My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Bela Fleck

Album Review: Dailey & Vincent – ‘Patriots and Poets’

The title and cover artwork of Dailey & Vincent’s new album are somewhat misleading as they create the false impression that this is a collection of patriotic-themed tunes. What it actually is is a collection of well-crafted bluegrass songs, including a healthy dose of spiritual numbers, all written or co-written by Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent themselves.

Patriots and Poets is the duo’s first project under a new deal with Dreamlined Entertainment. In addition to showcasing the Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent, the spotlight is shared with their backing band, which includes bass vocalist Aaron McCune, which gives them a somewhat fuller sound than their earliest work. They also team up with an impressive line-up of guest artists including bluegrass greats Bela Fleck, Doyle Lawson, and David Rawlings. Comedian and banjo virtuoso Steve Martin also makes an appearance, as does Christian Singer TaRanda Greene.

Consisting of a generous sixteen tracks, the album opens with the energetic but lyrically light “Gimme All The Love You Got” and then veers off into more substantive territory with the religious number “Beautiful Scars”. “Baton Rouge”, which references “leaving Louisiana in the broad daylight” and walking from Baton Rouge to Birmingham is reminsicent of Shenandoah’s “Next to Me, Next to You” with acoustic instrumentation.

Surprisingly, “Until We’re Gone”, the collaboration with TaRanda Greene is a secular love song, rather than a religious one. I’m not familiar with her work but she is a pleasant but not great vocalist. Based on its title, I expected “Bill and Ole Elijah” to be a religious number, and it does have a revival meeting vibe to it and a soaring high lonesome sound that would make Bill Monroe proud, but it is actually a song about a prison break, with an interesting twist at the the end.

My favorite track is “California”, which is almost like a tongue-in-cheek retelling of the old George Jones and Tammy Wynette classic “Southern California”, in which a wife tells her good ole boy husband that she’s leaving to find her fortune in Hollywood. In this telling, however, her husband goes with her, expecting her to get discouraged and eventually want to return home. When she doesn’t, he eventually returns home without her, but he bailed out a little too soon as he learns a few months later when he discovers his Mrs. on reality television show. Steve Martin plays banjo and recites the song’s spoken verse that reveals the wife’s eventual success.

“America, We Love You” seems like it is the patriotic component referenced in the album’s title but it is actually more of an expression of appreciation for the fans who have come out to support the duo on their nationwide tours.

This is an impressive collection with no throwaway tracks, which is no mean feat considering that there are sixteen of them and it plays for about an hour. It might be a little long for those who are ambivalent about bluegrass but I thoroughly enjoyed it from beginning to end.

Grade: A

Retro Album Review: Alison Krauss – ‘A Hundred Miles Or More: A Collection’

Back in the days writing for the 9513 Blog, I would post occasional reviews on Amazon. We are republishing updated versions of some of those reviews here.

A Hundred Miles Or More is Alison’s second solo effort, but her first since 1995’s Now That I’ve Found You. The album is similar to the 1995 release in that it is a hodge-podge of soundtrack recordings, recordings from tribute albums, songs from other artists’ albums and some previously unreleased tracks. The biggest difference is that this new collection seldom features her Union Station band mates in any meaningful role.

As an aside, Alison Krauss reminds me of Emmylou Harris in that she has a very pretty, shimmering voice that is rather thin (although not as thin as Emmylou’s voice) meaning that Ms Krauss is at her best when she either is playing off another voice or has background harmony singers such as Dan Tyminski and Ron Block behind her. As a solo artist Ms. Krauss loses me after a while.

Tracks 1-4 and 16 are previously unreleased material. Tracks 1-4 have Alison going it alone vocally. Track by Track:

1) “You’re Just A Country Boy” – this is the worst track on the album, a misguided cover of the Don Williams classic from 1977. The lyric does not survive the translation to the feminine perspective any more than singing “Your Squaw Is on The Warpath” would work from the masculine perspective – F

2) “Simple Love” C-

3) “Jacob’s Dream” C-

4) “Away Down on The River” C

These three are modern day Adult Contemporary.

