My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Alison Krauss and Union Station

Concert Review: Willie Nelson & Family and Alison Krauss and Union Station along with Kacey Musgraves

“That is the most random pairing of acts I’ve ever seen in one show together in my life”

300x_062014If not my exact words, that’s at least what I was thinking when I logged into Engine 145 Feb 10 to Ken Morton Jr’s headline – “Willie Nelson, AKUS announce co-headlining tour.” Why in the world would two seemingly completely different acts share a stage unless for a one off benefit show somewhere in Texas or Nashville? Well I didn’t get my answer June 17 at The Blue Hills Bank Pavilion on the Boston Waterfront, but I was treated to four hours worth of music across the span of three acts.

I was most excited about tour opener Kacey Musgraves, the only act on the bill I hadn’t previously seen live. Her thirty-minute set was short, and we came in while she was performing a perfect rendition of her live-your-life mid-tempo ballad “Silver Lining.”

She plucked away on the banjo during “Merry Go ‘Round” and tried to get the crowd going during the chorus of “Follow Your Arrow,” which worked surprisingly well. Both were good, but Musgraves stunned with “It Is What It Is,” wrapping her voice around the lyric brilliantly. She gave her underrated steel player a gorgeous solo – and an “I love Pedal Steel” shout out – that easily trumps the recorded version.

The main concern people have with Musgraves is her burgeoning friendship with Katy Perry, a move that could transition her away from country. But the set showcased her country bonafides wonderfully, from her naturally twangy voice to her love of western themes (trademark neon cacti). As proof, Musgraves and her band closed their set with a glorious a Capella rendition of the Roy Rogers classic “Happy Trails To You” featuring the refrain “Till We Meet Again.” I know I’ll be meeting her again, hopefully as a headliner, real soon.

Alison Krauss and Union Station were next, bringing their comforting bluegrass picking to the hungry audience. From the first notes of opener “Let Me Touch You For A While,” I was home. Their 90-minute set was spectacular, with Krauss wrapping her otherworldly voice around their signature songs – “The Lucky One,” “Every Time You Say Goodbye,” “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You,” to “You Will Be My Ain True Love,” “Sawing On The Strings,” “Ghost In This House,” and “Paper Airplane.”

While their set was familiar, it was heavy on uptempo material, which I found surprising, given Krauss is known for her ballads. It worked though, as a whole night of ballads would’ve been too much. Even more startling was Dan Tyminski’s heavier-than-usual role acting like a second lead singer more than just a band member. He ripped through many of songs he fronts including “Dust Bowl Children” and got a charge out of some venue workers with “Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn.” Krauss showcased her trademark wit when talking about “Hey Brother,” his collaboration with EDM mastermind Avicii and the mainstream exposure it’s afford him, including a prime spot over the speakers at Kohl’s stores. Tyminski played that, too, along with his classic rendition of “Man of Constant Sorrow.” He’s a great singer but his prominence was likely do to Krauss’ vocal troubles over the past year.

Her master Dobro player Jerry Douglas also got a solo, plucking away on covers including one by Paul Simon. He’s incredible and the obvious master of his craft. They closed their set with an encore highlight, gathering around in a semi-circle to gift the audience short snippets of “When You Say Nothing At All,” “Down At The River To Prey,” the chorus of “Whiskey Lullaby” and a fabulous take on “The Long Journey,” which Krauss recorded with Robert Plant. The inventive encore was the highlight, a surprise moment of magic. At this point, especially since they haven’t released new music in three years, Krauss and Union Station is a well-oiled machine, albeit an exquisite one.

It’s hard to believe Willie Nelson is a man of 81, when he sings and has the energy of men thirty years his junior. After the show a friend asked me if he still had the goods and with a resounding yes, he does. But really, does he sing well? No, he doesn’t. But much like Kris Kristofferson, that’s to be expected, as Willie will always be Willie.

Like most every other show he’s played, Nelson began his set just as expected, with “Whiskey River.” He has to be the oddest entertainer I’ve ever seen as he doesn’t take breaks between songs, instead he lets song after song bleed into one another so you don’t know where one ends or the next begins. It works for him as he bled “Crazy” into “Night Life” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” into “Always On My Mind.”

He also turned in fantastic renditions of “On The Road Again” and “Good Hearted Woman,” which he dedicated to Waylon Jennings. When he launched into “Beer For My Horses,” I didn’t recognize the song at first given how he’d changed it up, but the lyric caught up to me when he got to the “Pappy told my pappy” line in the second verse. I always love hearing him sing “Me and Paul,” and especially liked the all-too-appropriate line about him singing on a package show with Charley Pride.

