My Kind of Country

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

Classic Rewind: Sara Watkins – ‘You and Me’

Features her brother Sean:

Album Review: Loretta Lynn – ‘Sings’

loretta lynn singsLoretta Lynn Sings was Loretta Lynn’s debut album on Decca Records. Released in December 1963, the album followed on the heels of an uncharted single 1961 (“I Walked Away From The Wreck”), two 1962 singles including her first chart single “Success”, and another uncharted single (“World of Forgotten People”), and in 1963 another charted single, “The Other Woman”. There would be another single released in 1963, the #4 “Before I’m Over You” (not found on this album) before this album was released.

The album opens up with “Success” written by Johnny Mullins, who was a high school custodian. “Success” was a lament about how a husband’s career success was undermining their marriage. The song went to #6 as would “Blue Kentucky Girl”, another Johnny Mullins-penned song a few years later.

Since Loretta was a new artist that Decca was trying to break into the country markets, this album, more so than most country albums of the time, is full of covers rather than a few covers and some filler.

For many years Jimmy Gateley was the front man for Bill Anderson’s band. He was also an adept song-writer, as “The Minute You’re Gone” proves. Sonny James would have a top ten country hit with the song in 1963, and British rocker Cliff Richard would take the song to #1 on the UK pop charts (and top ten in seven other countries). Needless to say, Loretta sounds nothing like Cliff Richard but her presentation is strong and clear.

Betty Sue Perry would provide Loretta with quite a few songs during the 1960s. “The Other Woman”, not to be mistaken for the Ray Price song of the same title, tells the love triangle story from the perspective of the mistress.

According to Billboard, “Alone With You” was Faron Young’s biggest hit, spending a whopping ten weeks at #1. While I don’t think it was Faron’s biggest seller, it was a great song and Loretta acquits herself well on the song.

“Why I’m Walking” was writing by Stonewall Jackson and Melvin Endsley. A big hit for Stonewall Jackson, it resurfaced decades later as a hit for Ricky Skaggs. Again Loretta acquits herself admirably.

The first of Loretta’s own compositions “The Girl That I Am Now” is next. Although not released as a single, I think it would have made a good single and it demonstrates how proficient Loretta already was as a songwriter. This song is bout a wife who cheated on her husband and is racked by guilt and the hope that he never finds out about what she did.

He loves the girl I used to be
But could he love the girl I am now

I don’t think I need to say anything about the lineage of “Act Naturally’. Loretta tackles the song with aplomb. The instrumental arrangement remains up-tempo but the acoustic guitars have a very hootenanny era feel.

Another Loretta Lynn composition follows, “World of Forgotten People”. I don’t remember it being a hit single for anyone but everybody and his cousin recorded the song including the Osborne Brothers, George Jones, Conway Twitty, Vernon Oxford, The Wilburn Brothers, Ernest Tubb and countless others:

I live in the world world of forgotten people
Who’ve loved and lost their hearts so many times
I’m here in the world of forgotten people
Where every heart is aching just like mine

“The Color of The Blues” was written by George Jones and Lawton Williams and was a hit for George Jones. Lawton Williams, of course, wrote “Fraulein” and “Farewell Party”. Loretta handles the song effectively.

“Hundred Proof Heartache” is another of Loretta’s compositions. This works as an album cut but would not have made a good single for Loretta.

I’ve got a hundred proof heartache and a case of the blues
My baby’s gone and left me I’ve lost all I can lose
I’ve got a hundred proof heartache my world keeps turnin’ round
This hundred proof heartache’s got me down
You waded through my tears and said goodbye
You didn’t seem to care how much I’d cry
You made your home the tavern down the street
And this old heart cries out with every beat

Cindy Walker was a great songwriter, being a favorite writer for Bob Wills, Jack Greene and countless other country stars. “I Walked Away from the Wreck” equates a failed love affair with an automobile accident. Although released as a single, the song did not chart.

Justin Tubb’s “Lonesome 7-7203″ proved to be the only #1 record for Hawkshaw Hawkins, and a posthumous one at that for “The Hawk”, who died in the same plane crash that killed Cowboy Copas and Patsy Cline. The song would also be a hit for Tony Booth about a decade later. Whoever arranged the song took it at a far too slow tempo. Taken at a faster tempo I think Loretta could have really nailed the song.

