My Kind of Country

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

Category Archives: Album Reviews

Album Review: Kenny Rogers – ‘Love Will Turn You Around”

Kenny Rogers’ thirteenth album, Love Will Turn You Around, was his second studio release since parting ways with longtime collaborator Larry Butler. The album, released in 1982, was a platinum-selling success.

The title track, one of my favorites in Rogers’ catalog, was issued as the lead single. The whimsical mid-paced ballad, the theme to his film Six Pack, peaked at #1 on both the Country and Adult Contemporary charts.

The second and final single, “A Love Song” was written and originally recorded by Lee Greenwood on his Inside Out album the same year. The lush ballad, which peaked at #3, is a bit too slow and delicate for my tastes.

Bobby Harden’s “Fightin’ Fire with Fire” is the story of a man being tormented by a woman named Diana and the new flame she’s literally rubbing in his face. “Maybe You Should Know,” composed by Peter McCann, is a forceful confessional from a man to his woman.

The funky R&B leaning “Somewhere Between Lovers and Friends” was co-written by Brent Mehar and Randy Goodrum, who were enjoying ample success during this period writing for everyone from The Judds and Anne Murray to Ronnie Milsap. With that degree of pedigree, it’s odd this wasn’t chosen as a single.

“Take This Heart,” by J.P. Pennington, moves Rogers’ further away from country with a lyric and melody that would’ve perfectly suited Crystal Gayle. The straight-up rock of “If You Can Lie A Little Bit” recalls his work with the First Edition. “The Fool In Me,” another Goodrum co-write (with Dave Loggins), is one of the album’s strongest tracks, complete with horns.

The best album cut on Love Will Turn You Around is closing track “I Want A Son,” co-written by Steve Dorff and Marty Panzer. The reflective ballad isn’t particularly country but that doesn’t diminish its quality in the least.

Love Will Turn You Around is a mixed bag at best, melding a slew of different styles both effective and ineffectively. The title track is the obvious classic and easily the most memorable cut from this set.

Grade: B

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Album Rewind: Kendell Marvel – Lowdown & Lonesome’

Successful songwriter Kendell Marvel’s debut album proves he is a strong singer as well with a booming baritone. The record is in a mainly Outlaw vein with honky tonk and Southern rock elements combining in a way which should appeal to fans of Chris Stapleton. Marvel co-wrote nine of the ten tracks, all with either the aforementioned Stapleton or with his producer Keith Gattis. The songs all focus on heartbreak and drinking.

The title track, written with Gattis and Randy Houser, sets the stage with its passionate and southern rock infused vocal and lyrical nods to Johnny Cash as the narrator treats a broken heart with booze and barroom life. I believe Houser is on backing vocals on the track. ‘Heartache Off My Back’ is another energetic tune about battling heartbreak, set to a train rhythm assisted by Mickey Raphael’s harmonica.

The tender ballad ‘Gypsy Woman’ (officially a single) paints a sympathetic portrait of a restless drifter, but appealing for her return home. In the misleadingly seductive sounding ‘Watch Your Heart’ the protagonist cautions a potential love interest against getting too emotionally involved with him.

There are three co-writes with Stapleton. The best of them is ‘Closer To Hell’ which Gattis also helped write. This is a traditional country drinking song about a man slowly destroying himself after his loved one moves on:

Well, my sweet little baby lit out of here like a bat out of you know where
So I’ve been drinkin’ every day and night til the dog aint got no hair…

Well, my Godfearin mama, bless her heart,
Sent the preacher out to talk to me
Sat on the couch, said “Let it all out,
Son, the truth is gonna set you free”
So I started confessin’
And he started sweating
Til he had to get up and leave
I guess the preacher agrees that

I’m just one more day closer to hell
No, it won’t be long til I’m walking with the Devil himself
I got one foot in the fire
And the other one’s on the way…

Well, they say the road is paved with good intentions
But I don’t intend on doin’ nothin’ good

‘Untangle My Mind’, which the pair wrote with Jaron Boyer, is a mid-paced tune about hard living which is quite enjoyable, loaded with honky tonk piano. ‘Tryin’ Not To Love You’, which they wrote with Casey Beathard, lacks melody, and leans a little more in the southern rock direction. However, this is the only track I didn’t much enjoy.

My favorites on this album are two sad ballads written with Gattis. ‘Hurtin’ Gets Hard’ (also written with Audley Freed) is about missing an ex whenever he is home alone and can’t distract himself any more:

You’d think that I couldn’t care
Til I walk in the front door and you’re still not there
And that’s when it stops being easy
And that’s when it all falls apart
When I’m here and you’re out wherever you are
And that’s when the hurtin’ gets hard

The steel-led ‘That Seat’s Saved’ is about a man in a bar hoping against hope that his love interest will come back.

The album closes on a high with the sole cover, Charlie Daniels’ ‘Drinkin’ My Baby Goodbye’, on which Kendell is joined by Jamey Johnson.

This is a really good album which has a lot to offer.

Grade: A

Album Review: Kenny Rogers and Dottie West – ‘Classics’

Male-female duets still exist today, although usually in the form of acts that always (or nearly always) perform as duets. Acts that normally perform as solo acts may combine for a song or two (“Special Events”), but rarely do they issue albums of duets

The album Classics, released in 1979, was the second (and final) album of duets released by the unlikely pairing of Kenny Rogers and Dottie West. Kenny, of course was a country & pop superstar but Dottie West was a veteran second-tier country artist, whose 1978 album with Kenny (Every Time Two Fools Collide) would trigger a brief renaissance on the United Artists/Liberty label.

I am not sure why this particular pairing came about, although I have some suspicions. United Artists was not a major player in country music and did not have a deep roster of female artists. Billie Jo Spears, arguably the leading female country singer on the label, did not have a voice that would blend well with Kenny’s voice.

The recently signed Dottie West, on the other hand, had a track record of being able to blend and harmonize with male singers. Her track record at RCA had included successful recordings with such diverse singers as Jim Reeves, Don Gibson and Jimmy Dean. Dottie’s first album and the second album, released on the heels of the first duet album, did not produce any top fifteen hits but the first duet album did produce a #1 and a #2 single.

That brings us to this album, a collection of some county songs, some borderline pop-country-easy listening songs and some pop songs. Produced by Larry Butler, the album was not quite as successful as its predecessor duet album, but still sold over two million copies.

The album opens up with “All I Ever Need Is You”, a top ten pop hit and #1 Adult Contemporary hit for Sonny & Cher and a top twenty county hit for Ray Sanders, both versions in 1971. This version would rise to #1 on the country chart. While not as country as the Sanders version (still my favorite), it is not as pop as the Sonny & Cher versions. Both steel guitar (by Pete Drake) and string arrangements are featured in the arrangement. The song works well as a duet.

Sometimes when I’m down and all alone
Just like a child without a home
The love you give me keeps me hangin’ on
Oh honey, all I ever need is you

You’re my first love, you’re my last
You’re my future, you’re my past
And loving you is all I ask, honey
All I ever need is you

The Wynette, Richey, Sherrill composition “ ‘Til I Can Make It On My Own” is up next. The song was a #1 country hit for Tammy Wynette in 1976. The song works as a duet but is in a key where Kenny seems to be struggling to hit some of the notes.

“Just The Way You Are” was a #3 Billboard / #2 Cashbox top ten pop hit for writer Billy Joel in 1977. The arrangement of this song reeks of cocktail lounge balladry. I’d rather hear Billy Joel perform this song and I am no fan of his music.

Randy Goodrum penned “You Needed Me”. Goodrum would co-produce Dottie’s 1979 album Special Delivery and write six of the songs on that album. I think that this song, as recorded by Anne Murray (#1 pop / #4 country), , was his biggest hit as a songwriter. The arrangement on this one is definitely easy listening.

“(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song” was made famous by B.J. Thomas, winning the 1976 Grammy Award for Best Country Song. The song’s writers, Larry Butler and Chips Moman definitely cleared the bases with this song as it went to #1 on the country, pop and A/C charts in the US, nearly duplicating that success in Canada. Kenny & Dottie do a nice job with the song although the arrangement can be best described as ‘countrypolitan’. Steve Glassmeyer is featured on soprano sax.

It’s lonely out tonight
And the feelin’ just got right for a brand new love song
Somebody done somebody wrong song

Hey, wontcha play another somebody done somebody wrong song
And make me feel at home while I miss my baby, while I miss my baby
So please play for me a sad melody
So sad that it makes everybody cry-why-why-why
A real hurtin’ song about a love that’s gone wrong
Cause I don’t want to cry all alone

There is no questioning the country credentials of the next song, “Together Again” written by the great Buck Owens. Although initially released as the B side of Buck’s 1964 single “My Heart Skips A Beat”, most disc jockeys played both sides of the record resulting in both songs reaching #1, although in different weeks.

