My Kind of Country

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

Category Archives: Year In Review

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.

Advertisements

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.

Read more of this post

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.

Top 20 Albums of 2014: A Hidebound Traditionalist’s View

Rosanne CashWe didn’t get a chance to run this before the end of the year, but we figured our readers wouldn’t mind reading Paul’s year in review a little late. — Razor X

1. Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread

This album came out fairly early in the year, and yet I was fairly sure it would be the best new album I would hear in 2014. Elegant and insightful would be the terms I would think best describe this album.

2. Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard

So timeless are the songs are the songs of Merle Haggard that even marginal talents such as Jason Aldean and Jake Owen couldn’t mess up the songs. If fact I would regard Aldean’s take on “Going Where The Lonely Go” as he best recording he’s ever made. This tribute album is largely composed of modern country artists (Toby Keith, Parmalee, Dustin Lynch, Kristy Lee Cook, Randy Houser, Joe Nichols, Jake Owen, Jason Aldean and James Wesley) with Merle’s son Ben thrown in for good measure and Garth Brooks on the physical CD available at Walmart. The two tracks by Thompson Square (“You Take Me For Granted”, “Let’s Chase Each Other Around The Room”) are given a playful reading and are my favorite tracks, but every artist keeps the spirit of the Hag alive with these songs.

3. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison – Our Year

The follow-up to Cheater’s Game dishes up another nice serving of real country music with more focus on newer material but with some covers including a nice take on the Statler Brothers classic “I’ll Go To My Grave Loving You” .

4. Jerry Douglas – Earls of Leicester

An instant classic, this album is almost a theatre piece with various stellar musicians cast in the roles of the members of the classic Flatt & Scruggs lineup of the 1950s and 1960s, doing a program of classic Flatt & Scruggs material. Starring Jerry Douglas on dobro, Barry Bales on bass, Shawn Camp on acoustic guitar and vocals, Johnny Warren – fiddle, Tim O’Brien – mandolin, & Charlie Cushman – banjo and guitar. Johnny Warren is the song of longtime F&S fiddler Paul Warren.

5. Carlene Carter – Carter Girl

Carlene Carter pays tribute to her musical heritage with a classic collection of Carter Family tunes plus a pair of original compositions. These recording have a modern sound that differs from, but is true to, the spirit of the originals.

6. Ray Price – Beauty Is

I wanted to call this the best album of 2014 and if Ray had been in top vocal form I would have, but this is the swan song of a dying man who knows the end is but months away. The album is elegant and heartfelt, in many respects a valentine to his wife of many years.

7. Jeff Bates – Me and Conway

For as popular as Conway Twitty was during his heyday (think George Strait), he has been almost entirely forgotten. A tribute to Conway Twitty is long overdue and while I think a multi-artist album would be nice, if it has to be a single artist tribute album, there is no one better to do it than Jeff Bates, whose voice can sound eerily similar to that of Conway Twitty. The album is about half Conway Twitty songs and half new material including the title track. My favorite tracks are the title track, “Lost In The Feeling” and Jeff’s duet with Loretta Lynn on “After The fire Is Gone” .

8. Mandy Barnett – I Can’t Stop Loving You: The Songs of Don Gibson

Mandy is a masterful singer, if somewhat addicted to slow songs. Don Gibson was a top-drawer song writer, as well as a soulful performer. This album, initially available as a Cracker Barrel exclusive is proof that when you pair great songs with a great singer that very good things can happen. Don’s been gone for over a decade so it’s nice to see someone keep his songs in front of the American public.

9. Ray Price – A New Place To Begin

I am mystified that the tracks on this album went unreleased on an album for so long. During the mid 1980s Ray Price and Snuff Garrett collaborated on a number of successful singles (some of which were used in movie soundtracks) plus some other songs. True, producer Snuff Garrett fell ill somewhere along the line and retired, but Garrett was a big name producer and you would think these would have escaped somehow. This CD features seven chart singles that were never collected on an album, and seven other songs that were never released on an album. Sixteen tracks from one of the masters most featuring more steel guitar than was common for Ray during this period .

10. George Strait – The Cowboy Rides Away (Deluxe Edition)

This album has some flaws including what sounds like auto-tune on some tracks and the standard issue of the album doesn’t warrant a top twenty listing since it has only twenty songs on it. The Deluxe Edition, however, plants you into the middle of a George Strait concert – twenty-eight songs on the two CD set plus the entire 40 song set on the concert DVD with some bonus features. George never did tour extensively and when he hit town, the tickets were expensive and sold out quickly so I never did get to see him live in concert. This set is the next best thing. While the studio recordings are better, this is still worth having.

