My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Allen Reynolds

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘The Chase’

220px-GarthchaseGarth Brooks released his fourth album, The Chase, in September 1992. Produced as usual by Allen Reynolds, Brooks felt it was his most personal album to date. To date The Chase has been certified for sales of nine million units by the RIAA.

“We Shall Be Free” was the album’s lead single. Brooks was inspired to compose the track in the wake of the L.A. Riots, which were fueled by the beating of   African-American construction worker Rodney King. Brooks and co-writer Stephanie Davis covered many topics including freedom of speech, racism, and homophobia. Country radio resisted playing the highly controversial track, which peaked at #12. I’ve always loved the song, which is set to an engaging bluesy piano-heavy beat, and felt it topical without being preachy.

For the second single, Brooks and his label went with “Somewhere Other Than The Night,” a piano and lush string country-rock ballad that was the antithesis of “We Shall Be Free” and Brooks’ tenth number one. The lyric, co-written with Kent Blazy, details a woman desperate (‘She’s standing in the kitchen with nothing but her apron on’) for love and affection from her husband in the hours they’re not in bed together. The ballad is another excellent song; with Brooks turning in a master class vocal that expertly brings the woman’s despair to life with palpable emotion.

The third single follows the same pattern as the second, although the topics are completely different. “Learning To Live Again” is Brooks’ only single from The Chase he didn’t have a hand in writing. It details a man’s journey after a breakup, where feelings of isolation and alienation are slowly killing him. The #2 hit, co-written by Davis and Don Schlitz, is the closet single to traditional country, with ample steel guitar in the production. The track is a masterpiece of feeling, with Brooks once again allowing the listener to feel every ounce of the guy’s pain. It’s also one of my all-time favorite singles he’s ever released.

The final single returns Brooks to uptempo material, with a song inspired by the sweeping heartland rock of Bob Seeger. “That Summer” tells the story of a teenage boy, far from home, who’s working on the wheat-field of a ‘lonely widowed woman.’ She takes a liking to the boy, has sex with him, and he looses his virginity in the process. The track is another masterpiece, this time of delicate subtly, where the content is expertly handled in a way that gets the point across without explicitly saying anything raunchy or crude. Brooks co-wrote the song with his then-wife Sandy Mahl and frequent co-writer Pat Alger.

Each single from The Chase offered the listener something different yet showed Brooks skillfully tackling despair from both a man and a woman’s point of view. The album tracks proved more eclectic, with Brooks offering his own take on two classic songs. He turns the Patsy Cline standard “Walking After Midnight” into twang-filled bluesy traditional country while Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken” morphs into honky-tonk rock. Neither are essential inclusions on The Chase and somewhat puzzling. “Mr. Right” is classic western swing and a rare instance where Brooks solely penned a track.

Lush ballad “Every Now and Then,” a Brooks co-write with Buddy Mondlock, is more in keeping with the overall musical direction of The Chase and features one of Brooks’ more tender vocal performances. The track would’ve worked well as a single, but it’s a bit too quiet. Michael Burton wrote “Night Rider’s Lament,” a steel guitar soaked classic cowboy song previously recorded by Jerry Jeff Walker and Chris LeDoux. Trisha Yearwood adds stunning harmonies to the track.

“Face to Face” finds Brooks singing another Tony Arata tune and while the sinister vibe compliments his commanding vocal, the track really isn’t that memorable. A final tune, “Something With A Ring To It,” comes courtesy of Brooks’ The Limited Series box set from 1998. The mid-tempo western swing ballad was co-written by Aaron Tippin  and Mark Collie first appeared on Collie’s Hardin’ County Line in 1990.

The Chase came at a time when industry insiders feared Brooks’ career had peaked although the listener couldn’t sense that from the music. The singles that emerged from this set have remained some of his finest singles and while the album cuts range from uneven to questionable, he manages to give us at least one worthwhile moment (“Every Now and Then”).

Grade: B

Album Review: The Crowe Brothers – ‘Forty Years Old’

forty years old

Straddling the boundaries between traditional country and bluegrass, the close sibling Louvin-style harmonies of Josh and Wayne Crowe are always worth hearing, especially as the duo have a penchant for picking great songs. Their latest album is no exception.

A number of country classics given bluegrass instrumentation include the opening ‘Lost Highway’, written by Leon Payne but best known from Hank Williams’ recording. the Crowe Brothers’ version is excellent. I also enjoyed ‘Excuse Me, I Think I’ve Got A Heartache’, which is suitably plaintive, with soaring fiddle. The romantic ‘Send Me The Pillow’ is also nicely done, while a bluegrass classic ‘Don’t Let Our Love Die’ is beautiful. The pleasantly philosophical ‘Someday My Ship Will Sail’ is less well known, but the Allen Reynolds tune has been recorded in the past by Emmylou Harris and Johnny Cash.

‘I’ve Got The Moon On My Side’ was written by Tom T Hall and wife Dixie with Troy Engle. It has been released as a single for bluegrass radio. It has a perky feel as the protagonist takes comfort in the country moonlight while his ex lives it up in town. The quirky ‘Livin’ In A Mobile Home’ was written by country songwriters Rory Michael Bourke and Ronny Scaife. It celebrates a life on the road in a Winnebago, and is entertaining and memorable.

‘Green Fields Of Erin’ is about the Irish emigrant experience and the longing for home.

The more-or-less title track ‘You Turned Forty Years Old’ is an old man’s fond tribute as his beloved son reaches a landmark age, written by Steve Watts. A charming lullaby rhythm and melody make this very memorable as the protagonist reminisces about his boy’s childhood.

‘Where Will You Be’ is a gospel tune written by Wayne Crowe and delivered with good cheer. ‘Angel Mother’ is an old fashioned (in a good way) pure bluegrass tribute to a mother. The set closes with the rapid-paced ‘Two Feet On The Floor’, which is typical up-tempo bluegrass.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Marty Raybon & Full Circle – ‘This, That & The Other’

this that and the otherMarty followed up the excellent When The Sand Runs Out with a gospel record, What I Came Here To Do, and then 2009 saw the release of This, That & The Other, a generous 14-track collection which he recorded with his live band, Full Circle. While it is predominantly bluegrass, it draws also from his country and Christian influences. It was self-released, and initially only available at a high price from Marty’s website, which meant it got limited attention at the time. Marty didn’t write any of the songs, and a number of them are familiar, but the arrangements and vocals give them an individuality which is worth hearing.

