My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Bobbie Gentry

Album Review: Kathy Mattea — ‘Pretty Bird’

Kathy Mattea had a decent run as a mainstream country artist, enjoying a string of top twenty records that ran from 1986 through 1995. This run included four number one records with “Eighteen Wheels and A Dozen Roses” being the 1988 CMA Single of the Year. Kathy was the CMA’s Female Vocalist of the Year for 1989 and 1990.

Kathy Mattea has always been difficult to pigeonhole as a performer. Never a truly traditional country singer, she was able to come close enough to gain acceptance from country radio for over a decade, although by 1990 her sound was drifting into Americana territory as “Where Have You Been” and “Time Marches On” would demonstrate. After a while, she gave up on getting radio airplay and started focusing on making interesting music. Her most noteworthy album of the last decade was 2008’s Coal, a fine bluegrass collection of songs depicting the trials and tribulations of the men (and women) whose lives depend on coal.

Pretty Bird is only Kathy’s second album in the last decade and her first in six years. The album was produced by Tim O’Brien (Hot Rize, Earls of Leicester) for the Thirty Tigers label (essentially an independently produced album with Kickstarter helping to fund the effort) but while Tim is intimately associated with bluegrass, this album would barely qualify as newgrass. It is, however, a fine album that finds the fifty-nine-year-old Mattea in fine voice.

The album opens up with “Chocolate On My Tongue” a whimsical tune by Oliver Wood about life’s small pleasures. I would describe the song as folk music.

Sittin’ on the front porch, ice cream in my hand

Meltin’ in the sun, all that chocolate on my tongue

That’s a pretty good reason to live

Pretty good reason to live

Sittin’ in the bathtub, hi-fi playin’ low

Diggin’ that Al Green, well you must know what I mean

That’s a pretty good reason to live

Pretty good reason to live

Next up is the only song that was ever a huge hit for anyone, Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe”. Anyone who was listening to AM radio in 1967 knows just how ubiquitous was this song, charting high on the pop, country, easy listening and R&B charts in the US and reaching the top fifteen or better throughout the English speaking world.

“Mercy Now” comes from the pen of Mary Gauthier. Other than the presence of steel guitar, this slow ballad sounds like folk-(quasi) gospel. I like the song a lot and will need to check more into Gauthier since I am not that familiar with her.

 My father could use a little mercy now

The fruits of his labor fall and rot slowly on the ground

His work is almost over, it won’t be long, he won’t be around

I love my father, he could use some mercy now

My brother could use a little mercy now

He’s a stranger to freedom, shackled to his fear and his doubt

The pain that he lives in is almost more than living will allow

I love my brother, he could use some mercy now

Jesse Winchester penned “Little Glass of Wine” a slow introspective ballad given an acoustic treatment on this album. I wouldn’t want to hear an entire album of similar material but the sing fits well within the context of this album

Little glass of wine, you’re oil on my flame

Shy of the sunlight, hiding your shame

And many, many tears, the number is sublime

Shall stain a woman’s bosom, for a little glass of wine

As soon as you learn that you don’t live forever

You grow fond of the fruit of the vine

So here is to you and here is to me

And here is to the ones we’ve left behind

“He Moves Through The Fair” is an acoustic folk ballad performed by Kathy with only an acoustic guitar as accompaniment. The song is about a wedding that never took place, although what happened to the betrothed is unclear.

“Saint Teresa”, a Joan Osborne composition is a grittier song, open to interpretation.

“This Love Will Carry”, a Dougie MacLean composition, is a nice endeavor that perfectly suits Mattea’s voice. The songwriter sings harmony vocals on the track. I really like the song although I cannot imagine a time in which it would be considered worthy of release as a single:

 It’s a thin line that leads us and keeps us all from shame

Dark clouds quickly gather along the way we came

There’s fear out on the mountain and death out on the plain

There’s heartbreak and heartache in the shadow of the flame

 

This love will carry

This love will carry me

I know this love will carry me

The strongest web will tangle, the sweetest bloom will fall

And somewhere in the distance we try and catch it all

Success lasts for a moment and failure’s always near

You look down at your blistered hands as turns another year

“October Song” was written by Kathy’s husband Jon Vezner. Jon has never done Kathy wrong with his songs and this dreamy but regretful reverie about a lost love is right up her alley:

And when at last I drift asleep, those dreams of you

Come back to keep me

Wishing I were lying in your arms

Those memories of when we made love

Are just so hard to let go of

Who am I supposed to be

When there’s so much of you in me

Vezner also penned “Tell Me What You Ache For”, a penetrating look at life and love. Vezner is definitely a poet at heart:

It doesn’t interest me what kind of job you got

Where you eat or where you shop

The kind of car you drive

It doesn’t interest me how big a house you own

What I really want to know

Is what makes you come alive

I don’t want to talk about

How your future’s all planned out

That isn’t what it’s all about to me

 

Tell me what you ache for

Tell me what you wait for

Tell me what you long for

What you’re holding on for

Tell me what you’re dreaming

What would give your life real meaning

You’ve been afraid to pray for

Tell me what you ache for

“Holy Now” is a mid-tempo song with some observations on the state of religion. This is followed by “I Can’t Stand Up Alone” written by Martha Carson, who was a huge gospel music star during the 1950’s, best known for “Satisfied.” Martha was the favorite gospel singer for many country singers including Connie Smith, Kitty Wells, Sonny James and many others. Kathy’s voice does not have the power that Carson had, but she does a very nice job with the song

 One of these days I’m gonna take a vacation

To a quiet and a peaceful shore

And I’ll cool my feet in those crystal waters

Where I won’t have to work anymore

 

‘Cause my burden has got a little heavy

Till I can’t stand up all alone

I must lay my head down on one strong shoulder

‘Cause I can’t stand up all alone

No, you can’t stand up all by yourself

You can’t stand up alone

You need the touch of a mighty hand

You can’t stand up alone

The album closes with “Pretty Bird”, written by Hazel Dickens, a folk singer who wrote of the lives of coal miners and their families. This song is not about coal miners per se but you can read much into the lyrics, which urge the pretty bird to fly away to freedom. The song is performed a cappella.

