My Kind of Country

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Album Review: Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer – ‘Not Dark Yet’

In the summer of 2016, under the direction of Richard Thompson’s son Teddy, Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer entered a studio in Los Angeles and made good on a promise to one day record a collaborative album. The result, Not Dark Yet, is a ten-track collection of eccentric covers and one original tune.

The songs span genres, from classic country to rock and even grunge. The album, though, has a unifying sound, with Thompson using flourishes of piano and guitar to bring the tracks together. These aren’t by-the-numbers faithful interpretations, but rather the sisters’ take on these songs.

They open Not Dark Yet with “My List,” solely penned by Brandon Flowers and featured on The Killers second album Sam’s Town in 2006. Their version begins sparse, led by Moorer’s naked vulnerability, before unexpectedly kicking into gear halfway.

The title track was written and released by Bob Dylan in 1998, from Time Out Of Mind. Moorer is a revelation once again, with the perfect smoky alto to convey the despair lying at the center of Dylan’s lyric.

As one might expect, the album explores the feelings surrounding the horrific death of the sisters’ mother, at the hands of their father, who then turned the gun on himself. They were teenagers at the time, a period in one’s life where you arguably need your parents the most. They acknowledge their heartbreak with a trifecta of songs, culminating with the album’s sole original tune, which they composed themselves.

They begin with Nick Cave’s “Into My Arms,” the lead single from his 1997 album The Boatman’s Call. The song, which proves the benefit of turning to rock for expert lyricism, is about a man’s devotion to his woman and the push to bring them together. Lynne and Moorer continue with Kurt Cobain’s “Lithium,” from Nirvana’s 1992 masterpiece Nevermind. The dark ballad, which they make approachable, details the story of a man turning to God amidst thoughts of suicide.

The most personal, “Is It Too Much” was started by Lynne and finished by Moorer. The track details the bond they share as sisters, knowing each other’s pain, and wondering – is it too much to carry in your heart? It’s also one of the album’s slowest ballads, heavy on bass. I’m not typically drawn to these types of songs but they manage to bring it alive.

The remaining five tracks have ties to country music and thus fall more within my expertise. “Every Time You Leave” was written by Charlie and Ira Louvin and released in 1963. The backstory is a tragic one – Ira wrote this for his wife, saying that although they would eventually get back together, their separation was inventible. The wife he was married to at the time, his third, would also shoot him five times after a violent argument. It’s no wonder the pair feel a connection to the song, which they brilliantly deliver as a bass and piano-led ballad.

“I’m Looking for Blue Eyes,” written and recorded by Jessi Colter, was a track from Wanted! The Outlaws in 1976. Lynne and Moorer’s version is stunning, even if the pedal steel is just an accent and not a major player throughout.

Two of the album’s songs first appeared in 1969. “Lungs,” written by Townes Van Zandt, was featured on his eponymous album. The pair interpret the song nicely, which has a gently rolling melody. The album’s most famous song, at least to country fans, is Merle Haggard’s classic “Silver Wings,” which first appeared on Okie From Muskogee. Their version is slightly experimental but also lovely.

The final song is arguably the most contemporary. “The Color of a Cloudy Day” was written by Jason Isbell and is a duet between him and his wife Amanda Shires. The song first appeared at the close of the British documentary The Fear of 13 and was given a proper release as part of Amazon’s “Amazon Acoustics” playlist in 2016. Moorer and Lynne give the song a bit more pep, which isn’t hard given the acoustic leanings of Isbell and Shires’ duet.

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but Not Dark Yet is considered one of the most anticipated roots releases of the year. It’s a beautiful album, and while it won’t be within everyone’s wheelhouse, it’s difficult not to appreciate just how brilliant Lynne and Moorer are as a pair. They are two of our finest voices and have an exceptional ear for song selection. I don’t usually have trouble grading albums, but Not Dark Yet is hard record for which to assign a grade. It might not be completely my cup of tea, but I can’t ignore how expertly it was crafted.

Grade: A

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Album Review: Hayes Carll – ‘Lovers And Leavers’

lovers and leaversTexan singer-songwriter Hayes Carll’s new album sees him taking a more personal turn as he reflects on his experiences of fatherhood and divorce, and finding new love .

‘Drive’ (written with Jim Lauderdale) opens the album, painting the picture of a man without roots or a destination in mind:

Burning up your life
Oh, it’s some place else to go
Just drive, drive, drive
Round and round
A Colorado town
Like a mustang in the mountains
You’re too wild to settle down
Sing your song
Throw your hammer in the air
Burning both ends of that candle
And pretend that you don’t care

The bluesy ‘Sake Of The Song’, whose title and vocal delivery both draw comparison with the Townes Van Zandt classic, is a co-write with Darrell Scott. It is about the musician’s true motivation: not stardom but the song itself.

If you’re nobody’s business
Or you’re front page news
Folk, rock, country or Delta blues,
Tell your truth however you choose
And do it all for the sake of the song

Yeah, hitchhike, and bus ride, and rental car
Living rooms, coffee house, and rundown bars
Ten thousand people or alone under the stars
It’s all for the sake of the song

There’s the man who wrote “Your Cheatin’ Heart”
Now he’s lying through his tooth
And he plays it on a stolen harp,
That’s soaked in a hundred proof…

And there’s the young man on the marquee
He’s the son of someone well known
And his father bought the two of us
So he could strike out on his own…

And there’s the mystic,
And there’s the legend
And there’s the best that’s ever been
And there’s the voice of a generation
Who won’t pass this way again
And there’s record deals and trained seals
And puppets on a string
And they’re all just trying to figure out
What makes the caged bird sing

My favourite song is the country lament about a failed relationship, ‘Good While It Lasted’, which Carll wrote with Will Hoge:

I smoked my last cigarette
I drank my last drop
Quit doing all the things
I swore I’d never stop
I changed my direction
Sang a different tune
Gave up all those childish ways
That made me old too soon
Things were going good there for a while
I tried to straighten out the crooked road that I was on


We both said forever
Forever till the end
Forever’s something different
To a lover and a friend
We thought we had it all there for a while
Just like that perfect moment
Before the darkness turned to dawn
It was good while it lasted
But it didn’t last too long

‘You Leave Alone’ is a melancholic but sympathetic story song or portrait in song, of a dreamer who “never went nowhere”.

