My Kind of Country

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Album Review: Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer – ‘Not Dark Yet’

In the summer of 2016, under the direction of Richard Thompson’s son Teddy, Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer entered a studio in Los Angeles and made good on a promise to one day record a collaborative album. The result, Not Dark Yet, is a ten-track collection of eccentric covers and one original tune.

The songs span genres, from classic country to rock and even grunge. The album, though, has a unifying sound, with Thompson using flourishes of piano and guitar to bring the tracks together. These aren’t by-the-numbers faithful interpretations, but rather the sisters’ take on these songs.

They open Not Dark Yet with “My List,” solely penned by Brandon Flowers and featured on The Killers second album Sam’s Town in 2006. Their version begins sparse, led by Moorer’s naked vulnerability, before unexpectedly kicking into gear halfway.

The title track was written and released by Bob Dylan in 1998, from Time Out Of Mind. Moorer is a revelation once again, with the perfect smoky alto to convey the despair lying at the center of Dylan’s lyric.

As one might expect, the album explores the feelings surrounding the horrific death of the sisters’ mother, at the hands of their father, who then turned the gun on himself. They were teenagers at the time, a period in one’s life where you arguably need your parents the most. They acknowledge their heartbreak with a trifecta of songs, culminating with the album’s sole original tune, which they composed themselves.

They begin with Nick Cave’s “Into My Arms,” the lead single from his 1997 album The Boatman’s Call. The song, which proves the benefit of turning to rock for expert lyricism, is about a man’s devotion to his woman and the push to bring them together. Lynne and Moorer continue with Kurt Cobain’s “Lithium,” from Nirvana’s 1992 masterpiece Nevermind. The dark ballad, which they make approachable, details the story of a man turning to God amidst thoughts of suicide.

The most personal, “Is It Too Much” was started by Lynne and finished by Moorer. The track details the bond they share as sisters, knowing each other’s pain, and wondering – is it too much to carry in your heart? It’s also one of the album’s slowest ballads, heavy on bass. I’m not typically drawn to these types of songs but they manage to bring it alive.

The remaining five tracks have ties to country music and thus fall more within my expertise. “Every Time You Leave” was written by Charlie and Ira Louvin and released in 1963. The backstory is a tragic one – Ira wrote this for his wife, saying that although they would eventually get back together, their separation was inventible. The wife he was married to at the time, his third, would also shoot him five times after a violent argument. It’s no wonder the pair feel a connection to the song, which they brilliantly deliver as a bass and piano-led ballad.

“I’m Looking for Blue Eyes,” written and recorded by Jessi Colter, was a track from Wanted! The Outlaws in 1976. Lynne and Moorer’s version is stunning, even if the pedal steel is just an accent and not a major player throughout.

Two of the album’s songs first appeared in 1969. “Lungs,” written by Townes Van Zandt, was featured on his eponymous album. The pair interpret the song nicely, which has a gently rolling melody. The album’s most famous song, at least to country fans, is Merle Haggard’s classic “Silver Wings,” which first appeared on Okie From Muskogee. Their version is slightly experimental but also lovely.

The final song is arguably the most contemporary. “The Color of a Cloudy Day” was written by Jason Isbell and is a duet between him and his wife Amanda Shires. The song first appeared at the close of the British documentary The Fear of 13 and was given a proper release as part of Amazon’s “Amazon Acoustics” playlist in 2016. Moorer and Lynne give the song a bit more pep, which isn’t hard given the acoustic leanings of Isbell and Shires’ duet.

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but Not Dark Yet is considered one of the most anticipated roots releases of the year. It’s a beautiful album, and while it won’t be within everyone’s wheelhouse, it’s difficult not to appreciate just how brilliant Lynne and Moorer are as a pair. They are two of our finest voices and have an exceptional ear for song selection. I don’t usually have trouble grading albums, but Not Dark Yet is hard record for which to assign a grade. It might not be completely my cup of tea, but I can’t ignore how expertly it was crafted.

Grade: A

BREAKING NEWS: Glen Campbell 1936-2017

The country legend has passed following a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s Disease. He was 81-years-old.

