My Kind of Country

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

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Album Review: Kelly Willis – ‘Translated From Love’

translated from loveAfter five years’ silence, 2007 saw the release of what was probably the least country-related album of Kelly Willis’s career.

The quirky opener ‘Nobody Wants To Go To The Moon Anymore’ (written by Damon Bramblett) is quite interesting, about changing times and decreasing ambition and dreams. Bramblett also wrote the very appealing ‘Sweet Surrender’, which is my favourite track, and the most reminiscent of Kelly’s earlier work.

‘Stone’s Throw Away’ is also excellent, a delicate ballad with a hushed, honeyed vocal. The title track is a slow ballad which is beautifully sung. The tender ‘Sweet Little One’, written Kelly with her producer Chuck Prophet, is pretty with a lullaby feel. ‘Losing You’ is also really good, an understated ballad about a slow breakup.

‘Don’t Know Why’ is quite nice but a little more mellow than the lyric about a troubled relationship seems to demand. ‘Too Much To Lose’ has a pretty melody and wistful vocal but gets repetitive and boring after a very promising start. The mid paced love song ‘The More That I’m Around You’ is definitely a pop song , but it is a pretty good one.

She takes on a bad girl rock ‘n roll attitude for ‘Teddy Boys’. ‘I Must Be Lucky’ also has a rock feel but it has an insistent groove which holds the attention. ‘Success’ is a pop/punk cover with raucously yelled backing vocals from alt-country band The Gourds (although Kelly’s lead is rather engaging).

Kelly’s vocals have an intrinsic charm whatever she sings, but this really isn’t a country record.

Grade: B-

Classic Rewind: Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins – ‘This Train’

Album Review: Jade Jack – ‘Off The Record’

off the recordIt’s always exciting to discover a new artist, especially one who make the kind of music I like the best. I had just that experience when I came across Jade Jack on youtube, and this album fulfils that promise. She’s not yet quite as good as, say Amber Digby, as her voice, while sweet and listenable, still has the lightness of youth, but she is the same kind of artist. Her selection of material is great; and the production is pure traditional country with plenty of fiddle and steel. She grew up in a musical family, and started fiddle lessons at the age of four, beginning to perform in public soon afterwards.

That youtube song was a cover of Doug Stone’s classic ‘I’d Be Better Off (In A Pine Box’), and a beautifully sung version is included on this album. In fact, she currently plays fiddle in Doug Stone’s band, and throws in a catchy Celtic-style instrumental to show off her skills.

There are two George Jones covers: a pretty, delicate version of ‘Once You’ve Had The Best’ and a strong take on ‘The Grand Tour’. ‘A Woman’s Man’ is a Leona Williams song lyrically along the lines of Loretta Lynn’s ‘You Ain’t Woman Enough’, and Jade’s version is very enjoyable. Leona is reportedly one of Jade’s influences, and one can hear it in some of her phrasing, particularly on this song. The arrangement also recreates the original, particularly the steel playing.

A couple of other songs were co-written and previously recorded by the underrated Ken Mellons. The gorgeous sad ballad ‘I Can Bring Him Back’ was a single for Mellons in 1994 (as ‘I Can Bring her Back’), while he recorded the midtempo ‘Institute Of Honky Tonks’ (with a cameo from George Jones) on his 2004 album Sweet, more recently re-released under the title Just What I’m Wantin’ To do). I prefer the meatier male version on the latter song, but Jade’s version (with a few minor lyric changes to suit a female voice) is very good. ‘I Can Bring Him Back’ is beautifully done.

She clearly has a penchant for cheating songs, and there are some excellent ones here, which are the highlights of the album. The outstanding ‘I Can’t Help It If He Can’t Stop Loving Me’ is unrepentantly addressed to her lover’s new wife:

I’m not stealing him from you
Just doing what he wants me to
And I can’t help it if he can’t stop loving me
I can’t stop him if that’s where he wants to be
There must be something here he really needs

A great song, and perhaps Jade’s most impressive vocal performance.

In ‘I’m Dynamite’ she warns a potential adulterous lover not to let anything get started before they go too far and too many innocent parties get hurt in the fallout:

The flame of love is burning
Just begging to be used
I’m dynamite so please don’t light the fuse
You can’t undo the damage that I’ll do
And the first thing I’ll destroy will be you

Also great is ‘I Had A Husband’, in which the protagonist discovers a very unwelcome secret her man has been keeping:

I should’ve known better but I couldn’t see
The game he’d been playin’ with her and with me
Loving two women and livin’ two lives
Well, I had a husband
But he wasn’t mine

In ‘Go Away’ she addresses a husband who has betrayed her, wanting to take him back but aware turning him away will save her heartbreak in the long run.

‘No Reason To Quit’ declares drinking to forget beats sobering up and rejoining her circle of friends who are now shunning her, because “I’ve got no reason for living right”.

Finally, ‘Tijuana Grass’ is a rather unexpected song about the possible effects of legalising marijuana.

You can get this excellent album in either CD or download formats from Jade’s website. It is highly recommended.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Patty Loveless ft Vince Gill – ‘If My Heart Had Windows’

Single Review: Terri Clark: ‘Some Songs’

some songsTerri Clark has a new crowdfunded album due out later in the year on her own label in association with Universal. The title track has been launched as the first single and is a pretty good advertisement.

