My Kind of Country

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Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Orthophonic Joy’

orthophonic joyThis project seems to have been in the works for some time, as I remember hearing about it last summer with a projected release date of October 2014. Now at last it has made its way into the world, and it was worth the wait.

It is a tribute to the 1927-8 recording sessions in Bristol, Tennessee, which really created country music as a recording genre, with the artists including Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. A generous 18 tracks, spread across two discs, interspersed with spoken segments by Eddie Stubbs, veteran Opry compere. The songs are performed by a range of latterday luminaries, while Stubbs provides informative commentary which is well worth listening to, with small snippets from the original recordings. Carl Jackson acts as producer, and the musicians do a wonderful job recreating the original backings.

The Carter Family were one of the great successes of early country music, and several of the songs they sang at Bristol are included in this project. Emmylou Harris takes on ‘Bury Me Under The Willow’, another traditional song which was the first song the Carters recorded. Ashley Monroe’s version ‘The Storms Are On The Ocean’ is very charming and one of my favourite tracks here. Rock (and occasional country) singer Sheryl Crow sings ‘The Wandering Boy’ very well.

Vince Gill isn’t the most obvious choice to play the part of Jimmie Rodgers, but ‘The Soldier’s Sweetheart’ is a ballad well suited to his plaintive vocal, and this WWI ballad is another highlight.

Ernest ‘Pop’ Stoneman was already an established recording artist when he contributed to the Bristol sessions with various musical partners. One of the songs he performed, the religious ‘I Am Resolved’, is performed here by the Shotgun Rubies, with bluegrass singer Val Storey’s sweet, tender lead vocal.

Religious songs were a very important element of the repertoire of these early musicians. Bluegrass legend Doyle Lawson and his band Quicksilver tackle the traditional gospel tune ‘I’m Redeemed’, originally recorded by the little known Alcoa Quartet, a local acappella group, whose name came from the steelworks where two of the men worked.

Dolly Parton sings ‘When They Ring Those Golden Bells’, recorded at Bristol by the Reverend Alfred Karnes, and does so with great sincerity. Karnes’ selections are well represented in this project. The roots of country, blues and gospel all draw from the same well and blues musician Keb Mo’ performs a soulful version of ‘To The Work’, with the help of a 12 year old protege. The Church Sisters take on the slow ‘Where We’ll Never Grow Old’.

Marty Stuart brings great energy to the banjo tune ‘Black Eyed Susie’, originally recorded by a local farmer. Comedian and banjo player Steve Martin is joined by the Steep Canyon Rangers for the Tenneva Ramblers’ comic ‘Sweet Heaven When I Die’. Glen Campbell’s children Shannon and Ashley sing Blind Alfred Reed’s tale of a real life train tragedy, ‘The Wreck Of The Old Virginian’, and do a fine job.

Larry Cordle sings ‘Gotta Catch That Train’, supported by the Virginian Luthiers, a band led by a grandson of the fiddler on the original session. Bluegrass star Jesse McReynolds, now 85, and another grandson of an original musician from the Bristol sessions, plays that grandfather’s fiddle on ‘Johnny Goodwin’ (now better known as The Girl I Left Behind’), one of the tunes he recorded.

Superstar Brad Paisley is joined by producer Carl Jackson for a beautifully played and nicely harmonised version of ‘In The Pines’. Jackson takes the lead on the murder ballad ‘Pretty Polly’, recorded at Bristol by the uneducated farmer B F Shelton, who also recorded the moonshine fuelled ‘Darling Cora’. 20 year old newcomer Corbin Hayslett sings and plays banjo on the latter, and he has a very authentic old-time style which defies his youth.

The Chuck Wagon Gang close proceedings with the choral ‘Shall we Gather At The River’, the last song recorded at Bristol, joined by the massed artists involved in this project.

I would have liked the liner notes to be included with the digital version of the album, but Stubbs’ knowledgeable discussion betwee songs makes up for this lack. This is a very educational album which brings home the significance of the sessions and their place in music history. It is also highly enjoyable listening, beautifully played, arranged and produced.

Grade: A

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Week ending 3/14/15: #1 singles this week in country music history

The-Statler-Brothers-Jimmy-Fortune-Lineup1955 (Sales): In The Jailhouse Now — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1955 (Jukebox): In The Jailhouse Now — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1955 (Disc Jockeys): In The Jailhouse Now — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1965: I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1975: Linda On My Mind — Conway Twitty (MCA)

1985: My Only Love — The Statler Brothers (Mercury)

1995: You Can’t Make A Heart Love Somebody — George Strait (MCA)

2005: Bless The Broken Road — Rascal Flatts (Lyric Street)

2015: Take Your Time — Sam Hunt (MCA)

2015 (Airplay): Lonely Tonight — Blake Shelton ft. Ashley Monroe (Warner Bros.)

Soundtrack Review: Various Artists – ‘Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me’

GC_ART_COVER_IllBeMe_Soundtrack_2015.01.15_FNL-2After going public with his Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 2011, Glen Campbell embarked on a final tour in support of his then recently released Ghost On The Canvas album. Director James Keach followed Campbell, capturing the journey for his film Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me.

The documentary, released last August, centers on Campbell’s struggles with the disease and goes behind the scenes of the tour. An EP co-produced by Dann Huff, consisting of five tracks, including three by Campbell himself, accompanied the film. A full-length soundtrack was released earlier this month.

The album includes “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” which Campbell wrote with the soundtrack’s co-producer Julian Raymond. His final studio recording, the track took home the Best Country Song Grammy and was nominated for an Oscar while its music video will compete for an ACM Award in April.

An aching piano ballad “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” is the haunting reflection of a man with a fading memory, singing to the wife he’ll leave behind. With that premise the hook is rather unapologetic, which matches his bluntly authoritative vocal performance.

Campbell also has four other songs on the soundtrack. “All I Need Is You” is an AC leaning string-soaked ballad while “The Long Walk Home” harkens back to his classic work with beautiful flourishes of gently strummed acoustic guitar.

The other two songs come from an historic concert Campbell gave at The Ryman Auditorium. “A Better Place” is a beautiful mid-tempo number while the other is a soaring rendition of “Wichita Lineman.” Campbell gives a deeply effecting vocal performance on his classic tune, even ending with a haunting wail of “and I’m doing fine,” which has the audience erupting in cheers.

Apart from the man himself, the soundtrack features a revelatory turn by The Band Perry on a cover of his 1967 hit “Gentle On My Mind.” The band shines with the banjo drenched backwoods arrangement that nicely modernizes the tune without sacrificing the unique qualities that endeared it to audiences more than forty-five years ago. The track appears in two versions, which are both excellent. I prefer the ‘single version,’ though, because it leads off with the banjo (opposed to a solo vocal opening by Kimberly) and gets to the goods much faster.

Campbell’s daughter Ashley takes the lead on the soundtrack’s remaining two songs. “Remembering” is beautiful autobiographical ballad, accentuated with ribbons of dobro and acoustic guitar, about her promise to keep her father’s fading memories alive. “Home Again” picks up the pace, with gently rolling banjo, and tells the tale of a daughter that has seen the world and now desires to go back to where she came from.

The highlight of Ashley’s tracks is how the production perfectly frames her voice, which has a sweet quality not unlike that of another Ashley (Monroe). The rest of the record is excellent, too, because it serves as the perfect snapshot of a man’s poignant reflections as he’s robbed of the life he’s always known.

Grade: B+

Single Review: Ashley Monroe – ‘On To Something Good’

10897474_10152665343499290_10152665343189290_32068_427_bAnother day, another artist gifting us the first taste of their forthcoming album. This time it’s Ashley Monroe, timing this new single to come just as her ridiculous duet with Blake Shelton ascends to upper levels of the country charts.

Ashley Monroe will always be a step above every attempt mainstream Nashville makes to break her through to the big leagues. “Like A Rose” is a masterpiece, one of the best singles of the decade thus far, and criminally unheard by those who only know her from “Lonely Tonight,” “Bruises,” or her work as one-third of the Pistol Annies.