Unfortunately, the song is given an easy listening arrangement with strings and keyboards and not a trace of a steel guitar in the arrangement. There is a key shift whenever Kenny takes over from Dottie in singing a verse. I liked Dottie’s vocal on the song, Kenny’s not so much. The net effect is really disappointing.

Paul Craft was a successful songwriter who penned “Midnight Flyer”. The song is probably best remembered for Eagles recording of the song, although the song entered the realm of bluegrass music
through the Osborne Brothers terrific single recording of the song in 1973. Producer Butler gives the song the (fairly) acoustic arrangement the song demands. Kenny & Dottie acquit themselves well on this song.

Oo, Midnight Flyer
Engineer, won’t you let your whistle moan?
Oo, Midnight Flyer
I paid my dues and I feel like trav’lin’ on

A runaway team of horses ain’t enough to make me stay
So throw your rope on another man
And pull him down your way
Make him into someone who can take the place of me
Make him every kind of fool you wanted me to be

Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil were a highly successful songwriting team and Phil Spector was a successful producer and occasional songwriter best known for his ‘wall of sound’ production style. “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” was certainly the biggest hit that the Righteous Brothers would ever have, and possibly the most successful song from the Mann-Weil songwriting team. After hearing the Righteous Brother’s version it is difficult to accept any of the cover versions, of which there have been many. Kenny & Dottie do a decent job with the song, which is given a somewhat subdued ‘wall of sound’ production, but it pales in comparison to the original.

“Let It Be Me” is a popular song originally published in French in 1955 as “Je t’appartiens”. Written by Gilbert Becaud & Pierre Delanoe, the song became a worldwide hit when Manny Curtis appended English lyrics to the song. The Everly Brothers (#7 pop – 1960) and a duet by Betty Everett and Jerry Butler (#5 pop – 1964) cemented the song’s popularity in the English speaking world. In 1969 Glen Campbell and Bobbie Gentry had a pop and country hit with the song. Kenny and Dottie sing the song quite well – I think Kenny’s best vocals on this album are to be found on this song. The song is not country, the arrangement is very orchestral, but the net effect is very nice.

Like most of Kenny’s albums, this is essentially a pop album with a nod toward country music. There would be no more duet albums by this pair and after a brief resurgence in 1979 through early 1981, Dottie’s solo career would fade away (not surprisingly as Dottie would turn 50 in 1982). The younger Rogers (b. 1938) would continue to have varying degrees through the end of the 1980s, followed by a long coda.

I like parts of this album, but there are tracks I tend to skip over – I give it a C+

Album Review: Kenny Rogers – ‘Kenny’

Kenny followed the crossover success of ‘The Gambler’ with another self-titled album, filled with songs intended to attract the non-country audience. Indeed, listening to most of the record I was hard pressed to hear any country elements at all.

The lead single, ‘You Decorated My Life’, is a pleasant but definitely AC ballad ornamented with a heavy string arrangement. It was another big hit for Kenny, hitting #1 country, #2 Adult and #7 pop. The album’s sole nod to reasonably straight country was a return to the story songs which had been so successful for him before, in the shape of ‘Coward Of The County’. Set to the same rhythm as ‘Lucille’, the somewhat melodramatic story is of a boy who eschews violence after his criminal father dies, until his girlfriend is assaulted. It proved to be an enormous international hit, Kenny’s only #1 other than ‘Lucille’ in the UK (where for some reason ‘The Gambler’ did not chart). It’s not as good, or believable, as ‘Lucille’, but is definitely memorable and the best song on this album.

A couple of other songs are in a country-pop vein. ‘Goodbye Marie’ is a well-written song (by Mel McDaniel and Dennis Linde’ about a man planning on leaving, but with a somewhat cluttered production. It definitely had single potential, and in fact was subsequently a minor hit for Bobby Goldsboro, and Kenny’s version was eventually released as a spoiler single in 1986, after he had moved to a rival label. ‘One Man’s Woman’, written by Kenny’s keyboard player Steve Glassmeyer, is a pretty good cheating song, and is well sung by Kenny, although the strings dominate the arrangement too much for my taste.

The standard ‘Old Folks’ is not country at all, but quite nicely done with a sensitive vocal interpretation, although the keyboard sound is now very dated and there are more strings.
‘I Want To Make You Smile’ is a tender ballad written by Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers. I like this despite the overbearing strings, apart from a hideous falsetto note or two near the end.

‘Tulsa Turnaround’, which Kenny had previously recorded with The First Edition, is more of a dirty blues rocker which is well done but a bit loud and busy for me. ‘You Turn The Light On’ is very pop with a hard beat, and ‘She’s A Mystery’ is syncopated pop; while ‘Santiago Midnight Moonlight’ and the even more dreadful ‘In And Out Of Your Heart’ are outright disco.

This is not an album I can recommend to country fans.

Grade: D

Album Review: Kenny Rogers – ‘The Gambler’

The Gambler was Kenny Rogers’ third album of 1978, after Love or Something Like It and Every Time Two Fools Collide, a duet album with Dottie West. Thanks to its career-defining title track, The Gambler was also Kenny’s best-selling studio album, with more than five million copies sold in the US.

Written by Don Schlitz, “The Gambler” was a story song, the type at which Rogers excelled. It tells the tale the down-on-his-luck narrator who receives some unsolicited advice from a professional gambler during a late-night chance meeting on a “train bound for nowhere”. It was a monster hit, reaching #1 on the country chart, #3 on the adult contemporary chart and #16 on the Hot 100, and is Rogers’ best-remembered song today. Surprisingly, he wasn’t the first to record it. Bobby Bare and Johnny Cash had both released it as an album cut and Schlitz recorded his own version, which maxed out at #65. The album’s other hit single was the ballad “She Believes in Me”, a lush ballad about a struggling musician and the supportive wife he repeatedly takes for granted. It’s a bit too AC-leaning for a lot of people, but it’s a song I’ve always liked a lot. It reached #1 on the country and AC charts, and reached #5 on the Hot 100.

“I Wish That I Could Hurt That Way Again” is another nice ballad, written by Rafe Van Hoy, Don Cook and Curly Putman, that would go on to be a big hit for T. Graham Brown in 1986. I think Kenny’s version could have been a big hit, but perhaps United Artists didn’t want to release another ballad on the heels of “She Believes In Me”. Sonny Throckmorton’s “A Little More Like Me (The Crucifixion)”, about a charismatic celebrity — a thinly veiled metaphor for Christ — is another track I really enjoyed.

In the 1970s, country artists with crossover potential rarely released albums that were country through and through, preferring instead to include a variety of styles in order to appeal to as wide an audience as possible (although more often than not they managed to please no one). Kenny Rogers was no exception. I expected The Gambler to be a more country-leaning album, but a number of tracks: “Makin’ Music for Money”, “The Hoodooin’ of Miss Fannie DeBerry” (both written by Alex Harvey) and “Tennessee Bottle” incorporate a bluesy, funky vibe that might have been considered cutting edge in the late 70s, but it hasn’t aged at all well. I didn’t like any of these songs. Add to that list Rogers’ original composition “Morgana Jones”, a hot mess of a song that features some jazz scatting along with the R&B and funk.

Overall, The Gambler is a mixed bag. Only the two hit singles are essential listening. The album can be streamed, and it may be worth picking up a cheap copy if you can find it, but I recommend cherry-picking the handful of decent songs and forgetting about the rest.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Jason Allen – ‘Here’s To You’

Texan country singer-songwriter Jason Allen offers some reliably traditional country on his latest album. He has a pleasant, warm voice which works well on these songs, all self-written or co-written. as a writer he also has a gift for melody.

The title track is officially a single, and is quite a nice love song but not the most memorable choice on the album. The likeably melodic mid paced ‘Nightmare And A Dream’ is about struggling the memory of a lost love. ‘End Of the Line’ is also pretty good, with another relationship having run its course.

‘Smooth Talkin’ Lady’ is a mellow tune about falling in love; I could imagine George Strait covering this to good effect. ‘Cowboy’s Dream’ is a short (under two minutes) but sweet slice of western swing.

I really liked the gently melancholy ‘Hope It Rains Today’, where the protagonist asks God to stop his loved one from leaving by sending done some bad weather or even an earthquake. The valedictory ‘I’ll Always Be Yours’ offers a way back for the ex.

