My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Adam Steffey

Album Review: Dixie Chicks — ‘Home’

It is difficult to assess the merits of this album, partially because of the changes in the reference points by which albums are evaluated and partially because of the firestorm that the Dixie Chicks generated by their future comments while playing a small venue in England.

Many commentators regard this album as the Dixie Chicks masterpiece, and while I am not among them, I do regard this as an excellent album that draws the group closer to a roots sound than their previous major label recordings.

At the time of the album’s release in 2002, the world of country music was in turmoil. Slick pop acts like Shania Twain, Martine Mc Bride and Faith Hill were still near their commercial peak, while the neo-traditionalist had lost steam, slowly being replaced by the vapid bro-country that plagued the genre until recently. Conversely, there was a brief resurgence in bluegrass and pre-bluegrass acoustic string band music fuels by the runaway success of the movie Oh, Brother Where Art Thou?

Symptomatic of the cross purposes to which the fan base and the radio stations worked, radio barely played anything from the movie Oh, Brother Where Art Thou? The Dixie Chicks chose to ignore this divide, releasing an album that in places would have fit into a roots classification, but in other places was something else entirely.

Five songs received airplay from Home:

“Long Time Gone”                                     #2 country / #7 pop

“Landslide”                                                       #2 country / #7 pop / #1 adult contemporary

“Travelin’ Soldier”                                     #1 country / #26 pop

“Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)”     #48 country

“Top of The World”                                     did not chart

“Top of The World” was too long for radio to play it, moreover, it was released after the unfortunate comments about President Bush turned many thoughtful Americans, whether or not supporters of Bush.

This album is mostly covers of material written by others. In that vein, the album opens up with “Long Time Gone”. The song, written by Darrell Scott, was originally recorded by Scott on his 2000 album Real Time and tells the story about a young man who left his family and went to Nashville to become a musician. Eventually, he treks back home and settles down to raise a family. The song’s last verse criticizes contemporary country music as being shallow, and despite the upbeat melody, the song’s lyrics are very pessimistic indeed.

Next up is a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide”. There is something terribly appropriate about this cover because the Fleetwood Mac story closely parallels that of the Dixie Chicks in that Fleetwood Mac started out as one thing (a brilliant blues-rock group), changed members and form into a basic pop-rock group, and pretended that the prior version of the group never existed. The song was written by Stevie Nicks, who was not a member of the group’s original lineup,

Bruce Robison’s “Travelin’ Soldier” is probably the best song on the album, a sad song about the correspondence between a soldier and his girlfriend, and his eventual death in combat. The song was first recorded by the writer and later, in altered form by Ty England, but the Dixie Chicks rendition is by far the best version of the song. At the time the group recorded the song Bruce Robinson was the brother-in-law of Emily Robison.

The rest of the album is a mixed bag of covers and originals a bunch of good songs well performed and thoroughly country in sound and instrumentation. Both Martie and Emily are excellent musicians and the supporting cast includes Lloyd Maines on steel guitar and bluegrass wizards Brian Sutton (guitar) Adam Steffey (mandolin), Chris Thile (mandolin solos) plus Emmylou Harris on vocal harmonies. You couldn’t ask for better.

Of the remaining tracks, my favorite is the humorous “White Trash Wedding”. Written by the three members of the group, the song depicts a scenario that has played itself out many times over the years, but does so with humor:

You can’t afford no ring

You can’t afford no ring

I shouldn’t be wearing white and you can’t afford no ring

 

You finally took my hand

You finally took my hand

It took a nip of gin

But you finally took my hand

You can’t afford no ring

You can’t afford no ring

I shouldn’t be wearing white and you can’t afford no ring

 

Mama don’t approve

Mama don’t approve

Daddy says he’s the best in town

And mama don’t approve

You can’t afford no ring

You can’t afford no ring

I shouldn’t be wearing white and you can’t afford no ring

 

Baby’s on its way

Baby’s on its way

Say I do and kiss me quick

‘Cause baby’s on its way

I shouldn’t be wearing white and you can’t afford no ring

There are a few misfires on the album (“Godspeed and “I Believe in Love” are pretty pedestrian and rather uninteresting) but even the misfires are not terrible and the net impression is of an album that contains both serious and amusing material performed with great flair.

A-

Album Review: Alison Krauss and Union Station – ‘So Long So Wrong’

Alison Krauss - So Long So Wrong - FrontAlison’s first album after her big breakthrough was a collaboration with her band Union Station, but marks something of a change in style, with the incorporation of more adult contemporary influences alongside some very traditional bluegrass fare. it goes almost without saying that the musicianship is superb.

As always with Alison’s records where Union Station shares lead billing, her bandmates get a number of chances to sing lead vocals, and they generally keep to traditional bluegrass stylings.