He opens the set with a nice bluegrass cover of Joe Diffie’s exuberant ‘Leavin’ On The Next thing Smokin’’. At the other end of the album is a similar arrangement on ‘Any Ol’ Stretch Of Blacktop’, which was an early Collin Raye album track. Shenandoah also did a version as a bonus track on their first Greatest Hits collection, but it was never a single.

The much-recorded Dickey Lee/Allen Reynolds song ‘Everybody’s Reaching (Out For Someone)’ is prettily done with a sincerely delivered vocal, and it works well in a bluegrass context.

Perhaps the most unexpected cover is the rapid-paced and tongue-in-cheek Bobby Braddock-penned George Jones hit ‘Nothing Ever Hurt Me (Half As Bad As Hurting You)’. While Marty doesn’t sound as on-the-edge as Jones, who recorded it in his days of alcohol abuse, his performance is still very entertaining. The light but bright ‘Ain’t Love A Lot Like That’ was also previously cut by Jones.

His love of bluegrass gospel wasn’t forgotten here. ‘I Cast My Bread Upon The Water’ is a pleasant mid-paced song, but more memorable is the impressive acappella performance of ‘Didn’t It Rain, Rain, Children’.

On a more sober note, the downbeat ballad ‘Going Through Hell (To Get There)’ was written by Curly Putman, Dale Dodson and Billy Ryan. It is the thoughtful reflection of a man realising he is on the wrong path in life, beautifully sung and played, with some stately fiddle leading in:

I’m tired and weary
Got a heavy load
But I’ll find my way
With each prayer I pray
This road will lead
On a brighter day

Cause I’ve been lost out here
On this road to nowhere
I went through Hell to get there

On a similar theme, but handled more dramatically, ‘The Devil’s Ol’ Workshop’ is a great story song about succumbing to temptation and ending up with disaster, written by Larry Cordle and Larry Shell. Red Lane’s ‘Blackjack County Chain’ (recorded in the past by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, and also by bluegrass legend Del McCoury) offers another dark story song, about a man trapped into a chain gang by a dirty sheriff, and taking a bloody revenge.

‘The Immigrant Song’ (written by Billy Lawson) is a feelgood story song about a first generation American who marries a Cherokee girl and becomes the narrator’s great-great-grandfather, it has a Celtic feel reflecting its protagonist’s Scottish roots. On a picky note: Ellis Island, mentioned in the opening lines, only opened in 1892, which seems a bit late for the other clues in the song, but the song really works emotionally.

Marty goes Cajun with the lively ‘Luzianna Man’; the lyrics are predictable but the arrangement infectious. The up-tempo ‘Timber (Stand Back And Watch It Fall)’ is pleasant with a nice arrangement and great vocals but not very memorable. ‘You Get Me’ is a contemporary country love song written by Wendell Mobley and Neil Thrasher; it isn’t a great song, but Marty’s intensely soulful vocal lifts it to a higher plane.

This may be Marty Raybon’s most overlooked album, but it is very good indeed, with a lot of variety, and excellent vocals throughout. I recommend it to all fans of the singer’s voice.

He has since gone on to release a number of fine albums, and is currently signed to Rural Rhythm Records.

Grade: A

Album Review – Alison Krauss – ‘Forget About It’

Forget+About+It++1After reuniting with Union Station for the back-to-basics So Long, So Wrong Alison Krauss went solo for her 1999 effort, choosing to record an eclectic pop flavored album blending choice covers with newer material. As a result, Forget About It is one of Krauss’ most vibrant albums containing some of the most exquisite vocal performances of her career.

The album’s lead single marked her first time Krauss recorded a Robert Lee Castleman song, a songwriter who would become a go-to with at least one cut on each album she (and Union Station) would cut from this point onward. This first instance was the title track, an excellent mandolin drenched number displaying an upbeat disposition rare for the usually downbeat Krauss. She proves a revelation digging her teeth into a number that has more substance then first meets the eye. It’s one of my favorite moments Krauss has ever put on record. Country radio took notice as well, helping the song peak at 67 on the Billboard country singles chart.

Larry Byrom and Allyson Taylor co-wrote album opener “Stay,” a gorgeous mandolin and dobro soaked ballad detailing two reunited lovers. “Love’s taken you far, away from my heart, and I’ve been here all alone” Krauss sings with pent up pain, while also observing “Have your eyes failed to find, what took you from mine, a vision that’s faded through time?” The pair is worlds apart, but through it all she knows there’s a way to keep him around, if only he would meet her demands (“Darlin don’t turn away, don’t doubt your heart and keep us apart, I’m right where you are”).

“Stay” is a fantastic song if not for the conviction Krauss brings to her vocal, then for Byrom and Taylor’s perfectly nuanced story. Third and final single “Maybe” serves as a sequel of sorts, with the woman finally realizing the relationship is over. This revelation has her psyche in a better place, confidently declaring, “Maybe it’s for the best, I can live alone, I guess. Maybe I can stand alone, Maybe I’m strong as stone.” Another winner, “Maybe” succeeds on Krauss’ soaring vocal, a brilliant homage to Linda Ronstadt’s “Blue Bayou” that has her delivering the verses in near whisper while displaying the fullness of her pitch-perfect range during the chorus. “Maybe” is one of Krauss’ greatest achievements as a contemporary vocalist.

As if Krauss had anything left to prove after “Maybe,” she also recorded Hugh Prestwood’s “Ghost In This House,” a #5 peaking single for Shenandoah in 1990. Krauss’ version is divine with minimal production giving her impeccably controlled vocal the space to shine. In lesser hands this could’ve been a slow sleep-inducing effort, but Krauss draws the listener in with her choice to open the track a cappella and keeps the listener hooked throughout.

