it on my own

A woman’s heart’s a handy place to be
For a man afraid of givin’ and fightin´ to be free
Yes a woman’s heart’s a handy place to be
I just wish the heart that’s broken now was not a part of me

Ms Marshall Chapman has led an interesting existence (she is six feet tall and much more of a rock & roller than a country songsmith, but she has had considerable success in country music with Sawyer Brown having a major hit with Betty’s Being Bad”.

The album concludes with an unnecessary reprise of “Oh Will (Who Made it Rain Last Night)”. I would have much preferred an additional song.

This is a tough album to evaluate in that both of the Beatles’ covers were complete misfires and several of the songs seem to be out of context on this album.

Grade: C+

Album Review: Jessi Colter – ‘Jessi’

Released in January 1976, Jessi’s second Capitol album was produced by Waylon and Outlaw prouducer Ken Mansfield. The overall sound is distinctly more pop influenced than country to my ears.

The first single, ‘It’s Morning (And I Still Love You) is a fairly lush ballad about the morning after a one night stand, with the prospect that it might turn out to be more. It was a moderate success, peaking at #11 on the country chart. Jessi’s voice is stronger than usual on this. The second single, ‘Without You’, is a very intense song begging a lover not to leave, although the vocals are weaker in the up-tempo sections (verging on shouty in places) and much of the arrangement now sounds dated. It didn’t crack the top 40.

‘The Hand That Rocks The Cradle’ (not the better known hit of that name, but like every other song on the album a new Jessi Colter composition) is an uptempo bluesy rock number about a woman left home while her husband is out painting the town. ‘One Woman Man’ is a sultry demand for love from a potential partner with an extended brass arrangement. ‘Rounder’ is about loving a rogue, and I found it a bit repetitive.

I prefer Jessi on ballads, where her fragile voice makes her sound vulnerable. ‘Here I Am’ is a very nice love song with a tasteful arrangement which I enjoyed very much, and ‘Darlin’ It’s Yours’ is very pretty. The slow (and heavily strung in parts) ‘Would You Walk With Me (To The Lilies)’ and ‘I’ll See Your Face (In The Morning’s Window)’ are also quite good. Jessi’s vocals are shaky on the high notes of ‘All My Life, I’ve Been Your Lady’, another love song.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Aaron Watson – ‘Vaquero’

vaqueroAaron Watson is an old favorite of mine, with his honest Texan country style and high quality songs. His latest album is a bit of a mixed bag, but has some very bright spots.

There is the kernel of a concept EP within the album, with a brace of songs addressing the Mexican American experience. The title track paints a portrait of an old Mexican cowboy offering some useful homespun advice, set to a pretty tune. A rather lovely Spanish guitar instrumental, ‘Mariano’s Dream’, fits nicely into this category, leading into ‘Clear Isabel’, a dramatic, empathetic story song about a Mexican cop fleeing the drugs cartels for the safety of the US, where his daughter marries the rancher narrator but her father is deported and murdered.

The opening ‘Texas Lullaby’, a moving story song about a soldier’s WWII love story, is perhaps my favorite track. ‘Be My Girl’ and ‘Big Love In A Small Town’ are attractive love songs with pretty melodies. The latter of these benefits from the harmonies of co-writer Heather Morgan.

‘They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To’ talks about social and economic changes in a way reminiscent of some of Merle Haggard’s songs. It needs more of a melody, as far too much of the song is on a single note, but it’s an interesting song deeply rooted in Texas:

Well no news is good news, tell me whose news really tells the truth
The death toll rises high as gas prices shoot straight through the roof
Meanwhile politicians preach while some preachers politick
Well we need is lots of love, yeah lots of love might do the trick

Instead we criticize, we glamorize who’s right or wrong, who’s left or right
Missin’ out on so many beautiful colors, fightin’ over what’s black and white
We’ve gotta forgive, gotta learn to live together, make the world a better place
Maybe someday somebody somewhere will look back on today
Look back on us and say

They don’t make ’em like they used to

‘The Arrow’ is a life-affirming philosophical number aimed at Aaron’s children, set to a gentle tune, which I liked a lot:

Aim for the stars in the sky
Take heart, pull it back and let fly
On the wings of an angel
Let it fly with the grace of a dove

Let it fly with kindness and love.

‘Diamonds And Daughters’ was written especially for Aaron’s daughter Jolee and is a pretty song about the father-daughter relationship.