5) “Sawing On The Strings” – this is the best track on the album, a joyous romp through that debuted on CMT’s 2004 Flame Worthy Video Awards Show. This is the only real bluegrass number of the album. Krauss and Stuart Duncan play fiddle with Sam Bush on Mandolin and Krauss’s idol Tony Rice on guitar – A

6) “Down To The River To Pray” – a nice gospel number with nice harmony provided by the First Baptist Church Choir of White House, TN (and others). This was the standout track from O Brother, Where Art Thou? – B+

7) “Baby Mine” was from the Best of Country Sings the Best of Disney album and is a nice number with Dan Tyminski adding vocal harmony. I believe this lullaby was in the film Dumbo – B

8) “Molly Ban (Bawn)” was from the Down The Old Plank Road album the Chieftains recorded about ten years ago in Nashville. Bela Fleck plays banjo on this nice ballad – A

9) “How’s The World Treating You” – this duet with James Taylor was from a 2003 tribute to Charlie & Ira Louvin. It wasn’t the best track on the album, but it’s quite nice and was a successful video – B

10) “The Scarlet Tide” – this song appeared in a film I didn’t see Cold Mountain. It’s different, I’ll give it that – C+

11) “Whiskey Lullaby” – a recent hit duet with Brad Paisley. Alison and Brad play well off each other – this is a pairing I’d like to see again – B+

12) “You Will Be My Ain True Love” – another song from Cold Mountain. Alison sings well, Sting adds vocal (dis)harmony – D

13) “I Will Give You His Heart” from The Prince of Egypt: Nashville Soundtrack – Dan Tyminski provides vocal harmonies on this number – C+

14) “Get Me Through December” – This appeared on a Natalie MacMaster album. Alison sings, Natalie fiddles, and Alison’s brother Viktor plays bass – an enchanting track – B

15) “Missing You” appeared on one of John Waite’s albums. Waite isn’t a very good singer but the pairing works to some extent (Rock really isn’t Alison’s forte) on this song, which I think was a hit for Waite about twenty years ago – C

16) “Lay Down Beside Me”, also with John Waite, is the second Don Williams classic murdered on this album – D-

My chief criticism of this album is that it is again too ballad laden. It is a nice way for Alison’s fan to pick up tracks scattered across albums that her fans might not want to purchase.

Grade: C

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘Sevens’

sevensGarth’s 7th studio album was released in November 1997. Garth’s marketing acumen went a little over the top on the “sevens” theme, with a deliberate 14 tracks, and a special edition of the first 777,777 copies released. It’s a wonder he missed out on releasing it on 7 July. But luckily there was real substance behind all the marketing flash.

The first single, AC ballad ‘In Another’s Eyes’ was a duet with Trisha Yearwood about a secret adulterous affair/unrequited relationship (allegedly inspired by a line in Shakespeare). It may have had special meaning for the pair, both then married to other people and publicly denying any special interest in one another. It also appeared as the token new song on Trisha’s then current compilation Songbook. The single peaked at #2, but while Trisha is a great singer, the song is a bit overblown for my taste.

The breezy drinking song ‘Long Neck Bottle’, a likeable Steve Wariner song which features Steve on guitar. It’s a shame it wasn’t a full duet, as the song is made for that, but Garth chose to double track his own voice instead. (The pair did record a duet together at about this time, ‘Burnin’ The Roadhouse Down’, which appeared on one of Steve’s albums and was a hit single in 1998.) It was Garth’s first #1 since ‘The Beaches Of Cheyenne’ couple of years earlier.

The excellent ‘She’s Gonna Make It’ just missed that peak, topping out at #2. A sensitive look at the aftermath of a painful breakup, concluding

The crazy thing about it
She’d take him back
But the fool in him that walked out
Is the fool that just won’t act

She’s gonna make it
But he never will

Garth wrote this with Kent Blazy and Kim Williams, and there is some pretty fiddle courtesy of Rob Hajacos.

There was only one more single during the album’s main run, the rowdy ‘Two Pina Coladas’, about drowning one’s sorrows with a good time, complete with barroom-style chorus. It’s not exactly a classic, but it’s quite enjoyable with a good-humored singalong feel.

Radio then received ‘To Make You Feel My Love’ (from a movie soundtrack) before returning to Sevens with the pleasant but forgettable AC love song ‘You Move Me’.

