My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Adam Wright

Single Review: Alan Jackson – ‘The Older I Get’

New Country Music Hall of Famer member Alan Jackson reminded current artists and fans of what country music actually sounds like, with his stellar performances of ‘Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow’ and ‘Don’t Rock The Jukebox’ at the recent CMA awards. Now an elder stateman of the genre with no need to chase radio play which would probably not be forthcoming anyway, he is free to record great country music with more mature themes, and unlike some of his peers, he has chosen to do so.

His new single, heralding an album in the New Year, is another outstanding record. Opening with some lovely fiddle, and continuing the gentle melody with an understated arrangement behind Alan’s measured vocals, this is unapologetically country.

The song itself, written by Alan’s nephew Adam Wright with young singer-songwriters Hailey Whitters and Sarah Allison Turner, is a gem. A serene reflection on the lessons learned over time that it is love which really matters in life:

The older I get the truer it is
It’s the people you love
Not the money and stuff
That makes you rich

If they found a fountain of youth
I wouldn’t drink a drop and that’s the truth
Funny how it feels I’m just getting to my best years yet

The older I get
The better I am
At knowing when to give and when to just not give a damn

And if they found a fountain of youth
I wouldn’t drink a drop and that’s the truth
Funny how it feels I’m just getting to my best years yet

If you haven’t heard this lovely song yet I urge you to do so.

Grade: A+

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Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘The Lonely, The Lonesome And The Gone’

Lee Ann Womack’s latest album is something of a departure, leaning in a bluesier direction than previously. This arose largely out of the lyrical theme of the album, adrressing hard times and lost love.

The opening ‘All The Trouble’ (written by Lee Ann with Adam Wright and Waylon Payne) is a hushed blues with a doomladen air, rising into a wail as she bemoans her life. Lee Ann’s vocals are fabulous, but the guitar work is unnecessarily muddy for my taste. It sets the tone for the album as a whole.

The same writing partnership is responsible for a further trio of songs. The sophisticated 60s pop/R&B ballad ‘Hollywood’ (apart from intrusive backing vocals) is a well written and exquisitely sung song about a troubled marriage which I would have preferred in a more traditional country arrangement. ‘Mama Lost her Smile’ is a closely observed story song reminiscing about the protagonist’s childhood and musing over the lacunae of memory. ‘Sunday’ is a pure blues tune which doesn’t do much for me.

‘Wicked’, written by Lee Ann with Adam Wright, is a dramatic southern gothic story song, about a mother who turns to murder to protect her child. It’s a compelling story, and well sung, but spoiled somewhat by the intrusive production:

You can’t blend in down in San Jacinto
With long blonde hair and an orange El Camino
But two things I never thought I’d need to get by
A 38 special and an alibi

Whatever I get I guess I’ve earned
But I never hurt anyone that didn’t deserve it

Oh, wicked is as wicked does
And if this ain’t wicked
Well, it’s close enough
I thought I was good and maybe I was
But wicked is as wicked does

Somethin’ had to happen
Somethin’ had to be done
And it turns out I’m pretty good with a gun
It doesn’t make it right but it is what it is and
Any mama in the world woulda done what I did

On his own, Adam Wright contributed the charming ‘End Of The End Of The World’, a pretty lilting waltz about getting back together. The title track is a subdued country ballad featuring steel guitar, gently regretting all that has been lost – a broken heart and changing times. It was written by Adam Wright with Jay Knowles.

Dale Dodson and the great Dean Dillon co-wrote ‘Talking Behind Your Back’, a lovely conversational song with the protagonist admitting to her lover’s ex over an awkward lunch that the man still really loves the other woman. A slightly loungy arrangement is okay but doesn’t quite do the song justice. Dodson teamed up with Lee Ann again, together with Dani Flowers, to write ‘Someone Else’s Heartache’, a nicely understated song of apparent resignation to a breakup, with the vulnerable vocal telling a different tale.

Covers of a couple of country classics are thrown in, remade in a soulful style fitting the overall mood of the album. ‘Long Black Veil’ (with no gender twist to the original lyric) is slow and soulful, with a stripped down arrangement and fragile vocal. ‘He Called Me Baby’, a Harlan Howard song once recorded by Patsy Cline, gets an intensely sultry jazzy makeover. An obscure George Jones-penned rockabilly gospel song, ‘Take The Devil Out Of Me’ is retro, vivacious and all too short.