The dissolute-sounding ‘My Friends’ pays tribute to the support of old friends, and has some interesting lines, but musically it’s a bit of a mess and he sounds as if he recorded it drunk. It is the closest thing here to the more raucous sound he has produced in the past, and on this showing it’s a good thing he appears to have moved away from it.

‘The Love That We Need’ was written with the artist’s new love interest, Allison Moorer, and fellow Texan Jack Ingram, and offers rather a bleak look at a passionless relationship. ‘Love Don’t Let Me Down’, the song from which the album’s title is drawn, displays the protagonist’s vulnerability but offers a gleam of hope for happiness. The pleasant mid-tempo ‘Love Is So Easy’ is a slightly quirky love song.

‘The Magic Kid’ is a tender description of Carll’s young son, a talented conjuror, and of the courage of innocence. The delicate ‘Jealous Moon’ ends the album on a poetic note.

This album marks a maturing of Carll as an artist, and I was very impressed. While he’s not the greatest of vocalists, he gets his songs across adequately, and the song quality is what matters here.

Grade: A

Spotlight Artist: Buddy Miller

buddy millerAnyone whose resume’ includes a spell leading Emmylou Harris’s backing band is going to be a great musician (just think of alumni like Rodney Crowell and Ricky Skaggs), and this month’s spotlight artist is no exception. Born in Ohio in 1952, where his father was serving in the Air Force, Steven “Buddy” Miller was raised in New Jersey, where he started out playing stand-up bass in his high school bluegrass band. He is now best known for his brilliant guitar playing – and, of course, for his songwriting and production, as well as being an artist in his own right.

He met future wife and musical partner Julie Griffin (born in 1956) in Austin, Texas, in 1975 when he joined Rick Stein & the Alleycats, a band of which she was a member (she was a dissenting voice). They subsequently moved together to New York and formed the Buddy Miller Band. Julie’s personal journey led her to leave the band (in which she was replaced by singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin), and she returned to Texas. Buddy followed her, and he and Julie married in 1981, and lived for periods in Texas, Seattle and California before eventually settling in Nashville in 1993.

streetlightJulie was now set on a career in Christian music. The band Streetlight, which featured Buddy, Julie and one other man, released a six-track Christian contemporary EP in 1983 for the Sparrow label. Julie, a distinctive vocalist and excellent songwriter, began making solo records in 1990, still as a Christian artist. Her solo career slowed after she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, with no new solo recordings since 1999, but she has continued to work with Buddy, and they have recorded several duet albums.

Buddy and Julie found congenial musical company in Nashville, and their songs have been covered by many country, Americana and other artists. Buddy found work playing on sessions, and discovered a gift for producing. He has built a recording studio in his Nashville home, and has been acclaimed for his production work on records by Allison Moorer, Patty Griffin, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, soul singer Solomon Burke, and Ralph Stanley. He served as music director for the second and third seasons of the TV drama Nashville.

In c.1995 Buddy became the guitar player for Spyboy, the trio Emmylou formed to support her tour promoting her Wrecking Ball album, and he stayed with her for eight years. He has also toured in the bands of Steve Earle, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. In 2008-9 he took front stage alongside Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin and Shawn Colvin on the Three Girls And Their Buddy tour, interrupted by a heart attack from his fortunately made a full recovery.

Alongside his sidesman and studio duties, Buddy began recording his own music in 1995 with Your Love And Other Lies. He has interspersed solo records with duet projects with wife Julie, and one with old friend Jim Lauderdale. Buddy’s latest project, Cayamo Sessions At Sea, was released last Friday, with a host of guest stars, and we are delighted to be spending February focussing on his music here.

Classic Rewind: Allison Moorer – ‘Send Down An Angel’

Classic Rewind: Allison Moorer ft Shelby Lynne – ‘Bring Me All Your Lovin”

Classic Rewind: Allison Moorer – ‘Pardon Me’

Album Review: Allison Moorer – ‘Down To Believing’

down to believingAllison Moorer’s first release since the end of her marriage to Steve Earle is filled with personal songs inspired by her life. She has long since left country music behind, and this is effectively genreless singer-songwriter fare.

There are a few tracks I really liked. The title track is a pretty, delicate ballad with a dreamlike feel about the final stages of the relationship:

Comin’ down wasn’t easy but we tried our best
Said we used it up and didn’t put any back
Now you look so surprised ‘cause there ain’t none left
And we’re just empty hearted and sad

I guess it comes down to believing and whether we do or we don’t
Guess it comes down to stayin’ or leavin’ and whether we will or we won’t

A haunting steel guitar adds to the melancholic mood, although the song’s structure is not conventionally country.

‘If I Was Stronger’ is a lovely sounding thoughtful piano-led ballad about the wearying effect of a bad relationship with no communication:

Wish there was something in my heart to give you
But I’ve felt around and nothing’s left
I’ve tried to dig deeper but I’ve hit the bottom
I got to let go and save myself…

I’m tired of talking cause you just ain’t giving
You turn away each time I speak
Now my soul is weary, threadbare and broken
And arms that were open feel so weak

If I was stronger I’d hold on longer
I’d be your saviour and I’d stay

‘Gonna Get It Wrong’ is another excellent song, stripped down both musically and emotionally, about surviving failure.

