My Kind of Country

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

Category Archives: Everything Else

Album Review: T. Graham Brown – ‘Forever Changed’

foreverchangedThe newly released Forever Changed, is T. Graham Brown’s first full-length studio album in nearly nine years. Produced by Mark Carman, it is a collection of inspirational songs. Although it is being labeled a gospel album in press releases, most of the songs are not overtly religious, but all of them deliver a positive message. Presumably the project was inspired by his own battles with alcoholism.

As one might expect with a T. Graham Brown album, Forever Changed is heavily influenced by soul and R&B, along with a healthy dose of mainstream pop. It isn’t terribly country, although a number of Nashville’s finest, including Vince Gill, Sonya Isaacs, former Statler Brother Jimmy Fortune, and the Oak Ridge Boys, appear as guest artists.

The album’s lead single “He’ll Take Care of You”, a duet with Vince Gill, was released last August, but failed to make any impact on the charts. It is one of he album’s best tracks, along with the title track (a beautiful ballad), the funky “Soul Talk” and a very nice remake of Charley Pride’s “Power of Love”. The Oak Ridge Boys revisit their own gospel roots on “How Do You Know:”. My least favorite track is “Shadow of Doubt”, which is not a bad song at all, but it is ruined by guest vocalist Leon Russell’s caterwauling.

In addition to the new material, Forever Changed contains two newly recorded versions of songs from Brown’s back catalog. Sonya Isaacs joins Brown on “Which Way To Pray”, about a victim of sexual abuse and domestic violence, and Jimmy Fortune accompanies him on one of his very best songs “Wine Into Water”. Although recycling of material usually annoys me, I didn’t find it objectionable in this case since the album consists of a generous 13 tracks.

Forever Changed has been nominated for a Grammy and I would very much like to see it win. It can be purchased through regular music outlets, Cracker Barrel or downloaded.

Grade: A

Album Review: T. Graham Brown – ‘The Next Right Thing’

nextrightthingThe second album of the post-major label phase of T. Graham Brown’s career was 2003’s The Next Right Thing, which he co-produced with Gary Nicolson. It was released five years after Wine Into Water, and puts less emphasis on soul and R&B and more on mainstream country than his hits for Capitol.

The album’s only single was a remake of Jerry Lee Lewis’s 1977 hit “Middle Age Crazy”, which was written by Sonny Throckmorton. Brown’s faithful-to-the-original version reached #58 on the charts. It may have been the only single released from the album but it is far from the only quality track. The album’s highlight is “Bag of Bones” about an aging war veteran, featuring a guest vocal by George Jones, who sings from the point of view of the song’s subject. These aren’t two artists one would immediately think to pair together, but it is an effective and inspired partnership. The Celtic-flavored “Tools for the Soul”, Steve Earle’s “My Old Friend the Blues” and “Which Way To Pray”, a Brown/Nicholson composition about a survivor of incest are also quite good.

This album is quite different from the music Brown made during his hit-making days, which may slightly disappoint his fans from that era. The rockabilly number “Still Out of the Woods” written by Jim Lauderdale and Gary Nicholson is a little closer to Brown’s major-label releases, and “Use The Blues” and the self-penned “Monkey”, which I did not like at all, has him reclaiming that R&B edge that is lacking from most of these tracks. Throughout much of the album, his voice sounds familiar, but if one didn’t already know who was singing, it might be difficult to identify him. A lot of the time he sounds surprisingly similar to Travis Tritt. That’s not a complaint because overall I quite enjoyed this album. It’s too bad he didn’t more of this type of music when he still had a shot at getting radio airplay.

The album concludes with “Wine Into Water”, the title track of Brown’s previous album, a (semi) autobiographical number about a recovering alcoholic still struggling to overcome his addiction.

Cheap copies of The Next Right Thing are readily available and worth obtaining.

Grade: A-

A look back at 1989: Part 2 – Buck Owens

Buck Owens with Dwight YoakamThe year 1989 saw the debuts and/or emergence of a fine crop of new artists that would continue the neo-traditionalist movement that flickered in the early 1980s with the arrival of Ricky Skaggs and started building up steam in 1986 when Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam arrived. Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Alan Jackson and Travis Tritt were the biggest names to emerge in 1989, but there were others as well.

This is not to say that the old guard didn’t produce some excellent records that year, even if they were having difficulty getting playing time. Among these was the Baron of Bakersfield, Buck Owens .
Unlike George Jones, whose 1989 album was but one of a dozen or more albums to follow, Buck Owens 1989 effort ACT NATURALLY, was the penultimate effort by the #1 country artist of the 1960s. Although Buck’s recording career essentially ended at the end of the 1970, there was a three album coda to his career.

Late in the decade, Dwight Yoakam dredged Buck out of retirement to perform a duet on “Streets of Bakerfield”. Following the success of that recording, Capitol inked Buck to a new deal which was to see three albums released. The three albums were 1988’s HOT DOG, this album, and 1991’s KICKIN’ IN. None of the albums sold especially well, but this album featured a return to the top thirty singles chart in “Act Naturally”.

