My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Andy Leftwich

Album Review: Merle Haggard and Mac Wiseman – ‘Timeless’

timelessIt would never have occurred to me that Merle Haggard and Mac Wiseman would team up on an album, but I am sure glad that they did, and that the album is widely available through Cracker Barrel. Produced by Ronnie Reno, son of bluegrass legend Don Reno, the album finds Merle and Mac playing a bluegrass set with a band comprised of with Rob Ickes (dobro), Carl Jackson (guitar), Aubrey Haynie (fiddle), Andy Leftwich (fiddle/mandolin), Ben Isaacs (acoustic bass), and special guests Vince Gill (tenor vocals), Marty Stuart (mandolin/guitar), Sonya Isaacs (high harmony) and Becky Isaacs (tenor harmony).

Mac Wiseman has long been known as the “voice with a heart” , but perhaps he should also be known as “the voice with staying power” as the ninety year old Wiseman shows that he has lost little over the years. In contrast, the seventy-eight year older Haggard has lost more of his vocal prowess over the years. Even so, he still sings well.

Although Haggard is by far the bigger star of the two, the disc is truly a collaborative effort with more than half of the repertoire being songs associated with Wiseman, although one could argue that the entire program is Wiseman since Mac sings anything and everything in the broad spectrum of country music. Merle & Mac sing together on six of the album’s thirteen tracks, Vince Gill is on two tracks as a vocalist, one with Merle and one with Mac. Merle has three solo vocals and Mac has two solo tracks.

The disc opens up with “If Teardrops Were Pennies”, a Carl Butler composition that was a big Carl Smith hit from 1951 ( the duo of Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton covered it in the early 1970s). The song has been in Mac’s repertoire forever. Merle and Mac swap verses on this one. The song is taken at mid tempo.

Similarly, the Tommy Collins composition “High On A Hilltop” has been in Merle’s repertoire forever. This track features Vince Gill on harmony vocal. I’ve never heard the song done as bluegrass before, but good songs normally are adaptable to any treatment, and so it proves here.

It would be unthinkable to do this album without featuring the three songs most intimately associated with Mac Wiseman. The first of these songs, Mac’s “I Wonder How The Old Folks Are At Home” has Merle and Mac swapping verses. The song has become a bluegrass standard.

The same can’t be said for another Wiseman composition, “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight”, but it’s a good song on which Merle and Mac swap verses.

“Learning To Live With Myself” is a Merle Haggard composition that wasn’t ever a single, but is a thoughtful song that Merle sings as a solo. The harmony work by Sonya Isaacs and Becky Isaacs is very nice.

“Jimmy Brown The Newsboy” is the second of the three Wiseman signature songs on the album. I think every bluegrass band in the world has this song in their repertoire, as well they should. Mac sings the verses, Merle does the introduction and harmonizes on the chorus, This is a great track, possibly my favorite on the album. Ronnie Reno adds tenor vocals.

If there is one song people instantly associate with Merle Haggard, it has to be “Mama Tried”. Merle solos the vocal on this track. I love Rob Ickes’ dobro work on this track. This is the only track on the project of a song that was a hit single for Merle. Ronnie Reno, a former member of Haggard’s Strangers, plays guitar on this track.

“Sunny Side of Life”, also known as “Keep On The Sunny Side” is an old Carter Family song that has been sung by country, folk and bluegrass singers for the last 70+ years. Mac and Merle swap verses on this one with producer Ronnie Reno adding tenor vocals.

John Duffey, a founding member of both the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene, wrote “Bringing Mary Home” while a member of the Country Gentlemen. The song was one the Country Gentlemen’s signature songs, tackled here as a solo by Mac Wiseman. Mac has been singing the song forever and inhabits the verses of the song as only he can.

Vince Gill assists Mac on the third of Mac’s signature songs, Mac’s composition “Tis Sweet To Be Remembered”. I first heard the song with Mac singing it on the WWVA Big Jamboree radio show sometime during the mid-1960s. I loved the song then and now, and although it is impossible to pick a favorite Mac Wiseman song among the thousands of great songs he has sung, if I had to do it, it would be this song.

Both Merle Haggard and Mac Wiseman are devout Christians and the album closes out with three religious songs.

“Two Old Christian Soldiers” is a Merle Haggard composition that Merle and Mac swap verses on this one. Taken at mid-tempo, their battle is against the devil and time, “working off their debt to the Lord.”

