My Kind of Country

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

Category Archives: Year In Review

Hidden gems of 2018

Here are my favorite album tracks of the year, omitting the albums which made my best albums of the year list.

10. Jay Bragg – ‘The Dreamer’ (from Honky Tonk Dream)
Honky tonker Bragg’s debut album may be only eight tracks, but it’s a strong collection. Best of the bunch is this pensive reflection on how strongly rooted a love is.

9. Kathy Mattea – ‘Mercy Now’ (from Pretty Bird)
A spare, tender version of Mary Gauthier’s song.

8. Jason Boland & The Stragglers – ‘Hard Times Are Relative’ (from Hard Times Are Relative)
A moving story song about a pair of young siblings supporting one another.

7. Catherine Britt – ‘The River And The Gum’ (from Catherine Britt & The Cold Cold Hearts)
Australia’s Catherine Britt retruned to her traditional roots for her latest album. This folk-country ballad is a delight.

6. Ashley McBryde – ‘Girl Goin’ Nowhere’ (from Girl Going Nowhere)
An excellent, thoughtful song about the lif of a struggling musician and what makes it worthwhile. It should get some more attention this coming year, as the track has just been announced as Ashley’s new single.

5. Joshua Hedley – ‘Counting All My Tears’ (from Mr Jukebox)
Very retro, and very good. This sounds like a forgotten classic from the early 1960s.

4. Mandy Barnett – ‘Lock Stock And Teardrops’ (from Various Artists, King Of The Road: A Tribute To Roger Miller)
An exquisite version of a classic.

3. Cody Jinks – ‘Somewhere Between I Love You And I’m Leavin’’ (from Lifers)
A strong song about a relationship on the verge from a rather mixed album.

2. Pistol Annies – ‘When I Was His Wife’ (from Interstate Gospel)
The trio’s latest album didn’t qute make my top 10 of the year, but it is a strong and artistically ambitious collection. The barbed lyric of the best song on the album, set to a sweetly vulnerable country melody, reflects on an acrimonious divorce.

1. Oak Ridge Boys – ‘If I Die Drinking’ (from 17th Avenue Revival)
A magisterial gospel reading of a wonderful song previously recorded by its co-writer Vince Gill. (The other writer was Ashley Monroe.)

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The best reissues of 2018

It wasn’t a great year for reissues but there were some bright spots. As always our British and European friends lead the way. Also, please note that these can take a while for foreign titles to become available from US suppliers, so it may be into 2019 before these are generally available.

In those cities that still have adequate recorded music stores (sadly, a rare commodity these days), it can be a real thrill finding a label you’ve not encountered before reissuing something you’ve spent decades seeking. It can be worthwhile to seek out the foreign affiliates of American labels for recordings that the American affiliate hasn’t reissued. For example, there are Capitol recordings not reissued in the US that are available on the UK or European EMI labels. For the rest of us, scanning the internet remains the best alternative.

Unfortunately as the sales of physical CDs continue to plummet, so does the willingness of labels, domestic and foreign, to invest in reissuing material by second and third tier artists. Still missing in action are the catalogues of such significant artists as Liz Anderson, Wilma Burgess, Johnny Darrell, Jack Greene, The Hager Twins, Freddie Hart, Warner Mack, Kenny Price and David Rogers. While there has been a slight uptick in vinyl sales and reissues, most of that has been of only the very top selling artists (and at $22 to $33 per title).
Anyway …

The British label Jasmine issued a number of worthy country releases:

Billy WalkerWell, Hello There – The Country Chart Hits and More 1954-1962. The album features most of Billy’s biggest Columbia hits in decent sound.

Johnny CashChange of Address – The Single As and Bs 1958-1962. This release is somewhat redundant as it collects the A&B sides of Cash’s first sixteen Columbia singles. The songs are available elsewhere, but it is nice to have the singles all in one place.

Kitty WellsI Heard The Juke Box Playing. This two CD set features Kitty’s 1950s solo hits plus a bunch of (not readily available) duets with the likes of Roy Acuff, Webb Pierce and Red Foley. While much of this material had been available in the past, it had been allowed to slip out of print so it is nice to have it available again.

The Collins KidsRockin’ and Boppin’. Lorrie and Larry Collins were teenage rockabilly artists backed by the cream of California’s country musicians. Their material has been unavailable for quite a while.

Jasmine isn’t specifically a country label with much of their output being R&B and Rock ‘n Roll, but their country reissues are always welcome. Jasmine also issued an early Homer & Jethro collection from their recordings on King Records, a Lee Hazlewood collection and several mixed artists albums during 2018.

Another British label, Ace Records, usually does a nice job with reissues. Unfortunately, 2018 was a sparse year for country reissues with a Johnny Lee Wills reissue (available only as a digital download) being about it this year.

The British Hux label had a light year as far as country reissues was concerned issuing nothing (that I have been able to find), but they did have a mid-2017 release that slipped my notice last year, a nice Dickey Lee reissue comprised of Dickey’s first two RCA albums from 1971 & 1972 in Never Ending Song Of Love / Ashes Of Love. Dickey Lee was far more successful as a songwriter than as a recording artist, but this pair features four of his hits plus some other songs he wrote including “She Thinks I Still Care”.

The British Humphead label has received criticism for using needle drops but they’ve gotten better at the process and in many cases, theirs are the only available (non-remake) recordings by the artist.

In October Humphead issued the Connie Smith collection My Part of Forever (Vol. 1), comprised of mainly her 1970s recording including tracks recorded for Warner Bros., in the mid-1990s, Sugar Hill in 2011, and rare lost radio performances from the early 1970s. Many of these tracks have been previously unavailable – a real find.

Humphead also had released a three CD Ed Bruce collection and a two CD best of the Kentucky Headhunters collection.

The British BGO label finished its reissue series of Charley Pride’s RCA catalogue with its two CD set consisting of The Best of Charley Pride Volumes 1-3 and Charley Pride’s Greatest Hits VI. At this time virtually everything from Charley Pride’s landmark RCA tenure is now available on CD, either from BGO or from other sources.

BGO also released a two CD set of Charlie McCoy’s first four albums on Monument (The Real McCoy / Charlie McCoy / Good Time Charlie / The Fastest Harp In The South). They are good, but rather more harmonica than I care to listen to at one sitting,

Other BGO sets can be found here.

Germany’s Bear Family Records has been the gold standard for reissues; however, this was a rather quiet year on the country side of the business. On the other hand, the one truly significant set released is a doozy. Bear had previously released vinyl and CD boxed sets on the legendary Lefty Frizzell. In October Bear released a greatly expanded twenty CD set titled An Article From Life – The Complete Recordings. The original Bear set was beyond great and if I had unlimited cash reserves I would buy this set which includes the following:

• Every 45, 78, and LP track from Lefty’s entire career. Every unissued session recording
• Newly-discovered demos and non-session recordings
• Newly-researched biography and discography
• Many previously unseen photos from the Frizzell family’s archives
• A new designed 264 page hardcover book!
• Many previously unissued recordings – a total of 12 CDs of music.
• An audio book on 8 CDs with Lefty’s life history, written and read by his brother David.

As for domestic reissues our friend Ken Johnson helps keep the folks at Varese Vintage on the straight and narrow for their country releases. This year Varese only had one country album released which occurred in November, when Varese issued the John Denver collection Leaving On A Jet Plane. This isn’t really country, but Denver was heavily played on country radio., These tracks come from the 1960s when Denver was part of a late edition of the Mitchell Trio and part of the successor group Denver, Boise and Johnson. The collection features John’s first recordings of “Leaving On A Jet Plane”.

Although not really a reissue, Yep Rock released a nice Jim Lauderdale/ Roland White collaboration that had never before been released. We reviewed it in September 2018 here.

Sony Legacy controls the rights to Columbia/CBS, Epic, RCA, Monument and some other labels as well. In May 2018, Sony Legacy released Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring ’70s, a nice two CD set of “Outlaw Era” country. The thirty-six song collection is hardly essential but it is a nice introduction to the era, showcasing the obvious artists along with the likes of Marcia Ball, Rodney Crowell, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Willis Alan Ramsey. This label seems to be Willie Nelson’s current label for new material

Omnivore Recordings spent several years releasing the recordings of Buck Owens. In May of this year they released The Complete Capitol Singles: 1967-1970, a two CD set that seems to have completed their coverage of Buck’s peak period. Since then they have issued Country Singer’s Prayer, the never released last Capitol album, and Tom Brumley’s Steelin’ The Show, featuring Buckaroo and Buck Owens tracks on which Tom’s pedal steel was prominently featured. Neither of the latter two albums are essential but the Brumley collection highlights just what a great steel player was Tom Brumley.

Earlier in 2018, Omnivore released a Don Gibson collection featuring most of Don’s hits on Hickory plus some album tracks.

***

I suppose I should again say a few words about the Gusto family of labels. It appears that Gusto still is in the process of redesigning their website, but plenty of product can be found from other on-line vendors or from retail outlets such as Pottery Barn and various truck stops along the Interstates.

As I mentioned previously, with the exception of the numerous gospel recordings made by Porter Wagoner during the last decade of his life, there is little new or original material on the Gusto Family of labels. Essentially, everything Gusto does is a reissue, but they are forever recombining older recordings into new combinations.

Gusto has accumulated the catalogs of King, Starday, Dixie, Federal, Musicor, Step One, Little Darlin’ and various other small independent labels and made available the music of artists that are otherwise largely unavailable. Generally speaking, older material on Gusto’s labels is more likely to be original recordings. This is especially true of bluegrass recordings with artists such as Frank “Hylo” Brown, The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Stringbean and Curley Fox being almost exclusive to Gusto.

After 1970, Gusto’s labels tended to be old age homes for over-the-hill country and R&B artists, and the recordings often were remakes of the artists’ hits of earlier days or a mixture of remakes of hits plus covers of other artists’ hits. These recordings range from inspired to tired and the value of the CDs can be excellent, from the fabulous boxed sets of Reno & Smiley, Mel Street and The Stanley Brothers, to wastes of plastic and oxides with numerous short eight and ten song collections.

To be fair, some of these eight and ten song collections can be worth having, if they represent the only recordings you can find by a particular artist you favor. Just looking at the letter “A” you can find the following: Roy Acuff, Bill Anderson, Lynn Anderson, Eddy Arnold, Leon Ashley, Ernie Ashworth, Chet Atkins and Gene Autry. If you have a favorite first or second tier country artist of the 1960s or 1970s, there is a good chance that Gusto has an album (or at least some tracks) on that artist.

Occasional Hope’s favorite albums of 2018

It seems harder and harder to find great new music as the mainstream gets more pop oriemnted. However, some good music is still out there, and here are my favorite full-length albums this year.

10. Junior Sisk – ‘Brand New Shade Of Blue

My favorite bluegrass album this year. Sometimes witty, sometimes lonesome, but a great listen.

Download now: ‘By Now I Would Be Dead’, ‘Ain’t Nothing Wrong With That’, ‘The Whiskey & The Guitar

9. Josh TurnerI Serve A Savior

The best religious album of the year.

Download now: ‘I Saw The Light’, ‘Great Is Your Faithfulness’, ‘I Pray My Way Out Of Trouble’, ‘Me And God

8. Jason Eady – ‘I Travel On

The troubadour takes a bluegrass twist with this year’s fine set.