Disappointingly from an artist known for his solid Texas country style, a few tracks here are over produced in modern radio style. The main offender is the (admittedly quite catchy in its way) lead single ‘Outta Style’. ‘Amen Amigo’ is just too loud. ‘Run Wild Horses’ is a pretty, wistful ballad under a layer of over-production. I enjoyed ‘One Two Step At A Time’ and ‘Rolling Stone’, although again the production is intrusive. ‘Take You Home Tonight’ is rather forgettable. ‘These Old Boots Have Roots’ isn’t a bad song.

But the less good tracks are definitely overshadowed by the good stuff, especially as there are a generous 16 tracks, allowing for the odd misstep to be overlooked. This is another strong offering from Aaron, the quality of shoes writing is improving all the time.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Jessi Colter – ‘I’m Jessi Colter’

12776715_f496After her debut failed to gain traction, Jessi Colter went a full five years between albums. She switched labels, from RCA Victor to Capitol Records, and released I’m Jessi Colter in January 1975. The record was co-produced by her husband Waylon Jennings and record executive Ken Mansfield.

Colter composed the entire project herself, which included lead single “I’m Not Lisa,” her most remembered song and biggest hit. The stunning ballad details the anguish of a woman in love with a man who still harbors feelings for his ex:

I’m not Lisa, my name is Julie

Lisa left you years ago

My eyes are not blue

But mine won’t leave you

‘Til the sunlight has touched your face

Not only did “I’m Not Lisa” top the country singles chart, but it hit #4 of the Billboard Hot 100, two major accomplishments that wouldn’t come her way again. Colter would crack the top five just once more with “What’s Happened To Blue Eyes,” the steel-laced second and final single from this album.

The remainder of the album is hit-or-miss, with a diversion into Memphis Soul that detracts from a majority of the tracks. These songs are well-executed, especially “Is There Any Way (You’d Stay Forever),” but the rest (“You Ain’t Never Been Loved (Like I’m Gonna Love You), “Come On In,” and “Love’s The Only Chain”) just aren’t to my taste. I summarily disliked the arrangement on “I Hear A Song,” but the ballad itself is quite lovely. “Storms Never Last” had much the same effect on me.

Colter’s strongest moments on the album are, not surprising, the country ones. “For The First Time” is a glorious slice of honky-tonk, a very welcomed change of pace. She’s even better on the stunning “Who Walks Thru Your Memory (Billy Jo),” the best track by a mile. The steel guitar perfectly frames her gorgeous vocal.

I’m not trying to suggest that I’m Jessi Colter is a bad album, it’s just extremely dated to modern ears, a victim of its era and a project designed to appeal to the popular trends of the time. While she never enjoyed solo success like this again, she struck gold a year later with an appearance along side her husband, Willie Nelson and Tompall Glaser on Wanted! The Outlaws. The album not only solidified the outlaw movement in modern country, but it was the first country album to be certified platinum.

Grade: B

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

Album Review: Bryan White – ‘Between Now and Forever’

between-now-and-foreverBryan White was an established newcomer when Between Now and Forever dropped in March 1996. The final two singles from his self-titled debut had topped the charts and he was on his way to winning the ACM for Top Male Vocalist and the CMA Horizon Award.

White teamed once again with Kyle Lehning and Billy Joe Walker, Jr for his sophomore set. They led with “I’m Not Supposed to Love You Anymore,” an excellent power ballad written by Skip Ewing and Donny Kees. The song tells of a man conflicted by thoughts of his former flame:

We agreed that it was over

Now the lines have all been drawn

The vows we made began to fade

But now they’re gone

Put your pictures in the shoebox

And my gold ring in the drawer

I’m not supposed to love you anymore

 

Now Sherri says she’s jealous

Of this freedom that I’ve found

If she were me, she would be out on the town

And she says she can’t imagine

What on earth I’m waiting for

I’m not supposed to love you anymore

 

Oh, I shouldn’t care or wonder where and how you are

But I can’t hide this hurt inside my broken heart

I’m fighting back emotions that I’ve never fought before

‘Cause I’m not supposed to love you anymore

Also admirable was the second single “So Much For Pretending,” a break-neck uptempo that became White’s third number one hit. The catchy guitar and drum driven arrangement coupled with the charming lyric make this one of my favorites of his.