‘I Dare You To Love’ is a pretty ballad encouraging kindness and goodwill, saying “you already had a loving heart, now use it”. This is a lovely song with a genuinely inspirational message which seems especially toical right now.

You already had a loving heart, now use it

God gave you a great big heart
Don’t waste it
Try to spread it all around
Let’s face it
When it comes to hate in this world
It’s sad but we’ve got enough
I dare you to change it
I dare you to love

Let’s try to change it
I dare you to love

The uptempo novelty ‘Holy Moly Guacamole’ has energy but it’s a bit silly. ‘Villa’s Horse’ is an entertaining western story song about an outlaw who makes off with the early 20th century Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa’s possessions and steals his girlfriend too.

This is a strong album which I liked a good deal.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Kenny Rogers – ‘Love or Something Like It’

Kenny Rogers’ fourth album, Love or Something Like It, was released in July 1978. The record marked his fifth time working with Larry Butler, who would serve as his producer until 1980. This was his fourth consecutive number one album.

The album produced just one single, the title track, which Rogers co-wrote with his bandmate, Steve Glassmeyer. It’s a mid-tempo number with pleasing percussion and a nice groove. The song spent just ten weeks on the chart before cresting. Deryl Dodd subsequently covered it on Stronger Proof in 2005.

Three more of the album’s tracks were rich with alternative versions by other artists. B.J. Thomas, Sammy Davis Jr. and Tom Jones have also recorded the contemplative ballad “We Could’ve Been The Closest of Friends.” “Sail Away,” which features light touches of R&B, was originally released by Sam Neely in 1977 and again by The Oak Ridge Boys, who took it to #2, in 1979. Far too many artists have sung “Even a Fool Would Go” through the years to list them here, but the string and piano-laced ballad is probably most familiar to country fans courtesy of Charlie Rich, who released it as a single under the direction of Billy Sherill in 1977.

Another notable track, “Momma’s Waiting,” was originally recorded by Rogers with the First Edition in 1970. The intriguing ballad, which Rogers co-wrote with Terry Williams, casts him as a prison inmate saying goodbye to his mother as he’s led off to his execution. The song is both haunting and effective. “Momma’s Waiting” serves as the B-Side to “The Gambler.”

One theory as to why United Artists let Love or Something Like It die after one single is “I Could Be So Good for You,” co-written by Dennis Linde. The track was Rogers’ feeble attempt to cash in on the disco craze, with diminishing returns.

“There’s A Lot of That Going Around” is a solid ballad, with pleasing percussion. The arrangement on “Starting Again” is far more tasteful and country-leaning. The trend continues with “Buried Treasure,” which actually feels like it fits within similar uptempo country songs from the era.

“Something About Your Song” is progressive but inoffensive. The funky “Highway Flier” is a lot to handle and ranks among the weaker tracks, despite committed performances from the session musicians.

Love or Something Like It is a mixed bag with little material worth seeking out. “Momma’s Waiting” is the standout track and while others are good to very good, nothing here is remarkable or rises above the characterization of filler. It doesn’t help matters that the album, forty years in, hasn’t aged well.

Rogers is better than this, which he more than proved with the output he released (including the duets albums with Dottie West) around the time of crafting this album. I’d skip this one, except for “Momma’s Waiting,” and seek out the stronger material from his other late 1970s recordings.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Kenny Rogers – ‘Daytime Friends’

Released in July 1977, Daytime Friends was Kenny’s third album as a solo act, and his second album to go platinum. For the most part, this starts out as a solid country album with such stalwarts as Billy Sanford, Dave Kirby, Jerry Shook, Jimmy Capps, Jim Colvard, Johnny Christopher, Larry Keith and Reggie Young on guitar; Pete Drake on pedal steel guitar; Bob Moore, Joe Osborn and Tommy Allsup on bass; and Pig Robbins on piano to help keep things country for the first half of the album. The album would reach #2 on Billboard’s Country Album chart and crack the top forty on the all genres album chart. I suspect that Kenny’s actual position on the all genres chart would have been much better had Sound Scan been around.

I remember Kenny from his days with the First Edition (they even had a television show) and while Kenny’s first few country singles had a strong country feel, I always felt that he would drift into being a lounge, pop or pop-country balladeer. Unfortunately, I was correct and his output became less country as he went along. After 1979’s “You Decorated My Life”, it would be a long time before I really cared about any of Kenny’s recordings.

The opening track was the title track, written by Ben “Kiss An Angel Good Morning” Peters, and the first single released on the album, giving Kenny his second #1 country single. This song is a modern take on an ancient theme:

And he’ll tell her he’s working late again
But she knows too well there’s something going on
She’s been neglected, and she needs a friend
So her trembling fingers dial the telephone

Lord, it hurts her doing this again
He’s the best friend that her husband ever knew
When she’s lonely, he’s more than just a friend
He’s the one she longs to give her body to

Daytime friends and nighttime lovers
Hoping no one else discovers
Where they go, what they do, in their secret hideaway
Daytime friends and nighttime lovers
They don’t want to hurt the others
So they love in the nighttime
And shake hands in the light of day

Next up was a rather lame take on the Glenn Frey-Don Henley composition. I’ve heard many better versions, including Johnny Rodriguez’s #5 country single from earlier in 1977. I’ve always thought of this as a song about desolation and was disappointed that Kenny’s producers gave this a cocktail lounge arrangement. Kenny sings the song well, and with a little more muscular arrangement I would have really liked this song

Desperado, why don’t you come to your senses,
Come down from your fences- open the gates.
It may be rainin, but there’s a rainbow above you.
You’d better let somebody love you,
LET SOMEBODY LOVE YOU.
You’d better let somebody love you,
before it’s too late.

Kenny O’Dell is probably best remembered as the composer of the Charlie Rich smash “Behind Closed Doors”, but “Rock and Roll Man” is a respectable effort as well. A mid-tempo ballad with some pop trappings, Kenny handles the vocals well.

“Lying Again” was written by respected Nashville producer/songwriters Chips Moman and Larry Butler. Kenny does a nice job with this song about cheating, misgivings and regrets.

“I’ll Just Write My Music and Sing My Songs” fits within the context of the album, but is nothing more than a passable album track.

“My World Begins and Ends With You” would be a #4 hit in 1979 for Dave & Sugar [Dave Rowland, Sue Powell, Vickie Baker]. Kenny handles this love song well but I actually prefer the Dave & Sugar version.

My world was no more than a dream
And waitin’ on a dream can sure get lonely
Your love just fell right into place
And filled and empty space to overflowing, overflowing

My world begins with havin’ a friend when I’m feeling blue
My world would end if ever I heard you say we were through
Just don’t know what I’d do
‘Cause my world begins and ends with you

Kenny wrote “Sweet Music Man”, the second single released from the album. Rather surprisingly, the single stalled out at #9 on the US country charts, while reaching #1 on the Canadian country and adult contemporary charts:

But nobody sings a love song quite like you do
and nobody else could make me sing along
and nobody else could make me feel
that things are right when I know they’re wrong
( that things are right when you’re wrong with the song )
nobody sings a love song quite like you.

Larry Keith’s “Am I Too Late” points the pop/schlock direction Kenny’s music would take. The song is drenched in strings and has a very cocktail lounge feel to it. In fact the last four songs all lean a pop direction (“We Don’t Make Love Anymore”, “Ghost of Another Man” and “Let Me Sing For You”), although “Let Me Sing For You”, written by Casey Kelly and Julie Dodier has an interesting lyric and rather gentle folk-pop arrangement:

One bright, sunny day I set on my way to look for a place on this Earth.
My life was a song just 3 minutes long. And, that’s about all it was worth.
I wandered around. Unlost and unfound, unnoticed and misunderstood.
Each thing that I tried just lessened my pride. Guess I didn’t do very good.
Then I saw you lookin’ just like I felt. So, I walked up to you and I said.

Let me sing for you.
It’s not much to ask after all I’ve been through.
Let me sing for you.
At least there’s still one thing I know that I know how to do.

I found you alone, no love of your own. I gave you a shiny new toy.
I made you feel good as best as I could. And, I was your rainy-day boy.
I held you so near. But, you held this fear. And, felt like you’d been there before.
The spell that was cast was too good to last. Soon the toy wasn’t new any more.
So, I asked for some time. And, you gave me a watch.
If it’s that late already again….

Let me sing for you.
It’s not much to ask after all we’ve been through.
Let me sing for you.
At least there’s still one thing I know that I know how to do.

It is tough for me to evaluate this album. I liked, in varying degrees, the first seven songs, but by the time I got to “Am I Too Late” I was getting bored with the album. The tempos tend to be rather similar throughout, and the last songs on the album tend to be more pop, less country and, other than the last song, less interesting. I would give this album a B, but it is a very uneven B as far as I am concerned.