Download now: ‘She Had To Run’, ‘Below The Waterline’, ‘I Travel On’, ‘I Lost My Mind In Carolina

7. Randall King – ‘Randall King

I’m afraid I didn’t get around to reviewing this promising debut album, but it’s a strong introduction with a 90s neotraditional country vibe.

Download now: ‘Reason To Quit’, ‘Mirror, Mirror’, ‘Dent In It

6. Dillon Carmichael Hell On An Angel

Sometimes sublime, sometimes a bit too heavy on the Southern Rock, this remains the debut of the year.

Download now: ‘That’s What Hank Would Do’, ‘Dixie Again’, ‘Hard On A Hangover’, ‘Natural Disaster’

5. Courtney Patton What It’s Like To Fly Alone

Courtney Patton produced my favorite album of 2015. This year’s follow up was not quite as good, but still extremely rewarding.

Download now: ‘Devil’s Hand’, ‘Round Mountain’, ‘Words to My Favorite Memory’, ‘Red Bandana Blue’, ‘Open Flame

4. Josh Ward – ‘More Than I Deserve

Solid traditional country from Texas.

Download now: ‘One More Shot Of Whiskey’, ‘Say Hello To Goodbye’, ‘The Devil Don’t Scare Me’, ‘More Than I Deserved

3. Adam HarveyThe Nashville Tapes

Great neotraditional country from the deep voiced Australian who was our last Spotlight Artist.

Download now: ‘What A Song Can Do’, ‘When Willie’s Gone’, ‘We’ll Have To Drink Our Way Out Of This’, ‘I’d Rather Be A Highwayman’, ‘Three Rivers Hotel’

2. Loretta Lynn – ‘Wouldn’t It Be Great’

The legend returns with a fabulous mix of sassy growing old disgracefully and emotional ballads.

Download now: ‘Ruby’s Stool’, ‘Lulie Vars’, ‘Another Bridge To Burn’, ‘Wouldn’t It Be Great?

1. Kayla RayYesterday & Me

The Jason Eady-helmed project allos an excellent singer songwriter to shine.

Download now: ‘Once A Week Cheaters’, ‘Things Only Years Can Teach A Woman’, ‘Fair Warning’, ‘Rockport’.

Bonus selection: Tim CulpepperDUI

I omitted this fabulous traditional honky tonk projct as it has only eight tracks. But what there is is outstanding.

Download now: ‘Under The Influence’, ‘Another Way To Try’, ‘She Only Loves Me’, ‘Sad Ole Country Song

Some hidden gems of 2017

As was the case last year, https://mykindofcountry.wordpress.com/2016/12/30/top-10-hidden-gems-of-2016/ I haven’t compiled a singles list this year, but this list of hidden gems highlights some of the great album tracks from records that didn’t make my albums of the year list. A few were also singles. I have omitted tracks which were singles only, or Alan Jackson’s outstanding new single ‘The Older I Get’ would undoubtedly have vied for one of the top positions.

10. Mike Bentley – ‘The Little T’ (from All I’ve Got)

An absorbing story song from a great bluegrass album which I hope to review in the new year. Bentley, formerly lead singer of Cumberland Gap Connection, is now out on his own, and developing into one of the best current male bluegrass singers.

9. Sons of the Palomino – ‘Outta This Town’ (from Sons Of The Palomino)

Successful songwriter Jeffrey Steele’s latest project was an overlooked gem itself, and this particular cut about feeling trapped in a dying small town is rather lovely. The album version features harmonies from Emmylou Harris.

8. Reba McEntire – ‘Jesus Loves Me’ (from Sing It Now)

Reba’s new religious album was an unexpected pleasure this year. I generally preferred the quiet emotion of the more traditional hymns on the first part of the two-disk set to the more contemporary second half, and this track was the very finest recording for my measure.

7. Martina McBride – ‘Here Comes That Rainbow Again’ (from Various Artists, The Life & Songs Of Kris Kristofferson Live)

A live cover of one of Kris Kristofferson’s most moving songs (based on an incident in The Grapes Of Wrath), sung by one of the best female vocalists in mainstream country. Martina’s voice hasn’t always been matched by her material, so this is a joy.

6. Aaron Watson – ‘Texas Lullaby’ (from Vaquero)

A lovely story song about a World War II soldier from Texas and his love story.

5. Darin & Brooke Aldridge – ‘Fit For A King’ (from Faster & Farther)

This dramatic high lonesome story song about a street preacher was also a highlight on Gene Watson’s new gospel album, which did make my top 10. But before that it shone on the bluegrass husband and wife’s latest effort. Brooke’s strong mountain vocal has a raw intensity, supported by the harmony of Charli Robertson from Flatt Lonesome. The rest of the album was pretty good, too.

4. Lonesome River Band – ‘Blackbirds And Crows’ (from Mayhayley’s House)

A brilliantly sung bluegrass murder ballad.

3. Kendell Marvel, ‘Hurtin’ Gets Hard’ (from Lowdown & Lonesome)

A classic style traditional country heartbreaker with powerful vocals.

2. Trace Akins – ‘Watered Down’ (from Something’s Going On)

This one was actually a single – https://mykindofcountry.wordpress.com/2017/03/31/single-review-trace-adkins-watered-down/
Written by Matt Jenkins, Trevor Rosen and Shane McAnally, this mature ballad about growing older was by far the best song on Trace’s otherwise disappointing new album. Trace is another great singer with a hit and miss approach to his material, and he really needs to do more songs like this as he transitions to the minor labels.

1. Jake Worthington – ‘A Lot Of Room To Talk’ (from Hell Of A Highway)

A gorgeous traditional country sad song from an excellent singer. If this had been released 25 years ago it would have been a monster hit. I would like to hear a lot more from this young artist.

Razor X’s Top Albums of 2017

Another year has come and gone, and once again we lament the deplorable state of mainstream country music, while pointing out a few glimmers of hope that will never be heard on the radio. Among this year’s highlights are:

10. Dailey & Vincent – ‘Patriots and Poets’

Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent had quite a year, which included being inducted as members of the Grand Ole Opry in March, followed by the release of one of the best bluegrass albums of the year. This generous sample of bluegrass and spiritual tunes is the perfect showcase for the duo’s trademark harmonies.

9. Rhonda Vincent & Daryle Singletary – ‘American Grandstand’

Not to be outdone, Darrin’s big sister Rhonda also turned in a stellar collection, teaming up this time with her former label mate Daryle Singletary. Although heavily reliant on cover material, there are some new songs here as well. This is a real treat for those who are starved for some real country music.

8. Charley Pride – ‘Music In My Heart’

The legendary Charley Pride returned after a six-year recording hiatus, with one of the strongest offerings of his post-major label career. Sirius XM subscribers who listen to Willie’s Roadhouse will no doubt be familiar with “You’re Still In These Crazy Arms of Mine”, which was my favorite song on the album. Like the Vincent/Singletary album, this one has its share of remakes but there’s not a weak one to be found.

7. Reba McEntire – ‘Sing It Now: Songs of Faith and Hope’

Reba McEntire is my favorite female singer, but I’ve been disappointed with her offerings over the last decade more times than I care to remember. This double album which is divided evenly between traditional hymns and more contemporary inspirational songs shows that when commercial considerations are cast aside, Reba is still in a class all by herself. I’m cautiously optimistic that this album is a sign that she’s finally stopped chasing chart success and ready to release some worthwhile material again.

6. Sunny Sweeney – ‘Trophy’

While it’s regrettable that Sunny Sweeney never enjoyed the mainstream success she deserved, getting out of her major label deal was the best thing that ever happened to her from a creative standpoint. While Concrete was a bit too eclectic for my liking, Trophy gets it just right and is her best offering since Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame. “Bottle By My Bed”, which she co-wrote with Lori McKenna, would be a monster hit in a sane world.

5. Alison Krauss – ‘Windy City’

Alison Krauss is another artist with whom I’d become a bit disillusioned, but she redeemed herself nicely with this collection of cover songs, which aren’t quite classics for the most part, but deserved to be introduced to a new audience. This is the best album she’s done in years — arguably the best of her career.

4. Zephaniah OHora with the 18 Wheelers – ‘This Highway’

This collection of original material which recreates the Bakersfield and countrypolitan sounds of the 60s was a pleasant surprise. Although it could have benefited from a little more variety in tempo, this a wonderful album and I hope that it is the first of many from this native of Brooklyn.

3. & 2. Chris Stapleton: ‘From A Room: Volumes 1 & 2’

These widely anticipated follow-ups to 2015’s Traveller were presumably intended to be a double album, but Mercury Records seems to have gotten cold feet about the sales potential of a double set, so they split it into two separate releases. Both discs feature very sparse production and gorgeous harmonies from Chris’ wife Morgane Hayes-Stapleton. With a heavy blues influence, theses albums are not traditional country, but there are a perfect antidote to the overproduced pop masquerading as country music on the radio today. I liked the second volume slightly better than the first.

1. Willie Nelson and The Boys: ‘Willie’s Stash, Volume 2’

This collection finds the Red-Headed Stranger teaming up with his two sons Lukas and Micah and digging deeply into the catalog of Hank Williams. Despite their youth, the younger Nelsons show obvious enthusiasm for the material, proving that Willie raised those boys right. This was a pleasure from start to finish. My favorite track was the Hank Cochran-penned “Can I Sleep In Your Arms”, which was hit for Cochran’s then-wife Jeannie Seely in 1973 and later recorded by Willie for his Red-Headed Stranger album.

Occasional Hope’s top 10 albums of 2017

While the mainstream sinks further away from country music, I have found some great music this year. It is marked, however, that much of the best music harks back to the past in one way or another. Another difference from radio trends is that half of the top 7 are female artists. Here are my favourite full length albums of 2017:

10. John Baumann, Proving Grounds

An overlooked gem I never got round to reviewing in the summer, this release from a young Texas singer songwriter of the troubadour type was full of high quality songs. Definitely an artist to watch.

Highlights: ‘Old Stone Church’, ‘Lonely In Bars’, ‘Here I Come’, ‘The Trouble With Drinkin’’, ‘Meg’

9. Chris Stapleton, From A Room, vols 1-2

While his music is not traditional country, it is a lot better than most mainstream efforts these days. Chris Stapleton has a great voice and is a superb songwriter, and wife Morgane’s harmonies add the final touch. I am counting these two almost-full length albums as one for the purpose of this list.

Highlights: ‘Up To No Good Livin’’, ‘Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning’, ‘Either Way’, ‘Drunkard’s Prayer’, ‘Scarecrow In The Garden

8. Conway Twitty – Timeless

The recently re-released recordings are a delightful reminder of what country music used to be. Arrangements laden with steel, great songs and Conway’s emotive vocals all contribute to a wonderful album, with only a couple of less stellar moments.

Highlights: ‘Lost Her Love) On Our Last Date’, ’15 Years Ago’, ‘Next In Line’


7. Gene Watson – My Gospel Roots

This only came out on 8 December, just in time to make my year-end list. It is an excellent religious album from one of the best living country vocalists, with an interesting selection of material. The full review will be posted on Friday.