A few years later, in 2000, with no new country product to promote and after the flop performance of the ill-conceived Chris Gaines project, the label tried one more single from Sevens. ‘Do What You Gotta Do’ is a cover of a New Grass Revival song which reached #13 for Garth. New Grass Revival’s Sam Bush and John Cowan guest on harmony vocals, while Bush, Bela Fleck and Pat Flynn play their signature instruments of mandolin, banjo and acoustic guitar. The end result is rockier than the original, and lacks its charm, but I applaud Garth’s choice of tribute.

My favourite track is the high lonesome gospel of ‘Fit For A King’, a beautiful song about a homeless street preacher. The harmony singers include Carl Jackson, who wrote it with Jim Rushing.

The passionate ‘I Don’t Have To Wonder’ is a sadder and more subtle (but less immediate) take on the ex marrying another, richer, man than ‘Friends In Low Places’. It was written by Shawn Camp and Taylor Dunn, and is another highlight.

‘Belleau Wood’ tells the story of the unofficial Christmas truce which is said to have occurred on the first Christmas Day of the First World War in 1914. It is genuinely touching, although the tag about seeking heaven on earth feels out of place and anachronistic. ‘A Friend To Me’ is quite a pretty tribute to a close friend which Garth wrote with Victoria Shaw, but the string section is unnecessary.

The charming and self-deprecating ‘When There’s No One Around’ was written by Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott. It’s not typical Garth, and perhaps all the better for it.

‘How You Ever Gonna Know’ (written by Garth with Kent Blazy) is an unexciting midpaced song on his favorite theme of taking chances to live life to the full. Well-meaning but cliche’d, it is basically forgettable filler. ‘Cowboy Cadillac’ is regrettably not the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band song of that title but a pleasantly bouncy and solidly country if somewhat forgettable tune about a favourite vehicle. ‘Take The Keys To My Heart’ has more of a rock influence, and is a bit boring. Cutting these songs would have made it a stronger album.

The album was massively successful, and is one of Garth’s best selling records, with 19 million sales worldwide to date. It’s also surprisingly good, and surprisingly country, although some tracks are disposable.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn

belafleckI have always liked the banjo, though during most of my lifetime it has been treated as primarily a bluegrass instrument and relegated to red-headed stepchild status as far as mainstream country was concerned. It made something of a comeback in the early 2000s when bluegrass enjoyed a surge in popularity. In recent years, it’s been given a higher profile than it used to, but it’s mainly been used to lend some credibility to music that otherwise does not sound country. However, husband and wife team Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn have taken banjo playing to a whole new level with their new collection of banjo tunes. No other instruments are used on the self-titled album, which is not a really a bluegrass album as I’d originally thought, relying more on Appalachian folk with a bit of gospel, blues and country thrown into the mix.

Both Fleck and Washburn are considered banjo virtuosos but they have divergent styles; Fleck is known for his intricate picking while Washburn plays clawhammer style. The two styles mesh very well with each other and with Washburn’s crystalline vocals. The final product is suprisingly eclectic, considering that only one type of instrument and one lead vocalist are featured. The twelve tracks consist of a number of traditional and contemporary songs, ranging from murder ballads and folk tunes to some of the duo’s original compositions. It opens with “Railroad”, an updated version of “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad”, with the familiar lyrics and somewhat different melody and arrangement from what we’re accustomed to hearing. The grim “Pretty Polly”, in which a young woman is led to her death by her jilted would-be lover, is one of the album’s standout tracks, as is “Shotgun Blues”, a Celtic-flavored Washburn original which takes the opposite approach — this time the woman is the wronged party and she’s hell-bent on revenge. Two songs from the Bible belt — “And Am I Born To Die” and “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today”, showcase Washburn’s voice nicely. In between these numbers are the occasional instrumental pieces such as “Banjo, Banjo” and “New South Africa”, both written by Fleck. The latter is a remake of a recording he made with his former band The Flecktones.

A stripped-down, banjo-only album such as this is not everyone’s cup of tea but it is one of the most creative and innovative works I’ve heard in quite some time. I highly recommend it and hope that Fleck and Washburn will release more albums like this in the future.