11. Chris Thile & Edgar Meyer – Bass & Mandolin

This album is a little hard to characterize – it’s not exactly bluegrass, folk, jazz or classical music, but it is all of them and more on the ten featured tunes, all of them co-writes. Meyer plays piano on a few tunes but mostly plays bass. Thile shines on the mandolin. The listener exults in the magic.

12. Sammy Kershaw – Do You Know Me: A Tribute To George Jones

True, Sammy is a distant cousin to Cajun pioneers Rusty and Doug Kershaw, but Sammy’s musical muses were Mel Street and George Jones. Here Sammy pays tribute to George Jones and does it well. My favorite among the dozen Jones hits (plus two new songs) covered is “When The Grass Grows Over Me”.

13. Joe Mullins – Another Day From Life

Joe Mullins has been around the bluegrass scene for a while, but this album was the first of his albums I happened to pick up. It’s very good and I’ll be picking up more of his albums when I hit the bluegrass festival in Palatka, Florida on February 20.

14. Rhonda Vincent – Only Me

Half country/half grass but 100% excellent. I wish that Rhonda would do an entire album of western swing and honky-tonk classics. It was silly to split this up into two six song discs, but I guess that the ears of the bluegrass purists needed protection from the country classics. My favorite track is “When The Grass Grows Over Me” which was also my favorite George Jones song. Rhonda’s takes on “Once A Day” and “Bright Lights and Country Music” are also highlights.

15. Lee Ann Womack – The Way I’m Livin’

It is good to see new music from Lee Ann. I don’t regard this as highly as I did her first few albums, but it is a welcome return to form.

16. Willie Nelson – Band of Brothers

Death, taxes and a new Willie Nelson album are the only things you can really count on seeing every year. This one is up to the usual standards, with Willie having written nine of the fourteen songs on the album.

17. Secret Sisters – Put your Needle Down

I actually liked their debut album better, but this one will appeal more to younger listeners. At this rate they won’t be a secret much longer. Buy it at Cracker Barrel as their version has two extra songs.

18. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

A lot has been written about this album, but the truth is that words really don’t adequately describe it. This album requires repeated listening.

19. Dierks Bentley – Riser

I like this album, but I keep expecting more of DIerks Bentley. “Drunk On A Plane” and “I Hold On” were the big radio/ video singles but I don’t think they were the best songs on the album.

20. Cornell Hurd Band – Twentieth Album

In some ways the Cornell Hurd Band is like Asleep At The Wheel, a very versatile band that can handle anything. Both are terrific swing bands but AATW leans more to the jazzy side while the CHB is more honky-tonk and more prone to novelty lyrics. All of their albums are filled with many and varied treasures.

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Top Ten Albums of 2014

For whatever reason, I always find it easier to tackle a singles list than one dedicated to albums. It’s easier to dive into the creative merits of a song for me than to look at a whole album, at least where a ranked list is concerned. As country music has veered off course in recent years, I’ve noticed my tastes have shifted away from the mainstream as I’ve filled my ears with the sounds of independent or Americana leaning artists, who still make music for themselves, and not for the corporate machine.

My top ten includes an artist who staged a wonderful comeback, another who treated us to his second album this decade, a group who reunited for their twenty-fifth anniversary, and a duet pairing who’ve spoiled us with riches two years in a row. All are strong artistic triumphs and prove, once again, that incredible country music continues to see the light of day.

71Pl0cfcAZL._SL1500_10. Nickel Creek – A Dotted Line

Nine years after breaking off in different directions, Sara, Sean, and Chris reunite showing astonishing artistic growth. A Dotted Line doesn’t eclipse their breathtaking 2000 debut, but it’s just so great to have them back.

Key Tracks: “Destination,” “Hayloft,” “Love Like Mine”

9. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison – Our Year11183_JKT

The married couple follow-up 2013’s stellar Cheater’s Game with a traditional delight that packs on the steel and Willis’ once in a lifetime voice with Robison’s brilliant songwriting. It doesn’t get much better.

Key Tracks: “Carousel,” “Anywhere But Here,” “This Will Be Our Year”

MirandaLambertPlatinum8. Miranda Lambert – Platinum

The de facto mainstream entry goes to Lambert’s latest set, which balances progressive sensibilities while remaining nostalgic for times gone by.

Key Tracks: “Automatic,” “Pricilla,” “All That’s Left (with Time Jumpers)”  

RF.EISHS-117. Radney Foster – Everything I Wish I’d Said

Foster’s latest covers wide ground – the grip of creativity, love for the Golden State, and racism, et al – but it all works, thanks to his sharp songwriting and blistering production.