The premise is that songs work best in a specific context: driving down a highway in a convertible with the wind in your hair, a seedy bar, a laid-back beach, a church, a romantic dance. Terri’s brisk vocal rattles out the various situations in the lyrics then soaring on the melodic chorus:

Some songs need a highway
Some songs need a church
Some songs need a tear
Some just need to feel the hurt

There are some faint echoey effects with the backing vocals which are slightly and pointlessly annoying, but they are unobtrusive enough to be bearable, and the production is otherwise tastefully understated with Terri’s muscular vocal taking center stage. There is a bright airy feel which works perfectly for the first verse’s driving these, but perhaps realizes the bar room and church less effectively. I found it a little disappointing, too, that the only song to be referenced by name (and as one sung in a bar with a sawdust floor) was not a country song of any description but rock band Train’s ‘Drops Of Jupiter’. It seemed out of place.

Overall, though, while it’s not one of my favourite Terri Clark records, this is a nice little song, well put together and performed, with a radio friendly feel.

Grade: B

Listen here.

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘In a Perfect World’

perfectworldI’m not sure whether I’d call Shanachie a major label or not – it certainly is one of the big three when it comes to Irish/Celtic music, but however you chose to characterize the label, this album, produced by Brent Rowan, found itself issued on Shanachie, one of two Watson albums released on this particular label.

By the time this album was released in 2007, Gene had been bouncing from label to label for a decade since leaving Step One Records. In fact much of the output of the period (1998-2007) consisted of Gusto reissues of material taken from Step One albums and other material released on independent labels such as Broadlands.

Unlike previous albums, which never saw Watson other than as a solo vocalist, Watson entered new territory, recording six songs featuring guest artists (mostly as harmony vocalists rather than true duets) out of the eleven songs on the album. Also unlike recent albums, this album does not contain remakes of earlier Gene Watson hits, focusing instead on some old classic country songs, with some newer material mixed in.

While this album could never be described as innovative (a value-neutral term as innovation can be bad) or cutting edge, it is yet another example of a master craftsman applying his talents to a terrific set of songs.

The album opens with the old Hank Cochran classic “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me”. Released during the 1960s this recording would have been a major hit. This song is followed by Vince Gill harmonizing with Gene on the Harlan Howard’s “Let Me Be The First To Go”, a song initially recorded by the great Wynn Stewart. This song is a tearjerker in which Watson asks God to call him home first as he couldn’t handle life without his wife. Aubrey Haynie’s fiddle and Sonny Garrish’s steel guitar really standout on this track

“What Was I Thinking” follows next – this was not the Dierks Bentley hit of a few years earlier but a Skip Ewing ballad lamenting the breakup of a relationship.

“Today I Started Loving You Again” is one of Merle Haggard’s most famous songs, even though it was never a hit for the Hag (it was the B-side of “The Ballad of Bonnie & Clyde”) although Sammi Smith had a minor hit with it. The song has been recorded many times, but never better than this version which features Lee Ann Womack’s harmony vocals, especially noteworthy on the repeat chorus.

Harley Allen and Tim Mensy penned the title track “In A Perfect World” , a song of a man who has reached bottom and is imagining life as it could be, not as it really turned out to be. Joe Nichols harmony vocals provide the proper shading for this very desolate song:

In A Perfect World It Never Rains on Saturday
In A Perfect World I Wouldn’t Hate The Holidays
I’d Sleep Just Like A Baby and Have One Down The Hall
You’d Still Be My Girl, In A Perfect World

Tim Mensy also contributed “She’s Already Gone” and “This Side of he Door” (co-written with Shawn Camp). “She’s Already Gone” is just another good song about a relationship that is already dead except for someone actually leaving, but “This Side of The Door is really good. Guest vocalist Mark Chesnutt has some solo lines on this song, which Chesnutt originally recorded on his What a Way to Live album released in 2004. This songs rocks a little harder than is customary for Gene.

It is hard to image that “Together Again” was the B-Side of “My Heart Skips A Beat” for Buck Owens never wrote a better song. Buck’s A-side spent seven weeks at #1 but so many DJs flipped the record that the B-side also spent two weeks at #1. Rhonda Vincent guest on this song, the only true duet on the album, an a harbinger of more collaborations to come. In my opinion, this is the standout track on the album.

Another Tim Mensy song “I Buried Our Love” was released as a single although I never heard it played on the radio. It has a strong lyric and should have received at least some airplay.

Connie Smith is one of the few country singers on a par with Watson in terms of being a master vocalist. I think this song was first recorded by Point of Grace but I doubt that many would consider this rendition in any way inferior to the original. I would like for Connie’s voice to have been more prominently featured.

The album closes with yet another Tim Mensy song, “Like I Wasn’t Even There”. This song sounds more like the stuff currently played on the radio (only sung better) than like classic country. The storyline of this ballad is one of a man encountering his ex and seeing her behave as if he didn’t exist.

Reaction to this album at the time of its release varied although all reviewers considered it a good collection of songs sung by an excellent singer, while docking it stars for not pushing the boundaries of the genre. In my humble opinion when an album is this good, I don’t care whether or not it breaks new ground.

From this point forward Gene would feature more duets – his next Shanachie album would feature actual duets with Trace Adkins and Rhonda Vincent and Alison Krauss providing harmony vocals on a track.

Grade: A

Single Review – Trent Tomlinson – ‘Come Back To Bed’

unnamedWith a beat slightly reminiscent of Luke Bryan’s “I Don’t Want This Night To End,” and a lyric not too far removed from the bro-country of today’s mainstream radio, Trent Tomlinson marks his return with a whimper that should be a bang.