Album Review: Charley Pride – ‘Charley Pride’s 10th Album’

Released in June 1970, Charley Pride’s 10th Album was actually his ninth album of new material as his actual ninth album was the hits collection The Best of Charley Pride.

Only one single was released from the album, Dave Kirby’s “Is Anybody Goin’ To San Antone”, but there were three or four other songs that were worthy of single release. The album reached #1 on Billboard’s Country Albums charts (also #1 in Canada), and went to #30 on the all-genre’s charts, becoming Charley’s fourth consecutive and sixth total gold albums. I strongly suspect that had Sound Scan been around, this album would have tracked higher.

The album opens up with “Able Bodied Man”, the Bill Rice – Jerry Foster composition about an itinerant laborer who moves from job to job, all the while working hard to keep his marriage working. It’s a truly great song and one I would have liked to see released as a single

If I had more education now I’d have made a better life for me and you
But just simple manual labor is the only kind of work that I can do
The bus is loadin’ for Missouri so I guess I’d better go
I’ll call you just as soon as I can
I’ll be sending you a ticket cause I think I’ll get a job
If they’re looking for an able bodied man
And remember I’m your able bodied man

Next up is Bill Rice’s “Through The Years”, a nice slow country ballad about a relationship that has grown stronger through the years. The song had no potential as a single, but makes a nice complement to the album.

“Is Anybody Goin’ To San Antone” would be Charley’s best remembered song had “Kiss An Angel Good Morning” never come along. The song reached #1 for two weeks and was his biggest pop hit up that time. The song became an immediate favorite of country cover bands everywhere. Doug Sahm recorded the song twice (once with the Texas Tornados) and Larry Cunningham & The Mighty Avons had success with the song in the UK and Ireland. There was even a rough Swedish translation of the lyrics that became a hit in Sweden.

Rain drippin’ off the brim of my hat,
It sure looks cold today.
Here I am a-walkin’ down 66,
Wish she hadn’t done me this way.

Sleepin’ under a table in a roadside park,
A man could wake up dead;
But it sure seemed warmer than it did
Sleepin’ in my king-size bed.

[Chorus]
Is anybody goin’ to San Antone or Phoenix, Arizona?
Any place is all right as long as I can forget I’ve ever known her.

The nest three songs are basic slow country ballads: Jerry Foster’s “The Thought of Losing You”, Jack Clement’s “I Think I’ll Take A Walk”, and the Hugh X Lewis composition “Things Are Looking Up”. All three are nice songs with vivid imagery, but none would be considered as singles material.

Charley picks up the tempo a little with Bill Foster’s “Special”, a train song of wanderlust. There was a time when a song such as thius one would have been a viable single, but by 1970, that time was probably was past.

The only thing I really own is what you see me wearing on my back
The only friends I’ve ever known are the kind you meet along a railroad track
The kind you bum tobacco from and view the world through a boxcar door
A friend who talks and makes you laugh has nothing much but gives you half

And maybe you don’t see him anymore
Special I hear your lonesome whistle whine
It’s calling me
Special keep moving me on down the line

Alex Zanetis, who wrote several of Jim Reeves’ big hits, wrote a “Poor Boy Like Me”. Thematically it was too similar to several of his earlier singles for Charley to have released the song as a single. Ditto for the Allen Reynolds-Dickie composition “(There’s) Nobody Home To Go Home To”. I would have thought that someone would have taken a chance on one of these songs, both excellent album tracks.

I have no idea why RCA chose not to release “This Is My Year For Mexico” as a single. The song screams hit single. Crystal Gayle recorded the song in 1975 and reached #13 on Record World, 16 on Cashbox and 21 on Billboard, but her career had not reached high gear yet (it was her second biggest hit at that point in her career). Released later in Crystal’s career it would have been a huge record, as it would have been for Charley had it been released as a single. As it was, the song received considerable airplay, although Billboard did not track album tracks at the time. Bluegrass superstar Dale Ann Bradley has the song on an upcoming album and several other bluegrass acts have recorded the song.