White was back in ballad territory for the lowest charting single, the #15 peaking “That’s Another Song.” The ballad of lost love is lovely, with a beautiful steel-led instrumental break framing White’s passionate performance. I wanted to say this was my least favorite of the album’s singles, but I love it as much as anything he released from his first two albums.

The album’s fourth single, the uptempo “Sittin’ On Go” impacted country radio twenty years ago this week. It’s yet another worthy turn from White and a perfect slice of uptempo radio fodder. The song deservedly hit #1 and retained its impact for years, at least on my local country station here in Boston.

I’ve owned this album since its release; I was nine at the time, a point in my musical journey in which I primarily listened to the radio hits a record had to offer. But I distinctly remember being enamored with the title track, a mid-tempo ballad co-written by White. I still find the track appealing although it is a bit more thickly produced and less subtle than the ballads released as singles.

The remaining uptempo numbers – “Nickel in the Well” and “A Hundred and One” are typical mid-1990s album filler. White also co-wrote “Blindhearted,” a ballad with nice flourishes of steel and “On Any Given Night,” just more of the same steel-fueled pop balladry.

I hold anything Mac McAnally writes in the highest of regard, as he composed “Café On The Corner,” one of the strongest down-on-your-luck working man tunes of the 1990s, and the best of the sub-genre I’ve ever heard. To Between Now and Forever he contributes “Still Life,” a ballad I wouldn’t have given a second look but for he wrote it. The track begins shaky, and is not McAnally even close to his best lyrically, but hits its stride in the second verse when the story, about a man stuck without his woman, takes a memorable turn:

The chances were given to get on with livin’

The truth is that he never tried

And no one ever sees him most folks don’t even

Remember which one of ’em died

But he still denies it, he closes his eyes and

 

It’s still life without you and I still hold on

What it feels like you can’t go by that

It’s still life, still life without you

Oh, still life, still life without you

Between Now and Forever is above average as far as squarely mainstream releases go. The set is very solid and the singles were worthy of release. White would have success as a writer when Diamond Rio took his co-penned “Imagine That” into the Top 5 in 1997. He would score just two more notable hits, both coming the following year. He would hit #4 with his own “Love Is The Right Place” and #6 as Shania Twain’s duet partner on “From This Moment On,” which later abandoned his contributions in favor of a solo pop-focused rendition of the now-classic love song. He would fade away at dawn of the new millennium.

Between Now and Forever captures an artist at their artistic peak, a time when everything worked for hits and platinum level sales. White was never truly a hot comity in country music although those from this era will remember his music, especially “Sittin’ On Go.”

Grade: A

Album Review: Little Big Town – ‘The Breaker’

the-breakerI sit here in amazement that five years have come and gone since Little Big Town scrapped Wayne Kirkpatrick for Jay Joyce and ensured they wouldn’t face the commercial disappointment that greeted 2010’s The Reasons Why ever again. They’ve since proven themselves to be a shameless mainstream act out for success at the expense of creative credibility.

You cannot deny they’ve achieved their greatest success in these years, winning every Vocal Group of the Year award for which they’ve been nominated. “Girl Crush” was another triumph, but disastrously overblown. I do like the song, but I’m more than glad to see its reign has come to an end at long last.

I last reviewed Pain Killer, which was easily among the worst mainstream country albums this decade. Their pop detour last spring, Wanderlust, was even worse. But I’ve been a fan of theirs for eleven years since I first heard “Boondocks” in 2005. I don’t know what keeps me coming back, especially in this era of their career, but here I am again.

Little Big Town has reunited with Joyce for The Breaker, their bid to regain their country momentum, which has proven successful thus far. Lead single “Better Man” is their fastest rising, zipping up the airplay chart at a breakneck speed unusual for them. It doesn’t hurt that the ballad, penned by Taylor Swift, is the best they’ve ever recorded. “Better Man” doesn’t break any new ground for Swift, she’s actually retreading much of what she’s already written, but I’m thrilled to see her finally return to form, if even for a one off. “Better Man” has the substance missing from her pop catalog.