Brent Cobb is a rising singer-songwriter, and Lee Ann is obviously a fan as she has covered two of his songs. ‘Shine On Rainy Day’ (the title track of Cobb’s own recent album) is a dreamy ballad with a messy, dirty sounding production I didn’t like at all set against Lee Ann’s pure vocals. The mid paced ‘Bottom Of The Barrel’ is a bit monotonous.

I’ve never been a big fan of Frank Liddell’s production choices, but I have little doubt that this album is exactly what Lee Ann wanted this time. My own feelings are mixed: it is a beautifully realized piece of work from a general artistic point of view, but I really miss the traditional country Lee Ann Womack.

Grade: B+

Song Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘Hollywood’

Ever since debuting “All The Trouble,” Lee Ann Womack has been busy preparing for the Oct. 27 release of her ninth album, The Lonely, The Lonesome and The Gone. She completed a mini acoustic tour with Patty Griffin and starred as the main attraction at AmericanaFest in Nashville, sponsored by The Americana Music Association. Events included the annual Lee Ann Womack & Friends concert and an intimate conversation and performance at The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum moderated by Peter Cooper.

Womack also participated in the Build Series in New York City (The interview is on Facebook) and gave a wide-ranging interview with Noisey, a music brand created through Vice with the mission “to document new and exciting music across the globe — from pop’s heavy-hitters to tiny garage bands and everything in between.” Womack vented her frustrations with mainstream Nashville and revealed she had to constantly battle her traditional tendencies with the need to satisfy her major label’s bottom line.

Amongst these performances and interviews, she premiered “Hollywood,” which she also co-wrote with Waylon Payne and Adam Wright. The ethereal ballad finds Womack in familiar territory, as the wife in a disintegrating marriage with a less than forthcoming spouse. Like all her songs, the wife has every clue what’s happening before her eyes, so much so she routinely begs her husband to have a substantive conversation with her, both at the breakfast table:

Morning cup of coffee, not a single word

And if you do say something, it’s only about work

Every time I ask you, you just say we’re good

And in bed, where he admits his anticipation:

We say good night, I love you

We never miss our cue

I ask you if you mean it

You say yes I knew you would

The wife is clearly exhausted from fighting for everything he won’t give her, which Womack brings out in her performance, strong yet breathy. Like any woman who trusts her intuition, the wife only wants one thing out in the open — the truth:

Like the silver screen, its a technicolor dream

We pretend it’s real, but it’s only make-believe

But it’s the killer hook that drives everything home. The wife only doubts herself once, right after he fails to give her the answers she so desperately needs:

Either I’m a fool for askin’

Or you belong in Hollywood

I’ll freely admit it took me a minute when I first heard “Hollywood” to digest the presentation, from the dark production and background singers to Womack’s vocal, which goes in and out from her soprano to her falsetto. But on repeat listenings, I get what’s going on here. This song is so old Hollywood, so Mad Men-esque it’s almost scary. It won’t appeal to everyone, but it eventually finally got me.

Grade: A 

Single Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘All the Trouble’

Although she is best known to the masses for her massive crossover hit “I Hope You Dance”, Lee Ann Womack has built a reputation as one of only a very select few female artists that adheres to country music’s traditions. John Rich once referred to her as this generation’s Tammy Wynette. I’m not sure I quite agree with that assessment; my first reaction was that she was more like a Patty Loveless, but I’ve come to realize that a case can be made that she is this generations’ Emmylou Harris, putting artistry and tradition ahead of commercial concerns and earning universal respect from her peers. Let’s just pretend that 2002’s Something Worth Leaving Behind never happened; she has more than redeemed herself for that misstep.

Lee Ann is releasing a new independent album in October and there have been rumors that she is moving in an Americana direction. It’s a little hard to say based on the advance single “All the Trouble,” which is different from her usual fare. I’d call it country blues with a touch of gospel rather than Americana; in fact, it sounds like something that The Judds might have had success with in their heyday.