I no longer notice if you’re wearing perfume
I quit smoking, girl, you never even knew
And the road is full of young and restless people
And their full of the energy to move

[Chorus]
Its a habit for us to stay together
We sit and watch the nightly shadows grow
Every day last year I left for California
This is my year for Mexico

At the time I purchased the album (July 1970) I noted the album had only ten tracks and had a playing time of around 27 minutes, a bit of a short-change. On the other hand I would rather have 27 minutes of music that ranges from very good to excellent than 35 minutes of drivel. There is not a song on this album I dislike – a solid A.

BREAKING NEWS: Alan Jackson is the 2017 ‘Modern Era’ Country Music Hall of Fame Inductee

Jerry Reed (Veteran Era) and Don Schliltz (Songwriter) round out the class of 2017. Here’s the press conference:

 

Classic Rewind: Don Gibson – ‘Gonna Give Myself A Party’

Where to find good ol’ country music – or the transition to bluegrass

I really like good ol’ country music from the period 1930 – 2005. Most of my favorite songs and performances dated from 1975 back to the days of Jimmie Rodgers and The Original Carter Family. I also like to see live music performances. Except in a few sections of the country, modern country radio has largely forsaken good ol’ country music. Yes, there is Sirius-XM Radio, but the stations that play pre-2005 country tend to have rather shallow playlists, and satellite radio can be a pricey proposition. I do have XM in my vehicle because I make a number of long trips on business.

Being able to see live good ol’ country music performed is getting more problematic. In some areas there are younger performers who have embraced the art form, but in other areas they can barely be found. Moreover, the classic country performers are ageing. Most of the great country performers of the 1950s and 1960s have moved on to that Great Opry Stage in The Sky. The same is increasingly true for many of the stars of the 1970s. We have even lost some of the stars of the 1980s.

What to do ?

During the 1940s and 1950s there wasn’t much difference between country and bluegrass except the instrumentation, with many artists (Jimmie Skinner, Lee Moore, Mac Wiseman) straddling the border between the two genres. As the 1960s arrived, there was more separation although artists such as the Osborne Brothers and Jim & Jesse McReynolds featured steel guitar and ‘Nashville’ sound trappings on their major label bluegrass recordings. Through the early 1970s it wasn’t unusual to see bluegrass acts chart on the country music charts.

By the mid-1970s, the two streams had completely separated. Bluegrass was no longer played on country radio (except an occasional song from a movie such as “Dueling/Feuding Banjos” might be played), and the repertoire had largely segmented as well.

Over the last twenty years or so, as the product on country radio has become more unlistenable, something strange has happened: bluegrass artists have become the guardians of the country music tradition. Many of today’s bluegrass artists grew up listening to that good ol’ country music and have been incorporating larger amounts of it into their repertoire. In some cases artists, such as Ricky Skaggs and Marty Raybon who had substantial country careers, returned to their bluegrass roots, bringing their country repertoire with them. In other cases bluegrass acts, often serious students of music, have gone back and founded the repertoire that country radio and young country artists seemingly lost.

Obviously, I’ve done no detailed study into the matter, but I’ve been attending bluegrass festivals over the last eight years, and have heard a tremendous amount of country songs performed. Almost every bluegrass group has at least a few classic country songs that they perform, and many have repertoires that are 30%-50% country songs.

So where should you start?

I must admit that the ‘high lonesome sound’ is an acquired taste. Even now, I really cannot listen to more than a few Bill Monroe vocals at a time. That said, Bill usually kept some other vocalist on board with such proficient singers as Lester Flatt, Jimmy Martin, Mac Wiseman and Peter Rowan all taking turns in Bill’s band. Consequently, one generally wasn’t stuck listening to Bill Monroe sing the lead.

You can develop a taste for that ‘High Lonesome Sound’ but rather than torture yourself with an overload of it, I would suggest easing yourself into it. Below are acts that feature good ol’ country music in their repertoires. Here’s where to start:

Classic Era/First Generation artists

Mac Wiseman – possessed of a pleasant and sleek Irish tenor, Mac can sing anything and everything and sing it well. There is a reason he is known as the “voice with a heart”. I think Mac is one of the few left alive from the gestation period of the music.