Forget About It closes with another country cover; Allen Reynolds oft-recorded standard “Dreaming My Dreams With You.” The quiet nature of the song is perfect for Krauss’ voice, and the beautifully understated production helps the listener appreciate Krauss’ reading of the timeless story about a person mourning the loss of their true love, vowing never to forget what they had together.

Another of my favorite numbers is a cover of rock singer Todd Rundgren’s “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference,” which maintains the song’s steady beat but is given a somewhat classier feel that allowed me to get into the story contained in the lyrics. Like the rest of the project the track is striking, with well-placed dobro accents assisting the melody by keeping the track from coming off as sleepy.

The most overtly bluegrass leaning track is a cover of Union Station bandmate Ron Block’s “Could You Lie,” which stands in contrast from the rest of Forget About It in that it features the heaviest dose of dobro. Jerry Douglas is given a bigger showcase here, acting as a main player instead of an accent flowing through the melody. Like the singles, “Could You Lie” also features a very pronounced chorus with her Union Station bandmates turning in harmony vocals. The more polished nature of the song also helps it stand out as one of the sets most memorable. It’s another personal favorite of mine.

Aside from soul superstar Michael McDonald and Michael Johnson’s “Empty Hearts,” one of the slower ballads, I haven’t spent any time with the remaining tracks on Forget About It opting to single out my favorite numbers on repeated listenings. That doesn’t mean they’re bad, however. Danny O’Keefe’s “Never Got Off The Ground” is a wonderful mandolin and dobro ballad, just like McDonald’s “It Doesn’t Matter Now.” “That Kind of Love,” a third song co-written by McDonald is a slower ballad about the importance of love and it’s good. It was featured in an episode of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer.

Forget About It may not be a landmark album in Krauss’ discography but it’s easily one of her strongest overall recordings thanks to an expertly chosen collection of songs impeccably produced and sung by the singer herself. Krauss is smart enough to mostly stay within her comfort zone, keep the songs from sounding alike, and avoid sleep-inducing production choices. If you’ve never listened to this set, I strongly recommend you pick up a copy. You won’t be disappointed.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell – ‘Old Yellow Moon’

harriscrowellAlthough the prospect of an Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell duets album seemed like an idea that was long overdue, I initially kept my hopes in check, having been disappointed, more often than not, by the recent output of both artists. However, Old Yellow Moon, which was released last week has more than exceeded my admittedly guarded expectations, and is in fact the best collection that either artist has released in quite a long time.

The album was produced by Emmylou’s ex-husband Brian Ahern, who produced her best work from the 1970s and early 1980s, and the songwriting credits read like a Who’s Who in country music featuring names such as Hank DeVito, Roger Miller, Allen Reynolds, Kris Kristofferson, and of course, Rodney Crowell himself. The first two tracks, DeVito’s “Hanging Up My Heart” and an excellent cover of Miller’s “Invitation To The Blues” sound as though they could have been left over from some of those 1970s recording sessions and recently discovered in the Warner Bros. vaults. Kristofferson’s “Chase The Feeling” sounds like an old Everly Brothers tune, and I also quite like “Here We Are”, which Emmylou had previously recorded with George Jones.

I was initially less impressed with “Black Caffeine” a bluesy tribute to the dark bean; it has grown on me with repeated listenings, though I still would not rank it as one of my favorites. I found “Spanish Dancer” to be rather dull. It is closer in style to Emmylou’s post-mainstream music than anything else on the album and is my least favorite here. “Dreaming My Dreams”, the oft-covered Allen Reynolds song made famous by Waylon Jennings, is reworked as a duet. The wear and tear on both artists’ voices is quite apparent on this track, but the seasoned vocals somehow enhance the song rather than detract from it.

“Bluebird Wine” is a Crowell composition that Emmylou recorded for her debut album, 1975’s Pieces of the Sky. This time around it is given an acoustic treatment with Crowell singing lead. The album’s most polished track is Matraca Berg’s “Back When We Were Beautiful”, which is given a simple piano arrangement. The occasional cracks in Harris’ voice add credibility to the tale of an old woman reminiscing about her youth.

Only a little more than two months in, it’s a little premature to be making predictions about the best albums of the year, but it’s difficult to foresee any circumstances under which Old Yellow Moon would not be on my list of year-end picks. I hope that both Harris and Crowell will do more of this style of music in the future.

Grade: A

Album Review – Kathy Mattea – ‘Willow In The Wind’

By 1989, Kathy Mattea was at the top of her commercial game. She was nominated three times at the CMA Awards in 1988, winning Single of the Year for “18 Wheels And A Dozen Roses” and scoring an album nomination for Untasted Honey but losing to then red-hot K.T. Oslin in her first foray in the Female Vocalist category.

Mattea followed the success with Susanna Clark and Richard Leigh’s “Come From The Heart” in early 1989. Set to an infectious mandolin centric beat; the tune quickly rose to #1 during its fourteen-week chart run. The song, previously recorded by Don Williams in 1987 and Clark’s husband Guy in 1988, features a well-known refrain:

You’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money,

Love like you’ll never get hurt.

You’ve got to dance like nobody’s watchin’

Unlike most songs from its era, let alone most music nearing 25 years old, the song is remarkable in that it doesn’t sound the least bit dated. That’s partly why it ranks high among my favorite of Mattea’s singles.

“Come From The Heart” was the lead single to Willow In The Wind, which saw Mattea once again teaming up with Allen Reynolds. This was a smart move as he kept the production clean and let Mattea’s voice shine throughout.

“Burnin’ Old Memories” came next and like its processor, peaked at #1 during a fourteen-week chart run. The song itself is excellent, but unlike “Come From The Heart,” it has aged considerably and the production, while ear catching, is indicative of its era and other sound-alike songs including Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “How Do” and Patty Loveless’ “A Little Bit of Love.” That isn’t necessarily bad, but it keeps the song from being memorable all these years later.

