My Kind of Country

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

Classic Rewind: Wynn Stewart – ‘It’s Such A Pretty World Today’

Classic Rewind: Stonewall Jackson – ‘Don’t Be Angry’

Album Review: Hank Williams Jr – ‘Sings My Songs Johnny Cash’

R-2502241-1287513429.jpeg1970 saw Hank Williams Jr continuing to record albums of other people’s songs. This time around he tackled the Johnny Cash songbook, collecting ten distinctive Cash classics for the project. The resulting album is a solid honky-tonk affair that finds Hank sticking true to the Cash originals but not trying to imitate the Man in Black’s vocal style.

I’ll admit that I know very little about this project since there isn’t too much information to be found about it online. But the album did come from MGM Records, which was Hank’s label home at this point in his career. I quite like the project, too, which boosts well for Hank’s abilities as an interpreter of song and his keen sense to make these songs his own. What I expected to be a run-of-the-mill covers project actually has some imagination thrown in, even if Hank did stick closely to the originals.

I only know “Give My Love to Rose” as the Grammy-winning track from Cash’s American IV: The Man Comes Around and not in its original version. Hank does a wonderful job of bringing the track to life, but his vocal is a bit too chipper for my liking – the man his dying, why does he sound so jovial? “Ring of Fire” is another questionable choice, with Hank forgoing the track’s trademark horns. The track is saved by the Nashville Sound era production, though, which his glorious guitar picking and flourishes of steel.

One of my favorite Cash songs, “Tennessee Flat Top Box” is presented here in fine form. Hank’s strong vocal shows his command over his voice in those early years and gives the audience an enjoyable listen. Hank also sings “Folsom Prison Blues” with strong conviction, which is difficult to do on a song so closely associated with its writer.

There really isn’t much to say about the rest of the album, except it continues in the vein of the aforementioned tracks. Each song on Sings My Songs Johnny Cash is well executed and expertly performed by the musicians who surround Hank with some of the strongest picking of the day. My favorite of the remaining tracks would have to be “I Still Miss Someone,” a stunning take which turns the song into a mournful ballad with gorgeous helpings of steel guitar throughout.

Sings My Songs Johnny Cash is a tall order that Hank fulfills very well. His honky-tonk stylings come across with ease and the sophistication of someone comfortable with his craft. To modern ears the album comes off generic, with little personality to set these recordings apart. But by and large this is a very strong recording that I recommend (not highly) checking out.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Hank Williams Jr – ‘Cajun Baby’

Single Review: Reba McEntire – ‘Just Like Them Horses’

MTE1ODA0OTcxODM2MTQ3MjEzThere is no question that Reba McEntire is one of country music’s all-time greatest talents, but for at least the last decade and a half, she’s made musical choices that have ranged from questionable to downright terrible. Her latest album album Love Somebody falls into the latter category, although it does contain two decent tracks, one of which has just been released as her latest single.

“Just Like Them Horses” finds Reba revisiting her musical roots — sort of. No, it’s not a return to the traditional honky-tonk and Western swing that earned her the respect of critics, peers and fans back in the 80s, but it is in the vein of the pop-tinged ballads that worked so well for her in the early 90s, before she set her sights on mainstream pop superstardom. It was written by Liz Hengber and Tommy Lee James, the pair that wrote her 1995 hit “And Still”. Separately the pair wrote or co-wrote many more McEntire hits, including “It Don’t Matter”, “If You See Him, If You See Her”, “For My Broken Heart”, “It’s Your Call” and “Forever Love”. The piano-led ballad was produced by Reba and Tony Brown, and tells the poignant story of someone saying goodbye to a dying loved one — perhaps a husband or father. Twenty years ago some might have complained that it was too pop, but in the current radio environment it is a shining example of what country music (and Reba McEntire) needs to get back to — audible fiddle and steel, and substantive lyrics that are beautifully sung.

Radio has been cool towards Reba lately, perhaps due to ageism or a lack of interest in female artists in general. Or perhaps because what she’s sent to them lately hasn’t been anything to get excited about. If radio gives this record a fair chance, I believe it will do well because I feel there is still an audience for this type of song. And if it does succeed, perhaps Reba will help turn the tide at country radio, similar to the way she did 30 years ago.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Tanya Tucker – ‘(Without You) What Do I Do With Me?’