Jimmy Martin – Jimmy was more in the realm of the ‘high lonesome’ but unlike most such singers, who sound like the voice of gloom, agony and despair, Jimmy was such an unabashedly good natured and exuberant singer that you can help but like him.

Lester Flatt – whether singing with Bill Monroe, as part of Flatt & Scruggs or after the split with Scruggs, Lester’s lower tenor made bluegrass palatable to those not enamored of the high pitched vocals of Monroe and his acolytes.

Modern Era

While groups such as Trinity River, Flatt Lonesome, IIIrd Tyme Out and Balsam Range are very good, I would recommend you start with Chris Jones and the Night Drivers. Chris has an excellent, somewhat lower pitched voice that would have made him a star during the classic country days. Chris is a DJ on XM Radio’s Bluegrass Junction (Channel 62 on XM Radio) and he will occasionally feature one of his own recordings.

Next I would point you toward The Gibson Brothers, The Spinney Brothers and Rhonda Vincent and the Rage. If you are a big Statler Brothers fan, the Dailey & Vincent duo include a lot of Statler songs in their repertoire and on some numbers can make you think that the Statler Brothers have come out of retirement. Marty Raybon, lead singer of Shenandoah, features a lot of Shenandoah material in his performances with his current band Full Circle.

In recent years Rhonda Vincent (the “Queen of Bluegrass Music” has been occasionally performing with classic country acts such as Gene Watson, Moe Bandy and Daryle Singletary, so you might find these guys at bluegrass festivals.

I will note that I have left some of my personal favorites (The Osborne Brothers, Del McCoury, Reno & Smiley, James King, Dale Ann Bradley, Lorraine Jordan) out of this discussion. I’m not worried about leaving them out – you’ll work your way to them eventually.

Album Review: Lari White – ‘Wishes’

wishesLari White’s most consistent success as a solo artist came in June 1994 with the release of her sophomore album, Wishes. RCA Nashville, in an effort to turn White into a hot comity, had her record with Garth Fundis, who turned in a squarely commercial album aimed at grabbing the attention of country radio. The efforts paid off – Wishes notched three top ten hits and was certified Gold.

The lead single was the earworm “That’s My Baby,” a collaboration between White and her husband Chuck Cannon. The track excuses happiness, which is palpable from both the production and lyric to White’s exhilarating performance.

Even better is the stunning “Now I Now,” a powerful empowerment anthem which finds White assuming she’d be lost without her man, should he leave her. They go their separate ways and she realizes she’s just fine on her own. White’s authoritative liberation brilliantly guides the recording, which is elevated by Don Cook’s signature procession and Paul Franklin’s gorgeous flourishes of Steel.

White and Cannon reunite on the final single, “That’s How You Know (When You’re In Love).” The track doesn’t pack as distinctive a punch, although it features Hal Ketchum on harmony. It still peaked at #10, which is a testament to White’s star power at the time.

While the singles display a confident and liberated modern woman, the album cuts display the restlessness that got her there. White co-wrote these songs, mostly with Cannon, whom she married shortly before the album was released. They find her longing; optimistic her man will one day love her back. She declares her “Wishes” with the title track and ponders an alternative reality on “If You Only Knew.” White further tears down the walls, flat out declaring she wants to be “Somebody’s Fool.”

“When It Rains” finds White imagining a man haunted by thoughts of his ex while “Go On” has her frustrated it’s taking him so long to leave. “It’s Love” is the album’s sole misstep; a throwaway cut that should’ve been excluded from the album entirely (it was smartly omitted from the cassette version).

Wishes is a spectacular album with flawless execution. The stark ballads (“Wishes,” “If I’m Not Already Crazy,” “When It Rains” and “If You Only Knew”) are as brilliantly engaging as the uptempo material (“That’s My Baby,” “Somebody’s Fool” and “Now I Know”) and most every song is smart and articulate.

