My Kind of Country

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

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Album Review: Various Artists – ‘The Big E: A Salute to Buddy Emmons’

51GQ-c5OGdL._SL500_AA280_The steel guitar has been an iconic instrument in country music since it was first used in the genre. That doesn’t mean its use has been unchanged; more than almost any other instrument its specification and capabilities have changed with time. a large part of that is down to the legendary Buddy Emmons, one of the most brilliant and innovative musicians ever to be involved in country music, and creators of various new styles of steel guitar.

Emmons is saluted in this fine tribute record. Steel player Steve Fishell, currently touring with Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, produced, and his steel player’s natural understanding for and love of the instrument and the man being paid tribute to help to make this a worthy tribute to one of the giants of country (and not just country) musicianship – Emmons has also been active in jazz. The selected songs are ones where Emmons performed on the classic recording; some of them he wrote. The steel playing, courtesy of a dozen or so of today’s most accomplished steel players, is gorgeous throughout (although it doesn’t feature on every track), and the record recommends itself to a wider audience by the use of some starry guest vocalists on most tracks. A couple of great non-steel guitarists contribute too (Duane Eddy and Albert Lee).

A brace of instrumentals place the instrument center stage, but good though they are, it is the vocal tracks which non-specialists will gravitate to. Fishell plays on my favorite track, a lovely duet by Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell on Gram Parsons’ ‘That’s All It Took’. Emmylou swoops and soars as a counterpoint to Rodney’s more measured vocal as they swap lines.

Also very fine is Willie Nelson on the questioning ‘Are You Sure’, which he wrote with Emmons in the 60s. Nelson belies his age with his usual precise, distinctive phrasing and understated but believable emotional commitment. John Anderson is at his best on ‘Half A Mind’, originally recorded by Ernest Tubb with Emmons. It’s always a pleasure to hear Anderson singing hard country, and this is great, with Buck Reid’s steel backing him up nicely in very traditional style.

Gill and Franklin turn from the Bakersfield sound of their wonderful recent project together to some very retro western swing on ‘Country Boy’ (a 1949 hit for Little Jimmy Dickens, before Emmons joined him, but one he must have played many times).

Raul Malo is ideally suited to a loungy jazzy take on ‘Night Life’, but Chris Stapleton’s take on ‘Feel So Bad’ is a bit too far in the blues direction for my personal taste. Both tracks do, however, help to show the breadth of Emmons’s contributions to music in general.

Veteran Little Jimmy Dickens sounds fairly wrecked vocally on ‘When Your House Is Not A Home’, but then he is over 90 and not in the best of health. His inclusion is a nice touch as he was Emmons’ first major employer in the 1950s, bringing the remarkably talented teenager to Nashville.

The lesser-known Joanie Keller Johnson fails to match the Suzy Bogguss version of cowboy classic ‘Someday Soon’ (Emmons played on the recording by folk singer Judy Collins), although it is quite pleasant, with Keller’s husband Mike Johnson on steel. (Incidentally, as Joanie Keller, the singer has released some attractive independent records.)

A couple of guitarists try singing, with mixed results. I quite enjoyed the folky vocal at the end of ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ by steel player Greg Leisz, following a long, lyrical steel solo, but British-born Albert Lee (once a member of Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band and writer of Ricky Skaggs’s hit ‘Country Boy’) isn’t much good as a vocalist, and ‘Rainbows All Over Your Blues’ is one track which would have been much better off as a pure instrumental.

This is an excellent tribute to someone worthy of all the acclaim he is given, and it is all the better that (unlike the equally good Hank Cochran tribute from last year) it is released in Emmons’s lifetime. It is also genuinely great music in its own right. I recommend it to all country music fans, especially if you like the steel guitar showcased.