Fellow Travelers: Neil Diamond

neil-diamond-01Neil Diamond has had an almost continuous presence on the various Billboard charts since 1965. Possessed of an excellent voice that covers the entire tenor-baritone continuum, Neil has been a titan of the pop and adult contemporary charts with some scattered play on jazz, R&B and country stations along the way.

Who Was He?

Neil Diamond started out as a songwriter, part of the legendary ‘Brill Building’ cadre of songwriters. Success for Neil came slowly until November 1965, when “Sunday and Me,” became a #18 hit for Jay and The Americans. Shortly thereafter the producers for the pre-fab four (a/k/a the Monkees) took interest in Neil’s music, recording several of his tunes including “I’m a Believer,” “A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You,” “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)” and “Love to Love “. The radio and television exposure generated by the Monkees did wonders for Neil’s checkbook. “I’m A Believer” spent seven weeks at #1 and sold over 10 million copies for the Monkees.

Neil’s own hits started soon thereafter, with “Solitary Man” becoming a modest success in 1966 (but a top ten record in several regional markets. The next single “Cherry, Cherry” sealed the deal reaching #6 on the pop charts. While not every subsequent single would become a top ten record, for the next twenty five years nearly every single charted on one of Billboard’s charts, and many charted globally. He ranks behind only Sir Elton John and Barbra Streisand on the Billboard Adult Contemporary charts.

What Was His Connection to Country Music?

The first Neil Diamond single I can recall hearing was “Kentucky Woman”, a #22 pop hit in 1967. At the time I heard the song, I thought it was a country song, and that Neil should be performing country music. Indeed, Neil’s record received some airplay on WCMS-AM and WTID-AM in Norfolk, VA and it wasn’t long before some of his songs were being covered on country albums.

Waylon Jennings had a great terrific version of “Kentucky Woman” on his Only The Greatest album area, Roy Drusky had a top twenty county hit in 1972 with “Red Red Wine”, and T.G. Sheppard had a top 15 country hit in 1976 with “Solitary Man”. “I’m A Believer” showed up as an album track on many country albums.

In 1978-1979 Neil had a pair of songs chart in the lower reaches of the country charts in “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” (billed as Neil & Barbra) and “Forever In Blue Jeans”. “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” was , of course, a huge pop hit but Jim Ed Brown & Helen Cornelius covered it in the country market for a #1 record.

In 1996 Neil targeted the album Tennessee Moon at the country market and it reached #3 on the Billboard Country albums chart, although it generated no hit singles for the fifty-five year old Diamond. The album featured duets with Raul Malo , Hal Ketcham and Waylon Jennings. This would be the only time that Neil Diamond would target an album at the country music market, although many of his albums featured songs that would fit easily into the county format at the time the album was recorded.

Neil Diamond Today

Neil is still alive and recording, his most recent album being the 2014 release Melody Road. His website does not show any current tour dates, but he has not announced his retirement from touring, and he toured in 2015 so I presume he will be back touring shortly.

Classic Rewind: Hank Williams Jr – Medley

Hank Jr performs a medley of his father’s greatest classics.

Album Review: Hank Williams Jr. – ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack’

51rF-K-UoXL1985’s Sweet Dreams is somewhat of an anomaly when it comes to biographical films about musicians, in that the real Patsy Cline’s vocals are used for the soundtrack. Usually the actor attempts to do a reasonable impersonation of the subject: Sissy Spacek did it in Coal Miner’s Daughter and and Joaquin Phoenix did it in Walk the Line. 1964’s Hank Williams biopic Your Cheatin’ Heart starring George Hamilton, took a third approach by hiring a third party to do the singing. The producers went with the logical choice, Hank Williams Jr., who does a reasonable impression of his late father. It’s an impressive effort, considering that Hank Jr. was only 15 years old at the time.