In 1963, “Act Naturally” was the first number one record of Buck’s career spending four weeks atop the country charts. Not only did the song jumpstart Buck’s career, but Buck’s recording caught the attention of the Beatles, who had Ringo Starr record the song. In the USA, Capitol released the song as the B side of “Yesterday”.

Apparently Buck and the various members of the Beatles (especially Ringo) had established rapport over the years, so the two of them got together to record the song as a duet and shoot a video.

The rest of the album was comprised of remakes of some of Buck’s older classics, some songs Buck had written since retiring at the end of the 1970s and one cover. One of the highlights on the album was a duet with Emmylou Harris on “Crying Time”. Although Buck had not released the song as a single, Ray Charles more than made up for the omission with his recording.

In addition to the aforementioned “Crying Time ” and “Act Naturally” Buck reprised his older classics “Gonna Have Love” (#76 in 1989) , and “Take Me Back Again” . Newer Owens tunes were “Tijuana Lady”, “Out Chasing Rainbows”, “Rock Hard Love”, “I Was There” and “Brooklyn Bridge”. Since none of these newer songs were released as singles, not many had the opportunity to hear them. I think “Tijuana Lady”, “Brooklyn Bridge” or “Rock Hard Love” would have made decent singles. My favorite of the newer songs is “Out There Chasing Rainbows” which other than the rhythm section, comes closest to the 1960s sound (meaning it would never have made it as a single)

I’m always out there chasing rainbows always going for the gold
Searching for you in far off places yes I’m always out there chasing rainbows

` Your memory makes me think of rainbows of summer days and daffodils
Of tender times and sweet surrender I loved you then and always will
I’m always out there…

The one cover song was of the old Wynn Stewart classic “Playboy”, it was a great song in Wynn’s hands and Buck does the song justice.

Other than latter day Buckaroos Jim Shaw (keyboards) and Doyle Curtsinger (bass), the musicians on this album are Nashville session men. This means that the album does not sound like one of the classic Buck Owens & The Buckaroos albums of the 1960s, but it doesn’t really sound like the typical late 1980s production either as no strings or synthesizers appear plus some real old school musicians such as Ralph Mooney (steel) and Rob Hajacos (fiddle) appear on some of the tracks.

Classic Rewind: Ricky Van Shelton ft Patty Loveless – ‘Rockin’ Years’

Album Review: Jeff Bates – ‘Me And Conway’

me and conwayWhen Jeff Bates was being played on country radio a few years back he was often heralded as the new Conway Twitty. This latest, self-produced, album was billed as a tribute to the artist, so I was expecting the usual collection of covers, but in fact this album mixes up covers (and not necessarily the most obvious choices) with other material, mainly written by Jeff.

The title track pays tribute to Conway by telling the story of a romance fuelled by a Twitty CD, and is quite good.

Jeff sounds great on a trio of Conway’s big hits: the overtly sexy ‘I’d Love To Lay You Down’, loving tribute to a father’s love ‘That’s My Job’, and the late hit ‘She’s Got A Single thing In Mind’, all of which are impeccably sung versions of excellent songs. My favorite of the covers, though, is the graceful waltz ‘Lost In The Feeling’, a #2 hit for Twitty in 1983. Jeff’s version is lovely.

Delightfully, he recruits Loretta Lynn to duet on ‘After The Fire Is Gone’. Less familiar at least to me was the sultry ‘Don’t Take it Away’, although it was a #1 hit (in 1979); Jeff does his very best Conway impression here and it is a pretty good song, but I admit I would have liked to hear Jeff’s take on a song like ‘Hello Darling’.

A cover of T G Sheppard’s early 80s hit ‘Slow Burn’ is less effective, with intrusive electric guitars in the mix.

Jeff’s new songs were written with Conway Twitty’s style in mind. ‘Sleepin’ In’, written by Jeff with Robert Arthur and Kirk Roth, is a nice celebration of a happy marriage which fits in nicely with the general mood. ‘Heaven Is A Hell Of A Woman’ (written by Jeff with Jason Matthews) is another good new song, with a more soulful feel, particularly in the backing vocals. The same pair’s ‘That Thing We Do’ is less memorable, and perilously close to bro-country with its girl and truck storyline, but at least it has a decent tune.

The emotional ‘If Heaven Had A Phone’ (written by Jeff with Andrew Rollings) expresses the sadness at losing a mother, and is tenderly sung with some lovely steel.

Although it wasn’t quite what I anticipated, this is a very good album which I enjoyed a great deal.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Scotty McCreery covers Garth Brooks – ‘Papa Loved Mama’

Classic Rewind: Jeff Hanna ft Matraca Berg – ‘God Bless The Broken Road’

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Jeff Hanna and his wife Matraca Berg wrote this song, which is probably best known from Rascal Flatts’ cover.

Five songs and some recollections from 1968

Although I had been listening to country music all of my life, 1968 was the first time I ever really focused on the genre.