Highlights: ‘Fit For A King’, ‘Help Me’, ‘Old Roman Soldier

6. Charley Pride – Music In My Heart

The legend’s 2017 album is his best music in years. He is in fine voice and the songs are great.

Highlights: ‘Standing In My Way’, ‘I Learned A Lot’, ‘The Way It Was In ‘51’, ‘It Wasn’t That Funny

5. Jason Eady – Jason Eady

A thoughtful, often compelling collection of songs from one of my favorite singer-songwriters.

Highlights: ‘Barabbas’, ‘Where I’ve Been’, ‘No Genie In This Bottle’, ‘Black Jesus’, ‘Why I Left Atlanta’, 40 Years


4. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy

The Texan singer-songwriter released another great record this year, mixing attitude and heartbreak in eqal measures.
Highlights: ‘Bottle By My Bed’, ‘I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight’, ‘Trophy’, ‘Pass The Pain’

3. Alison Krauss – Windy City

Alison Krauss’s beautiful voice on a country leaning collection of standards, beautifully prodiced and exquisitely sung. Flawless.

Highlights: ‘You Don’t Know Me’, ‘River In The Rain’, ‘Losing You’, ‘Gentle On My Mind’, ‘All Alone Am I’, ‘Please Don’t Tell me How The Story Ends’


2. Rhonda Vincent and Daryle Singletary – American Grandstand

A delightful pairing of one of bluegrass’s best female vocalists with country traditionalist Daryle Singletary. Rhonda’s voice blends even better with Daryle than it did with Gene Watson https://mykindofcountry.wordpress.com/2011/06/02/album-review-gene-watson-and-rhonda-vincent-your-money-and-my-good-looks/ a few years ago. Magnificent.

Highlights: ‘We Must Have Been Out Of Our Minds’, ‘One’, ‘A Picture Of Me Without You’, ‘After The Fire Is Gone’, ‘American Grandstand


1. Erin Enderlin – Whiskeytown Crier

The singer-songwriter’s latest album is a superb collection of story songs. My only reservation is that several of the songs have appeared upon her previous releases, but this is a truly excellent album.

Highlights: ‘Broken’, ‘Caroline’, ‘His Memory Walks On Water’, ‘The Coldest In Town’, ‘Ain’t It Just Like A Cowboy

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Ten Favorite singles of 2017

While it does become harder and harder to assemble this list each year, it always amazes me that quality country music does exist, even if the upper echelon of the airplay chart screams otherwise.  Sit back and enjoy what I consider the ten best singles released this year:



10. Tanya Tucker – Forever Loving You

Go online and you’ll find countless videos of Tucker where she details the volatility of her relationship with Glen Campbell. She freely admits to the drug and physical abuse that defined their union, which became a cornerstone of her early 20s. Even after they split, and she went onto some of her greatest success, she clearly never truly got over him.

More than a tribute to Campbell, “Forever Loving You” is an exquisite love song. Tucker is in fine voice, which makes the longing for new music all the more aching. Why does this have to be a standalone one-off and not the lead track to a new album?

9. Alan Jackson – The Older I Get

Easily Jackson’s greatest achievement since “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore.” He’s in a contemplative mood, looking back in the year he received induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. If this is any indication, I look forward to whatever he chooses to do next.

8. Jon Pardi – She Ain’t In It

The best mainstream single of 2017 comes from the newly crowned CMA New Artist of the Year. The lyric isn’t earth-shattering, but the drenching of fiddle and steel more than makes up the difference. With his solid foundation in traditional country and his willingness to stay true to himself no matter the cost, Pardi’s future is bright. As of now, he’s one of the good guys.

7. Lee Ann Womack – Hollywood

A housewife is begging her husband to engage with her. He won’t bite except to dismiss her feelings or downright ignore their partnership. She’s exhausted from their loveless marriage, and the part he’s playing in it, so much so she wonders, “either I’m a fool for asking or you belong in Hollywood.” The first of two songs in this vein comes with that killer hook and Womack’s equally effective performance.

6. Alison Krauss – Losing You

Krauss revives a somewhat obscure Brenda Lee hit from 1965 and knocks it out of the park. The covers album that followed is just as rich and deeply satisfying.

5. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – If We Were Vampires

If life didn’t come with an expiration date, would we love as hard? Isbell asks that central question on the stunning centerpiece from That Nashville Sound. He proves mortality is actually a good thing, not something to be feared. For my ears, “If We Were Vampires” is the love song of the year.

 4. Chris Stapleton – Either Way

In my more than twenty years of seriously consuming country music, no song has stuck with me as long or had as great an impact on my psyche as “Either Way.” Lee Ann Womack brought it to life eight years ago in what still remains the song’s definitive version. Stapleton sings the fire out of it, too, but his greatest achievement is being the man who wrote it. He’s easily among the upper tier of the greatest country songwriters of his generation.

3. Brandy Clark – Three Kids No Husband

Clark teamed with Lori McKenna on an anthem for the women who assume all titles without a man to even the score. Both have recorded it, but it’s Clark who found the subtly within the lyric and ultimately drove it home.

2. Sunny Sweeney – Bottle By My Bed

Many songs have been written about the struggle for a woman to conceive, but none are as achingly beautiful as Sweeney’s tale of heartbreak in the wake of a miscarriage. A powerful and universal tale for anyone who has suffered the same fate.

1. Erin Enderlin – Ain’t It Just Like A Cowboy

I didn’t have a clear favorite single this year until I played these ten songs back-to-back when considering the rankings. Enderlin blows away the competition with her story of a wife realizing how foolish she is for staying with the cheating bastard who probably never loved her in the first place. A true country ballad for the ages.

Paul W. Dennis’s favorite albums of 2016

real-country-musicBeing the old man of the blog, I suppose it is inevitable that my favorite albums would differ from those of Razor X and Occasional Hope. There is some overlap, however, and where overlap exists I will not comment on the album

(#) on Razor X’s list / ($) on Occasional Hope’s list

15) Tracy Byrd – All American Texan (#)

14) Mark Chesnutt – Tradition Lives (#) ($)

13) Rhonda Vincent – All The Rage, Volume One

Alison Krauss fans notwithstanding, Rhonda is the Queen of Bluegrass music and is also adept at country and western swing numbers. Rhonda has a great band and all of the members are featured. Her guitar player, Josh Williams, is on a par with any acoustic player currently going.

12) Balsam Range – Mountain Voodoo

Balsam Range has been around for about a decade, winning the 2014 IBPA “Entertainer of The Year” and Vocal Group of The Year” awards. Their newest album was nominated for several awards. This band is renowned for their vocal harmonies. Their current single “Blue Collar Dreams” is being played on Bluegrass Junction on XM Radio – it’s a goodie and indicative of their material.

11) John Prine – For Better Or Worse ($)

the-life-and-songs-of-emmylou-harris10) Various Artists – Life and Songs of Emmylou Harris
I suspect that Emmylou Harris is the most highly revered female country singer, particularly for younger country fans and pop music fans. The epitome of elegance and grace, Emmylou has also been a champion of traditional country music. This album contains nineteen tracks with a vast array of admirers who gathered at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington DC on January 10, 2015 to pay tribute. Emmy sings on a few of the tracks but mostly the guests sing songs at least loosely associated with Emmylou. Guests include Sheryl Crow, Alison Krauss, Buddy Miller, Rodney Crowell and others.

09) Karl Shiflett & Big Country Show – Sho Nuff Country

Although focusing on bluegrass, this veteran outfit has a strong propensity to record country music of the period before 1980, and they perform it well. For me the highlights are “Six Pack To Go” and “Why Baby Why”, but I really enjoyed the whole album.

08) Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (& guests) – Circling Back: Celebrating 50 Years
Knowing that this ban has been around for fifty years is making me feel old, since I purchased several of their early albums when they originally came out. This album was recorded live at the Ryman on September 14, 2015 and features the current membership (Jeff Hanna, Jimmie Fadden, Bob Carpenter and John McEuen) augmented by friends Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Byron House. The guest vocalists include former band members Jimmy Ibbotson and Jackson Browne with John Prine, Alison Krauss, Rodney Crowell and Jerry Jeff Walker also making appearances. Highlights include Alison Krauss singing “Catfish John” , Vince Gill singing “Tennessee Stud” and Sam Bush and Vince Gill teaming up on “Nine Pound Hammer”.

07) Willie Nelson – For The Good Times: A Tribute To Ray Price (#) ($)

06) Time Jumpers – Kid Sister (#)

05) Dallas Wayne – Songs The Jukebox Taught Me ($)

things-we-do-for-dreams04) Trinity River Band – Things I Do For Dreams
I find it odd that Callahan, Florida, a town of about 2000 people, has produced two of my favorite new bluegrass bands in Trinity River Band and Flatt Lonesome. Trinity River Band was nominated for the Emerging Artist award at the recent International Bluegrass Music Association award a few months ago. They play well, sing well and present an effective stage show.

03) Dale Watson – Under The Influence
Had he been born in the 1930s or 1940s, Dale Watson would have been a huge mainstream country star. This album finds Dale tackling a wide array of country and rockabilly classics from bygone years. My favorites from this disc include Dale’s take on the Eddie Rabbitt classic “Pure Love” and his take on the Phil Harris song from the 1940s “That’s What I Like About The South”.

02) Flatt Lonesome – Runaway Train
Flatt Lonesome won the IBMA Vocal Group of The Year award for 2016. They are just flat[t] out good. Their take on Dwight Yoakam’s “You’re The One” has to be heard to be believed, but my favorite track is their cover of the Tommy Collins tune “Mixed Up Mess of A Heart”.

01) Gene Watson – Real. Country. Music ($)
Okay, so I lied, but I cannot let the #1 album go by without the comment that I consider Gene Watson to be the best country male vocalist alive today and that I pray that 2017 sees another new release from Gene.

Top 10 hidden gems of 2016

drinking-with-dollyIn previous years, I’ve compiled a top 10 singles list, but although there have been some encouraging signs on country radio, I didn’t feel inspired by this year’s releases. Instead I want to highlight some of the best individual songs which appeared on albums which didn’t make my top 10 albums list, together with the odd single not yet featured on a full length release.

10. ‘What I’d Say’ – Lorrie Morgan
Realising her voice was in decline, Lorrie took steps to get it back to something approaching its best. This gorgeous reading of the classic was the highlight of her new album.

9. ‘I Never Will Marry’ – Loretta Lynn
Loretta goes old-time country folk on this track from Full Circle. A delight.


8. ‘Pawn Shop’ – Shelley Skidmore

A great Brandy Clark story song about hard lives and broken dreams reminiscent of the best country songs.

7. ‘Can’t Be That Wrong’ – Dolly Parton
A ballad about cheating, guilt and refusal to repent.

6. ‘Drinking With Dolly’ – Stephanie Quayle
A truly delightful wistful reimagining of the lives of country stars of the past.

5. – ‘It’s Just A Dog’ – Mo Pitney
A heartbreaker about the love of a rescue dog.

4. ‘Had A Thing’ – Curtis Grimes
The best song from Curtis’s excellent eight-track EP/album which, with a few more songs would have had a shot at making my top 10 list.

3. ‘Lonesomeville’ – William Michael Morgan
A lovely neotraditional lost love ballad from a young man who is starting to make real headway in the mainstream. Very reminiscent of early Joe Nichols.