Nelson had his family band with him, which included his two sons and sister Bobbie, who gave a nice piano showcase. His guitarist was introduced as simply as Johnny, and revealed late last week to be the actor Johnny Depp, who’s in town playing Mobster Whitey Bulger in the biopic Black Mass.

His son Lukas had a showcase of his own, ripping through the blues on “Texas Flood,” a nine minute set highlight showcasing his masterful guitar playing and powerfully aching booming voice. He later went more restrained and joined his dad for their recent duet “Just Breathe.”

As much as for his own material, Nelson’s set was a showcase for country music. He gifted us with three Hank Williams covers – “Jambalaya,” “Hey Good Lookin,” and “I Saw The Light,” all of which were outstanding. He turned “Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” into a chant, converting the word ‘mama’ into a deep-throated wail, which worked for a sing-along but became grating.

Nelson, who transported the crowd to a 1970s Texas honky-tonk with his unique outlaw sound, closed the show (and evening) with a sing-along that brought out Krauss, Union Station, Musgraves, and her band. With everyone on stage they went through the gospel favorite “I’ll Fly Away” and country standard “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” among others. It was fabulous he included everyone in this and it was a hoot to see Musgraves’ band in their flashy suits that light up like a Christmas tree.

All and all it was a fantastic evening of live music that left this Musgraves, Krauss, and Nelson fan extremely satisfied. Given that Rounder Records began in Massachusetts, it’s wonderful that Krauss gave a shot out to the people who signed her in 1985 – who also happened to be in attendance.

Now, could Nelson have sung “Poncho and Lefty” or “City of New Orleans?” Of course. Should Musgraves have been allowed to play longer? Hell, yeah. Did I want to hear Krauss sing a bit more? Without a doubt. But that’s just nitpicking a near perfect evening of exceptional music from three of the brightest talents country music has to offer. Just a terrific show, and wonderful evening, all around.

Album Review – Alison Krauss and Union Station – ‘Paper Airplane’

images2Upon its release in 2004, AKUS’s previous full-length album Lonely Runs Both Ways was criticized for being too safe and not taking enough chances. While no one can argue with the instrument that is Alison’s voice, the mix of slow balladry with flushes of Jerry Douglas’s masterful dobro picking may have been riskless, but when music was that well crafted, being risk-free was a mood point.

When they did finally return with a sampling of new music, on 2007’s A Hundred Miles or More: A Collection, they stuck with familiar tone but took more chances with subject matter. At the same time, Krauss turned in two of the most stunning vocals of her career on “You’re Just a Country Boy” and “Jacob’s Dream.”

“You’re Just A Country Boy” was a brilliant cover of the Don Williams classic that was far more orchestral then Bluegrass, but worked just the same. “Jacob’s Dream” is Julie Lee’s musical account of two brothers who perished in the mountains in the late 1800s, a heartbreaking true story perfectly nuanced for Krauss’ otherwordly ability to deliver a devastating lyric. Also included was the contemporary ballad “Simple Love,” a sweet number reminiscent of the Forget About It era and “Away Down The River” in which the project gets it’s title. Two duets with rock singer John Waite round out the new songs. A cover of his classic “Missing You” has Krauss veering into slick pop territory, while “Lay Down Beside Me” has Waite trying a typical Krauss ballad on for size. Both are excellent with the latter also coming from Williams’ catalog.

It also didn’t hurt that Alison spent the hiatus from Union Station teaming up with Robert Plant on Raising Sand, the best collaborative roots albums of the last decade. By reversing roles, producer T-Bone Burnett pushed both out of their comfort zones and pushed them to new heights.

The furtherance continues on Paper Airplane. The first single, the album’s title track, marks the return of the mandolin to AKUS’s sound, an instrument missing from both New Favorite and Lonely. This addition gives the tune a fresh flare helping to mark the next phase in their Grammy Winning career. With Paper Airplane Krauss and company exude a quite confidence and show they’re masters at their simple fussless sound. At a point when most artists lead with an overblown ego, AKUS scaled back to create their most cohesive collection of songs ever.

But AKUS is an Americana band at heart, a fact lost on their recent albums, which tended too far into acoustic country. Thankfully, though, they smartly avoid Bluegrass cliches (odes to coal mining, inane product placement) and keep from overwhelming even the casual fan with fast picking and sharp twang. Their Bluegrass is softer, far more adult than their contemporary’s, classier, and more pleasant on the ear.