The third single turned the tide, however, and elevated Willow In The Wind to classic status. Although it only peaked at #10, “Where’ve You Been,” the love story of a couple (Claire and Edwin) culminating in the wife dying from Alzheimer’s, quickly became Mattea’s signature song. Written by Mattea’s husband Jon Vezner and Don Henry, the simple elegance of the tune made it a masterpiece, and the combination of Mattea’s touching vocal with the acoustic guitar backing elevated the track to one of the greatest (and one of my personal favorite) expressions of love ever recorded in the country genre (also, a must read article on the importance of the song can be found, here).

“Where’ve You Been,” one of my top two favorite of Mattea’s songs, was also her most rewarded. On the strength of the single she won her second CMA Female Vocalist trophy in 1990, as well as a richly deserved Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. Vezner and Henry took home CMA Song of the Year and Grammy Best Country Song honors as well.

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Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Untasted Honey’

The confidence engendered by the success of Walk The Way The Wind Blows enabled Kathy to follow the same path with its successor released in 1987. Allen Reynolds’s clean, crisp production marries tasteful rootsiness with radio appeal, and the songs are all high quality and well suited to Kathy’s voice.

Poetic lead single ‘Goin’ Gone’ headed straight to #1, becoming Kathy’s first chart topper. Reflecting Kathy’s folkier side, it was written by Pat Alger, Fred Koller and Bill Dale, and like her earlier hit ‘Love At The Five And Dime’, it had been recorded by Nanci Griffith on her The Last Of The True Believers. Kathy is a significantly better singer than Nanci, and her version of the song is quite lovely.

The second #1 from the album was ‘Eighteen Wheels And A Dozen Roses’, probably Kathy’s best remembered song and certainly one of her biggest hits. The warmhearted story song (written by Paul and Gene Nelson) has a strong mid-tempo tune and a heartwarming lyric about a trucker headed for a happy retirement travelling America with his beloved wife.

Singer-songwriters Craig Bickhardt and Beth Nielsen Chapman provide vocal harmony on both these singles, as they do on the title track, which Bickhardt wrote with Barry Alfonso. Here, a restless self-styled “free spirit” yearns for the wide open spaces,

Where a soul feels alive
And the untasted honey waits in the hive

It sounds beautiful, although the faithful lover left behind gets short shrift.

Tim O’Brien’s ‘Untold Stories’ made it to #4. An insistent beat backs up a positive lyric about looking past all the hidden hurts of the past in favour of reconciliation with an old love. O’Brien, a fellow West Virginian who was at that time the lead singer of bluegrass band Hot Rize, sings harmony and plays mandolin and acoustic guitar on the track, while The Whites’s Buck White plays piano. O’Brien also wrote ‘Late In The Day’, a highlight of the record with a downbeat lyric about late night loneliness, an acoustic arrangement and perfectly judged vocal. It’s the kind of song Trisha Yearwood would have done well with a few years later, and Kathy’s version shows just how good a singer she is, both technically and as a master of interpretation.

His contribution to the album did not end with these two songs, as he also duets with Kathy on Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet’s beautiful ‘The Battle Hymn Of Love’, a wedding song based on the vows of a marriage ceremony. It was belatedly released as a single in 1990, to promote Kathy’s A Collection Of Hits compilation, and reached the top 10. A slight folk feel is lent by both Tim’s vocal stylings and the use of hammered dulcimer in the pretty arrangement.

The album’s last official single (another to peak at #4) was the melancholy ballad ‘Life As We Knew It’. It is almost a prequel to ‘Untold Stories’ with its story of a woman packing up her things, filled with regret for the life she is leaving behind. It was written by Walter Carter and Fred Koller, and has a particularly beautiful, soaring melody. Jerry Douglas guests on dobro, and Tim O’Brien harmonizes again.

One of Kathy’s favorite writers, Pat Alger, teamed up with Mark D Sanders to write ‘Like A Hurricane’, which picks up the pace a bit. West Virginia references ad lovely instrumentation lift a well-performed but otherwise unremarkable song. The tender love song ‘As Long As I Have A Heart’, written by Dennis Wilson and Don Henry, has a pretty tune and acoustic arangement, and is very good. The delicately sung ‘Every Love’, co-written by folkie Janis Ian with country songwriter Rhonda Kye Fleming, offers an introspective overview of the nature of love, and has a stripped down acoustic backing featuring the harp.

Untasted Honey was Kathy’s best selling album to date, and her first to be certified gold. It is also a very fine record which stands up well after quarter of a century, and contains some of Kathy’s best work. It is available digitally, and can be found cheaply on CD.

Grade: A

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Walk The Way The Wind Blows’

1986’s Walk The Way The Wind Blows marked a turning point in Kathy Mattea’s recording career. Following two moderately successful albums for Mercury Records, it marked a major change in direction, both creatively and commercially. She cast aside the pop-country arrangements that had characterized her previous two albums and the stripped-down folk-flavored sound proved to be a good fit with radio during the then-fledgling New Traditionalist movement.

Mattea’s commercial fortunes began to change with the release of the album’s first single, “Love at the Five and Dime”, which included harmony vocals by Don Williams. It is notable both for being her first Top 10 hit, peaking at #3, and for gaining recognition for its songwriter Nanci Griffith. Griffith’s own recording of the song appeared that same year. The song’s success stands as a testimony to the remarkable era in which it was released; nothing about the well written story tune is, on the surface, particularly radio friendly, and it is unlikely that would ever have been a hit during any other era in country music. It most certainly would not be given much attention in today’s environment.

The upbeat title track, written by Tim O’Brien was selected to be “Love at the Five and Dime’s” follow-up hit. This one seems to be more in line with what radio is typically looking for, but it did not perform quite as well as its predecessor, peaking at a still respectable #10. Mercury chose another ballad as the album’s third single, the lovely “You’re The Power” written by Craig Bickhardt and F.C. Collins. Though it reached #5, this one doesn’t seem to be as well-remembered today as some of Kathy’s other hits, but it is beautifully performed and is my favorite song on the album. The album’s final single was “Train of Memories”, which peaked at #6, but was ultimately overshadowed by the bigger hits that followed it from Kathy’s next album.