2. ‘Still A Child’ – Dori Freeman
25 year old Dori Freman from Virginia is a folk-country singer-songwriter whose self-titled debut album was produced by British folk musician Teddy Thompson. Not all of it is perfect, but her pretty, fragile voice shines, and the best song by far is this graceful waltz. A gentle melody belies a hard hitting lyric rejecting a man who just can’t grow up. Excellent.

1. ‘Sad One Coming On’ – Vince Gill
Vince’s latest solo album was a sad disappointment, but it was almost redeemed by this superb, heartfelt tribute to George Jones, which is an instant classic.

Occasional Hope’s top 10 albums of 2016

real-country-musicThere has been some excellent country music released this year, admittedly mostly away from the major labels. Just missing my cut were strong comebacks from Loretta Lynn and Lorrie Morgan; glorious Western Swing from the Time Jumpers; sizzling bluegrass from Rhonda Vincent and her band; and a pair of very promising debuts from Mo Pitney and William Michael Morgan.

10 – Bradley Walker – Call Me Old Fashioned
Traditional country meets gospel from an underrated singer.

Best tracks: ‘His Memory Walks On Water’; ‘Why Me’; ‘Sinners Only’; ‘In The Time That You Gave Me’.

big-day-in-a-small-toen9 – Brandy Clark – Big Day In A Small Town

Like Miranda Lambert’s latest, this album married outstanding storytelling and songwriting, good vocals and overbearing production. But the songs here are so strong that the end result still made it into my top 10.

Best tracks: ‘Since You’ve Gone To Heaven’; ‘Three Kids, No Husband’; ‘Homecoming Queen’.

8 – Cody Jinks – I’m Not The Devil

His deep voices tackles themes of darkness versus light, on some very strong songs.

Best tracks: ‘The Same’; ‘I’m Not The Devil’; ‘Grey’.

7 – Jamie Richards – Latest And Greatest

Warm, inviting vocals and excellent songs with a real gift for melody.
Best tracks: ‘I’ll Have Another’; ‘I’m Not Drinkin’; ‘Last Call’; ‘Easier By Now’.

for-the-good-times

6 –Willie Nelson – For The Good Times: A Tribute To Ray Price

As the veterans of country music continue to pass away, it’s a comfort to see that at 83, Willie Nelson is still going strong. His tribute to the late Ray Price, with the help on several tracks of The Time Jumpers, was a delightful reminder of some of the best country songs ever written.

Best tracks: ‘Heartaches By The Number’; ‘Crazy Arms’; ‘Invitation To The Blues’.

5 – Dallas Wayne – Songs The Jukebox Taught Me

The deep voiced singer’s Heart of Texas debut is a honky tonk joy.
Best tracks: ‘No Relief In Sight’; ‘Eleven Roses’; ‘She Always Got What She Wanted’.

4 – Mark Chesnutt – Tradition Lives

A solid return from the 90s star with some excellent songs. It feels as if the last 20 years never happened.

Best tracks: ‘Is It Still Cheating’; ‘So You Can’t Hurt Me Anymore’; ‘Neither Did I’.

hymns3 – Joey + Rory – Hymns That Are Important To Us

A final heartbreaking labor of love for the duo recorded during the last stages of Joey’s illness. Joey’s beautiful voice and inspirational spirit are showcased for the last time.
Best tracks: ‘Softly And Tenderly’; ‘When I’m Gone’; ‘I Surrender All’.

2 – John Prine – For Better, Or Worse

I adored John Prine’s collection of classic country duets on the topic of marriage, and said when I reviewed it that it was set to be my favourite of the year. I was almost right. It really is a delightful record – great songs, lovely arrangements, and outstanding vocals from the ladies counterpointing Prine’s gruff emotion.

Best tracks: ‘Fifteen Years Ago’ (with Lee Ann Womack); ‘Look At Us’ (with Morgane Stapleton); ‘Color Of The Blues’ (with Susan Tedeschi); ‘Cold Cold Heart’ (with Miranda Lambert); ‘Dreaming My Dreams With You’ (with Kathy Mattea); ‘Mr And Mrs Used To Be’ (with Iris De Ment).

1 – Gene Watson – ‘Real. Country. Music

While Willie Nelson is still great, his voice is showing signs of age. The wonderful Gene Watson is still at the peak of his powers in his 70s, and his skill at picking excellent material hasn’t faltered either. His latest album reminds younger performers what real country music is all about.

Best tracks: ‘Couldn’t Love Have Picked A Better Place To Die’; ‘Bitter They Are, Harder They Fall’; ‘When A Man Can’t Get A Woman Off His Mind’; ‘A Bridge That Just Won’t Burn’; ‘Ashes To Ashes’; ‘She Never Got Me Over You’.

Best reissues of 2016

As always most of the best reissues come from labels outside the USA. In those cities that still have adequate recorded music stores (sadly a rare commodity these days) , it can be a real thrill finding a label you’ve not encountered before reissuing something you’ve spent decades seeking. It can be worthwhile to seek out the foreign affiliates of American labels for recordings that Capitol hasn’t reissued might be available on the UK or European EMI labels.

The fine folks at Jasmine Records (UK) can always be counted on for fine reissues:

SHUTTERS AND BOARD: THE CHALLENGER SINGLES 1957-1962 – Jerry Wallace
Jerry Wallace wasn’t really a country artist during this period, but he was a definite fellow traveler and a very popular artist and very fine singer. This thirty-two track collection includes all his early hits (except 1964’s “In The Misty Moonlight”) , such as million (and near million) sellers such as “How The Time Flies”, “Primrose Lane”, “There She Goes” and “Shutters And Boards”. From about 1965 forward his focus become more country and he would have two #1 county singles in the 1970s

THE NASHVILLE SOUND OF SUCCESS (1958-1962) – Various Artists
I will just list the tracks for this fine two disc set. This is a good primer on a very important era in country music

Disc 1 1958-1959
1 THE STORY OF MY LIFE – Marty Robbins
2 GREAT BALLS OF FIRE – Jerry Lee Lewis
3 BALLAD OF A TEENAGE QUEEN – Johnny Cash
4 OH LONESOME ME – Don Gibson
5 JUST MARRIED – Marty Robbins
6 ALL I HAVE TO DO IS DREAM – The Everly Brothers
7 GUESS THINGS HAPPEN THAT WAY – Johnny Cash
8 ALONE WITH YOU – Faron Young
9 BLUE BLUE DAY – Don Gibson
10 BIRD DOG – The Everly Brothers
11 CITY LIGHTS – Ray Price
12 BILLY BAYOU – Jim Reeves
13 DON’T TAKE YOUR GUNS TO TOWN – Johnny Cash
14 WHEN IT’S SPRINGTIME IN ALASKA (It’s Forty Below) – Johnny Horton
15 WHITE LIGHTNING – George Jones
16 THE BATTLE OF NEW ORLEANS – Johnny Horton
17 WATERLOO – Stonewall Jackson
18 THE THREE BELLS – The Browns
19 COUNTRY GIRL – Faron Young
20 THE SAME OLD ME – Ray Price
21 EL PASO – Marty Robbins

Disc 2 1960-1962
1 HE’LL HAVE TO GO – Jim Reeves
2 PLEASE HELP ME, I’M FALLING – Hank Locklin
3 ALABAM – Cowboy Copas
4 WINGS OF A DOVE – Ferlin Husky
5 NORTH TO ALASKA – Johnny Horton
6 DON’T WORRY – Marty Robbins
7 HELLO WALLS – Faron Young
8 HEARTBREAK U.S.A – Kitty Wells
9 I FALL TO PIECES – Patsy Cline
10 TENDER YEARS – George Jones
11 WALK ON BY – Leroy Van Dyke
12 BIG BAD JOHN – Jimmy Dean
13 MISERY LOVES COMPANY – Porter Wagoner
14 THAT’S MY PA – Sheb Wooley
15 SHE’S GOT YOU – Patsy Cline
16 CHARLIE’S SHOES – Billy Walker
17 SHE THINKS I STILL CARE – George Jones
18 WOLVERTON MOUNTAIN – Claude King
19 DEVIL WOMAN – Marty Robbins
20 MAMA SANG A SONG – Bill Anderson
21 I’VE BEEN EVERYWHERE – Hank Snow
22 DON’T LET ME CROSS OVER – Carl Butler and Pearl
23 RUBY ANN – Marty Robbins
24 THE BALLAD OF JED CLAMPETT – Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys

Another UK label, Hux Records, continues to issue delightful product:

HERE’S FARON YOUNG/ OCCASIONAL WIFE – Faron Young
After mucking about with more pop-oriented material for a number of years, these two fine Mercury albums (from 1968 and 1970) find Faron making his way back to a more traditional country sound. It must have worked for the singles from these albums (“’She Went A Little Bit Farther”, “I Just Came To Get My Baby”, “Occasional Wife” and “If I Ever Fall In Love (With A Honky Tonk Girl)” all returned Faron to the top ten, a place he had largely missed in the few years prior.

THE BEST OF TOMMY OVERSTREET – Tommy Overstreet (released late 2015)
Tommy Overstreet had a fine run of country singles in the early 1970s, most of which are included in this albums twenty-six tracks, along with about eight album tracks. While Tommy never had a #1 Billboard Country song, four of his song (“Gwen-Congratulations”, “I Don’t Know You Any More”, “Ann, Don’t Go Running” and “Heaven Is My Woman’s Love”) made it to #1 on Cashbox and/or Record World. Tommy’s early seventies records sounded very different from most of what was playing on the radio at the time.

Hux only releases a few new items per year, but in recent years they have reissued albums by Johnny Rodriguez, Connie Smith, Reba McEntire, Ray Price and others.

http://huxrecords.com/news.htm

Humphead Records releases quit a few ‘needle drop’ collections which our friend Ken Johnson has kvetched. The bad news is that for some artists this is necessary since so many masters were destroyed in a warehouse fire some years ago. The good news is that Humphead has gotten much better at doing this and all of my recent acquisitions from them have been quite good, if not always perfect.

TRUCK DRIVIN’ SON OF A GUN – Dave Dudley
This two disc fifty-track collection is a Dave Dudley fan’s dream. Not only does this album give you all of the truck driving hits (caveat: “Six Days On The Road” and “Cowboy Boots” are the excellent Mercury remakes) but also key album tracks and hit singles that were not about truck driving. Only about half of these tracks have been available previously

BARROOMS & BEDROOMS : THE CAPITOL & MCA YEARS – Gene Watson
This two disc, fifty-track set covers Gene’s years with Capitol (1975-1980) and MCA 1980-1985. Most of the tracks have been available digitally over the years, but the MCA tracks have been missing in recent years. The collection is approximately 70% Capitol and 30% MCA. These are needle drop but the soiund ranges from very good to excellent. There are a few tracks from the MCA years that have not previously been available in a digital format, but most of the material will be familiar to Gene Watson fans. Of course, if you buy this collection and are not already a Gene Watson fan, you will become one very quickly. I would have preferred more tracks from the MCA years since most of the Capitol tracks have been readily available, but the price is right and the music is timeless.