This is not my favorite Kathy Mattea album although I would consider it to be very good with thoughtful lyrics about serious topics. A few more up-tempo songs would have helped but I suspect that I will revisit this album often, a few songs at a time.

Grade: B+

Complete song lyrics can be found here

Advertisements

Album Review: Bobbie Cryner – Girl Of Your Dreams’

After the failure of her first album to make any waves, Bobbie left Epic. She was fortunate enough, however, to be picked up by Epic. Her second album, released in 1996 and produced by new label head Tony Brown, was a little more contemporary in sound than her debut, and thematically was influenced significantly by her recent divorce.

Regrettably, that did not make her any more successful with country radio. The lead single was ‘I Just Can’t Stand To Be Unhappy’, a moderately up-tempo kissoff song written by Hugh Prestwood and previously cut by Baillie And The Boys. The protagonist takes no nonsense from an unsatisfactory man:

You made this bed, you can lie in it
But you can do it without me

Love ain’t worth a wooden nickel
If you haven’t got the trust
The brightest fire burns to ashes and the sweet dreams bite the dust

Ain’t no point in being sorry
Ain’t no use in being nice
‘Cause I ain’t gonna hang around and let your lightning strike me twice

It is a pretty good song, and well performed, but perhaps not distinctive enough to be a hit. It peaked at #63.

The self-penned ‘You’d Think He’d Know Me Better’ would prove to be Bobbie’s closest to a hit, reaching #56. A cover by Lorrie Morgan was also a flop. It is a subtle song with complicated emotional layers as the protagonist fools herself into thinking she is in the right about her crumbling marriage.

One final single, ‘I Didn’t Know My Own Strength’, was written by Bobbie with Kent Blazy and Sonny LeMaire. A contemporary ballad musing on coming to terms with a new life alone, it is a strong song with an empowering message.

She wrote a further three songs, all melancholy ballads about the end of her marriage, and all excellent songs. ‘Nobody Leaves’, which she wrote with David Stephenson, agonises about the dying days of the relationship. ‘The Girl Of Your Dreams’ looks back poignantly at the blissful early days of their love. ‘Vision Of Loneliness’ is about trying to hide her unhappiness by partying with friends.

‘Oh To Be The One’, written by Randy VanWarmer and Roger Murrah, is a wistful song about unrequited love, with a pretty melody. ‘Just Say So’ (by John Scott Sherrill and Cathy Majeski) is a seductive invitation to a loved one who may be wanting to leave. This is a lovely song with a sad undertone reflecting the mood of the album as a whole.

A couple of more uptempo covers are thrown in. A sultry and soulful ‘Son Of A Preacher Man’ is performed very well but feels a little out of place, with Bobbie channelling her namesake Bobbie Gentry. Bobbie’s version of Dottie West’s 1980 chart topping ‘A Lesson In Leaving’ may have acted as template for Jo Dee Messina’s 1999 hit.

I don’t love this album as much as Bobbie’s debut, but it still an excellent album which I recommend.

Grade: A

Album Review: Kenny Rogers and Dottie West – ‘Classics’

Male-female duets still exist today, although usually in the form of acts that always (or nearly always) perform as duets. Acts that normally perform as solo acts may combine for a song or two (“Special Events”), but rarely do they issue albums of duets

The album Classics, released in 1979, was the second (and final) album of duets released by the unlikely pairing of Kenny Rogers and Dottie West. Kenny, of course was a country & pop superstar but Dottie West was a veteran second-tier country artist, whose 1978 album with Kenny (Every Time Two Fools Collide) would trigger a brief renaissance on the United Artists/Liberty label.

I am not sure why this particular pairing came about, although I have some suspicions. United Artists was not a major player in country music and did not have a deep roster of female artists. Billie Jo Spears, arguably the leading female country singer on the label, did not have a voice that would blend well with Kenny’s voice.

The recently signed Dottie West, on the other hand, had a track record of being able to blend and harmonize with male singers. Her track record at RCA had included successful recordings with such diverse singers as Jim Reeves, Don Gibson and Jimmy Dean. Dottie’s first album and the second album, released on the heels of the first duet album, did not produce any top fifteen hits but the first duet album did produce a #1 and a #2 single.

That brings us to this album, a collection of some county songs, some borderline pop-country-easy listening songs and some pop songs. Produced by Larry Butler, the album was not quite as successful as its predecessor duet album, but still sold over two million copies.

The album opens up with “All I Ever Need Is You”, a top ten pop hit and #1 Adult Contemporary hit for Sonny & Cher and a top twenty county hit for Ray Sanders, both versions in 1971. This version would rise to #1 on the country chart. While not as country as the Sanders version (still my favorite), it is not as pop as the Sonny & Cher versions. Both steel guitar (by Pete Drake) and string arrangements are featured in the arrangement. The song works well as a duet.

Sometimes when I’m down and all alone
Just like a child without a home
The love you give me keeps me hangin’ on
Oh honey, all I ever need is you

You’re my first love, you’re my last
You’re my future, you’re my past
And loving you is all I ask, honey
All I ever need is you

The Wynette, Richey, Sherrill composition “ ‘Til I Can Make It On My Own” is up next. The song was a #1 country hit for Tammy Wynette in 1976. The song works as a duet but is in a key where Kenny seems to be struggling to hit some of the notes.

“Just The Way You Are” was a #3 Billboard / #2 Cashbox top ten pop hit for writer Billy Joel in 1977. The arrangement of this song reeks of cocktail lounge balladry. I’d rather hear Billy Joel perform this song and I am no fan of his music.

Randy Goodrum penned “You Needed Me”. Goodrum would co-produce Dottie’s 1979 album Special Delivery and write six of the songs on that album. I think that this song, as recorded by Anne Murray (#1 pop / #4 country), , was his biggest hit as a songwriter. The arrangement on this one is definitely easy listening.

“(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song” was made famous by B.J. Thomas, winning the 1976 Grammy Award for Best Country Song. The song’s writers, Larry Butler and Chips Moman definitely cleared the bases with this song as it went to #1 on the country, pop and A/C charts in the US, nearly duplicating that success in Canada. Kenny & Dottie do a nice job with the song although the arrangement can be best described as ‘countrypolitan’. Steve Glassmeyer is featured on soprano sax.