Key Tracks: “Whose Heart You Wreck,” “California,” “Not In My House”

lm_album6. Lori McKenna – Numbered Doors 

The first of three stellar collections from female singer-songwriters to land on the list comes from McKenna, singing exquisitely about small-town life. It’s always a treat when she releases a new set, and Numbered Doors is no exception.

Key Tracks: “The Time I’ve Wasted,” “Stranger In His Kiss,” “What A Woman Wants”

angaleena-presley-album-american-middle-class-2014-08-1000px5. Angaleena Presley – American Middle Class 

Holler Annie’s voice is an acquired taste and her production choices aren’t entirely conventional, but her songwriting is vividly clear and features the focused prospective of a woman breathing every last word.

Key Tracks: “Grocery Store,” “Life of the Party,” “Better Off Red”

don-williams-album-reflections-2014-400px4. Don Williams – Reflections

And So It Goes was a wonderful reintroduction to Don Williams for a new generation, as a man in his 70s. Fully reacquainted, Williams has released the collection of his life – ten reflections on life from a man who’s lived and breathed every word.

Key Tracks: “I’ll Be There In The Morning,” “Working Man’s Son,” “Talk Is Cheap”

81jry8GphML._SL1425_3. Rodney Crowell – Tarpaper Sky

Rodney Crowell is irrefutably one of the greatest songwriter/artists of the past forty years. He’s done it all in his astonishing career, yet he continues to surprise at a point in his profession where artists either hang it up or coast on their success. He’s at the peak of his ability with no signs of slowing down. All the better for us, and the greater good of the country genre.

Key Tracks: “The Long Journey Home,” “God I’m Missing You,” “The Flyboy & The Kid”

the way im livin2. Lee Ann Womack – The Way I’m Livin’ 

A new Lee Ann Womack album is a cause for celebration, and while I wasn’t blown away by her latest set, there were some incredible moments throughout. It also doesn’t hurt that she’s championing pure country music, especially at a time when the genre is poppier than it’s ever been.

Key Tracks: “Fly,” “Same Kind of Different,” “Sleeping With the Devil”

Rosanen-Cash-The-River-The-Thread-300x3001. Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread

The third consecutive release in which she mines her family legacy is Cash’s masterpiece, the brilliant singer-songwriter project that comes wholly from the soul of its creator. Through twelve immaculate southern-themed songs, Cash vividly paints her landscapes and introduces us to those who call this region of the country home.

Key Tracks: “When The Master Calls The Roll,” “Night School,” “The Sunken Lands”

The best re-issues of 2014

pathway of my lifeAs 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. I am not sure what the cut-off point is for application of the 70 year copyright as I’ve seen varying reports, but it appears that recordings already out of copyright protection will remain in the public domain, but recordings released after 1962 will have the longer copyrights applicable (at least in the UK).

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 2012 but became generally available during 2014 through various markets.

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

1. HANK THOMPSON – THE PATHWAY OF MY LIFE (1966-1984)
Released in late 2013, but not generally available until this year, this Bear Family extravaganza grabs Hank’s recordings made for Warner Brothers, Dot , ABC, Churchill and MCA/Dot in a Deluxe 8 CD set with a booklet compiled with the assistance of Hank himself.

Hank Thompson’s biggest hits were recorded during his years with Capitol, but he still had a large number of hits after that. More importantly, he still was making great recordings. Although there are other artists I prefer to Hank Thompson, I regard Hank Thompson and Doc Watson as the two most consistent country artists of all time – neither of them ever made a bad recording. Hank’s four biggest hits of the post-Capitol era were “On Tap, In The Can or In The Bottle” (#8) , “Smoky The Bar” (#5), “The Older The Violin the Sweeter The Music “ (#8) and “Who Left The Door To Heaven Open” (10). They are all here along with six more top twenty hits and a bunch of other chart records.

If you wonder how significant Hank Thompson was just ask George Strait. Ol’ George made one of his few guest appearances (and probably his first such appearance) with Hank Thompson on a mid 1980s recording of “A Six Pack To Go”.

just between you and me2. PORTER WAGONER & DOLLY PARTON – JUST BETWEEN YOU AND ME – 1967-1976
Porter & Dolly were roughly contemporaries of the teams Loretta Lynn & Conway Twitty and George Jones & Tammy Wynette. I have always regarded Porter & Dolly as the best male-female duet pairing ever. Their hits were not quite as big as those of the other two duets, but consider this: Loretta, Conway, George and Tammy were all top-tier stars. At the time these recordings were made, Porter Wagoner was a journeyman country singer who had a major label contract, an over-the-top personality and a syndicated television show to cover the fact that his big hits were fairly few, although he had experienced a bit of a revival in 1964-1969. Meanwhile Dolly Parton was an up and comer with no major hit records until 1970.