The folks at Bear Family issued quite a few sets this year; however, very little of it was country and none of it essential. There is an upcoming set to be issued in 2017 that will cover the complete Starday and Mercury recordings of a very young George Jones. I’m sure it will be a terrific set so be on the lookout for it. We will discuss it next year.

Although not essential FERLIN HUSKY WITH GUESTS SIMON CRUM AND TERRY PRESTON is a nice single disc entry in Bear Family’s Gonna Shake This Shack Tonight series. Simon Crum, of course, was Ferlin’s comedic alter-ego, and Terry Preston was a stage name Ferlin used early in his career. The set contains thirty-two tracks of country bop, proto-rockabilly and comedy that should prove enjoyable to everyone, along with Bear’s usual impeccable digital re-mastering and an informative seventy-two page booklet.

I don’t know that the music available from Cracker Barrel can always be described as reissues since some of it has never been commercially available before.

During the last twelve months we reviewed WAYLON JENNINGS – THE LOST NASHVILLE SESSIONS

Our friend Ken Johnson helps keep the folks at Varese Vintage on the straight and narrow for their country releases

THAT WAS YESTERDAY – Donna Fargo
This sixteen track collection gathers up Donna’s singles with Warner Brothers as well as two interesting album tracks. Donna was with Warner Brothers from 1976 to 1980 and this set is a welcome addition to the catalogue.

FOR THE GOOD TIMES – Glen Campbell
This sixteen track collections covers the 1980s when Glen was still charting but no longer having huge hits. These tracks mostly were on Atlantic but there are a few religion tracks and a song from a movie soundtrack from other sources. For me the highlights are the two previously unreleased tracks “Please Come To Boston” (a hit for Dave Loggins) and the title track (a hit for Ray Price).

SILK PURSE – Linda Ronstadt
This is a straight reissue of Linda’s second Capitol album, a fairly country album that features her first major hit “Long Long Time” plus her takes on “Lovesick Blues”, “Mental Revenge” and “Life’s Railway To Heaven”

On the domestic front Sony Legacy issued a few worthy sets:

THE ULTIMATE COLLECTION – Roy Orbison
This twenty-six track set covers Roy’s work on several labels including a couple of Traveling Wilbury tracks. All of these songs have been (and remain) available elsewhere, but this is a nice starter set.

THE HIGHWAYMEN LIVE: AMERICAN OUTLAWS
This is a three disc set of live recordings featuring the Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. To be honest, I prefer the studio recordings, but this is a worthwhile set

Meanwhile Real Gone Music has become a real player in the classic country market:

LYNN ANDERSON: THE DEFINITIVE COLLECTION
This two disc set provides a nice overview of one of the leading ladies of country music during the mid-1960s through the mid- 1970s, covering her work for the Chart and Columbia labels. Although not quite as comprehensive on the Chart years as the out-of-print single disc on Renaissance, this is likely to be the best coverage of those years that you are likely to see anytime soon on disc. Forty tracks (15 Chart, 25 Columbia) with excellent sound, all the hits and some interesting near-hits.

PORTER WAGONER: THE DEFINITIVE COLLECTION
There is a lot of Porter Wagoner material available, although much of it is either remakes or gospel songs from the Gusto family of labels. For a comprehensive look at Porter’s career it has been necessary to purchase one of the pricey (albeit excellent) Bear Family collections.

This two disc set has forty tracks, twenty seven of Porter’s biggest hits and thirteen key album cuts and shows the evolution and growth of Porter as an artist. While there is some overlap with the Jasmine set released last year (The First Ten Years: 1952-1962) about 60% of this set covers from 1963 onward, making it a fine complement to the Jasmine collection. This is straight Porter – no duets.

DIAMOND RIO: THE DEFINITIVE HITS COLLECTION
I’m not a real big Diamond Rio fan, but I have quite a few of their albums. If someone is interested in sampling Diamond Rio’s run of hits during the 1990s, this would be my recommendation. Fabulous digital re-mastering with all the major Arista hits such as “Meet in the Middle,” “How Your Love Makes Me Feel,” “One More Day,” “Beautiful Mess,” and “I Believe,” plus favorites as “Love a Little Stronger,” “Walkin’ Away,” “You’re Gone,” and one of my favorites “Bubba Hyde”.

EACH ROAD I TAKE: THE 1970 LEE HAZELWOOD & CHET ATKINS SESSIONS – Eddy Arnold
This is one of the more interesting collections put out by Real Gone Music.

The first half of the disc is the album Love and Guitars, the last album produced for Eddy by Chet Atkins. Missing is the usual Nashville Sound production, replaced by an acoustic setting featuring Nashville super pickers guitarists including Jerry Reed, Harold Bradley, Ray Edenton, and Chet himself, playing on an array of contemporary county and pop material.

The second half features the album Standing Alone, produced (in Hollywood) by Lee Hazelwood and featuring Eddy’s take on modern Adult Contemporary writers such as John Stewart, Steve Young, Ben Peters, and Mac Davis.

The album closes with four singles heretofore not collected on a domestic CD. On this album Eddy is cast neither as the Tennessee Plowboy nor the Nashville Sound titan. If you’ve not heard this material before, you might not believe your ears !

TAKE THIS JOB AND SHOVE IT: THE DEFINITIVE JOHNNY PAYCHECK
MICKEY GILLEY: THE DEFINITIVE COLLECTION

These albums were reviewed earlier. Needless to say, both are is highly recommended

Real Gone Music does not specialize in country music – they just do a good job of it. If you are a fan of jazz, folk, rock or even classical, Real Gone Music has something right up your alley

There is a UK based label that also calls itself Real Gone Music but in order to avoid confusion I will refer to this label as RGM-MCPS. This label specializes (mostly) in four disc sets that compile some older albums, sometimes with miscellaneous singles. The sound quality has ranged from fair to very good depending upon the source material, and the packaging is very minimal – no booklet, basically the names of the albums and very little more. Usually these can be obtained from Amazon or other on-line vendors. These are bargain priced and can fill holes in your collection

SIX CLASSIC ALBUMS PLUS BONUS SINGLES – Kitty Wells
This collection collects six fifties and early singles albums plus some singles. Much Kitty Wells music is available but if you want to collect a bunch of it cheaply, this is the way to go

The British Charly label doesn’t specialize in country records but they have a fabulous catalogue of rockabilly, including some very fine collections of recordings of the legendary Memphis label Sun. For legal reasons they cannot market much of their product in the USA but their product can be found on various on-line vendors. Their reissue of Townes Van Zandt albums is excellent.

I suppose I should again say a few words about the Gusto family of labels. It appears that Gusto is in the process of redesigning their website but plenty of their product can be found from other on-line vendors
As I mentioned last year, with the exception of the numerous gospel recordings made by Porter Wagoner during the last decade of his life, there is little new or original material on the Gusto Family of labels. Essentially, everything Gusto does is a reissue, but they are forever recombining older recordings into new combinations.
Gusto has accumulated the catalogs of King, Starday, Dixie, Federal, Musicor, Step One, Little Darlin’ and various other small independent labels and made available the music of artists that are otherwise largely unavailable. Generally speaking, older material on Gusto’s labels is more likely to be original recordings. This is especially true of bluegrass recordings with artists such as Frank “Hylo” Brown, The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Stringbean and Curley Fox being almost exclusive to Gusto.

After 1970, Gusto’s labels tended to be old age homes for over-the-hill country and R&B artists, and the recordings often were remakes of the artists’ hits of earlier days or a mixture of remakes of hits plus covers of other artists hits. These recordings range from inspired to tired and the value of the CDs can be excellent, from the fabulous boxed sets of Reno & Smiley, Mel Street and The Stanley Brothers, to wastes of plastic and oxides with numerous short eight and ten song collections.

To be fair, some of these eight and ten song collections can be worth having, if they represent the only recordings you can find by a particular artist you favor. Just looking at the letter “A” you can find the following: Roy Acuff, Bill Anderson, Lynn Anderson, Eddy Arnold, Leon Ashley, Ernie Ashworth, Chet Atkins and Gene Autry. If you have a favorite first or second tier country artist of the 1960s or 1970s, there is a good chance that Gusto has an album (or at least some tracks) on that artist.

RazorX’s Top 10 Albums of 2016

91pRGFM-iWL._SX522_All in all, 2016 was a good year for country album releases. Last year when compiling my top picks, I had trouble coming up with ten albums that I liked. This year, I had to actually pare the list down a little bit. As usual, there are some familiar names on my list as well as a few more obscure ones. None of them, however, will be heard on mainstream country radio.

10. Tracy Byrd — All American Texan. Tracy Byrd’s first collection of all-new material in nearly a decade is a solid collection that is reminiscent of his better major label work, but without the plethora of novelty tunes that chipped away at his credibility in his hit making days.

travis-tritt-a-man-and-his-guitar-album-cover9. Travis Tritt — A Man and His Guitar. A live “unplugged” concert recording, this collection proves that minimalist arrangements do nothing to detract from the enjoyment derived from listening to a talented vocalist singing well-written songs.

8. Randy Rogers Band — Nothing Shines Like Neon. The Randy Rogers Band returned to its indie roots this year, after a decade of chasing the big time with the major labels. This is a highly enjoyable collection that features guest stars such as Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski, Jamey Johnson, and Jerry Jeff Walker, that is only slightly marred by a couple of MOR song selections.

7. The Cactus Blossoms — You’re Dreaming. This sibling act from Minnesota is reminiscent of The Everly Brothers with a dash of The Louvin Brothers thrown into the mix. The production is stripped down, which really allows their harmonies to shine.

willie-nelson-for-the-good-times-a-tribute-to-ray-price-album-cover6. Willie Nelson — For The Good Times: A Tribute to Ray Price. 83-year-old Willie Nelson is way past his vocal peak and nowhere near the league of the man to whom he is paying tribute, but his sincerity in paying homage to his fallen friend — as well as some support from The Time Jumpers — helps this collection overcome Willie’s vocal shortcomings.

5. Mark Chesnutt — Tradition Lives. Like Tracy Byrd, Mark Chesnutt returned this year following a lengthy gap since his last album. Tradition Lives was well worth the wait, since it is arguably his best album since he left the major labels. “Is It Still Cheating” and “So You Can’t Hurt Me Anymore” are particularly good.

61UuqSUlcHL._SS5004. Dolly Parton — Pure & Simple. Dolly isn’t exactly breaking new ground with her latest effort, which consists of some new material, some re-recordings of some old material, and a rewritten version of a 1984 hit (“God Won’t Get You” now known as “Can’t Be That Wrong”), but everything is well performed, and the brand new title track, inspired by her recent 50th wedding anniversary, is excellent.

3. The Time Jumpers — Kid Sister. The Nashville-based Western Swing band’s latest effort is in large part a tribute to the late Dawn Sears, and is a delight to listen to from start to finish.

hymns2. Joey + Rory — Hymns That Are Important to Us. 2016 will go down in the history books as one that saw the deaths of an unusually high number of music legends. None were as heartbreaking as the passing of Joey Martin Feek, who lost her hard-fought battle with cancer in March. This collection of religious tunes was recorded while she was undergoing treatments for her disease. The songs all succeed on their own merit, but it’s difficult, if not impossible, to separate one’s feelings about the album from the circumstances under which it was made. It will simultaneously inspire and sadden you.