The introspective “Leaving West Virginia” gives us a rare glimpse at Kathy Mattea the songwriter. The protagonist is heading for California rather than Nashville, but it seems quite possible that the tune is semi-autobiographical. “You Plant Your Fields” and “Up Grinnin’ Again” are the album’s two weak spots. They are not bad songs, and if included on any number of other albums, they might not stand out as the weakest tracks, but they don’t quite rise to the level of most of the other songs on the album. The album does close on a high note, with a cover of Rodney Crowell’s “Song For The Life”, which would become a hit for Alan Jackson eight years later.

Like its predecessor From My Heart, Walk The Way The Wind Blows was produced Allen Reynolds, who was probably most famous up to that point for his work with Crystal Gayle. He would continue to be Kathy’s producer for the rest of the decade before going on to even greater fame producing hits for Garth Brooks.

Though it was released over 25 years ago, Walk The Way The Wind Blows has held up exceptionally well. The production does not sound dated and the only clue to the album’s age is the fact that this type of music would not be considered commercially viable today. It is available for download and used CD copies can be purchased at bargain prices. It’s worth checking out if you missed it the first time around.

Grade: A-

Spotlight Artist: Kathy Mattea

Born in the heart of Appalachia in West Virginia on June 21, 1959, Kathy Mattea started singing bluegrass as a teenager and in 1978 dropped out of college to move to Nashville to pursue her country music dream. She found work singing songwriters’ demos, and the songwriter Byron Hill was sufficiently impressed by her voice to bring her to the attention of Mercury Records, who signed her to a recording deal.

Her early career gave no real indication of what kind of artist she really was. Her first two albums, 1984’s self-titled debut (co-produced by her mentor Hill), were solidly pop-country efforts with mainly up-tempo material which seemed radio friendly enough but which failed to make an impact at country radio. Moving to Allen Reynolds for 1985’s From My Heart was a step in the right direction, but the album was still mired in the pop-country sound then popular at radio in the years after the Urban Cowboy movement. Mercury kept faith with Kathy, and tried a third album, allowing a fundamental change of focus.

Adopting a more rootsy sound just as the neotraditional movement swept in proved to be a great move. Kathy’s folky sound was just distinctive enough to set her apart from her rivals, while her pure, clear voice shone through the less cluttered backing she preferred. Although she wrote relatively infrequently in her career, she has been a great picker of songs, frequently popularizing songs from left field songwriters like Nanci Griffith. It was a cover of Griffith’s ‘Love at the Five And Dime’ that catapulted Kathy into country stardom, as the song became her first big hit.

It was the first of a string of 15 straight top 10 hits over the next six years, including four chart-toppers. She won Grammies for her performance on the single ‘Where’ve You Been’ (written by husband Jon Vezner) and for her Christmas album Good News, which premiered modern Christmas classic ‘Mary, Did You Know’. She was also named CMA Female Vocalist of the Year twice, in 1989 and 1990.

In the early 90s she started branching out more artistically, including more folk, bluegrass and Celtic elements, and while her song selection remained top-notch, she drifted away from the mainstream. When the hits dried up and she left Mercury in 1997, she was soon picked up by another major label, MCA, but her sole album for that label, 2000’s The Innocent Years was disappointing.

A couple of independent releases followed before she really found a new impetus and direction for her career. In 2008 she released the critically acclaimed bluegrass concept album Coal, which paid tribute to the coal mining community she grew up in. Originally intended as a one-off project, it has in fact changed her approach to music, and she builds on that with her new album. Calling Me Home draws on folk and the Appalachian mountain music which fed the roots of early country music, and is out on acoustic specialists Sugar Hill Records on September 11.

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

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘A Dream Come True’

A Dream Come True was Rhonda Vincent’s second solo album, and also her second album for Rebel Records, a Roanoke Virginia label that already had a long and distinguished history of preserving and presenting bluegrass music.

Rebel certainly put their best foot forward with this album, assembling a fine cast of musicians to augment Rhonda’s usual supporting cast, with such great musicians as Jerry Douglas (dobro) and Roy Huskey (bass) plus some other guests appearing on selected tracks. Carl Jackson, Kathy Chiavola , Wayland Patton and Tensel Davidson provide vocal harmonies throughout the album.

The album opens up with “Kentucky Sweetheart”, an uptempo romp by bluegrass stalwarts Carl Jackson and Tony King. Blaine Sprouse plays fiddle on this track. The vocal harmonies on this track are somewhat reminiscent of those of the Osborne Brothers during the 1960s. “We Were Almost Like A Dream Come True” is slow ballad co-written by Larry Cordle, a very pretty and wistful song.

One doesn’t think of Pat Alger as a bluegrass songwriter and he isn’t. That said, “Lone Star State of Mind” definitely works as a bluegrass song. This song is performed at a medium fast tempo.

What would a bluegrass album be without a religious song ? The song chosen for this album is a pretty tune titled “Mama’s Angels” from the recently departed Charlie Louvin. Rhonda does a really nice job with this song. David Parmley provides the harmony vocal.

“Wishing Well Blues” is a wistful medium slow ballad which gives Rhonda some opportunity to show off her mandolin playing. “Just For Old Time’s Sake” is a vocal duet with one of Nashville’s finest voices in Jim Ed Brown. I really love this song – Jim Ed and Rhonda harmonize beautifully – and having the great John Hartford playing banjo doesn’t hurt either.

“Break My Heart” is a somewhat generic uptempo number, in that the song itself is nothing special. Rhonda and her cast sound just fine on this number.

Steve Earle and Jimbeau Hinson penned “A Far Cry From You”, a song which was a minor hit for Connie Smith. Today, Rhonda is one of the few vocalists I would compare to Connie Smith, but when this album was recorded in 1989, she was still developing her style. This is not a criticism as Rhonda does an excellent job with this song, but I think if she recorded it today it would be better still.

Jennifer McCarter and Carl Jackson penned “Love Without A Trace”. Jennifer McCarter was the lead singer of the McCarters, a sister act whose music harkened back to a much earlier style of music. This track is a bit more modern sounding than the music of the McCarters, but it has a lovely and intricate harmony arrangement reminiscent of some older musical styles. Blaine Sprouse plays fiddle on this track.