I generally dislike musical impersonations, but soundtrack albums do need to be considered in their context and in a more forgiving manner. Your Cheatin’ Heart was Hank Jr.’s second album for MGM; the first had been released earlier the same year and also consisted of his father’s material. At that point in time, MGM was mainly interested in making him into a clone of his father.

There is no questioning that the material itself is top-notch. It’s also apparent, even at this early stage in his career, that the son had a stronger voice than the father. While I’d rather listen to Hank Jr. singing these songs as Hank Jr and not pretending to be his father, it’s impossible not to enjoy this album. The arrangements were all updated make them more contemporary — and in 1964 that meant Nashville Sound choruses and string sections, which certainly were not true to Hank Sr.’s era, but thankfully the producers were admirably restrained in using them. The only thing I really found objectionable was the saxophone on “Jambalaya (on the Bayou)” and “Hey Good Lookin'”, which would be more appropriate on a Bill Haley and the Comets recording. Fortunately, there are alternate versions of both songs without the saxophone.

Rhino Records reissued the album on CD in 1997 and included previously unreleased acoustic versions of most of the album’s songs. I have a soft spot for stripped-down versions of pretty much any song, so I particularly enjoyed listening to these, even though it makes the listening experience a bit repetitious. “There’ll Be No Teardrops Tonight” does not appear on the original soundtrack album so its inclusion on the CD is a bonafide bonus.

As well done as these songs are, they are mainly interesting because they show the origins of an artist who would entirely reinvent himself over the course of his career. In 1964 Hank Jr. had not yet found his own voice, but I still prefer these early efforts to his 80s Southern rock party anthems.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Sylvia – ‘The Matador’

This 1981 clip is credited as being country music’s first concept music video

Spotlight Artist: Hank Williams Jr.

hqdefault-3The life story of Hank Williams Jr. is a familiar one. Hank was born on May 26, 1949 in Shreveport, the son of the legendary Hank Williams. Although referred to as ‘Hank Williams, Jr.’, Hank was born as Randall Hank Williams and his father was born as Hiram King (Hank) Williams. After his father’s untimely death on January 1, 1953, he was raised by his mother, Audrey Williams, who essentially forced Hank into the life of a singer, attempting to mold him into a clone of his father. Williams made his stage debut singing his father’s songs when he was eight years old. In 1964, he made his recording debut with “Long Gone Lonesome Blues”, one of his father’s classic songs.

The idea of Hank as a clone of his father became a more awkward fit as Hank grew older. Physically much sturdier that his father, Hank also did not have his father’s thin reedy voice. Hank could yodel but it was an effort. He also had a broader musical education since his mother Audrey could count various musical titans as friends and acquaintances. Hank himself has mentioned Fats Domino and Johnny Cash as strong musical influences.

At some point Hank rebelled against his mother’s efforts to turn him into a clone of his father. While Hank has always sung his father’s songs, he started to develop into a major mainstream country artist and remained there for over a decade.

His initial record label, MGM, had been his father’s label, so for much of Hank’s tenure with MGM the label would push for Hank Sr./Hank Jr. projects. Some of them, like Father & Son and Hank Williams/Hank Williams Jr. Again are gimmicky projects with Hank Jr. grafted onto his father’s recordings (if the masters still exist for these recordings, modern recording technology could make these sound far better than they do). Others like Songs My Father Left Me (unfinished songs completed and set to music by Hank Jr.) are first class efforts. There are two soundtracks, three duet albums (Connie Francis, Lois Johnson), two Luke The Drifter Jr. albums, a live album plus hit collections. Along the way there are at least fourteen albums of Hank Williams Jr. developing into a first rate mainstream country artist.

If you are fifty years old or younger, Hank Williams Jr. probably came onto your radar in 1979 with the release of “Family Tradition”. At the time was thirty years old, emerging from a transitional period in which he had not had a top ten single in over five years. From this point forward Hank would have a dozen year run of gold and platinum albums, with his 1982 Greatest Hits reaching quintuple platinum status. During that same stretch Hank would have an endless string of top ten singles with eight Billboard #1s. After a near fatal accident in 1975, Hank set out find his own muse and get his producers off his records, finally developing his own country/rock R&B hybrid.