It’s lonely out tonight
And the feelin’ just got right for a brand new love song
Somebody done somebody wrong song

Hey, wontcha play another somebody done somebody wrong song
And make me feel at home while I miss my baby, while I miss my baby
So please play for me a sad melody
So sad that it makes everybody cry-why-why-why
A real hurtin’ song about a love that’s gone wrong
Cause I don’t want to cry all alone

There is no questioning the country credentials of the next song, “Together Again” written by the great Buck Owens. Although initially released as the B side of Buck’s 1964 single “My Heart Skips A Beat”, most disc jockeys played both sides of the record resulting in both songs reaching #1, although in different weeks.

Unfortunately, the song is given an easy listening arrangement with strings and keyboards and not a trace of a steel guitar in the arrangement. There is a key shift whenever Kenny takes over from Dottie in singing a verse. I liked Dottie’s vocal on the song, Kenny’s not so much. The net effect is really disappointing.

Paul Craft was a successful songwriter who penned “Midnight Flyer”. The song is probably best remembered for Eagles recording of the song, although the song entered the realm of bluegrass music
through the Osborne Brothers terrific single recording of the song in 1973. Producer Butler gives the song the (fairly) acoustic arrangement the song demands. Kenny & Dottie acquit themselves well on this song.

Oo, Midnight Flyer
Engineer, won’t you let your whistle moan?
Oo, Midnight Flyer
I paid my dues and I feel like trav’lin’ on

A runaway team of horses ain’t enough to make me stay
So throw your rope on another man
And pull him down your way
Make him into someone who can take the place of me
Make him every kind of fool you wanted me to be

Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil were a highly successful songwriting team and Phil Spector was a successful producer and occasional songwriter best known for his ‘wall of sound’ production style. “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” was certainly the biggest hit that the Righteous Brothers would ever have, and possibly the most successful song from the Mann-Weil songwriting team. After hearing the Righteous Brother’s version it is difficult to accept any of the cover versions, of which there have been many. Kenny & Dottie do a decent job with the song, which is given a somewhat subdued ‘wall of sound’ production, but it pales in comparison to the original.

“Let It Be Me” is a popular song originally published in French in 1955 as “Je t’appartiens”. Written by Gilbert Becaud & Pierre Delanoe, the song became a worldwide hit when Manny Curtis appended English lyrics to the song. The Everly Brothers (#7 pop – 1960) and a duet by Betty Everett and Jerry Butler (#5 pop – 1964) cemented the song’s popularity in the English speaking world. In 1969 Glen Campbell and Bobbie Gentry had a pop and country hit with the song. Kenny and Dottie sing the song quite well – I think Kenny’s best vocals on this album are to be found on this song. The song is not country, the arrangement is very orchestral, but the net effect is very nice.

Like most of Kenny’s albums, this is essentially a pop album with a nod toward country music. There would be no more duet albums by this pair and after a brief resurgence in 1979 through early 1981, Dottie’s solo career would fade away (not surprisingly as Dottie would turn 50 in 1982). The younger Rogers (b. 1938) would continue to have varying degrees through the end of the 1980s, followed by a long coda.

I like parts of this album, but there are tracks I tend to skip over – I give it a C+

Album Review: Tammy Wynette – ‘Take Me To Your World/I Don’t Wanna Play House’

take-me-to-your-worldReleased in January 1968, Take Me To Your World/ I Don’t Wanna Play House, was Tammy’s second solo album and represented another step forward in Tammy Wynette’s career, rising to #3 on the Country Albums chart. Not only that, but the two singles released from the album both rose to #1 giving Tammy her first two solo #1 records and her third overall #1 (her duet of “My Elusive Dreams” with David Houston reached #1 in 1967).

For me, the apogee of female country singers was reached in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While female singers may have achieved better chart penetration later, qualitative the major label crop of female singers was abundant and excellent with the likes of Connie Smith, Wilma Burgess, Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, Jean Shepard, Dottie West, Skeeter Davis, Lynn Anderson, Liz Anderson, Norma Jean, Rose Maddox, Jeanie Seely, Jeannie C Riley, Barbara Mandrell and Wanda Jackson being among the competition. There also were a host of second-tier artists on the major labels and many female artists on minor and independent labels. Within a few years the likes of Tanya Tucker and Barbara Fairchild would appear on the scene. The ghost of Patsy Cline was also on the scene.

While Tammy Wynette did not have the sheer vocal power of a Jean Shepard or Loretta Lynn, she did have the advantage of a record producer who was perfectly able to overcome Tammy’s vocal limitations and devise accompaniments to perfectly frame the essential teardrop in Tammy’s voice, and to write (when necessary) to showcase the voice and the production.

(As an aside, when I refer to the term “Nashville Sound”, I am referring to recordings where steel guitars and fiddles are accompanied (or sometimes replaced) by symphonic arrangements and choral accompaniments. The chief architects of this style were Chet Atkins at RCA, Owen Bradley at Decca, and Billy Sherrill at Epic. In Sherrill’s hands the arrangements were sometimes referred to as ‘country cocktails’. The style was very effective in covering up a singer’s lack of range, particularly in the higher registers.)

The album opens with “I Don’t Wanna Play House” a Billy Sherrill-Glen Sutton composition that won the 1968 Grammy for Best Female Country Performance. In the song, the narrator, a woman whose husband has left her, hears her daughter tell a neighbor boy that she doesn’t want to play house and the reason why she doesn’t want to play. This is a very compelling song:

Today I sat alone at the window
And I watched our little girl outside at play
With the little boy next door like so many times before
But something didn’t seem quite right today

So I went outside to see what they were doing
And then the teardrops made my eyes grow dim
‘Cause I heard him name a game and I hung my head in shame
When I heard our little girl say to him.

I don’t want to play house; I know it can’t be fun
I’ve watched mommy and daddy
And if that’s the way it’s done
I don’t want to play house; It makes my mommy cry
‘Cause when she played house
My daddy said good-bye.

Next up is “Jackson Ain’t A Very Big Town”, a minor hit for Norma Jean in 1967. Tammy does as nice job with the song.