“On To Something Good” attempts to be the middle ground between the two, occupying a space we’ve yet to see her in. On the onset the track feels like the most frivolous thing she’s ever recorded. Without a compelling story for Monroe to sink her teeth into, we’re left with the least amount of depth she’s ever displayed on a solo single.

So, why does “On To Something Good” work so well? Well, Monroe had the smarts to retain Vince Gill and Justin Niebank, the team behind Like A Rose. They gift us with a slinky psychedelic production that’s easily the most engaging of almost any single currently vying for our attention. It’s upbeat, cool, and the perfect match for Monroe’s perfectly effervescent vocal.

We’ve often seen female artists try to pull of contentment, but few do it is effortlessly as Monroe. She straddles the fine line between genuine and schmaltzy, drawing us in to feel her happiness right along with her. Monroe makes it looks easy, but she’s in a rare class.

Is “On To Something Good” Monroe’s finest moment? No, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less engaging than anything else she’s ever done. I cannot wait to hear the rest of this album.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Angaleena Presley – ‘American Middle Class’

angaleena-presley-album-american-middle-class-2014-08-1000pxFor her solo debut, Pistol Annie Angaleena Presley took the unconventional approach of self-producing the album along with her Husband Jordan Powell. Released earlier this month on Slate Creek Records, American Middle Class is one of the most authentic creations of self-expression you’ll likely hear all year.

Presley, who hails from Beauty, Kentucky, faced an uphill battle in Nashville where she couldn’t get signed to a major label. Then she landed her big break as ‘Holler Annie’ in the trio also consisting of Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe. As a songwriter, her “Fastest Girl In Town” was a top 5 hit for Lambert and Ashton Shepherd took her co-write “Look It Up” into the top 20.

I’ve always been a fan of Presley’s direct approach to songwriting, where she refuses to mince words in effort to make a point. Her Pistol Annies cuts have been some of my favorites from the trio, and while she doesn’t have the flashiest vocal tone, it works in her favor here.

Presley, who co-wrote the whole album, composed five of the album’s songs solo. “Ain’t No Man” is a brilliantly biting ballad with stunning turns of phrase while “All I Ever Wanted” sets a religiously confrontational lyric to an ear catching shuffle beat. The mix of Presley’s strong vocal with her prominent background vocalist renders “Pain Pills” too cluttered, distracting the listener from the tale of Jimmy, who’s drowning his sorrows in booze and narcotics in an effort to cope with his life.

Presley is at her best when her storytelling prowess remains the focus of a song, and American Middle Class abounds with prime examples. Her self-penned “Better off Red” is a masterpiece of perception, a beautiful reflection on one’s place in our world. Equally powerful is Lori McKenna co-write “Grocery Store,” three minutes of observations culled from a checkout line. The deceptively simple track is filled with gorgeous articulations of our mundane everyday lives and comes together as a dazzling work of art almost too good to be true.

“Life of the Party” teams Presley with her hero Matraca Berg for another mouth-watering creation, this time the pedal steel soaked story of a woman facing the light of day after a night spent with another man. The pair is an irresistible songwriting force, with Berg turning in a co-write on par with the myriad of classics she churned out in the 1980s and 1990s, a feat in of itself.

On “Drunk” Presley and co-writer Sara Siskind cover identical ground as Presley’s labelmate Brandy Clark did on “Hungover,” and they turn out equally as delicious a tune about unappreciative men and their selfish ways. “Knocked Up,” co-written with Mark D. Sanders, is the prequel to “Drunk,” a banjo driven number about an unplanned pregnancy and shotgun wedding that plays like a delightful dark comedy.

“Dry Country Blues,” which Presley also co-wrote with Sanders, paints the gritty glory of small town life down to the drunk boys out to get laid and their female counterparts trying not to turn into meth whores. The self-penned title track, which covers the same ground, boarders on preachy and falls dangerously close into a pandering flag-waving anthem, but she makes it work by bringing in Patty Loveless for a harmony vocal that gives the track an added texture that works well with the formidable arrangement.

“Blessing and a Curse,” co-written with Bob DiPiero, is one of the more mainstream-leaning lyrics on American Middle Class with a bluesy arrangement that works beautifully with Presley’s voice. Even the electric guitar, which dominates, isn’t a hinder but rather an assist to the track’s overall splendor. Another such track is “Surrender,” the record’s closing number and a co-write with Luke Laird and Barry Dean. The ballad is as lush and exciting as it is assessable, and Presley turns in an elegant vocal.

American Middle Class is easily a highlight of 2014 with Presley’s fine tuned prospective on the world expressed through sharp songwriting and immaculate choices in instrumentation. Her decision to co-produce with her husband has given the album an added authenticity that gives the record an artists’ touch, an obvious missing link in the majority of mainstream music today. Presley, who’s the real deal, has filled my heart with a joy I haven’t felt in a long, long time.

I cannot recommend this nearly flawless album enough.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Sunny Sweeney – ‘Provoked’

sunnysweeneyFollowing a three-year break from the recording studio, Sunny Sweeney is back, and as you may have deduced from the title of her new collection, she is in a feisty mood.  She’s been through a lot of changes both professionally and personally since the release of 2011’s Concrete:  divorce, remarriage and parting ways with Republic Nashville Records.  Those who, like me, were hoping that freedom from the shackles of a major-label contract would result in an album more like the excellent Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame, will find much to be happy about.  The Luke Wooten-produced Provoked is not as rootsy as her debut, but it is less polished than Concrete and has plenty of traditional moments.  There are more than a few concessions to contemporary tastes, with perhaps an eye still on the charts, but the prospects of a radio hit are unlikely without major label backing.

Provoked contains a generous 13 tracks, eleven of which were co-written by Sunny.  The album opens with the excellent “You Don’t Know Your Husband”, a collaboration with Angaleena Presley and Mark D. Sanders.  It’s a Loretta Lynn-style confrontation over a man, although Sunny is cast in the role of the other woman rather than the agrieved wife.  It’s followed by  “Bad Girl Phase”, which was written by Brandy Clark, Jesse Jo Dillon and Shannon Wright and released as a single a ilttle over a year ago.  It’s got more of a rock edge than we’re used to hearing from Sunny but to her credit she makes no attempt to tone down her twang on this number or anywhere else on the album.  It’s a catchy number that I like more each time I hear it, but the production is a bit cluttered and at times threatens to drown out her vocals.

Following “Bad Girl Phase”, the album enters a somewhat lengthy dull phase, through the more contemporary “Second Guessing”, “Carolina on the Line” and “Find Me”, none of which are particularly memorable.  But just when one might be about to give up on the album, things pick up nicely with the uptempo “Can’t Let Go”, a Randy Weeks number that reminds me of something The Judds might have recorded in their early days.

The album’s best moments are primarily in the second half, beginning with “My Bed”, a duet with Will Hoge that Sunny wrote with Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe.  “Sunday Dress” finds her jilted, presumably at the altar, and unwilling to face the prying eyes of her small-town neighbors.  “Used Cars” is a nice mid-tempo number about finding love even when one is a little past one’s prime.  Her feisty side emerges again on the album’s last two tracks; on “Backhanded Compliment” ,she takes issue with those who either knowingly or inadvertently make catty or thoughtless remarks and the confrontational “Everybody Else Can Kiss My Ass” is a working class honky-tonker of the kind that Johnny Paycheck used to pull off with gusto.

Provoked is an intelligent, well-written collection of music that will probably be ignored by the mainstream but it has all the makings to be a cult hit. It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed an album by a current female artist this much.  I highly recommend it.

Grade:  A

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

Predictions for the 54th Annual Grammy Awards

1015599-grammy-award-617-409The most significant aspect of the 54th annual Grammy Awards (airing Sunday night on CBS) is who isn’t nominated. Those looking for bro-country kingpins Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan among the nominees are out of luck. “Cruise” was easily a contender in many categories, but thankfully was completely shut out. Instead we’re left with country nominees that still hold strong allegiances to mainstream country music, but aren’t a celebratory party for the dreck Music Row has been spitting out for years now.