The Breaker finds Little Big Town in the post-”Girl Crush” era, one in which they double down on Lori McKenna, in hopes of lightening striking twice. The album features no less than five of her writing credits. In anticipation of the album, they previewed “Happy People,” which she wrote with Hailey Waters. The track, mid-tempo pop, generalizes the characteristics of happy people, with a laundry list of signifiers:

Happy people don’t cheat

Happy people don’t lie

They don’t judge or hold a grudge, don’t criticize

Happy people don’t hate

Happy people don’t steal

Cause all the hurt sure ain’t worth all the guilt they feel

 

Happy people don’t fail

Happy people just learn

Don’t think that we’re above the push and shove

We just wait their turn

They always got a hand

Or a dollar to spare

Know the golden rule what you’re goin’ through

Even if it never been there

“We Went to the Beach” was the album’s second preview, is a refreshing change of pace with Philip Sweet on lead vocals. The track may seem like it has much in common with “Pontoon,” “Day Drinking” and “Pain Killer,” but it’s nowhere near as vapid. The ballad has a wonderfully engaging melody that perfectly frames Sweet’s buttery voice.

The third and final preview, “When Someone Stops Loving You,” is another of McKenna’s co-written offerings. The tastefully produced ethereal ballad is a showcase for Jimi Westbrook, who elevates the 1970s soft rock undertones with his smooth yet pleasing vocal turn.

McKenna is one of four writers on “Free,” a sonically adventurous ballad celebrating the not-so-novel idea that the best aspects of life don’t cost anything. “Lost In California,” is the only contribution solely by the Love Junkies, who co-wrote “Girl Crush.” The song, which should definitely be a single, is an excellent sultry ballad and one of the album’s strongest tracks outside of “Better Man.”

Karen and Kimberly join the Love Junkies on “Don’t Die Young, Don’t Get Old,” is a pleasant ballad with interesting finger snaps and their gorgeous harmonies. They continue to slow the pace on “Beat Up Bible,” an acoustic guitar-led ballad showcasing Schlapman singing lead. The track is very good albeit a bit bland. The title track, another one with Sweet singing lead, has a nice lyric but could’ve used a bit more life in the production.

The main difference between The Breaker and previous Little Big Town albums is the suppression of uptempo material, which is surprising given the current climate of mainstream country. The album isn’t devoid of such songs and numbers like “Night On Our Side,” aren’t not only terrible, they’re out of place. “Driving Around” isn’t much better and harkens back to a Little Big Town this album works so hard to leave behind. “Rollin,’” in which Westbrook sings lead, doesn’t even sound like them.

The Breaker is the beginning of a new chapter for Little Big Town, one that finds the band slowing the pace to highlight the substance they’ve brought back to their music. The Breaker is far from a perfect album, but it is a step in the right direction, even if that step has more in common with 1970s soft rock than country music.

Grade: B

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: Joy Lynn White – ‘Wild Love’

51rfk9fctwlReleased in August 1994, Joy Lynn White’s second album for Columbia basically tanked, not charting at all. Moreover, only one of the two singles released charted at all with the title track reaching #73. To this very day, I remain mystified as to why this album was not her breakthrough to commercial success.

The album opens with “Tonight The Heartache’s On Me”, a song the Dixie Chicks would take to #6 Country/ #46 Pop in 1999.  Composed by Mary Francis, Johnny MacRae and Bob Morrison, I think Joy Lynn gives the song its definitive reading.

Next up is “Bad Loser”, a Bill Lloyd – Pam Tillis tough girl composition that I don’t think Pam ever recorded. Joy Lynn definitely nails the performance. The sing was released as the second single and failed to chart. Although I like the song, I don’t think I would have picked it as a single.

You’re bringing out a side of me I never knew was there
I took pride in cut’n dried goodbyes I never wasted a tear
Living in an easy come easy go world
Look what you’ve done to this girl

I’m a bad loser when love’s worth fightin’ for
I’m a bad loser don’t wanna ever see you walkin’ out my door
This love of ours took me by surprise it wasn’t part of my plans
Hey ain’t it easy sittin’ on the fence and ain’t it hard to make a stand
You took me farther than i’ve ever been
And baby now i’m playing to win

“Too Gone to Care”, written by John Scott Sherrill, is a tender ballad that demonstrates that Joy Lynn can handle more subtle, less rambunctious lyrics as well as she can handle the tougher songs

You see that big old yellow cab is always just a call away
And you can catch a Greyhound just about anytime of day
And all along the harbor ships are slipping out of town
Way out on the runway that’s where the rubber leaves the ground
She keeps thinking that it’s too hard to fake it
When it isn’t there

He’s gonna tell her he’ll be too late to make it
But she’ll be too gone to care
They got trains down at the station you know they run all night
They got tail lights on the highway that just keep fading out of sight   

