My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Amber Digby

Classic Rewind: Amber Digby – ‘I’m Not Your Kind Of Girl’

Classic Rewind: Amber Digby – ‘Another Man Loved Me Last Night’

Album Review: Joshua Hedley – ‘Mr Jukebox’

Joshua Hedley is the latest young singer to steep himself in the sounds of country music of the past. Signed to rock star Jack White’s private label, his debut album was produced by Skyler Wilson and Jordan (son of Kyle) Lehning. This is not merely traditional, it is self-consciously (sometimes too much so) retro-traditional, to the point, at times, of pastiche. While the songs are mostly newly composed (mostly by Hedley himself), they would not be remotely out of place in a record made in 1963.

Joshua has a strong, deep voice with a touch of vibrato, which is showcased best on the opening track. This is a genuinely superb ballad laced with steel guitar. The protagonist encounters an ex he has done wrong, after many years; she has moved on and he not only hasn’t, he has no wish to do so.

The title track is an excellent shuffle which serves as a tribute to the great country music of the era the album salutes. Also great is the ballad ‘This Time’.

Joshua takes on the Bakersfield Sound in ‘These Walls’, another very good song about a broken heart.

‘I Never (Shed A Tear)’ is a mid paced song about a broken heart again, and denial of the same. This one doesn’t suit Hedley’s voice as well as other songs, with the emotion flattened out, and the retro backing voices just sound dated rather than retro-cool. ‘Let’s Take A Vacation’ is a dreamy ballad edging into a more sophisticated countrypolitan style, while ‘Weird Thought Thinker’ has a western feel.

‘Don’t Waste Your Tears’ is heavily strung but the song, another ballad, suits the lower ranges of Hedley’s voice extremely well. ‘Let Them Talk’ is a more hardcore honky tonk tune which is highly enjoyable, with fun male call and response backing vocals. It is all too short, at under two minutes.

Listening to this record, I feel the lack of a duet or two – I’d love to hear Joshua taming up with someone like Amber Digby.

The only misstep comes at the end of the set, with the only cover, a flat version of the Disney classic ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’.

Overall, though, despite the occasional sense of deliberate copying, this is an excellent album which I recommend to all more traditional country fans.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Amber Digby – ‘I’m Not Your Kind Of Girl’

Occasional Hope’s top 10 albums of 2014

the way im livinIt’s not been the best of years for mainstream country music, but great music is still out there to be found if you’re willing to hunt it down. There was a plethora of great covers projects, including excellent offerings from Joey + Rory and Gene Watson, and a number of other fine records which just missed the cut in my top 10 selection.

10. Dave Adkins ‘Nothing To Lose
Classic high lonesome bluegrass from a singer with a big, emotional voice.
Best tracks: ‘I Can’t Even Walk’, ‘Don’t Pray That Way’, ‘Mistaken Heart

9. J P Harris & The Tough Choices – ‘Home Is Where The Hurt Is
Authentic retro honky tonk with some great songs.

Best tracks: ‘Home Is Where The Hurt Is’, ‘Truck Stop Amphetamines’, ‘Every Little Piece’

provoked8. Sunny Sweeney – ‘Provoked
Back on an independent label, Sunny Sweeney’s unbridled honky tonk with a modern twist is irresistible.

Best tracks: ‘You Don’t Know Your Husband’, ‘Backhanded Compliment’, ‘Sunday Dress

7. Fayssoux, ‘I Can’t Wait
A lovely mellow folk-country record.

Best tracks: ‘Mama’s Hungry Eyes’, ‘I Made A Friend Of A Flower Today’, ‘Golightly Creek’

6. Randy Travis – Influence Vol 2
The second instalment of Randy’s covers project, fortunately recorded before his recent health crisis was, unexpectedly, even better than the first one.

Best tracks: ‘Set ‘Em Up Joe’, ‘Are The Good Times Really Over’, ‘For The Good Times’

daylight and dark5. Jason Eady – ‘Daylight And Dark
Solid country music from a talented singer-songwriter I like more every tie I hear him. This was one of the year’s first releases, and it hasn’t lost its appeal for me.

Best tracks: ‘Whiskey And You’, ‘Liars And Fools’, ‘Late Night Diner

4. Rhonda Vincent – ‘Only Me
The bluegrass star offers a stellar selection of material. The packaging is a touch gimmicky, with two CDs in one packages, each containing just six tracks. One is billed as straight bluegrass, the other traditional country, but both are wonderful. My only criticism is that it would be nice to hear some new songs of this quality.

Best tracks: ‘I’d Rather Hear I Don’t Love You (Than Nothing At All)’, ‘Teardrops Over You’, ‘We Must Have Been Out Of Our Minds’ (ft Daryle Singletary), ‘Beneath Still Waters

3. Jade Jack – ‘Off The Record
I was very impressed by fiddler/traditional country singer Jade’s debut album. Very much in the style of Amber Digby, this is packed full of heartbreak numbers, backed with fiddle and steel. It just squeezes in ahead of Rhonda thanks to the inclusion of original material.

Best tracks: ‘I Can’t Help It If He Can’t Stop Loving Me’, ‘I Had A Husband’, ‘I Can Bring Him Back’, ‘I’m Dynamite’

lucky2. Suzy Bogguss – ‘Lucky
In a year which saw a lot of fine tribute and cover albums, this was the best of the lot. Suzy’s beautiful readings of Haggard songs are exquisite. This record is just lovely. The sensitive vocal interpretations are backed by delicately stripped down arrangements which shows that less is more.

Best tracks: ‘If We Make It Through December’, ‘Sing Me Back Home’, ‘You Don’t Have Very Far To Go’

1. Lee Ann Womack – ‘The Way I’m Livin
I was disappointed by Trisha Yearwood’s return, when she only recorded six new songs. But Lee Ann Womack did not disappoint, with that exquisite voice wrapped around 13 excellent songs. ‘Chances Are’, my favorite, is sublime. She sounds thoroughly revitalised by her move from the major labels and hankering after radio play to Sugar Hill’s focus on artistry. The result is magical.