‘Blood’, inspired by Allison’s relationship with sister Shelby, offers a more positive view of love, and is pretty good. ‘Wish I’ isn’t bad, although the instrumental backing is a little overwhelming. Allison’s cover of John Fogerty’s ‘Have You Ever Seen The Rain?’ is nicely sung but doesn’t really add anything to the song.

Of the tracks I really didn’t care for, ‘Like It Used To Be’ is angry, flat and lacking in melody. ‘I Lost My Crystal Ball’ has more life but is not for me. ‘Thunderstorm/Hurricane’ is more subdued in parts, but Allison’s voice sounds strained in others and I really disliked the rock backings. However, it was not the worst track for me – that was the very repetitive and pop sounding ‘Back Of My Mind’, which sounds like something Taylor Swift would do.

‘Mama Let the Wolf In’ was inspired by her autistic five year old son and is too loud and repetitive for my taste, but it has a certain power. ‘Tear Me Apart’ has a hypnotic rhythm which grabs the attention, although again it’s not the kind of thing I would choose to listen to. ‘I’m Doing Fine’ is just rather dull.

It’s hard to judge an album like this fairly, because while it is a strong artistic statement it doesn’t pretend to be a country record (notwithstanding the occasional use of steel guitar). Just because I don’t like a lot of it doesn’t make it bad per se – but I can’t honestly recommend something I don’t much like beyond a few tracks.

Grade: B-

Classic Rewind: Allison Moorer – ‘Alabama Song’

Classic Rewind: Allison Moorer – ‘A Soft Place To Fall’

Album Review: Allison Moorer – ‘The Hardest Part’

412ARG3SR7LOne could easily be forgiven for confusing Allison Moorer for Shelby Lynne because their voices are remarkably similar. However, Moorer’s early music is a lot more rootsy than her older sister’s work at the same stage in her career. And while Lynne has mostly avoided discussing the violent murder-suicide that claimed the lives of their parents, Moorer tackled the issue head-on with her sophomore album.

Released in 2000 by MCA, The Hardest Part is an album of all original material written by Moorer and her then-husband Doyle Lee Primm, who co–produced the project with Kenny Greenberg. According to Moorer, it is not a factual recounting of her parents’ tragic story, rather it is a concept album about a disintegrating relationship and was inspired by what she saw her mother endure after she left Moorer’s alcoholic father. Surprisingly, this is not the downer of an album one might be expecting. While the songs are not lighthearted fare, they are, for the most part, typical break-up songs that have long been a staple of country music. Listeners who aren’t familiar with Moorer’s backstory won’t consider the album anything out of the ordinary.

Not surprisingly, the album’s more traditional tracks are my favorites, from the title track that opens the album, to “Is It Worth It” and “Feeling That Feeling Again”, which is the best song on the album. The more contemporary tracks, while enjoyable and still containing plenty of fiddle and steel, are a bit heavy on the strings and electric guitar for my liking.

The most moving song on the album is the one that directly addresses the night Moorer’s parents died. “Cold, Cold Earth”, a hidden track at the end of the album, is an acoustic murder ballad that is surprisingly sympathetic to her father. At times it comes close to excusing his actions. Attempting to reconcile with his family, Moorer’s father becomes despondent and “drunk with grief and loneliness, he wasn’t thinking straight”, and shoots his ex-wife and then himself when it becomes clear she isn’t interested in reconciling. Even as a work of fiction, it would be a sad story, but it’s absolutely tragic to think that the singer is recounting a personal experience.

The Hardest Part produced two radio singles, “Send Down An Angel” and “Think It Over” which charted at #66 and #57, respectively, but despite its lack of hits the album itself reached #26 on the albums chart. It’s a very good album that might have fared better if it had been released a few years earlier. In 2000 when Shania Twain and Faith Hill were having huge crossover hits, it wasn’t what country radio wanted. It is, however, well worth checking out.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Allison Moorer – ‘Alabama Song’

alabama songI was disappointed when Shelby Lynne abandoned country music as she had seemed to have so much unrealised potential. But just as she did so, her younger sister emerged, with just as good a voice but a more rootsy sound and more subtle approach. She was launched upon the public with her song ‘A Soft Place To Fall’, a beautiful ballad which appeared on the soundtrack of Robert Redford’s film The Horse Whisperer, and its Oscar nomination gave Allison a national platform when she performed it at the awards ceremony. A tenderly delivered song about seeking temporary comfort in an old love, it is, quite simply, beautiful with a melancholic undertone.

Allison Moorer’s debut album was launched on MCA in 1998, produced by her husband and regular cowriter Doyle “Butch” Primm and Kenny Greenberg. Allison and Primm wrote the majority of the songs together. The overarching mood is gently sad, and the majority of the songs are melodic ballads with steel guitar prominent in the tasteful arrangements.

‘Pardon Me’ is an excellent pained country ballad with lovely steel about struggling to understand a breakup, with the occasional tart line:

You say you’ve lost the love you felt for me
Well baby, you won’t find it if you leave

She is defiant again in ‘Set You Free’ as the ex is on his way out the door – or is it mere face-saving bravado?

In ‘I Found A Letter’ (a standout), the protagonist finds herself a betrayed wife who knows the sweet love letters were based on a lie. Later, in deeply melancholic mood, she decides it’s ‘Easier To Forget’ than dwell on the heartbreak of the past, backed up by the weeping sadness of the steel guitar. The loungy ballad ‘Tell Me Baby’ is less country, but very well performed, and another take on love and loss.