The last two songs are a pair of solo efforts, “Lord Don’t Give Up On Me”, a Haggard song sung solo by Merle and “Hold Fast To The Right”, a Wiseman copyright which Mac solos and Ronnie Reno plays guitar.

These ‘two old Christian soldiers’ have had many hit records and successful albums, and it would have been too easy to record an album that romps through their greatest hits. Instead, what we have here is a thoughtful, organic program that forms a cohesive album. I can’t pick out one standout track since the album has so many great tracks. Suffice it to say, this disc has been playing in my car for the last three weeks.

Track Listing:
1. If Teardrops Were Pennies (Merle/Mac)
2. High On A Hilltop (Merle/Vince)
3. I Wonder How The Old Folks Are At Home (Mac/Merle)
4. I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight (Merle/Mac)
5. Learning To Live With Myself (Merle)
6. Jimmy Brown The Newsboy (Mac/Merle)
7. Mama Tried (Merle)
8. Sunny Side of Life (Mac/Merle)
9. Bringing Mary Home (Mac)
10. Tis Sweet To Be Remembered (Mac/Vince)
11. Old Christian Soldiers (Merle/Mac)
12. Lord Don’t Give Up On Me (Merle)
13. Hold Fast to the Right (Mac)

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Album Review: Donna Ulisse – ‘Showin’ My Roots’

showin my rootsFor the past few years former country singer Donna Ulisse has been making a name for herself as a bluegrass singer-songwriter. I’ve enjoyed her music in that vein, but a small part of me hankered after the neotraditional country singer she started out as. Now she has combined the two sides to her music in a nod to her musical roots, re-imagining the country classics she grew up listening to, in a bluegrass setting, with a few bluegrass songs thrown in. The result is a joy to listen to.

Donna produced the record with acoustic guitarist Bryan Sutton. The band consists of some of the finest bluegrass studio musicians: Sutton, Scott Vestal on banjo, Rob Ickes on dobro, Andy Leftwich on fiddle and mandolin, and either Viktor Krauss (on most tracks) or Byron House on upright bass.

A pair of new songs bookend the album, both written by Donna with her husband Rick Stanley. The charming title track sets the mood and dwells on the influence on her of Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens, Dolly Parton and Carter Stanley. Fayssoux Maclean sings harmony. ‘I’ve Always Had A Song I Could Lean On’ is a fond reminiscence of a music-filled childhood.

Donna plays tribute to Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette with confident, sassy versions of ‘Fist City’ and ‘Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad’, both of which I enjoyed very much. A thoughtful and convincing take on Dolly Parton’s ‘In The Good Old Days When Times Were Bad’ acts as Donna’s nod to both Dolly and to Haggard, whose cover influenced this version.

Donna’s husband is a cousin of Carter and Ralph Stanley, and Donna’s version of the Stanley Brothers’ ‘How Mountain Girls Can Love’ is bright and charming. The finest moments on this album are the ballads. A beautifully measured version of Ralph Stanley’s deeply mournful ‘If That’s The Way You Feel’ is my favorite track. Larry Cordle and Carl Jackson add harmonies to this exquisite reading.

Almost as good, ‘Somebody Somewhere (Don’t Know What He’s Missing Tonight)’, a Loretta Lynn hit written by Lola Jean Fawbush, is lonely and longing, with the gorgeous tone Donna displayed on her 1990s country records, and a very spare, stripped down arrangement. Absolutely wonderful.

Donna is sincere and compelling on ‘Wait A Little Longer Please, Jesus’, a favorite of her father. I also enjoyed the traditional ‘Take This Hammer’ (the first song Donna ever sang in public, as a small child) with guest Sam Bush sharing the vocals. A sweet and tenderly romantic ‘Send Me The Pillow That You Dream On’ is delicately pretty.

‘I Hope You Have Learned’ was written in the 1950s by Donna’s great-uncle Gene Butler, who spent a short period in Nashville working as a songwriter. It is a high lonesome bluegrass ballad whose protagonist is in prison for murdering a romantic rival, and wants to know if the spouse will be waiting on release. Donna twists the genders around but otherwise this is faithful to the original, recorded by Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe.

The only disappointment for me was Rodney Crowell’s ‘One Way Rider’, which boasts sparkling playing by the musicians, but although Donna tackles it with enthusiasm, it feels a little characterless despite John Cowan’s harmony providing some flavor.