Best tracks: ‘Chances Are’, ‘Nightwind’, ‘Sleeping With The Devil

Album Review: Jade Jack – ‘Off The Record’

off the recordIt’s always exciting to discover a new artist, especially one who make the kind of music I like the best. I had just that experience when I came across Jade Jack on youtube, and this album fulfils that promise. She’s not yet quite as good as, say Amber Digby, as her voice, while sweet and listenable, still has the lightness of youth, but she is the same kind of artist. Her selection of material is great; and the production is pure traditional country with plenty of fiddle and steel. She grew up in a musical family, and started fiddle lessons at the age of four, beginning to perform in public soon afterwards.

That youtube song was a cover of Doug Stone’s classic ‘I’d Be Better Off (In A Pine Box’), and a beautifully sung version is included on this album. In fact, she currently plays fiddle in Doug Stone’s band, and throws in a catchy Celtic-style instrumental to show off her skills.

There are two George Jones covers: a pretty, delicate version of ‘Once You’ve Had The Best’ and a strong take on ‘The Grand Tour’. ‘A Woman’s Man’ is a Leona Williams song lyrically along the lines of Loretta Lynn’s ‘You Ain’t Woman Enough’, and Jade’s version is very enjoyable. Leona is reportedly one of Jade’s influences, and one can hear it in some of her phrasing, particularly on this song. The arrangement also recreates the original, particularly the steel playing.

A couple of other songs were co-written and previously recorded by the underrated Ken Mellons. The gorgeous sad ballad ‘I Can Bring Him Back’ was a single for Mellons in 1994 (as ‘I Can Bring her Back’), while he recorded the midtempo ‘Institute Of Honky Tonks’ (with a cameo from George Jones) on his 2004 album Sweet, more recently re-released under the title Just What I’m Wantin’ To do). I prefer the meatier male version on the latter song, but Jade’s version (with a few minor lyric changes to suit a female voice) is very good. ‘I Can Bring Him Back’ is beautifully done.

She clearly has a penchant for cheating songs, and there are some excellent ones here, which are the highlights of the album. The outstanding ‘I Can’t Help It If He Can’t Stop Loving Me’ is unrepentantly addressed to her lover’s new wife:

I’m not stealing him from you
Just doing what he wants me to
And I can’t help it if he can’t stop loving me
I can’t stop him if that’s where he wants to be
There must be something here he really needs

A great song, and perhaps Jade’s most impressive vocal performance.

In ‘I’m Dynamite’ she warns a potential adulterous lover not to let anything get started before they go too far and too many innocent parties get hurt in the fallout:

The flame of love is burning
Just begging to be used
I’m dynamite so please don’t light the fuse
You can’t undo the damage that I’ll do
And the first thing I’ll destroy will be you

Also great is ‘I Had A Husband’, in which the protagonist discovers a very unwelcome secret her man has been keeping:

I should’ve known better but I couldn’t see
The game he’d been playin’ with her and with me
Loving two women and livin’ two lives
Well, I had a husband
But he wasn’t mine

In ‘Go Away’ she addresses a husband who has betrayed her, wanting to take him back but aware turning him away will save her heartbreak in the long run.

‘No Reason To Quit’ declares drinking to forget beats sobering up and rejoining her circle of friends who are now shunning her, because “I’ve got no reason for living right”.

Finally, ‘Tijuana Grass’ is a rather unexpected song about the possible effects of legalising marijuana.

You can get this excellent album in either CD or download formats from Jade’s website. It is highly recommended.

Grade: A

Occasional Hope’s top 10 albums of 2013

This year has seen some excellent albums released. I had to leave off my final top ten fine records by Amber Digby, Ashley Monroe, Jamie Richards, Julie Roberts and Eric Strickland. The most notable thing for me has been the resurgence in artistic terms at least, if not commercial ones, of great female voices. Last year none of my top albums was from a female artist. This year there are four solo women (all excellent writers as well as singers, although one chose to release predominantly covers this time), four male leads, and two mixed duos, and while I don’t like quotas or judging for anything other than the quality of the music, increased diversity of life experience can only be good for the variety of experiences reflected in the music.

10. Old Yellow MoonEmmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell
The long awaited reunion project was a delight, and well worth the wait. Seeing them live was a personal highlight of my year.
Best tracks: ‘Dreaming My Dreams’, ‘Here We Are

roots of my raising gregory9. Roots Of My RaisingThe Clinton Gregory Bluegrass Band
Another project presenting country classics with bluegrass arrangements. Clinton Gregory’s underrated tenor matches his fine fiddle playing, and his excellent vocal interpretations make this one worth hearing.
Best tracks: ‘New Patches’, ‘Roots Of My Raising’, ‘I Never Go Around Mirrors’

8. Made To LastJoey + Rory
While not really groundbreaking, the latest from husband and wife duo Joey Martin and Rory Feek contains some beautiful songs, tastefully produced. The couple may slow down their busy schedule next year and they are expecting their first baby together in the spring, but this (and the year’s earlier religious album) will keep fans going.
Best tracks: ‘Just A Cup Of Coffee’, ‘Now That She’s Gone’, ‘50,000 Names’ with a bonus mention for ‘The Preacher And The Stranger’ on Inspired.

showin my roots7. Showin’ My RootsDonna Ulisse
A delightful mix of country and bluegrass on a collection of the songs which inspired Donna. She’s a fine bluegrass singer and songwriter – but her majestic alto is petrfect for traditional country, and setting them against beautifully played bluegrass abackings is the best of both worlds.
Best tracks: ‘If That’s The Way You Feel’, ‘Somebody Somewhere Don’t Know What He’s Missing Tonight’, ‘In The Good Old Days When Times Were Bad’

6. Brothers Of The HighwayDailey & Vincent
The best duo in bluegrass return with their first secular album of new material since 2009. This is spectacular playing and singing, a masterclass in bluegrass.
Best tracks: ‘When I Stop Dreaming’, ‘Hills Of Caroline’, ‘Brothers Of The Highway’

i let her talk5. I Let Her TalkErin Enderlin
It only had nine tracks, which lost it a few points, but the outstanding quality of the songs and Erin’s strong voice meant this forced its way onto my top 10 list.
Best tracks: ‘I Let Her Talk’, ‘Get That At Home’, ‘Last Call’, ‘Monday Morning Church