Grade: A

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Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘Roses In The Snow’

Releasing a bluegrass album is a near-certain way to ensure diminished album sales and radio airplay; just ask Dierks Bentley. It was considered even riskier move in 1980, when Nashville was still deeply entrenched in the Urban Cowboy sound. So Warner Bros. executives were understandably unenthusiastic when Emmylou Harris and Brian Ahern submitted the bluegrass-oriented Roses In The Snow as Emmylou’s sixth album for the company. The label ultimately relented, primarily because of Emmylou’s stellar sales record: every album she’d released, with the exception of the Christmas album Light of the Stable, had been certified gold. The album was released in May 1980, and everyone braced themselves for a commercial disaster. But to everyone’s great surprise, Roses In The Snow was anything but a disaster. Although the two singles released to radio did not chart quite as high as some of her earlier records, the album peaked at #2 on the Billboard Top Country LPs chart, and like its five predecessors, was certified gold.

Emmylou’s previous album, 1979’s Blue Kentucky Girl, had marked a change in direction, concentrating primarily on traditional country, as opposed to the more eclectic approach of her earlier releases. The success of Blue Kentucky Girl, as well as the influence of Hot Band member Ricky Skaggs, encouraged Harris to delve even deeper into traditional music. Skaggs’ fingerprints are all over Roses In The Snow; he played several instruments on the album as well as contributing duet and background vocals. But what really makes Roses In The Snow sound unique is autoharpist Bryan Bowers, who plays throughout the album. While perhaps not strictly bluegrass, the autoharp recreated the sound of the Carter Family, contributing to the old-timey sound that Harris and Ahern were aiming for.

Like Emmylou’s previous albums, Roses In The Snow was recorded in Los Angeles in the Enactron Truck and made use of both The Hot Band and an impressive guest line-up. The Whites, who had been featured prominently on Blue Kentucky Girl once again contributed harmony vocals, as did Harris’ good friends Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton. Johnny Cash provided backing vocals on one track (“Jordan”), Jerry Douglas played dobro and Wilie Nelson played gut-string guitar.

The traditional number “Wayfaring Stranger” was released as the album’s first single. Perhaps the closest in style to Harris’ earlier work — reminiscent of past hits such as “If I Could Only Win Your Love” and “One Of These Days” — “Wayfaring Stranger” climbed to #7, bucking the then-current trend towards slickly-produced, more pop sounding music. “The Boxer”, a remake of the 1968 Paul Simon hit, fared less well, stalling at #13. It is the most unusual song on the album, not something I — or probably most people — would have thought of while working on a bluegrass project, but it works surprisingly well. Sung from the male point of view, it benefits greatly from the acoustic arrangement, Bryan Bowers’ autoharp, and superb harmonies from The Whites.

The best music is often made when commercial considerations are cast aside, allowing the artist to engage in a labor of love. This is decidedly the case with Roses In The Snow. It’s hard to pinpoint the album’s highlights because it is excellent from beginning to end, but if pressed, I would have to go with “Green Pastures”, a Harris-Skaggs duet with harmonies provided by Dolly Parton, “The Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn”, another Harris-Skaggs collaboration written by Ralph Stanley, and “Gold Watch and Chain”, an A.P Carter-penned song which features Skaggs and Linda Ronstadt. Emmylou’s cover of the Louvin Brothers’ “You’re Learning” is also quite good, and is one of the few instances in which she breaks with tradition and uses some electric instruments, namely the electric guitar, courtesy of Hot Band member Albert Lee.

Warner Bros. remastered and re-released Roses Of The Snow in 2002, along with two bonus tracks: a cover of Hank Williams’ “You’re Gonna Change” and the Celtic-flavored “Root Like A Rose”, written by Nancy Ahern (Bryan’s sister). Neither song is bluegrass, so they sound slightly out of place here, but both are excellent.

Roses In The Snow is available from Amazon and iTunes, and is highly recommended. Please note that the digital version of the album does not include the two bonus tracks.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘Luxury Liner’

1977’s Luxury Liner is the third offering in Emmylou Harris’ discography, excluding 1970’s Gliding Bird. Like its two predecessors, it is an eclectic mix of country and rock-and-roll, relying a little more heavily on cover material than her earlier albums had done. Produced by Brian Ahern and backed by her superb Hot Band, Emmylou pays tribute to everyone from Chuck Berry and her late mentor Gram Parsons to The Carter Family, The Louvin Brothers, and Kitty Wells. Though it failed to produce any Top 5 hits, Luxury Liner reached #1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and is Emmylou’s best-selling solo effort.

