My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Bernie Leadon

Spotlight Artist: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

ngdb 1980s

Is it folk or rock or country?
Seems like everybody cares but us

Lots of people have had that question about the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The answer, of course, is all of the above, with the band’s origins lying in the roots scene of 1960s California, but their greatest strength has been as a country rock band in the 1980s, and in the role bringing together country heritage with younger performers and listeners in the Will The Circle Be Unbroken trilogy.

The band was founded in the 1960s in Long Beach, California, by Jeff Hanna, as a folk-rock jug band. The first members included Jimmie Fadden and singer-songwriter Jackson Browne (soon replaced by John McEuen). Hanna, Fadden and McEuen are still members today, although the lineup has seen a long list of changes. They soon signed to Liberty Records and from 1967 released a series of folk-rock albums.

Jimmy Ibbotson joined the group in 1970, and the four plus Les Thompson recorded their most country influenced effort to date, Uncle Charlie And His Dog Teddy. They really made their mark on country music, and a place in country music history, with the ground-breaking and legendary Will The Circle Be Unbroken in 1972. The genre has always balanced change with reverence for its heritage, but by the early 1970s the oldest artists were no longer at the forefront. The triple album – a rarity at the time – revived many classic and oldtime country songs, and collaborated with veteran artists including Mother Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, and Earl Scruggs among others.

They were still not a straight country group, playing for rock audiences much of the time. In 1975 Ibbotson left the band, and they changed their name to the simpler The Dirt Band, adopting a more rock and pop direction, although they continued to record some country songs like Rodney Crowell’s ‘Voila An American Dream’, which was a pop hit for the band in 1980.

Reverting to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band name in 1982, the core group of Hanna, McEuen, Ibbotson and McFadden made a concerted bid for the country mainstream. They enjoyed immediate success with the single ‘Dance, Little Jean’ becoming their first top 10 country hit. After their first mainstream country record they transferred to Warner Brothers Records. They were rejoined in 1983 by Bob Carpenter, who had been with them for a while in the late 70s, and for a few years Bernie Leadon of the Eagles took the place of McEuen.

At the height of their success, the neotraditional sound was sweeping country airwaves. it was the ideal moment to revisit the legendary Will The Circle Be Unbroken. Recruiting some more recent stars alongside survivors from the original, Will The Circle Be Unbroken Volume II was a tour de force, winning two Grammy Awards and the CMA Album of the Year. A third instalment would following 2002.

Their commercial appeal faded a little in the 1990s, and they wandered between labels, issuing material on MCA, Capitol, Liberty, DreamWorks and independent labels. They are still active touring – appearing at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in California on 5 October, and in Canada the rest of the month. They released their last album to date in 2009.

We’re happy to announce they will be our Spotlight Artists for this month. We will be focussing on their mainstream country period.

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Album Review: John Cowan – ‘Sixty’

sixtyJohn Cowan is best known to country fans as the lead singer of New Grass Revival in the late 1980s, but he is a musician with broad tastes, and this latest solo album covers a number of bases.

‘The Things I Haven’t Done’ (featuring bluegrass banjoist Alison Brown) mixes bluegrass the country-rock of the 1960s/70s. The plaintive song looks back at a life’s choices. ‘Why Are You Crying’ is in similar vein, with an airy Cowan vocal, and is played by Chris Hillman, Bernie Leadon, and John Mcfee of the Doobie Brothers (who also produces). ‘Rising From The Ashes’ is a bit less memorable, but quite pleasant.

My favourite track is an inspired cover of the Marty Robbins’ hit ‘Devil Woman’. Cowan’s vocal is spectacular and I love this. His voice also soars on the beautiful ‘Feel Like Going Home’, backed by a melodic, churchy piano. A sultry Dixieland jazz version of ‘Miss The Mississippi (And You)’ works well and is something of a grower.