“Broadminded” comes from the pen of Leona Williams and Jimmy Payne. At some point Leona would become one of Merle Haggard’s wives and would have some success on the country charts, although never as much as her talent would have warranted. The Leona Williams version of the songs is far superior to Tammy’s rendition, but if you’ve not heard Leona’s version you will likely like Tammy’s recording. At this point in her career Tammy really hadn’t become quite assertive enough to give this sassy up-tempo song the proper reading.

Broadminded, narrow minded man
Every night I catch you sleepin’ with a smile on your face
And a-callin’ names that I don’t even know
If it ain’t Carmel, Pat and Gracie
Aand drinkin’ down at Stacey’s
It’s making plans to see a girly show

Broadminded, I just don’t understand
A broadminded, narrow minded man

“Cry” was a big 1950s hit for male pop singer Johnnie Ray. Tammy gives it a straight ahead reading, but the song works better in the hands of someone with a bigger voice – both Lynn Anderson (#3 in 1972) and Crystal Gayle (#1 in 1986) would have big hits with the song in the upcoming years.

“The Phone Call”, written by Norris “Norro” Wilson, is just album filler, a phone call between a daughter and her mother, telling her mother her tale of woe about a man who mistreated her.

“Take Me To Your World”, a Glen Sutton-Billy Sherrill collaboration, is given the full Nashville Sound treatment by Sherrill. The song is an outstanding effort and showcases Tammy vocals perfectly.

If you can find it in your heart to just forgive
I’ll come back and live the way you’ve wanted me to live
All I want is just to be your girl
Please come and get me, and take me to your world

Take me to your world, away from bar rooms filled with smoke
Where I won’t have to serve a drink, or hear a dirty joke
All I want is just to be your girl

“(Or) Is It Love” was written by Buddy Ray. It too, is given the full Nashville Sound treatment, turning a piece of filler into a worthwhile effort. Harry Mills’ “Fuzzy Wuzzy Ego” is a song about a woman essentially talking her man off the ledge and into returning home. The production on this song is very country, including use of a dobro.

With one elbow on the bar you’re drinking double
Tryin’ hard to drown up my memories
And you’re tellin’ all your buddies all your troubles
Layin’ the blame smack upon me.

If you set that bottle down and while I listen
You lose your pain inside that hurts you so
Neither one of us is all to blame baby
It’s your foggy woggy, wishy washy, fuzzy wuzzy ego.

My vinyl album contains “It’s My Way” a song credited to Wayne Walker and Webb Pierce. It is a good song, but it does not appear on my digital version of the album.

Glen Sutton’s “Good” would have made a good single, a tale of a woman torn between good and bad, who simply cannot keep herself in line. The production is subdued Nashville Sound.

Now I’m back here in a barroom,
A waitress again.
The good world I’ve lived in,
Just came to an end.

For temptation comes easy
To a woman like me.
And regardless of my chances,
I know that I’ll never be.

Good like I used to be;
I guess it’s just not in me.
With all my heart how I wish I proved
I’ve been good like he wanted me.

“Ode To Billy Joe” is a cover of the Bobbie Gentry hit from a few years earlier. Tammy gives the song a satisfactory rendition, but she does not have the soulful Gothic feel of Gentry’s original.

“Soaking Wet” is the bonus track on my digital copy of the album, a straight ahead country treatment devoid of Nashville Sound trappings. I have no other information concerning this song.

At this point in Tammy’s career she and Billy Sherrill were still looking for that magic formula that would turn Tammy into a full-fledged star. Consequently this album features songs with the full Nashville Sound treatment, some songs with scaled back Nashville Sound treatments and a few straight ahead country arrangements.

While Tammy and Billy were still experimenting here, the very next album would answer all the questions and set the trajectory for subsequent albums.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Lorrie Morgan – ‘Letting Go … Slow’

51bUlVvWr7LI’ve been a fan of Lorrie Morgan ever since I first saw her video of “Trainwreck of Emotion” on TNN back in 1988. I’ve followed her career ever since, though admittedly not quite as closely since her days as a major label artist ended about 15 years ago. I’ve always felt that the true artists are the ones who continue to make music after they’ve peaked commercially. Morgan certainly falls into that category; she released three solo albums and one collaboration with Pam Tillis in the years since her tenure with BNA Records ended. But post- commercial peak projects are often a mixed bag, particularly for artists who don’t write a lot of their own material. Finding good songs is frequently a challenge – and then there is the added problem of declining vocal power, which often plagues aging artists.

Fortunately, Morgan has overcome both of those obstacles on her latest collection Letting Go … Slow, which was released by Shanachie Entertainment last week. In an interview with Country Universe she said that she spent a considerable amount of time working to get her voice back in shape. The effort has paid off in spades; she sounds better on Letting Go … Slow than she has in years. And although she relies heavily on cover material to compile an album’s worth of songs, she’s managed to dig a little deeper and come up with some gems that are deserving of another listen but have been largely overlooked by the plethora of artists releasing covers albums in recent years. Read more of this post

Classic Rewind: Glen Campbell and Bobbie Gentry – ‘Let It Be Me’

Album Review – Rosanne Cash – ‘The River & The Thread’

river-thread-cd-coverIn the decade since Rosanne Cash returned to music following a two-and-a-half year silence caused by a vocal chord polyp, she’s gone inward, looking to her musical and personal legacy for creative inspiration. As a result, Cash has made works that display her spectacular grace and dignity in the face of crippling loss.

This inward exploration reaches a new zenith on The River & The Thread, her first self-penned record since 2006, and a love letter to the southern United States. When Arkansas State University contacted Cash about acquiring her father’s boyhood home in Dyess, she and her husband John Leventhal (who co-wrote, produced, and arranged the record) took many extended trips to the region, visiting historical landmarks, and overseeing the purchase and renovation of her dad’s childhood home.

To raise the funds needed to purchase the property, Cash held a series of concerts in which everyone from George Jones, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson performed. Marshall Grant, her father’s bass player in the Tennessee Two and her ‘surrogate dad’, was also scheduled to perform but died of a brain aneurysm following show rehearsals. His death led Cash to write the first song for the project, “Etta’s Tune.” Written for Grant’s widow Etta, the song brings Grant’s voice to life as he pays tribute to the wife he’s leaving behind – “When the phone rang in the dead of night you’d always throw my bail. No you never touched the whisky, you never took the pills. I traveled for a million miles while you were standing still.” The song is extraordinary because Cash is depicting the beautiful tale of true love though Grant’s own eyes, as a second-generation source, bringing his voice to life with stunning clarity.