1. Loretta Lynn — Full Circle. Loretta Lynn’s first new album since 2004’s Van Lear Rose was without a doubt country music’s highlight of the year. Produced by her daughter Patsy Russell and John Carter Cash, it is the first of a series of new albums planned under a new deal with Sony Legacy. She sounds terrific on the new material, as well as the re-recordings of some old hits and covers of some pop and country standards. Highly recommended.

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Favorite Singles of 2016

My favorite singles of the year run the gamut from commercial to obscure and everything in between. Keep reading for career moments from Tim McGraw and Reba McEntire to shining examples of why Lori McKenna and Brandy Clark are more than expert songwriters.

unknown10. Chris Young Feat Cassadee Pope – ‘Think Of You’

Young deserves credit for searching within his own genre for a female collaborator. He deserves praise for co-writing a song that doesn’t use Pope as
window dressing, but rather as a means of furthering the story. This tale of a once-great couple isn’t revelatory, but it’s catchy as hell.

 9. William Michael Morgan – ‘Missing’

The influence George Strait said was absent from country radio came roaring back to life with William Michael Morgan’s follow-up to “I Met A Girl.” “Missing” is an astonishing single in that it makes little compromise to the modern landscape. Warner Bros deserves credit for releasing something this country to radio. Time will tell if they respond favorably.

 500x5008. Kelsey Waldon – ‘All By Myself’

Among its many achievements, a few of which you’ll see highlighted further down, 2016 introduced Kelsey Waldon, a killer traditionalist, to the masses. “All By Myself” is a stern warning to fakers, a biting assessment of authenticity and a woman’s empowerment anthem for the current generation. 

7. Mary Chapin Carpenter – ‘Something Tamed, Something Wild’

The most common criticism I’ve heard about Mary Chapin Carpenter’s more recent works is she ‘lacks a pulse.’ It may be true to an extent, but I’m not hearing it here. This introspective examination of existential curiosity is one of her finest in recent memory. The parent album it comes from is her best in more than a decade.

6. Time Jumpers – ‘Kid Sister’

Vince Gill’s tribute to Dawn Sears is both personal and touching.

record-year-cover5. Eric Church – ‘Record Year’

Not since “The Song Remembers When” has a song about songs been this clever or powerful. Church proves he’s a master once again, name checking legends at every turn and laying out a jovial tale of heartbreak both ear catching and believable. “Record Year” is undoubtedly the best mainstream single of the year.

 4. Lori McKenna – ‘Wreck You’

The lead single from The Bird and the Rifle is this masterful look at sabotage in which the woman is admitting fault, with brutal candor – “Something between us changed, I’m not sure if its you or me But lately all I do seems to wreck you.”

unspecified-13. Tim McGraw – ‘How I’ll Always Be’

2016 found Tim McGraw in an artistic renaissance, with his strongest back-to-back singles in twenty years. He succeeded in a climate unfavorable to substance without conceding to modern pressures. “Humble & Kind” is the better lyric. But “How I’ll Always Be” shines melodically. Not since “Just To See You Smile” has McGraw sounded this good on record. 

2. Brandy Clark – ‘Love Can Go To Hell’

The genius is in the delivery. Brandy Clark sings this so deadpan, it’s easy to miss the dark humor underneath the surface. I totally missed it, but when it hit me, I never heard this the same way again.

reba-1024x10241. Reba McEntire – ‘Just Like Them Horses’

Tim McGraw wasn’t the only one in the throws of an artistic reawaking in 2016. This tale of a dying man giving positive reassurance to the loved one he’s leaving behind may’ve been too much for radio to bare, the unique take on ‘if you love me, let me go’ too smart for the masses.

Reba eulogized her father with this tune before committing it to record, which only solidified the emotional undertones she brought forth in her performance, her strongest vocal since “If I Had Only Known” twenty-five years ago. “Just Like Them Horses” is just that good, a bone-chilling highlight from a career with far too many to count.

Jonathan Pappalardo’s favorite albums of 2015

I don’t have a full list of favorite albums this year. As I age, the bar is increasingly higher for what it takes to grab me. There have been so many albums I’ve admired this year, but these six are the ones that transfixed my attention and kept me coming back for more. These are the six that deserve to be highlighted.

Are there themes? Well, only one featured a single that topped the charts. I don’t even think combined sales would equal a million copies sold. As I get older, my tastes have increasingly drifted towards albums that eschew the mainstream. I want music that leaves an impression and these releases do it in spades. Take a look and let me know what you think.

kasey-chambers-bittersweet6. Kasey Chambers – Bittersweet

 I couldn’t put the spellbinding title track on my favorite singles list since it came out back in 2014. The emotion is palpable in the uniquely structured tale, in which Chambers gives voice to both sides of a disintegrating marriage. It sets the scene for the whole album, a primal scream in the wake of her divorce from Shane Nicholson. The roar is loudest on the final track, “I’m Alive,” as she proudly declares “And through all the blood and the sweat and the tears, things ain’t always what they appear, I made it through the hardest fucking year.”

Key Tracks: “Bittersweet (feat. Bernard Fanning),” “I’m Alive,” “Wheelbarrow”

kacey-musgraves-album-pageant-material-20155.  Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material

 Pageant Material is a very uneven follow-up to Same Trailer Different Park. The majority of the songs sound like they’re outtakes from the first album that weren’t strong enough to make the cut on that set. But at its best, Pageant Material is sharp and biting. Cuts like “Good ‘Ol Boys Club” and the title track are ballsy declarations with clear messages. She also unapologetically turned up the steel and committed to recording in the throwback vibe that has become her trademark in live performances. She got a lot wrong but shined brighter than her competition with everything she got right.

Key Tracks: “Good ‘Ol Boys Club,” “Pageant Material,” “Late to the Party”

starte-here4. Maddie & Tae – Start Here

Mainstream country has been overdue for an artist with a unique sound and fresh perspective who is also firmly rooted in the traditions of the genre. Maddie and Tae aren’t saviors, but their blend of pop country hasn’t been this charming or welcomed since it died with the Dixie Chicks in 2003. Their perception could be sharper and even more biting, but Maddie & Tae are well on their way. Start Here is a promising first glimpse into what they bring to the table.

Key Tracks: “Shut Up and Fish,” “After the Storm Blows Through,” “Sierra”

jason-isbell-something-more-than-free-560x5603. Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free

Albums like Southeastern come along once in an artist’s career if at all. The follow-up record is an often-daunting task to tackle. For everyone except Jason Isbell, that is. Something More Than Free arrives just two years later and is every bit as artistically masterful as its predecessor. Isbell is fearless in the honest way he stays true to the authenticity of every moment he creates. His music is drenched in gritty reality. His way with a lyric is unparalleled to his peers, who can’t even come close to bringing as much sensitivity and nuance to the stories they construct. Jason Isbell is simply a master among armatures. Could we really ask for anything more?

Key Tracks: “Something More Than Free,” “24 Frames,” “Speed Trap Town”

CD400_out2. Nancy Beaudette – South Branch Road

Beaudette’s relatability, and the personal connections I’ve found within these songs, drew me in to fully appreciate the magic of South Branch Road, a window into her soul. She’s constructed an album from the inside out, using her own life to give the listener a deeply personal tour of her many winds and roads, reflecting on the lessons learned around each curve and bend. Beaudette is already a bright bulb on the independent music scene but the release of South Branch Road demands that light shine even brighter. (NOTE: I said it back and June and still mean it wholeheartedly six months later)

Key Tracks: “Something To Me,” “Till The Tomatoes Ripen,” “Shoot To Score,” “South Branch Road”

eric-church-mr-misunderstood1. Eric Church – Mr. Misunderstood

Eric Church shocked the music industry when he unleashed a surprise album on his fan club by sending out copies (CD, vinyl and digital downloads were distributed) without warning. Those fans got an early taste of the best album of Church’s career. Mr. Misunderstood is an artistic triumph and the first time Church has sustained his unique sound across an entire record without brazen experimentation clouding our listening experience. Here are ten exceptional reasons why Church is the strongest male artist in the mainstream sector of the genre right now.

Key Tracks: “Three Year Old,” “Round Here Buzz,” “Record Year”

 

Razor X’s Top 10 Albums of 2015

As I’ve mentioned before, I generally find it easier to compile a list of any given year’s top albums, as opposed to a list of top singles, since I don’t listen to country radio. This year I had a more difficult time than I expected putting together my albums list; surprisingly, I didn’t listen to a whole lot of new music this year. So, here is my list, along with a resolution to do a better job keeping up with current music in 2016:

81qQyIJ7gjL._SX522_10. Sammy Kershaw — I Won’t Back Down

I was somewhat underwhelmed with this album when it was first release, and my initial feelings haven’t changed. It’s included simply because I was having trouble finding a tenth album that I didn’t intensely dislike to put on my list.

814d6MygkiL._SX522_9. Daryle Singletary — There’s a Little Country Left

Released this past summer, this independent release is a good example of what I wish contemporary mainstream country music sounded like — the type of music we’d likely be getting if hick-hop, R&B and the bros hadn’t completely hijacked the genre. The track “Too Late to Save the World” says it all: “It might be too late to save the world, but can’t we still save country music?” I sure hope so.

61TTBEi0Q3L8. Dwight Yoakam — Second Hand Heart

This collection is infinitely better than 2012’s disappointing 3 Pears. It’s a throwback to Dwight’s polished 90s country-rock-pop hybrid music. It was very enjoyable but I’d have preferred something more traditional, in the vein of Guitars, Cadillacs, Buenos Noches from a Lonely Room, and his other great 80s music.

711Wx-StaxL._SX522_7. Clint Black — On Purpose

Clint Black’s first full-length album in seven years was a solid, but play-it-safe collection. There are no surprises or artistic stretches, but it sure was good to hear from him again.

the blade6. Ashley Monroe — The Blade

Country radio in recent years has not been welcoming to female artists, particularly traditional-leaning ones. Ashley Monroe is one of the best of today’s crop of artists, though she has yet to garner much attention for her solo work. I keep hoping that her big breakthrough is right around the corner.

81BsXZt8UsL._SX522_5. Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell — The Traveling Kind

The second collaboration between Harris and Crowell is not quite as good as its predecessor, but topping 2013’s Old Yellow Moon would be no mean feat. The fact that it doesn’t in no way diminishes its enjoyment. This is one of the few albums released in 2015 that I kept coming back to.

images4. Chris Stapleton — Traveller

The former SteelDrivers’ lead singer’s solo debut album turned out to be the year’s biggest commercial surprise. Although his soulful, rough-edged voice isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, Traveller is just what is needed in a genre that has become stale. Whether or not its success is a one-off or the beginning of a trend remains to be seen.

cold beer conversation3. George Strait — Cold Beer Conversation

George Strait’s retirement from the road seems to have had a positive effect on his recording career, at least from an artistic standpoint. Cold Beer Conversation, his first collection produced by Chuck Ainlay is his best effort in quite some time, even if radio is no longer paying attention.

angels and alcohol2. Alan Jackson — Angels and Alcohol

Like Clint Black’s latest offering, Angels and Alcohol doesn’t offer much in the way of anything new or different, but it’s vintage Alan Jackson and that is more than good enough.

cass county1. Don Henley — Cass County

If Chris Stapleton’s Traveller was the year’s biggest commercial surprise, then Cass County is the year’s biggest artistic surprise. Country music is notoriously suspicious of artists who “visit” from other genres, with some justification. But Henley got his tribute to country music right — putting together a collection of solid songs and guest artists. Those who call the genre home would be well advised to follow his example. I hope a second volume is in the works.