There was a distinctive “Decca Records” sound during the 1960s that tends to permeate all of the label’s recordings. Since the same studio musicians and same arranger (Owen Bradley) were used on most of the major artists recordings, this is understandable. There was a little bit of an attempt to vary Loretta’s sound through occasional use of banjo or acoustic guitar on Loretta’s recordings but it was still basically a formulaic background production. Set apart Loretta’s recordings was her voice which could never be anything but country, no matter the pop trappings applied to the final product.

Loretta Lynn Sings would reach #2 on Billboard’s country albums chart. This album is a solid B+ but better albums would follow.

Classic Rewind: Loretta Lynn – ‘The Other Woman’

Album Review: The Lonesome River Band – ‘Bridging The Tradition’

bridging the traditionThe Lonesome River Band is one of my favorite bluegrass groups, and the replacement of their last tenor co-lead singer by newcomer Jesse Smathers has not affected the recipe at all. Award winning banjoist Sammy Shelor dominates the arrangements, and also helps out on three-part harmonies, while the lead vocals are divided between Smathers and the excellent Brandon Rickman. This is bluegrass with the addition of drums as well as Shelor’s punchy banjo– anathema in purist bluegrass circles – and is a very listenable meld of bluegrass and acoustic country. Excellent vocals, impeccable playing, and stellar song selection combine to make this a very worthy release.

I loved the life-affirming Kim Williams/Doug Johnson tune ‘Rocking Of The Cradle’ when I first heard it a few years ago, and Rickman’s warm vocal is perfect to bring it alive. He is also warmly believable on ‘Showing My Age’, a lovely song which he wrote with songwriter Jerry Salley about calmly accepting growing older and comfortable in one’s own skin (although the younger Rickman takes the age down by a decade compared to Salley’s own version).

Rickman also wrote ‘Mirrors Never Lie’ with Larry Cordle, a soulful challenge to the protagonist from his own conscience, to face up to his heartbreak rather than hiding from it in a bottle of liquor. He wrote ‘Waiting On My Heart To Break’ with Curtis Wright; this is a mid-tempo country song about a husband’s doubts of his wife’s fidelity.

New boy Smathers opens boldly with the fast-paced ‘Anything To Make Her Mine’ where his vocals soar high. ‘Runnin’ From the Blues’ is a nice song written by Nashville songwriter Brent Maher with bluegrass’s Jamie Johnson. Smathers takes a darker turn on Waylon Jennings’ murder ballad ‘Rose In Paradise’, which is made for a bluegrass makeover.

Rickman’s voice melds with Smathers in a haunting harmony on the traditional ‘Boats On The River’, interspersed with Smather’s soulful lead vocal on the verses. They also harmonise together brilliantly on the Stanley Brothers’ fast-paced ‘Rock Bottom’ and the equally up-tempo ‘Old Swinging Bridge’, another old-time tune from the Virginia Mountain Boys.

Adam Wright contributed a couple of songs. The pacy ‘Thunder And Lightning’ is a gleeful story song about a moonshiner on the run:

I can outrun any old G-man
Might as well be pushing a plow

‘Real People’ ends the album on a good humoured but wryly comic note about struggling with finance and family.

In ‘Showing My Age’ the protagonist talks about missing country music. If you like bluegrass with an acoustic country feel (or country with a strong banjo lead), this is highly recommended.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Loretta Lynn – ‘In The Garden’

Week ending 4/2/16: #1 singles this week in country music history

grenwood1956 (Sales): Heartbreak Hotel/I Was The One — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1956 (Jukebox): I Forgot to Remember to Forget/Mystery Train — Elvis Presley (Sun)

1956 (Disc Jockeys): Heartbreak Hotel — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1966: Waitin’ in Your Welfare Line — Buck Owens & The Buckaroos (Capitol)

1976: ‘Til the Rivers All Run Dry — Don Williams (ABC/Dot)

1986: Don’t Underestimate My Love for You — Lee Greenwood (MCA)

1996: You Can Feel Bad — Patty Loveless (Epic)

2006: Living In Fast Forward — Kenny Chesney (BNA)

2016: You Should Be Here — Cole Swindell (Warner Bros.)