What made the pairing so special was the chemistry they had between them. George & Tammy may have been married for a while, but that spark that made the most trivial of songs special for Porter & Dolly was missing (I always regarded George’s best duet partner as Melba Montgomery, and although they did not especially get along, I felt Tammy’s best duets were with David Houston)

Conway & Loretta had more chemistry than George & Tammy but were never as involved in being a duet as Porter & Dolly as both had ‘big star’ careers to maintain.

Porter and Dolly recorded a lot of songs, and they are all here: sad songs (“Jeanie’s Afraid of The Dark“, “Just Someone I Used To Know”), happy songs (“Lost Forever In Your Kiss”), totally ridiculous songs (“Her and The Car and The Mobile Home Were Gone”, “Run That By Me One More Time”) and a plethora of simply good country songs from songwriters as diverse as Jack Clement, Dave Kirby, Tom Paxton and dozens of others. Six CDs worth of the best harmonies ever recorded with lavish book and the superb sound engineering for which Bear Family is famous.

Next some American labels get into the act …

ronnie milsap -the rca albums collection3. RONNIE MILSAP – THE RCA ALBUMS COLLECTION
Charley Pride was one of early supporters and many subsequent singers have cited Ronnie Milsap as a primary influence, including Vince Gill and Hunter Hayes. Since Milsap is a musical chameleon who can cover the gamut from Cajun to R&B to stone cold country and classic pop, it figures that he would have influenced a wide range of artists. Ronnie rang up a staggering number of hits including 40 #1 records in his long career. This set , consisting of 21 CDs covering his RCA output is overkill, but for a performer as gifted as Ronnie Milsap perhaps the overkill can be justified.

4. ZAC BROWN BAND – GREATEST HITS SO FAR …
They may look like something from Duck Dynasty but these fellows have a lot of talent. Moreover, this is an honest hits collection – no previously unissued tracks, jut fourteen hit singles starting with their first #1 from 2008 in “Chicken Fried” and finishing with “Sweet Annie” from 2013. If you haven’t purchased any of their albums yet, this is a ‘must-have’ (and if you haven’t purchased any of their albums yet, shame on you).

back to the Europeans …

the louvin brothers - complete recorded works5. THE LOUVIN BROTHERS – COMPLETE RECORDED WORKS 1952-1962
This is one of those European sets consisting of six CDs (143 songs) encompassing the Louvins’ output on Capitol Records – generally available for $20.00 or less. I don’t know much about the label (Enlightenment), and their product comes with fairly bare bones packaging but it is the music that matters, and few acts ever mattered as much as Ira & Charlie Louvin. The digital sound is quite decent. The set encompasses twelve of the Louvins’ albums, several of which are primarily religious material. The set isn’t quite complete as there were a few singles which did not make it to an album until much later including “When I Stop Dreaming” and “Must You Throw Dirt In My Face”.

6. GEORGE JONES SINGS HANK AND BOB
Hank Williams and Bob Wills were two of the country greats and George Jones paid tribute to them in three albums recorded in the late 1950s – early 1960s. Collected here on the Not Now label are the Mercury album George Jones Salutes Hank Williams and the United Artist albums George Jones Sings Bob Wills and My Favorites of Hank Williams. Supposedly, George wasn’t much of a Bob Wills fan, but you couldn’t prove it by me. If George felt he didn’t have much feel for western swing he must be judging by an impossibly high standard as this is great stuff. Every album should be like this: great music sung by a master singer.

My biggest complaint about this set is the sequencing – two CDs each with 12 Hank songs followed by six of Bob’s songs.

7. JOHNNY CASH – THE SUN SINGLES COLLECTION
This collection, also on the Not Now label, is comprised of two CDs containing 38 songs. This is material that has been endlessly available over the last 50+ years and now it is available again. Available for under $20, if you don’t have this material already, this is a good value – the sound is good and the songs contained herein are beyond essential. This is where it all started for the man in black. IMHO, there is no such thing as too much Johnny Cash. There have been better collections of the Sun recordings, but this one is available now, and at a nice price.