4. The HighwayHolly Williams
Hank Jr’s daughter comes of age as an artist with this fine singer-sogwriter record. Her sultry voice, the tasteful production and excellent songs combine to make a memorable listening experience.
Best Tracks: ‘Giving Up’, ‘Drinkin’’, ‘Waiting On June

randy3. Influence Vol 1:- The Man I AmRandy Travis
Randy Travis has seemed to be on a downward spiral both personally, with well-publicised troubles with the law and an increasingly concerning alchol problem, and professionally, with his voice showing disturbing signs of deterioration. His health took a turn for the worse this year, but his Haggard-heavy album of classic covers was an unexpected highlight of the year. The man who was at the heart of the revival of more traditional styles of country music in the 1980s reveals his greatest influences, and is back in better voice than he has been for some years. the slightly lopsided selection of material may be a casualty of his health issues – perhaps more recording sessions were planned. I only hope that he recovers and a Volume 2 may be a possibility.
Best tracks: ‘What Have You Got Planned Tonight, Diana’, ‘I’m Always On A Mountain When I Fall’, ‘Someday We’ll Look Back

2. BakersfieldVince Gill and Paul Franklin
I wouldn’t necessarily have associated Vince Gill’s honeyed tenor with the Bakersfield sound, but his labor of love collaboration with steel player Paul Franklin was a revelation. Vince’s heartfelt interpretations of these classics breathes new life into them.
Best tracks: ‘Holding Things Together’, ‘Branded Man’, ‘But I Do’, ‘Together Again

12 stories
1. 12 StoriesBrandy Clark

The songwriter has been very successful in recent years selling her songs to more mainstream acts, but it turns out she kept her best songs for her own album. She serves up a dozen believable slices of life on her debut album, a pointed reminder that at its best country music is the genre which records real lives in troubled times. Ranging from the quirky wit of single ‘Stripes’ to dark cheating songs like ‘What’ll Keep Me Out Of Heaven’, and taking in the soothing sweetness of ‘Hold My Hand’ and ‘Just Like Him’, this is one of those rare albums without a weak track, and one which demonstrates that contemporary country can be great. Brandy also has a rich, expressive voice. Much-deserved critical acclaim has not yet been matched by sales – but this is an outstanding record.
Best tracks: ‘What’ll Keep Me Out Of Heaven’, ‘In Some Corner’, ‘Take A Little Pill’, ‘Pray to Jesus’, ‘Just Like Him

Album Review: Miss Leslie – ‘Lucky’

luckyNeo-honky tonk favorite Miss Leslie is ringing the changes with her latest, Kickstarter-funded project. Miss Leslie wrote 11 of the 13 songs, and the mood is a depressed one, clearly influenced by her recent divorce. This is a much more introspective and less hardcore honky tonk record than she has released previously, but it is a fine record in its own terms. She sounds better vocally than she ever has before, and the songs, while mostly downbeat, are mature and well written.

One highlight is the quietly melancholic ballad ‘I Don’t Go There’, with the protagonist choosing not to revive an adulterous relationship because of the pain it would cause all concerned. A pretty, soothing melody and Amber Digby’s delicate harmony do not hide the pain of loss. The wearied ‘Honky Tonkin’ Fool’ is similarly gently sad rather than defiant, not what I was expecting from the title but good in its own way.

The pain and anger of splitting is evident in ‘I Get The Bar’, another of my favorites, on which Miss Leslie’s own fiddle and the honky tonk piano give a more traditional sound. Here, the narrator is happy for her ex to take all their material possessions, as long as she gets sole use of the bar they frequented together. Her assertive attitude includes a nice little swipe at her ex:

I think you’ll be okay
Your friends like me better anyway
You can keep the bartender
And all the other girls you screwed
Cause I get the band
I get the beer
And I get the bar

But although there is a vein of wry black comedy running through it, this is no triumphant seeing off of an ex; the vulnerability of heartbreak remains at the heart of the matter:

You can have my heart
It’s yours already
Because it’s worthless
Cause it’s broken in two

Also with a sense of humor but much lighter in mood is the cheerful honky tonker ‘You Were Drunker than I Was’, which rehashes a series of drunken misadventures. The change of both mood and pace is very welcome. Also on the positive side, ballad ‘Fifty Years Ago Today’ is a sweet tribute to an older couple on their golden wedding anniversary, inspired by her former husband’s parents.

‘After The Storm’ contrasts bad weather with a failing relationship, with a wistful Miss Leslie ending up looking forward to dealing with the aftermath of two shattered hearts. ‘I Don’t Want To Know’ is not quite as good, but another slightly depressed ballad about struggling with the emotions of a relationship on the rocks. ‘This Old Guitar’ is a slightly downbeat song using a favourite instrument as a metaphor to evoke the sorrow of lost love, with a stripped down arrangement with just guitar and steel.

A couple of the tracks have little connection with country music. The bluesy groove of ‘I’ll Take What I Can Get’ is a bit boring, and ‘It’s Rainin’ Inside’ is a sophisticated jazzy ballad with strings which is extremely well done, just not really to my taste.

‘Outside The Outsiders’ took a while to grow on me, but it is an interesting, thoughtful look at the struggles of a lonely life. An accordion adds a faint Tex-Mex feel to the tune. A more subdued accordion is in the mix for ‘Angels That Promise The Stars’, which was written by Miss Leslie’s sister Hilary Sloan. Another introspective ballad with a poetic, somewhat obscure lyric about a troubled soul and gentle tune, assisted by Amber Digby’s close harmony.

The only truly outside song, the steel-laden ‘Nice Girl’ (written by Davin James) is a well-written song with unusual clipped phrasing. It is the lament of the woman who has been done wrong and is taking refuge in the kind of dive she wouldn’t normally be seen in:

This girl’s been too good too long
For a man who couldn’t see
A lady has the right to deal with loneliness
That’s what a nice girl like me
Is doing in a place like this.