2016 (Airplay): Beautiful Drug — Zac Brown Band (Southern Ground/Republic)

Classic Rewind: Loretta Lynn – ‘Success’

Loretta’s first top 10 hit.

Classic Rewind: Gene Watson – ‘If I’m A Fool For Leaving’

Happy April Fools’ Day.

Spotlight Artist: Loretta Lynn in the 1960s

loretta lynnBack in 2008, when Kevin Coyne was still running Country Universe essentially on his own, he undertook a number of exhausting projects, including his capstone series 100 Greatest Women. Kevin did an incredible amount of research, unearthed a number of otherwise forgotten performers and provided nice capsules of the artists on his list. I would strongly recommend checking out his series.

That said, the one thing Kevin got wrong in his series is that he did not place Loretta Lynn at the top of his hit parade (he had her at #2). To one who has been following country music since the early 1960s, Loretta Lynn is clearly the most important female artist of all-time. Although her most important decade in changing the direction of the genre was the 1970s, the 1960s are where her career got started and where the first signs of her eventual significance began to manifest themselves.

Loretta was born in 1932 into a family of very modest means, the daughter of a Kentucky coal miner. Loretta’s family contained considerable musical talent, with three siblings (Peggy Sue Wright, Jay Lee Webb and Crystal Gayle) ultimately having some success in country music.

Like many people in show business, Loretta shaved a few years off her age upon becoming famous. She actually was fifteen years old when she married Oliver (known as “Doolittle” or “Doo”) Lynn in 1948. The couple got busy in producing a family and before Loretta turned twenty-one, she had become a mother of four. Ultimately, she would have six children, the last two (twins Peggy and Patsy) arriving over a dozen years after the first four.

Loretta and Doolittle moved to the Pacific Northwest in pursuit of better economic opportunities and while living there Loretta began singing in local clubs in the Tacoma, Washington area. Among her live performances, she won a televised talent contest hosted by the soon to be famous Alvis Edgar “Buck” Owens. Canadian Norman Burley saw her and formed Zero Records to record her performances. Her first four recordings were “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl”, “Whispering Sea”, “Heartache Meet Mister Blues”, and “New Rainbow”. Her first release featured “Whispering Sea” and “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl”, with the latter song becoming a Billboard hit reaching #14. A move to Nashville brought her to the attention of the Wilburn Brothers who helped her land a contract with Decca Records. With this break she was on her way, as a performer and a songwriter. In 1962 she joined the Grand Ole Opry. She also made appearances on the Ernest Tubb Midnight Jamboree and became a regular on the Wilburn Brothers’ television show.

Success came rapidly for Loretta and as was common for the leading country artists of the 1960s, Decca recorded Loretta relentlessly. Loretta’s 1960s albums are as follows:

Loretta Lynn Sings (December 1963)
Before I’m Over You (June 1964)
Songs From My Heart (February 1965)
Blue Kentucky Girl (June 1965)
Mr. & Mrs. Used To Be (August 1965) – with Ernest Tubb
Hymns (August 1965)
I Like ‘Em Country (March 1966)
You Ain’t Woman Enough (September 1966)
Country Christmas (October 1966)
Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (February 1967)
Ernest Tubb & Loretta Lynn Singin’ Again (June 1967)
Singin’ With Feelin’ (October 1967)
Who Says God Is Dead (February 1968)
Fist City (April 1968)
Greatest Hits (June 1968)
Your Squaw Is On The Warpath (February 1969)
If We Put Our Heads Together (June 1969) – with Ernest Tubb
Woman of The World/ To Make A Man (June 1969)

That’s seventeen albums of new material plus a hits collection (I think the Zero recordings showed up on a budget label release not listed above). Although we would like to, we obviously we cannot review all of these albums. We hope you enjoy the albums we have chosen to present this month, the opening salvos in the career of one of the truly legendary figures in country music.