8. CARL PERKINS – THE ROCKABILLY YEARS
This collection, on the One Day label, is comprised of two CDs containing 40 songs. As with the Cash collection above, this is material that has been endlessly available over the last 50+ years and now it is available again. No complaints about the material, the performances or the sound quality. Available for under $20, if you don’t have this material already, this is a must – just don’t step on my blue suede shoes in your haste to buy this set.

eddy arnold -the complete chart singles9. EDDY ARNOLD – THE COMPLETE CHART SINGLES (1945-1962)
In terms of the number of weeks his singles stayed at #1 (143 weeks according to Billboard) Eddy Arnold is the all-time country music leader, 33 weeks ahead of Webb Pierce and miles ahead of George Strait, Dolly Parton or anyone else. This three CD set collects 77 of Eddy’s chart hits through 1962 which means that it pulls up just short of Eddy’s mid 1960s revival that started with “What’s He Doing In My World” and “Make The World Go Away”. No matter – the 1940s material was better than anything Eddy contrived to record during the 1960s and the 1950s recordings, while not always the biggest hits , were usually fairly interesting as Eddy experimented with his sound and expanded his repertoire to include folk and pop material. I would consider the first to CDs to be absolutely essential and the third CD as very good. The folks at Acrobat released this fine collection and included a fine booklet to go with the set.

10. JOHNNY HORTON – NORTH TO ALASKA AND OTHER GREAT HITS (The Early Albums)
Johnny Horton (1925-1960) was one of Johnny Cash’s best friends (and fishing buddy) and had a brief period of time in which his material dominated the country charts and made serious inroads onto the pop charts. This set collects his earlier (and largely unsuccessful) recordings for Dot and his initial recordings for Columbia. Don’t let the ‘early albums’ description fool you – since Horton was killed in a car crash in 1960, there are no later albums except label creations.

The set contains two CDs and 60 songs including all of the Columbia hits including “The Battle of 1814” and “North To Alaska” – good stuff. This is on the Jasmine label – apparently briefly available in 2012 and now available again in the USA

I didn’t review any of the Gusto/Starday/King/ Cindy Lou recordings this time around but check out the Gusto website. Gusto has the habit a repackaging earlier albums into nice box sets – for instance a few years ago they combined three Mel Street albums into a 58 song boxed set. Another label to check on is Heart of Texas Records which has reissued old Capitol and Step One sets on artists such as Tony Booth and Curtis Potter.

Razor X’s Top 10 Albums of the Year

johnnycashCompiling a list of the year’s best albums is a much easier task than putting together a list of the year’s best singles. My list is comprised entirely of works by veteran artists who have more or less been put out to pasture by country radio but continue to produce quality music for their loyal fans.

10. Provoked — Sunny Sweeney

In a sane world, Sunny Sweeney would be a superstar. But even though she never quite found her niche at radio and is no longer on a major label, her first release in three years makes it crystal clear that she’s not about to quietly fade away.

Ray Price9. Beauty Is … The Final Sessions — Ray Price

Ray Price was dying of cancer while recording his swan song, but you’d never know it by listening to it. His voice sounded remarkably strong for an 87-year-old in declining health. Fans of Price’s countrypolitan period will enjoy this one.

8. Carter Girl — Carlene Carter

Her tribute to her famous ancestors has a few missteps along the way — mostly when the arrangements get a little too contemporary but overall Carlene Carter’s labor of love is very well done and well worth the asking price.

7. Band of Brothers — Willie Nelson

Willie’s voice has grown weaker with age but he is still a top-notch musician and songwriter and shows that he can still deliver the goods with this collection produced by Buddy Cannon.

Do You Know Me6. Do You Know Me: A Tribute to George Jones — Sammy Kershaw

I can’t think of anyone better suited to do a Jones tribute album, whether it be covers of the Possum’s classic hits or biographical title track that was written for but never recorded by Jones.

5. Influence, Vol. 2: The Man I Am — Randy Travis

This album’s tracks were all recorded in the same sessions as those that appear on the first Influence volume that was released last year. I had initially feared that Volume 2 would be made up of the leftover tracks that weren’t deemed good enough for the first disc, but I was pleasantly surprised at how strong Volume 2 actually is. I may even prefer it to its predecessor.

4. Our Year — Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis

This sparsely produced follow-up to last year’s Cheater’s Game is the perfect antidote to the overproduced bro-country currently being pushed by Nashvegas. I was a little surprised that they released this album only a year after its predecessor. Is it greedy to wish for another one in 2015?

blue smoke album3. Blue Smoke — Dolly Parton

After releasing a trio of critically acclaimed bluegrass albums in the early 2000s, Dolly lapsed back into the pop-country territory that she’d explored throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. She recovered nicely with Blue Smoke, and I really hope that this is the beginning of another creative surge and not just a one-off.

2. The Way I’m Livin’ — Lee Ann Womack

This was the comeback story of the year as far as I’m concerned. The Way I’m Livin’ is the sort of album I had hoped she would release as a follow-up to There’s More Where That Came From. It took almost a decade to happen but it was well worth the wait.