 

The next song asks the eternal question “Why Can’t I Stop Loving You”. This is another John Scott Sherrill song ballad, but this song has very traditional country instrumentation (the prior song was a little MOR), but in any event, Ms White again nails the song:

I’ve put away all the pictures
All the old love letters too
There’s nothin’ left here to remind me
Why can’t I stop loving you?
Got back into circulation
Till I found somebody new
But there was always something missing
Why can’t I stop lovin’ you

“Whiskey, Lies and Tears” is the only song on this album that Joy Lynn had a hand in writing. The song is an up-tempo honky-tonker of the kind that Highway 101 sometimes did, and which has disappeared from country radio these days. Joy Lynn strikes me as a better vocalist than either Paulette Carlson or Nikki Nelson.  I wonder if Highway 101 ever considered Joy Lynn for the role. This song would have been my pick for the second single off the album.

The last time I said next time is the last time
And the last time came stumbling in last night
So now it’s time to say goodbye forever
To the whiskey your lies and my tears
Well I’ve almost gone insane…
All the whiskey your lies and my tears

“Wild Love” has bit of a heavy backbeat – I would describe it as more rock than country but it is well sung and melodically solid.   Then again, Dennis Linde always produced solid songs.

Pat McLaughlin wrote “Burning Memories”. This song is not to be mistaken with the Ray Price classic of bygone years, but it is sung well. I would describe the song as a sad country ballad.

“On And On And On” was written by “Whispering Bill” Anderson, one of country music’s great songsmiths. Joy Lynn gives a convincing and timeless interpretation to the song:

And this loneliness goes on and on and on
All the things come to an end
Yes that means we’ll never love again
The end of our love the end of my dreams
The end of almost everything it seems
Except these heartaches these teardrops
And this loneliness goes on and on and on

I’ve heard Bill Anderson sing the song, and Connie Smith recorded the song on her 1967 album Connie Smith Sings Bill Anderson. Connie’s version has the full ‘Nashville Sound’ trappings applied to it. Although Smith is the better vocalist, most modern listeners would probably prefer Joy Lynn White’s version.

The penultimate song is Jim Rushing’s “You Were Right From Your Side”. The song has interesting lyrics and Joy Lynn does a good job with it:

Starin’ out an airport window on a morning hard as stone
Watchin’ a big Delta Bird taxi through the dawn
A lonely chill sweeps over me as that smokin’ liner climbs
You were right from your side I was left from mine
Now you’re gone you’re flying high above the clouds
And I must walk my tears through this faceless crowd
And in the goodbye atmosphere I can hear a thousand times
You were right from your side I was left from mine

The album closes with “I Am Just a Rebel” written by the redoubtable trio of Bob DiPiero, Dennis Robbins and John Scott Sherrill. The trio wrote the song while they were in the band Billy Hill in the late 1980s. Confederate Railroad recorded the song later, but I prefer Joy Lynn’s version to any of the other versions

Being a hillbilly don’t get me down
I like it like that in fact you know it makes me proud
Yeah I’m American made by my ma and pa
Southern born by the grace of God
And I’m bound to be a rebel till they put me in the ground
I am just a rebel can’t you see
Don’t go looking for trouble it just finds me
When I’m a walking down the street people stop and stare
I know they’re talking about me they say there goes that rebel there

Wild Love  enabled Joy Lynn White to show all sides of her personality from tender to tough , from rocker to honky-tonker. With a crack band featuring Paul Worley and Richard Bennett (guitars); Dennis Linde (acoustic & electric guitar, clavinet); Dan Dugmore (electric & steel guitar); Tommy Spurlock (steel guitar); Dennis Robbins (slide guitar); Mike Henderson (guitar); Hank Singer, Blaine Sprouse (fiddles); and  featuring  Harry Stinson, Pat McLaughlin, Cindy Richardson, Hal Ketchum, Nanci Griffith, Suzi Ragsdale (background vocals), Wild Love should have propelled Joy Lynn White to the top.

It didn’t propel her career, but I still love the album and would grade it as a solid A, very close to an A+

Album Review: Joy White – ‘Between Midnight And Hindsight’

between-midnight-and-hindsightBilled simply as Joy White (she incorporated Lynn later), the redhead from Arkansas and Indiana had a sound as striking as her appearance. Signing to Columbia Records in 1992, no doubt the label had great hopes for her debut album, filled as it was with great songs and Joy’s distinctive vocals, by turns fierce and vulnerable, in a way which presages the mainstream music of the Dixie Chicks with Natalie Maines half a decade later. It is unsurprising that they even covered songs Joy did first. Paul Worley and Blake Chancey produced the set, and would go on to work with the Chicks.