Grade: A

Country Heritage: Pop Stoneman and the Stoneman Family

stoneman familyMost people trace the dawn of recorded country music back to the famous Bristol sessions of 1927, from which Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family rose to prominence. While I am not sure that even Ernest V. Stoneman (May 25, 1893 – June 14, 1968) represents the dawn of recorded country music, he has a far better claim to it than do Jimmie Rodgers and the Carters.

Born in 1893 in Carroll Country, Virginia, near the mining community of Iron Ridge, Ernest Van Stoneman was raised by his father and three cousins who taught him traditional Blue Ridge Mountain songs. Ernest married Hattie Frost in 1919. He and his wife set about having a family, eventually having 23 kids, of which 13 lived to be adults. Stoneman worked at various jobs and played music for his own entertainment. He was a talented musician who could play (and make) a variety of instruments, including banjo, guitar, fiddle and autoharp, although the autoharp would become his trademark during his recording career.

Legend has it that Stoneman heard a recording by Henry Whittier, a popular artist of the time and a friend of her father’s (according to daughter Roni), and swore he could sing better. In 1924 he traveled to New York and received a recording contract. The first single, “The Sinking of the Titanic”, was issued on the Okeh label and became the biggest hit he ever had. Sales figures for the 1920s are not terribly reliable, but several sources have sales pegged at four million copies sold – a remarkable total for the time and certainly one of the biggest hits of the 1920s. Read more of this post

Country Heritage: 25 from the ’80s

This article will focus on some artists who either had a very short period of great success or had an extended run of near-success. In other words, I cannot justify an entire article on any of them.

Deborah Allen was born in 1953 in Memphis, and probably has had greater success as a songwriter, having written hits for artists including Tanya Tucker, Sheena Easton and Janie Fricke. As a performer, RCA had the bright idea of dubbing her voice onto old Jim Reeves recordings to create duets. The three duets released as singles – “Don’t Let Me Cross Over,” “Oh, How I Miss You Tonight” and “Take Me In Your Arms And Hold Me” – all went Top 10 in 1979-80. As a solo artist, Allen charted 10 times with three Top 10 singles: “Baby I Lied” (1983–#4), “I’ve Been Wrong Before” (1984–#2) and “I Hurt For You” (1984–#10).

Baillie and The Boys were a late 80s act which charted 10 times between 1987 and 1991 before disappearing from the charts. Seven of their hit records went Top 10, with “(I Wish I Had A) Heart of Stone” (1989–#4) being the biggest. Kathie Baillie was the lead singer, and while initially a trio, the group became a duo in 1988 with few people able to tell the difference.

Debby Boone is one of two answers to a trivia question – name the two families that have had a #1 pop record in each of three consecutive generations. One answer is obvious – the Nelson family – big band leader Ozzie Nelson (“And Then Some”, 1935), Rick Nelson (“Poor Little Fool”, 1958 and “Traveling Man”, 1960) and Rick’s sons Gunnar and Matthew Nelson (recording, under the name Nelson, “Love and Affection”, 1990).
The Nelson family answer works top down and bottom up as the members of the chain are all blood relatives. In the case of Debby Boone’s family, it only works top down. Debby (“You Light Up My Life“, 1977), father Pat Boone (seven #1s from 1955-1961 including “Love Letters In The Sand“) and grandfather Red Foley – no blood relation to Pat Boone but a blood relation of Debby’s (“Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy”, 1950).

Debby Boone may be a direct direct descendant of the American pioneer Daniel Boone. She is distantly related to two stars of American television, Richard Boone (Have Gun, Will Travel, Hec Ramsey) and Randy Boone, (The Virginian and Cimarron Strip).

Enough with the trivia – Debby charted on the country charts thirteen times from 1977-1981 although most of those were pop records that happened to chart country. Starting in 1979 Debby started consciously recording for country markets. “My Heart Has A Mind Of Its Own” reached #11 in early 1979. The next three records did relatively nothing but the first single issued in 1980 “Are You On The Road To Loving Me Again” finally made it to the top. She would chart four more singles before turning to gospel/Christian music.