“Come Back To Bed” says it all through its title. Tomlinson plays the part of a man desiring his woman to drop the towel around her newly showered body and return to his embrace to be covered in kisses and fawned over. Unfortunately that’s about as deep as the song gets.

But unlike most songs of its ilk, “Come Back To Bed” is nicely restrained and features zero of the 80s rock trappings that has ruined mainstream country over the past ten years and Tomlinson’s Lee Brice-like vocal is crisp and clean, not dirty and gravelly, which I greatly appreciate. He also seems invested in what he’s singing, which for a marginalized lyric like this, wins him many points.

Is “Come Back To Bed” the second coming of “One Wing In The Fire,” his excellent number from eight years ago? Of course not, and I’m not at all surprised, especially given the course of our genre in that short span of time. But it’s not an offensive song to women, nor is it rock or hip-hop in any noticeable way. I’ll take this over 99% of radio offerings any day. At least he keeps it listenable.

Grade: B

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘Because You Believed In Me’

becauseyouBecause You Believed In Me was Gene’s second major label album, following on the heels of his successful major label debut Love in the Hot Afternoon. While there weren’t any blockbuster hits on the album, the album was the affirmation of the arrival of a superior vocalist with staying power

“Because You Believed In Me” was a song that originally appeared on Gene’s 1969 debut album on the World Wide label. The original recording was good, but Gene had developed as a vocalist in the ensuing five years. Written by the legendary A.L. ‘Doodle’ Owens, this song was a straightforward ballad which reached #20 as a single.

I would have picked “If I’m A Fool For Leaving (I’d Be Twice The Fool To Stay)” for release as a single. Written by Skip Graves and Little Jimmy Dickens, the song showcases the fiddle of Buddy Spicher and the steel guitar of Lloyd Green to good effect, coupled with a superb vocal. This track is my favorite track on the album but, of course, I like my country music a little more country than most.

This morning I am leaving, I’ve been up all night long
You’re right I’m tired of waiting for you to come home
I’ve begged and tried to change you but you’ve grown worse each day
If I’m a fool for leaving I’d be twice the fool to stay

Larry Gatlin penned and had a minor hit in 1974 with “Bitter They Are, Harder They Fall”, a great song that was also recorded by the likes of Elvis Presley, Anne Murray and Dottie West and various others. This is the best rendition of the song, bar none, although I would have preferred that they not used a fade-out ending for the song.

“My World Left Town” is a fairly typical my-girl-left-me song written by Tom Ghent and R. Paul, that in the hands of a typical artist would be nothing special. With a nice fiddle and steel arrangement and Gene’s vocals, the song is elevated beyond that. It’s not an immortal classic, but the song reaches its full potential with this recording.

Roger Miller penned “Sorry Willie” and while it is sometimes thought to be about Willie Nelson (and Roger & Willie recorded the song on their Old Friends album), I don’t think Roger would ever have visualized Willie Nelson as the loser portrayed in this song. The song is a slow ballad with the piano of Hargis ‘Pig’ Robbins being a highlight of the arrangement.

See her dancing see there Willie see how reckless she is
She’s a wild one as everyone knows
Why what’s wrong Willie why you’re cryin’ what have I done
Sorry Willie I didn’t know you didn’t know

And I wouldn’t have said all those things that I’d known
That she was your darling your sweetheart your own
Don’t ask how well I know her I might lie I don’t know
Sorry Willie I didn’t know you didn’t know

Canadian Ray Griff was a prominent singer-songwriter of the late 1960s – mid 1970s. Although he had some mostly mid-chart success as a vocalist on the American Country charts (he was a far bigger star in his native Canada with 41 chart records), his U.S. success came in the form of the hits that he wrote for others such as Faron Young, George Hamilton IV and Jerry Lee Lewis. Gene rounded up four of Ray’s songs for this album. “How Good A Bad Woman Feels” would have made a good single.

I’d forgotten how good a real passion can be
In a honky tonk girl’s warm embrace
I’d forgotten the sound of a woman’s soft sigh
And that how-did-you look on her face

Griff’s “Her Body Couldn’t Keep You (Off My Mind)” was the second single released from this album. It stalled at #52, but perhaps Capitol learned something from the relative failure of this song because the next twelve singles all made the top twenty (mostly) the top ten. I not sure what it was they learned because I though this was a pretty good song.

I could call her up again tonight
And chances are she’ll see me
She’d be ready like she was the other time
She was willing with her warm red lips
And she kept nothing from me
But her body couldn’t keep you off my mind

Her body couldn’t drive my love for you out of my sight
Her kisses weren’t enough to make me wanna spend the night
It’s been two long years since I came home
And found your goodbye letter
Still I can’t get over what you left behind
I tried turning to a woman who was burning up with passion
But her body couldn’t keep you off my mind

Hank Cochran was the writer on “When You Turned Loose (I Fell Apart) “, a slow ballad that to me is just another good Hank Cochran song made better by Gene’s vocals.

Yes I’m down and might be here forever
I could get up but I don’t have the heart
‘Cause you’re all that held me together
And when you turn loose I fell apart

And baby I can’t get me back together
‘Cause without you I don’t even want to start
‘Cause you’re all that held me together
And when you turn loose I fell apart

A pair of Ray Griff compositions, “Hey Louella” and “Then You Came Along” close out the album.
“Hey Louella” is an up-tempo number with a Cajun feel to it. It’s fun but it’s a song that any half decent singer could have sung and doesn’t really give Gene a chance to demonstrate his vocal prowess. “Then You Came Along” is a nice jog-along ballad of the kind that Gene always performs well.

