My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Bradley Walker

Classic Rewind: Bradley Walker – ‘Because He Lives’

Happy Easter!

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Classic Rewind: Bradley Walker and the Oak Ridge Boys – ‘Family Bible’

Album Review: Bradley Walker – ‘Blessed’

Bradley Walker’s second religious album, and third overall, leans towards traditional hymns and other well known material. A beautiful, measured reading of ‘Amazing Grace’ opens the album. Carl Jackson and Val Storey add harmony vocals, and a little steel guitar ornaments the track. A thoughtful, sincere version of ‘The Old Rugged Cross’, also introduced with some gorgeous steel, is even better. Jimmy Fortune and Ben Isaacs help out here.

From the southern gospel tradition, Alison Krauss adds an angelic harmony to ‘Angel Band’. Vince Gill and Sonya Isaacs help on ‘Drifting Too Far From The Shore’, another lovely track. ‘I’ll Fly Away’ has energy and commitment, as does ‘Victory In Jesus’. The Gaithers’ more recent ‘Because He Lives’ is a melodic ballad.

A few classic country and bluegrass gospel tunes are included. The Oak Ridge Boys lead into ‘Family Bible’ with a line from ‘Rock Of Ages’. Some may not know that ‘One Day At A Time’ was co-written by Kris Kristofferson and Marijohn Wilkin). Bradley’s version is earnest and tasteful, with a lovely harmony from Rhonda Vincent. Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White provide harmonies on the Stanley Brothers’ ‘Who Will Sing For Me’.

There is some newer material as well. ‘I Will Someday’, written by two sets of spouses (Morgane Hayes and Chris Stapleton, and Ronnie and Garnet Bowman), is a nice upbeat song about absolute faith. The Isaacs contribute backing vocals, and there is a sprightly acoustic guitar and piano backing. ‘Cast the First Stone’ is an Isaacs song from a couple of decades ago with a Bible based lyric and strong bluegrass feel. Another Isaacs tune is the beautiful ballad ‘Say Something’.

This is a perfect example of a country religious album. The vocals are exceptional and the instrumental backings and arrangements delightful.

Grade: A

Album Review: Robert Mizzell – ‘Travelling Shoes’

Produced by Wayne Thorose, Robert Mizzell’s latest offering was released late last year. As usual, there is a heavy reliance on cover material, although he largely avoided covering song that have been overdone already. That complaint aside, there is little to gripe about here; this is a solid collection of the kind of country music that rarely gets made anymore on this side of the Atlantic.

The title track is Sawyer Brown tune dating back to the band’s 1992 Cafe on the Corner album. Mizzell also covers Lefty Frizzell (“Gone, Gone, Gone” written by Harlan Howard), Johnny Cash (“Greystone Chapel” from 1968’s Live at Folsom Prison), Mel Street (“Borrowed Angel”) and Kris Kristofferson (“Why Me Lord”), as well as more contemporary artists such as Josh Turner (“Firecracker”) and Phil Vassar (“Like I Never Loved Before”). He acquits himself nicely on all of these, although “Firecracker” is not one of my favorite Josh Turner songs. “Like I Never Loved Before” is a pop-tinged power ballad, and though well done, seems out of place on this otherwise very traditional album. However, the best cover on this album is “Her Carried Her Memory”, an obscure Bradley Walker number dating back to 2006. This is a great song that deserves to be better known than it is.

“Day Job” was written and originally recorded by Gord Bamford, an Australian country singer who was raised in Canada and has enjoyed some success there. Mizzell’s version enjoyed some success on the Irish charts. It’s a fun song, whose central theme is one to which most of us can relate:

This crazy day job, it ain’t no thrill
But it makes those ends meet and pays my bills
I ain’t complainin’, but it ain’t right
‘Cause my old day job, is ruining my night life.

This is a song that could have bit a big hit in the US for someone if it had come along 20 years earlier.

There is also a decent amount of original material on the album, the best of which is “She’s On The Way” an upbeat number that Mizzell wrote himself about his new wife and daughter. This was the first time he recorded one of his own compositions and I look forward to hearing more in the future. “John Deere Beer” is a fun and somewhat lyrically light summer song that was hit for Robert in Ireland in 2015. On a more serious note, “City of Shreveport” is a nice tribute to Robert’s hometown, and “Two Rooms and a Kitchen” is a typical Irish country song about spending time at Grandma’s house. It might pass for an American country song if its references to digging spuds and drying turf (to fuel the fire) didn’t betray its origins.