Mandolin driven “The Sunken Lands” uses similar techniques to paint the difficult life of her grandmother Carrie, on the terrain where Johnny grew up. The detail Cash provides is heartbreaking – from the endless work in the cotton fields (“the mud and tears melt the cotton balls”), verbal abuse from her husband (“His words are cruel, they sting like fire”), to her crying children. More than a song “The Sunken Lands” plays like a novelette from a legendary American writer. Cash has been known for her prose in recent years, and Black Cadillac played like a musical memoir, so it’s not surprising she brings those sensibilities to The River & The Thread as well.

The album’s title comes from the opening track, “A Feather’s Not A Bird.” When Cash sings, “You have to learn to love the thread,” she referencing a remark by a dear friend who’s a master seamstress in Florence, Alabama. It’s the most austere of the album’s songs, with a chorus that relies so heavily on metaphor it comes off a tad kooky. A fascination with the famous Tallahatchie Bridge (yes, the one highlighted in Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe”) inspired the album’s closing track “Money Road,” an eerie ballad about the nearby street where Emmett Till flirted with a white woman and was murdered. “Money Road” boasts a great lyric, but the production is too slow and prodding for me to make a full investment in the song.

“The Long Way Home” details Cash’s personal journey, but rests in the spiritual realm on the idea of taking the long way home to ourselves, not necessarily a particular place. At 58 Cash has the life experience for such a sentiment, which only adds to the track’s deeper meaning. Even better is “Tell Heaven,” a meditation on longing and loneliness that frames Cash’s delicate whisper with a gorgeously folksy acoustic guitar. I love the gentle ease Leventhal brings to the arrangement coupled with the overall message – everything in life will be okay if you surrender your burdens to your higher power.

Cash gives a vocal master class on “Night School,” a striking ballad brought to life with the perfect sprinkling of fiddle and acoustic guitar. “50,000 Watts” uses the reach of radio wires to dispense a common prayer of love and devotion set to an upright bass, acoustic guitar, and drum heavy arrangement. “Modern Blue” has the album’s most modern sound, with electric guitars and drums creating a loudish sound that wakes up the listener. The chorus feels a little underdeveloped, but the whole song comes together by the end.

The centerpiece of The River & The Thread started as a composition Leventhal and Rodney Crowell were writing for Emmylou Harris, who never ended up recording it. As the story goes, Cash’s song Jake was researching The Civil War for school when she reminded him he had ancestors on both sides of the conflict. Inspired, Cash asked Crowell if she could rework the song (she always loved it) as a Civil War ballad about her relative William Cash, who fought for the North. After much obsession, and loss of sleep, the re-worked “When The Master Calls The Roll” was born.

“When The Master Calls The Roll” is a sweeping epic about William Lee, the love who would wait for him, and his eventual death in battle. Cash, Leventhal, and Crowell infuse the tune with so much detail and phrase each section with such precision the song quickly elevates to the echelon of masterworks. This track is so good the rest of the album, which meets just as high a standard, pales greatly in comparison.

Cash has said if she never cuts another record she’ll be fine, now that she’s made The River & The Thread. It’s easy to see why, as this is an album of a different breed, sown from a rare cloth. It’s atypical, even from singer-songwriters, to see an album this full-formed, possessing so much of the artist who created it. As tired as I am of seeing Cash mine her legacy, she continues to bring new and exciting colors to her exploration of what it means to be Johnny’s daughter. And with those colors, she may have created her best album yet.

Grade A+

Album Review: Julie Roberts – ‘Good Wine & Bad Decisions’

good wine and bad decisionsIt’s nearly 10 years since Julie Roberts first appeared on the radar of country fans, and in the years since she’s endured more reverses than many artists, including losing her major label deal, losing her home in the Nashville floods, being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and last year being passed up for The Voice. Her career never quite fulfilled the promise of her distinctive emotion-filled voice; even her biggest hit, ‘Break Down Here’, barely cracked the top 20 even though it sold over half a million copies. I loved her two Mercury albums, but was left a little disappointed by her independent album a couple of years ago. Now, she has been signed to a revived Sun Records, and has new music.

Jason Collum co-produces and co-wrote many of the songs with Julie. The result is much stronger than her last record. Collum’s production is often low-key, mixing the country torch balladry at which Julie has always shone, with occasional rock and soul influences, but always allows Julie’s trademark sultry vocals to take center stage.

The outstanding song is ‘Daddy Doesn’t Pray’, written by Chris Stapleton. This is a very touching tribute to a religious father after his death. I also rather liked the album’s other religious song, the longing ‘Arms Of Jesus’, backed by subtle strains of churchy piano and organ.

Steve Earle’s ‘I’m Not Getting Any Better At Goodbyes’ (recorded in the early 90s by Mark Chesnutt) is a reminder that Earle, better known for his country rock and political songs, can write a stunning country ballad when he chooses, and Julie does the song full justice.

‘He Made A Woman Out Of Me’ is a Bobbie Gentry cover, and the production and arrangement of a southern teenager’s sexual awakening. The vocal is convincing enough for it to be an enjoyable track, although the production is like the original to the point of sounding like a pastiche.

Buddy Miller harmonises on his own ‘Gasoline & Matches’. Julie sturdy version is less frenetic than others I have heard, including the recent cut by LeAnn Rimes, allowing the lyrics more prominence. This is a very good recording which grows the more you hear it.

Vince Gill guests on the lonesome ballad ‘Old Strings’, which Julie sings beautifully as she agonises over her continuing feelings for an ex. A lovely melancholy feel and tasteful arrangement make this another highlight.

The seductive ‘Keep Me Up All Night’, addressed to a husband who has let the romance fade, which Julie originally wrote for her debut album a decade ago with Kent Blazy and Cory Batten, but never recorded, is pretty good, and was worth pulling off the shelves.