Country Nominations

American Roots Nominations

Here are my predictions for Sunday’s big night:

Best Country Solo Performance

528c0c3f7cdadGiven what was popular in mainstream country in 2013, this is a spectacularly solid list of recordings that received airplay but didn’t embarrass the history of the genre. What’s surprising is the category’s diversity; only Miranda Lambert has won previously, while category heavyweights Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley, and Keith Urban were shut out. It’s just too bad Kacey Musgraves, who has four other nominations, wasn’t included here as well for “Merry Go Round,” the best mainstream single of the eligibility period.

Should Win: “I Drive Your Truck” – Lee Brice gives an incredibly heartfelt vocal and proves he can pull off as close to a traditional ballad as country radio would play in 2013 

Will Win: “I Drive Your Truck” – The force of this song will propel it to victory

Make A Case For: “Mine Would Be You” – There’s been a lot of chatter that Blake Shelton is the only coach on The Voice who’s yet to win a Grammy Award. That’ll definitely change this year and I hope it does here, allowing a far more deserving nominee to pick up Best Country Album.

Best Country Duo/Group Performance 

2009-10-27-kenny-dolly-duet-fullThe Grammys were criticized in the 2000s for veering too far away from mainstream country and thus seeming out of touch with what was popular. They’ve since gone to extremes in the other direction, but it’s nice to see The Recording Academy hasn’t lost their artistic touch completely, as the solid nominees in this category prove.

Should Win: “You Can’t Make Old Friends” – thirty years after the pair was nominated (and lost) in this same category for “Islands In The Stream,” Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton show up again with their second duet in as many years. The indelible magic is still there, even if the tempo has slowed with time.

Will Win: “Highway Don’t Care” – The Recording Academy loves Tim McGraw, Taylor Swift, and Keith Urban separately, the trio has 14 Grammys between them, and so collaboration between them will likely be too difficult for voters to resist.

Best Country Song

Merry_go_'roundIt says a lot about the overall quality of writing on Music Row these days when four of the nominees in this category show up twice among these five nominees. But it speaks volumes that half of Kacey Musgraves’ four nominations are found here, proving she’s more then just your average recording artist.

Should Win: “Merry Go Round” – I’d been waiting for just such a song for years and Musgraves, Shane McAnally, and Josh Osborne didn’t disappoint with their fantastic ode to suffocating small town life.

Will Win: “I Drive Your Truck” – the poignancy of this true story about a dad, the son who died in war, and the truck he left behind was too much for the CMA to ignore, and the same will prove true of the Recording Academy.

Best Country Album

UnknownThis is the weakest field of nominees in any of the country categories by a mile. The fare here is far too mainstream, clichéd, and sound-alike. I genuinely feel for those who’ll use this list as a benchmark of excellence for country music in 2013. Without the likes of Ashley Monroe among the nominees, that just isn’t fair.

Should Win: Same Trailer Different Park – given Musgraves’ competition, this shouldn’t even be a close call. She’s in a class of her own that the likes of McGraw, Shelton, and Jason Aldean couldn’t ascend to on their best day.

Will Win: Red – it’s general logic: if you’re nominated for Album of The Year, you usually take home your genre prize as a consolation or in some cases you win both. It isn’t always true, in which case Based On A True Story will take this, but it happens more often then not.

Best Americana Album

8fb2d908A solid list, although I expected to see Jason Isbell nominated here for Southeastern given the media blitz the CD was given. If he had been included, I would’ve been rooting for his win. Isbell’s album is just that good.

Should Win: Old Yellow Moon – Emmylou Harris is a Grammy Favorite and has released her strongest collection in years. That it’s also a duets project with Rodney Crowell more than forty years in the making only makes it sweeter.  

Will Win: One True Vine – Mavis Staples has won similar categories in the past few years and remains a Grammy favorite. I don’t see a reason to bet against her here.

Best Bluegrass Album 

0011661914124Without an eligible album in the running from Alison Krauss, the category is left without a ‘celebrity’ name to carry a win. Alan Jackson’s bluegrass project made the eligibility cut by a week, but was likely too new (despite the availability of advanced copies) to score a nomination.

Should Win: Streets of Baltimore

Will Win: Brothers of the Highway

Best New Artist 

imagesAn odd list, given that Lorde was left off while James Blake and Ed Sheeran were included despite not being new. Name recognition, and a plump spot on Taylor Swift’s tour, could propel Sheeran to the podium but he faces tough competition from Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, who had a breakout year.

Should Win: Kacey Musgraves – I have to stick with country music on this one. Of these nominees she’s the most well rounded mixing country with folk sensibilities in all the best ways. Plus, can any of the other acts claim half their nominations were for songwriting?

Will Win: Macklemore and Ryan Lewis – easily the most talked about duo in popular music in all of 2013. They may’ve hit it big with “Thrift Shop,” but their martial equality anthem “Same Love” showed their true artistry. Look for that to give them the edge over their competition.

Razor X’s favorite singles of 2013

Compiling a list of my favorite singles is no mean feat these days; I’ve been disengaged from country radio for quite a few years now, with no desire to reconcile, and although I try to keep up with new music, much of it is no longer considered mainstream. As such, I’m at times only vaguely aware of which songs I liked during the year were actually released as singles. I was, however, able to cobble together a list of songs that may not all be great, but are at least tolerable.

10. It Ain’t The Whiskey — Gary Allangaryallan2_v_p

In a better year, this song probably wouldn’t have been even under consideration for my best-of list, but after being disappointed by most of Gary Allan’s recent work, this track is one that I at least can listen to without cringing.

9. Tonight I’m Playing Possum — Randy Travis with Joe Nichols

This is another song for which I could only muster up lukewarm enthusiasm, but even though it doesn’t rank among either Travis’ or Nichols’ best work, it does at least pay tribute to one of the greatest voices country music has ever known.

8. When The Lights Go Out (Tracie’s Song) — Mark Chesnuttmarkchesnutt

A road-weary musician’s heartfelt declaration of love to his better half, this is the type of song I really miss hearing on country radio.

7. Like A Rose – Ashley Monroe

In years gone by, my favorites list would likely have been dominated by female artists. There have been a lot of complaints — with some justification — in recent years that the ladies aren’t getting a fair shake from country radio, but the truth is that most of them haven’t doing anything that is very interesting. Ashley Monroe is a notable exception, but sadly, radio isn’t isn’t taking much notice of her solo work. The title track to her current album is a real stunner that deserves a listen.

6. Borrowed — LeAnn Rimesleannrimes

This semi-autobiographical number, sung from the point of view of an unrepentant adulteress is hands down the best thing LeAnn Rimes has released in years. It’s unfortunate that it failed to chart.

5. Give It All We Got Tonight — George Strait

MCA started a “60 for 60” campaign to make this single the 60th #1 hit of the then 60-year-old George Strait’s career. The enjoyable midtempo tune only made it to #7 in Billboard — perhaps another victim of the chart’s new methodology — but it did make it to #1 in Mediabase. Regardless of its chart position, it’s well worth a listen.

4. I Got A Car — George StraitGeorge-Strait-9542120-1-402

I usually try not to include an artist more than once on these lists, but I was having that hard a time coming up with ten singles that were worthwhile. It’s a typical circle-of-life story that has become a staple of the Strait catalog.

3. Sweet Annie — Zac Brown BandZac-Brown-Band1

The Zac Brown Band is one of the few bright spots on country radio these days and one of only a handful of acts that consistently delivers.

2. I Wish I Still Smoked Cigarettes — Ronnie Dunn

This one is brand new, so a lot of fans may not have heard it yet. We haven’t reviewed it yet so I won’t say too much about it now, other than to say that after a few very disappointing releases, Ronnie Dunn is back.