1. Out Among The Stars — Johnny Cash

This vintage Cash album was recorded mostly in the 1980s when the Man In Black was still in good voice. He was in the midst of a commercial dry spell and label politics prevented the completion and release of the album for 30 years. It was recently discovered and completed by his son John Carter Cash and is a real treat for Cash fans.

Occasional Hope’s top 10 albums of 2014

the way im livinIt’s not been the best of years for mainstream country music, but great music is still out there to be found if you’re willing to hunt it down. There was a plethora of great covers projects, including excellent offerings from Joey + Rory and Gene Watson, and a number of other fine records which just missed the cut in my top 10 selection.

10. Dave Adkins ‘Nothing To Lose
Classic high lonesome bluegrass from a singer with a big, emotional voice.
Best tracks: ‘I Can’t Even Walk’, ‘Don’t Pray That Way’, ‘Mistaken Heart

9. J P Harris & The Tough Choices – ‘Home Is Where The Hurt Is
Authentic retro honky tonk with some great songs.

Best tracks: ‘Home Is Where The Hurt Is’, ‘Truck Stop Amphetamines’, ‘Every Little Piece’

provoked8. Sunny Sweeney – ‘Provoked
Back on an independent label, Sunny Sweeney’s unbridled honky tonk with a modern twist is irresistible.

Best tracks: ‘You Don’t Know Your Husband’, ‘Backhanded Compliment’, ‘Sunday Dress

7. Fayssoux, ‘I Can’t Wait
A lovely mellow folk-country record.

Best tracks: ‘Mama’s Hungry Eyes’, ‘I Made A Friend Of A Flower Today’, ‘Golightly Creek’

6. Randy Travis – Influence Vol 2
The second instalment of Randy’s covers project, fortunately recorded before his recent health crisis was, unexpectedly, even better than the first one.

Best tracks: ‘Set ‘Em Up Joe’, ‘Are The Good Times Really Over’, ‘For The Good Times’

daylight and dark5. Jason Eady – ‘Daylight And Dark
Solid country music from a talented singer-songwriter I like more every tie I hear him. This was one of the year’s first releases, and it hasn’t lost its appeal for me.

Best tracks: ‘Whiskey And You’, ‘Liars And Fools’, ‘Late Night Diner

4. Rhonda Vincent – ‘Only Me
The bluegrass star offers a stellar selection of material. The packaging is a touch gimmicky, with two CDs in one packages, each containing just six tracks. One is billed as straight bluegrass, the other traditional country, but both are wonderful. My only criticism is that it would be nice to hear some new songs of this quality.

Best tracks: ‘I’d Rather Hear I Don’t Love You (Than Nothing At All)’, ‘Teardrops Over You’, ‘We Must Have Been Out Of Our Minds’ (ft Daryle Singletary), ‘Beneath Still Waters

3. Jade Jack – ‘Off The Record
I was very impressed by fiddler/traditional country singer Jade’s debut album. Very much in the style of Amber Digby, this is packed full of heartbreak numbers, backed with fiddle and steel. It just squeezes in ahead of Rhonda thanks to the inclusion of original material.

Best tracks: ‘I Can’t Help It If He Can’t Stop Loving Me’, ‘I Had A Husband’, ‘I Can Bring Him Back’, ‘I’m Dynamite’

lucky2. Suzy Bogguss – ‘Lucky
In a year which saw a lot of fine tribute and cover albums, this was the best of the lot. Suzy’s beautiful readings of Haggard songs are exquisite. This record is just lovely. The sensitive vocal interpretations are backed by delicately stripped down arrangements which shows that less is more.

Best tracks: ‘If We Make It Through December’, ‘Sing Me Back Home’, ‘You Don’t Have Very Far To Go’

1. Lee Ann Womack – ‘The Way I’m Livin
I was disappointed by Trisha Yearwood’s return, when she only recorded six new songs. But Lee Ann Womack did not disappoint, with that exquisite voice wrapped around 13 excellent songs. ‘Chances Are’, my favorite, is sublime. She sounds thoroughly revitalised by her move from the major labels and hankering after radio play to Sugar Hill’s focus on artistry. The result is magical.

Best tracks: ‘Chances Are’, ‘Nightwind’, ‘Sleeping With The Devil

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Favorite Singles of 2014

When looking back, 2014 will be remembered as the year country music morphed into the biggest radio format in the land while pondering to never ending bro-country schlock and diminishing the efforts of solo female artists not named Miranda or Carrie. The genre also lost its biggest star, Taylor Swift, to world domination.