The album closes with a remake of Mizzell’s 2010 hit “Mama Courtney”, his tribute to the foster parents who raised him in Louisiana. The tempo is slowed down considerably and it’s done as a piano ballad but the new arrangement is quite effective.

Although Travelling Shoes contains a fair amount of remakes, they are all well done, and thanks to its generous 15 tracks, there is also a decent amount of new material. The album comes across as a bit incohesive — at times it seems like a hits compilation since the songs don’t always share a common theme; however, I enjoyed listening to this more than anything else that I’ve heard lately, with the possible exception of Zephaniah OHora’s album. I’m very glad to have discovered Robert Mizzell and I will make it a point to continue following his career.

Grade: A

Occasional Hope’s top 10 albums of 2016

real-country-musicThere has been some excellent country music released this year, admittedly mostly away from the major labels. Just missing my cut were strong comebacks from Loretta Lynn and Lorrie Morgan; glorious Western Swing from the Time Jumpers; sizzling bluegrass from Rhonda Vincent and her band; and a pair of very promising debuts from Mo Pitney and William Michael Morgan.

10 – Bradley Walker – Call Me Old Fashioned
Traditional country meets gospel from an underrated singer.

Best tracks: ‘His Memory Walks On Water’; ‘Why Me’; ‘Sinners Only’; ‘In The Time That You Gave Me’.

big-day-in-a-small-toen9 – Brandy Clark – Big Day In A Small Town

Like Miranda Lambert’s latest, this album married outstanding storytelling and songwriting, good vocals and overbearing production. But the songs here are so strong that the end result still made it into my top 10.

Best tracks: ‘Since You’ve Gone To Heaven’; ‘Three Kids, No Husband’; ‘Homecoming Queen’.

8 – Cody Jinks – I’m Not The Devil

His deep voices tackles themes of darkness versus light, on some very strong songs.

Best tracks: ‘The Same’; ‘I’m Not The Devil’; ‘Grey’.

7 – Jamie Richards – Latest And Greatest

Warm, inviting vocals and excellent songs with a real gift for melody.
Best tracks: ‘I’ll Have Another’; ‘I’m Not Drinkin’; ‘Last Call’; ‘Easier By Now’.

for-the-good-times

6 –Willie Nelson – For The Good Times: A Tribute To Ray Price

As the veterans of country music continue to pass away, it’s a comfort to see that at 83, Willie Nelson is still going strong. His tribute to the late Ray Price, with the help on several tracks of The Time Jumpers, was a delightful reminder of some of the best country songs ever written.

Best tracks: ‘Heartaches By The Number’; ‘Crazy Arms’; ‘Invitation To The Blues’.

5 – Dallas Wayne – Songs The Jukebox Taught Me

The deep voiced singer’s Heart of Texas debut is a honky tonk joy.
Best tracks: ‘No Relief In Sight’; ‘Eleven Roses’; ‘She Always Got What She Wanted’.

4 – Mark Chesnutt – Tradition Lives

A solid return from the 90s star with some excellent songs. It feels as if the last 20 years never happened.

Best tracks: ‘Is It Still Cheating’; ‘So You Can’t Hurt Me Anymore’; ‘Neither Did I’.

hymns3 – Joey + Rory – Hymns That Are Important To Us

A final heartbreaking labor of love for the duo recorded during the last stages of Joey’s illness. Joey’s beautiful voice and inspirational spirit are showcased for the last time.
Best tracks: ‘Softly And Tenderly’; ‘When I’m Gone’; ‘I Surrender All’.

2 – John Prine – For Better, Or Worse

I adored John Prine’s collection of classic country duets on the topic of marriage, and said when I reviewed it that it was set to be my favourite of the year. I was almost right. It really is a delightful record – great songs, lovely arrangements, and outstanding vocals from the ladies counterpointing Prine’s gruff emotion.