The best reissues of 2015

As is always the case, most of the best reissues of American Country Music come from Europe. There are several reasons for this:

1 – Until recently, European copyrights on recordings were only good for 50 years. This changed recently to 70 years, but the change was not retroactive. What this means is that all recordings made before 1963 have lost their copyright protection in Europe.

2 – The European customer for country music is more traditionally oriented than American audiences. This holds true for many forms of music including rockabilly, rock & roll, rhythm & blues, pop standards, you name it. European audiences, unlike their American counterparts, have not discarded the past.

3 – American Record labels simply don’t care – I’d elaborate, but there’s no point to it.

It should be noted that some of these albums may have been issued before 2015 but became generally available during 2015 through various markets.

We’ll start off with two box sets from the gold standard of reissue labels, Bear Family:

chuck wagon gang1. THE CHUCK WAGON GANG – THE COMPLETE RECORDINGS (1936-1955)

Released in late 2014, but not generally available until this year, this Bear Family five disc set compiles the gospel recordings of Dad Carter’s family gospel group. Marty Stuart wrote the forward to the accompanying book.

This Carter Family is NOT related to the Carter Family clan associated with A.P., Sara, Mother Maybelle, and June Carter, but was a successful gospel group that was with Columbia Records from 1936 to 1975, selling thirty-nine million records in the process. Consisting of D.P. (Dad) Carter and son Jim (Ernest) and daughters Rose (Lola) and Anna (Effie), this group was formed in 1935 in Lubbock, Texas, and became one of the most popular gospel groups of its time, performing a very traditional form of country gospel music. They were the first group to record Albert Brumley’s “I’ll Fly Away”.

The group continues to this day, although all of the original members have since passed away. This set won’t be to everyone’s taste in gospel music so I’d suggest that you listen to a few tracks before purchasing the set. The humble sincerity and beauty of the singing will likely have you reconsidering your idea of gospel music.

singing fisherman2. JOHNNY HORTON – THE SINGING FISHERMAN: THE COMPLETE RECORDINGS OF JOHNNY HORTON
Also released in late 2014, this nine disc set chronicles the recording career of one of the brightest stars of the Louisiana Hayride, whose life was cut short in 1960 when he was killed in an automobile accident. Some may recall that Johnny Cash was one of his best friends and some may remember that his widow was also the widow of Hank Williams Sr.

To the extent that Johnny Horton is remembered today, it is for the recordings he made with Columbia Records starting in 1956 with “Honky Tonk Man” and “I’m A One Woman Man”, songs thirty years later covered for hits later by Dwight Yoakam and George Jones.
Johnny’s biggest hit was “The Battle of New Orleans” which reached #1 on both the pop (six weeks) and country charts (ten weeks)in 1959. He had two other #1 records in “When It’s Springtime In Alaska” (1959) and “North to Alaska” released ten days after his death.

Those great Columbia Recordings are all here, but Johnny was an active recording artist from 1952 forward, recording with Abbott Records and Mercury Records, as well as some smaller labels. The Abbott Recordings were pretty pedestrian but Johnny cut some real treasures for Mercury, some of which were regional hits. Those long-lost earlier recordings are here as well, sounding as good as they will ever sound. These recordings encompass Johnny singing straight country , western, rockabilly and historical saga songs. The set comes with two hardcover books.

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Razor X’s top 10 singles of 2015

Compiling a list of the year’s best singles has become one of my least favorite tasks. It seems as though with each passing year country radio gets a little worse. I stopped listening to it in 2007; there is plenty of good music available outside the mainstream, but non-mainstream artists don’t always bother releasing singles to radio. Twenty years ago I’d have had trouble paring my list down to just ten songs; nowadays it is challenge to find ten singles that I like. But in the end, I always manage to find a little wheat among the mountain of chaff. It will come as no surprise to longtime readers to discover that my list is dominated by old favorites who are mostly past their commercial peaks. In fact, my list contains only one bonafide hit, and even that hit #1 without much help from country radio:

fae8ca732384cd6a272747f48c4ebbe010. I Met a Girl — William Michael Morgan

In a stronger year, I wouldn’t have taken much notice of this song but it stands out from the pack because it is a legitimate attempt to get country music back on track without all the hip-hop, bro-country and R&B influences that have come to all but drown out traditional country sounds. It peaked just outside the Top 40, but Morgan has got a good voice and is an artist I’m keeping an eye on for the future.

9. Boy and a Girl Thing — Mo Pitney

Like “I Met a Girl”, this tune is a bit generic but it’s a step in the right direction towards bringing the genre back to its roots. It failed to make the Top 40, but Pitney is an artist that deserves to be heard. Hopefully his music won’t be held hostage by his record label (Curb)

8. Time For That — Clint Black

Clint Black was one of a handful of my old favorites who made a comeback in 2015. It was a shame, but no surprise, that this single did not chart. But regardless of its commercial performance, it sure was good to hear from Clint again.

ashley-monroe-48th-annual-cma-awards-2014-arrivals_44470897. On to Something Good — Ashley Monroe

Ashley Monroe is a very talented artist whose shot at stardom has been hampered by bad timing; she’s had the ill fortune to come along at a time when female artists — particularly traditional-leaning ones — are not given much consideration by country radio. The Blade, produced by Vince Gill and Justin Niebank, is one of the year’s best albums. This single, which got stuck at #53, makes some compromises in an attempt to be heard. Hardcore country it is not, but it is very good, and in another era it would have been a big hit.

6. Cold Beer Conversation — George Strait

The title track of an album that took everyone by surprise proves that drinking songs don’t have to be mindless party songs. It also unofficially marks the beginning of Strait’s post-radio career. After an impressive 35-year-run at the top of the country singles charts, this is his fourth consecutive record not to make the Top 20, and as such, as forced his fans to finally acknowledge that even King George is no longer welcome at country radio.

5. Jim and Jack and Hank — Alan Jackson

This catchy kiss-off tune would have been a big hit during the 90s line-dancing craze. It’s a little light in the lyrics department but is an example of what passed for a fun song on the radio before country music became one big frat party in a cornfield.

lwomack4. Send It On Down — Lee Ann Womack

A beautifully crafted ballad that is a prayer to the Almighty for the strength to make it through adverse times.

3. If I Was Over You — Amanda Watkins feat. Jamey Johnson

This independent release is an interesting pairing between Amanda Watkins (formerly of the pop-country Miss Willie Brown) and Jamey Johnson, which works surprisingly well. It is a stripped down, beautifully produced and well-sung ballad, that can’t possibly have been expected to succeed commercially. However, if Watkns’ forthcoming album is as strong as the lead single, she could be well poised to be country music’s next critics’ darling.

2. Tennessee Whiskey — Chris Stapleton

I surprised myself by ranking this one so highly. When I reviewed Traveller last spring, I commented that Stapleton’s bluesy take on this Dean Dillon tune that was previously recorded by David Allan Coe and a hit for George Jones, was not to my taste. While I still greatly prefer Jones’ version, Stapleton’s remake has grown on me. It is the only decent song to make it to #1 this year, having been driven up the charts by download sales after Stapleton’s CMA wins, and without much help from country radio. It’s a ray of hope that mainstream country may finally start to improve before too much longer.

images-91. I Remember You — Trisha Yearwood

Trisha Yearwood is another old favorite who finally released some new music in 2015. This beautiful, stripped down ballad, on which her sister sings harmony, is a tribute to their late mother, and shows that although radio may have left Trisha Yearwood behind, she can still deliver the goods. This is about as good as it gets.

Occasional Hope’s top 10 albums of 2015

so this is lifeIt’s been a solid year rather than an outstanding one, with a number of interesting albums released but few really exciting ones. But any of my top 10 is well worth hearing.

angels and alcohol10. Alan Jackson – ‘Angels And Alcohol

The veteran star is reliable as ever with his latest release. It may break no new ground, but it’s good country music, and that’s something we always need more of.
Highlights: ‘Angels and Alcohol’, ‘The One You’re Waiting On’, ‘You Can Always Come Home

pageant material9. Kacey Musgraves – ‘Pageant Material
Unlike many, I actually preferred this to Kacey’s lauded debut because I found the production choices more sympathetic to her voice.
Highlights: ‘Pageant Material’, ‘Biscuits’, ‘Late To The Party

cold beer conversation8. George Strait – ‘Cold Beer Conversation
He may have retired from touring, and have lost his golden touch with country radio – but like Alan Jackson, George Strait is still making fine music. A solid classy album.
Highlights: ‘Something Going Down’, ‘Everything I See’, ‘Even When I Can’t Feel It’.

brennen leigh sings lefty frizzell7. Brennen Leigh – ‘Sings Lefty Frizzell
Only just released, this lovely tribute to one of the cornerstones of country music made a late charge up my best of the year list. A true delight. Brennen also teamed up this year with bluegrass singer Brandon Rickman and singer/fiddler Jenee Fleenor in a trio project called Antique Persuasion, which released a delightful acoustic tribute to the Carter Family in August which almost made this list, and a recent Christmas EP.

Highlights: ‘I Love You A Thousand Ways’, ‘Mom And Dad’s Waltz’, ‘How Far Down Can I Go’, ‘You Gotta Be Putting Me On

throwback6. Kevin Moon – ‘Throwback
A fabulous traditional country album from an unknown singer with a great voice. It’s a wonderful reminder of what country music used to be, with guest turns from artists including John Anderson, Rhonda Vincent and Ken Mellons. If there had only been a few more original tunes of the same quality, this would have been even higher in my year-end list.

Highlights: ‘The Storms Of Life’ (with Daryle Singletary), ‘Tennessee Courage’ (with Kevin Denney, Wesley Dennis and Billy Droze), ‘I’d Be Better Off (In A Pine Box)’ (with Doug Stone).

pocket full of keys5. Dale Ann Bradley – ‘Pocket Full Of Keys
Dale Ann has a pure, beautiful voice, and is one of my favorite bluegrass vocalists. This gorgeous effort shows her at her very best.

Highlights: ‘I’m So Afraid Of Losing You Again’, ‘The Stranger’, ‘Pocket Full Of Keys’.

traveller4. Chris Stapleton – ‘Traveler
Chris Stapleton’s triple triumph at the recent CMA awards, and subsequent sales spike, was one of the most unexpected in country music history. Although he was formerly lead singer of the SteelDrivers, and has been a very successful songwriter for years, he had rather flown under the radar as far as mainstream acknowledgement went. His solo debut album is a very strong piece of work, showcasing his bluesy, soulful vocals. I don’t love every track – occasionally his more esoteric leanings to blues and rock wander too far from country music for me – but when he’s at his best, he is magnificent.