Although it may be a change in style from her earlier work, this fine and clearly largely autobiographical record represents a maturation of Miss Leslie as an artist. It’s well worth checking out.

Grade: A-

Available from Miss Leslie’s website.

Album Review: Georgette Jones – ‘Till I Can Make It On My Own’

georgette jones till i can make it on my ownGeorgette Jones’s third Heart of Texas album features her best vocals to date, but her least imaginative selection of material, as this album has been conceived as a tribute to mother Tammy Wynette. She does not sound much like either illustrious parent, but her light airy vocals have a very attractive tone which makes her worth listening to on her own merits. Her phrasing is also excellent with a natural, unforced feel. Like all Heart Of Texas records, this is impeccably produced (by the label’s Justin Trevino) in traditional country style, so it makes pleasant listening even if the repertoire is over-familiar.

Georgette’s voice works particularly well on the title track, which has a wistful air to it distinguishing it from the more impassioned original. A languid take on ‘Til I Get It Right’ with tasteful string accompaniment is also a highlight, with a subtle vocal interpretation. ‘Take Me To Your World’ is sweet and sincere, with very pretty harmonies. She sounds resigned on an understated ‘Stand By Your Man’, which I liked. The less well known ‘Stayin’ Home Woman’ and ‘Run Woman Run’ are also both quite enjoyable

There are several duets. Producer Justin Trevino helps out on the George Jones-penned ‘Take Me’, which is nicely done although it pales rather compared to the original. Billy Yates guests on ‘Golden Ring’, which is pleasant but again lacks the original’s force.

Veteran Tony Booth enjoyed a minor career on Capitol in the 70s, before backing Gene Watson for some years, and his deep, grizzled voice makes an interesting contrast with Georgette’s insubstantial sweetness on ‘My Elusive Dreams’, and one which suits the song quite well.

Someone called Keith Nixon shares the vocals on the playful ‘Something To Brag About’; this one is fun. A duet with Amber Digby on ‘Run, Woman, Run’ is repeated from Georgette’s last album, Strong Enough To Cry.

Georgette’s voice is a little too sweet and gentle for ‘D-I-V-O-R-C-E’ to have its full impact, although she is convincingly vulnerable. Her resolve to lose her respectability does not however convince on ‘Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad’. ‘Apartment # 9’ is delivered plaintively, but didn’t make much of an impact on me.

The CD liner notes comprise several family photographs of Georgette with Tammy, so if you want Tammy’s recipe for banana pudding (topped with meringue) this is the place to find it.

While not an essential purchase, I rather enjoyed this record.

Grade: B

Album Review: Amber Digby – ‘The World You’re Living In’

amberdigbyIndependent artist Amber Digby is back with a new collection of tunes, which  like most of her earlier work, consists mainly of covers of classic country tunes.  This time around, however, she’s included some more contemporary fare along with some remakes of old classics and some lesser-known older songs.

The album opens with a reverent rendition of Norma Jean’s “It’s a Long Way From Heaven (To The World You’re Living In)” , which is pedal steel-drenched track in the vein that we’ve come to expect from Amber.  I’m not familiar with the Norma Jean version, but I like Amber’s take on the song very much.   Additionally, there are the expected covers of songs made famous by Connie Smith, Tammy Wynette, and Loretta Lynn.   She pays homage to Smith with the Dallas Frazier-penned “If It Ain’t Love (Let’s Leave It Alone)”  Nobody can sing it like Connie Smith, but the song is well worth resurrecting and introducing to a new audience.    “We Loved It Away”, which Amber sings with Randy Lindley, is one of my all-time favorite George Jones and Tammy Wynette numbers.  “The One I Can’t Live Without” was previously recorded by  Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn.  Vince Gill is Amber’s duet partner on this one.

Aside from the usual Smith, Wynette and Lynn tunes, Amber steps outside the box a little and covers some less traditional artists such as Lynn Anderson (“How Can I Unlove You”) and Outlaws such as Johnny Paycheck (“It Won’t Be Long and I’ll Be Hating You”).

As far as more contemporary numbers are concerned, Amber does a very nice cover of Vince Gill’s “One More Thing I Wish I’d Said”, from Gill’s recent Guitar Slinger.  My digital copy of the album from CD Baby came without liner notes, but “You Leave Again” and “She’d Already Won Your Heart” sound like newer songs, and “Saturday Night” with its references to cell phones and emails was definitely written recently, though it sounds like a vintage tune.

None of these tunes will ever be heard on mainstream country radio but all are worthwhile efforts that will be appreciated by anyone who enjoys traditional country music.  Legendary musicians such as Lloyd Green, Dicky Overbey and Jim Loessberg on steel guitar, Pete Wade on electric guitar, and Harold “Pig” Robbins help make these songs sound true to their era, as opposed to contemporary reinterpretations.  There is nothing to not to like here.  If you miss the way country music used to be, you need this album in your collection. It can be purchased from Amber’s website, Amazon, or CD Baby.

Grade: A

Favorite country songs of the 1970s: Part 4

For part four of this series, I’ll be using the same criteria as before – just some songs I liked, one song per artist (although I will feel free to comment on other songs by the artist). This part stops in the middle of the letter M.

“Joy To The World” – Murray Kellum (1971)

A nice country cover of a #1 pop hit for Three Dog Night, this reached #26 and was Murray’s biggest hit. He died in a plane crash in 1990 at the too-young age of 47. Hoyt Axton wrote this song.

Honky Tonk Wine” – Wayne Kemp (1973)

Wayne Kemp was better known as a songwriter who penned major hits for the likes of George Jones (“Love Bug”), Conway Twitty (“The Image of Me”) and countless others. This song reached #17, and was Wayne’s biggest hit.

Sweet Desire” – The Kendalls (1978)

A father and daughter duo, Jeannie took on most of the lead vocals while father Royce sang harmony. The Kendalls kept the radio airwaves safe for real country music during the middle and late 1970s. I liked everything the Kendalls ever sang, and have no idea why the new traditionalist movement of 1986 failed to re-ignite their career.