This is one of a number of excellent bluegrass/country albums to emerge this year, but Donna’s beautiful, expressive vocals, which are at their best on this album, make this one not to be missed. Her interpretative ability means that she brings her own contribution even to the best-known songs, and this is thoroughly recommended.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Dailey & Vincent – ‘Brothers Of the Highway’

brothers of the highwayAfter a detour with their Statler Brothers tribute and two gospel releases, the duo who burst onto the bluegrass scene in 2008-2009 are back on Rounder with an exceptional album mixing old and new material. The duo is in fine form vocally, with Jamie Dailey generally taking the lead and Darrin Vincent providing a close harmony, but they vary the arrangements as best suits each song. The band is augmented by the brilliant fiddler Andy Leftwich and acoustic guitarist Bryan Sutton, among others.

The sometimes frenetic pace and constantly changing rhythms of the opening ‘Steel Drivin’ Man’ make for an arresting start, and the music never let’s go. It is one of two Jamie Dailey compositions, and may be the first country or bluegrass song to be inspired by reading a Wikipedia article. The subject may have been garnered at second-hand, but the story sounds as authentic as if it were a traditional number, while the lengthy instrumental passages allow the band to show off their musical chops. Dailey’s other song here, ‘Back To Jackson County’, is pleasantly nostalgic about a childhood in the country. The similarly titled ‘Back To Hancock County’, written by Pete Goble and Leroy Drumm, has a little more substance with its wistful consciousness of change. It is one of a few songs where Darrin shares the lead vocals with Jamie evenly, as they do on the playful Porter Wagoner top 20 country hit ‘Howdy Neighbor Howdy’, another opportunity for an instrumental showcase.

Dailey & Vincent are challenged only by the Gibson Brothers among current proponents of close bluegrass harmony, and their version of the Louvin Brothers’ ‘When I Stop Dreaming’ is simply perfect. Darrin takes the lead vocal, and does an excellent job, with Jamie’s harmony vocal twining around it on the chorus to create a magical sound. Darrin also sings lead, and band members Jeff Parker and Christian Davis add a full spectrum of voices to the harmony on the well-played and sung but otherwise unremarkable ‘Big River’.

Bill Monroe’s bluegrass classic ‘Close By’ gets Jamie’s highest high lonesome vocal with no harmony and more superb playing. ‘Tomorrow I’ll Be Gone’ is a Wilma Lee Cooper song which has been recorded by a number of bluegrass artists including Monroe; Dailey & Vincent’s version is as excellent as one would expect.

A gentle laid back take on ‘Brothers Of The Highway’, the ode to truckers recorded by George Strait on his Troubadour set, is an unexpected inclusion, but a very welcome one. Jimmy Fortune of the Statler Brothers adds a third harmony voice. Gospel tune ‘It Will Be Wonderful Over There’ gets a Statlers-style gospel quartet arrangement.

Vince Gill’s ‘Hills Of Caroline’ gets a stripped down arrangement and spare lead vocal very reminiscent of Gill’s version, with a delicate harmony – simple and beautiful, and another outstanding moment. Kathy Mattea’s 80s chart-topper ‘Where’ve You Been’, with its sensitive portrayal of a couple divided by Alzheimers but united in love, has a full-scale string section backing Jamie’s vocal, making it the one song not to adhere to traditional bluegrass stylings. It works quite well, but is slightly out-of-place.

This is the best bluegrass album I’ve heard in a couple of years – and my favorite record so far this year.

Grade: A+

Get it at amazon.

Album Review: Donna Ulisse – ‘All The Way To Bethlehem’

donna ulisse - all the way to bethlehemMost Christmas records lead towards celebrating secular cheer, generally recycling the same songs every other Christmas album includes. It makes a refreshing change when someone starts from scratch. Country artist turned bluegrass singer-songwriter Donna Ulisse has done it now, with a collection of songs she wrote herself to retell the Biblical story of the birth of Jesus, each exploring the emotions of a different character. Everything is brought to life by Donna’s pure, crystalline vocals, backed up by sensitive, almost completely acoustic, arrangements which really defy genre.

The opening ‘I See The Light Of The World’ has a pretty melody and a hopeful feel which sets the mood for the story to be retold.

In the delicately pretty ‘You Will Be Delivered’ Donna plays the part of the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, gently soothing Mary’s fears. Marc Rossi composed a beautiful tune for Donna’s lyric on this song, and also co-wrote the joyful ‘Elisabeth’ (about Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, during their respective pregnancies, with Donna playing the part of Mary). Andy Leftwich’s liquid fiddle is particularly notable here.