1. Wagon Wheel — Darius Ruckerdariusrucker

This Bob Dylan-penned tune about a hitchhiker trying to get home to see his sweetheart is the surprise hit of 2013 and the only decent song to reach #1 this year. I still prefer the Jeremy McComb version, but Rucker’s version is also good. I never expected this one to succeed, partly because it’s a remake of an old song, and partly because songs I like don’t tend to do well on radio these days. I’m glad to have been proven wrong. I wish Rucker would do more music like this and less of the interminably dull stuff he’s been churning out.

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Favorite Country Albums of 2013

The statistic is getting old, fast. If your name isn’t Miranda, Carrie, or Taylor and you’re a solo female artist, then you’re probably not going to have many hit singles. It’s too bad because the strongest country music released this year comes from female artists who aren’t scared to go against the grain and say what needs sayin.’ I’m always amazed at the good quality music that’s released each year – and these are ten such releases, all of which should be apart of your musical catalog.

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10. Alan Jackson – The Bluegrass Album

Now a legacy artist, Jackson proves he isn’t done doing what he does best – crafting simple songs framed in equally uncomplicated melodies. But he nicely updates his formula this time around by making a bluegrass record, proving he isn’t done with experimentation. May he never go to the lows of Thirty Miles West ever again.

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9. Jason Isbell – Southeastern 

The best modern album by a male country singer released this year. Southeastern is a tour-de-force of emotion and strength – a modern masterwork from a man who’s just getting started reaching his potential.

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8. Patty Griffin – American Kid

In an effort to pay tribute to her father Patty Griffin has given us one of the best discs to tackle the many facets of death in recent memory. One listen to her spiritual anthem “Go Where Ever You Wanna Go” and you’ll be hooked into taking this journey right along with her. Be sure to catch, “Please Don’t Let My Die In Florida.” It’s the best song against retirement in the Sunshine State I’ve ever heard.

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7. Pistol Annies – Annie Up

When most people criticize modern country they take aim at the songwriting, which has been modified to appeal to a younger demographic. The other complaint is the addition of rock and hip-hop sounds into the music. Even worse, then all of that is the diminishing of traditional country instruments in modern sound.

Annie Up is a fantastic country album both vocally and lyrically. Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley defied the sophomore slump by recording another killer record. Tracks like “Pretty Ain’t Pretty,” “Dear Sobriety,” and “I Hope you’re The End of My Story” are among the best of the year. I just wish the CD didn’t so blatantly throw its lack of steel guitar and fiddle in our faces. If these country songs retained the hallmarks of classic country, I’d have this ranked much higher.

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6. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison – Cheater’s Game

One of the year’s most refreshing albums came from this husband and wife duo, who’ve never recorded a LP together until now. Both give us fantastic numbers; Willis shines on a cover of Hayes Carll’s “Long Way Home” while Robinson is perfect on Robert Earl Keen’s “No Kinda Dancer.” But it’s Robison’s self-penned material that shines brightest, making me long for the days when his no-fuss songwriting was a regular fixture on country radio.

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5. Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell – Old Yellow Moon

Ever since a glimpse at the track listing a year ago, I can’t help but shake the feeling this decades-in-the-making collaboration is merely an above average album, not the transcendent masterwork it could’ve been. Covers of “Invitation to the Blues” and “Dreaming My Dreams” are very good, but feel like doorstops. Surely Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell could’ve dug a little deeper into their combined musical legacies instead of spending their time covering country classics. In any event, it’s still among my most played CDs this year which means they did something right.

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4. Ashley Monroe – Like A Rose

Like A Rose redefines the sophomore record by building on the tremendous potential set by the artist’s debut. Monroe brings a sharper pen and keener ear to these 9 songs that are standards, more than mere pieces of music. Observances on out-of-wedlock pregnancy (“Two Weeks Late”), drunken flings (“The Morning After”), and adulteresses (“She’s Driving Me Out of His Mind”) are rarely this fully formed, from someone so young. At its best Like A Rose is a modern masterpiece from a woman who’s just getting started forming her artistic identity.

As far as female vocalists go, Monroe holds her own with all the genre greats from Loretta Lynn and Connie Smith to Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton. Her buttery soprano is a modern wonder, shifting from honky-tonk twang to contemporary pop with ease far beyond her 26 years. God only knows where she’ll go from here.

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3. Vince Gill & Paul Franklin – Bakersfield

Twenty years ago when Vince Gill was accepting the ACM Song of the Year trophy for “I Still Believe In You” he quipped about the state of modern country saying, “I’ve been watching this show tonight and I’ve marveled at how country music has grown. And I want you to know that in my heart country music hasn’t changed, it has just grown. And that’s the healthiest thing we got goin’” He went on to share a lesson he learned from his parents, that a person’s greatest strengths are embedded in their roots.

For Gill that optimistic view of commercial country doesn’t hold up today, but as a legacy artist he’s clearly taking his parents’ innate wisdom to heart. Teaming up with Steel Guitarist Paul Franklin to cover a set of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens tunes is no easy undertaking, but the pairing has resulted in one of the only perfect country albums of 2013. Instead of merely covering the hits, the duo dug deep into the artists’ catalog and unearthed gems even they weren’t familiar with going in. The added effort gave the album unexpected depth but a flawless reading of “I Can’t Be Myself,” a favorite of Gill’s since his late teens, gave the album it’s heart and soul.

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2. Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer Different Park

If you view Kacey Musgraves as yet another castoff from a reality singing competition, she placed seventh on Nashville Star in 2007, then you’re missing out on the most promising newcomer signed to a major Nashville label in years.

Musgraves didn’t win the Best New Artist CMA Award (beating Florida-Georgia Line) by accident. She won on the sheer strength of her debut album, an exceptional collection of songs bursting with a depth of clarity well beyond her 24 years. “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Follow Your Arrow” are just the beginning, introductions to the deeper material found within. She’s only just scratched the surface, which makes the prospect of future recordings all the more exciting.

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1. Brandy Clark – 12 Stories

Not since Clint Black reinvigorated Merle Haggard’s legacy on his classic Killin’ Time has a debut album come so fully formed, from an artist with such a clear prospective. Clark’s brilliance isn’t an updated take on classic country but rather the next evolution of the 90s female renaissance – a group of individualists (Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis, Patty Loveless, etc) who owe their genesis to Linda Ronstadt and the rulebook she crafted through Prisoner In Disguise and her definitive take on “Blue Bayou.”

Clark is the first newcomer to work with the formula in more than 20 years, and she often exceeds what her forbearers brought to the table. “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” and “Pray to Jesus” are two of the best songs Yearwood has yet to record, while “The Day She Got Divorced” is as perfect a story song as any I’ve ever heard.

Nashville, while admitting their admiration for the album, found 12 Stories too hot to touch. It’s shameful the adult female perspective has been silenced in Music City since without it country music has lost a major piece of its cultural identity. Where would we be as a genre today if the likes of Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, and Emmylou Harris had been regulated to offbeat labels and kept off of radio? Clark is fortunate she’s found success writing for other artists, but country music would be far better off if she found success as a singer, too.

Razor X’s Top 10 Albums of 2013

It’s that time of year where we publish our picks for the best singles and albums that country music had to offer during the previous twelve months. Usually I begin by lamenting the meager selections from which we had to choose. But not this time; for the first time in a long time, it’s been a very good year for country music. One wouldn’t know it by listening to the radio or watching the major awards shows, but a lot of my old favorites reemerged in 2013 with new offerings. Here are my picks:

10. The Woman I Am — Kellie Pickler

Pickler has made tremendous strides as an artist with her last two releases. Last year’s 100 Proof paid homage to the artists and sounds of yesterday, while the more contemporary and surprisingly good The Woman I Am shows the way forward for the next phase of her career. I hope she can overcome the disadvantage she faces in not having major label promotion. This album deserves to be heard.

9. Like A Rose — Ashley Monroelike a rose

The long-awaited return of Ashley Monroe did not make many commercial waves, but this Vince Gill-produced project is an artistic triumph. A guest appearance by Blake Shelton reassures those of us who had begun to fear that he was no longer capable of making good music.

8. Hammer Down — The SteelDrivers

Another personnel change didn’t prevent my favorite bluegrass band from releasing another stellar collection of new tunes. Hammer Down is a step up from 2010’s slightly disappointing Reckless, and is neck-and-neck with the group’s debut album for the best album of their career so far.