Classic Rewind: Ernest Tubb – ‘Tomorrow Never Comes’

Album Review: ‘Wynonna & The Big Noise’

8146Wru52WL._SX522_Wynonna & The Big Noise represents a change in direction for Wynonna Judd, a move away from the bland AC of most of her post-1993 albums. It is not a move back towards country, but I have long since given up hope that she will ever release another completely country album, barring another reunion of The Judds. There are more country moments on this album than we’re typically used to, however, and the entire album has more rootsy, organic feel than anything she’s done as a solo artist.

Wynonna’s husband Cactus Moser produced the album. Chris Stapleton and Julie Miller both contribute songs and Jason Isbell provides the duet vocals on “Things That I Lean On”, which I reviewed back in February. That track was one of a few that were released via iTunes in advance of the full album, but it does not appear to have been released as a single. That seems to suggest a change in strategy on the part of Curb Records, which may be forgoing promoting the album to radio and seeking alternate outlets instead. The album definitely seems to have been made without regard to the charts, with Wynonna and the band performing songs that moved them. There are plenty of songs that cater to Wynonna’s R&B/blues roc k leanings, beginning with the opening track “Ain’t No Thing”, penned by Chris Stapleton and John Scott Sherrill, and continuing on with “Cool Ya”, Julie Miller’s “You Make My Heart Beat Too Fast” and “Choose To Believe”, written by Kevin Welch and Charlie White.

She sounds like she is truly enjoying herself on all of these, but it is the quieter tracks, the ballads, that are the album’s best moments, beginning with the aforementioned “Things That I Lean On.” “Jesus and a Jukebox”, the most country-sounding song in the collection, is my favorite, with the Celtic-flavored “Keeps Me Alive” a close second. “Every Ending (Is Its Own Beginning)” is a very nice middle-of-the-road mid-tempo number that Wynonna and Moser wrote with Doug Johnson and Billy Montana.

The album’s most commercial track “Something You Can’t Live Without” is a Cactus Moser and David Lee Murphy composition that was a non-charting single in 2013, shortly after The Big Noise band was formed. It reminds me of some of Wy’s early solo efforts, although at five minutes and 33 seconds, it is way too long (presumably an edited version was sent to radio) and it begins to drag a bit after a while.

I haven’t been a huge fan of much of Wynonna’s solo work but this album was a pleasant surprise. Moser seems to have helped her find her niche. I look forward to their future projects together.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind: Wynonna – ‘Come Some Rainy Day’

Single Review: Craig Campbell – ‘Outskirts of Heaven’

craig_campbell_performance_2013Spiritual songs have been a staple of country music from the genre’s very beginnings, although one would hardly know it from listening to the radio over the past decade or so. In his latest effort “Outskirts of Heaven”, which he co-wrote with Dave Turnbull, Craig Campbell dusts off the tried and true theme of life in the hereafter, with one small twist: Heaven is a shining city where the streets are paved with gold. So where would any self-respecting country boy prefer to be? On the outskirts, of course, in the wide open, rural spaces where the pace is just a little more laid back. It’s not exactly how I’ve ever thought about Paradise, but somehow it seems to make perfect sense.

In addition to the spiritual theme, Campbell and Turnbull have also managed to create a well-crafted song that extolls the virtues of rural life without getting in the listener’s face. There are references to buck knives, rifles and fishing but thankfully there are no beer, trucks or tailgating in cornfields. By declaring his preference for an afterlife on a farm instead of right smack in the middle of God’s Eternal City, Campbell manages to pay homage to the country lifestyle in a substantive manner, unlike the countless superficial redneck pride anthems that have polluted the radio airwaves in recent years.

The lyrics are simple yet meaningful, the production is restrained and tasteful, with plenty of harmony and steel guitar. The electric guitar near the end is a little at odds with the otherwise traditional arrangement, but it’s nothing I can’t live with. Campbell’s vocal reminds of me of the early Trace Adkins back when Trace still knew how to pick decent songs. This song would have been a surefire hit in the 90s, and maybe now that the bro-country movement is showing signs of waning, radio will be receptive to something a little more traditional.