Written by Lee Ann with her bandmates Adam Wright and Waylon Payne, “All the Trouble” begins with Lee Ann singing the chorus acapella at a the lower end of her register and slowly builds in intensity. During the first, mostly acoustic verse, she sounds beaten down:

The deck is stacked against you
Life’s a losing hand
Even when you think you’re up
You’re right back down again
Either way you play it
The house is gonna win.

By the second chorus, she kicks it up a notch, sounding more like the Lee Ann of old.

I’ve got all the trouble I’m ever gonna need
And I just don’t want no more.

By this point she’s singing more intensely, desperately searching for a happy ending. It’s about a full octave higher than the beginning of the song, which is quite effective in giving the listener a full sense of her emotions. The background vocalists provide a gospel feel which gives the whole song a sense of hope. Unfortunately, at this point the production becomes a lot busier and louder than it was at the beginning and I feel that this is a case where less would have been more.

“All the Trouble” is not perfect, but it’s everything that contemporary mainstream country is not: substantive, well-written, and well sung from the female point of view. I’m looking forward to hearing the full album.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Lonesome River Band – ‘Mayhayley’s House’

The Lonesome River Band are a veteran band on paper, but have seen many changes of personnel over the years. As one expects from this band, the instrumental playing is brilliant but tasteful, with banjo star Sammy Shelor anchoring the sound. Both the current lead singers are outstanding too – the smoky characterful baritone of Brandon Rickman (one of my favorite singers across country and bluegrass) almost matched by the strong, if less distincive, tenor of Jesse Smathers.

A number of well known country songs get a bluegrass treatment . Crystal Gayle’s early hit ‘Wrong Road Again’ is delightful. The Don Williams hit ‘Old Coyote Town’ is given an absolutely beautiful reading by Brandon Rickman. Western Swing classic ‘Ida Red’ becomes a pacy bluegrass romp. A less well known cover, ‘Hickory Hollow Times & County News’ was on Charley Pride’s 2011 album Choices. Rickman’s warm vocals suit the song’s sweet nostalgia.

‘As The Crow Flies’, a plaintive Billy Yates/Melba Montgomery love song which Yates has recorded, has another lovely vocal from Rickman. The lyric refers to both the title bird and to blackbirds, both of which make a more ominous appearance in ‘Blackbirds And Crows’, an excellent murder ballad about a possesive husband and restless wife he just can’t bear to let go:

Blackbird sat on a fence line
Crow flew through the sky
I whispered low into Eva’s ear
Eva you’re gonna die

She’s a half a mile out, a quarter across
Beneath those wheatfield rows
And no one knows who put her there
But the blackbirds and the crows

Folks come by and we sit around
And I tell them how she’s gone
I tell them how she packed her bags
And wrecked our happy home
Lord I tell them she’s down in Atlanta
Doin’ cocaine and God only knows
But Eva’s not gone
She’s here with me
Right here where she’ll always be
With the blackbirds and the crows

It was written by Don Humphries.

The atmospheric title track, an Adam Wright song based on a true story, is about a rural Georgia psychic from the mid 20th century, to whom the album as a whole is dedicated.

‘Diggin’’ is a pretty good mid-tempo song about struggling to make ends meet that manages to sound bright despite the despairing lyric. The similarly upbeat ‘As Lonesome As I Am’, written by Matt Lindsey and Shawn Camp, is a more overtly optimistic song about expecting things can only get better. ‘I Think I’m Gonna Be Alright’ sees the protagonist coping well enough with a breakup.

Some fantastic fiddle (from Mike Hartgrove) leads the fast paced ‘Lonesome Bone’. ‘It Feels Real Good Goin’ Down’, written by Gary Nicholson and Shawn Camp, is a vibrant drinking-away-the-pain song. Thw album closes with a frenetic arrangement of the bluegrass standard ‘Fly Around y Pretty Little Miss’.

This is an excellent album which should appeal to country fans with an interest in bluegrass.

Grade: A+

Album Review: James Dupre – ‘Stoned To Death’

stoned to deathSix years ago, James Dupre parlayed some popular youtube covers into a fine Kyle Lehning and Jerry Douglas produced debut album. That record was then picked up by Warner Brothers, and it seemed as if he might make a breakthrough. Unfortunately, Warner Brothers failed to do anything with James and his music other than re-releasing his album. A stint on The Voice later, the Louisiana born singer is back with new music, mostly self-composed, whereas he only contributed two of the songs on his debut. It is an encouraging step forwards artistically, while continuing to showcase his attractive, warm vocals. The new album is produced by Jordan Lehning (son of Kyle); he doesn’t do a bad job overall but lacks his father’s light touch. Backing vocalists include former American Idol runner-up Kree Harrison, although she isn’t very audible.