Larry Boone is best known as a songwriter, having cuts by Kathy Mattea, Don Williams, Tracy Lawrence, Rick Trevino, George Strait, Shenandoah, Marie Osmond and Lonestar. As a singer, he wasn’t terribly distinctive – sort of a George Strait-lite.  Boone charted 14 singles from 1986-93, with only 1988’s “Don’t Give Candy To A Stranger” reaching the Top 10. The other Top 20 singles were “I Just Called To Say Goodbye Again” and a remake of “Wine Me Up” – both of which reached their peak chart positions in 1989.

Dean Dillon charted 20 times from 1979-93, with his biggest hit being “Nobody In His Right Mind (Would’ve Left Her)” which reached #25 in November, 1980. During 1982 and 83, RCA paired Dillon with fading star Gary Stewart, hoping for the kind of magic that was later achieved when Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn were paired together. No real hits came of this collaboration, but the recordings were quite interesting and are available on CD.

Fortunately for Dillon, he is a far better songwriter than singer. His hits as a writer include George Jones’ “Tennessee Whiskey,” and more than a dozen George Strait Top 10s. In fact, Strait has recorded over 50 of Dillon’s songs, ensuring that the wolf will never again knock at Dean Dillon’s door.

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Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Timeless And True Love’

Rhonda’s fourth and last album for Rebel (another 1991 release) heralded the move she was about to make into straight country music. Produced by Rhonda with brother and band member Darrin and Ronny Light, it was her best effort to date with a nice collection of material, although many of the songs were covers, some of them surprisingly recent country songs given a tasteful bluegrass or semi-bluegrass treatment. A ballad-dominated set, whose songs were picked out with the assistance of the great songwriter Jim Rushing (although he did not write any of them himself), this is basically a bluegrass influenced country album rather than a pure bluegrass one, with piano, drums, steel and electric guitar added to the basic bluegrass band, although the instrumentation is mainly acoustic and bluegrass-sounding with Rhonda’s mandolin much in evidence. Guests include banjo stars Allison Brown and Bela Fleck.

The beautiful title track was previously recorded by The McCarters, a sister trio who had a top 5 country hit with it in 1987. A sunny version of ‘Birmingham Turnaround’, a song written by Sanger D Shafer and Warren Robb which had been cut on Keith Whitley’s 1988 classic Don’t Close Your Eyes, opens the set in straight bluegrass style. Neither of these quite matches the originals, but they are agreeable listening nonetheless.

The best of the covers is a charming version of another Sanger D Shafer co-write, ‘I Do My Cryin’ At Night’, an old Lefty Frizzell song, which works well for Rhonda. Another favorite track is ‘I’m Not That Lonely Yet’, a lovely traditional country song written by Bill and Sharon Rice about the hard process of getting over an ex, and resisting the temptation of getting back together with him. It was a #3 hit single for Reba McEntire in 1982.

‘Midnight Angel’ is not the country song recorded by both Barbara Mandrell and Highway 101, but an excellent plaintive number written by two of the finest bluegrass songwriters, Pete Goble and Bobby Osborne, but given a classic country arrangement. Steel guitar dominates as Rhonda addresses the title character, her errant spouse who spends the nights preying on other women while she waits unloved at home.

‘Let’s Put Love Back To Work’, written by Larry Cordle and Mark Collie, is an attractive love duet sung with bluegrass singer David Parmley (credited only as a harmony vocalist), The lovely sounding ‘Artificial Tears’ features prominent harmonies from Alison Krauss. Despite the sweetness of the music, Rhonda gives an ultimatum to a partner unwilling to show his true feelings and pretending to be upset about her leaving.

‘Lucinda’ is a story song painting a picture of a kindly truck stop waitress who, having her own lover taken from her, lives vicariously through the truckers’ tales. Another story song, ‘Bobby And Sarah’ relates a love story from teenage romance to marriage and babies.

‘Homecoming’ is a pretty Carl Jackson gospel song about the promise of heaven. ‘Moving On’ is an early Irene Kelley song, written with Nancy Montgomery, pleasant but not that memorable.

Rhonda plays both mandolin and fiddle on the record, and showcases her skills on a self-composed instrumental, ‘Cherry Jubilee’.

