My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Alison Brown

Album Review: John Cowan – ‘Sixty’

sixtyJohn Cowan is best known to country fans as the lead singer of New Grass Revival in the late 1980s, but he is a musician with broad tastes, and this latest solo album covers a number of bases.

‘The Things I Haven’t Done’ (featuring bluegrass banjoist Alison Brown) mixes bluegrass the country-rock of the 1960s/70s. The plaintive song looks back at a life’s choices. ‘Why Are You Crying’ is in similar vein, with an airy Cowan vocal, and is played by Chris Hillman, Bernie Leadon, and John Mcfee of the Doobie Brothers (who also produces). ‘Rising From The Ashes’ is a bit less memorable, but quite pleasant.

My favourite track is an inspired cover of the Marty Robbins’ hit ‘Devil Woman’. Cowan’s vocal is spectacular and I love this. His voice also soars on the beautiful ‘Feel Like Going Home’, backed by a melodic, churchy piano. A sultry Dixieland jazz version of ‘Miss The Mississippi (And You)’ works well and is something of a grower.

‘Helplessness Blues’ is a curious 60s style folk-rock number, with some weird sound effects and hippyish lyrics, but that soulful voice saves it.

The churchy gospel ‘Happiness’, featuring Sam Bush from New Grass Revival, and Bonnie Bramlett on vocals, rambles a bit but its questioning but soulful vocal is compelling:
Now that I’ve found peace at last
Tell me, Jesus, will it last?

‘Who’s Gonna Cry For You’ features Alison Krauss, but wasn’t what I expected from that collaboration, rather it’s a slow bluesy soul song with brass backings, with Alison barely audible. It was well done of its kind, but I was disappointed because I would have loved to have heard the pair of them on a high lonesome bluegrass song.

‘Sugar Babe’ is basically an instrumental with a few vocal spots inserted, allowing Cowan to showcase the playing of friends including Sam Bush, Ray Benson, John Jorgenson (from the Desert Rose Band) and rock harmonica player Huey Lewis.

This eclectic album is not quite what I expected, but it is beautifully sung and played, and I enjoyed it a great deal.

Grade: A-

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Album Review: Alison Krauss & Union Station – ‘Lonely Runs Both Ways’

lonelyOver the course of their career, Alison Krauss & Union Station have been both torchbearers for traditional bluegrass and trailblazers who have stretched the genre’s boundaries. 2004’s Lonely Runs Both Ways combines elements of bluegrass with folk, gospel and traditional country, but thankfully does not venture as far into mainstream pop as their previous album New Favorite did. By now, they had fine-tuned their approach of combining different musical styles, with Alison taking the lead on the more progressive, middle-of-the-road type songs, while Dan Tyminski and Ron Block tackle the more hardcore bluegrass numbers. The list of contributing songwriters will also be familiar to most fans, with Robert Lee Castleman, Jerry Douglas, David Rawlings, Gillian Welch, and Sidney and Suzanne Cox supplying much of the material.

The commercial success of AKUS has owed little to the support it received from country radio. The group typically releases three or four singles from each album, one of which usually reaches the lower rungs of the chart, while the others fail to to chart at all. Lonely Runs Both Ways is no exception. “Restless”, “Goodbye Is All We Have” and “If I Didn’t Know Any Better” were all released to radio, with only “Restless” enjoying some limited chart success, landing at #36.

The opening track, Robert Lee Castleman’s “Gravity” is pretty but a bit dull; it is my least favorite of the four Castleman compositions. I greatly prefer “Restless”, “Crazy As Me”, and “Doesn’t Have To Be That Way”, all of which are exquisitely sung by Alison. Alison truly shines, however, on the closing track “A Living Prayer”, written by Union Station’s banjoist Ron Block.

When it’s time for Union Station to kick up its heels, the lead vocal duties are primarily turned over to Dan Tyminski, who does a first-rate job interpreting classics such as Del McCoury’s “Rain Please Go Away” and Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty”. He also sings the lead on the uptempo “Crazy As Me”, one of Alison’s rare original compositions, co-written with Alison Brown. Ron Block sings the lead on his own “I Don’t Have To Live This Way”, and “Unionhouse Branch” is the obligatory instrumental Jerry Douglas number.