Best tracks: ‘Fifteen Years Ago’ (with Lee Ann Womack); ‘Look At Us’ (with Morgane Stapleton); ‘Color Of The Blues’ (with Susan Tedeschi); ‘Cold Cold Heart’ (with Miranda Lambert); ‘Dreaming My Dreams With You’ (with Kathy Mattea); ‘Mr And Mrs Used To Be’ (with Iris De Ment).

1 – Gene Watson – ‘Real. Country. Music

While Willie Nelson is still great, his voice is showing signs of age. The wonderful Gene Watson is still at the peak of his powers in his 70s, and his skill at picking excellent material hasn’t faltered either. His latest album reminds younger performers what real country music is all about.

Best tracks: ‘Couldn’t Love Have Picked A Better Place To Die’; ‘Bitter They Are, Harder They Fall’; ‘When A Man Can’t Get A Woman Off His Mind’; ‘A Bridge That Just Won’t Burn’; ‘Ashes To Ashes’; ‘She Never Got Me Over You’.

Album Review: Bradley Walker – ‘Call Me Old Fashioned’

call-me-old-fashionedTen years ago I was blown away by the debut album by Bradley Walker, a country traditionalist/bluegrass singer with a great baritone voice. Sadly, it didn’t lead to the success it deserved, and it has taken a decade for him to release a follow-up. He has appeared on the Joey + Rory TV show and was a favorite of the late Joey Feek, who asked for him to sing at her funeral. His honoring of that request led to his signing a new record deal with gospel label Gaither Music Group. This album (produced by Rory Feek) is mainly religious in nature, but it is also very definitely traditional country.

The Feek connection is underlined with the recording of ‘In The Time That You Gave Me’, which is a moving duet with Joey about making the most of life, written by Shawn Camp and Dennis Morgan. Heartfelt vocals from both Joey and Bradley make this very powerful. ‘Sing Me To Heaven’ (by Camp and Buddy Cannon) anticipates the eternal life to come.

A stunning version of the Kristofferson-penned classic ‘Why Me’ opens the album. Walker’s voice has the gravitas to carry it off. Equally good a song is Erin Enderlin and Irene Kelley’s ‘His Memory Walks On Water’, an uncompromisingly honest story song about a man whose drunken abuse of his family means that when he finally crashes his car, his neighbours all judge he “died ten years too late”.

But his absence means that his daughter can reimagine him as a lost hero:

She’ll only see the best in him now looking back
So she can finally have a father who’s gentle, kind and good
She’ll let his memory walk on water since he never could

This is an extraordinary song which Bradley does full justice to.

‘Don’t Give Up On Me’ is a confessional Rory Feek ballad about an imperfect man dealing with hard times and feeling he has let down his wife. Musically it has more of Christian Contemporary feel than the pure country of the remainder of the album, but the sensitive lyric, fine vocal and tasteful arrangement all sell it.

‘Sinners Only’ points out that salvation is not just for the righteous, as a priest with a past is torn between the bottle and his calling:

He knows God’s gonna love him whatever he decides
Sinners only
Bring your drunkards and your fighters and no-one-seems-to-like-hers
Bring your drifters and your liars and your thieves
In other words, anyone who breathes

A form of muscular dystrophy means that Bradley uses a wheelchair, and he refers to this with a complete lack of self-pity in ‘I Feel Sorry For Them’, which he wrote with Rory Feek and Tim Johnson about what he has to be grateful for. The lilting ‘I Count My Blessings’ is less personally specific, but also about being happy with what one has. ‘The Toolbox’ offers some homespun philosophy from a note left by the protagonist’s dad in the toolbox he leaves behind. Very nice harmonies augment a soothing melody and comforting lyric.

The title track, written by Jerry Salley and Dave Turnbull, lauds traditional values of honesty, hard work, and patriotism. ‘Pray For God’ is on the verge of being too sweet, with its small child’s innocent suggestion at a church prayer meeting. ‘The Right Hand Of Fellowship’, written by Larry Cordle and Leslie Satcher, is a bright and catchy description of a church with bluegrass/southern gospel harmonies. The stripped down ‘With His Arms Wide Open’ is a beautiful meditation on Jesus.

The one track that doesn’t quite work for me is the closing ‘Beulah Land’, a slightly shaky live recording with the Isaacs on backing vocals.