Rodney Crowell, Albert Lee, Glen D. Hardin, Emory Gordy Jr. and Ricky Skaggs all make appearances as members of The Hot Band, while Herb Pedersen, Nicolette Larson, Fayssoux Starling, and Dolly Parton lend their voices to the project. The first single was a cover of Chuck Berry’s 1964 hit “You Never Can Tell (C’est La Vie”), which is given a Cajun flavor by Ricky Skaggs on fiddle. It reached #6 on the Billboard country singles chart. For the second single, Emmylou did an about-face and released the very traditional “Making Believe”, a remake of Kitty Wells’ 1955 hit. Emmylou’s version reached #8.

Although only two singles were released, Luxury Liner contains some very well known album cuts. “Hello Stranger”, on which Nicolette Larson chimes in, had been a hit for The Carter Family in the 1930s. Though clearly not in the vein of what country radio was playing in the 1970s, I was surprised to learn that the track had never been released as a single, primarily because of its inclusion on Emmylou’s 1978 compilation album Profile. Also in the traditional vein are Susanna Clark’s “I’ll Be Your Rose of San Antone” and a remake of the Louvin Brothers’ 1955 recording “When I Stop Dreaming,” on which Dolly Parton provides a beautiful harmony vocal. My personal favorite among this set, “When I Stop Dreaming” sowed the seeds for the Trio project which would appear a decade later.

On the more contemporary side are the title track and “She”, both written by Harris’ mentor Gram Parsons (the latter co-written with Chris Etheridge), a pair of Rodney Crowell tunes (“You’re Supposed To Be Feeling Good” and “Tulsa Queen”, which he co-wrote with Emmylou), and a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty”, a tale of two aging Mexican bandits, which would go on to become a #1 smash for Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard in 1983.

Warner Bros. remastered and re-released Luxury Liner in 2004, along with two bonus tracks: “Me and Willie” and the excellent “Night Flyer” which was written by Johhny Mullins. Mullins is best known as the writer of “Blue Kentucky Girl” which had been a hit for both Emmylou and Loretta Lynn.

Eclectic albums are hard to pull off; it’s difficult to perform a wide variety of musical styles well. It’s even more difficult to put together such a collection without losing cohesion or alienating fans who prefer one style over another. But Emmylou and the Hot Band move seamlessly from rock to old-time country and everything in between, and even though I consider the two Crowell-penned tunes to be the weakest on the album, there really isn’t a bad song to be found here.

Grade: A

Luxury Liner is available from Amazon and iTunes and is well worth seeking out.

Spotlight Artist: Emmylou Harris

Emmylou Harris was not born to be a country singer. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1947, daughter of an Air Force officer, she grew up in North Carolina and Virginia. She dropped out of college to pursue a career as a folk singer, inspired by the 60s revival of traditional folk music in America. After releasing one album, Gliding Bird (suppressed for years) and following the failure of her first marriage, her life took a defining turn when she met Gram Parsons in 1971 (recommended by Chris Hillman who had been impressed by Emmylou when he saw her in concert). Parsons, an alumnus of the seminal country-rock bands The Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, introduced Emmylou to country music. Emmylou’s haunting harmonies added a touch of magic to Gram’s more shambolic vocals, and her vocal contributions to the two albums on which they collaborated, GP and Grievous Angel, were so significant to their sound that (although billed as solo Parsons records) they were really a duo act. Parsons, a self-destructive soul addicted to drugs and alcohol, died of an overdose in 1973, and, traumatic though this loss was, Emmylou was freed to pursue her own star.

She signed to the Warner Brothers imprint Reprise Records (a contract which was passed to Warner when the smaller label was closed), and began working with producer Brian Ahern, who she was to marry in 1977. Starting with 1975’s Pieces Of The Sky, Emmylou Harris released a sequence of now-classic albums through the 70s, notable for their selection of material: country and bluegrass classics, rock covers, and new songs; for the extraordinary singing and harmony work; and for the superb musicianship mostly from her own Hot Band. Her work was critically acclaimed and also well received on country radio, with a string of hits including five #1s. She won her first Grammy in 1976 for her second album, Elite Hotel.