7. To All The Girls — Willie Nelsonto all the girls

At age 80, Willie’s voice not is not what it once was, but he sounds better than he has in years on this collection which boasts an impressive roster of female guest artists from both within and outside the country music community.

6. Love Is Everything — George Strait

Although he plans to continue recording, King George is in the process of wrapping up his touring career. Coinciding with his farewell tour is his best collection of songs in quite some time.

5. The Bluegrass Album — Alan Jacksonthe bluegrass album

Alan Jackson chose mostly new material for this project, unlike most artists who have mined the back catalogs for their bluegrass collections. The result is one of the best hour’s worth of music that 2013 had to offer. Jackson’s hitmaking days appear to be over, but from a creative standpoint he is as strong as ever.

4. Cheater’s Game — Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison

I’ll always regret that Kelly Willis was so under-appreciated during her major label days. Her albums these days are few and far between so it is a real treat when she releases something new. I prefer this effort with her songwriter husband Bruce Robison to 2007’s less rootsy Translated From Love.

3. Influence Vol 1: The Man I Am — Randy Travisrandy
Randy Travis’ voice has been deteriorating for years and it was especially noticeable on “Tonight I’m Playing Possum”, the George Jones tribute that served as the lead single for this project. I wasn’t expecting much from the rest of the album, but like Willie Nelson, Randy sounds better on his current project than he has in a long time. He’s suffered from serious medical problems this year; we wish him the best and hope that 2014 holds better things in store for him.

2. Old Yellow Moon — Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell

This duet project was a return to form for Harris and Crowell, both of whom who were cast aside by Nashville and who have been making their mark in the Americana world for the past several years. I’d like to hear more music in this vein from them, both separately and together, should they be inclined to team up in the studio again for a follow-up project.

1. Bakersfield — Vince Gill & Paul Franklinbakersfield

Vince Gill doesn’t ordinarily come to mind when one thinks of artists who are associated with the Bakerfield sound, but he shows he is more than capable of handling these classic Buck Owens and Merle Haggard songs and the participation of of steel guitar virtuoso Paul Franklin was the icing on the cake. This is by far the new album in my collection that got played the most this year. May we have some more, please?

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

Top 10 Favorite Country Singles of 2013

It was just a few months ago, I was in panic mode. How the heck am I supposed to compile and rank a list of favorite singles when the majority of country music, especially mainstream terrestrial radio country, left me numb? Hell, I don’t even have a can’t-live-without favorite single from 2013. I don’t know when the tide turned, but I was once again able to rank a list I’m very happy with. None of these were big hits (although #8 did chart top 15), but they were the artistic statements that should’ve ruled the airwaves. The genre would’ve been better off if they had.

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10. Bruises – Train Feat. Ashley Monroe 

Two high school classmates run into each other for the first time since graduation ten years ago. He marvels at her ability to retain her beauty after having two kids, while she’s glad to hear he’s finally left their suffocating small-town. Lovers or not, they’ll always be linked by their bruises – those moments in life resulting in a stumble on the path to enlightenment.

Hailing from San Francisco and making his mark in pop music, Train’s Pat Monahan is forgiven for recycling Phil Vassar’s “Carlene” just about word-for-word. This take on the tale stands out, though, because he gives voice to the female perspective through Monroe who turns in a buttery vocal that’s one of her finest moments she’s ever committed to record.

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9. Sober – Little Big Town 

The centerpiece of Tornado, “Sober” proves there’s life beyond Karen Fairchild whose position as the band’s lead singer has left little diversity in their radio offerings of late. Whether or not this turns into the hit it deserves to be, it’s good to see the criminally underrated Kimberly Schlapman given her due. She’s more then just a pretty face, and is finally able to prove that here.

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8. All Kinds of Kinds – Miranda Lambert

Lambert’s best single since “The House That Built Me” is Don Henry’s timeless ode to diversity that makes a strong statement without seeming preachy or political. These are the types of quality records that helps Lambert stand above her competition, schooling them on how to challenge the listener with substance while honing the artistic image that’s made them famous.

She howls, ‘When I stood up in Geometry and everybody stared at me as I tossed my test into the trash’ with the same bite she brings to her revenge anthems, but you feel the weight of maturity from an artist who isn’t afraid to grow in a market that rewards stagnation around every corner. Lambert is a fully modern country singer, but “All Kinds of Kinds” proves she isn’t done pulling new tricks out of her sleeve.

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7. Blue Ridge Mountain Song – Alan Jackson 

Leave it to Alan Jackson, three years after being blackballed by country radio, to release one of his greatest singles – an old fashioned testament to true love sprinkled with trademarks of the bluegrass tradition. He may move the story a little too quickly, in order to get to the twist towards the end, but he does everything else right. May this mark the beginning of an exciting new chapter in his career.

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6. Over When It’s Over – Eric Church 

With Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean facing deserving near-constant criticism for their shallow lyrics and douche bag behavior, their “Only Way I Know” counterpart Eric Church has been givin the space to forge his own path. Instead of rapping about trucks and dirt roads, he has consistently crafted original compositions that possess a decidedly rock edge, but are cut from the cloth of classic country (“The Outsiders” notwithstanding).

“Over When It’s Over” is a sparse reflection on a relationship gone sour, with both parties going their separate ways through a seething fog of regret. What the track lacks in production is compensated for in Church’s tour-de-force vocal conveying the perfect amounts of anger and sadness. It’s the best track from Chief, and while it could’ve used accents of pedal steel in its execution (and how cool would’ve been if Natalie Maines could’ve provided the backing vocals?) what we have is just enough to make it stand out from the pack.

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5. Stripes – Brandy Clark

Shane McAnally had the idea to write a song called “Orange” about a woman who stops short of killing her cheating husband because she doesn’t look good in the titular prison color. He brought the idea to Clark, stuck on the fact nothing rhymes with his clever hook. She turned it around saying “but everything rhymes with stripes.”

Their meeting of the minds resulted in a wickedly smart cheating song littered with originality and quirky turns of phrase (“there’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion”) that reveal the underlying humor underscoring the uptempo numbers on 12 Stories. Clark’s ability to find comedy in some of life’s most despairing moments is one of her greatest skills as a songwriter.

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4. Blacktop – Alan Jackson

I was glad to see the blacktop, no more dust in my eyes” and with that Jackson lays down the gauntlet in opposition to bro-country with an act of striking civil disobedience. How refreshing is it that twenty-four years into his storied career Jackson still has something meaningful to contribute to the country music landscape?

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3. Elephant – Jason Isbell 

The mark of a great songwriter is their ability to take well-worn themes and make the listener feel like they’re hearing them for the first time. In an era saturated with an “I’m Gonna Love You Through It” mentality, where hair is replaced with “Skin” and women are “Tough,” Isbell is just trying to ignore the elephant in the room and let his woman enjoy what little life she has left – letting her get drunk and high, joke about her harsh reality, and sing although her voice is nearly gone.

He’s the truest of friends, there for her but not a burden. He just wants one night where they both forget the bitter truth staring them squarely in the face, an impossible proposition seeing as he’s an emotional wreck bursting at the seams, a levee that miraculously hasn’t breached. Never has the word “somehow” been packed with so much meaning.

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2. Hangin’ Up My Heart – Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell

The best track from Old Yellow Moon is this ripped from the 1970s traditional number penned by Crowell for Sissy Spacek’s lone early 1980s country album. The pair sound invigorated here, with a renewed freshness that showcases what the resulted album could’ve and ultimately should’ve been.

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1. Follow Your Arrow – Kacey Musgraves

The most important country single of 2013 is a gay-rights battle cry openly embracing a love who you love mentality in a genre where anything ‘gay’ is almost non-existent. Musgraves is a new age Loretta Lynn not afraid to speak her mind and be open towards her beliefs. Her boldness is refreshing and hopefully the seed that gives her fellow contemporaries the guts to bring substance to their music again.