Even when Krauss relinquishes the lead vocal to bandmate Dan Tyminski on “Dust Bowl Children,” “Outside Looking In,” and “Bonita and Bill Butler,” and  the album veers closest to traditional Appalachia, it’s modern charm isn’t lost. Tyminski softens his vocals compared to his solo work, and fits right in. With “Children,” though, he provides the only seemingly misplaced track, both vocally and lyrically, on the whole album. For those buying the record for Krauss’s vocal contributions alone, it comes a bit strange when Tyminski launches into his Great Depression era tune. In reality, it isn’t parculier at all, his vocal talents have been present on AKUS’s records ever since his journey to fame with “Man of Constant Sorrow” ten years ago, and the song fits in nicely with the album’s overall themes of misery and loneliness.

Paper Airplane is everything a contemporary country/bluegrass/roots record should strive to be. A fully-formed album, it executes a winning yet tired formula in a new light. All the required themes of an AKUS music project are present – heartbreakingly sad songs presented as ballads and sung exquisitely – yet the album feels more like a rebirth than a recession. It never rests on its laurels and surprises the listener around every bend. But what’s truly remarkable is when most singers do whatever it takes to get noticed, Krauss doesn’t sell herself out for the price of fame. She doesn’t work her butt off at chasing her youth but instead records songs from an adult woman’s perspective. She smartly acts her age without appearing matronly. Without being anything she isn’t, she stays true to her roots and shifts the focus off her and onto the music, where it belongs in the first place.

For a mainstream country/bluegrass release, Paper Airplane was one of the best records of early 2011. It’s confident without being cocky and masterful without being showy. It’s the perfect continue of their unparalleled legacy and a worthy addition to any music collection.

Grade: A 

Album Review – Clint Black – ‘Nothin’ But The Taillights’

Clint_Black,_Nothin'_But_the_TaillightsAfter the somewhat lackluster One Emotion Clint Black regrouped by issuing his first Greatest Hits album, an effort surprising for its poor representation of his debut album (only “Killin’ Time” and “A Better Man” are included) among other noticeable absences. It still managed to go double platinum and included two big hits – the guitar ballad “Like The Rain” (a favorite of mine) and somewhat aggressive “Half Way Up.” The former would be another #1 hit for Black in the fall of 1996.

He returned with a new album in 1997, previewing it with “Still Holding On,” a duet with Martina McBride. Co-written with Matraca Berg and Marty Stuart, the track served as the lead single for both Black and McBride’s new releases that year. It peaked at #11 and became Black’s first single not to chart top 10. I’ve always loved the song and consider it a nice slice of pop-country, even if it is a tad generic from two label mates looking to cash in on each other’s success.

The next three singles from Nothin’ But The Taillights helped to greatly reverse Black’s fortunes and became three of his most impactful hits since his debut album. Black and Skip Ewing co-wrote “Something That We Do,” a love song inspired by Black’s marriage to actress Lisa Hartman Black. It’s a beautiful song, albeit a tad long, and one of the most endearing professions of love since Alan Jackson’s “I’ll Love You All Over Again.”

“Something That We Do” may’ve peaked at #2, but his next two singles were chart toppers. The Steve Wariner co-written title track is an upbeat guitar heavy (and comical) wife-pissed-off song that was played to death in early 1998 to the point where I can’t even listen to it today. I don’t hate it, but the novelty has worn off. I have the opposite reaction to “The Shoes Your Wearin,’” which finds Black writing with Hayden Nicholas again. I love everything about this track, from the drums and electric guitars to Black’s vocal.

Black and Nicholas also teamed up for the next single, “Loosen Up My Strings,” which peaked at #12. Another thickly produced number; Black’s popularity likely benefited its chart run, as it should’ve been left as an album track. The neo-traditional-leaning “You Don’t Need Me Know” charted lower, peaking at #29. I don’t even remember it being a single, but it’s an excellent song with a refreshingly understated melody and vocal.

Of the album tracks, “Our Kind of Love” is a country/bluegrass tune with Alison Krauss and Union Station and “Ode To Chet” is a classic Black type song in tribute to Chet Atkins, which features fancy guitar work from Atkins himself, Dann Huff, Wariner, and Mark Knopler. Both are fabulous, although Black could’ve benefited from giving a more restrained vocal on the collaboration with Krauss. It’s beautiful melody but he comes on a bit too strong for it all to be fully appreciated. “That Something In My Life” is also very strong while “You Know It All” and “Bitter Side of Sweet” are the album’s two weakest offerings.