Album Review: Kenny Rogers – ‘Kenny Rogers’

Kenny Rogers’ self-titled album of 1976, his second official country release, was his breakthrough in country music. Rogers’ voice, mixing the gruff and tender, is strong, and his penchant for story songs is effectively realised on this collection. Larry Butler’s production is sometimes a bit heavy on the strings, but on the whole Rogers’ voice is allowed to shine.

The first single, ‘Laura (What’s He Got That I Ain’t Got)’, a cover of a 1967 chart topper for Leon Ashley (who wrote the song with his wife, singer Margie Singleton), was a top 20 hit. Kenny’s vocals work well on this song, an appeal to a straying wife which mixes sex and financial support, ending with a threat to kill her. It also features what was to become a Rogers trademark, the spoken final phrase.

Kenny’s career in country music was sealed with the next single, ‘Lucille’, now a classic. The lyrically intense story song and simple, singalong melody (written by Roger Bowling and Hal Bynum) is surely familiar to all country fans and many from other genres. It crossed over to become an enormous international pop hit (it is probably still the best known country song by a male singer in the UK, where it reached #1 in 1977).

My favorite song after ‘Lucille’ is the very country ‘While I Play The Fiddle’, written by Ronnie Sessions and Ray Willis. It is about a country fiddle player whose marriage is falling apart, and the arrangement is appropriately fiddle-heavy.

Other story songs include an emotional cover of the Death Row themed classic ‘Green Green Grass Of Home’, and (probably less well known to a country audience at that time) ‘The Son Of Hickory Holler’s Tramp’, the tale of a loving mother who turns to prostitution to support her large family.

A cover of the Tammy Wynette hit ‘Till I Get It Right’ is also very good, understated vocally although the backing vocals and strings date it a bit. Kenny is also good on Don Williams’ tender ‘Lay Down Beside Me’. I was less convinced by ‘Mother Country Music’, where Vern Gosdin’s contemporary cut (a minor hit single) is much better. ‘Puttin’ In Overtime At Home’, written by Ben Peters, is a very nice song about calling in sick to work to stay home with one’s sweetheart. A rival take was a hit for Charlie Rich in 1978, but in this case I prefer Kenny’s version.

Of the lesser known material, the downbeat ‘I Wasn’t Man Enough’, written by Larry Butler and Roger Bowling, is a heavily orchestrated ballad which is well sung but not very country sounding. ‘Why Don’t We Go Somewhere And Love’, written by Kenny O’Dell and Larry Henley, suffers from a dated arrangement, but is a very good song about seeking an escape from everyday life.

‘Lucille’ was a career making hit for Kenny, although perhaps not a career defining one. That particular song is an essential download if you don’t already have it. The remainder of the album is pretty good too, and it’s worth checking it out.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Midland – ‘On The Rocks’

New country band Midland have received a certain amount of online criticism based on their perceived inauthenticity. I will say that the image as presented on the album cover comes across as trying too hard to be self-consciously retro, but no more so than Gram Parsons did in his day. That aside, is the music worthwhile? I wouldn’t call this a hardcore traditional record, but it has a lot of solid country input, and reminded me a little of the early work of the Mavericks.

All the songs were written by the band’s guitarist Jess Carson, mostly with other band members Cameron Duddy (bass guitar) and singer Mark Wystrach, and some outside input. Wystrach has a fine smooth tenor voice with a sophisticated crooning style which works best on ballads.

The lead single ‘Drinking’ Problem’, written by the band with their producers Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, was a considerable success for them, getting to #3 on the country airplay chart and sales being certified gold. It’s an excellent song in traditional vein about a man drinking to forget the woman who has broken his heart, with a memorable melody:

People say I got a drinkin’ problem
That ain’t no reason to stop
People sayin’ that I’ve hit rock bottom
Just ’cause I’m livin’ on the rocks
It’s a broken hearted thinkin’ problem
So pull the bottle off the wall
People say I got a drinkin’ problem
But I got no problem drinkin’ at all

They keep on talkin’
Drawin’ conclusions
They call it a problem
I call it a solution

There is even a steel guitar solo from Paul Franklin. It’s so good, in fact, I’m amazed it was so well received at country radio.

New single ‘Make A Little’, from the same writing team, raises the tempo and is decent but not that memorable, with a slightly annoying melodic twist on the hook. The best of the other songs written with McAnally and Osborne, ‘Nothin’ New Under The Neon’ is reminiscent of early George Strait, although Wystrach has an annoying habit of occasionally veering off into a falsetto which detracts from the song. ‘Burn Out’ is another good song about hanging out in a bar room because the protagonist’s love life hasn’t panned out, although this time he is smoking as well as drinking. ‘More Than A Fever’ is a pleasant sounding love song with the vocals failing to capture the passion evoked in the lyrics. ‘Electric Rodeo’ is not very interesting and slightly over produced.

Opener ‘Lonely For You Only’ is a another well sung crooned ballad, and a very good song, written by the band with Osborne and Rhett Akins. This partnership also produced the closing ‘Somewhere On The Wind’, a very nice valediction featuring Mickey Raphael’s harmonica. Akins and Rodney Clawson teamed up with the band to write ‘Altitude Adjustment’, quite a fun mid-tempo tune about heading off to Colorado. McAnally and Luke Laird helped to write the mid-tempo breakup song ‘Out Of Sight’ which is quite good with retro backing vocals.

Jonathan Singleton wrote two songs with the boys. ‘At Least you Cried’ is a bit boring and the brassy production flattens out Wystrach’s voice. ‘This Old Heart’ (also cowritten with David Lee Murphy) is okay but undistinguished. Finally, the band’s Jess Carson wrote one song on his own. ‘Check Cashin’ Country’ is a likeable mid-tempo number about life as a struggling country band.

Overall, this is a pretty good record. It’s not earth shattering, but it’s much better than most current major label releases. I would definitely recommend downloading ‘Drinking Problem’ and ‘Altitude Adjustment’ with a number of the other tracks worth checking out.

Grade: B

Album Review: Nathan Carter – ‘Livin’ the Dream’

Liverpool native Nathan Carter’s latest collection was released in June of this year, and as is typical of summer releases, it has its fair share of upbeat, fun songs. Though not strictly a country album — it is a mixture of country, pop and traditional Irish folk — disenfranchised American country fans will find a lot to like here, among them very nice covers of Lee Greenwood’s “Holdin’ a Good Hand” and David Ball’s “Riding with Private Malone”, about a young man who buys a 1966 Corvette that once belonged to a solider who was killed in battle.

My favorite track is Carter’s take on “Ned of the Hill”, a traditional Irish ballad about Edmund Ryan, a seventeenth-century earl whose estates were confiscated in retaliation for his support of the deposed James II’s attempt to reclaim the British throne — a quest that ended in defeat at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, an event which also marked Britain’s final conquest of Ireland:

Young Ned of the Hill has no castle or hall
No bowmen or spearmen to come at his call
But one little archer of exquisite skill
Has loosed a bright shaft for young Ned of the Hill
It is hard to escape to this young lady’s bower
For high is the castle and guarded the tower
But where there’s a will there’s always a way
And young Eileen is gone with young Ned of the Hill

On a more contemporary note, “Jealous of the Angels” is a nice contemporary ballad about a young man who is mourning the loss of his wife or girlfriend. A sentimental piano-led ballad with a gentle string section, it is the type of song that used to be a staple on country radio in the US.

The album ends with a live version of another contemporary ballad “Summer in Dublin”, which is not even remotely country, but is still quite enjoyable. The rest of the album consists mostly of fluffy-upbeat material, some of which I would not have liked at all in the hands of a less capable vocalist. One — “Me and You” — to my disappointment was not a remake of one of the very few Kenny Chesney songs that I truly liked; it’s a bit of uptempo ear candy that would be better without the overbearing background singers and their”nah-nah-nah’s”. I also expected “Rollin’ Home” to be ballad in the “prodigal has returned” vein, but it too is an uptempo number that has a Cajun feel thanks to the accordion that is thrown into the mix. It also has good bit of saxophone, an instrument I tend to dislike. I suspect that I might have enjoyed this one better with different production. On the other hand “Caribbean Feeling” was a lot better than I expected, having developed an aversion to beach music thanks to Kenny Chesney.

Livin’ the Dream may not be a masterpiece from start to finish but it has more than its share of great moments.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Nathan Carter: ‘Celtic Roots (Live)’

For whatever reason, I was unable to obtain a digital copy of the album Where I Wanna Be. Instead, Amazon continuously linked me to the above-referenced album, which contains the song “Where I Wanna Be”, so I went ahead and purchased the digital download.