‘Call My Name’ dwells on the ongoing sorrow from a long-gone love (possibly dead). The album closes with the most downbeat song of the lot – the bleakly funereal ‘Is Heaven Good Enough For You’, which may have been inspired by her parents’ tragic death, although it does not address it specifically.

The up-tempo shuffle ‘The One That Got Away’ (a co-write with Kostas) is much more upbeat musically, with Allison sounding quite cheerful although it’s another song about a broken heart.

The wearied ‘Long Black Train’ (not the Josh Turner hit) is about struggling to make it in Nashville, and being ready to give up the dream and head back home. The wistful title track also yearns for home.

This is not a happy album, but it is a great one which deserves to be better known. I wish Allison had kept on in this vein.

Grade: A

Spotlight Artists: Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer

allison moorer and shelby lynne

allison - shelbyThe sisters Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer have both enjoyed considerable success on the fringes of country music, and this month we will be taking a look at their work.

Shelby, born Shelby Lynn Moorer in Quantico, Virinia, in 1968, and younger sister Allison (born in Alabama in 1972), had a troubled upbringing in Alabama. Their father’s abusive behaviour culminated in 1986 in his murder of their mother, followed by suicide, when Shelby was 17 and Allison 14.

Shelby was the first to seek out a musical career, moving to Nashville in 1987. Her big voice got her noticed early on, and she was signed to Epic Records in 1987. Her first recording session involved a duet with George Jones, quite an accolade for so young and untested an artist. Success, however, proved elusive, although Shelby was named the ACM’s new Female Vocalist of the Year in 1990/1.

Shelby’s musical tastes had always been broad, and by the end of the decade she had had enough of Nashville, and headed to greener pastures in California. Her first pop album, I Am Shelby Lynne, got her noticed where her country material hadn’t, and made her the Grammies’ Top New Artist in 2001. But the critical acclaim brought by her change of direction was still not matched by the big sales she had hoped for. She also tried acting, with a small role in Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line in 2005. By 2010 she was releasing music on her own label, but her latest album, out this month, is on Rounder.

As Shelby’s country career ended, her sister started to follow in her footsteps. Allison signed to MCA in 1996, and gained some early attention when her song ‘A Soft Place To Fall’ was featured in the film The Horse Whisperer and then nominated for an Oscar. Her beautiful voice was a little softer than her sister’s, and at first she seemed to be on the road to success. However, like Shelby’s, her work was to be more popular with critics than with radio programmers or the buying public. Also like Shelby, she moved away from her early country recordings, although she chose a more Americana direction. In a triumph of hope over experience, after her first marriage broke up she became the eighth wife of country-sock maverick Steve Earle, but this marriage has now come to an end. Her latest album was released earlier this year.

We will be concentrating on the sisters’ country work in this joint spotlight.

Album Review – Miranda Lambert – ‘Platinum’

MirandaLambertPlatinumMidway through Miranda Lambert’s new album Platinum comes a jarring exception to the rule as daring as the twin fiddles that opened Lee Ann Womack’s There’s More Where That Came From nine years ago. The one-two punch of a Tom T and Dixie Hall composition coupled with a glorious arrangement by The Time Jumpers has yielding “All That’s Left,” a rare nugget of traditional western swing with Lambert channeling high lonesome Patty Loveless. Besides producing one of the years’ standout recorded moments, “All That’s Left” is a crucial nod to our genre’s heritage, and the fulfillment of the promise Lambert showed while competing on Nashville Star.

Suffice it to say, there’s nothing else on Platinum that equals the brilliance of “All That’s Left,” since Lambert never turns that traditional or naturally twangy again. Instead she opts for a fifteen-slot smorgasbord, mixing country, pop, and rock in an effort to appeal to anyone who may find his or her way to the new music. In lesser hands the record would be an uneven mess, but Lambert is such an expert at crafting albums she can easily pair western swing and arena rock and have it all fit together as smaller parts of a cohesive whole.

The main theme threading through Platinum is one of getting older, whether for purposes of nostalgia, or literally aging. She continues the nostalgia trip she began with fantastic lead single “Automatic” on “Another Sunday In The South” as she recruits Jessi Alexander and fellow Pistol Annie Ashley Monroe to reminisce about the good ‘ol days of 90s country music, among southern signifiers like lazy afternoons and times spent on the front porch. The only worthwhile name check song in recent memory, “Another Sunday” cleverly weaves Restless Heart, Trace Adkins, Pam Tillis, Clint Black, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and song namesake Shenandoah through the lyrics without pandering or sounding cutesy. I only wish she had referenced Diamond Rio and had producer Frank Liddell pepper the track with more of a 90s throwback production, which would’ve fit slightly better than the soft rockish vibe the track was given.

Lambert actually does recapture the Patty Loveless-like twang on “Old Shit,” Brent Cobb and Neil Mason’s love letter to the appealing nature of antiques. The framing technique of using the grandfather and granddaughter relationship coupled with the organic harmonica laced organic arrangement is charming, and while I usually don’t advocate for swearing in country songs, it actually works in this case and seems more appropriate than any of the cleaner words they could’ve used instead.

The aging side of getting older, which Lambert and company began tackling with “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty” on Annie Up last year, is far more prevalent a force on Platinum. As has become customary for Lambert, she wrote thumping rocker “Bathroom Sink” solo. The lyric is scathing, detailing scary self-loathing that builds in intensity along with the electric guitars. Lambert’s phrasing is annoying, though; punctuating the rimes so much they begin to sound rudimentary. While true, “Gravity’s a Bitch,” which Lambert co-wrote with Scotty Wray, just doesn’t feel necessary to me. I think being outside the track’s demographic target aids in my assessment, but I do enjoy the decidedly country meets bluesy arrangement.