“Goin’ Gone” is another Pat Alger tune that Kathy Mattea took to #1 in early 1988. I love the arrangement on this tune with Blaine Sprouse and John Hartford doing their thing in a very tasteful manner. It’s a tossup as to whether I like this version better than Mattea’s version.

Allen Reynolds is better known as a producer for such artists as Crystal Gayle, Emmylou Harris and Garth Brooks, but he is also a talented songwriter and “Till I’m Fool Enough To Give It One More Try” is a nice medium fast tempo ballad that Rhonda handles to perfection.

Closing out the set is “Sundown”, an instrumental written by Ms Vincent herself. In recent years Rhonda has developed into quite an accomplished songwriter but at this stage of her career she was relying on others for material. This song provides a nice closing to the album and gives Rhonda a chance to let her pickers shine a little.

A Dream Come True is not Rhonda’s best album, but it is a very entertaining album and shows Rhonda as a recording artist of considerable promise. The powerful rafter-rattling vocals would come later as would her development as a songwriter and development of a sense of humor in her music, only hinted at here and there on this album. This was the first Rhonda Vincent album I purchased, the one that served to get me hooked on Ms. Vincent’s remarkable talents.

This album is somewhere in the range of B+/A-.

Album Review: Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers – ‘At The Ryman’

With her singles increasingly ignored by country radio as a new generation swept in, Emmylou decided to disband the Hot Band and make a new start. She launched the replacements by recording a live album, at the Ryman Auditorium, historic home of the Grand Ole Opry, which was at the time basically disused. One of the big tests of any artist who sounds good recorded is whether the voice holds up in a live setting. Emmylou Harris’s certainly does, and over her career she has released several live recordings. However, typically of Emmylou, she has never chosen the most trodden path and released a concert of her greatest hits, performed in close imitation of the records. Her 1981 album Last Date, which produced three hit singles including the #1 title track, had consisted of all new material (or at least covers she had not done before). It was not a true live album, though, as the tracks were taken from a series of live dates with her legendary Hot Band. This album, similarly, is not a single gig, but was recorded over three days, 30 April-2 May 1991, and released early the following year. Producers Allen Reynolds and Richard Bennett, and the engineers who worked on the project, deserve special credit for making the final result a seamless whole which sounds like an authentic representation of the experience of seeing Emmylou in concert with her new band.

The material is, once more, all covers of songs she had not previously recorded, mixing up country classics, bluegrass, folk and rock, given an acoustic makeover by Emmylou’s new lineup, the Nash Ramblers. The group, easily as talented as the Hot Band at their hottest and without the assistance of electricity, comprised progressive bluegrass virtuoso Sam Bush on mandolin and fiddle; Roy Huskey Jr on upright bass; West Coast veteran Al Perkins on dobro and banjo, Canadian Larry Atamaniuk on drums and percussion, and a talented young Texan named Jon Randall Stewart on acoustic guitar, mandolin and taking the high tenor harmony, although all four contribute vocals where necessary. Their playing and singing are impeccable throughout. The audience seems to enjoy the occasion rather politely.

For my money. the concert seems to take a while to get going, opening with an enjoyable but fairly sedate version of Steve Earle’s ‘Guitar Town’, followed by a plaintive ‘Half As Much’. ‘Cattle Call’ is prettily and tastefully performed, with delicate yodeling. The chugging ‘Guess Things Happen That Way’ (a Cowboy Jack Clement song made famous by Johnny Cash) is enjoyable, but sounds a little too cheery for the resigned stoicism of the lyric.

It really picks up with a subtly impassioned ‘Hard Times’, dating from the 1850s, which Emmylou opens with a crystalline accapella phrase, and which is one of my favourite tracks. There is more contemporary folk music on a socio-political theme with Nanci Griffith’s idealistic but frankly depressing ‘It’s A Hard Life Wherever You Go’, battling racism and sectarian hatred, segueing into the low key Civil Rights theme of ‘Abraham, Martin and John’, a 60s tribute to Messrs Lincoln, King and Kennedy, all of course victims of assassination. Emmylou also covers rock star Bruce Springsteen’s downbeat and down-tempo memories of a working class child remembering the ‘Mansion On The Hill’ overlooking the town and factories. I must admit would have rather have heard the Hank Williams gospel song of the title, as this is beautifully done, but feels a little lifeless. Southern rock gets a nod with an enjoyable take on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Lodi’, although perhaps it feels a little too good humored for the stagnated frustration expressed in the lyrics.

The bluegrass songs have a lot more life, with lovely, sparkling playing as Bill Monroe’s suitably Celtic sounding instrumental ‘Scotland’ allows the band to stretch out while Emmylou buck-danced with the Father of Bluegrass himself (this is where the video version, which I haven’t seen, would come in handy). The mood carries over into the charming western themed ‘Montana Cowgirl’. There is more Monroe with the driving ‘Walls Of Time’ which he wrote with onetime Bluegrass Boy Peter Rowan, which is okay. Better is a committed performance of ‘Get Up John’, with lyrics written by Marty Stuart and Jerry Sullivan for a Bill Monroe tune, with the Nash Ramblers singing call and response vocals.

Emmylou recalls her 70s peak with a really beautiful version of the wistful ‘Like Strangers’ (one of many Boudleaux Bryant songs made into classic Everly Brothers records, and my favorite track on the album). The spiritual ‘Calling My Children Home’ (co-written by another great bluegrass musician Doyle Lawson) is sung exquisitely acappella with the band members on harmony. I also love Emmylou’s version of the O’Kanes’ ‘If I Could Be There’, with Jon Randall Stewart’s ethereal high harmony; it sounds gentler and more wistful than the original (also great).

There is a nice finish with ‘Smoke Along The Track’ with effective train sounds and appropriate lyrics about moving on.