Gene would go on to bigger and better things, but this album maintained the momentum from his major label debut album. Although I’ve pointed out their contribution in conjunction with specific songs, the contributions of Buddy Spicher, Lloyd Green and Pig Robbins to the overall sound of the recording cannot be overstated. There are vestiges of the ‘Nashville Sound’ production (strings and choruses) but those are kept to a minimum and are unobtrusive. Capitol released this album in May 1976. Currently it is available on CD paired with Beautiful Country, an album that will be reviewed next.

Grade: A

Return to bluegrass: Tom T Hall today

tom t hall todayAfter 1985’s Song In A Seashell, Tom T Hall would take the next decade off from recording, with only 1989’s Country Songs For Kids (essentially a reissue of the 1974 children’s album Songs of Fox Hollow with some new songs added) making an appearance.

In 1996 album, Mercury would release Songs from Sopchoppy. Although released by Mercury, it was actually an independent album featuring some of Tom’s Florida friends (and none of Mercury’s session musicians), recorded at a barn in Sopchoppy, Florida. Frankly, I did not like this album as the production sounds like a cross between 1980s pop-country and so-called smooth jazz, with electric keyboard and Kenny G-style saxophone competing the debacle. The songs are good, if often downbeat, but the backing does not suit Hall’s voice. Alan Jackson rescued “Little Bitty” from this album and turned it into a number one single.

Finally, in 1997, Mercury released the final (thus far) major label album of new Tom T Hall material with Home Grown. While albums such as Magnificent Music Machine and other scattered album tracks had hinted at a turn to bluegrass, this album made it clear that TTH had returned to his roots. All of the songs were written by Hall, sometimes with an assist from his wife Dixie and are in acoustic settings.

The first track on the album, “Bill Monroe For Breakfast”, basically says it all:

When I was just a little boy we lived down on a farm
Seven miles from nowhere and a hundred miles from harm
We made our livin’ from the dirt if anything would grow
And we got our country music from a big old radio
And we had Bill Monroe for breakfast every day
Then we’d head out to the fields a hoein’ corn and mowin’ hay
Aw, mama loved his singin’, daddy loved to hear him play
And we had Bill Monroe for breakfast every day
We had a big old battery that ran the radio
Sometimes we run it down a listenin’ to the Opry Show
But we all had our instruments and most of us could play
So we had Bill Monroe for breakfast anyway

I’ve heard many bluegrass bands cover this song, as well as other songs from this album.

Since 1997, Tom T Hall has continued to write songs, usually in conjuction with his wife Dixie, and always in the bluegrass genre. He makes the occasional live appearance at a bluegrass performance, and his songs are eagerly snapped up by bluegrass performers. In 2002 Charlie Sizemore issued The Story Is … Songs of Tom T Hall, a collection of TTH’s country songs cast as bluegrass. In 2007 Blue Circle Records released Tom T Hall Sings Miss Dixie and Tom T, a bluegrass album featuring some of Tom’ friends such as Josh Williams, Sonya Isaacs and Don Rigsby with guest appearences by Earl Scruggs and Jimmy Martin.

Tom T Hall considers himself retired (although a peek at the Bluegrass Unlimited charts suggests no such thing) and at 78 years of age (as of May 25, 2014) he’s surely earned the right to retire, as no singer-songwriter today, other than perhaps Willie Nelson or Merle Haggard, has produced as large a catalog of interesting and memorable songs.

Album Review: Tom T. Hall – ‘The Magnificent Music Machine’

magnificent music machineAfter a string of successful albums and singles between 1971 and 1976 in which seven of his nine albums reached the Billboard Country Top Ten, and twelve of his singles reached the Billboard Top Ten Country Singles chart (six reached number one on Billboard), Tom T Hall decided that it was time to give proper airing to his bluegrass roots. The end result, The Magnificent Music Machine would prove to be both an artistic success and a chart success, with the album reaching number eleven and the only single released, “Fox On The Run” reaching number nine.

For this project, Tom called on a number of his bluegrass friends plus some other leading lights of the genre: Kenny Baker, Johnny Gimble and Buddy Spicher on fiddle; Gene Bush on slide dobro; Bobby Thompson and J.D. Crowe on banjo; Donna Stoneman (of the legendary Stoneman Family) and Jodi Drumright on mandolin; and Trish Williams, J.T. Gray, Art Malin, and Jimmy Martin (!) on harmony vocals To try to give the album some commercial appear, Nashville session stalwarts Buddy Harmon (drums), Henry Strezelecki and Bob Moore (bass) were added to the mix.

Up to this point in his career, Hall’s albums had been almost exclusively his own compositions. While Tom T would write five of the eleven songs on this album, six of the songs came from outside sources.

The album opens up with “Fox On The Run”, a song which was added to the bluegrass repertoire by the Bill Emerson of the Country Gentlemen, but which started life as a rock song for British group Manfred Mann. The song was written by Tony Hazzard, an English songwriter who wrote hits for The Hollies, Herman’s Hermits, The Yardbirds, The Tremeloes and Lulu. The song reached #5 on the UK pop charts in late 1968 (at least one of the UK charts had it reaching #1). Tom T’s version was a hard driving affair and after the wide radio exposure and sales of the album, the song would be forevermore bluegrass


he walks through the corn leading down to the river
Her hair shone like gold in the hot morning sun
She took all the love that a poor boy could give her
And left him to die like a fox on the run

John Prine’s “Paradise” (sometimes titled “Muhlenburg County”) follows, a nostalgic yet bitter mid-tempo song that decries the damage that the coal industry has done to the environment

Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man

And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg county
Down by the green river where paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away

“Mama’s Got The Catfish Blues” is a Tom T Hall composition, written, he says, in the spirit of something Carter Stanley would have written. I’m not sure I’m hearing Carter Stanley in this particular song, but it’s a good song, one that also might have made a good single

There’s a turtle on the stump and the toadfrog jump
And I guess, I could gig me a few
In settlin’ fog I caught a big water dog
Mama’s got the catfish blues

I don’t like to see her unhappy
She treats me like a water tree
I hate to see mama with the catfish blues
And the catfish are layin’ in the river asleep

“Bluegrass Break-up” is a Charlie Williams composition, about the sadness of a bluegrass band that is disbanding:

Well, we’re finally breakin’ up our bluegrass band
And the thought of it is more than I can stand
But if parting is our one chance to survive
You’ll take the dobro and I’ll take the five.

Once our music tore the world apart
When we used to pick and sing it from the heart
But then dissension came into our lives
So you’ll take the dobro and I’ll take the five.

Once our world was harmony and fun
Wildwood Flower and ten-one mighty run
We can’t patch it up, we made too many tries
So you’ll take the dobro and I’ll take the five.

“I Don’t Want My Golden Slippers” is a religious song with the sound and feel of a church choir and a mostly acoustic guitar accompaniment. Although Tom T wrote this song, it truly sounds as if it could have been written a century before.

“Molly and Tenbrooks” is derived from an old folk tale about a horserace and was made famous and fashioned into a viable song by the ‘Father of Bluegrass’ Mr. Bill Monroe. On this recording Bill Monroe guests playing the mandolin to Tom’s vocals. Interestingly, Tom T reports that Monroe had to refresh himself on the mandolin part in order to play the song – he normally played guitar or just sang when performing this song!

“The Fastest Rabbit Dog In Carter County Today” is another Tom T Hall composition, this one an up-tempo romp about a rabbit hunt.

“I’ll Never Do Better Than You” also comes from T’s pen. One of the slower songs on the album, it expresses a depth of feeling that sometimes gets overlooked among the pyrotechnics of the genre

Tom’s late brother Hillman Hall, was an accomplished songwriter, although not in Tom T’s class, of course. “The Magnificent Music Machine” is Hillman’s contribution to this album, a terrific song that I would have released as a single. For that matter, it would have made a great Jimmy Martin single.

He’s got nothing but talent and time on his hands
He loves his music, hangs out with his band
He’s got big-hit ambitions and number one dreams
He’s a high-rollin’, a magnificent music machine

He hit town with nothing but his old guitar
With visions of grandeur and being a star
He writes them and sings them like you’ve never seen
He’s a high-rollin’, a magnificent music machine

“Rank Stranger”, of course is a classic Stanley Brothers song, perhaps my favorite song from the entire Stanley canon, from which there are many classics. This song still gives me chills and Tom sings it well.

I wandered again to my home in the mountains
Where in youth’s early dawn I was happy and free
I looked for my friends but I never could find them
I found they were all rank strangers to me

Everybody I met seemed to be a rank stranger
No mother or dad, not a friend could I see
They knew not my name and I knew not their faces
I found they were all rank strangers to me.

The album closes, fittingly enough, with another Tom T Hall composition “Bluegrass Festival In The Sky”.

In the sweet by and by at that Bluegrass Festival in the sky.

There’ll be Monroe Flatt Scruggs and the Stanleys
The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers and the whole McGranner’s Family
Molly and the Stonemans and Martin and Crow
Dillard and Thompson and Smiley and Reno.

(And we will sing)
In the sweet by and by at that Bluegrass Festival in the sky.

There’ll be old Tige and Baker and Clements and Warren
Richmond and Harold Carl Story and Dorrin
Acker McMagaha Wiseman and Gray
The Osbornes Bill Clifton Sprung and Uncle Dave.

(And we will sing)
In the sweet by and by at that Bluegrass Festival in the sky…

It would be many years before Tom T Hall would return to his bluegrass roots when recording a solo album, but return he would. It just didn’t happen as soon as I would have liked.

Single Review: Zac Brown Band – ‘All Alright’

all alright epI was really looking forward to hearing the latest from the always eclectic Zac Brown Band, now going it alone having cut their ties with Atlantic. Their new single comes from an EP released digitally in December last year and on CD on 19 May, produced by rock musician Dave Grohl.

The song, composed by band members Brown, John Driskell Hopkins and Jimmy DeMartini with Brown’s frequent co-writer Wyatt Durrette and Eric Church, is extremely well written, from the viewpoint of a man who has lost in love. He complains,

You made me think you were mine
Then you changed your mind
I’m lost as a feather in a hurricane

The big chorus is set to a catchy and memorable meolody which should make this a radio hit, as Zac bemoans the way.

It was all alright
Now it’s all all wrong
That’s just how it goes when you’re gone

But perhaps he is not all that heartbroken after all, as he confesses

I guess God did not make me a one woman man
I’d have a lot to give
If I still gave a damn
That’s just how it goes when you’re wrong

Zac Brown’s passionate vocal is well supported by his bandmates’ excellent harmonies. Unfortunately, the instrumentation is muddy and rock-sounding, with an intrusive electric guitar, no doubt the influence of their new producer. This is a genuinely good song, but I would like it so much better with an acoustic or at least solidly country-rock arrangement. Having said that, the production is still understated compared to some of the dreck out there, and perhaps I wouldn’t dislike it as much if it didn’t start with the intro, but that seems like faint praise. Country radio generally loves the Zac Brown Band, with only the bluegrass of ‘The Wind’ failing to make the top couple of spots on the Billboard chart, and this should do well for them too.