I will say that this 2017 release is not exactly a country album, but it is a good value for money with 18 tracks of mostly Celtic music, well performed. I happen to be a huge fan of traditional Irish folk music with a large collection of the stuff. This album apparently is of a performance for public television.

Recorded in Ireland, this album presents an interesting mix of classic of Irish folk songs, Celtic ballads, some country-flavored ballads and some of his hits. Nathan is joined by his stage band, a string quartette, a choral group and also by a former member of the group Celtic Woman, Chloe Agnew.

The album opens up with “Loch Lomond”, a very familiar Scottish tune given the full Scottish treatment with bagpipes and some sort of orchestral backing and a modern rhythm track. Nathan slows the song down considerably at the start of the vocal but picks up the tempo on the second verse. Nathan presents a very interesting treatment of a song that I’ve heard countless times before, including in many Hollywood movies.

Next up is “Where I Wanna Be”, a country single from 2013, written by Carter, that is simultaneously both country and Irish.

This hotel is just like yesterday’s,

And the city has no name.

It just stands there in the Grey haze,

And my room is the same.
 

Well I’m gonna call that number,

So far across the sea.

I wish I was in Ireland,

That’s where I wanna be,

That’s where I wanna be.

This is followed by “Caledonia” an Irish folk song (not the 1940s jump hit by Louis Jordan and/or Woody Herman. This lovely ballad was released as a single in 2013.

“Banks of Roses” is a very Celtic ballad with bodhrán, fiddle, accordion, penny whistle – the sort of thing the Chieftains would play.

The medley of “Spanish Lady”, “As I Roved Out” and “The Real Auld Mountain Dew” is a reflection of the great Irish folk groups of the past two generations such as The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Maken, The Dubliners and The Dublin City Ramblers with perhaps a little more rhythm thrown in. This is a fabulous medley – even someone with two left feet such as I, feels the urge to get up and dance.

Next up is Chloe Agnew with the quiet ballad “Grace” basically accompanied by acoustic guitar and little else. This is probably the slowest song on the album.

An Irish tin whistle (or pennywhistle) opens up “Hard Times”, served up as a duet between Choe and Nathan. Most will probably be familiar with the song through Bob Dylan’s recording, but the song dates back to 19th century American writer Stephen Foster:

Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears,

While we all sup sorrow with the poor;

There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears;

Oh! Hard times come again no more.

Chorus:
 ‘Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,

Hard Times, hard times, come again no more.

Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;

Oh! Hard times come again no more

“Temple Bar” was a 2016 single for Nathan:

There’s a busker playin’ on the street
Watching all the people meet
The boys and girls are back in Dublin town
There’s young ones there from everywhere
From America to God knows where

It’s just another night in Temple Bar
So come on down, out on the town
Cause’ this is where a good time can be found
So bring along the old squeeze box, the fiddle and guitar
Let’s have a good old night in Temple Bar

For me, the only misstep on the album comes with the next song “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, a Paul Simon song that I’ve heard far too many times. Nathan sings it well but the chorus and strings are overkill – he should have given it the two minute Buck Owens treatment.

“Wagon Wheel” was a Bob Dylan song fragment that Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show completed. Nathan released it as a single in 2012. The song reached #12 on the Irish pop charts, his biggest hit. I really like this version, probably better than any other version I’ve heard aside from Jeremy McComb’s outstanding hard country version from decade ago.

This is followed by an up-tempo, virtually breathless, instrumental medley of reels.

“Jealous of The Angels” is a very slow sad ballad about the unexpected loss of a loved one. I don’t know who wrote the song, but it was originally recorded by Donna Taggart of Celtic Woman (she may have written it) and is a stunning song that Nathan Carter positively nails

I didn’t know today would be our last
Or that I’d have to say goodbye to you so fast
I’m so numb, I can’t feel anymore
Prayin’ you’d just walk back through that door
And tell me that I was only dreamin’
You’re not really gone as long as I believe

There will be another angel
Around the throne tonight
Your love lives on inside of me
And I will hold on tight
It’s not my place to question
Only God knows why
I’m just jealous of the angels
Around the throne tonight

The mood and tempo stay down with the old Irish folk song “Home to Donegal”

Fortunately the mood brightens and the tempo picks up with of the most famous of Irish folk songs, “The Irish Rover”. Usually when I hear this song the audience, the performer or both are well lubricated (and they would need to be for the lyrics to make much sense). Usually too, the audience is singing along. Many will remember the song from the Pogues, but the song is much older than that. Nathan gives it a very exuberant treatment

In the year of our Lord, eighteen hundred and six,
We set sail from the Coal Quay of Cork
We were sailing away with a cargo of bricks
For the grand City Hall in New York
We’d an elegant craft, it was rigged ‘fore and aft
And how the trade winds drove her
She had twenty-three masts and she stood several blasts
And they called her the Irish Rover

There was Barney Magee from the banks of the Lee
There was Hogan from County Tyrone
There was Johnny McGurk who was scared stiff of work
And a chap from Westmeath named Malone
There was Slugger O’Toole who was drunk as a rule
And fighting Bill Tracy from Dover
And your man Mick McCann, from the banks of the Bann
Was the skipper on the Irish Rover

We had one million bags of the best Sligo rags
We had two million barrells of bone
We had three million bales of old nanny goats’ tails
We had four million barrells of stone
We had five million hogs and six million dogs
And seven million barrells of porter
We had eight million sides of old blind horses’ hides
In the hold of the Irish Rover

We had sailed seven years when the measles broke out
And our ship lost her way in a fog
And the whole of the crew was reduced down to two
‘Twas myself and the captain’s old dog
Then the ship struck a rock, oh, Lord what a shock
And nearly tumbled over
Turned nine times around then the poor old dog was drowned
I’m the last of the Irish Rover

“The Town I Loved So Well” is a slow sentimental ballad. At six plus minutes, it could drag a little but the Nathan Carter vocal carries you along.

It’s back to high gear with “South Australia”, a popular folk song found in the English, Irish and Australian musical canons. Nathan starts it slowly then kicks it up.

The album closes with “Liverpool” a 2016 single and “Good Time Girls”. The latter shares the melody and most of the lyrics of the American folk song “Buffalo Girls”

Having only heard the video clips on the MKOC blog and a few snippets on Amazon, I wasn’t what to expect. Now I know that Nathan Carter is an excellent vocalist who can put on an outstanding live show. To fans of modern country music (such as it is) the linear resemblance to American country music is remote. To those of us who grew up thinking that Haggard, Jones, Snow, Tubb, Cline and Arnold are representative of country music, the line back to the Irish folk music is short and direct. While there are only traces of classic country instrumentation, the songs and the vocals make clear that connection.

With few exceptions, I really love this album and I can live with the few tracks that I don’t love.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘A Tribute To John D Loudermilk’

John D Loudermilk, a cousin of the legendary Louvin Brothers was a remarkable songwriter and artist in his own right, whose music crossed musical boundaries with eleements of country, rock and pop.
In March 2016 he was honoured by a star-studded tribute concert in Nashville, and selected performances from that occasion have now been released on CD/digital download and DVD. The concert is also set to be broadcast on PBS.

Opener ‘Everybody Knows’, performed by musician/singer/songwriter Harry Stinson, has a hypnotic 1950s pop-meets-Louvin Brothers feel. Singer-songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman delivers the teenage romance ‘Language Of Love’ in a sprightly 50s doowop pop style, also adopted by Lee Roy Parnell in a slightly bluesier fashion on ‘Mr Jones’. Another songwriter paying tribute is Bobby Braddock, who takes on ‘Break My Mind’ quite effectively, accompanied by his own piano. Norro Wilson is also pretty good on the novelty ‘The Great Snowman’.

Bluegrass legend Doyle Lawson and his band Quicksilver race through ‘Blue Train’, which works perfectly with a bluegrass arrangement. Southern rocker Jimmy Hall takes on ‘Bad News’ which again works well in this setting. Buddy Greene, mainly a Christian artist, sings the tongue in cheek story song ‘Big Daddy’s Alabama Bound’; his vocals are limited, but the arrangement is great. John McFee of the Doobie Brothers is passionate on the politically fuelled anthem to the Cherokee nation now restricted to the ‘Indian Reservation’.

Rodney Crowell also rocks it up on ‘Tobacco Road, possibly Loudermilk’s best known song; this is highly enjoyable and one of my favorite tracks. I was less impressed by his wife Claudia Church on the syncopated pop of ‘Sunglasses’.