Sales of this fine record and the accompanying video were disappointing and airplay nonexistent, but the album won Emmylou a Grammy. It also helped to inspire interest in the neglected historic Ryman Auditorium itself, which was restored and reopened as a concert venue in 1994.The CD is easy to find inexpensively. The video was never released on DVD but unused copies of the VHS tape seem to be around.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘Cowgirl’s Prayer’

Often a new record deal presents the opportunity for an artist to go off in a different direction and explore new territory, but 1993’s Cowgirl’s Prayer is more of a transitional album in Emmylou Harris’ career. Her first release for Elektra/Asylum was once again produced by Allen Reynolds and Richard Bennett, and follows the same basic template of 1990’s Brand New Dance, using mostly stripped down arrangements and understated performances. As she had done in the past, Emmylou had members of her band and some marquis name guest stars perform on the record. Nash Ramblers members Sam Bush, Al Perkins, Jon Randall Stewart and Roy Husky, Jr., all made appearances, while Alison Krauss, Suzanne Cox, and Trisha Yearwood all contributed harmony vocals and Kieran Kane lent his guitar-playing skills.

Never one to blindly follow trends, Emmylou resisted the then-current fashion of releasing beat-driven, slickly produced and often too-loud music meant to appeal to those on club line-dancing floors. Cowgirl’s Prayer is largely a quiet affair, which, along with Emmylou’s advancing age (by Nashville standards) at a time when country music had begun to become youth-obsessed made the album’s chances for success an uphill climb. It was largely met with indifference by radio, which is a shame because it contains some of the best performances of Emmylou’s career.

The rocker “High Powered Love”, which is not one of my favorites in the collection, was the first to be sent to radio. It stalled at #63. “Thanks To You” , written by Jesse Winchester fared slightly worse, peaking at #65. In between these two singles, a cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Crescent City” was released, and it failed to chart at all.

I like the album cuts in this collection much better than the radio singles. Particularly good are a tastefully produced and beautifully performed version of the old Eddy Arnold and Cindy Walker Classic “You Don’t Know Me”, and “Lovin’ You Again”, in which Emmylou portrays the long-suffering lover whose partner is gone for long stretches of time but always turns up when he has nowhere else to go. The best track on the album is “Prayer in Open D”, which Emmylou wrote herself. It begins as an expression of sorrow and despair:

There’s a valley of sorrow in my soul
Where every night I hear the thunder roll,
Like the sound of a distant gun
Over all the damage I have done.
And the shadows filling up this land
Are the ones I built with my own hand
There is no comfort from the cold
Of this valley of sorrow in my soul.

But by the end of the song, the bleakness gives way to hope:

There’s a highway risin’ from my dreams,
Deep in the heart I know it gleams
For I have seen it stretching wide,
Clear across to the other side
Beyond the river and the flood,
And the valley where for so long I have stood.
With the rock of ages in my bones
Someday I know it will lead me home.

The track is mostly acoustic-guitar led, along with a tasteful string section arranged by former Hot Band Member Emory Gordy, Jr..

There is a spiritual theme throughout the album, from the title and “Prayer in Open D”, to “The Light” and “I Hear A Call” to the Southern-spiritual flavored “Thanks To You”, on which Trisha Yearwood sings harmony, to “Jerusalem Tomorrow”, which is the most unusual track in the collection. It tells the story of a faith healer in Biblical times, who is essentially put of out business by, and eventually becomes a follower of, Jesus Christ. It’s an interesting tale, but I’m not a big fan of songs that are spoken rather than sung, so this is the one track I tend to skip over.

Cowgirl’s Prayer charted higher on the albums chart than Brand New Dance (#34 for Cowgirl’s Prayer vs #45 for Brand New Dance), but it was largely regarded as a commercial disaster. It is primarily remembered as the catalyst that caused Emmylou to make an unfortunate, in my view, change in musical direction; her next release was 1995’s controversial and more rock-oriented Wrecking Ball, which began a 13-year era in which Emmylou’s music drifted further away from the traditional country for which she had become famous. Although 2008’s All I Intended To Be, was in some ways a return to form, Cowgirl’s Prayer remains the last of the old-style Emmylou Harris albums. It’s still easy to find at Amazon and iTunes and well worth purchasing if you missed it the first time around.

Grade: A –

Album Review: Trisha Yearwood – ‘Where Your Road Leads’

It’s somewhat surprising that Trisha Yearwood never had any major crossover success, considering that much of her material seems to have been tailored to appeal to listeners outside the country market. However, in an era when hits by her contemporaries Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Martina McBride were climbing the pop and adult contemporary charts, Yearwood’s success was strictly limited to the country charts. After five successful albums with Garth Fundis, she teamed up with Tony Brown, with whom she shared production duties on ten of the eleven tracks of her sixth release. The result, 1998’s Where Your Road Leads, found her mostly moving further in a mainstream pop direction, with a few play-it-safe nods to country radio.

The change in producers was barely noticeable in the first single release, the mid-tempo “There Goes My Baby”. Similar in style to her previous single “Perfect Love”, and virtually indistinguishable from much of Trisha’s work with Garth Fundis, “There Goes My Baby” climbed to #2 in May of 1998. It was followed by the somewhat overblown title track, which despite being hyped as “the” duet with Garth Brooks and produced by Brooks’ producer Allen Reynolds, “Where Your Road Leads” is a Yearwood vehicle, with Brooks solely in a supporting role and never taking the lead vocal. Written by Victoria Shaw and Desmond Child, it had less chart success than the previous Yearwood-Brooks collaboration, the prior year’s #2 hit “In Another Eyes”. Despite the obvious star-power of both both performers, “Where Your Road Leads” peaked at #18.

Yearwood returned to the Top 10 with the album’s third single, the fiddle and steel charged and somewhat fluffy “Powerful Thing”, which reached #6. Despite its lightweight lyrics, it is one my favorite tracks on the album. The fourth and final single release, Diane Warren’s “I’ll Still Love You More” appears to be an attempt to recreate the success of the previous year’s “How Do I Live”. However, “I’ll Still Love You More” is a bit too saccharine for my taste, and despite having reached #10 on the charts, it is one of the more forgettable hits in Trisha’s catalog.