So, an A-worthy song, fine vocals, but unappealing musical backings, average out the grade at:

B+ for me. Those with more rock-tinged tastes will probably have this as an A.

Listen and decide for yourself:

Classic Rewind: George Jones – ‘Someday My Day Will Come’

Album Review: Chris Hillman – ‘Desert Rose’

desert roseChris Hillman’s second album for Sugar Hill (produced by Al Perkins) wasn’t entirely acoustic, but electric instruments are kept to a minimum. Featuring future Desert Rose Band cohorts Herb Pedersen on harmony vocals and rhythm guitar and Jay Dee Maness on steel, sets the template for the sound of the Desert Rose Band. A selection of mainly old country and bluegrass songs is delivered with sparking musicianship and Chris Hillman’s most accomplished vocals to date. Hillman might have been making music for the best part of 20 years, but this is where he really found his voice as a singer as well as musician and songwriter. In addition, his musical partnership with Herb Pedersen is one of the unsung pairings of country music, and this (or technically on the preceding Sugar Hill album Morning Sky) is where it started.

Chris’s version of the mid-tempo Mickey Newbury song ‘Why You Been So Long’ has a loping country rock feel. He turns to classic country with the Wilburn Brothers’ ‘Somebody’s Back In Town’, a lonesome number in which the protagonist’s loved one is going back to a returning ex, meaning that his own chance of winning her is gone. It’s not that well known a song, although Loretta Lynn cut it on her Fist City album, and Ricky Van Shelton later covered it, but it is an excellent one.

The delicately subdued Reno & Smiley ballad ‘Wall Around Your Heart’ is another outstanding song with a downbeat emotion. Even better is Chris’s version of the Louvin Brothers’ plaintive ‘I Can’t Keep You In Love With Me’, which shows off Herb’s harmonies at their best. Byron Berline’s fiddle is particularly effective on this track.

Jimmie Rodgers’ Rough And Rowdy Ways’ is cheerier, with a rambler happy with who he is. ‘Treasure Of Love’ is a George Jones song about the value of love over material things which Chris sings with great warmth and tenderness. Chris takes on the old Johnnie & Jack hit ‘Ashes Of Love, which he was to redo in similar style a couple of years later with the Desert Rose Band; the lyric is sad enough, but the performance is joyous.

The gospel classic ‘Turn Your Radio On’ has great harmonies from Herb and from ex Eagle Bernie Leadon. (At the time Chris was a recently professed Evangelical Christian, although he later converted to Greek Orthodoxy).

Amidst the classic songs, there are two Hillman originals, both about a relationship in which the couple face frequent separation. The title track is a melodic song about a couple facing hard times; the protagonist wonders if his “sweet desert rose” will still love him while he’s away looking for work in another town. This was a cowrite with Bill Wildes, a California-based horse trainer and songwriter whose life and character was reportedly the inspiration for the Eagles’ song ‘Desperado’. In the breezy ‘Running The Roadblocks’ a man is rushing home to a loved one, not caring how far over the speed limit he is. These are both pretty good songs, but perhaps not quite up to the standard of the rest.

This is a fantastic record which should appeal to fans of the Desert Rose Band, and to anyone whose tastes lean to more traditional country with bluegrass influences. It’s easy to find cheaply, and is well worth adding to your collection. Predecessor Morning Sky is rarer, and not quite so good, but worth picking up if you can find it.

Grade: A+

Classic Rewind: Marie Osmond – ‘Paper Roses’

Single Review – Miranda Lambert – ‘Automatic’

Miranda-Lambert-GotCountryOnlineIn the monologue preceding “Young Love” on Her Story: Scenes From A Lifetime, Wynonna articulated that Judd music “Reflected a much sweeter and simpler time” where the pace was slower and face-to-face human connection was the lay of the land. Twenty-five years after that seminal classic, Miranda Lambert is yearning to return there, pondering a life “before everything became automatic.”

Unlike Paul Kennerley and Kent Robbins sweeping epic, Lambert relies on a laundry list of nostalgic signifiers (The United States Postal Service, Rand McNally Atlases, pay phones, pocket watches, etc) to tell her story. Instead of helping make her case, though, they weigh down the track with sentiment and lack her distinctive personality.

Thankfully the chorus is fantastic, with a message that proves all too true:

Hey whatever happened to, waitin’ your turn

Doing it all by hand, cause when everything is handed to you

It’s only worth as much as the time you put in

It all just seems so good the way we had it

Back before everything became, automatic

Lambert’s vocal is also sincere so the listener does invest in what she’s signing, which is kind of rare these days. The production is a bit muffled and should’ve been littered in steel and fiddle, which would’ve helped the track immensely. But from the end result, it’s clear “Automatic” has good bones.

The track could’ve been shockingly great, if Lambert stripped away the generalities and wrote solely from personal experience, like Rosanne Cash did on The River & The Thread. But it’s a step above most of mainstream country and that counts for a lot in the current climate.

Grade: B 

Songwriters: Miranda Lambert, Natalie Hemby, Nicolle Galyon 


Album Review: Shenandoah – ‘Long Time Comin”

long time cominThe early 90s saw changes for Shenandoah. They had left Columbia after their legal troubles, and signed to RCA. They recruited Keith Stegall to produce their debut effort for the new label alongside longterm collaborator Robert Byrne. It continued the style familiar from earlier work, but the songs were not quite as strong.