Despite a lack of radio support, Lonely Runs Both Ways climbed to #6 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and earned gold certification. The album doesn’t hold any surprises; fans of Alison Krauss & Union Station will not be disappointed, while those who don’t care for bluegrass will find little here to win them over.

Grade: A

Spotlight Artist: Alison Krauss

alison kraussFor many years bluegrass was seen as country music’s less commercial cousin, far less likely to cross over to a wider audience. Alison Krauss shattered many of these preconceptions in the course of her career. She has been met with acclaim from both critics and her peers. She has won 27 Grammy awards – more than any other female artist, across all genres; and sold millions of records, to both bluegrass fans and the general public. She was named the Country Music Association’s Female Vocalist of the year in 1995 and has been nominated on a number of occasions despite relatively little exposure on mainstream radio.

Born in Decatur, Illinois, on 23 July 1971, Alison’s musical gifts were apparent from an early age. A child prodigy bluegrass fiddler who was active in the fiddle contest world by the time she was seven, it was to be her beautiful singing voice which led her to fame as an adult. At 12 she and her bass-playing brother Viktor joined a bluegrass band then called Silver Rail, which was eventually to become Union Station. The group was then led by singer-songwriter/musician John Pennell, who became Alison’s early mentor and tutor in bluegrass history, and Alison began to sing as well as well as play fiddle.

She signed her first record deal with the well-respected acoustic label Rounder in 1984, when she was only 13, and released her first album in 1987. Her early work was rooted in traditional bluegrass, but from the first her records were notable for their inclusion of high-quality new songs – many of them written by Pennell. Throughout her career she has interspersed solo albums with band records featuring Union Station. Over the years Union Station has featured a shifting lineup of some of the finest living bluegrass musicians, including, at various times, banjo players Alison Brown and Ron Block, guitarist/mandolin player Dan Tyminski, and celebrated dobro player Jerry Douglas (the only one to get his own featured billing). The records Alison has made with her band are very much band records, with the guys taking their share of lead vocals.

In 1993 she became the first pure bluegrass performer in almost 30 years to be invited to join the Opry. Her undoubted abilities a fiddle player were soon to become almost secondary to her exquisite voice, and she became a frequent guest on country records when a particularly notable harmony was required. Her contribution to Shenandoah’s ‘Somewhere in The Vicinity Of The Heart’ in 1994 made it a top 10 hit. In the same year, she was invited to participate in a multi-artist tribute to Keith Whitley, and Alison’s enchantingly beautiful cover of his hit ‘When You Say Nothing At All’ began to receive unsolicited radio airplay, both alone and mixed in with Whitley’s original to create a duet. This unexpected success led to the single being officially released in 1995, and it reached the #3 spot on the country chart.

This breakthrough to the commercial mainstream was cemented by the repackaging of samples of her early work with some new tracks further removed from straight bluegrass, as Now That I Found You, also released in 1995. It sold two million copies – unprecedented for a bluegrass album, and Alison found herself welcomed within country music, winning four CMA awards that year: the Horizon Award for rising stars, Single of the Year for ‘When You Say Nothing At All’, ‘Vocal Event’ for the duet with Shenandoah, and, most surprisingly for an artist new to country radio, Female Vocalist of the Year.

Her music began to branch away from the more traditional styles she had recorded earlier. Her marriage to jazz guitarist Pat Bergeron (1997-2001) may also have encouraged her to widen her musical horizons. A further appeal to a broader public came when she was involved in the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou, the 2000 George Clooney movie which is credited with sparking new interest in bluegrass and acoustic music. Union Station’s Dan Tyminski sang Clooney’s part on the project’s ‘Man Of Lonesome Sorrow’. Alison’s music has been included on many other films and television programs, making her the most visible of today’s bluegrass artists to the wider public.