The title track is an excellent song about a one-night stand with an old flame, regretted almost before it takes place. This should be ideal for Julie’s sultry voice, but unfortunately her pitch sounds noticeably off in places.

‘I’ll Close My Eyes’ is another excellent song about a woman refusing to acknowledge her husband is leaving, with a soothing melody and an understated acoustic arrangement. ‘Old Habit’ is another instant classic, a despairing ballad about facing the last vestiges of a relationship, with a desperate Julie realising her lover is treating her as a convenience. The phrasing and emotional interpretation are beautifully judged.

Some of the material stretches the boundaries a little. The harmonica-led bluesy country-rock of ‘If I Were You’, addressed to a neglectful lover by his partner in adultery, is quite catchy, with a heavy drum beat anchoring the rhythm; the harmonica is played by Willie Nelson sideman Mickey Raphael. The rocking ‘When It’s Over’ is not quite as good, seemingly at odds with the downbeat lyric and not quite right for Julie’s voice. The minor keyed ‘Bones’ is a fairly faithful cover of a song from British retro-soul singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka. It’s not country, but Julie sings it well and it is certainly an interesting choice. The bluesy soul of ‘Wrong About You’ works better for me.

The liner notes are in unreadably tiny print and essentially useless. The music, however, is mostly very good; a little more adventurous than her major label work, and a definite advance on her last release. if you’ve missed Julie’s bluesy voice, this is a very worthwhile purchase or download.

Grade: A

Week ending 10/27/12: #1 albums this week in country music history

1967: Bobbie Gentry – Ode To Biliie Joe (Capitol)

1972: Charley Pride – A Sunshiny Day (RCA Victor)

1977: Elvis Presley – Moody Blue (RCA)

1982: Willie Nelson – Always On My Mind (Columbia)

1987: Randy Travis – Always & Forever (Warner Brothers)

1992: Garth Brooks – The Chase (Capitol)

1997: LeAnn Rimes – You Light Up My Life: Inspirational Songs (Curb)

2002: Elvis Presley- 30 #1 Hits (RCA)

2007: Rascal Flatts- Still Feels Good (Lyric Street)

2012: Little Big Town – Tornado (Capitol)

Week ending 10/20/12: #1 albums this week in country music history

1967: Bobbie Gentry – Ode To Biliie Joe (Capitol)

1972: Charley Pride – A Sunshiny Day (RCA Victor)

1977: Elvis Presley – Moody Blue (RCA)

1982: Willie Nelson – Always On My Mind (Columbia)

1987: Randy Travis – Always & Forever (Warner Brothers)

1992: Garth Brooks – The Chase (Capitol)

1997: LeAnn Rimes – You Light Up My Life: Inspirational Songs (Curb)

2002: Elvis Presley- 30 #1 Hits (RCA)

2007: Rascal Flatts- Still Feels Good (Lyric Street)

2012: Little Big Town – Tornado (Capitol)

Week ending 10/13/12: #1 albums this week in country music history

1967: Bobbie Gentry – Ode To Biliie Joe (Capitol)

1972: Charley Pride – A Sunshiny Day (RCA Victor)

1977: Elvis Presley – Moody Blue (RCA)

1982: Willie Nelson – Always On My Mind (Columbia)

1987: Randy Travis – Always & Forever (Warner Brothers)

1992: Garth Brooks – The Chase (Capitol)

1997: LeAnn Rimes – You Light Up My Life: Inspirational Songs (Curb)

2002: Elvis Presley- 30 #1 Hits (RCA)

2007: Rascal Flatts- Still Feels Good (Lyric Street)

2012: Little Big Town – Tornado (Capitol)

Album Review – Little Big Town – ‘Tornado’

You’d think the combination of irresistible four-part harmonies and a keen sense of song would be the makings of country music royalty, but Little Big Town has had more starts and halts in the past ten years than just about any mainstream act. They more than won the respect of the industry, but never quite caught on with the fans or country radio.

Their fifth album, a deliberate attempt to reverse those fortunes, is the group’s first to utilize producer-of-the-moment Jay Joyce, a smart decision that presents the quartet in a new and exciting light. Thanks to a stellar collection of songs tastefully sang and framed, Tornado blows recent releases by Dierks Bentley, Carrie Underwood, and Zac Brown Band out of the water and is easily the best mainstream country album since Eric Church’s Chief (also helmed by Joyce) came out a year ago.

Tornado works because it tampers with their core formula without sacrificing the qualities that have endeared them to the country audience for the past ten years. Platinum selling lead single “Pontoon,” a Luke Laird, Natalie Hemby, Barry Dean co-write about summertime fun on the water got them off on the right foot, and recently became their first number one hit. Anchored by Karen Fairchild’s commanding lead vocal and a slinky ear-catching beat, the song works because it isn’t a mid-life ploy at reclaiming adolescence, but rather three minutes of harmless fun aboard a boat. The second verse should’ve been developed more fully, but it works really well as a concept, and the arrangement is one of my favorites of any single this year.

Tornado matches the exuberance of “Pontoon”, but in most cases exceeds it. I’m really enjoying the album’s opening four tracks, each one a showcase for a different member of the group. Jimi Westbrook takes the lead on “Pavement Ends,” Fairchild on “Pontoon,” Kimberly Schlapman on “Sober” and Phillip Sweet on “Front Porch Thing.”  Westbrook, the thinnest vocally of the group, is adequate on “Pavement Ends,” Jason Saenz and Brent Cobb’s rollicking ode to dirt road partying, one of the more exciting songs on the subject matter. His male counterpart, Sweet (one of my favorite male vocalists in contemporary country), is excellent on “Front Porch Thing,” a wonderful banjo-led song about kicking back on a front porch with an old guitar and a song to sing.

But Schlapman is a revelation on the beautiful “Sober,” easily the album’s standout number. Written by Liz Rose, Hillary Lindsey, and Lori McKenna, the mandolin centric track is a sweet ballad about being drunk on love. I thoroughly enjoy how producer Joyce masterfully stands back and uses a less is more approach, allowing the gorgeous four-part harmonies, and stunning chorus, to steal the show.