Mama’s Got The Know-How” – Doug Kershaw (1974)

For someone as famous as he is, Doug Kershaw had only seven chart hits as a solo act, to go with his five hits as part of Rusty & Doug. This one got to #77, a fairly normal placing for his solo efforts. Although I liked this song, his Warner Brothers albums of the 1970s were mostly laconic efforts. Read more of this post

Occasional Hope’s Top 10 Albums of 2011

2011 wasn’t the best year for country, but there was still some very good music to be found if you looked for it.  Just missing the cut for my personal top 10 were fine records by the excellent Sunny Sweeney, country chart debutant Craig Campbell, independent artist Justin Haigh, blue collar bluegrass newcomer Scott Holstein, the compelling close harmonies of the Gibson Brothers,  and an enjoyable if not groundbreaking live set from Amber Digby which flew under the radar.

So what did make my cut? Read more of this post

Album Review: Vince Gill – ‘Guitar Slinger’

It’s been half a decade since Vince Gill released a new album. On that occasion, he came out with four at once, with the critically acclaimed box set These Days. This time around the same team of Vince, John Hobbs and Justin Niebank has created a more concentrated effort with 15 tracks, recorded in Vince’s home studio. Vince’s vocals sound thoroughly energised and invested in the material, all of which he wrote or co-wrote, and which I feel is more consistent in quality than that on These Days. It is definitely a mature work, with a number of the songs focussed on the prospect of death, but never a depressing one.

The joyous and amusing title track opens proceedings with a bang with many references to Vince’s life ranging from his “contemporary Christian singer” wife to last year’s Nashville floods (“half my stuff’s in the Cumberland River”. This really conveys the sheer joy of making music. In the equally lively up-tempo ‘All Nighter Comin’’ (written with Chris Stapleton and Al Anderson, and only on the deluxe version) a newly unemployed truck driver sets aside his troubles for the evening. Despite the depressing background, the mood is uplifting, and either of these songs would sound great on the radio.

The beautifully sung lead single ‘Threaten Me With Heaven’ is a tender but confident gospel ballad written with Vince’s wife Amy Grant, Will Owsley (who tragically committed suicide last year) and Dillon Osborn. Owsley and Amy also co-wrote the mid-tempo AC ‘When Lonely Comes Around’, which is pleasant but forgettable. Amy and Vince duet on their song ‘True Love’, an AC ballad which pays tribute to their relationship, “true love that found us in time”. It isn’t a particularly interesting song, but the authenticity of the emotions make it touching beyond its merits. Amy’s daughter Sarah Chapman sings harmony.

Talented singer-songwriter and now a Pistol Annie, Ashley Monroe wrote two songs with Vince. The excellent ‘If I Die’, a beautifully constructed reflection on mortality and what comes after, is one of the best tracks on a fine record. Her other contribution, ‘Who Wouldn’t Fall In Love With You’ is a low-key, tender love ballad with a pretty melody and Ashley’s distinctive voice evident on harmony.  Lee Ann Womack, meanwhile, provides tasteful backing vocals on ‘Lipstick Everywhere’, a retelling of a passionate one night stand with no subsequent regrets or repercussions. Another fine artist, Texas traditionalist Amber Digby co-wrote ‘One More Thing I Wished I’d Said’, dwelling with regret on the missed opportunities in a failed relationship. Sadly, she doesn’t sing on the track, but Dawn Sears makes a good substitute. These two are only included on the deluxe version, which is well worth the additional cost.

Read more of this post

Occasional Hope’s Top 10 Albums of 2010

While great mainstream releases have been a little thin on the ground, there’s been some good music released if you look around, on both major and minor labels. Here are my favorite albums of the year (with links to fuller reviews):

10. Aaron Watson – The Road And The Rodeo

The best Texas country album of the year by a solo male vocalist. In the opening track Aaron talks about “seldom being heard on your radio”, but this is just the sort of music which ought to be at the heart of the mainstream.

9. Dierks Bentley – Up On The Ridge

Not quite everything gelled for me on Dierks’s bluegrass-influenced project, but it was a brave attempt at artistic growth and one of the most ambitious and adventurous records of the year. He was rewarded with three CMA nominations, more airplay than bluegrass can usually command, and respectable sales figures.

8. Merle Haggard – I Am What I Am

The legend returns with his best work in years. His voice has suffered the ravages of age, but his songwriting is still inspired, with ten of the twelve tracks consisting of solo Haggard compositions which stand comparison with his past repertoire. Highlights include the reflection on the changes brought by time, ‘I’ve Seen It Go Away’, which opens and sets the tone for the album.

7. Amber Digby and Justin Trevino – Keeping Up Appearances

A delightful set of covers of classic country duets by the excellent Amber Digby with her producer Justin Trevino recall the best of country music’s proud duet tradition.

6. Brennen Leigh – The Box

A really charming set of folk-country songs with pretty tunes mostly penned by the singer. The highlight is the Louvin Brothers style ‘Are You Stringing Me Along’, but it’s all worth hearing.

5. Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song

Jamey’s magisterial double album opens with his cover of a previously unrecorded Keith Whitley song, ‘Lonely At The Top’, contrasting the miseries of fame with the greater problems of those less successful. It is chock full of songs about broken hearts, an unsentimental look at poverty (‘Poor Man Blues’, ‘Can’t Cash My Checks’), God (‘I Remember You’, ‘My Way To You’), country life, and country music itself, plus a song for Jamey’s little girl (‘Baby Don’t Cry’). Alongside the Whitley song are covers of Vern Gosdin’s ‘Set ‘Em Up Joe’, the Kris Kristofferson-penned Ray Price classic ‘For The Good Times’, and a malevolent take on ‘Mental Revenge’ (written by Mel Tillis but best known by Waylon Jennings), and legendary songwriter Bill Anderson duets with Jamey on the title track. This is not as dark as Jamey’s masterpiece That Lonesome Song, and I didn’t feel the songs were quite up to that standard. With the whole more than the sum of its parts, this is still a deeper and more challenging record than almost everything else cut in Nashville these days. Jamey has managed to sell pretty solid numbers despite the lack of a real radio hit so far this time around.