This is a fine record which reveals Rhonda at a time when she was planning to spread her wings beyond bluegrass. The vocals are not quite as golden as on her later records, but the overall package is very good indeed.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Marty Stuart – ‘Love And Luck’

Marty co-produced his fourth MCA album (released in 1994) with label boss Tony Brown. It lacked the big hitters of its immediate predecessors, with no Tritt duets and no big hits, and the momentum he had developed began to wither away as a result. It’s a fairly solid album with a mixture of country rock and more traditional sounds, and while Marty’s voice was still not distinctive, he interprets the mostly self-penned material convincingly. Vince Gill and Ricky Skaggs were recruited to sing harmonies, and Gill in particular is prominent on a number of tracks.

Lead single ‘Kiss Me, I’m Gone’, written by Marty with Bob DiPiero, peaked at a disappointing #26, and deserved to do a little better. The sultry bluesy groove is more memorable than the unremarkable lyric, but overall it is a decent track with an interesting arrangement. It was unwisely followed up by the mid-tempo title track, from the same writing partnership. The banal life advice from a father to a so leaving home is just not very interesting and barely charted. The tender ballad ‘That’s What Love’s About’ has Marty proffering romantic advice about treating a woman well, and is quite attractive with a lovely steel-laced arrangement, but although it was the best of the three singles, it was another flop.

The label may not have picked the right songs for radio, because there is some fine fare here.The pacy kissoff song ‘I Ain’t Giving Up On Love’ was written with the legendary Harlan Howard and feels a little too rushed, but is quite enjoyable, with tight harmonies, with the protagonist, battered by loving the girl who rejected his marriage proposal, stating bouncily,

I ain’t giving up on love, I’m just giving up on you

Harlan also co-wrote the high lonesome ‘Oh What A Silent Night’, with the protagonist facing an empty home after his woman has moved out:

The telephone’s been disconnected
But she wouldn’t call me anyway
But even if she did I wouldn’t answer
Cause there’s not one word left to say

This excellent song is a highlight of the record.

I also really enjoyed the shuffle ‘You Can Walk All Over Me’, written by Marty with Wayne Perry. This one offers unconditional surrender when falling in love

The best of the few outside songs is ‘That’s When You’ll Know It’s Over’, written by Butch Carr and Russ Zavitson, which is a gently sad declaration of undying love through the pain of a broken heart with a pretty melody.

The Byrds’ ‘Wheels’ is quite nicely if undadventurously done, with prominent harmonies from Vince Gill and Paul Franklin’s steel, but it could do with a little more urgency. Marty rattles his way through a speeded up emotionless version Billy Joe Shaver’s ‘If I Give My Heart’ which is oceans away from the intensity of the stunning original and is thoroughly disappointing. However, the worst inclusion on the album was the boringly repetitive and tuneless R&B/rock of ‘Shake Your Hips’, cover of an old R&B hit better known as a Rolling Stones cover. This was a waste of a track.

Halfway through he throws in the oddly titled (and Grammy-nominated) instrumental ‘Marty Stuart Visits The Moon’ which has a kind of bluegrass spaghetti western feel featuring Marty’s mandolin and Bela Fleck on banjo.

Overall, this is quite a good record despite its lower commercial success, which successfully balanced traditional and contemporary. If you can find it cheaply enough (and used copies seem to be fairly easy to find), it’s worth checking out.

Grade: B

Album Review: Darius Rucker – ‘Charleston, SC 1966’

The best thing about Darius Rucker’s second country album is what was most marked about his first: the singer’s gravelly yet flexible voice. More notable this time is the solid and often inventive contemporary country production helmed by Frank Rogers, who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite mainstream producers, with an excellent ear for the right instrumentation for any given song, and balancing commercial considerations with artistic merit. Rogers also currently produces Josh Turner (whose latest, Haywire, sounds gorgeous despite some lacklustre material) and Brad Paisley, who makes a guest appearance here. Where it falls down a little is with the lack of ambition and limited emotional palette, and it is interesting that all of these artists (each of them lucky enough to be happily married in real life) seem to have a reluctance to tackle much heartbreak or darkness in their music. Darius co-wrote every song, most frequently collaborating with Rogers, and although the material is pretty good, and more consistent than that on Learn To Live, there are no modern classics here. Possibly a few outside songs would have raised the bar. The album’s title (Darius’ place and date of birth) is an obvious nod to Radney Foster’s superb Del Rio, TX, 1959 – a rather rash idea, as it raises expectations it cannot deliver. Instead of aiming for excellence, Darius is apparently happy to settle for something that is merely good: well-performed, mainly mid-tempo, mainly positive, radio-friendly material in the center of today’s country music. And he does succeed in that rather better than many of his contemporaries.