White exemplifies just how diverse the women of the 1990s truly were. Each one, especially her immediate contemporaries, had their own flavor and distinctive perspective. White stood out by fitting in, almost too well, which likely caused her to coast below the likes of Trisha Yearwood or Faith Hill. That’s a shame because she can deliver a lyric just as good and if not better than anyone. Wishes, if you missed it the first go around or haven’t heard it in a while, is worth a second look. It’s just that good.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Heidi & Ryan – ‘Heidi & Ryan’

Hedid & RyanThis is a new duo whose sound is based around Heidi’s voice, which has a really beautiful tone. Heidi and Ryan Greer met at a bluegrass festival in 2010, and their music is bluegrass with a strong gospel focus. She plays some lovely fiddle too, throughout the album.

They open with the charmingly nostalgic ‘Grandma’s Knee’, which reflects on childhood listening to stories and songs. ‘Pictures’ draws on the same theme.

The emotional ‘Come To Jesus’ is not the Mindy Smith song, but a beautiful account of finding God. The serious ‘Money Won’t’ is a beautifully sung ballad about the limitations of material desires. The pacy ‘Fire Down Yonder’ warns against damnation.

‘The Darkest Day’ is a somber first person account of the Crucifixion and Resurrection from the viewpoint of one of the men crucified with Jesus. The emotive and demanding ‘Will You Be Ready’ moves from Easter to the Second Coming.

The delicate ‘Sometimes Love Hurts’ is a moving story song about the limits of love. First we meet a dedicated overseas (probably missionary) doctor who gets no thanks for his untiring labours, then a woman who selflessly supports the husband who has let her down, and finally Jesus:

Mocked and laughed
Bout the one he loves the most
Love isn’t always a two way deal
You can’t judge it by the way you feel
Sometimes love hurts

They use the Alison Krauss arrangement for a cover of ‘Oh Atlanta’, which is nicely done but my least favorite track.

While Heidi sings most of the lead vocals, Ryan takes over on the earnest ‘Sowing Seeds’. While he is not as exceptional a vocalist as she is, his warm voice is more than listenable and the song is nice.

The set closes with a really beautiful version of ‘Somebody’s Praying’ which Ricky Skaggs recorded on his My Father’s Son album in 1991. This is another highlight.

This is an excellent debut album from a very promising new act.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Little Texas – ‘Missing Years’

mi0001766288After their eponymous album failed to reignite their career Little Texas all but disappeared. Tim Rushlow joined Brady Seals in perusing a solo career, riding high with the #8 “She Misses Him” when Atlantic shuttered its Nashville division in 2001 (which, if you may remember, also displaced Craig Morgan). Seals, despite multiple attempts, never gained traction with any of his solo recordings.

Duane Propes, Del Gray, Porter Howell, and Dwayne O’Brien resurrected Little Texas in 2004 with pushback from Rushlow, who sued in an attempt to block them from using the ‘Little Texas’ name. His attempts were unsuccessful and the band signed with Montage Music Group in 2007. The band’s first new release in ten years was The Very Best of Little Texas: Live and Loud, a concert album with Powell at the helm.

The band returned a month later with Missing Years, a proper studio recording produced by Anthony Martin. Little Texas hardly had a prayer of a legitimate resurgence, although it didn’t deter Montage from pushing ahead with three singles from the album.

They led with “Your Woman,” an awful and generic electric rocker, which didn’t chart. The title track was a slight return to form, a pop ballad, that miraculously peaked at #45. Final single “Party Life,” another generic rocker, also failed to chart.

Missing Years is nothing short of a disaster with zero tracks worth highlighting. The biggest misstep in this album specifically is using Howell as the lead singer. The man may have some talents but they aren’t his voice, an unlistenable mix of growly gruff. Martin places him in the grunge rock style run into the ground by Jason Aldean and Brantley Gilbert, which suits him, but not the audience.

I understand that spotlighting Little Texas wasn’t a popular choice amongst our readers and I can fully understand how they’d unnerve those who prefer a more pure take on country music. But I’ve always enjoyed both Seals and Rushlow and the contributions they brought to the band. Missing Years proves they were the band. Without either of them, Little Texas is nothing more than a waste of space. I have no problem with the band reuniting, but I’m with Rushlow in wishing they didn’t use the Little Texas name for this wasted second act. It doesn’t matter, though, as no one truly cared if they reunited or not. Certainly not those fans who pushed Big Time past double platinum.