Highlights: ‘Whiskey And You’, ‘Nobody To Blame’, ‘Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore’.

the underdog3. Aaron Watson – ‘The Underdog
Texan Watson has been steadily plugging on for a decade or so, and his latest album is as good as anything he’s done, with a powerful depiction of Johnny Cash at his turning point and a reflection on the state of country music. Solid Texas country music which deserves a mainstream hearing.
Highlights: ‘The Prayer’, ‘Fence Post’, ‘Bluebonnets (Julia’s Song)’.

the blade2. Ashley Monroe – ‘The Blade
A fine album by one of the best artists currently on a major label – even if that label isn’t bothering to push her work at radio. The title track in particular is exquisite.
Highlights: ‘The Blade’, ‘If The Devil Don’t Want Me’, ‘Dixie’, ‘I’m Good At Leaving’.

so this is life1. Courtney Patton – ‘So This Is Life
A lovely mature piece of work from a fine singer-songwriter, loaded with gorgeous country waltzes. For my money this is the most consistently great album of the year.
Highlights: ‘Little Black Dress’, ‘Need For Wanting’, ‘Killing Time

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Top 10 Singles of 2015

What does it say about me that the highest charting single on my list took eight months to peak at #9? I’ve continued to broaden my tastes as I’ve aged while continuing to closely follow the artists I’ve always admired. There was some stunning music this year and these ten selections are only the tip of the iceberg. Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

cdca72c7ec5625f0f1f483fb_440x44010. I’m With Her – ‘Crossing Muddy Waters’

I’m With Her (Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan) is one of the more unique collaborations of the year and their cover of the fifteen year old John Hiatt song is the amuse-bouche to a main course full-length album that may come within the next few years. This track is too faithful to be a doozy but it more than proves they have the potential to be an artistic force should they go down that road. I really hope they do.

Trisha-Yearwood-I-remember-You9. Trisha Yearwood – ‘I Remember You’

Every Trisha Yearwood album has its own personality and PrizeFighter: Hit After Hit lies on the more Adult Contemporary side of the country spectrum. “I Remember You,” a tribute to her mom, is far from the most dynamic ballad she’s ever recorded. But it shows off a tender side of her voice we’ve never heard before. Yearwood is a vocal chameleon able to adapt to any style and work within any parameters. She’s still a master after twenty-five years. I cannot wait to see what she has in store for us next.

Traveller8. Chris Stapleton – ‘Traveller’

“Tennessee Whiskey,” the early 1980s George Jones hit he sang on the CMA Awards, is the standout showcase for his gifts as a vocalist. “Traveller,” showcases his talents as a songwriter. This autobiographical mid-tempo ballad casts Stapleton as a vagabond who knows his path but cannot see his destination. Like any great artist he’s spent his time paying his dues and working the system until he could shine in his own light. He may always be a “Traveller,” but I bet he has a much clearer picture of where he’s headed now that the world finally knows his name.

Screen-Shot-2015-05-05-at-10.39.03-AM7. Jason Isbell – ’24 Frames’

“24 Frames” is a 1990s inspired gem that owes more to R.E.M. than Alan Jackson, bringing the same addictive quality (minus the mandolins) that made “Losing My Religion” so intoxicating. “24 Frames” is a fantastic meditation on relationships, cumulating with a chorus that compares God to an architect and declares, “he’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow.”

Thile & PB6. Punch Brothers – ‘I Blew It Off’

The coolest track from The Phosphorescent Blues is this plucky slice of bluegrass-pop, a style Chris Thile and the boys have perfected over the course of their four albums. They returned after a three-year hiatus to find Thile with a ‘bad case of twenty-first century stress,’ which is about the only thing he can’t shrug off. He’s furious yet knows he isn’t alone, declaring by the end that modern technology is having an effect on everyone, not just him. “I Blew It Off” is as simple as any song could be saying a lot in a very tiny space. That’s often where the most valuable riches can be found.

Fly5. Maddie & Tae – ‘Fly’

Not since “Cowboy Take Me Away” has a fiddle driven pop-country ballad reached these artistic heights. At a moment when Maddie & Tae had to show the world what else they could do, they blew away the competition with their exquisite harmonies and pitch perfect lyric. They aren’t the Dixie Chicks by any means, but they’re pretty darn close.


Dierks-Bentley-Riser-Album-Art-CountryMusicIsLove4. Dierks Bentley – ‘Riser’

Even in the face of commercial pressures, Dierks Bentley sticks to his convictions. “Riser” is a sweeping tale of overcoming odds and one of his finest singles. I have no clue why he hasn’t risen (no pun intended) to the upper echelon of country greats at a time when he’s bucking trends and releasing worthy songs to country radio. He’s one of the best we have and deserves to be compensated as such.

2647969113. Jana Kramer – ‘I Got The Boy’

Leave it to Jamie Lynn Spears, of all people, to write the strongest hook of the year: ‘I got the boy, you got the man.’ Leave it to Jana Kramer to sell the pain and conviction felt by the scorned ex who is seeing the boy she loved transformed into the man she always wanted him to be.

Eric-Church-Like-a-Wrecking-Ball2. Eric Church – ‘Like A Wrecking Ball’

When Eric Church brought the idea for this song to co-writer Casey Beathard he balked. At the time, Miley Cyrus was hitting big with her similarly titled smash. Church, who cannot be under estimated, knew exactly what he was doing. This tour de force is the most original song about making love to hit any radio format in recent memory. It’s also the coolest one-off artistic statement since Dwight Yoakam hit with “Nothing” twenty years ago. Eric Church is the strongest male country singer in the mainstream right now.

lee-ann-womack_9601. Lee Ann Womack – ‘Chances Are’

What needs to be said about Lee Ann Womack wrapping her exquisite voice around a pure country weeper? She came into her own on The Way I’m Livin’ and finally found the space to create the music in her soul. The album’s third single is a shining example of the perfect song matched with the only artist who has enough nuance to drive it home. Lee Ann Womack is simply one of the greatest female country singers ever to walk the earth.

 

Occasional Hope’s top 10 singles of 2015

law 2015Country radio may be going from bad to worse with the arrival of the likes of the obviously non-country Sam Hunt, but there have been some superb singles released this year, particularly from female artists. A few of them have even made an impact on radio, proving there is still hope. Among the singles that just missed the cut for my top 10 were the charming first two singles from Kacey Musgraves’ second Mercury album – ‘Biscuits’ and ‘Dime Store Cowgirl’; Sunny Sweeney’s dead-marriage duet with Will Hoge, ‘My Bed’; and Chris Young’s sexy ‘I’m Comin’ Over’.

10. Jon Pardi – ‘Head Over Boots’
Sunny and catchy – this is country rock done exactly right. It’s currently working its way into the top 40.

9. Chris Stapleton‘Nobody To Blame’

Singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton’s unexpected triple victory at this year’s CMA Awards was the pleasantest surprise I’ve had at an awards ceremony in years. Showing why he deserved it, his November single release is an excellent song imbued with his bluesy soulful brand of country music.

burning house8. Cam – Burning House
I hear Camaron Ochs as more folky pop rather than a country singer at heart, but I’ve really liked her two 2015 singles, the upbeat ‘My Mistake’ (about embarking on a one night stand with no regrets), and the gentle melancholy of ‘Burning House’. The haunting melody makes this my favourite of the two, and for a change radio agrees with me, as this has proved to be her breakthrough, with the track at #11 on the country radio chart as of early November. Her debut album is due this month.

shut up and fish7. Maddie & Tae – ‘Shut Up And Fish’
An irresistibly catchy tune from the effervescent duo, which uses its comic trappings to dress up a serious message about sexual harassment.

6. Jason James‘I’ve Been Drinkin’ More’
Perhaps the most obscure of my top 10 singles is this solid barroom shuffle, which sounds like a forgotten county classic:

I’ve been drinkin’ more
Since you’ve been lovin’ me less

5. Jana Kramer – ‘I Got the Boy’
Disappointingly the album it heralded turned out to be otherwise terrible, but I still like Jana Kramer’s mature reflection on the passing of teenage romance, written by Connie Harrington, Tim Nichols and former child TV star Jamie Lynn Spears. Her vocal ability may not stand up to the other women who made my top 10 this year, but on this song at least, she has an appealing warmth. It was another genuine hit, and is still rising.

4. Trisha Yearwood‘I Remember You’
The second single from Trisha Yearwood’s 2014 mixture of hits and fine new songs, Prize Fighter, is an impeccable song, written by Canadians Kelly Archer, Ben Caver and Brad Rempel. My review said it was “as close to perfect as it gets”, and it is an exemplary example of understated subtlety in both the vocal and the production.

jamey johnson3. Jamey Johnson‘Alabama Pines’
Jamey Johnson has not been very forthcoming with new music even now that he has launched his own label. But he did share this single with us earlier this year, even initially allowing it to be downloaded free. A beautiful, steel laced melody, it looks back on his southern childhood and the dreams of a life in music who took him away.

the blade2. Ashley Monroe – ‘The Blade
For most of this year, the title track of Ashley’s latest album has been the song I’ve returned to over and over again. When I reviewed that set I called this a truly outstanding song, and my feelings have not changed. Written by Marc Beeson, Jamie Floyd and Allen Shamblin, produced by Vince Gill and Justin Niebank, and sung by the delicately vulnerable Ashley Monroe, this is a beautiful depiction of the pain of love which lasts longer on one side than the other:

That’s the risk you run when you love
When you love and you give it all you’ve got to give
Knowing all along there’s a chance
There’s a chance you’ll reach and they won’t
You’ll bleed and they don’t
For you, it’s over; for me, it’s not
I kept tryin’ and you just stopped
Now I know how you can sound so brave
Cause you caught it by the handle, baby
And I caught it by the blade

It wasn’t a hit of course – it was far too good for country radio: too country, too subtle, and too female.

1. Lee Ann Womack‘Chances Are’
I thought Ashley Monroe’s single was going to make #1 on my list until I heard late in October that Lee Ann Womack had issued the best song on her critically acclaimed 2014 album The Way I’m Livin’ as its third single. A world-wearied and desperately lonely soul still has hope for love and happiness:

Chances are I took the wrong turn
Every time I had a turn to take
And I guess I broke my own heart
Every chance I had a heart to break
And it seems I spent my whole life
Wishin’ on the same unlucky star
As I watch you ‘cross the barroom, I wonder
What my chances are

Well, I know you’ve been around
And you’ve seen what you needed to see
And at night when you’re dreamin’
You’re probably not dreamin’ ‘bout me
Oh, it’s safe to say I’ve stumbled
But I’ve managed to make it through this far
As I take one step and then another
I wonder what my chances are

I have watched the world go by
Hand in hand and wondered why
I’m still so alone
Could I lay down my foolish pride
Maybe finally find my heart a home

The band has started playing
A simple song I used to know
I take your hand and walk you out
Dance to the rhythm way down low
Every heart has got a story
Mine just has a few scars
But they could heal if you would hold me and tell me
What my chances are
Well, they could heal if you would hold me and tell me
What my chances are

I first heard this excellent song sung by its writer Hayes Carll a few years ago, but LAW’s version of this excellent Hayes Carll song is quite exquisitely beautiful: beautifully sung and interpreted like a masterclass in country music, and tastefully produced with lovely steel guitar dominating the mix. Her unexpected but well deserved nomination as the CMA’s Female Vocalist of the Year probably won’t gain her airplay for this stunning record, but it’s unmissable.