Unfortunately country radio was not quite ready for Joy’s intensity, and none of the album’s three singles reached the top 40. First up was ‘Little Tears’, an up-tempo tune about defying the pain of heartbreak written by Michael Henderson and Mark Irwin.

‘True Confessions’, the closest Joy came to a hit single, peaked at #45. Written by Marty Stuart with hitmaker Kostas, it is a very good song given a compelling performance. Stuart has been quoted saying Joy’s voice “could make time stand still”, and she commits to a passionate tale of falling in love despite the man initially not being in it for the long run:

He only wanted my shoulder to cry on
He only wanted my love for a while
I was lookin’ for someone to rely on
I traced his heart from his smile

The stars were fallin’ in every direction
The moon was rockin’ back and forth in the sky
Modern day lovers with true confessions
Written in their eyes

The last single from this album, ‘Cold Day In July’, which was also recorded around this time by Suzy Bogguss, and was later a hit for the Dixie Chicks, was written by Richard Leigh, known for his songs for last month’s Spotlight Artist Crystal Gayle. A graceful subdued ballad about the shock of a breakup, Joy’s version shows her vulnerable side.

Another song which may be familiar is ‘Wherever You Are’, which Highway 101 had included on their Paul Worley produced Bing Bang Boom – an album on which in turn they had recorded a Joy White penned tune, ‘Big City Bound’.

Joy continues the assertive dealing-with-heartbreak up-tempo theme with songs like ‘Wishful Thinking’, written by the team of Michael Henderson and Wally Wilson. The same pair contributed the more positive ‘Let’s Talk About Love Again’, a catchy number which might have been a good choice for a radio single. ‘Hey Hey Mama’ has a rockabilly feel.

Slow and intense, ‘Those Shoes’ (written by Kevin Welch and Harry Stinson) is an excellent song addressed to the woman her ex left her for, and who has now shared the same fate:

I’ll bet you don’t know what went wrong
Why has your darling gone with her
You’re half wild
You wanna track him down
You think you can bring him round again
There’s nothing that you’d love more
Than to tear her in two
I know how close I came
Coming after you
Yes, I’ve walked in those shoes

I know where you’re headed
There’s still time to turn around
Don’t follow in my footsteps
Cause it’s a long way down
I’ve come back here tonight
To give you the news
You might think you’ve lost it all
But there’s a lot more you can lose

My favorite song, and the one whose lyrics provide the album title, is the beautifully constructed story song ‘Why Do I Feel So Good’, written by the great Bobby Braddock. It relates the tale of a young girl persuaded to marry the boring rich guy rather than her working class true love, and regretting every second:

Mom and Dad didn’t like her boyfriend
Cause working in a factory
Just wasn’t satisfactory
They said he’s too rough and a little too wild
They knew all the reasons she should leave him
She just smiled

“If he’s so bad
Why do I feel so good?
Why am I walking on air
Dropping his name everywhere?
Tell me Mom and Dad
If he’s so bad
Why do I feel so good?”

Now she lives in a 40 room mansion
With a man so boring
That Mom and Dad adore him
She lost in the big bed where she lies
And somewhere between midnight and hindsight she cries

“If he’s so good
Why do I feel so bad?
Why am I chilled to the bone
Wishing I’d never left home
And if I should feel so good
Why do I feel so bad?”

Then she runs home to Mama
And she cries to her Dad
“Why did you talk me out me out of
The only chance for happiness I ever had?

If he’s so bad
Why did I feel so good?
Why was I walking on air
And dropping his name everywhere
Tell me Mom and Dad
If he’s so bad
Why did I feel so good?”

Joy wrote a couple of the songs herself, both ballads. ‘Bittersweet End’, a co-write with Sam Hogin and Jim McBride, is a reflective song about the aftermath of a relationship where “the taste of forever still lingers”. Some lovely fiddle augments it beautifully. The delicate ‘It’s Amazing’ is a gentle love song given a string arrangement to close out the set.

I was always sorry this album did not help Joy to break through. It is well worth checking out.

Grade: A