Grade: D

Classic Rewind: Steve Wariner – ‘One Bright Star’

Christmas Rewind: Skeeter Davis – ‘C H R I S TM A S’

Christmas Rewind: Jim Ed Brown – ‘An Old Christmas Card’

Christmas Rewind: Terri Clark – ‘O Little Town Of Bethlehem’

In Memoriam: Mark Gray (1952-2016)

Singer/Songwriter Mark Gray has passed, aged 64. The onetime member of Exile wrote ‘The Closer You Get,’ which was recorded by Alabama and hit #1 in 1983. Another notable recording, ‘Sometimes When We Touch’ paired him with last month’s spotlight artist Tammy Wynette. The song peaked at #6 in 1985. It would be her final Top Ten charting single. His biggest solo single, “Please Be Love” peaked at #7 the same year.

 

In Memoriam: Curly Putnum (1930-2016)

Legendary songwriter Claude “Curly” Putman, Jr passed away yesterday at age 85. Along with Bobby Braddock he co-wrote the country classics ‘D-I-V-O-R-C-E‘ and ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today.’ The latter is often considered the greatest country song ever written.

Putnum’s other iconic songs include:

Porter Wagoner, ‘Green, Green Grass of Home’ (#4, 1965):

Tammy Wynette and David Houston, ‘My Elusive Dreams’ (#1, 1967):

Tanya Tucker, ‘Blood Red and Going Down’ (#1, 1973): 

In Memoriam: Jean Shepard (1933-2016)

This morning we mourn the loss of the legendary Jean Shepard, who passed away at age 82. Her importance to the history of country music, as Paul W. Dennis pointed out, cannot be overstated. She was inducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame, along with Bobby Braddock and Reba McEntire, in 2011.

Second Fiddle (To An Old Guitar) (#5, 1964):

Slippin’ Away (#4, 1973):

 

 

 

Classic Rewind: Trisha Yearwood – ‘Wrong Side Of Memphis’

Classic Rewind: Emmylou Harris – ‘All My Tears’

Single Review: Dierks Bentley – ‘Somewhere On A Beach’

dierks-bentley-somewhere-on-a-beach-single-coverWe’ve been down this road before. Dierks Bentley releases something intelligent to country radio and it fizzles. He responds with a horrid piece of tripe just ripe enough to please the powers that be without completely alienating the fans who still consider him one of the last remaining good guys in modern country music. So why does the road look and feel so different this time?

It’s because “Somewhere On A Beach” is Bentley’s most shameless attempt yet at fitting in with the cool crowd. He’s been the sideways, drunk on a plane and bat shit crazy. But he’s never gone as far as to literally have sex in the sand. We’ve come a long way from the days when all it took was a white tank top to get him hot and bothered.

But this isn’t solely about Bentley and his image. It’s about a song that’s nothing more than a pile of dog dung left on the side of the road by an owner to lazy to bend over and pick it up. It’s about a brazen attempt at marrying bro and beach bum-country signifiers. It’s about a marriage made in the deepest depths of hell.

Worse, “Somewhere On A Beach” is about a genre where lines like ‘she’s got a body and she’s naughty’ are liquid gold. Where ‘I’m getting sun, getting some, and I ain’t slept in a week’ passes as a good time. Where the theme of summertime has been grossly exploited growing more blatantly graphic with each passing song.

The genre has been changing – the likes of Jason Isbell, Willie Nelson/Merle Haggard and Aaron Watson did score number one albums last year. The phenomenon that is Chris Stapleton is unstoppable. It makes one wonder, is the ‘cool crowd’ the country music fans or the gatekeepers pushing drivel like this on the unsuspecting public?

Like other reviewers, I don’t blame Bentley for this atrocity. He may be co-hosting the upcoming ACM Awards with Luke Bryan, but he knows quality music. I’d be shocked if his new album, Black, fails to deliver. It better live up to expectations.

Grade: F

Christmas Rewind: Chris Young – ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’