Other album highlights include the first-rate title song and second single, a sinister Bobbie Gentry-like ballad about a woman seeking vengeance on her cheating boyfriend. Written by Hemby and Delta Maid, and effectively sung by Fairchild, the track blows away Underwood’s latest (which tackles a similar theme) and works thanks to the tasteful spooky guitars and moody vibe.  I also love the Westbrook fronted “Leavin’ In Your Eyes,” which is turned into a 1970s inspired soft rock opus, complete with a simple driving beat. The use of Fairchild and Schlapman on harmony vocals was a brilliant decision, as it helps to make the song more interesting than if the foursome sang together.

“Can’t Go Back,” written by Hemby with Kate York and Israeli-born Rosi Golan is another striking ballad and a fine showcase for the band’s signature harmonies, while album closer “Night Owl,” written by the band with Hemby, is a gorgeous reverse of “Leavin’ In Your Eyes” in which Fairchild and Schlapman take the lead while Westbrook and Sweet take the harmonies. “Night Owl” is another of my favorites sonically and nicely frames the group’s delicate vocals with lush acoustic guitars

Not all the tracks work, however. Sung as a duet by husband and wife Westbrook and Fairchild, “Your Side of the Bed” is a rip-off of Gretchen Wilson’s “The Bed,” down to the story of a failing marriage under the microscope in the bedroom. I’m having a difficult time believing the couple’s pain and the use of harmonies in the chorus. A better decision would’ve been to have Westbrook or Fairchild sing it solo, as the harmonies dilute the song’s emotional heft. I love the idea of the track as a duet, but it plain doesn’t work for a four-part group.  “On Fire Tonight” is an attempt at amped-up rock that’s well-presented and sung, and should work wonderfully in a live setting. But on record the Laird co-write with band comes off as underwhelming and a bit subpar for the group that has proven (even on this album) they can do a lot better.

I’m also having trouble getting into “Self Made,” which probably has a nice message, but is overtaken by a disastrously cluttered production that’s so bombastic its hard to hear what the group is singing. Joyce, who should’ve kept with the rest of the album and continued with the less is more approach, failed Hemby and Jedd Hughes’s co-write with Westbrook and Fairchild.

All and all, Tornado is an excellent mainstream country album and the strongest so far this year, bar none. I’m finding it impossible to drum up excitement for mainstream country these days but Little Big Town has managed to do that for me. I was so afraid they were on the path to compromising themselves at the price of commercial viability, but thankfully I was wrong.

Tornado isn’t a masterwork like Kathy Mattea’s Calling Me Home, but I’m confident in saying it stands next to the likes of Sugarland’s Love On The Inside, Miranda Lambert’s Revolution, and Trisha Yearwood’s Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love as some of the best mainstream fare released in the past five years.

Grade: A 

Country Heritage: Sonny James

“Let’s give a big Sarasota welcome to Capitol recording artist Sonny James and his Southern Gentlemen.”

Record labels do not have the aura that they had during the period of the 1940s–1970s, when artists were associated by the public with their record labels, and the record labels often put together tours of their artists. If you listen to live record radio programs of the period (or even live record albums), invariably the announcer would say something like this in introducing the artist “… and make welcome Capitol recording artist …”

The Big Four labels through the “Classic Period” of country music history (roughly 1950-1980) were, in order, Columbia/Epic, RCA, MCA/Decca and Capitol. Capitol was the smallest of the labels of the Big Four, with a shallower roster of artists, but during the period 1963-1972 Capitol had three artists who dominated in #1 records – Sonny James with 21 #1s, Buck Owens with 19 #1s and Merle Haggard with 13 #1s (according to Billboard). Yes, I know that all three artists had Billboard #1 records outside this decade, which ends when Sonny James left Capitol to sign with Columbia.

Sonny James is largely forgotten today, since when he retired, he really meant it. The raw numbers compiled by Billboard disguise the level of his success – Joel Whitburn has him as the #12 artist of the 1960s and the #10 artist of the 1970s but as of year-end 1997, Whitburn had Sonny James as #18 all-time. As of 2008, Whitburn still has him ranked at #22 all-time. Sonny James ranks ahead of many famous performers including Tanya Tucker, Kenny Rogers, Porter Wagoner, Tammy Wynette, Don Williams and Garth Brooks.

Born May 1, 1929 in the agricultural town of Hackleberg, Alabama, James Hugh Loden grew up in a musical family, singing with older sisters in the Loden Family group. While still a teen, Loden hosted his own radio show in Birmingham, Alabama. By the time James Loden entered the National Guard at the end of the 1940s, he was a seasoned professional entertainer. Although he had already finished his tour with the National Guard, the outbreak of hostilities in Korea resulted in Loden being recalled to active duty in September 1950, where he remained for the better part of two years.

Along the way James Loden had become friends with Chet Atkins who introduced Loden to Ken Nelson, famed record producer for Capitol Records. It was Ken Nelson who tagged James Loden with the Sonny James sobriquet, although apparently “Sonny” sometimes had been used as a nickname for Loden.

Ken Nelson started releasing singles on Sonny James in 1953. Some of the singles charted (others didn’t), starting with Sonny’s version of a song that Webb Pierce covered, “That’s Me Without You”, which reached #9 in 1953. Sonny would chart four more records through 1956, the biggest being “For Rent (One Empty Heart)” which reached #7 in early 1956. Sonny James was making inroads on television as well, appearing on the Big D Jamboree in Dallas, and on the nationally televised Ozark Jubilee hosting the first thirty minutes on a rotating basis with Porter Wagoner and Webb Pierce (Red Foley hosted the final hour of the show).

Sonny’s career song “Young Love” came to Sonny’s attention in 1956 through the recording of one of the co-writers, Ric Cartey. Ric’s record went nowhere but Sonny’s cover shot quickly up the charts reaching #1 for nine weeks in 1957 and reaching #1 on the Pop Charts as well, although Sonny’s recording was eclipsed on the Pop Charts by a note-for-note cover by actor Tab Hunter. Sonny feels that the opportunity for Tab’s cover to succeed came because Capitol could not keep up with the demand for the record.