Ron Block sings his own excellent ‘Pain Of A Troubled Life’, which has an upbeat melody belying a world-wearied lyric, very much in classic bluegrass style. Alison’s robust fiddle leads the instrumental arrangement. Dan Tyminski (the best vocalist among the guys) takes the lead on the traditional ‘I’ll Remember You, Love, In My Prayers’, the high lonesome ‘Blue Trail Of Sorrow’(written by Jeff White) and the airy up-tempo ‘The Road Is A Lover’ with Alison adding subtle harmonies.

Mandolinist Adam Steffey sings a gruff lead on the traditional bluegrass ‘No Place To Hide’, with its plangent strings. These tracks, together with the lively instrumental ‘Little Liza Jane’ (a traditional tune) keep the band grounded in bluegrass by breaking up the more adventurous experiments with Alison’s lead vocals, in which her silvery voice is let loose on a selection of songs drawing together a variety of musical influences.

Two of the ballads, ‘Find My Way Back To My Heart’ and ‘Looking In The Eyes of Love’, were released as singles to country radio. Both are lovely songs and performances but failed to recapture the commercial magic of her hits. ‘Looking In The Eyes Of Love’, written by Kostas and Tricia Walker, had been recorded a few years earlier by Patty Loveless; Alison’s version is a little more delicate and understated.

Alison’s voice positively shimmers over the gorgeous melodies of ‘Deeper Than Crying’ and the religious Ron Block-penned ‘There Is A Reason’, both of which are exquisite. My favourite of the ballads , however, is the beautiful Harley Allen song ‘It Doesn’t Matter’. Alison’s hushed vocal is particularly effective on this very slow song. The gentle ‘I Can Let Go Now’ is also very pretty.

Blue-eyed soul man Michael McDonald’s ‘I Can Let Go Now’ is an ethereal ballad, which is pretty sounding but a little on the dull side. McDonald also wrote ‘Happiness with Alison’s brother Victor, which is similarly unexciting. I don’t find the title track very interesting either, but Alison’s voice cuts through it like a bell.

The album won three Grammies in country and bluegrass categories, and was her first studio set to win gold certification. It neatly balances her traditional bluegrass background with her newer taste for beautiful melodic ballads, and is exemplary.

Grade: A

Album Review: Alison Krauss & Union Station – ‘Every Time You Say Goodbye’

everytimeAlthough Alison Krauss had received her fair share of critical acclaim almost from the very beginning of her career, it wasn’t until the release of 1991’s I’ve Got That Old Feeling that she began to slowly build some commercial steam as well. That album peaked at #61 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. The following year’s Every Time You Say Goodbye was her first collaboration with Union Station to chart. It only reached a modest #75, but it was still a notable achievement for a bluegrass act at that time. It won the Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album in 1993, becoming the group’s first, and Alison’s second overall.

At this particular point in time Union Station consisted of Ron Block (banjo), Barry Bales (bass), Tim Stafford (guitar), Adam Steffey (mandolin), and of course, Alison on fiddle. She shares lead vocal duties with the other band members, as she had done on the group’s previous effort Two Highways. Alison has always been at her best when singing ballads, so she allows the other band members to take the lead with some of the more uptempo numbers such as “Another Night”, “It Won’t Work This Time”, and “Another Day, Another Dollar”, one of the alubm’s highlights which was written by future Union Station member Dan Tyminiski.

Although Every Time You Say Goodbye finds Alison assuming production duties for the very first time, the album’s content doesn’t differ much from her earlier works. The pop flourishes which characterize her later work are largely absent here. The album’s best tracks are the ballad “Heartsrings”, “New Fool” and the title track, which is the sole contribution by John Pennell, who had provided much of the material for the group’s previous album as well as Alison’s solo efforts. All three of these tracks were released as singles, though none of them charted. Rounder had begun releasing singles to country radio beginning with 1991’s “I’ve Got That Old Feeling” but only “Steel Rails” had charted and it peaked at an underwhelming #73. It would be another three years before Alison enjoyed her mainstream breakthrough with her cover of Keith Whitley’s “When You Say Nothing At All”, after which she became a much sought-after guest vocalist in Nashville. At this stage, however, her success and that of Union Station, were still confined to the bluegrass world. Every Time You Say Goodbye is a solid effort that will appeal to Alison’s fans, but will probably do little to win over bluegrass skeptics.

Grade: A

Album Review: Ken Mellons – ‘Rural Route’

Ken Mellons was a Sony artist in the mid 90s, whose biggest hit was ‘Jukebox Junkie’, and he has also spent time signed to Curb. I always liked his incisive and emotional voice and pure country-style, and thought his albums had a lot of great cuts which never got the exposure they deserved. Like the better known Joe Diffie he is now trying to make a career in bluegrass. His late father was apparently a big bluegrass fan and always wanted his son to make a bluegrass record. The musicians are some of the best bluegrass pickers out there, including Adam Steffey on mandolin, Rob Ickes on dobro and Darrin Vincent on bass, and they do an excellent job, with producer Joe Caverlee on fiddle. Ken still sounds as good as he did in the 90s, and he has picked some fine outside material to record here alongside his own songs.