‘Helplessness Blues’ is a curious 60s style folk-rock number, with some weird sound effects and hippyish lyrics, but that soulful voice saves it.

The churchy gospel ‘Happiness’, featuring Sam Bush from New Grass Revival, and Bonnie Bramlett on vocals, rambles a bit but its questioning but soulful vocal is compelling:
Now that I’ve found peace at last
Tell me, Jesus, will it last?

‘Who’s Gonna Cry For You’ features Alison Krauss, but wasn’t what I expected from that collaboration, rather it’s a slow bluesy soul song with brass backings, with Alison barely audible. It was well done of its kind, but I was disappointed because I would have loved to have heard the pair of them on a high lonesome bluegrass song.

‘Sugar Babe’ is basically an instrumental with a few vocal spots inserted, allowing Cowan to showcase the playing of friends including Sam Bush, Ray Benson, John Jorgenson (from the Desert Rose Band) and rock harmonica player Huey Lewis.

This eclectic album is not quite what I expected, but it is beautifully sung and played, and I enjoyed it a great deal.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Chris Hillman – ‘Desert Rose’

desert roseChris Hillman’s second album for Sugar Hill (produced by Al Perkins) wasn’t entirely acoustic, but electric instruments are kept to a minimum. Featuring future Desert Rose Band cohorts Herb Pedersen on harmony vocals and rhythm guitar and Jay Dee Maness on steel, sets the template for the sound of the Desert Rose Band. A selection of mainly old country and bluegrass songs is delivered with sparking musicianship and Chris Hillman’s most accomplished vocals to date. Hillman might have been making music for the best part of 20 years, but this is where he really found his voice as a singer as well as musician and songwriter. In addition, his musical partnership with Herb Pedersen is one of the unsung pairings of country music, and this (or technically on the preceding Sugar Hill album Morning Sky) is where it started.

Chris’s version of the mid-tempo Mickey Newbury song ‘Why You Been So Long’ has a loping country rock feel. He turns to classic country with the Wilburn Brothers’ ‘Somebody’s Back In Town’, a lonesome number in which the protagonist’s loved one is going back to a returning ex, meaning that his own chance of winning her is gone. It’s not that well known a song, although Loretta Lynn cut it on her Fist City album, and Ricky Van Shelton later covered it, but it is an excellent one.

The delicately subdued Reno & Smiley ballad ‘Wall Around Your Heart’ is another outstanding song with a downbeat emotion. Even better is Chris’s version of the Louvin Brothers’ plaintive ‘I Can’t Keep You In Love With Me’, which shows off Herb’s harmonies at their best. Byron Berline’s fiddle is particularly effective on this track.

Jimmie Rodgers’ Rough And Rowdy Ways’ is cheerier, with a rambler happy with who he is. ‘Treasure Of Love’ is a George Jones song about the value of love over material things which Chris sings with great warmth and tenderness. Chris takes on the old Johnnie & Jack hit ‘Ashes Of Love, which he was to redo in similar style a couple of years later with the Desert Rose Band; the lyric is sad enough, but the performance is joyous.

The gospel classic ‘Turn Your Radio On’ has great harmonies from Herb and from ex Eagle Bernie Leadon. (At the time Chris was a recently professed Evangelical Christian, although he later converted to Greek Orthodoxy).

Amidst the classic songs, there are two Hillman originals, both about a relationship in which the couple face frequent separation. The title track is a melodic song about a couple facing hard times; the protagonist wonders if his “sweet desert rose” will still love him while he’s away looking for work in another town. This was a cowrite with Bill Wildes, a California-based horse trainer and songwriter whose life and character was reportedly the inspiration for the Eagles’ song ‘Desperado’. In the breezy ‘Running The Roadblocks’ a man is rushing home to a loved one, not caring how far over the speed limit he is. These are both pretty good songs, but perhaps not quite up to the standard of the rest.