But I’ll remember a statistic far more puzzling. In the eighteen years I’ve been following the genre, I’ve never witnessed this big a turnover at the top of the Billboard Country Singles chart. How is it that seemingly every new male artist, either solo or in a group/duo, seems to be notching number one hits out of the gate? Everyone from Cole Swindell, Thomas Rhett, Sam Hunt, Parmalee, and Maddie & Tae are routinely racking up chart topping singles without having to fight for their chance to land on playlists. Watching the Billboard Country Airplay chart these days has become more than ridiculous.

My choices, as usual, prove radio doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface in the story of quality country music in 2014. I’ll say this until I’m blue in the face, but if you know where to look (Americana) the goods are definitely there.

Nickel-Creek-Destination10. Destination – Nickel Creek

After nine years of flexing their individual creative muscles, Sara Watkins, Sean Watkins, and Chris Thile reunited to celebrate Nickel Creek’s twenty-fifth anniversary. The time apart has only made them a stronger unit together, which boosts well for this plucky romp led by Sara’s wailing lead vocal. She’s done with her man and leaves no doubt she’s moving on to bigger and better things.

9. Frankie Please – Rodney Crowell

519z2FHhvCL._SL500_AA280_Leave it to Crowell to have the strongest opening line to any song in recent memory – ‘You tore through my life like a tornado looking for a trailer park.’ The blistering lead single from Tarpaper Sky only gets better from there, led by distinctive electric guitar and Crowell’s brilliant lyric. After 38 years in the business he proves he’s still on top of his game with no signs of slowing down.

8. I’ll Be There In The Morning – Don Williams

2468428_20140212162413_199149415The reason it’s so difficult to write an authentic love song is because the imagery has become so overdone, it borders on disingenuous parody. Simple sentiments like “You complete me” or the straightforward “I love you” have become so commonplace in our society, they mean almost nothing anymore.

Don Williams and producer Garth Fundis smartly avoid those trappings by looking forty-six years in the past and resurrecting Townes Van Zant’s elegant promise to his woman – no matter what trials and tribulations may arise on our journey, I’ll be next to you each time the sun rises to greet another day. A woman couldn’t ask more from her man and we couldn’t ask more from Williams, who imparts this wisdom as a man of seventy-five reflecting on the devotion of long-lasting love.

 7. Say You Do – Dierks Bentley

dierks-bentley-say-you-do-singleFinally back to form, Bentley leaves alcohol and frat parties in the dust for a melancholy ballad about a man pleading with the woman who won’t commit to their relationship, even after he begs her to ‘let those words roll off your tongue.’ He’s willing to do whatever it takes – buy her drinks, force her to lie, heck he wants her to lead him on – but she just won’t budge. Bentley hasn’t been this satisfying in years.

 6. Talladega – Eric Church

PrintAn epic ballad about the bonds of friendship set over a weekend at an empty NASCAR track, “Talladega” expertly illustrates Church’s storytelling prowess through Jay Joyce’s delicate production. When Church is on, there isn’t a more interesting or enjoyable male country singer scoring major hits today.

5. Meanwhile Back At Mama’s – Tim McGraw Featuring Faith Hill

 Tim-McGraw-Meanwhile-Back-At-MamasYou have to go back seven years to find Tim McGraw’s last truly outstanding single, the military-inspired “If You’re Reading This.” After years of screaming for relevancy he surrenders the fight and returns to form with a gracefully constructed lyric about home and the important role of family in our lives.

4. California – Radney Foster

RF.EISHS-11I couldn’t have willed this song to exist if I tried. ‘Can’t you hear California calling your name? A siren song, once you hear it, you’ll never be the same.’ Those nineteen words sum up exactly how I feel about the Golden State since visiting there repeatedly over the past few years. Foster has composed a stunner – part love story, part tourist battle cry.

600x600 3. The Trailer Song – Kacey Musgraves

 Kacey Musgraves’ genius lies in her ability to craft songs that on the surface seem littered with country clichés but are actually witty commentaries about the state of society as a whole. The two women depicted here may live in a trailer park, but they’re no different than any bickering neighbors setting up lives in suburbia. We all have that nosy neighbor, the one we wish would stay on their side of the fence and keep those damn mini-blinds closed.

2. What We Ain’t Got – Jake Owen

2522282_20140722163600_696746334Even as far back as six years ago, country singers abided by the cardinal rule – balance. For every uptempo ditty, artists would release a slice of substance to give themselves credibility. That concept, thank goodness, hasn’t been lost on Owen. “What We Ain’t Got” is a classic example of the kind of song that would’ve been all over 90s country radio.