Everything else, though, is stellar. Excellent songs, a great singer, and tasteful production make this a must-have as long as you don’t dislike religious material.

Grade: A

A DVD featuring these songs in concert, filmed at Joey + Rory’s barn, is also being made available.
call-me-old-fashioned-dvd

Album Review: Jerry Salley – ‘Showing My Age’

You may well recognise the name of Jerry Salley from his many credits as a songwriter. If you do, you will know what a fine writer he is, but may not be aware he is also an accomplished singer in a bluegrass vein with an attractive light tenor, who occasionally releases an excellent record. His latest album is largely acoustic country with a strong bluegrass influence. He produced it himself, and recruited some excellent musicians and harmony singers to help out.

The outstanding song is the tragic tale told in ‘Paper And Pen, which has been recorded by Alecia Nugent, who sings harmony here. It relates the story of two hearts broken when a man writes to his sweetheart, and she misunderstands his meaning when he writes at length about how hard it is for a man to commit – tearing it up before reading his proposal on the last page:

Her soul was bleeding
So she chose her weapon
And went for his heart
With paper and pen
She got her last words in
“I never loved you”
Was the lie she wrote him

He couldn’t believe
The reply he received
What a sad tragedy
For good love to end
Who needs a knife
When you can take someone’s life
With paper and pen

Another classic-sounding heartbreaker comes with the Jim McBride co-write ‘He Carried Her Mem’ry’, about a man who can’t get over a lost love. He gives up by degrees on everything else in life , falling into drunken despair before eventually killing himself “the night that he carried her memory too far”. Bradley Walker recorded it in 2006 on his outstanding country/bluegrass album Highway Of Dreams, which really needs a successor.

A couple of songs included here may be familiar from cuts by major country stars. ‘The Best Thing That I Had Goin’’ which Brad Paisley recorded some years ago, is the plaintive reflection on a lost relationship despite the protagonist’s success in other areas of life; the writer’s own version is very good, with delightful close harmonies from Brandon Rickman and a very bluegrassy feel. Reba McEntire has recorded the very fine ‘Close To Crazy’ written with Melba Montgomery, a regretful first person song about struggling to get over someone and finding,
This close to crazy is far from over you

‘The Broken Ones’ paints the portrait of Maggie, a compassionate young woman who works helping the hopeless:

If you call her an angel she’ll be quick to say to you
She’s just doing what the one who died for her would do

Love the broken ones
The ones that need a little patching up
Look for diamonds in the rough
And make them shine like new
It really doesn’t take that much
A willing heart and a tender touch
If everybody loved like He does
There’d a be a lot less broken ones

Opening track ‘Comin’ Home To You’, written with Chris Stapleton, is one of the less memorable songs, but sets a promising tone with its prominent banjo and relaxed happy mood as the protagonist changes his mind about leaving his loved one. ‘That’s Just Me Loving You’ is a pleasant love song performed as a duet with co-writer Lisa Shaffer.

The title track is a mature reflection on “staring 50 in the eye”. It was written with Brandon Rickman and feels like a 20-years-on sequel to the latter’s similarly themed ‘So Long 20s’, which was on his excellent 2009 release Young Man, Old Soul. I really like this with its comfortable acceptance of age – and the growing confidence maturity brings.

‘Where I’m Coming From’ and ‘Back Then’ look back (mostly fondly) on the lessons learned from growing up in the south in a previous generation. The good-humored and perky ‘It’ll Get You Where You’re Goin’’ also looks back to teenage years, and the gift of an old car at the age of 16. The fiddle-led ‘Five O’Shadow’ talks sweetly about fatherhood and a little boy who wants to be with daddy whenever he is home.

The first verse of ‘Amazing Grace’, performed with careful reverence by the Isaacs, leads into the equally sincere testimonial of ‘That’s All That Matters To Me’.

You can hear samples of several of the songs on Jerry’s website – which is also offering a deal to get both this album and its equally good predecessor, 2007’s New Songs, Old Friends, which features collaborations with Vince Gill, the Oak Ridge Boys, Rhonda Vincent, our current Spotlight Artist Ricky Skaggs and many others.