There were several reasons for this, including the fact that with part-time and summer jobs I had some spending money for the first time in my life. One of my jobs was in Virginia Beach where there was a record store next door that actually carried a decent selection of country 45s.

The summer of 1968 may have been “the Summer of Love” for many but in my opinion pop music had started getting a bit weird for my taste so I started keeping my radio on either WCMS in Norfolk (“Where Country Music Swings”) or WTID in Newport News (“Top Gun”). Both of these were AM stations as the FM bands were reserved for classical music.

Mostly I listened to WCMS which was the stronger station (50,000 watts) and had better disc jockeys, folks such as “Hopalong” Joe Hoppel and “Carolina” Charlie Wiggs. Disc jockeys had more latitude in what they played, and local listener requests figured heavily in airplay. While I won’t pretend that the radio stations were perfect (there were lots of dumb commercials and sometimes really silly contests),radio station DJs could play records by local artists and other non-charting records without running afoul of corporate mucky-mucks. Local DJ Carolina Charlie had two records in “Pound By Pound” and “Angel Wings” in 1968 that received frequent airplay on WCMS and also received airplay on other stations throughout the area in which Charlie played live shows.

Most of the larger country radio stations had their own top forty charts and many of them had a local countdown show on Saturday or Sunday afternoon. At one time I had several years worth of top forty charts for WCMS AM-1050. Mom, God rest her soul, threw them out long ago without telling me, so to some extent I am operating on memory but there were five songs that were huge hits in the Norfolk area in 1968 that have stuck in my memory, songs that were not necessarily big hits nationally, but that the local audiences, composed largely of US military personnel and families loved (there were three local Navy bases plus an army base).

Undo The Right”, sung by Johnny Bush and written by Johnny’s good buddy Willie Nelson, was a big hit nationally, reaching #10 on Billboard’s Country chart. In the Norfolk area, the song was huge staying at the #1 slot for five weeks. The song, with its heavy dose of fiddle and steel, was more country sounding than 95% of the songs (mostly countrypolitan or Nashville Sound productions) to chart that year. The single was issued on Pete Drake’s Stop label and led to Bush being signed to RCA, where a mysterious throat problem derailed his career for a number of years

The big hits basically had long since stopped by 1968 for George Morgan, although “Sounds of Goodbye”, released on the Starday label, might have become a big national hit for him had not two other artists recorded the song, thus splitting the hit. Although the song only reached #31 nationally, it did spark off a bit of a renaissance for Morgan. In the Norfolk area the song was a top five hit, reaching #2. The song, probably the first hit on an Eddie Rabbitt composition, also charted for Tommy Cash at #41 and was a top twenty hit for Cash on the Canadian Country charts. Vern & Rex Gosdin had a successful record with the song on the west coast of the US in late 1967. Cashbox had the song reach #15 but their methodology in 1968 was to combine all versions of the song into a single chart listing. I’ve heard the Gosdins’ version of the song, but Tommy Cash’s version for United Artists never made it to an album and I’ve never found a copy of the single, so I’ve not heard his recording.

“Got Leavin’ On Her Mind” was probably my favorite recording of 1968. Written by the legendary Jack Clement, the song was issued on the MGM label by newly minted Country Music Hall of Fame member Mac Wiseman. As far as I know, the song was a ‘one-off’ for MGM and Wiseman. Long known as “the voice with a heart” and a legendary bluegrass singer, this record had the feel of bluegrass without actually being a bluegrass record in that the instrumentation was standard country without Nashville Sound trappings. Bluegrass artists rarely have huge chart hits and this was no exception, reaching only #54 for Mac. In the Norfolk area, demand for the single was strong and while it only reached #5 on the WCMS charts, the record store I frequented had difficulty keeping the record in stock, reordering new supplies of the single on several occasions.

Carl and Pearl Butler were archaic even when their music was new, but “Punish Me Tomorrow” seemed to catch the ears of the servicemen in our area. It only reached #28 nationally, but it was top ten on WCMS and might have reached higher but the DJs on WCMS made the mistake of playing the flip side “Goodbye Tennessee” resulting in the station receiving a lot of requests for that song, too.

Drinking Champagne” went top ten on WCMS, anticipating by four years the huge success that Cal Smith would achieve starting in 1972. Written by legendary disc jockey Bill Mack, the song reached #35 on Billboard’s country chart but went to #1 for a week on WCMS. Years later George Strait would have a successful record with the song. Cal’s was the better version and this might have been a huge national hit if released a few years later after Smith hit the big time.

I realize that most of our readership wasn’t born in 1968 and if they think about country music in 1968 at all, it is for pop-country singles like “Honey“, “Harper Valley PTA” and the various Glen Campbell and Sonny James singles that received some pop airplay. There were good solid country records being made but aside from the aforementioned and some Johnny Cash recordings, they weren’t receiving pop airplay. In 1968 there were large sections of the country that had no country stations at all; moreover, many country stations went off the air at sundown or cut power significantly so that they reached only the most local of audiences.

Classic Rewind: Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters – ‘Keep On the Sunny Side’

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

S

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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jVf6ulpDdGo