When the press release for the album said the title track was ‘Taylor Swift pop’ I was admittedly worried, no matter how many times I got down with the dubstep of “I Knew You Were Trouble” or the bubblegum of “22.” Since Max Martin isn’t anywhere near this album, “Platinum” is more “Red” than anything else, and the infamous ‘what doesn’t kill you only makes you blonder’ lyric is catchy as hell. Similarly themed and produced “Girls” is just as good, and like “Gravity’s a Bitch,” it’ll appeal quite nicely to the fairer sex.

The rest of Platinum truly defines the smorgasbord aspects of the album, with some conventional and extremely experimental tracks. Lambert co-wrote “Hard Staying Sober” with Natalie Hemby and Luke Laird and it ranks among her finest moments, with the decidedly country production and fabulously honest lyric about a woman who’s no good when her man isn’t present. “Holding On To You,” the closet Lambert comes to crooning a love song, is sonically reminiscent of Vince Gill’s 90s sound but with touches that makes it all her own. While good it’s a little too bland, as is “Babies Making Babies,” which boats a strong opening verse but eventually comes off less clever than it should’ve and not surprising enough for me.

Ever since Revolution, production on Lambert’s albums has to be taken with a grain of salt, which is unfortunately still the case here. I’m betting, more than anything since Brandy Clark and Lambert co-wrote it together with Heather Little, that “Too Rings Shy” has a strong lyric underneath the unlistenable production that found Lambert asking her production team to go out and lyrically record circus noises. It’s a shame they couldn’t make this work, since they pulled it off with Randy Scruggs reading the Oklahoma Farm Report in the background of “Easy Living” on Four The Record. There’s just no excuse why the track had to be mixed this intrusively.

Polarizing more than anything else is Lambert’s cover of Audra Mae’s “Little Red Wagon,” which I only understood after listening to Mae’s original version. Given that it’s a duet with Little Big Town, I know most everyone expected more from “Smokin’ and Drinkin,’ and I understand why (the approach isn’t traditional), but I really like the lyric and production, making the overall vibe work really well for me. The same is true about “Something Bad,” which isn’t a great song, but works because of the beat, and interplay between Lambert and Carrie Underwood. The two, even on a marginalized number like this one by Chris DeStefano, Brett James, and Priscilla Renea, sound extremely good together.

Nicolle Galyon and Jimmy Robbins teamed up with Hemby to write the album’s most important track, a love letter Lambert sings to Priscilla Presley. While the concept is questionable on paper, the results are a revelation and give Lambert a chance to directly address what she’s been going through since her husband’s career skyrocketed on The Voice. At a time when most artists of Lambert’s caliber are shying away from singing what they’re going through, Lambert is attacking her rise in celebrity head on with a clever lyric, interesting beat, and an all around engaging execution that makes “Priscilla” this album’s “Mama’s Broken Heart.”

Even without the added punch of co-writes with her fellow Nashville Star contestant Travis Howard or the inclusion of a bunch of artistic covers from the pens of Gillan Welch, Allison Moorer, Carline Carter, and others – Platinum ranks high in Lambert’s catalog. She’s gotten more introspective as she’s aged but instead of coasting on past success or suppressing her voice in favor of fitting in or pleasing people, she remains as sharp as ever tackling topics her closest contemporaries wouldn’t even touch. I didn’t care for this project on first listen, but now that I completely understand where she’s coming from, I’m fully on board. All that’s left is my desire she go even more country in her sound, but Platinum wouldn’t be a Miranda Lambert record without the added touch of Rock & Roll.

Grade: A

Country Heritage Redux: Webb Pierce

An updated and expanded version of an article originally published by The 9513:

It has been twenty years since Webb Pierce passed away in February 1991, about six months short of his 70th birthday, and yet he still has his diehard legions of fans. For the second half of the twentieth century, Webb Pierce was the most successful recording artist in county music with his records topping the Billboard charts for a total of 113 weeks, with Buck Owens second with 82 weeks at #1. George Strait finally passed Buck Owens in 2007 with 83 weeks at #1, a total still growing, albeit slowly.

Like Eddy Arnold, during the late 1940s, Webb Piece dominated the 1950s, particularly from 1952 to 1957, the period in which all his Billboard #1s occurred. This dominance occurred despite Pierce not having any chart records until after he turned thirty years old.

Unlike the smooth Eddy Arnold, whose vocals (and personality) had appeal across many segments of society, Webb Pierce was a country music performer with one core style. You either liked Pierce or you hated him, but you could not ignore him. He sang in a high nasal tenor that will never come back into vogue in mainstream country music (although the style remains viable in bluegrass), but he selected great songs and could sell even the most maudlin lyric. He was one of the first stars to wear “Nudie Suits,” the colorful rhinestone-studded western wear that became de rigueur for country stars for the next 35 years. His song “Slowly” was the first country hit to feature the pedal steel guitar as played by Bud Isaacs. Then there was the famous guitar-shaped swimming pool.

Like many performers of his era, years were subtracted from his real age to make him seem younger to the fan base. Most articles written about Pierce during his heyday gave his date of birth as July 8, 1926, an error which was not corrected until the 1980s. He never penned an autobiography, and I’ve never seen a full biography of him, so biographical information remains sketchy. It is known that he had his own radio show on KMLB in 1938 and served in the Army for three years during WWII before moving to Shreveport, Louisiana in 1944, where he supported himself for some years as a shoe salesman at the local Sears store.