4. Marty Stuart – Ghost Train

This record was something of a revelation to me. I’ve never really got Marty Stuart’s music before, respecting his musicianship and admiring his approach, but never really loving the results. At last, this statement of what country music should be grabbed me from the first vibrant notes of opener ‘Branded’, in a set which is full of fire and energy. The backing is superb (with a handful of instrumentals including a steel guitar centered performance of ‘Crazy Arms’ by its writer Ralph Mooney). Marty’s vocals are truly heartfelt on the ballads and forceful on the up-tempo material, with wife Connie Smith duetting with him on a love song, and the material is excellent. Favorite tracks include the somber co-write with the dying Johnny Cash, ‘Hangman’.

3. Joe Diffie – Homecoming

Our August Spotlight Artist Joe’s long-awaited bluegrass album was well worth the wait. His voice sounds as good as ever and is ideally suited to the high lonesome sound, the production and musicians were spot-on, and the songs were great.

2. Joey + Rory – Album #2

I loved their debut, and their follow-up has all the charm of the original. Joey’s beautiful voice is still front and center, but Rory gets a bigger profile than previously, with the odd solo line and one lead vocal on his touching tribute to his father, ‘My Old Man’. Carl Jackson’s lovely clean production is the perfect match. Songs range from the witty sideswipe at the music industry which provides the title track to a set of sincere love songs, with a warning to a potentially erring husband (‘God Help My Man’), some western swing and country gospel along the way. This is one of those albums where you believe every word is true.

1. Ken Mellons – Rural Route

Dierks Bentley and Joe Diffie’s respective takes on bluegrass got most of the headlines this year, and both won places in my personal top 10. But for my money, the best of the lot was the underrated Ken Mellons with this superb album with character filled, emotional vocals, excellent material and outstanding bluegrass picking. It was hard to put my top five in order, but in the end this one just edged the rest. If you haven’t heard it, and like bluegrass as well as country, it really is an essential purchase.

Album Review: Amber Digby – ‘Passion, Pride, and What Might Have Been’

Amber Digby is a Nashville native who trekked to Texas to independently release her own brand of raw honky-tonk and heartbreaking stone-country laments. Released in 2008 Passion Pride, and What Might Have Been, her third release for the Heart of Texas label, is a sublime collection of country shuffles and waltzing ballads, offered with plenty pedal steel, honky-tonk piano, and just the right mix of heartbreak and redemption.

The tracklist here is made up mostly of lesser known hits from the likes of Buck Owens, Melba Montgomery, and Loretta Lynn. And this stuff isn’t lighthearted fare; Amber gets to the heart of things, and then tugs at them for a while, with just the twang and sound of loss in her voice that brings to mind Tammy Wynette, another heartbreak queen.

Digby’s lineage in the country music business certainly precedes her; the list of country dignitaries her immediate family has worked with are numerous and prolific indeed. The most telling influence on the album is Loretta Lynn, and Amber has ties to the Coal Miner’s Daughter too. Her father was a longtime bass player in Lynn’s backing band, The Coal Miner’s. Amber tackles two of Lynn’s songs here. On ‘Love Is The Foundation’, she finds the same curves in her vocal as Loretta, making it sound eerily similar. Another Loretta song, ‘Deep As Your Pocket’ doesn’t turn out as memorable, but is engaging nonetheless, especially the guitar work directly derived from Lynn’s albums.

Whether she’s singing about drowing her sorrows – ‘How You Drink The Wine’, ‘Soakin’ Wet’ – or about a marriage falling apart, and the subtle way a child notices these things, as in the country chestnut ‘She Didn’t Color Daddy’, Digby’s gin-soaked performances leave teardrops throughout the record. Listening, it’s obvious she learned from the best, and she channels that insight masterfully.

‘We’re The Kind Of People (That Make the Jukebox Play)’ closes and sums up the intended audience of Amber Digby’s music oh-so perfectly – the album’s title also comes from a line in it too. An album full of songs of lost love, loneliness, and anguish would certainly fit the kind of people who are frequently drowning the sorrow, or at least to those of us genetically predisposed to enjoy the same kind of music. Passion, Pride, and What Might Have Been is an album for that audience, and all that appreciate traditional country music in the purest form, with plenty of heartache thrown in.

Grade: A

Buy the CD from amazon.

Album Review: Mark Chesnutt – ‘Outlaw’

His fourteenth studio release finds Mark Chesnutt joining the ranks of many other artists who have released a covers album in the past two years or so. As the title suggests, Mark’s offering is a tribute to the Outlaw movement, paying tribute to the likes of Hank Williams Jr., David Allan Coe, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and borrowing heavily from the catalog of Waylon Jennings, in particular. Covering classic songs is an endeavor fraught with peril; comparisons with the original versions is inevitable. Deviating from the original version too much can alienate longtime fans, while sticking too close to the original leads to charges of not making the song one’s own. Though there are a few missteps along the way, Chesnutt largely succeeds in bringing these vintage songs back to life.

Hank Williams Jr. is a difficult artist to cover, since much of his material is autobiographical in nature. Two Bocephus songs — “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound” and “Country State of Mind” — appear here, and Chesnutt sings both of them with gusto, sounding as though he is thoroughly enjoying himself. He tackles David Allan Coe’s “A Little Time Off For Good Behavior” with equal relish, and Willie Nelson’s “Bloody Mary Morning” is also an enjoyable listen.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is Mark’s take on the Kris Kristofferson classic “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”. Johnny Cash’s definitive recording of one of the very best country songs ever written, simply cannot be topped. Chesnutt seems to realize this and unfortunately at times this seems like a phoned-in performance. His delivery lacks emotion and does not convincingly convey the feeling of loneliness and angst that the lyrics are trying to express. In additon, Pete Anderson’s production tends to get in the way. The accordian, presumably played by Flaco Jiminez, seems a bit out of place as does the organ that is meant to underscore the lyrics in the third verse about the hymns coming from a Sunday school. The overall result is a song that just plods along for nearly five minutes and made me wish I’d just listened to Cash’s version instead.