This is a fantastic record which should appeal to fans of the Desert Rose Band, and to anyone whose tastes lean to more traditional country with bluegrass influences. It’s easy to find cheaply, and is well worth adding to your collection. Predecessor Morning Sky is rarer, and not quite so good, but worth picking up if you can find it.

Grade: A+

Spotlight Artist: Chris Hillman and the Desert Rose Band

ChrisHillmanChristopher Hillman was born in rural California on December 4, 1944. His older sister got him interested in country and folk music when she was in college and he was a teenager, and he began learning guitar and mandolin. At 17 he joined his first band, the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, playing mandolin, and the group recorded an album, Bluegrass Favorites (now a rare collector’s item), in 1963. Other members included future Eagle Bernie Leadon. When they broke up later that year (something which seems to have been an occupational hazard of California bands of the period), Chris joined the Golden State Boys, another bluegrass band which featured Vern Gosdin on lead vocals. Soon afterwards, the band changed its name to the Hillmen. The band’s eponymous album was released in 1969, some years after their disbanding, and has been reissued a few times since with some additional tracks.

The lack of bigtime success was beginning to frustrate the young musician, who was contemplating abandoning music in favour of attending college, when he got a big break thanks to Jim Dickson, who had produced the Hillmen’s recordings and tried to get them a record deal. He was invited to join a new folk-rock band called The Byrds, playing bass guitar – a new instrument for him. The Byrds’s first single, a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, was an international hit in 1965. Hillman was initially one of the less prominent members of the band, but he continued to develop as a songwriter and musician, and began to take a bigger share in the vocals on albums like Younger Than Yesterday, which had quite a strong country influence. In 1968 he and new member Gram Parsons, a fellow country fan, were instrumental in the creation of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, often regarded as the seminal country-rock album.

Chris and Gram departed the Byrds the following year, and together formed the Flying Burrito Brothers, a slightly shambolic but talented outfit who continued in the pioneering of country-rock. While the albums they recorded were not particularly commercially successful, being too country for rock and too rock for country, they have over time proved extremely influential, and some of the songs the pair wrote stand up as classics (for instance, ‘Sin City’).

The California country-rock-folk scene was somewhat incestuous and very quarrelsome, with frequent changes of band personnel. In 1971, Chris, who had fallen out with the unreliable Parsons (who went on to a solo career and launching that of Emmylou Harris, who Chris had actually discovered and introduced to Parsons), joined the eclectic Stephen Stills (formerly of Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) in the band Manassas; there was then a shortlived Byrds reunion; and then a venture with singer-songwriter J. D. Souther and Buffalo Springfield’s Richie Furay to form the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band. Later in the 1970s Chris made his first attempt at a solo career with a couple of not very successful albums, before rejoining old Byrds bandmates Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark as McGuinn-Clark-Hillman.

The 1980s saw a change of emphasis, as Chris turned to his first musical loves: country and bluegrass, and really found himself as an artist. He recorded two excellent semi-acoustic records for Sugar Hill, Morning Sky and Desert Rose, with the help of his friend Herb Pedersen, who he had known for 20 years. The pair then formed the nucleus of the Desert Rose Band, a country-rock band with the emphasis on country which was to provide Chris Hillman’s greatest mainstream country success.

Their breezy sound was a big mainstream country hit between 1987 and 1991. Chris Hillman’s lead vocals were supported by Herb’s high harmonies, and the latter also contributed the odd lead vocal. The remainder of the lineup varied, but notably included lead guitarist John Jorgensen, steelie Jay Dee Maness, and Steve Hill, who became Hillman’s chief songwriting partner. The band won the CMA Horizon Award in 1989, and the Vocal Group of the Year in 1990.

After the Desert Rose Band called it a day in 1994, Hillman explored a number of mainly acoustic projects, sometimes solo, sometimes with friends. He and Pedersen have continued to work together frequently, and the pair have also recorded with bluegrass legends Tony and Larry Rice. There have also been live reunions of the Desert Rose Band.