James’s Louisiana roots, traditional country music and his big influences Randy Travis and folk rocker James Taylor all infuse his own country music. The upbeat ‘Green Light’, which James and Jordan wrote with Skylar Wilson and Andrew Combs, opens the album to good effect with its optimistic attitude.

James wrote four songs with Neal Coty and Brent Baxter, all reflective ballads about the aftermath of a relationship. The mellow sounding but sad ‘Forgiving Me’ is about regrets for the mistakes he made, and coming to peace with himself:

So I pack that pack
Light up some self destruction
Let it lay me back for the night that I got coming
Throwin’ rocks in a muddy river
One for each regret
And writin’ the past a goodbye letter
Sending it off with a match
Chipping away at a heavy stone that ain’t half what it used to be
Working on forgiving me

Even time takes time
That’s one more thing I’m learning
And peace of mind is what you spend a long night earning

‘Someday Today’ is about coping with the loss by returning home, and is full of New Orleans atmosphere. In ‘Lonesome Alone’ he calls on his ex, bearing alcohol as “an ice-cold olive branch if it needs to be”. ‘Whatever That Was’ reflects on a relationship which was “never quite lovers, more than friends”, and which may not be over yet. It’s a fine song with a catchy tune, marred by an arrangement which is too heavy on the electric guitar.

‘Sad Song’, a co-write with Jeremy Spillman, is a mellow song about the way music helps to heal melancholy, and is very good. In contrast, the upbeat ‘Till The Real Thing Comes’, which James wrote with Adam Wright, celebrates a bar room hookup and offers a rare up-tempo moment.

The quietly melodic ‘Perfect Time’, written by Neal Carpenter and Scooter Carusoe, fits nicely with James’ own songs, and although the production has some intrusive elements, it is restrained. The rather dull ‘Hurt Good, written by Mike Mobley, Jessi Alexander and Travis Meadows, has a contemporary arrangement which adds nothing of value.

Finally, the title track, contributed by Alexander with Jeff Hyde and Clint Daniels, is a compelling drama comparing being left to a prison sentence:

I plead guilty and I wear my regret like a number on my soul

This is an excellent song, although yet again the production does its best to overwhelm it.

James’s warm voice sounds great throughout on the set, and the song quality is high. Minor niggles with the production aside, this is a strong album worth hearing.

Grade: A-

For those interested, James also stars in a new straight-to-Netflix and video film in which he plays the son of Randy Travis.

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

Album Review: Alan Jackson – ‘Angels and Alcohol’

81S0JZvN9pL._SX522_After a pair of non-commercial albums that found him venturing into gospel and bluegrass, Angels and Alcohol, which was released last week, is both a return to form for Alan Jackson and his strongest collection since he parted ways with Arista Records five years ago.

Like the vast majority of Jackson’s catalog, Angels and Alcohol was produced by Keith Stegall. In many ways it is reminiscent of their best work from the 90s; there are no concessions to current trends and no attempts to chase radio hits. The current single, “Jim and Jack and Hank”, which I reviewed earlier this month, currently resides at #47 on the charts. Despite being a fun and catchy uptempo number, it’s unlikely to rise much higher in the current commercial environment.

Although I stand by the B+ rating I gave the single, I would not include it among one of my favorites from the album, because there are other more substantive songs which which a fluffy lightweight song simply cannot compete. With all due respect to Alan Jackson the songwriter, who penned seven of the album’s songs, my favorites are the three he didn’t write. Troy Jones’ and Greg Becker’s “When God Paints” is a beautiful ballad, with lyrics that are rich with imagery about life’s simple pleasures. Even better is “The One You’re Waiting On” by Adam Wright and Shannon Wright, which finds the protagonist sitting in a bar, admiring his love interest from afar, knowing that he doesn’t stand much of a chance but wondering exactly what she is holding out for. “Gone Before You Met Me”, an uptempo number by Michael White and Michael P. Heeney is about a free spirit who has long since settled down, and when he finds he is still rambling, is relieved to discover that it was only a dream. Country music needs more songs like this.