Pierce’s first recordings were on the Four Star label in 1949. By 1950 he was appearing at the Louisiana Hayride – a serious competitor to the Opry during the late ’40s and ’50s–where he quickly became a featured performer. Pierce and Hayride founder Horace Logan formed Pacemaker Records as a vehicle to issue his records. None of these records became national hits, but they sold well enough that Decca inked Pierce to a contract in 1951.

The third Decca single, “Wondering,” established Pierce as a major star. It reached No. 1 for four weeks and stayed on the charts for 27 weeks. The song also provided Pierce with the nickname “The Wondering Boy,” which stayed with him throughout his career. The next two singles, “That Heart Belongs to Me” and “Backstreet Affair,” also reached No. 1 for multiple weeks. This was followed by four more top ten records and the eight week No. 1 “It’s Been So Long” (the flip side “I’m Walking the Dog” reached No. 9).

For many artists, a record that reached No. 1 for eight weeks would be a career record, but Pierce was just getting started. Released on October 24, 1952, “There Stands the Glass” was one of six double-sided hits (with the “B” side reaching top ten status) to reach No. 1 for ten or more weeks. A recent CMT poll of Greatest Drinking Songs had “There Stands the Glass” at No. 11, but they are wrong – it is the ultimate drinking song, the ultimate expression of the angst that accompanies those who are trying to forget:

There stands the glass that will ease all my pain
That will settle my brain, it’s my first one today
There stands the glass that will hide all my fears
That will drown all my tears, brother I’m on my way

“There Stands the Glass” was followed by “Slowly” (No. 1 for 17 weeks), “Even Thou” (No. 1 for only 2 weeks), “More and More” (No. 1 for 10 weeks), “In the Jailhouse Now” (21 weeks at the top), “I Don’t Care” (12 weeks at No. 1) and “Love, Love, Love” (13 weeks at the top).

Pierce moved to the Grand Old Opry in 1955, but soon departed because of the requirement that members had to perform twenty-six Saturdays annually to maintain membership. For Pierce, who was commanding thousands of dollars for his personal appearances, this meant losing considerable income. Since he became a star without the Opry’s help, Pierce correctly figured that the monetary loss would not be offset by the prestige of continued Opry membership. Unfortunately, he burned many bridges when he left the Opry.

The onslaught of Rock and Roll in 1955-1956 destroyed many country music careers and put a damper on many other careers. According to Billboard, Pierce’s last No. 1 record was “Honky Tonk Song” in mid-1957, but Pierce adapted and survived. He added drums to his records and picked more up-tempo material, including songs from younger writers such as Wayne Walker and Mel Tillis. He continued to chart top ten records for another decade (other charts had three of his records reach No. 1 during the period of 1959 to 1967). His record of “Bye Bye Love,” recorded at the same time as the Everly Brothers version, was a top ten hit, and the Mel Tillis penned “I Ain’t Never” stayed at No. 2 on Billboard for nine weeks (it dis reach #1 on Cashbox). It was kept out of Billboard’s top spot by Stonewall Jackson’s “Waterloo” and The Browns “The Three Bells.”

Webb’s last top ten hit in 1967 with “Fool, Fool, Fool” which reached #1 on Record World, #3 on Cashbox and #7 on Billboard. Pierce continued to record for Decca from 1967 to 1972, then for Plantation for two years where he had a minor hit with “The Good Lord Giveth (and Uncle Sam Taketh Away),” a song which deserved a better fate than missing the top forty. After 1976, Pierce – having invested wisely in real estate and music publishing – retired from performing (he had been semi-retired for years already). He would record only twice more.

In 1982, Willie Nelson was able to drag Webb into the recording studio for a duet album, which puzzled some since Webb wasn’t one of Willie’s former label mates or Texas compadres, but the recordings make clear the strong influence Pierce had on Willie’s pinched vibrato and vocal phrasing. In 1985 Pierce got together with two old Louisiana buddies, Jerry Lee Lewis and Faron Young, and Florida songwriter Mel Tillis, to record an album called Four Legends. All of the songs on the collection were old Webb Pierce hits.

He died on February 24, 1991 of a heart attack, but would likely have died soon of cancer anyway. The old guard of the Nashville establishment shamefully denied him entry into the Country Music Hall of Fame until ten years after his death. He should have been inducted around 1977.

According to Billboard, Webb Pierce was the No. 1 country artist of the 1950s and the No. 7 artist of the 1960s. He charted 96 songs, 80 of which reached the Top 40, and 54 of which reached the Top Ten. His thirteen number one records stayed there for a cumulative total of 113 weeks–second all-time only to Eddy Arnold with 145 weeks (86 of Eddy’s weeks occurred during the 1940s). His 1955 recording of the old Jimmie Rodgers song “In the Jailhouse Now” is the third ranking county single of all time with 21 weeks at No. 1 and 34 weeks in the Top Ten.

Amusingly, Carl Smith, a Columbia recording artist (and 4th most popular country artist of the 1950s), recorded an album titled There Stands The Glass in 1964 in which he recorded twelve of Webb’s hits and never mentioned him on the album cover (which has several paragraphs of liner notes) or the record label (except on the songwriter credits of several songs)!

Discography
Much of Webb’s recorded output has been unavailable for years. Most of the albums on vinyl are typical Nashville product – one or two hit singles, some covers of other artists’ hits and some filler. If you like the songs listed on the album cover, you’ll probably like the album. Webb With A Beat from 1960 may be his strongest album and shows Webb transitioning his sound to a more modern approach, re-recording several of his older hits in the process. If you find the album Webb Pierce’s Greatest Hits, released on Decca in 1968, it is a really fine album (in fact, the first Webb Pierce album I ever purchased) but it is mostly re-recordings of his earlier hits as Decca had all of its major stars re-record their older hits to take advantage of modern stereo technology. If you find a copy of the Plantation album Webb Pierce and Carol Channing, please do Webb’s family a big favor – buy it and destroy it. You cannot imagine how bad Carol’s vocals are on this album!