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Divided And United: Songs Of The Civil War’

divided & unitedI love history as much as I do country music, so a project like Divided And United, and the several other recent albums which have focussed on the musical legacy of the Civil War is of strong interest to me. Of all these projects, this two-disc set is the one to involve the greatest number of straight country artists, although bluegrass and other American roots music are both well represented. Almost all the songs are all of genuine Civil War vintage or older ones which were popular at the time, and performed as far as possible in the style of the period. Movie composer Randall Poster had the idea for the project and produces. Relatively sparse arrangements are similar to the way the songs would have been sung at the time of the war.

My favourite track is Vince Gill’s beautiful, thoughtful prayer by a dying drummer boy to the ‘Dear Old Flag’ for which he is sacrificing his life, set to a simple, churchy piano accompaniment. A choir including Sharon and Cheryl White and the Isaacs, mixed quite low, joins in the final chorus. Another highlight is Jamey Johnson’s haunting lament of a ‘Rebel Soldier’ far from home, a kind of proto-blues which the former serving Marine conveys with an emotional power which renders the song completely believable. Also wonderful is Lee Ann Womack (absent for far too long from the recording studio) on ‘The Legend Of The Rebel Soldier’, a touching story song about a soldier dying far from home, beautifully sung. These three tracks are pretty much perfect.

Ashley Monroe sings ‘Pretty Saro’, another fine sad song reflecting on death, although it does not relate directly to the war (and in fact the songs which significantly predates the period), it fits in nicely musically. The pretty ‘Aura Lee’, another non-war folk song, is sung by the genre-defying musician Joe Henry (who also produces a number of tracks), and was another I enjoyed despite a limited (if emotionally expressive) vocal. I also very much enjoyed Chris Hillman’s sympathetic reading of the classic ‘Hard Times Come Again No More’.

The sad (but not directly related to the war) ‘Listen To The Mocking Bird’ is prettily sung by the brilliant fiddler Stuart Duncan with Dolly Parton harmonising. (Dolly’s star power gets her the lead billing in this pairing, but Duncan is the true lead vocalist on the track). Ricky Skaggs’s quietly measured ‘Two Soldiers’ and Chris Stapleton’s ‘Two Brothers’ relate specifically Civil War tragedies, the latter being one of the few post-war compositions.

The septuagenarian Loretta Lynn is showing her age vocally, but this lends some realistic vulnerability to her convincing portrayal of a farmer’s wife bidding her husband off to war, undertaking that she will carry on the farm until his return. Another veteran, but this time from the world of bluegrass, the legendary Del McCoury plays the part of a soldier bidding farewell to his sweetheart ‘Lorena’. This plaintive tale is mirrored by the mournful sequel at the other end of the album, ‘The Vacant Chair, meditated on by Dr Ralph Stanley, while old-time specialists Norman and Nancy Blake give us ‘The Faded Coat Of Blue’, another melancholy reflection.

Steve Earle portrays a young soldier’s fears the night before going into action, in ‘Just Before The Battle Mother / Farewell Mother’; perhaps he tries a little too hard to sound like a rough, tough soldier, and not quite enough sounding vulnerable and fearful in the face of impending death. The old soldier’s jaundiced attitude to war in ‘Down By The Riverside’ is rather yelled by blues musician Taj Mahal, but it is in keeping with the song and works quite well, while. One can imagine the soldiers singing like this.

‘Dixie’, sung during the war by both sides but associated now with the South, is pleasantly but somewhat underwhelmingly sung by Karen Elson and the Secret Sisters. It just feels a little too winsomely pretty to fit the project. Perhaps the ladies would have been more suited to ‘Wildwood Flower’, one of the few disappointments for me. ‘Wildwood Flower’ would have been better sung by a female singer than by Sam Amidon, a folk singer whose rather pedestrian vocal falls rather flat compared to many other versions I’ve heard, although the picking is nicely done. A A Bondy is a bit too breathy and experimental for me on ‘Johnny Has Gone For A Soldier’.

‘The Fall Of Charleston’, performed by folk/Americana duo Shovels & Rope is rather cluttered and messy sounding, and I could have done without this. T Bone Burnett isn’t much of a singer, but his grizzled vocal is extremely effective portraying the gloomy soldier’s wearied despair in ‘The Battle of Antietam’. Also working well with an everyman style vocal, John Doe’s wearied ‘Tenting On The Old Campground’ feels very authentic. Chris Thile and Mike Daves on the perky-sounding ‘Richmond Is A Hard Road To Travel’ also deal with army life.

‘Old Crow Medicine Show’ take on the two-paced marching song ‘Marching Through Georgia’ quite enjoyably. In a similar vein the less well known (and more anonymous sounding) The Tennessee Mafia Jug Band take on ‘Secesh’ in a raucous singalong. The Civil War had a naval aspect as well as a land one, and this represented here by a quirky sea song, ‘The Mermaid Song’, sung
by musician Jorma Kaukonen.

Angel Snow’s dreamily dejected version of ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ is quite effective at adding an unexpected poignancy.
The late Cowboy Jack Clements closes proceedings with the wistful ‘Beautiful Dreamer’.

Lest we forget the underlying cause of the war, the view of the slaves is represented in two songs (although it is not quite a first-person testimony, as both were written by the white abolitionist composer Henry Clay Ward. Pokey Lafarge tackles the anticipation of freedom in ‘Kingdom Come’ with committed enthusiasm just short of shouting, set against a martial beat. Much better, The Carolina Chocolate Drops hail the ‘Day Of Liberty’ for the country’s enslaved African Americans with a part-narrated (by Don Flemons), part-upbeat vocal (Rhiannon Giddens) song.

A few instrumental tunes are included, beautifully played by Bryan Sutton, Noah Pikelny and David Grisman. This impeccably arranged project is a remarkable piece of work, a poignant re-imagining of the Civil War through its music. It won’t appeal to everyone, but I appreciated it a great deal, and on a purely musical level, it has a lot to offer anyone who likes acoustic music.

Grade: A+

2013 CMA Awards predictions – Who should and will win

Here are my predictions for the 47th annual show, airing next Wednesday on ABC. Do you agree/disagree? As always you can check out the nominations, here.

UnknownENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR

A solid list of well deserving nominees, minus Carrie Underwood, whose lack of a nomination has already incurred my wrath. Taylor Swift may be the biggest star here, but the Country Music Association deserve credit for keeping their traditional edge alive and including George Strait, whose in the middle of his final tour.

Should Win: George Strait – he won back-to-back in 1989 and 1990 and deserves his third win this year, while he’s half way through his two year goodbye to the road

Will Win: Luke Bryan – he’s the biggest male artist in country music right now, selling huge amounts of albums and ranking up hit after hit. He’s on top and here to stay, which a win in this category is going to prove.

Cruise - Single CoverSINGLE OF THE YEAR

A surprising yet diverse list of nominees with Florida Georgia Line’s behemoth squaring off with Darius Rucker’s mainstream reading of an underground smash going up against Kacey Musgraves’ critical favorite, and Miranda Lambert’s best dose of angst since “Gunpowder & Lead.” I only wish The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two” was here in place of “Highway Don’t Care.”

Should Win: “Mama’s Broken Heart” – the fourth single from Four The Record was album’s best and proof that artists who get complacent should put down their own pen and let the professionals take over.

Will Win: “Cruise” – It’s the #1 song in country music history with a rap remix that also made it relevant in pop, and more than five million digital downloads. Is there any other single of the year?

imagesALBUM OF THE YEAR

Taylor Swift’s first (but likely not last) foray into pop is up against Kacey Musgraves’ critical smash and Little Big Town’s coming out. Underwood’s album is just okay and Shelton’s should’ve been replaced with Ashley Monroe’s Like A Rose.

Should Win: Same Trailer Different Park – the best album of the bunch comes from a 24-year-old who pours more life experience into her twelve songs than all the other nominees combined. One of the strongest major label debuts in years.