Jackson’s own compositions are nothing to sneeze at, either. The opening track “You Can Always Come Home” finds him reassuring a child who is about to leave the nest, and the title track is a beautiful ballad that is vintage Alan Jackson. It would have been a huge hit 20 years ago, and even ten years ago it might have been given a fair shot by radio. The closing track “Mexico, Tequila and Me” finds Jackson switching back to Jimmy Buffett mode, and is reminiscent of “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere”.

I can’t find anything to complain about with this album. The current crop of singers who are doing their best to ruin country music (and largely succeeding), could learn a lot from Alan Jackson. There are no stretches or surprises here, just good old country music that will not leave Jackson’s fans disappointed. Sometimes that’s enough.

Grade: A

Single Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘The Way I’m Livin”

wayimlivinIt’s hard not to feel frustrated at times when Lee Ann Womack’s name is mentioned, primarily for two reasons: (1) she never quite achieved the level of commercial success she deserved, and (2) she is frustratingly unprolific. She has released only six studio albums (excluding 2002’s pseudo-holiday collection The Season For Romance), in her seventeen years as a recording artist, but fortunately the six-year drought since her last album is just about over, with a new collection slated for release in September. The title track was just released as the album’s first single.

“The Way I’m Livin'”, which was written by Adam Wright and produced by Womack’s husband Frank Liddell, is not a major departure in style for Lee Ann. And that is a good thing; although she’s made some missteps along the way, Womack has been one of a very few artists who haven’t lost touch with their country roots. She sounds refreshed and invigorated by her sabbatical from the recording studio; this track would not sound out of place on Lee Ann’s sophomore disc, 1998’s Some Things I Know. The raw acoustic guitar and Lee Ann’s strong vocal performance give the song a haunting feel. It’s a song about temptation and remorse, about drinking and the devil — the kind of song that country fans used to take for granted in the days before mindless redneck and drinking anthems became staples at country radio. I could have done without the over-the-top monster guitar solo and string arrangement during the song’s instrumental break but aside from that minor complaint, this is top-notch all the way. I’m looking forward to the full album release in the autumn. In the meantime, “The Way That I’m Livin'” is available for download at iTunes.

Grade: A

Album Review: Alan Jackson – ‘The Bluegrass Album’

the bluegrass albumDisappointingly, it seems as though Alan Jackson may be at the end of his hitmaking career, with the poor performance of the singles from his fine last album. But unlike many fading stars, Alan has not tried trimming his music to fit the latest trends, rather he is taking the opportunity to experiment with some deliberately less commercial forms of country music, with a religious album earlier this year, and now his long-awaited bluegrass album. His collaboration with Alison Krauss some years ago was a disappointment because it wasn’t bluegrass (or very interesting); this one is very definitely the real thing – pure bluegrass, with some excellent songs from one of the most reliable artists around.

Sensitively produced by longtime producer Keith Stegall and Alan’s songwriter nephew Adam Wright, with most of the songs written by Alan in traditional bluegrass style, the result is the delight I had hoped for when I first heard of the project. A solid bluegrass band, including star names Sammy Shelor on banjo, Rob Ickes on dobro and Adam Steffey on mandolin, plays beautifully throughout, with Don Rigsby and Ronnie Bowman providing harmonies and backing vocals. The tempo is generally slow to medium with no real barn-burning numbers, which is the only slight disappointment – but the music we do get is all so good we can’t really complain.

Most of the songs were specially written for this album, and show Alan has lost none of his creativity. He revives one of his older songs. ‘Let’s Get Back To Me And You’; this seemed like a throwaway in 1994 (on Who I Am), but the acoustic arrangement gives it new life and I much prefer it to the uninspired-sounding original.

I really like the reflective opener ‘Long Hard Road’, in which a man considers his mistakes and sins. This road is metaphorical, but in ‘Blacktop’ Alan recalls childhood on an old dirt road, and his pleasure when it was replaced with a modern surface.