In 2004 the Americana Music Association gave Hillman a Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to so many genres of American music.

Over the next month we will be exploring highlights of Chris Hillman’s eclectic career, concentrating on the country elements, especially his period of mainstream success with the Desert Rose Band.

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Lonesome Standard Time’

1992’s Lonesome Standard Time saw Kathy working with a new producer, Brent Maher, probably best known for his work with the Judds in the 80s. Happily, this didn’t change the overall style, and Kathy was able to maintain her usual standard of high-quality material with a strongly non-mainstream feel.

The punchy title track, written by Jim Rushing and Larry Cordle, draws on the high lonesome tradition of bluegrass to portray the sad emotions of a broken heart, when the sound of a “crying fiddle is the sweetest sound on earth”. The lead single, it just failed to break into the top 10 but is a great track with a committed, energized vocal which opens the album with a real bang.

The pensive ballad ‘Standing Knee Deep In A River (Dying Of Thirst)’ contemplates losing touch with friends not treasured enough. A mature lyric and string laden production make this a bit more AC than most of her work, but the lovely tune, sensitive vocal, and wise lyrics (penned by Bucky Jones, Dickey Lee and Bob McDill) would stand out in any company. Its genre crossing capacity is shown by the fact that blues-rock musician Joe Cocker covered the song in 1994, followed by country veteran Don Williams in 1995. Kathy’s version was the album’s second single and just squeezed into the top 20.

Equally thoughtful, the spiritual ‘Seeds’ (which peaked at #50) takes a philosophical look at human potential, declaring,

We start the same
But where we land
Is sometimes fertile soil
And sometimes sand
We’re all just seeds
In God’s hands

The final single, Nanci Griffith’s uplifting ‘Listen To The Radio’, where country radio acts as the protagonist’s friend and companion while she drives away from her man, performed even more poorly despite being packed full of vocal character – not to mention the presence of Eagle Bernie Leadon on guitar.

The sardonic and catchy ‘Lonely At The Bottom’ had recently been recorded by former duet partner Tim O’Brien in his shortlived attempt at a solo country career. The protagonist is talking to an old friend who has found success has not brought happiness; unfortunately, Kathy informs him, poverty has brought nothing better either. A great acoustic arrangement, Kathy’s playful interpretation supported by call and response backing vocals make this highly enjoyable.

‘Forgive And Forget’ is a mid-tempo Kieran Kane song which sounds potentially radio friendly, and had previously appeared on Kane’s underrated 1993 solo Atlantic album Find My Way Home following the breakup of The O’Kanes. A lively, confident cover of ‘Amarillo’ is also highly entertaining.

The gentle ‘Last Night I Dreamed Of Loving You’ is a beautiful song by country-folk poet-songwriter Hugh Moffatt, given a delicately stripped down production, with the haunting harmonies of Tim O’Brien balancing the raw emotion of the lead vocal.

There are just a couple of tracks which fail to sparkle. ‘Slow Boat’, written by Kathy’s husband Jon Vezner with George Teren is pretty and laidback but a little forgettable. ‘33, 45, 78 (Record Time)’ takes a metaphorical look back at the passing of time.

Despite the relatively disappointing performance of teh singles, sales were good, and it was Kathy’s fourth successive gold record. The limited airplay may mean, however, that more casual fans may have missed out on an excellent album. Luckily, you can make up for that, as used copies are available very cheaply.

Grade: A

Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘Pieces Of The Sky’

Emmylou Harris’s debut for Reprise was an artistic masterpiece which stands up well today. Recorded in LA with Canadian producer Brian Ahern, who Emmylou was to marry a few years later, it brought in the influences of the California country-rock scene in which Emmylou had been immersed during her time with Gram Parsons, fusing them with some very traditional music. The musicians included Herb Pedersen (later a member of the Desert Rose Band) as the principal harmony singer, the Eagles’ Bernie Leadon playing a variety of instruments, soon-to-be Hot Band members James Burton and Glen D Hardin, and Fayssoux Starling, wife of John Starling of the bluegrass group The Seldom Scene as the main female harmony voice. Emmylou herself played acoustic guitar on a number of tracks.