John Jorgenson of the Desert Rose Band. Jorgenson (who helmed the whole affair) is known for his guitar playing rather than his singing, but his vocals are perfectly adequate on the rocker ‘Midnight Bus’. I very much enjoyed his Desert Rose Bandmate Herb Pederson on ‘It’s My Time’, very much in classic Desert Rose Band style. John Cowan soars on the life-affirming ‘I Wanna Live’.

Rosanne Cash is tender on the lovely ‘Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye’, another highlight. Ricky Skaggs and the Whites team up on two songs. ‘Heaven Fell last Night’ is a lovely romantic ballad sung together by Ricky and wife Sharon, while Ricky takes the lead on the fun Stonewall Jackson hit ‘Waterloo’. I also enjoyed Becky Hobbs on the country hit ‘Talk Back Trembling Lips’.

Emmylou Harris’s voice is sadly showing the signs of age, but she is well supported by the harmony vocals of Pam Rose and Mary Ann Kennedy on ‘Where Are They Gone’. 80s star Deborah Allen also sounds a little worse for wear on her song, the wistful ballad ‘Sad Movies’. Loudermilk’s son Mike doesn’t have much of a voice, but he does his best on a pleasant version of the catchy ‘Abilene’, and is backed by (his own?) delightful guitar work.

I wasn’t previously familiar with Cory Chisel and Adriel Denae, an Americana/folk duo and rela-life married couple. Their version of the part spoken airline tragedy story song ‘Ebony Eyes’ is prettily harmonised although the individual voices are not that strong. Also new to me was Beth Hooker, who delivers a sultry blues version of Turn Me On’. Guests from further afield include Australian fingerpicking guitar virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel on an instrumental track.

This is a worthy tribute which reminds the listener of both the musical breadth and quality of Loudermilk’s oeuvre.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Nathan Carter – ‘Time of My Life’

Nathan Carter was all of 21 when he released his third album, Time of My Life, in 2011. The album opens with the title track, a surprisingly effective cover of Green Day’s 1997 pop classic, with lovely Irish touches. His version of “Take Another Little Piece of My Heart” is a solid yet jarring interpretation of Faith Hill’s much-disparaged rendition of the song. The lyric, when taken from a man’s perspective, sounds oddly juvenile.

Carter transforms Don Williams’ “Lay Down Beside Me” into a mid-1990s power ballad. His take, which I like, is so convincing I would’ve expected to hear it grace country radio circa 1995-1996. I’m not so keen on his reading of “Delta Dawn,” which he transforms into a bright country shuffle. He treats “Fishin’ In The Dark” well, but he’s no match for Jeff Hanna or Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

“Where Do You Go To My Lovely” was composed and originally released by British singer-songwriter Peter Sarstdet in 1969. The song is perfect for Carter, who wraps his vibrato around it gorgeously. The beautiful “My Forever Friend” is presented here as a duet with Charlie Landsborough, from who the song originates. “One For The Road” is an excellent and bright sing-a-long brimming with fiddle. “The Dancer,” a mid-tempo waltz, is just as wonderful.

“The Rainbow in Glenfarne” is a moderately paced Irish folk tune that fits nicely with the other bright fiddle tunes on the album. The medley of “Spanish Dancer / Holy Ground / Westmeath Bachelor” might be more of the same sonically, but it’s the fastest track on the record and just a delight.

I wholly recommend the album, even if I found the cover songs to be a bit subpar. As Paul pointed out, these songs are likely new to Carter’s audience, but to my ears they aren’t very good. But Carter possesses a lot of charm and has a strong voice, which carries the album over the finish line.

Grade: B+ 

Album Review: Erin Enderlin – ‘Whiskeytown Crier’

“Ain’t It Just Like A Cowboy,” is a “stop me if you’ve heard this one” tale of a woman jilted by a man who repeatedly abandons her. But Erin Enderlin and her co-writer Heather Little turn the concept on its head. The song isn’t about rodeos, but rather another more universal pain:

He’s holdin’ her like he held me

God I should know better than to cry

The steel-adorned ballad serves as the lead single from Whiskeytown Crier, which finds Enderlin teaming with Jamey Johnson and Jim “Moose” Brown on a collection of songs culled from the female perspective, of the women who inhabit a fictional residential area known as Whiskeytown. Enderlin imagines the album as a newspaper, with the songs serving as the articles.

Whiskeytown Crier consists of many songs where the woman is in various states of dealing with the man who’s left her. He’s a cowboy one minute, the next he’s the self-absorbed litterer at the heart of “Jesse Joe’s Cigarettes,” which she smokes since she has nothing better to do. The feelings are so complex that to deal with them requires a “Whole Nuther Bottle of Wine.” “Till It’s Gone” finds her maxing out on all these pleasures, accented with a stunning twenty-nine-second steel guitar solo.

Her solely-penned “Broken” is a stunner of self-awareness that acts as a prequel of sorts, detailing the woman’s marriage at eighteen to the man who saw in her what she saw in him:

A broken limb

From a crooked family tree

“The Coldest In Town” is a spellbinding duet with Randy Houser that details a disintegrating marriage from both perspectives. It could be the woman from “Broken” when her life falls apart, but it also works as a standalone composition.

The album also contains two muscular southern gothic murder ballads. “Caroline” is the sadistic tale of a teenage pregnancy and a father’s revenge on the man who made her a mother. “Baby Sister” shows blood is thicker than love, with a shocked sibling proclaiming:

I knew you were a pistol

But I never knew you owned a gun

“The Blues Are Alive and Well” purposely evokes Merle Haggard. “Home Sweet Home” finds a woman enjoying the pleasures of the United States – a game at Wrigley Field, Broadway Shows – but finding comfort in her southern roots, where she prefers to live. “His Memory Walks on Water” is a tale of innocence – a little girl remembering her dad, a degenerate, in death as the man he never was on Earth. To his youngest daughter, though, he was everything.

Enderlin also included two covers to round out the set. She turns in a competent reading of “Till I Can Make It On My Own,” which is very good but could’ve been more subtle. Her take on Gram Parsons’ “Hickory Wind” is excellent.

Whiskeytown Crier is a very fine album that could’ve stood less intrusive production on occasion, namely eliminating the intrusive electric guitar that permeates “Jesse Joe’s Cigarettes.” But the music shines through, putting the focus on Enderlin’s apt storytelling, right where it should be.

Grade: A

Album Review: Nathan Carter – ‘The Way That You Love Me’

Nathan Carter, born in Liverpool to Northern Irish parents in 1990, followed a similar path to that of Lisa McHugh. He moved to Ireland on his own at just 18 with the aim of making a career in country music. His very pleasing smooth tenor voice is ideally suited to both country ballads and Irish songs, with its lovely tone and timbre.

The Way You Love Me, his second album (the first, Starting Out, was released when he was just 17), is a very assured and mature record from such a young artist. The title track is a likeable mid-tempo shuffle of a love song with a Bakersfield feel. This theme is revisited a little less successfully with a Buck Owens medley, which unfortunately ends up feeling rather karaoke; I feel tackling a single song would have worked better. Nor does he quite convince on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s ‘story song ‘Face On The Cutting Room Floor’, although there is a lovely fiddle solo.

‘After All These Years’ is a lovely ballad, a cover of a song popularised by veteran Irish country duo Foster & Allen. The song really suits Nathan’s voice. The Patty Loveless hit ‘Mr Man In The Moon’ also works very well, allowing him to soar vocally. His take on Vince Gill’s ‘I Still Believe In You’ is just gorgeous and, perhaps surprisingly, rivals the original, although the orchestral arrangement is a bit too much in the later stages.

Another nice cover is of ‘Break My Mind’, which was originally written by John D Loudermilk and had been recorded by dozens of country singers over the years, with Vern Gosdin’s version being the one I am most familiar with. Nathan’s version of the Gene Watson hit ‘Got No Reason Now for Going Home’ is also very good. ‘How Could I Love Her So Much’, a Johnny Rodriguez hit from the early 1980s, is another great song, in which the narrator has a little chat with his old flame’s new love. I also quite enjoyed a catchy version of Joe South’s ‘Games People Play’.

‘My Dear Ireland’ is a pretty Irish folk style paean to the country. Also in the same style is an enjoyably sprightly medley of ‘The Leaving Of Liverpool’, ‘Star Of The County Down’ and ‘Donegal Danny’, which is very entertaining and probably a live favorite.

I was really impressed by this album. I like Nathan’s voice a lot, and if I had not known he was only 20 when this album was released I wouldn’t have believed it. Although the selected songs are all covers (with the possible exception of the title track), they are a well chosen group, and the arrangements are excellent.