‘Mary’ is a touching love song to a beloved wife with a warm vocal; it sounds very like something Don Williams would have recorded in his heyday, and Alan sounds rather like Don vocally here, too. ‘Tie Me Down’ offers the voice of a rambler persuaded to settled down when he meets that one special girl, and is another nice song.

The slow inspirational ‘Blue Side Of Heaven’ is written from the viewpoint of a dying man addressing his loved one, and has a very pretty melody and tender vocal. ‘Blue Ridge Mountain Song’ is a touching story song about true love, discovered young, and sustained alone forever by the bereaved husband after her death far too soon.

‘Appalachian Mountain Girl’ picks up the tempo, and lyrically sounds as though it could be a long-lost traditional number rather than one of Alan’s newly penned contributions.

Adam Wright composed another song sounding like an authentic old song in the rhythmic and ironic ‘Ain’t Got Trouble Now’, which is highly enjoyable. Adam and wife Shannon wrote the resigned but thoughtful ‘Knew All Along’ about coming to terms with the death of a parent.

‘Way Beyond The Blue’ is a bluesy number written by Mark D Sanders, Randy Albright and Lisa Silver. A cover of the Dillards’ ‘There Is A Time’ (from the iconic Andy Griffith Show) is one of the more up-tempo tracks, and while pleasant and a nice change of pace, is actually one of the less memorable moments for me. A plaintive ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’ is taken at the original waltz-time tempo, and unexpectedly interrupted by a rundown of Alan’s thanks to the musicians and others involved with making the record.

An unusual but very welcome choice of cover is an intimate version of John Scott Sherril’s ‘Wild And Blue’, best known from John Anderson’s hit version from the early 80s. Alan’s version is far tamer, sounding almost cosy compared to Anderson’s raw intensity, but the lovely acoustic arrangement and Alan’s kindly vocal (nicely backed by the harmony singers) emphasize the safe harbour the protagonist offers his troubled lover, where Anderson’s edgier vocal interpretation gave the woman’s desperation a more central role.

Releasing the record on Alan’s own ACR Records with distribution by EMI has allowed Alan free reign artistically, which is excellent news for the discerning listener. The artwork, however, while quite stylish, comes across as cheap, with no photographs apart from one tiny one of the entire team in the recording studio on the back page of the booklet in which no one is actually identifiable – you can only guess which Alan in by the hat, and good luck with anyone else. Luckily, it’s the music that matters, and this is an excellent, timeless album which offers solace for those fleeing in horror from today’s commercial mainstream. It is an essential purchase.

Grade: A

Predictions and analysis: The 55th Annual Grammy Awards

Grammy-AwardsIt’s that time of year again, to celebrate music’s biggest night. The 55th Grammy Awards are set to air this Sunday on CBS. In a rather surprising move, it’s the females who’ll be representing our genre at the show. Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift, and Miranda Lambert are all slated to perform, with Lambert teaming up with her ‘Locked and Reloaded’ tour partner Dierks Bentley for a special collaboration. The country nominees are below, and it turns out they’re much stronger than was expected. The Recording Academy seems to have found a happy medium between commercial and artistic popularity. We’ll have to see if any of the artistic nominees (Jamey Johnson, The Time Jumpers, and others) will prevail against their commercial contemporaries. Predictions are below:

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Album Review: Alan Jackson – ‘Thirty Miles West’

Listening to a new Alan Jackson album is much like watching a John Wayne movie; one pretty much knows what to expect and there are very seldom any big surprises, yet when it’s over, one usually feels satisfied and fully entertained. His latest effort, Thirty Miles West, is his first release on his own imprint, through a new arrangement with EMI Nashville. Despite the label change, the album’s content is still very much in the same vein as most of his Arista albums. Longtime collaborator Keith Stegall is once again in the producer’s chair.

Radio seems to have cooled towards Jackson lately; aside from his guest appearance on the Zac Brown Band’s #1 hit “As She’s Walking Away”, he hasn’t scored a Top 10 hit in three years, and the first of Thirty Miles West’s two advance singles, the self-penned “Long Way To Go”, failed to reach the Top 20. A catchy, fun, if somewhat unoriginal Jimmy Buffett-style summertime song, it deserved to chart higher than its #24 peak. The current single “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore” currently sits at #26. It is a very nice break-up ballad written by Adam Wright and Jay Knowles, in which the male protagonist graciously offers to take the blame for the relationship’s failure.