Her first country single was the beautiful lost love ballad ‘Too Far Gone’. Written by Billy Sherrill and given a delicate string arrangement reminiscent of his work with Tammy Wynette (who had also recorded the song), it failed to make any inroads for Emmylou despite an intense yet understated performance imbued with anguish. It was re-released in 1978 to promote the compilation Profile, and then reached #13.

Gram Parsons had introduced Emmylou to the music and perfect harmonies of the Louvin Brothers, and a sparkling reading of their ‘If I Could Only Win Your Love’ was her first big hit, peaking at #4 on Billboard. Pedersen plays banjo here as well as supplying perfect harmonies, making this a true classic recording which stands up to the original.

Emmylou herself wrote just one song, the exquisitely beautiful ‘Boulder To Birmingham’, reflecting on her grief for the death of Gram Parsons. With echoes of gospel in the lyrics and folk in the melody (supplied by co-writer Bill Danoff) and arrangement, Emmylou provides a worthy tribute to her mentor which exudes sorrow. Perhaps in another tribute to their work together, she also covered the Everly Brothers’ ‘Sleepless Nights’ (a Felice and Boudleaux Bryant song most recently revived by Patty Loveless), which she had previously cut with Gram for their second album together, Grievous Angel, but which had been omitted from the final version.

It was still common practice in the 1970s for artists to cover recent hits. Emmylou picked Dolly Parton’s autobiographical ‘Coat Of Many Colors’ (a hit for her in 1971), and this tenderly sung version with its mainly acoustic backing and the angelic harmonies of Fayssoux Starling, is convincing even though her own background was far from the rural poverty which inspired the song. She also sounds beautiful if mournful on the Beatles’ ‘For No One’.

It wasn’t all delicate ballads. The good-tempered mid-tempo wailed drinking song ‘Bluebird Wine’ which opens the album is actually my least favorite track vocally, but gets things off to a sparkling start instrumentally. It is notable as the first ever cut for the then-unknown Rodney Crowell, who Emmylou was soon to ask to join the Hot Band. There are committed honky tonk numbers in a spunky cover of Merle Haggard’s broken hearted ‘Bottle Let Me Down’ with Leadon and Pedersen singing backing, although this doesn’t quite match up to the original. Emmylou also sang the definitive version of Shel Silverstein’s sympathetic (even triumphant) portrait of a faded honky tonk angel he calls the ‘Queen Of The Silver Dollar’ (previously recorded by Dr Hook and a hit for Dave & Sugar in 1976). Linda Ronstadt and Herb Pedersen sang harmony on Emmylou’s version.

Another future Hot Band Member, Ricky Skaggs, guests on fiddle on ‘Queen Of the Silver Dollar’, and fiddle and viola on ‘Before Believing’, a pretty acoustic ballad with a folky feel, written by Danny Flowers. Emmylou’s boyfriend at the time, Tom Guidera, plays bass on these two tracks. The latter provides the album title:

How would you feel if the world was falling apart all around you
Pieces of the sky falling on your neighbor’s yard but not on you

The album sold well, reaching #7 on the country albums chart, and was eventually certified hold. It has been rereleased on CD, both with the original track listing and in 2004 with two additional songs, ‘Hank And Lefty (Raised My Country Soul)’, which had been a minor hit for the African-American country singer Stoney Edwards a few years earlier, and ‘California Cottonfields’ (a Haggard album cut written by Dallas Frazier and Earl Montgomery)). Both are fine songs well performed by Emmylou, and it is well worth seeking out this version for those songs (or downloading them individually if you already have the album).

Grade: A

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