Nothin’ But The Taillights really is the project that put Black back on top. Not since his debut had he experienced such impactful signature hits has he does here. I really enjoy this period of Black’s career as this is when I started following and enjoying his music as a kid. If Killin’ Time was Black’s neo-traditional masterpiece, Nothin’ But The Taillights marked his highest artistic achievement in pop and even somewhat rock country.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Alison Krauss and Union Station – ‘I’ve Got That Old Feeling’

A vintage performance from 1991:

Spotlight Artists: Female Singer-songwriters

For our March spotlight, we’re taking a look at four distinct country songwriters who all, at one point or another, found themselves on the cusp of stardom when they scored major label deals. None would be superstars in their own right, but their songs would be turned into some of the greatest country records of the last thirty years by some of the best female (and sometimes male) voices the genre has to offer.

In celebration of the release of Gretchen Peters Hello Cruel World and Matraca Berg’s The Dreaming Fields we’re taking a look at:


Nanci Griffith

Nanci Griffith’s life hasn’t been without its struggles. Born Nanci Caroline Griffith on July 6, 1953 in Seguin, Texas, she suffered a tragic loss when her boyfriend was killed in a motorcycle accident the night of their senior prom. His loss forever altered her life and became a big inspiration to her songwriting. Griffith has since survived both breast (1996) and Thyroid (1999) cancer.

As an artist, she released her debut album There’s A Light Beyond These Woods in 1978.  She would release four albums (none of which charted) before Kathy Mattea brought her fame after her version of Griffith’s “Love At The Five and Dime” peaked at #3 in 1986.

This success led to a deal with MCA Records. Lone Star State Of Mind was released in 1987. The title track would peak at #36 and the album would peak at #23. Tony Brown would also produce the follow-up, Little Love Affairs, released in 1988. It would also chart, although not as successfully. Griffith’s deal with MCA would span just three more albums, two (One Fair Summer Evening and Storms) of which charted quite low.

The 1990s would bring further success. Suzy Bogguss had a #9 peaking hit in 1992 with “Outbound Plane,” a song Griffith co-wrote with Tom Russell. In 1994, Griffith won her first (and only) Grammy award, Best Contemporary Folk Album for Other Voices, Other Rooms; a collection of songs that inspired her.

Griffiths has a new album, her first since 2009’s The Loving Kind. Although not yet released in the United States, Intersection is available in the UK.

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2012 Grammy predictions

The Grammy awards are probably the world’s most prestigious cross-genre awards in the word of music, although within country music the CMA and ACM awards hold greater weight. The significance of the Grammies has been further affected this year with the contraction in the number of categories of interest to country fans. But awards shows offer a way of taking stock once every few months regarding the genre as a whole, particularly the more mainstream end. In a few days, we’ll learn who has won this year’s awards. In the meantime, here are our predictions:

Best Country Solo Performance

This new category combines the former nods to performances by male and female vocalists.

‘Dirt Road Anthem’ – Jason Aldean
‘I’m Gonna Love You Through It’ – Martina McBride
‘Honey Bee’ – Blake Shelton
‘Mean’ – Taylor Swift
‘Mama’s Song’ – Carrie Underwood

Razor X: I can’t remember the last time I came across a more underwhelming list of nominees. “Honey Bee” is the only one on the list that I can tolerate, but it doesn’t seem like the sort of song that usually wins Grammys. I think Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood are the two real contenders here; I’ll predict that Underwood will win.

Occasional Hope: A remarkably uninspiring lineup in this category. I suppose by default my vote (if I had one) would have gone to Blake Shelton. Carrie Underwood’s song is well-meaning but bland; Martina McBride’s is the epitome of emotional manipulation; Jason Aldean’s record is horrible; and Taylor Swift’s song has nice production for once, but the lyric collapses into juvenile namecalling (and I’m afraid I’m still unimpressed by her vocal ability). That leaves Blake Shelton with a slight but not unlistenable song, making it my lukewarm favorite by default. Who will actually win it? The Grammy voting pool is a bit different from the specialist country awards shows, so I’m going to predict Taylor Swift as although Aldean has had a big breakthrough over the past couple of years, I think his lack of cross-genre name recognition will limit his appeal to voters. He, Swift and Blake Shelton all have performance slots on the show (Blake as part of a Glen Campbell tribute and Jason Aldean revisitng his duet with Kelly Clarkson), which could be an indication that the battle is between these three.