One of my favorite tracks is the energetic bluegrass-tinged “Dixie Highway”, which features a guest appearance by Zac Brown. It’s the best of the six songs that Alan wrote for the album. At nearly seven and a half minutes, it is too long to be a single, though a heavily edited version might eventually be released to radio. I also quite “Life Keeps Bringing Me Down”, which is a real toe-tapper and not a mournful ballad as the title suggests.

The album does contain a few missteps; Alan’s compositions “Everything But The Wings” and “Look Her In The Eyes and Lie” aren’t quite up to his usual standard. Likewise, “She Don’t Get High” — which despite its title isn’t about a recovering addict — is a bit pedestrian; however, it is just middle-of-the-road enough that it might have a shot at being well received at radio.

There are no great artistic stretches here; Jackson remains fully within his comfort zone for the entire album. However, it is a solid and entertaining album that holds its own against Alan’s impressive back catalog. Sometimes that’s all that the listener wants, especially in an era in which country music is increasingly overwhelmed by over-the-top pop and rock. It remains to be seen if Thirty Miles West can revive Alan’s radio career, but even if it does not, it is one of this year’s better efforts and is worth buying.

Grade: B+

Single Review: Alan Jackson – ‘So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore’

Alan Jackson’s debut single for his new label Capitol was a bit of a disappointment to longterm fans, and it also failed to satisfy radio programmers. ‘Long Way To Go’ peaked at #24, and was a forgettable attempt to emulate Kenny Chesney, which while not unlistenable, was well below Alan’s best work. It’s a great pleasure to report that the sequel is infinitely better, and is the finest Alan Jackson single for years, raising hopes for his forthcoming album.

Written by Alan’s very talented nephew Adam Wright with Jay Knowles, the song offers a response to the failure of a relationship in which the one who refuses to cast blame comes out as a better person. The protagonist sounds defeated from the get-go as he tacitly agrees to take the blame for everything that has gone amiss in their relationship – and by that very attitude reveals to the listener that he still loves her, whatever her feelings may be.

The underlying bitterness surfaces occasionally as with the barbed comment,

I will keep all those memories of the good times
Yeah there were some good times
So when you think of you and me
They won’t even cross your mind

Mostly, however, he gives in to her need to make herself look good in the eyes of others, so she can leave him guilt-free:

I’ll be the bad guy
I’ll take the black eye
And I’ll walk out
You can slam the door
I’ll be the SOB
If that’s what you need from me
So you don’t have to love me anymore

When you and our friends talk
Make it all my fault
Tell ‘em I’m rotten to the core
I’ll let it all slide
Get ‘em all on your side
So you don’t have to love me anymore

This is a song which makes it clear that both parties are complicated human beings with their own emotions, even as one naturally sympathizes with the protagonist. A remarkably mature insightful lyric presents a psychologically complex and very realistic situation. Listening to the regretful but weary tone, you’re torn between hoping the girl sees sense and rekindles her old love – or that she makes a clean break so he can find someone who deserves him.

A gentle melody and quiet, tasteful production with sympathetic fiddle and steel allows Alan’s understated vocal to take center stage and convey the complicated emotions of the song without needing to fight the backing.

By far Alan’s best single since 2004’s superlative ‘Monday Morning Church’, I don’t know if it will revive his declining fortunes at radio, but I certainly hope it does. And while it’s far too soon to be talking of songs of the year for 2012, this sets the bar really high.

Grade: A+

Listen for yourself.

Album Review: Alan Jackson – ‘Freight Train’

I was distinctly underwhelmed by Alan’s last album, Good Time, and as a result I was concerned about what to expect this time around, especially as I wasn’t impressed by the lead single. Thankfully the album is a considerable improvement. Alan has written most of the songs again, but he seems to have regained his muse, which was noticably lacking last time around. Keith Stegall is in the producer’s chair as usual; always reliable, he does one of his best jobs here, making every song sound good.

After that initial sense of apprehension, then, it was with a great sense of relief that I heard this album kicking off with some fiddle as ‘Hard Hat And A Hammer’ (one of the tracks which was pre-released on iTunes) opens the album with one of the best of Alan’s trademark tributes to the working man, described here as the “kind of glue that sticks this world together”. In the outro, he even remembers to include a nod to the working woman.