Will Win: Red – name recognition alone will endear her to voters, who’ve been handing this award to the biggest star for the past several years. Not even the fact it’s a pop album will hurt her.

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A Separation of Church and State: How the Country Music Association mostly got their nominations right this year

as13-dateIn 2006, the Country Music Association sent Faith Hill a clear message when Carrie Underwood was awarded Female Vocalist of the Year, only two singles removed from winning American Idol. They were ushering in a changing of the guard that sent ripple effects through country’s core women, making way for new talent at the helm.

Underwood has received a similar message this year with Taylor Swift being nominated for Entertainer of the Year in her place. Swift may be a bigger celebrity with a broader reach, but Underwood’s no slouch – a sold out tour, four #1 singles, ambassadorship for country music, and she’s been hosting the ceremony going on five consecutive years. Heck she just took over Sunday Night Football theme song duties.

In recent history all the top solo female artists (Reba McEntire, Shania Twain, and Faith Hill) have been nominated and won (Hill lost to Dixie Chicks in 2000) while her contemporaries Swift has won twice and Miranda Lambert received her only nod to date in 2010. That Underwood is being snubbed yet again is one of the biggest injustices in the 47-year history of the award show. Underwood and Swift should be competing in the category together – they both have rightfully earned their place in the category.

Underwood aside, it’s nice to see the Country Music Association mostly get it right this year. The major theme of the nominations is artistic quality, as evidenced by Kacey Musgraves receiving six nominations, a move I didn’t see coming. She’s been building a lot of buzz this year but with little support from country radio, I hardly gave her a chance. Her nominations prove the CMA is still looking for quality contemporary music and actually care about maintaining at least one shred of dignity. They should’ve gone further and showered Ashley Monroe with praise, too, but her outsider-looking-in status likely left her a square peg in a round hole and she was deemed too Americana for this mostly mainstream affair.

There was once a time when you could count the number of females who’ve taken home Album of the Year on one hand. That list has grown in the past few years thanks to wins by Lee Ann Womack (2005), Taylor Swift (2008) and Miranda Lambert (2010). This year Blake Shelton stands alone as the only solo male artist in the category, proving that airplay on country radio isn’t the only factor in scoring a nomination.

I believe whole heartedly that you cannot deny an artist success once they’ve achieved it, no matter how much you may dislike the singer or their song. The world may cry foul over Florida Georgia Line and “Cruise,” but they clearly earned the Single of the Year, Musical Event of the Year, Duo Of The Year, and New Artist nods. The song is a behemoth and is clearly being rewarded as such. Swift’s showering of affection is more puzzling, since the success of Red came in the pop market, but “Begin Again” and “Highway Don’t Care” did keep her relevant in her home genre this year.

Where the Country Music Association deserve the most credit is with the separation of church and state – if you notice, “Cruise” isn’t in the Song of the Year race nor is Here For The Good Times up for Album. In fact, none of the genre’s biggest names (Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, or Shelton) have a Single or Song of the year nod, something I never thought I’d see. Absence by ‘bro-country’ powerhouses leaves the likes of “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Mama’s Broken Heart” to battle it out for the win.

It’s nice to see Nashville songwriters back in the Song of The Year race, too. Even more impressive is the CMA’s distinction in excellence, seeing that the best of commercial Nashville scored big, while the laundry list lovers are left to voyage down dirt roads with beer kegs, country girls, and pickup trucks. Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally are two of the best writers around right now and combined with Musgraves, they’re killer. What other writing team can claim two nominations in the same year?

In sizing up the New Artist competition, I was about to show my denial of a mass extinction, until I looked at the Billboard Airplay Chart and noticed “Parking Lot Party” in the top 10, on it’s way to becoming Lee Brice’s fourth consecutive number one. Like fellow nominee Kip Moore, he’s becoming a force for the future, and with his single “I Drive Your Truck” up for Song of the Year (Brice doesn’t have a writing credit on it), he has a better chance of winning than I gave him credit for initially. This is a very strong category, although Musgraves is the only nominee with proven artistic potential, a necessary ingredient for longevity.

I’ll have my predictions closer to the November 9 telecast, with a breakdown per category, and thoughts on each individual race. But overall the Country Music Association deserves credit for getting more right than wrong this year, mostly opting for artistic integrity over commercial viability.

Check out all the nominations here.     

Album Review: Pistol Annies – ‘Annie Up’

pistolannies2011’s Hell on Heels, the first Pistol Annies effort, was a surprise hit despite receiving little promotion from either radio or its label. The title track and non-charting single earned gold certification and the album itself sold over 400,000 units. So it was perhaps inevitable that a sequel would follow what once seemed like a one-off project. Producer Frank Liddell is back on board, joined this time by Chuck Ainlay and Glenn Worf. The Annies themselves — Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley wrote all of the album’s songs.

Like the first album, Annie Up is full of tell-it-like-it-is, redneck attitude, and while this was a breath of fresh air amongst the bland and soulless music dominating the airwaves in 2011, it occasionally comes across as a bit contrived this time around. The trio seems at times to be at risk of becoming a caricature of itself, a la Gretchen Wilson, which would be a shame because collectively and individually, the members of Pistol Annies are far too talented to be written off as a one trick pony.

The opening track “I Feel A Sin Comin’ On” gets the album off to a good start. The song begins with an a cappella arrangement, and my initial reaction was one of relief that this wasn’t another one of those overly-loud numbers that seem so popular these days. Then, about two thirds into the song, a very loud and intrusive electric guitar enters into the mix, almost drowning out the vocals. The loudness continues into the second track and current single, ironically titled “Hush, Hush”. This is my least favorite track on the album, but it is also its most commercial, making it a wise choice for a single. It is currently on the verge of becoming the group’s first Top 40 hit. Also plagued by cluttered and too-loud production is “Loved By A Workin’ Man”, a decent song that would have been better served by a quieter arrangement.

Much more to my liking were the quieter numbers, particularly “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty”, a nice steel guitar-laden lament about the tedious and sometimes labor-intensive effort the female sex must make in the name of beauty and “Unhappily Married”, a bleak and tongue-in-cheek (I think) look at the downsides of marriage. “Don’t Talk About Him, Tina”, a Lambert-led number advising a friend that she’s better off without her unreliable love interest, sounds like it has hit single potential. “Dear Sobriety”, one of the collection’s more serious efforts, is told from the point of view of an addict struggling to overcome her dependence on pills and alcohol. It is an excellent song but it is probably too politically incorrect in today’s environment to be considered for a single release. It is followed by the light-hearted “Damn Thing”, which provides a much-needed change of pace.

The album closes with “I Hope You’re The End Of My Story”, which is my favorite track. It is a quiet acoustic guitar-led affair that allows the trio’s beautiful harmonies to shine. I’d like to hear more of this side of Pistol Annies and a little less redneck woman the next time around.

Overall, Annie Up is a very solid album, despite a few production missteps, but it doesn’t quite rise to the level of Pistol Annies’ debut effort. Nevertheless, fans of the first album will find much to enjoy here and it is definitely worth checking out.

Grade: B+

Singles Round-Up: Pistol Annies, Little Big Town, and Carrie Underwood

Hush-HushPistol Annies – “Hush, Hush”

 If “Hush, Hush” proves anything, it’s that the Pistol Annies sure know how to cultivate a brand. They’re hell bent on taking the redneck woman from deep in the holler thing as far as it’ll take them, whether it means they take risks thematically or not.

The finished product is good, but the slightly too loud electric guitar compromises the vocals a little too much. Angaleena Presley’s voice is a little thin for this type of thick production while Miranda Lambert sounds as though she’s on twang overdrive; almost overcompensating to prove she’s still a country girl. Only Ashley Monroe sounds perfectly comfortable here and she proves it with a confident vocal that makes Presley and Lambert sound amateurish.

Hell on Heels is going to be a tough act to follow. They may be up to the challenge, but “Hush, Hush” needed a bit more polish before it was ready for release. I’m digging the overall feel of the track but the story seems predictable from them. They’ve set the bar impossibly high, and while they almost reach it, they never quite get there all the way.