Emmylou’s live bands have been a large part of her success over the years. The legendary Hot Band in the 70s and 80s had a changing but always stellar lineup, starting with Elvis Presley’s guitarist James Burton(succeeded by the British born virtuoso Albert Lee, writer of ‘Country Boy’), pianist Glen D Hardin, steel player Hank De Vito, and bassist Emory Gordy Jr. One significant member was singer songwriter Rodney Crowell on rhythm guitar for three years. When Crowell moved on to start his own solo career, he was replaced by the multiple instrumentalist Ricky Skaggs, who brought a bluegrass influence to the band before launching his own spectacular career in country music.

From 1979 onwards, Emmylou, always eclectic, began to experiment further, with the pure country Blue Kentucky Girl, the bluegrass Roses In The Snow, an acoustic Christmas album (Light Of The Stable), live recordings (Last Date), even the odd disco song on 1983’s more rock-influenced White Shoes. Her marriage to Ahern broke down, and in 1985 she released the underrated concept album The Ballad Of Sally Rose, with a storyline very loosely inspired by her early career with Gram Parsons, all of which she wrote with English-born songwriter Paul Kennerley, who also took over as her producer, and soon became husband #3 (the couple divorced in 1992). The record was a commercial failure, although one song, ‘Woman Walk The Line’, was later picked up by other artists (Highway 101 and Trisha Yearwood have both recorded it).

She had collaborated frequently on other artists’ records throughout her career (and brought them in to sing on her own), but in 1987 she combined with her friends Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt to record the acclaimed, and platinum selling, Trio, and she also recorded a solo country gospel record, Angel Band, produced by longtime Hot Band member Emory Gordy Jr, with Vince Gill singing harmony.

Notwithstanding the success of Trio, her solo star was waning by this point, and in 1991 Emmylou made another major change, replacing the Hot Band with a new acoustic group called the Nash Ramblers. Their musicianship was just as high quality, including Sam Bush on fiddle and mandolin, and a young singer/guitarist then billed as Randy Stewart who was later to pursue a solo career as singer and songwriter Jon Randall, and is currently known by his full name, Jon Randall Stewart. This lineup gave Emmylou’s music a new impetus, and they recorded a Grammy winning live album at the Ryman (her last release on Warner Brothers). However, commercial success was still diminishing, and after the relative failure of 1993’s Cowgirl’s Prayer on Warners subsidiary Elektra, Emmylou made the most radical change yet in her music.

In 1995 she turned to rock producer Daniel Lanois to create the controversial Wrecking Ball. This album’s connections with country music are limited, but it brought Emmylou acclaim from outside the genre, and earned her a Contemporary Folk Grammy. Another new band, Spyboy, featured guitarist Buddy Miller. A live album, Live In Germany 2000, has just been released (I think in Germany) and showcases this period. She was to continue in the vein for the next few years, investing more in her own songwriting than she had done earlier in her career. 2008’s All I Intended To Be, her most recent album, reunited Emmylou with Brian Ahern, and combined elements of her more recent style with aspects of her classic work of the 70s. A new album (Hard Bargain) is due later this month on Nonesuch Records, another Warner Brothers subsidiary which has released Emmylou’s solo work since 2003. She will appear on the Letterman Show to promote it on April 27. Also hot off the presses, a new imported budget box set brings together five of her classic albums, all of which we plan to feature as part of our coverage.

Emmylou Harris was inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 2008. She was the CMA Female Vocalist of the Year in 1980, and has won numerous Grammy’s. At her peak she was able to appeal to both country and non-country audiences without compromising her music, and she introduced new generations to artists like the Louvin Brothers. Even when I haven’t cared for some of her changes in direction, they were clearly rooted in her artistic vision rather than in the hunt for sales figures. During April we hope to share with you some of the highlights of the career of one of the most adventurous and significant artists in country music in the past 40 years.

Classic Rewind: Mark O’Connor and the New Nashville Cats – ‘Restless’ (ft Steve Wariner, Ricky Skaggs and Vince Gill)