Despite the success of “Young Love” (the flip side “You’re The Reason I’m In Love” reached #6) Sonny’s career did not kick into overdrive, as subsequent singles failed to maintain the momentum. By 1960 Sonny was off Capitol and recorded for NRC, RCA and Dot without notable success. From early 1958 until July 1963, Sonny charted only one single, that on the NRC label, “Jenny Lou”, which just missed the top twenty.

Reconnecting with producer Ken Nelson at Capitol in 1963, Sonny’s chart success resumed with some top ten singles. Then in January 1965 Sonny kicked off a run of singles that ran from 1965-1972 in which every single made it to the top three on Billboard’s country charts, a total of 25 in all, including a run in which sixteen consecutive singles made it to #1, a record later eclipsed by Alabama and tied by Earl Thomas Conley (the previous record holder had been Buck Owens with fifteen straight #1s). In reality, the string is more impressive than it sounds. After “You’re The Only World I Know” reached #1 for 4 weeks and “I’ll Keep Holding On” stalled out at #2, the next twenty-three singles would make it to #1 on at least one of the three major charts in use at the time (Billboard, Cashbox, Record World).

Sonny’s run of chart-toppers was the perfect blend of a smooth singer with a country sound that did away with fiddle and steel guitar but did not go to the extremes of Countypolitan and Nashville Sound recordings, being (mostly) easily replicated in live performance, and often featuring Sonny’s own excellent guitar playing. The songs were a mix of old Pop, Rock & Roll and R&B covers (13 songs) and original material (12 songs). While the earlier Sonny James hits did feature steel guitar (and he did keep a steel guitar player in his band) most of the later hits featured a guitar-organ, initially played on his stage show by band member Harland Powell.

How successful was the Sonny James during the 1960s and 1970s? Consider this:

1) According to Billboard for the decades of the 1960s and 1970s (1960-1979) Sonny’s recordings spent more time in the Number One chart position than any other artist in country music – a total of 57 weeks.

2) Also, according to Billboard, Sonny was the fifth ranking county artist for the two decade period, ranking behind only (in order) George Jones, Buck Owens, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard.

3) Sonny made more appearances on the Ed Sullivan show than any other country act. For those too young to remember, Ed Sullivan’s Sunday night variety show was “Must-See TV” introducing acts such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley to the American public and Sullivan was one of the first to prominently feature R&B, Motown and country acts on national television.

Clive Davis, President of Columbia Records, was a big fan of Sonny James, and lured him to Columbia where he scored his last #1 of the twenty-five song streak with “When The Snow Is On The Roses”. Sonny would score #1 and a handful of top ten records in his six years with Columbia before moving on to other labels. During his Columbia years Sonny seemed to become less interested in hit records and began recording theme-centered albums. In the chart below, the songs during 1972-1973 that charted at 30 or worse were older material released as singles by Capitol after Sonny left the label.

Read more of this post

Album Review: Ashton Shepherd – ‘Where Country Grows’

Ashton Shepherd was the youngest of the artists we spotlighted last year as the “new New Traditionalists”. At last, three years after she emerged on the scene, she has released her second album, which marks a serious bid for mainstream success by a talented young singer-songwriter. It is produced, like her first record, by Buddy Cannon, who does a fine job balancing contemporary and traditional elements of Ashton’s sound and emphasizing her unique voice.

The insistent lead single ‘Look It Up’ (written by Angaleena Presley and Robert Ellis Orrall), which I reviewed at the end of last year, has Ashton coming on scornfully like a modern Loretta Lynn. This works tremendously well, and it is a shame it was not a monster hit for Ashton rather than peaking just inside the top 20 – although that made it her biggest hit to date.

It is one of only two tracks not written by Ashton. She is developing well as a songwriter, and I am pleased to see her working with other writers to hone her own gifts, building on the untutored natural talent she showed on her debut three years ago.  Former artist and recent Sugarland collaborator Bobby Pinson helps writing a couple of country-living themed numbers. The title track and current single is a bit predictable as Ashton pays tribute to her rural roots, but the up-tempo ‘More Cows Than People’ on the same theme is quite entertaining, with colorful details rooting the song in a specific reality. This one isn’t a generic southern small town. I also like the relaxed but catchy ‘Beer On A Boat’. Written by Marv Green, Ben Hayslip and Rhett Akins, some of the lyrics might sound leering sung by a man, but Ashton makes it wholesome and charming. These four originally appeared on an EP earlier this year, which Razor X reviewed in anticipation of the album.

The best of the new songs is the sultry ‘That All Leads To One Thing’, one of Ashton’s solo compositions. It has a southern gothic Bobbie Gentry feel. A tormented married woman addresses the husband who is obviously cheating. With a vibe too dark for today’s country radio, it is one of the highlights on the record.  The upbeat ‘Tryin’ To Go To Church’ (written with Shane MacAnally and Brandy Clark) is lively and entertaining tune about struggling to live right in the face of various temptations (like the “husband-stealing heifer” she has to “set right”), and is reminiscent of ’70s Linda Ronstadt.

‘I’m Just A Woman’ is a ballad about being a woman, and specifically a wife and mother; the lyrics are not particularly deep or insightful, but the extraordinarily intense vocal makes it sound better than it is. The ballad ‘While It Ain’t Raining’ is equally intense to the point of verging on the over-dramatic, and although the song itself is well written (by Ashton with Troy Jones) a slightly more understated approach might have been more effective. Both tracks have backing vocals from Melonie Cannon (Buddy’s daughter and an exceptional talent in her own right).

‘I’m Good’ is a fine song which Ashton wrote with Dale Dodson and Dean Dillon. Like ‘Look It Up’, it is presented from the point of view of a woman refusing to forgive the man who has hurt her, but with a mellower feel musically as she concentrates on affirming her own strength and moving on. Her enunciation is oddly over emphasized – a feature of her vocals some criticized on her first album, which seems to have been intensified on this track in particular. ‘Rory’s Radio’ fondly recalls teenage memories of listening to the radio while driving with her older brothers, and has some slightly awkward phrasing.

I thought Ashton’s debut was enormously promising, the voice of a fresh new talent while still unmistakably country. This is more commercial, and will hopefully gain her some radio play, but although this is an encouraging step forwards, I feel she is still a work in progress, with her best yet to come.

Grade: B+

Buy it at amazon.