In contrast, there is a paean to the joys of escaping from it all for a life at sea in ‘That’s Where I Belong’.

That lead single and current top 20 hit ‘It’s Just That Way’ is one of the few songs not written by Alan himself; it comes from producer Keith Stegall, Vicky McGehee and Kylie Sackley, and is one of the record’s dullest moments. Alan sings it beautifully, but the song is just plain dull. I cannot imagine why it was thought a suitable first single. The only other song as lackluster on this set is Alan’s own ‘Big Green Eyes’.

A more enjoyable love song is the beauty and cheerful ‘I Could Get Used To This Lovin’ Thing’; it breaks no new ground lyrically but is enjoyable to listen to. The closing ‘The Best Keeps Getting Better’ is a more mature appreciation of a love which has grown stronger and deeper over time despite ups and downs, which is clearly addressed to Alan’s wife of 30 years – the perfect anniversary song:

We thought the best would be behind us
But the best keeps getting better all the time

We learned how to love
And how to make up
And found what it takes to be enough
Like a 30 year old wine
Hearts intertwined
The best keeps getting better all the time

I love you now more than ever

Alan draws more inspiration from his family with ‘After 17’, a tender portrait of his daughter as a young woman growing up, and “suddenly a child no more” as she tries to “find her place in this crazy world”.

The other love song here is the charming ‘True Love Is A Golden Ring’, which Alan wrote with Roger Murrah a few years ago and gave his nephew Adam and his wife and singing partner Shannon (the Wrights) to record on their excellent self-titled eight-track EP. Alan’s own version, which should bring this lovely song to a wider audience, features Rhonda Vincent on backing vocals, way back in the mix.

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Album Review: Alan Jackson – ‘What I Do’

Written by Jordan Stacey.  – J.R.

After having a very successful run in the early 90’s most “hat acts” faded away toward the end of the decade in favor of the crossover artists like Shania Twain. Alan Jackson however, was able to keep his success going and while there’s no telling what it was that kept him in the spotlight, I would credit his continued output of high quality material along with his masterpiece album Drive. Throughout the rest of the decade he put out many albums that attracted a lot of attention. However with his major hits Drive and  Greatest Hits II on one side, and his artistic adventures Precious Memories and Like Red On A Rose on the other, What I Do was kind of ignored in the grand scheme of things.

Sure, the first two singles went Top 5 and the other two both made it to #18, but when talking about Alan in the 00’s What I Do is unjustly left out of most conversations; even his weakest album, When Somebody Loves You, gets more press writing.  What I Do, like every single Alan Jackson album, was certified gold by the RIAA.  It would eventually go platinum as well.  To date, Jackson has released 13 studio albums, all of which have gone gold or better, including his covers and gospel albums.  It’s also worth mentioning that 12 of these have sold over 1 million copies (and several going into multi-platinum status), with 2005’s adult contemporary-leaning Like Red On A Rose stopping short of platinum, but still moving over half a million copies to earn its own certification.  Such is the star power of Alan Jackson, and the consistency of good to great material in his catalog throughout his career.

This particular album was released September 9, 2004, and is one of the strongest albums Alan recorded in the past decade. It’s one of the albums I reference when I am talking about how traditional country should have evolved. There’s your drinking songs (‘Strong Enough’), your love songs (‘If Love Was A River’), your religious song (‘Monday Morning Church’), honky tonk song (‘Burnin’ The Honky Tonks Down’) and your country ditty (‘The Talkin’ Song Repair Blues’).

Now while I think very highly of this album, I do know why it is the least talked about album. It hits every note it’s supposed to, it sounds great, with Alan delivering every song in his signature delivery. However that’s the problem, there was nothing new on this album; it’s a strong collection of songs that we’ve unfortunately all heard before. Most of these songs sound like you could insert them on the four previous albums he’d released and they’d fit right in. Consistency is great, look what it’s done for George Strait; he’s rarely experimented with his sound and he’s now one of the most successful country singers in history. Alan though has done more or less the same throughout his career but this is the first album where it’s so strongly felt.  Fifteen years into your career is about when taking risks should be done – which he did on his next three albums.

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