Despite getting off to a promising start, Craig Campbell’s career has not caught on the way it should — partly because the current climate is a tough one for traditional artists and partly because he lacked the promotional backing of a strong record label. His former label Bigger Picture Music Group folded in 2014. “Outskirts of Heaven” is Campbell’s second release under a new deal with Red Bow Records. Now that Chris Stapleton has opened the door for traditionalists just a crack, it remains to be seen if Craig Campbell (or anyone else) can finally knock it off its hinges.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Randy Travis – ‘Forever and Ever, Amen’

The class of 2016 Country Music Hall of Fame inductees were announced this morning in Nashville. Fred Foster joins as a Non-Performer while Charlie Daniels holds strong in the Veterans Era category. For the Modern Era, the distinction went to Randy Travis. Randy, mostly unseen since his stroke in 2013, could barely mouth ‘thank you’ as he stood at the podium. His wife gave his speech.

Here he is 28 years ago:

Album Review: Wynonna – ‘Sing, Chapter 1’

81hrny-Ha0L._SX522_I always felt that Wynonna was miscast as a country singer but was otherwise a great vocal performer. This album is the proof of my latter assertion, a twelve song collection of great songs perfectly executed by a master singer.

The album opens up with a thirty’s classic “That’s How Rhythm Was Born”, a Boswell Sisters hit from the 1930s, long forgotten but well worth reviving. The Boswell Sisters pre-dated and were an inspiration for the Andrews Sister. The song sounds very Andrews-ish with Vickie Hampton and Wynonna doing harmonies to create that trio sound. There is an old-time, non-bluegrass banjo in the mix played by Ilya Toshinsky.

Next up is the greatest country song ever written, Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”. While there are versions I prefer to Wynonna’s, she does an excellent job with the song. The Nashville String Machine provides tasteful and effective orchestral accompaniment.

Wynonna gives the sisterhood some wise advice in the very bluesy “Women Be Wise”.

Dave Bartholomew was a noted New Orleans songwriter closely associated with the legendary Fats Domino. “I Hear You Knocking” was a big R&B hit for Smiley Lewis in 1955 (#2 R&B) and a big pop hit (#2) for actress Gale Storm. Fats Domino also recorded the song a few years later, and because of his sustained success, Fats’ version is probably the best remembered. Wynonna’s version has a more New Orleans style rock feel. It is quite good

Larry Henley and Red Lane penned “Til I Get It Right”, a major Tammy Wynette hit from 1973. The focus is on Wynonna’s vocal with spare but graceful accompaniment that includes unobtrusive strings.

Another country classic follows, Merle Haggard’s “Are The Good Times Really Over For Good”. Not one of my favorite Hag songs, but still a good song. I do like the brass instrumentation in Wynonna’s arrangement.

I was not a big Stevie Ray Vaughan fan but I could take him in small doses and Wynonna’s take on “The House is Rockin'” is just enough Stevie Ray for me. Wynonna’s take on this song rocks just enough.

The almost forgotten Bill Withers had a relatively short career as a recording artist (he is still alive) but the music he did produce was exceptional leading to his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “Ain’t No Sunshine” was one of those classics and Wynonna gives it the appropriately moody reading.

Jerry Lieber & Mike Stoller are arguably one of the two or three greatest pop songwriting tandems in history. “I’m a Woman” was initially released in 1962 by Christine Kittrell, but is best remembered as a classic Peggy Lee track. Wynonna’s version is as good as any of them albeit very different from Peggy Lee’s sexy rendition, Wynonna’s being a very assertive R&B track

I am not a big fan of most Burt Bacharach-Hal David compositions, other than those written for the great Gene Pitney. That said, “Anyone Who Had A Heart” had a distinguished pedigree with British songbird Cilia Black taking her George Martin-produced record to #1 in the UK for three weeks in 1964. Cilla’s version also went to #1 in Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa, but I don’t think it was released in the US. Dionne Warwick also had a notable hit (#8 pop/ #2 adult contemporary) with the song in the US but only got as high as #47 in the UK. Both versions competed in various global markets, basically to a draw in Europe. Wynonna’s version is a pretty standard, but effective presentation.

“When I Fall In Love” is a pop standard that has been recorded by many artists, most notably Jeri Southern and Doris Day. Wynonna gives it a fairly standard interpretation with the Nashville String Machine setting the mood for Wynonna’s strong vocal.