Grade: A

Album Review: Lisa McHugh – ‘#country’

Lisa McHugh’s most recent album was released just about a year ago. While its predecessors were heavily reliant on cover versions of other artists’ hits, none of the tracks on #country are originals. While that in itself does not concern me, the 14-track collection does lack focus and could have benefited from a little pruning. I think this is definitely a case of “less is more” and the omission of a few tracks could have resulted in an outstanding album instead of just a very good one.

Let’s start with what does work: Many of the songs will be familiar to country fans on this side of the Atlantic; McHugh covers a variety of artists that have had success in North America. Her versions of The Wilkersons’ “26 Cents” and Sweethearts of the Rodeo’s “Satisfy You” rival the originals, and she turns in a stunning version of The Pistol Annie’s “I Hope You’re The End of My Story”. She handles uptempo material like Jann Browne’s “Who’s Gonna Be Your Next Love” as adeptly as she does ballads like Joey + Rory’s “To Say Goodbye”. She also turns in a reverent treatment of Loretta Lynn’s first Top 10 hit “Success”. Less familiar to most listeners are “Play Me the Waltz of the Angels”, which has been recorded many times — as far as I can tell the original version was by Buck Owens. This is my favorite track, followed by “Peggy Gordon”, an old folk song of Canadian origin, which is given a Celtic arrangement and sung as a duet with Malachi Cush, a folk singer from Northern Ireland. Lisa’s voice has been compared many times to Dolly Parton; on this particular track there are definite traces of Alison Krauss.

Not working as well are “He’s a Good Ole Boy”, which was Chely Wright’s debut single from 1994. I’ve always liked this song, which can best be described as Loretta Lynn with a twist — the protagonist confronts her romantic rival but instead of warning her to stay away, she is more than happy to unload her ne-er-do-well lover:

To steal him is your number one ambition
But sister, here’s one safe that you don’t have to crack
I’ll hand him over under one condition:
A deal’s a deal and you can’t give him back.

I’ve always liked this song and felt it deserved more attention that it received – and I really wanted to like McHugh’s version, but her delivery lacks the passion that Chely Wright brought to it. Her versions of Crystal Gayle’s “Why Have You Left the One You Left Me For” and Alabama’s “High Cotton” work a little better, but she doesn’t bring anything new to either of these songs. I would have omitted all of them from the album — and that goes double for the album’s biggest misstep “Stuck Like Glue”. The organic Celtic arrangement is not nearly as obnoxious as the Sugarland original but this is a bad song no matter who sings it.

McHugh is an extremely talented vocalist and this is a solid effort — with only one truly terrible song (“Stuck Like Glue”), but one gets the sense that McHugh is still struggling to find her artistic direction. She seems willing to record anything and everything. I’d like to hear more “Peggy Gordons” and “Play Me The Waltz of the Angels” and fewer “Stuck Like Glues” in the future. Still the album is worth downloading — just be sure to skip over “Stuck Like Glue”.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Wade Hayes – ‘Old Country Song’

The latest album from 90s star and cancer survivor Wade Hayes shows he is still in possession of a great traditional country voice. He and co-producer Dave McAfee have found some excellent songs.

The opening ‘Can’t Get Close Enough To You’ is a sultry love song addressed to the protagonist’s wife of many years, and is one of four songs on the album written by Hayes, all loosely on the theme of marriage. Of the others, The nostalgic ‘Full Moon Summer Night’ is sung with passion, but is not all that interesting a song. The pace is increased with the wry up-tempo ‘I Wish I Still Drank’, which reflects on the contrast between a wild youth and a sober happy married life. The last of Wade’s own songs, ‘She Knows Me’, is a grateful commentary on his relationship with his wife:
She knows me and she loves me anyway

There are a couple of classic covers: a faithful remake of the Conway Twitty hit ‘Julia’, with an emotional vocal. Haggard’s ‘Going Where The Lonely Go’ works perfectly for Wade, and is a highlight. Wade’s love for real country music is also reflected in the title tune, a lovely Roger Springer-penned song about the power of music:

I’m as old as time
Born in a poet’s mind
I can reach across the ocean and hit the mark
Be an answered prayer to a broken heart
And I can go on and on and on about life
Talk about love
I can philosophize
Make a woman cry
Stop a man in his tracks and send him on back home
I’m just an old country song

I started out in a freight car to the rhythm of the track
One night I was left unfinished in the back of a Cadillac
Spent some time at Folsom …
And for a little while those men were free

Springer also wrote (with Tim Menzies) ‘I Don’t Understand’, an entertaining Western Swing number about the complexity of love which was previously recorded by Springer’s own band, the Roger Springer Band.

Jon Randall, Jessi Alexander and Phillip White wrote ‘What You Need From Me’, a beautiful duet with Megan Mullins about friendship and unrequited love, which was previously cut by Shelley Skidmore and Greg Bates. ‘Needed The Rain’ is a strong Chris Stapleton song.

The album closes with a tastefully stripped down and sincerely delivered version of the hymn ‘In Christ Alone’.

This is an excellent album, and I strongly recommend it.

Grade: A

Album Review: Lisa McHugh – ‘Wildfire’

Unlike Robert Mizzell, with whom I had some familiarity, Lisa McHugh was totally unknown to me. Wildfire is her third studio album, released in September 2015 on the Sharpe label. Because my purchase was via digital download, the album came with no information beyond the song titles and timings.

Like most country albums from outside the USA, there are a large number of covers of US hits, but why not? Many of the songs are new to their target audiences and those that aren’t new are crowd favorites.

I am surprised that neither of the two earlier reviews mentioned how similar in tone and timbre Ms. McHugh’s voice is to Dolly Parton, especially on certain songs. Obviously, Lisa does not have Dolly’s East Tennessee accent.

The album opens with “Mean”, a Taylor Swift composition. McHugh’s version has a very bluegrass feel to it with banjo and fiddle dominating the mix with some mandolin thrown in. McHugh is very much a superior vocalist to Swift, so I actually enjoyed the song.

Someday I’ll be living in a big old city
And all you’re ever gonna be is mean
Someday I’ll be big enough so you can’t hit me
And all you’re ever gonna be is mean
Why you gotta be so mean?

“Bring On the Good Times” is an upbeat, uptempo song with a sing-along quality to it. I’m not entirely sure about the instrumentation but there are portions with either a subdued brass section, or else synthesizers mimicking brass. This song has a 1990s country feel to it, and appears to have become a line dancing favorite.

Next up is “Never Alone”, a piano oriented slow ballad that is a cover of a 2007 Jim Brickman single that featured Lady Antebellum:

May your tears come from laughing
You find friends worth having
With every year passing
They mean more than gold
May you win but stay humble
Smile more than grumble
And know when you stumble
You’re never alone

“57′ Chevrolet” is one of the better known songs of the late great Billie Jo Spears, an artist who was underappreciated in her native USA but was venerated in the UK and Ireland. This is a very nice update of Billie Jo’s 1978 classic, a song numerous Irish artists have covered.

Come and look at this old faded photograph.
Honey, tell me what it brings to mind.
It’s a picture of that ’57 Chevrolet.
I wish that we could ride it one more time.

I still get excited when I think about,
The drive-in picture shows you took me to.
But I don’t recall a lot about the movie stars:
Mostly that old Chevrolet and you

[chorus]
They don’t make cars like they used to.
I wish we still had it today.
The love we first tasted,
The good love we’re still living:

We owe it to that old ’57 Chevrolet.
Remember when we used to park it in the lane,
And listen to the country radio?
We’d hold on to each other while the singer sang,
And we’d stay like that ’til it was time to go

“Wrong Night” was written by Josh Leo and Rick Bowles and was a 1999 single for Reba McEntire. The song reached #6 for Reba:

Suddenly I heard love songs.
Playing real soft on the jukebox.
Somebody ordered up moonlight.
And painted stars all across the sky.
Is it gravity or destiny.
Either way there’s nothing I can do.
Looks like I picked the wrong night.
Not to fall in love with you.

Lisa’s vocal resemblance to Dolly is very pronounced on both “Wrong Night” and the next song “Blue Smoke”, a Dolly Parton song from 2012. This song is given the full bluegrass treatment. I very much like this track.

Blue smoke climbin’ up the mountain
Blue smoke windin’ round the bend
Blue smoke is the name of the heartbreak train
That I am ridin’ in

“Dance With the One” was written by Sam Hogin and Gretchen Peters and featured on Shania Twain’s first major label release for Mercury back in 1993 (before Mutt Lange). When I first heard the song, I thought it would be Shania’s breakthrough song – it wasn’t topping out at #55. Lisa does a nice job with the song.