Also disappointing is Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting For A Train.” A minor hit for The Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings) in 1985, it was also recorded by Jerry Jeff Walker and David Allan Coe. It tells the story of a relationship between a relatively young man and a much older one. It starts out well enough, but about halfway through the production begins to drown out the vocals.

Half of the songs on the album are remakes of Waylon Jennings hits, so at times, Outlaw seems more of a Jennings tribute album than a salute to the Outlaw movement in general. Since Chesnutt is a huge Jennings fan, and even named his eldest son Waylon, this is not entirely unexpected. At times it’s hard to take Mark seriously as an outlaw, unlike Waylon who actually lived through much of what he sang about, but for the most part the Jennings covers work well. He wisely avoids some of Waylon’s better known material such as “Luchenbach, Texas” and “Just To Satisfy You” opting instead to cover some lesser-known gems such as “Black Rose” and “Freedom To Stay”.

“A Couple More Years”, written by Dennis Locorriere and Shel Silverstein, and previously recorded by both Jennings and Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show, is by far the best song on the album. Chesnutt is joined by Amber Digby on this one, and though lyrically it makes for a somewhat awkward duet — they each sing to each other, “I’ve got a couple more years on you babe, and that’s all” — the vocal peformances by Chesnutt and Digby more than compensate for this lack of logic. Another highlight of the album is “Lovin’ Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again)”. This seems like the type of song that might have been a hit if it had been released during Mark’s MCA years, though the chances that radio will play this song now are slim. It is however, an example of Mark Chesnutt at his best; on this track he truly shines.

I’m not sure that there’s much on Outlaw to appeal to casual fans, but longtime Mark Chesnutt fans will want to seek it out. It will be released on June 22 on the Saguaro Road label. It is currently available for pre-order at Amazon.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Amber Digby and Justin Trevino – ‘Keeping Up Appearances’

Only a few months after the release of her last solo album, Amber Digby is back with a collection of duets with her longterm producer Justin Trevino, a recording artist in his own right with a vibrato-laden tenor reminiscent of the country music of the 1960s. Their voices blend together very well, bearing comparison with the classic duos of the past, and the result is a delightful record which sounds as though it could have been made 40 years ago yet has a timeless feel. The production (credited jointly to Amber and Justin) is exemplary, with the musicians including Amber’s husband Randy Lindley on various guitars and stepfather Dickie Overbey on steel.

As has become customary for an Amber Digby record, everything here is a cover (mostly from the 1960s or early 1970s), but the pair have mixed in some obscure cuts in with the better known songs, and the quality of the 14 songs selected is uniformly high. The subject matter is exclusively relationships: love songs, cheating songs, and tales of marital unhappiness.

My favorite track on the album is the pair’s version of ‘Lead Me On’, a smash hit in 1971 for Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn. This has a couple on the verge of an illicit relationship and wanting some encouragement. The vocals are particularly outstanding here from both Justin and Amber.

The fiddle-led ‘Which One is To Blame’ is another delightful cheating song mixing regret and desire, with Amber and Justin swapping lines through the song, as they share the anguish of forbidden love:

Amber: Somehow I can’t blame myself
Although I guess I should
Justin: And I can’t put the blame on you
I wouldn’t if I could
Amber: We’ve made ourselves the gossip of the town
Justin: The things we’ve done can only bring us shame
Together: We’ve let our passion drag our honor down
I wonder which one of us is to blame

There is less penitence in the defiant passion of ‘After The Fire Is Gone’, where the couple blame their infidelity on a moribund marriage. This is a great song which has been recorded so many times I sighed inwardly when I initially saw it on the track listing, but this is a very fine version which is well worth hearing.

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Album Review: Miss Leslie – ‘Wrong Is What I Do Best’

This blog’s very first Spotlight Artist, back in January 2009, was the independent neotraditionalist Miss Leslie, who has just released her fourth album. She is not as great a vocalist as Amber Digby (to whom she can be compared in many respects) , but she has the advantage over her of being a songwriter. She has written all but one of the 14 songs on this album, and they are all pretty solid songs in the traditional honky tonk style. The instrumental backing is positively drenched with Miss Leslie’s own fiddle and her husband Ricky Davis on steel, and this record is a sheer joy to listen to from start to finish.

Miss Leslie balances her musical diet of hard honky tonk music and themes rooted in the traditions of country music, with the sensibility and experiences of a 21st century woman in what she calls a ‘patriarchal world’ in the liner notes. These contemporary attitudes are evident from the opening track ‘I Need Me (A Whole Lot More Than I Need You)’ as the protagonist determinedly reclaims some self-respect when she decides she’s better off single and lonely than trying to be what her lover wants.

The theme almost bookends the set, as towards the end of the album we see someone defeated in the same battle. ‘She Gave Up On Herself’ tells the story of a woman who gives too much of herself to the man “she thought she needed so bad” and loses “the best thing she had”, her sense of self. The protagonist of ‘I Can’t Live With You, But I Can’t Love Without You’, is determined not to make that mistake, as she struggles to cope with a difficult relationship, where love is not enough to make everything okay.

Modern technology makes an appearance in the irresistible up-tempo tale of the ‘Drunk Dialer’, who incessantly calls, voicemails and texts her unfortunate sober and sleeping friends through the early hours of the morning. The vibrant title track balances traditional themes with the modern world, with Miss Leslie boldly claiming the honky tonking attitude more usually associated with male performers:

You say that it’s wrong
You’re tired of me leavin’
You’re tired of my late nights
Drunk fights
And mornings without a sound
You got one thing right
I’ve stopped believing
And it makes no sense at all
For me to stick around

Because wrong is what I do best
If I’m not good enough for you
I’ve got one choice left
I try to do what’s right but I end up wrong
And I’m tired of failing all your tests
Because wrong is what I do best

A little more conventionally, ‘Anyone’ is a neat little swipe at an ex who claimed anyone would be better than her, and finds out the hard way he’s wrong:

Anyone could love him and I hear he’s had a few
Yet he still goes on searching for just anyone that will do
So he’s found out that not anyone could be everything he needs
He’s not looking for just anyone
He’s just looking for me

Sad songs and broken hearts are the life blood of country music, and I love the classic sounding heartbreak ballad ‘Turn Around’, where Leslie begs her man not to leave, with copious steel and a beautiful tune. In the deeply resigned ‘All You Do Is Make Me Cry’ the protagonist has given up, realizing there’s no point talking it over any more. ‘There’s Two People Here Not Talking’ is a wry look at a couple not communicating.