The January Spotlight will focus on the early efforts of Hank Williams Jr., a period which saw Hank emerge from his father’s shadow and develop into a very successful artist in his own right. It was a period in which the ‘Nashville Sound’ dominated country production so there will be records with strings and choral accompaniments, but Hank’s voice is strong enough and distinctive enough to cut through the clutter. Many of my favorite Hank Williams Jr. singles come from this period, so kick back and enjoy.

Classic Rewind: Alison Krauss – ‘I Know Who Holds Tomorrow’

Week ending 1/2/16: #1 singles this week in country music history

aarontippin1956 (Sales): Sixteen Tons — Tennessee Ernie Ford (Capitol)

1956 (Jukebox): Sixteen Tons — Tennessee Ernie Ford (Capitol)

1956 (Disc Jockeys): Love, Love, Love — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1966: Buckaroo — Buck Owens & The Buckaroos (Capitol)

1976: Convoy — C.W. McCall (MGM)

1986: Have Mercy — The Judds (RCA/Curb)

1996: That’s As Close As I’ll Get To Loving You — Aaron Tippin (RCA)

2006: Come a Little Closer — Dierks Bentley (Capitol)

2016: Die a Happy Man — Thomas Rhett (Valory)

2016 (Airplay): Die a Happy Man — Thomas Rhett (Valory)

Classic Rewind: Jack Greene – ‘It’s Time To Cross That Bridge’

Classic Rewind: George Strait – ‘All My Exes Live In Texas’

Classic Rewind: Paulette Carlson – ‘Where’d You Get Your Cheatin’ From’

Album Review: Highway 101 – ‘Big Sky’

big skyFor the last full length album by Highway 101, original members Cactus Moser and Curtis Stone were joined by new lead guitarist Justin Weaver and singer Chrislynn Lee. Chrislynn’s voice has echoes of both Paulette Carlson and Nikki Nelson, but is not as good as either. Released in 2000 on independent label Free Falls Records, the album largely disappeared without trace.

Much of the material was written by Moser and Stone with various co-writers. ‘Rhythm Of Livin’, a co-write by the pair with Gary Harrison, is a pretty good mid-tempo tune which makes a pleasant toetapping opener.

Love song ‘Bigger Than The Both Of Us’, written by Moser with Jeff Penig and Mike Noble, is quite enjoyable, but the title track, produced by the same trio, is completely forgettable. The team’s ‘Long List Of Obvious Reasons’ is much better, a very pretty song which suits Chrislynn’s vulnerable vocal. The bouncy ‘Easier Done That Said’, written by Moser with Wilson and Henderson, is also fun, although Chrislynn’s vocal limitations are in evidence.

‘True Hard Love’, written by Stone with Sam Hogin and Phil Barnhardt, plods and lacks the requisite attitude which would have been better supplied by either of the previous lead singers. ‘Best Of All Possible Worlds’ also falls very flat. Stone’s ‘Thicker Than Blood’ is a duet, not terrible but not very country either.

The album also included pedestrian covers of ‘There Goes My Love’, the Buck Owens classic the band had done previously (and better) with Paulette Carlson, and the lovely Moser-penned ballad ‘I Wonder Where the Love Goes’, previously recorded by the band with Nikki Nelson.

‘Ain’t That Just Like Love’, written by Phil Jones, Kerry Kurt Phillips, and Jerry Lassiter, is a very pretty song. The beaty ‘Only Thinking Of You’ is well performed although stylistically very reminiscent of some of the band’s work with Nikki Nelson.

This album feels like the band was trying to coast on the success they had enjoyed in earlier years, but sounding like a poor quality karaoke version. While it’s generally inoffensive, I can’t really recommend it unless you have money to burn.

After leaving the band, Chrislynn Lee became a backing singer for Tanya Tucker, and later hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons when she was arrested with Tanya’s boyfriend for allegedly absconding with some of Tanya’s property. Highway 101 has not recorded again (with the exception of a Christmas single a few years ago), but is now performing regularly with Nikki Nelson.

Grade: C-

Classic Rewind: Ray Price – ‘I Won’t Mention It Again’

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”

 

Classic Rewind: Nikki Nelson – ‘Bing Bang Boom’

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