There are now quite a few CDs available of Webb’s pre-1958 output (European copyrights expire in 50 years so in Europe those recordings can be released without paying royalties), but very few of the post 1958 recordings are available, although they are slowly beginning to appear:

1. 20th Century Masters – The Millennium Collection: The Best of Webb — a budget collection, digitally re-mastered. Only 12 songs but they are the biggies in their original versions. The Plantation recordings have been endlessly leased out to other labels – unless I know the source, I assume that the off-label recordings of Webb are leased from Plantation.
2. Webb Pierce – Greatest Hits: Finest Performances — these are re-makes recorded for Plantation during the middle 1970s. They are not bad, but they lack the sparkle of the original recordings and Pierce’s voice had dropped in the interim.
3. King of the Honky-Tonk: From the Original Master Tapes — released by the Country Music Foundation in 2000, this was the first effort to get the original Decca hits back in print. Eighteen hits, great sound and a useful booklet. Now out of print, but it can be located with a little effort.
4. A Proper Introduction to Webb Pierce: Groovie Boogie Woogie Boy — British reissue label, 28 tracks, mostly pre-Decca material, some with overdubs. Worth owning. Apparently out of print but still can be found.
5. The Wandering Boy (1951-1958) [BOX SET] — The Holy Grail for Webb Pierce fans — a deluxe Bear Family boxed set — four CDs, 114 tracks with great sound and an interesting, but somewhat disjointed booklet. Covers all of Webb’s recordings through 1958 with a few alternate takes of songs such as “Slowly” where you can see the Pierce style developing.
6. Hux Records out of the UK recently released Fallen Angel / Cross Country – a two-fer which collects a pair of early 1960s albums. This album might be considered post-peak as far as the hits were concerned but Webb was still at his vocal peak
7. Audio Fidelity had a two-fer of Sweet Memories / Sands of Gold from the mid-1960s available about fifteen years ago. Audio Fidelity remixed the two album to push Pierce’s vocals further front in the mix and suppressed the background vocals and strings, greatly improving both albums. This one is hard to find, but you might get lucky.

And don’t forget Caught in the Webb, a tribute album released in 2002, produced and organized by Gail Davies, featuring 21 of Webb’s hits performed by guests, including: Dale Watson, The Jordanaires, Mandy Barnett, Charley Pride, Rosie Flores, George Jones, Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris, Robbie Fulks, Joy Lynn White, Allison Moorer, Matt King, Crystal Gayle, Del McCoury Band, Lionel Cartwright, Guy Clark, Gail Davies, Willie Nelson, BR549, Billy Walker, Kevin Welch, Trent Summar, Pam Tillis, Deborah Pierce (Webb’s daughter) and the Carol Lee Singers. Proceeds of this album benefited the Minnie Pearl Cancer Research Center.

Classic Rewind: Allison Moorer – ‘Pardon Me’

Album Review: ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter: A Tribute to Loretta Lynn’

Multi-artist tribute albums are more often than not hit-or-miss; rarely does one like all of the contributing artists or their interpretations of the hits of the person being honored. Columbia Records’ newly released tribute to Loretta Lynn, marking her 50th anniversary as a country music artist, is no exception, although it does contain a fair share of surprises. I cringed when I saw certain names among the credits, but in a few instances found that their tracks were among the album’s highlights. Likewise, some of the tracks I was looking forward to were somewhat disappointing.

The opening track, performed by Gretchen Wilson, falls into the latter category. On the surface, “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)” seems like an ideal song for her, but her rendition surprisingly lacks the passion and spark that I was expecting. Instead, she sounds like a better-than-average amateur on karaoke night. Lucinda Williams’ take on “Somebody Somewhere (Don’t Know What He’s Missing Tonight)” was also a let-down. She slurs the lyrics so badly that I found myself wondering if she really had those few little drinks referred to in the first verse prior to entering the studio.

On the other hand, the album contains quite a few pleasant surprises, not the least of which is Faith Hill’s reading of “Love Is The Foundation”. I’ve never been a huge Faith fan, and I considered her contribution to 1998’s Tammy Wynette tribute album to be one of the lowlights of that uneven project. This time around, however, she proves that she can deliver the goods. Loretta praised Faith’s performance of the song recently, and after hearing it, I have to concur that it was quite good. I was more than apprehensive about the artists who from outside the world of country music. I’d never heard of Paramore before and was expecting not to like their take on “You Ain’t Woman Enough To Take My Man”, but instead found their stripped-down, acoustic guitar arrangement to be quite effective. The White Stripes’ recording of “Rated X”, recorded several years ago, is the track that can be credited with spawning the Van Lear Rose album. I’d not heard it before, and though they’re not quite my cup of tea, the song works much better than I thought it would.

There are, of course, some famous names that seem perfectly matched for such a project, that do not disappoint: Lee Ann Womack contributes “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl”, which sounds like it could have actually been recorded in 1960, when Loretta’s original version was released, and Reba McEntire’s “If You’re Not Gone Too Long” is the best offering in the collection. Reba manages to accomplish the near-impossible — putting her own stamp on a Loretta Lynn classic. Producer Buddy Cannon gives the old honky-tonk number a Western swing feel, which suits Reba perfectly, and The Time Jumpers — a band that includes Kenny Sears, Vince Gill and Paul Franklin, among others — are superb. If only Reba would include tracks like this on her own albums. The two Conway and Loretta duets that are included — “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” performed by Alan Jackson and Martina McBride and “After The Fire Is Gone” performed by Steve Earle and Allison Moorer, with Moorer doing the heavy lifting — are also quite good.