The lead single was a pleasantly radio-friendly mid-tempo song about a man going home to ‘Rock My Baby’ after a hard day’s work and a night out with the boys. Although not particularly memorable, It has an airy feel with some attractive fiddle, and it returned the group close to the top of the charts, with a #2 peak.

Unfortunately the other singles from the album were not as successful. The follow-up ‘Hey Mister (I Need That Job)’ offered a change of pace, portraying the voice of a young expectant father facing unemployment and desperate for a chance to prove himself and provide for his family. Perhaps it was a little too serious to play well on radio, more accustomed to Shenandoah’s lighter material, as it barely scraped into the top 30, but it is an excellent song (written by Kerry Chater and Renee Armand) with a moving vocal from Marty.

‘Leavin’s Been A Long Time Comin’, the up-tempo title track, was a return to a brighter feel (despite a downbeat lyric), and this one peaked at #15. ‘Give Me Five Minutes’ (written by Robert Ellis Orrall) is a charmingly optimistic number typical of Shenandoah’s up-tempo material. It would have made a fine radio-friendly single had they tried one more.

‘Same Old Heart’ is a tender Mac McAnally ballad acknowledging that a relationship is faltering, in which Marty’s phrasing is very reminiscent of McAnally’s version (on his excellent 1989 Simple Life album). I really liked this one.

Nostalgia for times past has a strong thematic role on this album. ‘Right Where I Belong’ (written by Rick Bowles and Josh Leo) is also good, a sweet look at the simple joys of small-town country life which a young man’s ambitions for something more exciting led him to pass up. Now, he’s back home to settle down, since in his quest for success,

I lost myself and that’s a high price to pay.

The tender ballad story song ‘There Ain’t No Beverly Hills In Tennessee, written by Marty Raybon and Mike McGuire, was the CD bonus track (omitted from the cassette). It is one of the best songs here, telling the story of a girl who marries young but leaves her husband with dreams of greener pastures:

There ain’t no California gold in a smoky mountain stream
There ain’t no silver linin’ to lace a poor boy’s dream
As she walked away I was thinking someday she’d come on back to me
But there ain’t no Beverly Hills in Tennessee

The gentle ballad ‘I Was Young Once Too’, written by the co-producer Robert Byrne with Richard Leigh, also looks back, with its tender portrait of the relationship between the protagonist and his father. ‘Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting’ is a little too similar melodically and thematically to their big hit ‘Sunday In The South’, but is beautifully sung.

The lively rockabilly ‘Rattle The Windows’ is a feelgood celebration of being in a smalltime country band.

This isn’t a bad album by any means, but it lacked obvious hits. With only one real hit single (in the shape of one of the record’s more lackluster songs), it did not sell as well as their last couple of Columbia releases. However, used copies are easy to find cheap, and it’s worth picking up.

Grade: B+

Favorite Country Songs of the 1980s: Part 7

honey i dare youIt’s been a while since my last installment of this series. Here are some more songs from the 1980s that I liked and remember. See if you recall any of these records.

Shame On The Moon” – Bob Seger
Bob’s 1982 recording of a Rodney Crowell song charted on the country charts in early 1983, reaching #15 in the process. The song was a bigger hit on the pop charts, reaching #2 for four weeks.

Doesn’t Anybody Get High On Love Anymore” – The Shoppe
The Shoppe was a Dallas based band that hung around for years after their 1968 formation. In the early 1980s they had eight chart records, but this was the only one to crack the top forty, reaching #33. They had a record deal with MTM Records in 1985, but that label vanished, taking the Shoppe with them.

Honey (Open That Door)” – Ricky Skaggs
The early 1980s belonged to Ricky Skaggs as he racked up eight #1 records before the end of 1984. Some of his records were bluegrass/country hybrids, others, like this cover of Mel Tillis-penned Webb Pierce record were more straightforward country. This record topped the charts in 1984 and had a very amusing video to accompany it.

A Far Cry From You” – Connie Smith
After disappearing from the charts for six years, Connie emerged with this excellent single in 1985. Epic didn’t give the record much of a promotional push so it only reached #71, but it was one of my ten favorite records for the year 1985.

He Gives Me Diamonds, You Give Me Chills”– Margo Smith
Margo Smith has a short run of chart success in the late 1970s but by the end of the decade her run was almost over. This 1980 record would stall at #52 and other than a pair of duets with Rex Allen Jr., she would not see the top forty again. Margo is still an active performer and lives in the Villages, FL. When she’s feeling well, she can still yodel with the best of them.

Cheatin’s A Two Way Street”– Sammi Smith
Sammi’s last top twenty record, reaching #16 in 1981. Sammi should have become a much bigger star than she did.

Tear-Stained Letter” – Jo-el Sonnier
This Cajun accordion player had two top ten records for RCA in 1988 before fading away. Cajun has never been mainstream so he didn’t figure to have too many hits (and he didn’t). This record reached #9 and the one before it “No More One More Time” reached 7. Nothing else reached the top twenty.

Hasn’t It Been Good Together” – Hank Snow and Kelly Foxton
Hank’s eighty-fifth chart hit and the very last singles chart appearance for ‘The Singing Ranger’. This song crept to #80 in 1980. Hank would only record one more time after the album from which this album was issued, a duet album with Willie Nelson a few years later. Read more of this post

Single Review – Easton Corbin – ‘Clockwork’

Easton-Corbin-2-630x630The curious case of Easton Corbin continues.