Like the singles, the album cuts are somewhat hit or miss. The dreamy-sounding “Never Let You Go Again” is rather tedious and my least favorite song on the entire album. “I Don’t Want To Be The One”, written by Carole King and Irish singer-songwriter Paul Brady, is also a bit lackluster. The pop-leaning “Heart Like A Sad Song”, however, is a standout, as is my favorite track among the non-singles, “Bring Me All Your Lovin'”, written by Doyle Primm, Allison Moorer and Kenny Greenberg.

Overall, Where Your Road Leads is an uneven effort, dull at times, with occasional flashes of brilliance. It’s worth noting, however, that Trisha’s magnificent vocal performance often overcomes the sometimes mediocre material. Nevertheless, it doesn’t rank among her best work.

Where Your Road Leads reached #3 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart, and was the last Trisha Yearwood album to earn platinum certification. It is available inexpensively from third-party sellers at Amazon.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Jamey Johnson – ‘That Lonesome Song’

The chequered career of Jamey Johnson has been recounted many times by now. He started out with the sentimental hit single ‘The Dollar’ on BNA in 2006. The solid album of the same title (produced by the estimable Buddy Cannon) was a fine and under-rated record (with some flaws), but the label made a catastrophic choice of follow-up single, the stupid ‘Rebelicious’ (along the same lines as the worst song Jamey has ever been involved in writing, Trace Adkins’s horrible hit ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’). When this failed to chart at all, Jamey was dropped by the label, coinciding with the failure of his marriage, and he descended into a spiral of despair. The artistic legacy of this time was the body of songs which make up the magisterial That Lonesome Song and provided an unlikely comeback for Jamey.

The bad times inspired Jamey’s songwriting to take a new, devastatingly honest, turn. He was getting a number of cuts by other artists, ranging from the aforementioned ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’ to George Strait’s hit ‘Give it Away’. He recorded the bulk of That Lonesome Song on his own, with his band, the Kent Hardly Playboys, credited as producers, and released it himself digitally in 2007. Mercury Records’ Luke Lewis knew a good thing when he heard it, and signed Jamey to a new deal the following year, re-releasing That Lonesome Song with a couple of track changes.

Jamey was responsible for writing a dozen of the fourteen songs, the quality of which is consistently high. Jamey’s voice does not have the greatest range, but his rough-edged voice is capable of conveying real emotional depth, as he does to devastating effect on most of the songs here. The overall effect is of a man baring his soul to the world.

The moving ‘In Color’ became Jamey’s most successful single, peaking at #9 in January 2009, and winning various nominations as Song or Single of the Year. Beautifully constructed by Jamey with his co-writers, James Otto and Lee Thomas Miller, it was originally pitched to Trace Adkins, who generously relinquished it when Jamey signed his new deal. The deeply affecting story frames an old man’s recollections by having him showing old black and white photographs to his grandson, showing his childhood struggles in the Depression, the terrors of war service, and finally the happy memories of a wedding day, telling the boy how much more intense each experience was in real life:

And if it looks like we were scared to death
Like a couple of kids trying to save each other
You should’ve seen it in color

The emotional force of the song is gradually built up through the three stories. Radio-only listeners may have got a somewhat misleading impression of Jamey as an artist, based on this and ‘The Dollar’.

If the album has a fault, it lies for me in the sometimes self-indulgent snippets of talk and laughter between some of the tracks. It opens with the least objectionable of these, a slightly contrived introduction which purports to reveal Jamey released from prison, leading both literally and thematically into the outstanding ‘High Cost Of Living’, which he wrote with James Slater. While it was not directly autobiographical, the emotional underpinning of the story recounted here was undoubtedly inspired by Jamey’s descent following the loss of his original record deal and the failure of his marriage. Dark and uncompromising, this frank confession of addiction, sin and loss, and the hard price the protagonist ends up paying as he comes to realize,

The high cost of living ain’t nothing like the cost of living high

is extraordinarily intense, and one of the finest songs written in the past decade. With its reference to exchanging his home and wife “for cocaine and a whore”, this was always a risky choice as a single given the increasingly family-friendly nature of country radio, and although it charted briefly, it peaked at #34.

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Album Review: Patty Loveless – ‘Dreamin’ My Dreams’

patty loveless - dreamin my dreamsDreamin’ My Dreams was the last album Patty Loveless recorded for the Epic Nashville label before they closed shop. Some of their artists went to the Columbia Records roster.  Patty instead took a two-year hiatus from touring and recording before going the indie route, signing with Suguaro Records in 2008.  She has since recorded two albums for the label.  While this would be her last album for Epic, Patty delivered nothing less than a first-class set of songs, with some contemporary flavor, well worthy of radio airplay, as well as her signature bluegrass and rootsy album staples.

Though the lead-single, ‘Keep Your Distance’ is as good a track that’s been shipped to radio this decade, it failed to chart, and Epic didn’t release any follow-up singles. The single, written by Richard Thompson is a snappy number with some great guitar licks and a sing-along melody.

She slows things down with Lee Roy Parnell and Tony Arata’s ‘Old Soul’, my favorite track on the set.  The tale of a young heart who, after being hurt and down-trodden by life, is wise beyond her years.  The haunting arrangement and the ache in the vocal combine to make for a punch to the listener.

Laugh too little and you cry too much
Way too long without that gentle touch
Weight of the world resting down in your bones
Pretty soon you’ve got an old soul

Likewise, ‘Nobody Here By That Name’ is reminiscent of her 90s hits.  Smart lyrics, flawless vocals, and a strong-woman spirit underscore the melancholy lyrics. Listening to the song, it’s evident that this is another Tony Arata cut; it’s very much in his style, and he co-wrote this with Pete Wasner.

The album gets back to the tempo with ‘Same Kinda Crazy’, a jazzy-rocking number, later recorded by George Strait.  The tale of two kindred spirits is told with a ferocious vocal from Patty.  ‘Dreamin’ My Dreams With You’, the almost-title track was written by producer-extraordinaire Allen Reynolds.  The song has also recorded by Alison Krauss and Waylon Jennings, among others.

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