Without a dousing of steel, it’s an almost perfect record about humans innate nature to always be searching for something that leaves us only wanting more. The almost non-existent production allows Owen to lay down a powerfully naked vocal that hits the listener like a sermon to the soul. Kudos to Travis Meadows and Travis Jerome Goff for pulling off the near impossible and Owen for driving it home like he should.

1. Automatic – Miranda Lambert

MirandaLambertAutomaticThe lead single from Platinum and CMA Single of the Year winner is without a doubt my favorite single of the year and easily a contender for one of the strongest country singles of the decade. Lambert, Nicolle Galyon, and Natalie Hemby have crafted a brilliant anthem capturing a shining testament to the days before social media, cell phones, and binge-watching overtook our lives.

There’s very little soul left in our modern world, a fact Lambert is thankfully self-aware enough to take to task. Even as a millennial, I’ll be 27 on Dec 31, I’m dying to get back to a time when media had half a brain and country music wasn’t run by rap influenced hooligans shamelessly flaunting their tatted up arms in tight wife beaters. The class is gone and without it, there’s nothing left. Lambert may have tamed her aggression, but she isn’t done standing up for what she believes in.

Razor X’s Top 10 singles of 2014

law way im livinIt seems that every year it becomes more and more difficult to compile a list of the year’s ten best singles. I don’t listen to country radio very much (OK – at all) anymore, so when one of my favorite artists releases a new album, I’m not always aware of which tracks have become singles. In fact, many veterans on independent labels no longer bother releasing product to radio. That being said, there were some worthwhile single releases this year and the following were my favorites:

10. All Alright — Zac Brown Band

The Zac Brown Band had been one of the few consistent bright spots at country radio in recent years. This tune has a great melody and a strong vocal performance, and I would have rated it higher had it not been for the over-the-top guitar solo that mars an otherwise very good record.

9. Like A Cowboy — Randy Houser

In another era, Randy Houser might have been a superstar. He’s one of the genre’s best vocalists but like many of his contemporaries he has struggled to consistently select strong material. This pop/rock-with-steel-guitar power ballad is not a timeless classic, but it’s one of the relatively few songs that didn’t either bore or annoy me. Yes, the bar has been lowered that much. That’s not to suggest that I didn’t enjoy this song, just an admission that it probably wouldn’t have made my Top 10 list in a stronger year.

8. Lay Low — Josh Turner

Turner is another artist whose talent often far exceeds the quality of the songs he sings. The lyrics don’t have a whole lot of depth but Turner’s vocal performance is enough to make this an enjoyable listen.

Sunny-Sweeney-Bad-Girl-Phase7. Bad Girl Phase — Sunny Sweeney

After a three-year hiatus, Sunny Sweeney returned this year, feeling feisty and letting everyone know that she’s not just the girl next door in this unfortunately non-charting effort.

6. PrizeFighter – Trisha Yearwood ft. Kelly Clarkson

Trisha Yearwood is another one of my long-time favorites who made a comeback this year. While not the strongest entry in her discography, “PrizeFighter” is a good, though not great, record.

A Million Ways To Die Single Cover5. A Million Ways To Die — Alan Jackson

Radio totally ignored this song from the film A Million Ways To Die In The West. This retro-sounding effort totally different from anything Jackson has ever done and is reminsicent of something Johnny Cash would have enjoyed sinking his teeth into. A fun listen if you don’t take it too seriously.

4. Who I Am With You — Chris Young

His latest album found Chris Young moving in a more pop direction. While I prefer his more traditional efforts, he is such a strong vocalist, it’s difficult not to like his music. On this track, he often sounds like a young Randy Travis, though the song itself is a far cry from Randy’s brand of country.

3. That’s What Dreamers Do — Travis Tritt

This is a very nicely crafted ballad, from a film about the life of Walt Disney. Tritts’ voice sounds a little more worn than it did back when he was a staple on country radio, but this song holds its own with the best of his 90s ballads.

dolly bluesmoke2. Blue Smoke — Dolly Parton

This bluegrass-flavored single and the album from which it came marks Dolly Parton’s strongest effort since her bluegrass albums for Sugar Hill. At nearly 69 years of age, Dolly sound fresh and energetic and is showing no signs of slowing down any time soon.

1. The Way I’m Livin’— Lee Ann Womack

A lot of big names returned from long hiatuses this year, but Lee Ann Womack’s was the one I was most excited about. This non-charting record is an example of what country music used to be all about. It’s the first release of the post-major label phase of her career. I hope that her association with Sugar Hill is a long one and that she’ll begin releasing music more frequently than she has in the past. Country music needs more Lee Ann Womacks.