I first heard the Luke Bryan co-written title track as recorded earlier this year by indie artist Jamie Richards, with whom Ken has written and from whom I suspect he may have picked up the song. I didn’t much like it then, but this version has a cheery charm and works really well with the bluegrass instrumentation and backing vocals from Darrin Vincent and Larry Cordle (who is, incidentally quoted in the liner notes). The up-tempo ‘Take It Like A Man’, written by producer and fiddle player Joe Caverlee with Wendell Mobley and Kenny Beard, about a sexy girlfriend, is not that interesting lyrically but has some delightful instrumental fills and a great vocal.

Much better is an understated cover of ‘Still They Call Me Love’. It’s not quite as intense as the version on Gene Watson’s most recent release, Taste Of The Truth, but still very good, with thoughtful phrasing and Vince Gill and Sonya Isaacs on harmony. The vibrant ‘Tennessee’, a classic bluegrass number from the pen of Jimmy Martin and Doyle Neukirk, pays tribute to Ken’s home state, with Darrin and Rhonda Vincent and Daryle Singletary on call-and-response backing vocals.

Also pure bluegrass is the didactic but lovely ballad ‘Don’t Neglect The Rose’, written by Emma Smith and previously recorded by Larry Sparks, with bluegrass stars Dale Ann Bradley and Steve Gulley on backing vocals. Bradley and Gulley also sing backup on ‘Blue Wind’, written by the SteelDrivers’ Chris Stapleton and Mike Henderson. This is a fine country ballad which sounds lonesome but is actually a committed love song about holding on to your loved one through the winter:

There’s a blue wind that comes out of nowhere
It cuts to the heart and the bone
But it can’t cut the vine between your heart and mine
It’s the strongest that I’ve ever known
I don’t care how hard the rain falls
I don’t care if the weather turns cold
Honey, I’ll keep you warm through the eye of the storm
No matter how blue the wind blows

Ken, an accomplished songwriter who wrote much of his major label material, co-wrote six of the twelve tracks this time. He gives a sparkling bluegrass makeover to ‘Memory Remover’, one of his old songs, written with Jimmy Melton and Dale Dodson in 1991 and recorded originally on his second album, Where Forever Begins, in 1995, as a straight honky tonker.

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Album Review: Kim Williams – ‘The Reason That I Sing’

williamskimI’ve mentioned before that I always enjoy hearing songwriters’ own interpretations of songs which they have written for other artists. The latest example comes from Kim Williams, a name you should recognize if you pay attention to the songwriting credits. Kim has been responsible for no fewer than 16 number 1 hits, and many more hit singles and album tracks over the past 20 years. Now he has released an album containing his versions of many of his big hits, together with some less familiar material.

The album is sub-titled Country Hits Bluegrass Style, although the overall feel of the record is more acoustic country with bluegrass instrumentation provided by some of the best bluegrass musicians around: Tim Stafford (who produces the set) on guitar, Ron Stewart on fiddle and banjo, Adam Steffey on mndolin, Rob Ickes on dobro, and Barry Bales on bass, with Steve Gulley and Tim Stafford providing harmony vocals. Kim’s voice is gruff but tuneful, and while he cannot compare vocally to most of those who have taken his songs to chart success, he does have a warmth and sincerity which really does add something to the songs he has picked on this album.

Kim includes three of the songs he has written for and with Garth Brooks, all from the first few years of the latter’s career. ‘Ain’t Going Down (Til The Sun Comes Up’), a #1 for Garth in 1993, provides a lively opening to the album, although it is one of the less successful tracks, lacking the original’s hyperactivity while not being a compelling or very melodic song in its own right. ‘Papa Loved Mama’ is taken at a slightly brisker pace than the hit version, and is less melodramatic as a result – neither better nor worse, but refreshingly different. ‘New Way To Fly’, which was recorded by Garth on No Fences, also feels more down to earth and less intense than the original, again with a very pleasing effect.

The other artist whose repertoire is represented more than once here is Joe Diffie. The lively western swing of ‘If The Devil Danced In Empty Pockets’ (written with Ken Spooner) with its newly topical theme of being well and truly broke is fun. Although ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ (from the 1992 album Regular Joe) was never released as a single, this tender ballad about separation from a loved one has always been one of my favorite Joe Diffie recordings. Kim’s low-key, intimate version wisely avoids competing vocally, but succeeds in its own way.

One of my favorite hit singles this decade was ‘Three Wooden Crosses’, a #1 hit for Randy Travis in 2002, which Kim wrote with Doug Johnson. A movie based on the story is apparently in development. I still love Randy’s version, but while Kim is far from the vocalist Randy is, this recording stands up on its own terms, with an emotional honesty in Kim’s delivery which brings new life to the story.

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