In a format smothered by 80s rock, he’s the one artist given the freedom to retain a sound rich with steel guitars, fiddles, and audible twang. Country radio plays his singles, too, which is a remarkable feat for someone who wears their country credibility openly on their sleeve.

So why is he still recording mediocre inoffensive middle-of-the-road material? Does his record label have his image so tightly controlled he can’t rise to anything great nor fall to the doldrums like his peers?

“Clockwork” retains the same narrative Corbin’s been singing for his past few singles. It’s another guy-girl relationship song with the twist this time around being her punctual arrival at his place every Friday night. The writers inject the word ‘girl’ at the end of almost every line, as if to bro the song up, but it only sounds like a desperate plea to keep Corbin’s music on the radio.

Corbin could be a great country singer if he just had stronger lyrics and far more interesting melodies behind his natural twang. Even he, as evidenced by his relaxed vocal delivery, sounds a bit bored with his chosen material. Corbin does put some feeling into this, but his overall lack of energy prevents “Clockwork” from elevating past mundane.

This pleasing to all vanilla act has gone on too long. Let’s hope his upcoming album shows us what Corbin’s really made of.

Grade: B- 

Songwriters: Carson Chamberlain, Wade Kirby, and Ashley Gorley

Listen Here

Spotlight Artist: Marty Raybon and Shenandoah

marty raybonMarty Raybon was born in Greenville, Alabama, on 8 December 1959. He grew up playing bluegrass in a family band. In his 20s he moved to Muscle Shoals in the north of the state, where he founded a band with Ralph Ezell on bass guitar, Stan Thorn on keyboards, Jim Seales on lead guitar, and Mike McGuire on drums. The group, known originally as the MGM Band after the club where they had a regular gig, recorded a demo which attracted the interest of CBS Records, who picked them up and also gave them the name Shenandoah. They had also briefly used the name Diamond Rio, although they had no connection with the successful country group of that name.

Their self-titled debut album was released in 1987, but was only modestly successful, and is now very hard to obtain. However, it did provide their first top 30 country hit, ‘Stop The Rain’. The label had faith in the band, and their second album The Road Not Taken realised those hopes, taking them to the top of the charts. Less traditional than some of their peers, their music balanced radio friendly gloss with Mary Raybon’s soulful voice and allied to high quality material helped them to become among the brightest stars of the late 80s/early 90s.

Shenandoah never won as many awards as their talent may have dictated. The band was named the Academy of Country Music Vocal Group of the Year in 1990, and they won CMA and Grammy awards for their collaboration with Alison Krauss, ‘Somewhere In The Vicinity Of The Heart’.

Soon afterwards, however, they ran into trouble when several unknown bands sued them for use of the name Shenandoah. The costs of fighting these claims led the band into bankruptcy and forced them to leave Columbia in 1992.

They had a new start on RCA, and enjoyed further commercial success, before a further move to Capitol imprint Liberty Records in 1994. However, Marty Raybon appears to have been getting restless, and in 1995 recorded his first solo album (a self-titled gospel one) as a side project. Original band members Ezell and Thorn also left around this time. The band’s final album featuring Marty Raybon was a Christmas one.

Soon after this, Marty left Shenandoah for good. He teamed up with his brother Tim to form the duo the Raybon Brothers, and they had a hit single with the sentimental ‘Butterfly Kisses’ in 1997. It sold well but received mediocre airplay, and the brothers disbanded.

Meanwhile, Marty returned to his first musical love, bluegrass, and from 2000 onwards has recorded a succession of fine bluegrass albums. These days he is signed to Rural Rhythm Records.

It was always Marty Raybon’s voice which made Shenandoah. Indeed, they continue to tour without him, with a succession of new lead singers, but it was never the same without his smoky-voiced lead.

Through February we will be exploring Marty’s work with Shenandoah and solo.

Album Review: Doug Stone – ‘The Long Way’

Unknown2002’s The Long Way was Doug Stone’s first post-major label collection of mostly new material. Released in September by Audium Entertainment, the album was co-produced by Stone and Chet Hinesley, it consists of seven new songs and three newly recorded versions of Doug’s earlier hits for Sony. Though listenable, all of the re-recordings are inferior to the original versions.

As is often the case with albums that are released after an artist’s artistic peak, the material on The Long Way is inconsistent. It opens with the pretty ballad “Losing You”, which is a little too schmaltzy and AC-leaning for my taste, despite the inclusion of some nice steel guitar work. The mid-tempo title track is more contemporary than most of Doug’s work, but it is bland and forgettable. I like the Gary Burr and Cynthia Weil number “One Heartache At A Time” about an insensitive husband whose actions are slowly driving his wife away, much better. “POW 369”, written by Steven Dale Jones, though a bit sentimental, is the album’s best song. The album’s sole single, it tells about the remorse felt by the protagonist, upon learning that the motorist that just cut him off is an ex-prisoner of war. The single did not chart.

Doug wrote the bluesy and uptempo “Poor Man’s Boulevard” with co-producer Chet Hinesley. It’s a good but not great song that isn’t particularly suited to Doug’s voice or style. Another artist might have been able to better do it justice. The more country sounding uptempo “Bone Dry” is much better. Doug also co-wrote the ballad “Lying To Myself”, in which he can’t accept that the love of his life is gone. It’s more typical of his usual style, though he seems to be singing at the high end of his register and straining just a bit.

All in all, The Long Way is a pleasant but not particularly memorable listening experience. Cheap copies are readily available but it’s not an essential purchase except for diehard fans.

Grade: B-


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