The album closes with a Rodney Crowell original “Sing”. I think that this is the weakest song on the album, but I would also give it a B+ which should tell you what I think of this album

Of all the Wynonna albums I’ve heard, this one is my favorite, both in terms of the strength of Wynonna’s vocals and the quality of the material. To me this is a definite A+.

Classic Rewind: Wynonna – ‘Change The World’

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Southern Family’

southern familyMixed artist compilations can often be hit and miss. This concept album based on life in the American South, produced by Dave Cobb, is no exception. The concept itself hangs together a little vaguely, and the artists come from country and Americana with a side of (white) soul and rock. However, if it is intended to represent the South as a whole, it is rather lacking in the ethnic diversity of participants.

Jason Isbell is normally more Americana than country, but ‘God Is A Working Man’ is definitely a country song, and an excellent one to boot. The lyric pays tribute to a working class family with lots of colourful details about a Pentecostal preacher and his son. The melody and rustic vibe remind me of ‘Grandpa Was A Carpenter’, as recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and John Prine on Will the Circle Be Unbroken Part II. I like it better than any of Isbell’s past recordings.

Brent Cobb is producer Dave’s cousin (actually, first cousin twice removed). His track, ‘Down Home’, is quite pleasant without being very memorable. I also quite enjoyed Holly Williams’ ‘Settle Down’, about starting a new family.

I tend to prefer Miranda Lambert when she isn’t rocking it up, so I enjoyed her song, ‘Sweet By And By’ – not the gospel classic but a reflective depiction of rural life and family philosophy which sounds as though it was written for the prompt of the album concept. The old fashioned folky lyric and vocal are charming, although a more stripped down arrangement would have been even better.

‘Learning’, by Miranda’s new boyfriend, Anderson East, an Americana/R&B artist based in Nashville, is not my style of music, but is pretty good of its kind. Shooter Jennings’ ‘Can You Come Over’ is in similar vein, but more listenable. Rich Robinson of the rock band the Black Crowes offers a loud and boring number.

John Paul White’s former duo the Civil Wars were much admired by many critics, but they were never quite my thing, and I’m afraid I strongly disliked White’s whispery tune here, ‘Simple Song’.

Not all the songs here are new. Zac Brown (who appears to have lost the plot on his last album) is back on form here with a nice cover of Skip Ewing’s ‘Grandma’s Garden’. Lee Ann Womack adds a sweet harmony. Jamey Johnson wrote the tender ‘Mama’s Table’ for the Oak Ridge Boys a few years ago, and revives it here himself. The song remembers childhood happiness. Brandy Clark has recorded the affecting ‘I Cried’, about a family funeral, before, but it fits neatly in the theme for this collection, and she sings it beautifully.

Morgane Stapleton, wife of Chris, once had her own record deal, although nothing was ever released. She has a very pretty voice in the vein of Lee Ann Womack or Dolly Parton, so I was disappointed that her contribution (backed by Chris) was not really to my taste. It is a dramatically slowed down blues/rock take on the oldie ‘You Are My Sunshine’ which sounds suicidally depressed.

This is a bit too varied for me as a whole, but there are several worthwhile tracks.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Wynonna – ‘Peace In This House’

Week ending 3/26/16: #1 singles this week in country music history

0a5c3cc5dde8f7cb6fc488259d1a9a9d1956 (Sales): Heartbreak Hotel/I Was The One — Elvis Presley (RCA)

1956 (Jukebox): I Forgot to Remember to Forget/Mystery Train — Elvis Presley (Sun)

1956 (Disc Jockeys): I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby — The Louvin Brothers (Capitol)

1966: Waitin’ in Your Welfare Line — Buck Owens & The Buckaroos (Capitol)

1976: Faster Horses (The Cowboy and the Poet) — Tom T. Hall (Mercury)

1986: What’s a Memory Like You (Doing in a Love Like This) — John Schneider (MCA)

1996: You Can Feel Bad — Patty Loveless (Epic)

2006: Living In Fast Forward — Kenny Chesney (BNA)

2016: You Should Be Here — Cole Swindell (Warner Bros.)

2016 (Airplay): Heartbeat — Carrie Underwood (19/Arista)

Classic Rewind: Marty Robbins – ‘The Same Two Lips’

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