Her collaboration with Brad Paisley on ‘Whiskey Lullaby’ was another remarkable duet which gave Alison exposure on country radio in 2004. In 2007 her career took another surprising turn with her award-winning duet album and tour with rock musician Robert Plant. She has also produced albums for several artists, including Alan Jackson’s Like Red On A Rose.

We will be taking a look back at her career this month.

Album Review: The Gibson Brothers – ‘Help My Brother’

On what I believe is their tenth album, the bluegrass-singing brothers from rural New York state (Leigh and Eric) offer compelling tenor vocals with an edge and the kind of close harmonies only siblings can produce, fine songwriters with an ear for melody and the willingness to put the song at the center, and serve it sensitively with the right vocals and instrumentation for that particular song.

This album (their second for Compass Records) is produced by the brothers with their bass player Mike Barber. The excellent, and never overpowering, solid bluegrass backing comes mainly from the brothers’ band. Eric plays banjo and Leigh guitar, and the band is rounded out by Clayton Campbell’s fiddle (whose playing sings beautifully over the rhythmic instruments) and Joe Walsh’s mandolin, with Mike Witcher guesting on dobro on a couple of tracks. There is an interesting selection of material, just over half of it written by one or both of the brothers.

Leigh sings lead most frequently, but Eric sings lead on and wrote my favorite song, the wistful ‘Dixie’, asking Vegas era Elvis if he would go back to the innocent happiness of youth, “back before your hair was black, before they called you King”, and to the arms of his first sweetheart. It is immediately followed by the other song he wrote alone, the faintly Byrdsish ‘Frozen In Time’, which is less memorable musically, but has quite a quirky lyric about a quietly lonely man “living in the past”:

My clothes don’t fit the fashion of the day
That’s all right, nobody’s watching anyway

The vibrant title track, written by Leigh, is an idealistic declaration of changing one’s life to help others:

Call it compassion, call it charity
I call it living like living should be

Leigh duets with Claire Lynch on his own ‘Talk To Me’, a soothing song about a marriage in a little trouble due to lack of communication, but not beyond salvation, while Alison Brown takes over the banjo strings. My favorite of Leigh’s solo compositions is the closing track, the historical ‘Safe Passage’, about his ancestors, a Scots family who emigrate to Canada, whose son or grandson then fights in the American Civil War and settles on a farm in upstate New York. The story ends with the brothers themselves, having left the family farm for another kind of journey, for a life in music.

Leigh and Eric teamed up with Tim O’Brien to write the thoughtful and mature confessional of ‘Want vs Need’:

I want an encore, a standing ovation
A crowd that laughs at everything I say
I want a hit song that everybody’s singing
I just walk out to the mail to get my pay

But I just need my own song
One that I love singing
A simple song that takes me down the road

This reflection is inspired by a woman the protagonist has taken for granted, leaving, but overall the mood on this album is a fairly happy one. Even the extremely bleak lyric of ‘One Car Funeral’, which the pair wrote with Jon Weisberger about a man who has touched other’s lives so little he has no one to mourn his death, is married to a surprisingly cheery tune which keeps the mood upbeat. Perhaps this is the point: that this man has touched life so little that even the singer and musicians don’t care.

Alongside the new songs, there are several relatively obscure covers, my favorite of which is the O’Kanes’ country hit ‘Just Lovin’ You’ (#5 in 1987). There are also an enjoyable, slightly raucous take on Jim and Jesse’s ‘I’ll Love Nobody But You’, and a beautifully sung low key version of the religious song, ‘He Can Be Found’ (recorded by the Louvin Brothers on their classic Satan Is Real album).

Ricky Skaggs shares lead vocals and harmonies with the brothers on the new but very traditional sounding trio, ‘Working As We Rise’, which recalls the melody of ‘I’ll Fly Away’. I also really liked Chris Henry’s cheerful rambling song about ‘Walking West To Memphis’ to be reunited with a more sedate loved one, the kind who drinks lemonade rather than her lover’s choice of whiskey, but has a powerful enough attraction to drag him from his gambling ways, even if he has to walk all the way from Nashville.

This is a very good collection of material, sung and played beautifully, which grows with every listen.

Grade: A

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