Like most tribute albums, Coal Miner’s Daughter has its share of clunkers. In addition to the aforementioned Lucinda Williams track, Carrie Underwood’s “You’re Looking At Country” is sung with an affected and very exaggerated twang which is quite grating, and Kid Rock’s “I Know How” is simply unlistenable. Trust me, he does not know how.

The album closes with the title track, and Loretta’s signature song, performed by Loretta herself along with Miranda Lambert and Sheryl Crow and produced by John Carter Cash and Loretta’s daughter Patsy Lynn. Loretta is in good voice and more than holds her own against the two younger vocalists.

If I’d been in charge of overseeing this project, I’d have excluded a few names and included a few others that did not appear. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to include Paramore, and that indeed would have been a loss. Coal Miner’s Daughter isn’t without its flaws, but it is a more than adequate tribute to country music’s most important female artist and is well worth a listen.

Grade: B

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-

Some hidden treasures of the decade

At the end of last year, I shared a list of my favorite 50 singles of the decade. Some of them were big hits, others more obscure, but at least in theory they got some attention at the time. Now that the decade is well and truly over, I thought I would mention some hidden treasures – album tracks that you probably only heard if you’re a fan of the artist, and purchased the full album. Some of them are from albums and artists that were more successful than others. I’ve omitted anything that made it to radio (even if it wasn’t a hit) as I considered those for my last list, and I have also left out anything from an album which made our collective Albums of The Decade list, although I have included tracks from other albums by artists who appeared on both of those lists. I have restricted my list to one track per artist named.

40. ‘Cold All The Time’ – Irene Kelley (from Thunderbird, 2004)
Songwriter Irene Kelley has released a couple of very good independent albums, showcasing her own very beautiful voice as well as her songs. This is a gently resolute song about a woman stuck in a bad relationship, summoning up the courage to make a move.

39. ‘All I Want’ – Darius Rucker (from Learn To Live, 2008)
There is still a chance that this might make it to the airwaves, as Darius’s platinum country debut is his current release. As a whole, the material was a little disappointing, but this great song is definitely worth hearing, and not only because it’s the mos country song on the album. It’s a jaundiced kiss-off to an ex, offering her everything as “all I want you to leave me is alone”.

38. ‘I Met Jesus In A Bar’ – Jim Lauderdale (from Country Super Hits Volume 1, 2006)
Songwriter Jim Lauderdale has released a number of albums of his own, in more than one country sub-genre, and in 2006 he issued two CDs on one day: one country, the other bluegrass. This great co-write with Leslie Satcher, a melancholy-tinged song about God and booze, also recorded by Aaron Watson, comes from the country one.

37. ‘A Train Not Running’ – Chris Knight (from The Jealous Kind, 2003)
Singer-songwriter Chris Knight co-wrote this downbeat first-person tale of love and a mining town’s economic failure with Stacy Dean Campbell, who also recorded a version of the song.

36. ‘Same Old Song’ – Blake Shelton (from Blake Shelton, 2001)
These days, Blake seems to attract more attention for his girlfriend Miranda Lambert and his Tweeting than for his own music. This song, written by Blake’s producer Bobby Braddock back in 1989, is an appeal for country songs to cover new ground and real stories.

35. ‘If I Hadn’t Reached For The Stars’ – Bradley Walker (from Highway Of Dreams, 2006)
It’s probably a sign of the times that Bradley Walker, who I would classify as a classic traditional country singer in the Haggard/Travis style, had to release his excellent debut album on a bluegrass label. This love song (written by Carl Jackson and previously recorded by Jon Randall) is all about finding happiness through not achieving stardom.

34. ‘Between The River And Me’ – Tim McGraw (from Let It Go, 2007)
Tim McGraw is not one of my favorite singers, but he does often have a knack for picking interesting material. It was a travesty that the best track on his 2007 album was never released as a single, especially when far less deserving material took its place. It’s a brooding story song narrated by the teenage son of a woman whose knack seems to be picking the wrong kind of man, in this case one who beats her. The son turns to murder, down by the river.

33. ‘Three Sheets In The Wind’ – Randy Archer (from Shots In The Dark, 2005)
In the early 9s, Randy Archer was one half of the duo Archer Park,who tried and failed to challenge Brooks & Dunn. His partner in that enterprise is now part of The Parks. Meanwhile, Randy released a very good independent album which has been overlooked. My favorite track is this sad tale of a wife tearing up a husband’s penitent note of apology and leaving regardless.

32. ‘It Looked Good On Paper’ – Randy Kohrs featuring Dolly Paton (from I’m Torn, 2007)
A forlorn lost-love ballad from dobro player Kohrs featuring exquisite high harmonies from Dolly. the ret o the record is very good, too – and you can listen to it all on last.fm.

31. ‘Mental Revenge’ – Pam Tillis (from It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis, 2002)
After her mainstream stardom wound down, 90s star Pam Tillis took the opportunity to record a real labor of love: a tribute album to her father Mel. This bitter diatribe to an ex is my favorite track.

30. ‘You Don’t Love God If You Don’t Love Your Neighbour’ – Rhonda Vincent (from The Storm Still Rages, 2001)
A traditional country-bluegrass-gospel quartet take on a classic rebuke to religious hypocrites, written by Carl Story. The track isn’t the best showcase of Rhonda’s lovely voice, but it’s a great recording of a fine song with a pointed message.

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