Well he shines like a penny in a little kid’s hand
When he’s out on a Saturday night
He’s a real go-getter and the best two-stepper you’ll see
But when I’m sittin’ alone at a table for two
Cause he’s already out on the floor
I think about somethin’ that my mama used to say to me

You got to dance with the one that brought you
Stay with the one that want’s you
The one who’s gonna love you when all of the others go home
Don’t let the green grass fool you
Don’t let the moon get to you
Dance with the one that brought you and you can’t go wrong

“Favourite Boyfriend of the Year” comes from the song-bag of the McClymonts, a very attractive Australian sister trio. The McClymont version was a little sassier than McHugh’s version, but she does a fine job with this up-tempo romp. I would have liked Lisa’s voice to be a little more up front in the mix. Again, this sounds like 1990s country to my ears.

I’m a little fussy
But I got a little lucky
When the boss from the corner store
He took me out to dinner
And the waiter was a winner
And the boss he was out the door
You’re the one who’s caught my eye
This could be something worth your while

Hey it’s not a waste of time
You’re maybe one of many but you will never
Be the last in line
Hey I’m really glad you’re here cuz you’re one
Of my favourite boyfriends of the year

Nathan Carter (the next artist up in our spotlight) is featured on “You Can’t Make Old Friends”, a quiet ballad that was a Kenny Rogers-Dolly Parton duet back in 2013. While Lisa sounds a lot like Dolly, Nathan does not remind me of Kenny Rogers, although he is a fine singer. Anyway the voices blend nicely.

What will I do when you are gone?
Who’s gonna tell me the truth?
Who’s gonna finish the stories I start
The way you always do?

When somebody knocks at the door
Someone new walks in
I will smile and shake their hands,
But you can’t make old friends

You can’t make old friends
Can’t make old friends
It was me and you, since way back when
But you can’t make old friends

Carly Pearce currently has a song on the radio titled “Every Little Thing” but this is NOT that song. The song Lisa McHugh tackles here is the up-tempo #3 Carlene Carter hit from 1993. Lisa’s voice does not have the power of Carlene’s voice (the daughter of country legends June Carter and Carl Smith should have very substantial pipes) but she does an effective job with the song:

I hear songs on the radio
They might be fast or they might be slow
But every song they play’s got me thinkin’ ’bout you
I see a fella walkin’ down the street
He looks at me and he smiles real sweet
But he don’t matter to me
‘Cause I’m thinkin’ ’bout you

Every little dream I dream about you
Every little thought I think about you
Drives me crazy when you go away
I oughta keep you locked up at home
And like a wild horse I want to break you
I love you so much I hate you
Every little thing reminds me of you
Honey when you leave me here all alone

“The Banks of the Ohio” is an old warhorse, a murder ballad that has been covered by everyone from Ernest Stoneman, The Monroe Brothers and Charley Pride to Olivia Newton-John. Lisa gives this song a very slow folk-Celtic treatment after a spoken narrative. It is very nice and does not sound very similar to any other version I recall hearing.

Lisa gives “Livin’ In These Troubled Times” a Celtic/bluegrass touch with accordion, mandolin taking it at a somewhat faster clip than Crystal Gayle did in her 1983 top ten recording of this song, written by Sam Hogin, Roger Cook and Philip Donnelly. It’s probably heresy to say I like Lisa’s version better than the original, but in fact I do.

It takes all the faith that’s in you
Takes your heart and it takes mine
It takes love to be forgiven
Living in these troubled times

When it rains on the range
And it snows in the Spring
You’re reminded again
It’s just a march of the dying
Living in these troubled times

When I saw the song list for the album, I wondered whether this was the Michael Martin Murphey classic about a horse or the Mac Wiseman bluegrass romp or even possibly the Demi Lovato song from a few years back. As it turns out this “Wildfire” is an entirely different song, by someone named John Mayer. It’s taken at a very fast tempo and given a quasi-bluegrass arrangement.

Don’t get up just to get another
You can drink from mine
We can’t leave each other
We can dance with the dead
You can rest your head
On my shoulder if you want to
Get older with me
‘Cause a little bit of summer makes a lot of history

And you look fine, fine, fine
Put your feet up next to mine
We can watch that water line
Get higher and higher
Say, say, say
Ain’t it been some kind of day
You and me been catchin’ on
Like a wildfire

I got a rock from the river in my medicine bag
Magpie feather in his medicine bag

Say, say, say
Ain’t it been some kind of day
You and me been catchin’ on
Like a wildfire

“Thinking Out Loud” comes from the pen of Ed Sheeran. I don’t know anything about Sheeran (or John Mayer, for that matter) except that my stepson says both are good singers. This is a nice song, a slow ballad nicely sung but I don’t like the instrumentation which strikes me as smooth jazz or cocktail lounge R&B

When your legs don’t work like they used to before
And I can’t sweep you off of your feet
Will your mouth still remember the taste of my love
Will your eyes still smile from your cheeks
And darling I will be loving you ’til we’re 70
And baby my heart could still fall as hard at 23
And I’m thinking ’bout how people fall in love in mysterious ways
Maybe just the touch of a hand
Oh me I fall in love with you every single day
And I just wanna tell you I am

So honey now
Take me into your loving arms
Kiss me under the light of a thousand stars
Place your head on my beating heart
I’m thinking out loud
Maybe we found love right where we are

I’m not a huge Dolly Parton fan so I thought that I would find Lisa’s vocal resemblance to Dolly Parton off putting. I should note that the Parton resemblance only shows up on some songs – on other songs she reminds me of Liz Anderson (mother of Lynn Anderson and a fine songwriter). I’ve listened to this album constantly for the last two days and find that I really like it. With the exception of the last song, the instrumentation is solidly country and while the focus is on faster songs, Lisa varies the tempos sufficiently to keep it interesting and sticks within her vocal range.

With the possible exception of “Bring On the Good Times” for which I could not find any information, all of the songs are covers of earlier recordings. That does not bother me in the least as I’ve always preferred a cover of a great song, than a recording of an unworthy new song.

I’d give this album an “A” – with a better arrangement on the the last song, I’d be tempted to give it an “A+”

Album Review: Lisa McHugh – ‘A Life That’s Good’

Lisa McHugh released her sophomore album, A Life That’s Good, in October 2014. The title track, co-written by Sara Siskind and Ashley Monore, is a sweet ballad about personal fulfillment that first appeared early on in the second season of Nashville.

The album is ripe with covers. McHugh opens with “Applejack,” in which she more than adequately channels Dolly Parton. She turns to Trisha Yearwood with “She’s In Love With The Boy,” wrapping her innocent twang around the timeless tale of Katy and Tommy’s burgeoning love. As if to cover all ends of the spectrum, McHugh turns in a fine rendition of “Any Man of Mine,” which typically sounds like cheesy karaoke outside of Shania Twain’s hands.

A Life That’s Good proves McHugh to favor bright and uptempo material, which makes Vince Gill’s “Feels Like Love” the perfect addition to this set. Also excellent is Red-era Taylor Swift’s “Stay Stay Stay.” McHugh improves on Swift’s album track with a far more organic arrangement and mature performance vocally. Kacey Musgraves’ “My House” is also a delight, although I wish McHugh had settled for a bit less mimicry in her inflections.

On an album of curious covers, closing track “On The Road Again,” which has always been one of my favorite songs, stands above the rest. Her version of the Willie Nelson classic is excellent, infusing her own personality while keeping the essence of the song alive.

“Ireland” continues the album’s bright vibe, with an uptempo love song brimming with gorgeously ear catching fiddle. The cautionary “Hey I’m A Woman” finds McHugh delivering a stern warning to her man that she’s not just one of the guys. “What You Get Is What You See” might just be my favorite vocal of McHugh’s on the whole album. “Night Train to Memphis” is bluegrass in mainstream 1990s country style and every bit as wonderful as you might expect. “Hillbilly Girl” is cheesy but not without its charms.

McHugh does slow the pace on occasion, although those moments are rare. “Home to Donegal,” a power ballad, has good intentions but is way too loud and feels a bit staged. “All of Me” is a misplaced cover of John Legend’s song, far too pop, for placement on such a solidly country album. Steel Guitar-laced ballad “Left to Love,” which perfectly displays her sweet voice, is much better.

McHugh is a delight and I quite enjoyed listening to A Life That’s Good. It’s impossible to listen to her and not fall under her spell. There’s truly nothing not to like about what she’s given us here. I only wish she wasn’t so reliant on covering such well-known songs and was putting the focus, instead, on developing her own artistry. But I really can’t complain when an album sounds this good and this country.

Grade: A