Jonathan Pappalardo: It seems as though the Grammy organization can’t win. If they go by artistic merits they’re deemed out of touch with reality. If they go with what’s popular, they’re deemed too mainstream. For my tastes these nominees are awful. There isn’t a song here I can get excited about, apart from Taylor Swift’s “Mean.” If she has to win an award this year, let it be this one.

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Album Review – Vince Gill – ‘High Lonesome Sound’

After the success of When Love Finds You Gill spent 1995 looking back through his greatest hits compilation Souvenirs. He ranked up even more industry awards when the project’s duet with Dolly Parton, “I Will Always Love You” won the CMA Vocal Event of the Year award in 1996, the same night he memorably won Song of the Year for “Go Rest High On That Mountain.”

But Gill didn’t spend long relishing the past. He released his eighth album High Lonesome Sound in May 1996 with producer Tony Brown at the helm. While the singles were some of Gill’s best, the album suffered from a substantial amount of sub-par filler unworthy of his talent.

There were five singles released from the project, with four cracking the top 5. The title tracks lead the way, peaking at #12 in mid-1996. Written solely by Gill, it’s one of his most enjoyable up-tempo singles. I love the opening lead guitar riff and the fully engaged vocal performance. It’s a shame the song didn’t make a bigger impact and I never knew it even was a single until a few years ago. The Bluegrass version, a duet with Alison Krauss and Union Station that closes the album, is just as good as the country one, proving why Gill is one of the most outstanding of all 90s country acts.

Second single “Worlds Apart” fared better, hitting #5, a remarkable feat for a slow ballad clocking in at well over four and a half minutes in length. Composed by Gill and Bob DiPiero, it’s the centerpiece of High Lonesome Sound and social commentary at its finest. He makes keen observations here about the ugliness of hate and the beauty of love without seeming preachy. Mixed with a dark yet understated arraignment of soft drums and gentle guitar, it’s one of Gill’s finest singles and holds up next to any of his classic ballads. It rightfully won him a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance.

I vividly remember “Worlds Apart” and until recently never really understood the meaning of the song. At 9 years old, I wasn’t advanced enough to understand Gill’s message, but I fully understood his conviction. It remains one of my favorites of his singles to this day.

Gill solely wrote the album’s next three singles, which peaked at #2, #2, and #8 respectively. The ballad “Pretty Little Adriana,” released in October of 1996 lead the way. The painful true story of a girl abducted and murdered in a grocery story parking lot, it was composed as a tribute in her memory. Sonically, it’s my favorite single from the album. I love the gentle arraignment and even though it was born from a tragic story, “Pretty Little Adriana” is a beautiful song and fitting tribute to Adriana’s memory. It also won Gill a Best Male Country Vocal Performance Grammy award.

The fourth single, “A Little More Love” broke the heavy emotion set by the previous two. Essentially a fluff piece, it has a sing-along melody that gives the track an effortless charm. Gill doesn’t strive for anything more than a ditty here and he succeeds. It’s easy to forget he can just as easily turn on the charm as he can kill you with a powerful lyric.

The fifth and final single, “You and You Alone” returned Gill back to his comfort zone and was another ballad. Released in July of 1997, it featured another stunning vocal and I love how he used his upper register on the chorus to elevate the song to new heights. The beautiful opening with the distinctive guitar work gets me every time. It’s always a treat when I get to hear this song again.

If High Lonesome Sound was just the five singles, I would easily give the album an A. While they are largely ignored today, they remain some of Gill’s finest work. I just wish the rest of the album met that high a standard.

For me only “Jenny Dreamed of Trains,” with its unnecessary instrumental opening, and “Given More Time,” are worthy of Gill’s standards. “Trains” is a sweet tale Gill wrote about his eldest daughter and I love the traditional arrangement of “Time.”  Both of these could’ve been singles, but held against the five that were it’s easy to see why they were overlooked.

On the flip side, I hate “Down In New Orleans,” a bluesy ballad made insufferable by the annoying background vocalists who serve as a distraction drowning out Gill’s vocal. And while they’re tolerable, both “One Dance With You” and “Tell Me Lover” don’t seem to gel with the emotional undertones set by the rest of the project.

As an album High Lonesome Sound is an example of recording five outstanding singles and then filling the rest of the project with filler. I was disappointed that the non-singles displayed so little of the artistry Gill has proven he’s so apt at. It feels to me like this is two albums trying and not succeeding to come together as one. If the album tracks came up to the standard of the singles, this would’ve been truly outstanding. Luckily for Gill, though, High Lonesome Sound isn’t close to being his worst album, I just wish it’d been one of his best.

High Lonesome Sound is available in hard copy from Amazon and digitally from both Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: B+