Elsewhere, we share the story of a lovelorn woman with a crush on the guitarist playing in her local bar ‘Every Tuesday Night’, with its wider resonance:

Love is just a memory for a broken heart
As you try hard to forget who you have known
But a honky tonk can cure what pulls us all apart
For we’re fools who once a week rely on songs to turn us on

There is clearly going to be a happier ending for the couple in the engaging ‘Let’s Start Over’, as independent traditional country artist Jason Allen joins her on a very retro-styled let’s-get-back-together duet which is very pleasing, with their voices blending well.

There really isn’t a track here I don’t like; the closest is the up-tempo ‘Lie Lie Lie’, which is just okay but doesn’t stick in the mind. The dramatic closing track ‘The Last Time I Drank’ is the confession by a woman who kills her child drunk driving. This may verge a little on the melodramatic, but it is emotionally convincing, and is part of a long tradition of tragic songs of this kind in country music.

The one song Leslie did not write herself comes from her sister Hilary Sloan, and moves out of the honky tonks. ‘Some Things They Can’t Take Away’ is a serious and heartfelt response to the economic downturn, based on its impact on one person. This deeply emotional, sympathetically delivered, song is the highlight of the record, urging a loved one who can’t find work and is struggling to make ends meet, to hold on to their undying human spirit:

Hold on to the little that’s left of your pride
Keep it close to you deep down inside
And remember there’s one who will love you always
Some things they can’t take away

You imagined that you’d find a better life here
Couldn’t get no worse, this must be your year
If you could only break even, then you’d be okay
But you’re back to begging – you’d do anything

Miss Leslie is an artist who is getting better with every release, and this album is thoroughly recommended to anyone who enjoys the more traditional honky tonk end of country music.

Grade: A

You can listen to and buy the Wrong Is What I Do Best from Miss Leslie’s official site.

Album Review: Loretta Lynn – ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’

Like most of her contemporaries in the 1960s and 1970s, Loretta Lynn was clearly a singles artist.  Her albums were typically built around one or two hit singles, with cover versions of other artists’ hits and other tunes that weren’t considered strong enough for single release providing the album filler.  This is the approach that was used with 1970’s Coal Miner’s Daughter, but the result was a much stronger album than she usually turned out during this era.

The title track, Lynn’s signature hit, is the only single from the album.  Recorded in October 1969, it tells the story of her poverty-stricken childhood in Kentucky.  Decca had reservations about the song’s commercial viability and did not release it until May 1970.  It slowly but steadily climbed the charts until it reached the #1 spot in December.  It was Loretta’s fourth #1, and her first entry into the Billboard Hot 100, where it peaked at #83.   The tune went on to lend its title to Loretta’s autobiography and the film it inspired, in 1976 and 1980, respectively.

Five of the album’s eleven tracks are covers of hits by other artists, but Loretta  treats them respectfully and never dismisses them as album filler.  Her rendition of her buddy Conway Twitty’s signature hit “Hello Darlin'” is a by-the-numbers interpretation, as are her takes on Ray Price’s “For The Good Times” (written by Kris Kristofferson), Anne Murray’s “Snowbird” and Marty Robbins’ “Too Far.”  Her version of Glen Campbell’s catchy “A Little Less of Me” is excellent.

Of the remaining five songs, “Any One, Any Worse, Anywhere”, written by Loretta with Lorene Allen and Charlie Aldridge’s “It’ll Be Open Season On You” are the weak links, but the other three are first-rate and one wonders why Decca didn’t make any attempt to market them as single releases.  Possibly “Another Man Loved Me Last Night”,  written by Lorene Allen and Loretta’s sister Peggy Sue Wells and later covered by Amber Digby, was considered too risque for country radio in 1970, though much greater risks were taken a few years later with controversial hits such as “Rated X”, “Wings Upon Your Horns”, and “The Pill.”    “The Man of the House” is a typical Loretta-as-the-put-upon-and-fed-up-neglected-wife song, and along with her original composition “What Makes Me Tick” is one of my favorites in this collection.   The latter in particular had the potential to be a monster hit, in my opinion.  It’s amazing that no other artists ever took advantage of Loretta’s missed opportunity to cover the song themselves.

Coal Miner’s Daughter was one of only a handful of Loretta’s studio albums to be issued on CD.   It was her second studio album and third album overall to earn gold certification from the RIAA.   It is out of print in CD form but used copies can be purchased from third-party sellers on Amazon.  It is also available as a digital download from Amazon MP3 and iTunes.  Please be aware that Coal Miner’s Daughter is frequently used as the title for other compilations and live-in-concert recordings that are often of dubious quality.

Grade: A

Album Review: Amber Digby – ‘Another Way To Live’

Amber Digby has earned herself a reputation as one of the finest young singers of traditional country music. Her fourth album is produced by the artist herself with husband Randy Lindley and Justin Trevino, like last year’s excellent Passion, Pride And What Might Have Been, with the same reliable production values reminiscent of the best 1960s country with lashings of fiddle and steel and a song selection policy majoring in heartbreak.

This record marks a departure of sorts in that hitherto, Amber has recorded almost exclusively revivals of older songs. Now for the first time she includes three songs she has co-written herself, but they remain firmly in the honky tonk tradition. The best of these is ‘After It Breaks’, which she wrote with Dan Powers, a classic-sounding emotional sad song with a genuinely affecting vocal performance:

With you I dealt with heartache at every turn
I witnessed true love all but crash and burn
Maybe now my soul will find the time
To get rest and find some peace of mind
Since you don’t come around here anymore
Cause I’ve cried over you just long enough
To wash away the pain no one can touch
Now gettin’ over you should be easy to take
Cause a heart don’t hurt as much after it breaks

This lovely song is the highlight of the album. Had it been written in 1965, it might now be regarded as a country classic.

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