Opening track ‘This’ is very reminiscent of much of Brad Paisley’s recent material, a paean to current domestic happiness along the lines of ‘Bless The Broken Road’:

Thank God for all I missed
Cause it led me straight to this

Written with Rogers and pop writer (and outgoing American idol judge) Kara DioGuardi, it is a perfectly competent and aurally pleasing but perhaps rather unambitious number which really epitomises this album. Also rather Paisleyesque in its domesticity is the sweet married love song ‘Might Get Lucky’ which Darius wrote with his hero Radney Foster and Jay Clements. This has a warmth and genuineness which is rather appealing. Both songs should find a ready home on country radio. ‘The Craziest Thing’ is another love song to a wife, which is less successful, managing to make walking on fire sound rather dull, despite a bouncy production. Paisley himself duets with Darius on the mildly witty carefree vacation song ‘I Don’t Care’, which the two wrote together with Chris DuBois; this breaks no new ground but is likeable and a surefire hit single in the making for next summer.

There is a welcome change of pace, and equally welcome move to something more emotionally ambivalent, with the languid ballad ‘Whiskey And You’, a love song which compares the protagonist’s need for his woman to a need for alcohol:

Ain’t nothing I can do
But come crawling back to
Whiskey and you
I never asked you to love me
I never begged you to stay
But I never want you to leave me

Also very good, and a bit more complex emotionally than the rest of the album, is ‘Things I’d Never Do’, written by Darius, Rogers and Clay Mills, with its wistful feel. The mortified protagonist, stuck in a hotel room, regrets past choices to do the kind of the things he would never have thought himself capable of:

I’d never leave the perfect girl
Or rip apart the perfect world
Just up and leave in the middle of a song

This is very effectively and subtly done, and my favorite track. Mills also cowrote ‘I Got Nothin’, a resigned response to a failing marriage where there just might be something to revive, which I also like. ‘We All Fall Down’, written with Kim Tribble, is a subdued and rather downbeat acknowledgment of inevitable and universal failure, which is another highlight for me, although it is certainly not commercial.

Closing track ‘In A Big Way’, written with Casey Beathard, expresses a traveler’s longing for home and family, and sounds possibly autobiographical (and it’s nice to hear someone namechecking Charley Pride alongside George Jones rather than one of the usual suspects). The tuneful and good-humored ‘Southern State Of Mind’, written with Ashley Gorley and Chris DuBois, is partly another homesick ode to home,

“where they drink sweet tea and they raise you to be polite”

and partly a declaration that he takes his southernness with him wherever he goes.

Lead single and #1 hit ‘Come Back Song’, written with Chris Stapleton and Casey Beathard, is quite a nice plea for forgiveness and reconciliation. I like it more than Darius’s last few singles, but it is not one of the more memorable songs on this album. ‘Love Will Do That’ is a nice example of Frank Rogers’ production, with some nice banjo from Bela Fleck and mandolin from Sam Bush, but is lyrically uninteresting. ‘She’s Beautiful’ is flat out boring and might have been dropped from the set with no ill effect.

This is in many ways a safe record. It is well made, pleasant to listen to, and should yield another brace of hits for Darius, but he doesn’t really take any chances with the material. I’m not sure I’ll remember it all that long after it’s left my current releases playlist. It seems disappointing in comparison to what I believe Darius is capable of (or to Del Rio, TX, 1959), but taken purely on its own merits it’s a pretty good record, particularly when set against many of his chart rivals.

Grade: B

Album Review: Loretta Lynn – ‘Who Was That Stranger?’

Although the movie had brought Loretta mainstream attention, her musical career was winding down in the 1980s. She had enjoyed only one top 10 hit that decade (‘I Lie’ in 1982), and her last single to reach the top 40 was the #19 ‘Heart Don’t Do This To Me’ in 1985. The neotraditional revival of the late 80s may have brought country sounds back to country radio, but older artists were, by and large, jettisoned along with the pop-country stars of the mid 80s. This album, Loretta’s swan song for MCA, was released in 1988. It was coproduced by Loretta herself with label president Jimmy Bowen and Chip Hardy.