‘He’s Not Mine’ offers the point of view of Joseph, tenderly anticipating raising the child of God; this was written by Donna with husband and wife team Kerry and Lynn Chater, and is another beautiful track. Donna then duets with her husband Rick Stanley to represent Mary and Joseph on their journey ‘All The Way To Bethlehem’, also written with the Chaters. Rick is an unexceptional vocalist, but he is convincing enough here.

It is of course the innkeeper who declare ‘You Cannot Stay Here’, but offers them the stable instead. Donna’s reading of the innkeeper’s personality is a kindly one, and this pretty song was the inspiration for the whole project.

‘Let The World Wait For A Little While’ is a tender lullaby for the newborn baby Jesus, with a more classical feel to the accompaniment. Donna wrote it with her husband. ‘He Is Here’ is Gabriel again, announcing the birth to the shepherds.

‘I’m Gonna Shine’ is an ambitious attempt at interpreting the role of the star guiding the wise men to Bethlehem, which is unfortunately rather boring. Stars, being nonhuman, might lack personality, but I doubt that was the intent of what is the only track on this album that doesn’t really work for me, although the instrumentation is attractive.

The magi unwisely declare ‘We’ve Come to Worship Him’ to Herod – this song, written with Marc Rossi, has the drama and energy of the original story.

She closes with the shepherds celebrating ‘Morning In Bethlehem’ with a faint Celtic feel courtesy of Jon Mock’s penny whistle and concertina. It serves as a suitable reflection on the aftermath of the birth of Jesus, and a satisfying closing track.

The fairly slow pacing doesn’t vary much from song to song. The acoustic accompaniments provide a subtle backdrop for what is more of a series of religious meditations on the Christmas story than a conventional “Christmas album”. This is not the record to play at a Christmas party, or to get you in a festive mood. It is for quiet contemplation of the Christmas story and message, and it is entirely successful.

Grade: A

Album Review: Alan Jackson – ‘Freight Train’

I was distinctly underwhelmed by Alan’s last album, Good Time, and as a result I was concerned about what to expect this time around, especially as I wasn’t impressed by the lead single. Thankfully the album is a considerable improvement. Alan has written most of the songs again, but he seems to have regained his muse, which was noticably lacking last time around. Keith Stegall is in the producer’s chair as usual; always reliable, he does one of his best jobs here, making every song sound good.

After that initial sense of apprehension, then, it was with a great sense of relief that I heard this album kicking off with some fiddle as ‘Hard Hat And A Hammer’ (one of the tracks which was pre-released on iTunes) opens the album with one of the best of Alan’s trademark tributes to the working man, described here as the “kind of glue that sticks this world together”. In the outro, he even remembers to include a nod to the working woman.

In contrast, there is a paean to the joys of escaping from it all for a life at sea in ‘That’s Where I Belong’.

That lead single and current top 20 hit ‘It’s Just That Way’ is one of the few songs not written by Alan himself; it comes from producer Keith Stegall, Vicky McGehee and Kylie Sackley, and is one of the record’s dullest moments. Alan sings it beautifully, but the song is just plain dull. I cannot imagine why it was thought a suitable first single. The only other song as lackluster on this set is Alan’s own ‘Big Green Eyes’.

A more enjoyable love song is the beauty and cheerful ‘I Could Get Used To This Lovin’ Thing’; it breaks no new ground lyrically but is enjoyable to listen to. The closing ‘The Best Keeps Getting Better’ is a more mature appreciation of a love which has grown stronger and deeper over time despite ups and downs, which is clearly addressed to Alan’s wife of 30 years – the perfect anniversary song:

We thought the best would be behind us
But the best keeps getting better all the time

We learned how to love
And how to make up
And found what it takes to be enough
Like a 30 year old wine
Hearts intertwined
The best keeps getting better all the time

I love you now more than ever

Alan draws more inspiration from his family with ‘After 17’, a tender portrait of his daughter as a young woman growing up, and “suddenly a child no more” as she tries to “find her place in this crazy world”.

The other love song here is the charming ‘True Love Is A Golden Ring’, which Alan wrote with Roger Murrah a few years ago and gave his nephew Adam and his wife and singing partner Shannon (the Wrights) to record on their excellent self-titled eight-track EP. Alan’s own version, which should bring this lovely song to a wider audience, features Rhonda Vincent on backing vocals, way back in the mix.

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