Grade: B

Your-Side-of-BedLittle Big Town – “Your Side of the Bed”

Let’s get it out of the way. “Your Side of the Bed” is a direct rip-off of Gretchen Wilson’s “The Bed” from Here For The Party. Wilson’s song wasn’t a single, but the similarities between the songs are hard to ignore – both songs cover the same ground almost identically.

Little Big Town has turned the concept into a duet between married band members Karen Fairchild (once again singing lead on a LBT single) and Jimi Westbrook. Trading off the verses, they exude the right amount of desperation to make the story work. Jay Joyce also helps by framing them in a hauntingly understated 1970s soft rock tinged production that works nicely in their favor. The track is gorgeous, and the most sonically interesting mainstream single since Zac Brown Band’s “Goodbye In Your Eyes.”

I’m just having a trouble with the seemingly obligatory choral harmonies. They delude the pain Fairchild and Westbrook bring to the song by overcrowding the moments of greatest emotional impact with third parties not connected with the verses. A bit less vocal clutter, and this could’ve been one of the year’s best singles – a direct rip-off or not.

Grade: B+ 

15gsfbaCarrie Underwood – “See You Again”

At first glance there’s nothing wrong with this song at all. “See You Again” has an engaging melody, the strong type of vocal performance that Underwood excels at, and the track is a quintessential earworm, listen a few times, and you’ll be singing it all day.

So where’s the problem? Well, for starters, “See You Again” is classic power pop and bares no resemblance to country music whatsoever. That doesn’t help matters any as the choruses have been reduced to a muffled and bombastic mess that leaves Underwood no choice but to screech her way to next verse and bridge. This was the point in the Blown Away album cycle to change it up, with a “Do You Think About Me” for instance, opposed to sticking with more of the same. Safe filler like this doesn’t do a career any justice in the long term.

At least we’ve been spared “Cupid’s Got A Shotgun,” “One Way Ticket” or “Nobody Ever Told You” getting released. It isn’t saying much, but at least there’s that.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Ashley Monroe – ‘Like A Rose’

like a roseAlthough shes’s still in her 20s, it’s been a long haul for Ashley Monroe, who has been one of the best kept secrets in country music for far too long. Signed to Sony while still in her teens, her singles failed to make much headway, even when she duetted with Ronnie Dunn. Her album for Sony was critically acclaimed but only released digitally in 2009 in a half-hearted kissoff by the label a couple of years after they had dropped her. Teaming up with superstar Miranda Lambert and songwriter Angaleena Presley as the Pistol Annies has definitely raised her profile among country fans.

Her return to a major label, Warner Brothers, was one of the most exciting pieces of news last year, and I have been eagerly anticipating this album. Vince Gill produces with Justin Niebank, and they do a great job showcasing Ashley’s pretty voice. She co-wrote every song here.

The autobiographical title track and current single, which Ashley wrote with Guy Clark and Jon Randall, has an inspirational sweetness about overcoming the pain instilled in her family by the death of her father when she was 13. It is a charming track, but sadly does not appear to have made much headway with radio. The melancholic ‘She’s Driving Me Out Of Your Mind’, also written with Jon Randall, is another highlight, sounding like a lost-love country classic.

The ironic ‘A Dollar Short And Two Weeks Late’, a co-write with Shane McAnally, sounds sweet (especially with Rebecca Lynn Howard’s harmonies) but has a lyrical edge which would have made it a good fit for Ashley’s work with the Pistol Annies. Here Ashley portrays a young woman living in a conservative town who finds herself pregnant by her now-absent lover:

When you’re living in sin I guess
Sometimes that’s just what you get

So the man is gone
What a damn cliche
And my mama says
Looks like I gained some weight
Landlord’s at the door
And says the rent can’t wait
But I’m a dollar short
And two weeks late

The delicately folksy ‘Used’ (written with Sally Barris and previously included on Ashley’s digital release Satisfied) sings the praises of experience, comparing it to cherished old possessions.

The catchy but lyrically controversial ‘Weed Instead Of Roses’ is an enthusiastic endorsement of walking on the wild side of life with the protagonist’s love interest (and the drugs are the least of it, with Ashley calling for her lover to get out the “whips and chains”). Musically, this is great, but I can’t imagine it on the radio. The overt S&M references here are repeated more circumspectly with a reference to Fifty Shades Of Grey in the fabulous ‘You Ain’t Dolly (And You Ain’t Porter)’, a wittily tongue-in-cheek duet with Blake Shelton with an ultra-traditional feel musically. It’s the best thing Blake has done in years, and was clearly written especially for him with its allusions to The Voice TV show. It is one of two songs Ashley wrote with Vince Gill; the other is the lively tale of teenage criminal on the run, ‘Monroe Suede’, which is unexpectedly upbeat and highly enjoyable.

I was a little bored by ‘You Got Me’, an AC-sounding co-write with Karen Fairchild with a rather dreary minor-keyed melody, organ replacing steel guitar, a heavy-handed string arrangement and Little Big Town on surprisingly muddy backing vocals. Also on the more contemporary side, but making more impact, is the introspective ‘The Morning After’, written with Lori McKenna and Liz Rose about the depressing aftermath of a drunken teenage night when the protagonist “lost everything that mattered”. Jon Randall and Andrea Zonn harmonize.

The most disappointing thing about Ashley Monroe’s new album is that there are only nine tracks, which seems unnecessarily mean. This is a fine record, but I’m not sure how commercially viable it is. I really hope it does well, because Ashley is one of the most interesting young artists around, and I want to hear more from her.

Grade: A-

J.R. Journey’s Top Albums of 2012

Here are my favorite albums from 2012, in no order. Click the links to listen on Spotify.

nashville soundtrackNashville Cast The Music of Nashville: Season 1, Volume 1

The Tennesseean‘s Peter Cooper made a valid case about the music coming from the hit ABC drama being better than most mainstream country hits. I agree with him. While the TV show’s original songs haven’t yet shown much aptitude with traditional country sounds – leaning more toward Americana and pop-country – they’re leaps and bounds ahead of the current top 40 when it comes to content and substance.

Recommended tracks: “Wrong Song”, “If I Didn’t Know Better”, “No One Will Ever Love You”

Kellie Pickler100 Proof

A handful of barn-burning up-tempos, a few clever female-friendly medium tempos, and even more stone country tear-jerkers, served up with heaps of fiddle, pedal steel, and Kellie Pickler’s Carolina twang? Yes, please.

Recommended tracks: “Long As I Never See You Again”, “Where’s Tammy Wynette”, “The Letter (To Daddy)”

jameyjohnsonJamey Johnson – Living For a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran

Johnson’s tribute to Music Row pioneer and songwriting legend Hank Cochran features an all-star cast taking on some of Cochran’s big hits and a few well-chosen and lesser known gems.

Recommended tracks: “Make The World Go Away” (with Alison Krauss), “A-11” (with Ronnie Dunn), “A Way To Survive” (with Leon Russell and Vince Gill)

Zac Brown BandUncaged

On their third album, the Zac Brown Band again combines country with bluegrass and the sounds of the islands and the songs this time out are again smart and to the point.

Recommended tracks: “Sweet Annie”, “Goodbye In Her Eyes”, “The Wind”

Alan JacksonThirty Miles West

Jackson’s first album for the EMI Nashville label follows his winning no frills neotraditional formula. Thirty Miles West is a set full of top-notch songs and performances. I can’t stop playing it.

Recommended tracks: “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore”, “Look Her In The Eye and Lie”, “She Don’t Get High”

dwight yoakam - 3 pearsDwight Yoakam  – 3 Pears

Yoakam’s first album of all new material in seven years is as eclectic as the man himself. On 3 Pears, he shares production duties with punk-rock hero Beck and songwriting credit with Robert Richie (aka Kid Rock) and Ashley Monroe on respective tracks on a set that ably combines the sound of rock and roll’s golden AM era with his own distinctive country stamp.

Recommended tracks: “It’s Never Alright”, “Heart Like Mine”, “Long Way To Go”