She was not as prolific a songwriter as she had been earlier in her career, writing only two tracks here, the very short (just under two minutes) and bouncy up-tempo ‘Mountain Climber’, a look at working your way up the hard way with a tart sideswipe at those who want to start at the top, and the affectionate portrait of a old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone rural preacher, ‘Elzie Brooks’. It should come as no surprise that he was a real person, the preacher whose services Loretta attended as a child in Butcher Holler; she notes in her book Coal Miner’s Daughter that he never took a penny for his ministry, and in this song compares him to TV preachers with their demands for money. These are both bright and entertaining if less memorable than Loretta’s classics.

The title track and lead single faltered at #57 on Billboard. A brightly delivered tale about rescuing a tired marriage written by Curly Putnam, Max D Barnes and Don Cook, the production sounds a bit dated now and I must confess even after a number of listens I’m slightly unclear whether this is intended to depict a marriage which only comes alive after dark, or a complete fantasy. The follow-up single, the gospelly ‘Fly Away’, penned by Frank Dycus and featuring Bela Fleck’s banjo, did not chart at all, and that marked the end of Loretta’s long association with MCA and its predecessor Decca.

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Our Grammy predictions

The 52nd annual Grammy Awards show airs January 31, 2010 at 8 p.m. on CBS.

Earlier we told you who we’d each like to see winning in the country categories this year. Now it’s time to go out on a limb and say who we expect to win. We didn’t do very well last time, due to collectively underestimating the CMA voters’ enthrallment to commercial success.

Best Male Country Vocal Performance
Trace Adkins – ‘All I Ask For Anymore’: Chris
Billy Currington – ‘People Are Crazy’
Jamey Johnson – ‘High Cost Of Living’: Jordan Stacey, Occasional Hope, Razor X
George Strait – ‘Living For The Night’: J.R. Journey
Keith Urban – ‘Sweet Thing’

Jordan: The Grammys always go for this type of song: critically acclaimed, sold a lot of albums, and has been listed in best of lists all year. The Grammy’s won’t ignore Jamey Johnson.
Razor: While I like the Trace Adkins song very much, I think the award for Male Vocal Performance will – and should – go to Jamey Johnson. It received a tepid response from country radio, but the Grammy’s are somewhat less inhibited and Puritanical in their selections. This was a true highlight of 2009, and I expect that the Grammy voters will recognize that and reward the song appropriately.
OH: See my comments below on Song. I believe Jamey will win at least one of these categories, but possibly not both.
J.R.: Strait is long overdue for a string of trophies from the Grammy’s. His first-ever statuette came from the NARAS last year in the Best Country Album race, and I think he’ll add to his collection this year.

Best Female Country Vocal Performance
Miranda Lambert – ‘Dead Flowers’
Martina McBride – ‘I Just Call You Mine’
Taylor Swift – ‘White Horse’: J.R. Journey, Occasional Hope
Carrie Underwood – ‘Just A Dream’: Chris, Jordan Stacey, Razor X
Lee Ann Womack – ‘Solitary Thinkin”

Razor: ‘Just A Dream’ and ‘White Horse’ are the only two songs in this category that can legitimately be called hits. It would be a further travesty for Taylor Swift to win over Carrie in a vocal performance categeory. The Grammy’s are more prone than the CMAs or ACMs to reward artistry over commercial success. While ‘Just A Dream’ is no artistic masterpiece, Carrie is hands down the superior vocalist.
OH: The Grammy voters don’t always care if something’s a hit, but nothing here is sufficiently artistically compelling to win on that account. I agree it’s between Taylor and Carrie, and travesty or not, I think Taylor will carry it on her current awards and commercial momentum.
J.R.: Taylor is white hot right now, pardon the pun. Grammy voters have traditionally either went for tracks that make strong artistic statements or the flavor of the day. This year, with nothing really standing out from the pack as brilliant in this category, I think name-recognition will swing it for Swift.
Jordan: They seem to like Carrie, and it’s a much stronger song than ‘Last Name, so she will probably walk away with this one.

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