Grade: A

Television Review – ‘The Joey + Rory Show’

For those old enough to remember, Country Music has a long history with the variety show. Everyone from Porter Wagoner to the Wilburn Brothers, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, The Statler Brothers and even Barbara Mandrell (along with her sisters Louise and Irlene) graced America’s TV sets at one point or another.

This tradition has long since ended as the format died out over the past thirty years. The downfall in this type of programming meant generations of country fans wouldn’t have the opportunity to see their favorite performers on TV each week and get a chance to pull back the curtain to see the person behind the celebrity.

But thanks to RFD-TV, the format is coming back strong. The traditionally structured Marty Stuart Show has been showing his, and Connie Smith’s, brand of country music for a couple of years now, and The Joey + Rory Show debuted two weeks ago.

Mixing homespun wisdom and old-fashioned charm, The Joey + Rory Show is the perfect showcase for the husband and wife duo residing in Pottsville, Tennessee. Filmed on their farm and in their restaurant Marcy Jo’s Mealhouse, they make you feel like you’ve gone back to the simpler ideals of the 1950s/1960s when America’s beating heart resided in Mayberry.

This simplicity gives the show its pulse and encases each episode in a sincere authenticity that feels genuine opposed to concocted from a network executive.  Each thirty-minute episode (13 comprise the first season) is broken into segments from musical performances, comedy sketches, and cooking demonstrations, to an inside look at their life and marriage.

The music-centric portions of the program are the show’s strongest, with the “Story Behind The Song” feature standing as the highlight of the half-hour. By combining the couple’s instinctive storytelling abilities with acoustic versions of songs they’ve written, you glean a much-appreciated insight into the lives of the duo. I loved hearing Rory talk openly about the seven-year journey it took to get “A Little More Country Than That” recorded, and how the royalty checks from Easton Corbin’s #1 hit afforded them a new tin roof on their 1890s farmhouse. I also enjoyed hearing Joey tell the story of how the couple met and hearing her sing “A Night To Remember,” the yet-to-be recorded song written about that experience.

Also outstanding are the opening numbers, live performances of tracks from their excellent His and Hers album due July 31. They showcased the Kent Blazy and Leslie Satcher co-write “Let’s Pretend We’ve Never Met” in the premiere and Rory’s “The Bible and a Belt” last week, opposite ends of the His and Hers spectrum that highlight Joey’s comedic strengths and Rory’s rich family oriented storytelling.

Each week the duo also showcases guest performers, personal favorites of their choosing. By highlighting lesser-known performers, they spotlight a more refreshing crop of talents like Bradley Walker, the wheelchair bound traditional country and Bluegrass singer and 2007 IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year. The inclusion of these such performers, opposed to drawing from a pool of more established acts, exposes the viewer to artists they may not have known before and I welcome, as well as appreciate, any and all opportunities to be exposed to fresh talent not connected to mainstream Nashville.

As a whole The Joey + Rory Show is unapologetically Joey  and Rory and if you’re not a fan of the couple’s aw shucks persona and simple lifestyle, then the broader moments of the program may not be for you. The weakest moment on the program remains an Andy Rooney style comedy commentary by their neighbor and friend Wynn Varble, an established country songwriter (“Waitin’ On A Woman,” “Have You Forgotten,” “Sounds Like Life To Me”). His southern sense of humor comes off a tad Hicky for my tastes. And while I love the charm of their cooking segments, like the Coca Cola Cake demonstrated in the first episode, they aren’t broad enough recipes to appeal to everyone. That isn’t a big issue, though, since I really enjoy these aspects into Joey’s other job as a restaurateur with Rory’s sister Marcy.

Overall, The Joey + Rory Show is a wonderful yet unconventional variety show bubbling with the personality both Joey Martin and Rory Lee Feek bring to the table each week. They wanted to create great family programming and they certainly achieve that objective tenfold, giving fans a very enjoyable look at what they’re about in all aspects of their life, proving they’re a natural at everything they do.

The Joey + Rory Show airs Friday nights at 9 EST on RFD-TV, Rural America’s Most Important Network

Grade: A- 

Album Review: Musicians Against Childhood Cancer – ‘Life Goes On’

Musicians Against Childhood Cancer is the umbrella name for an annual charity concert by some of the best current bluegrass musicians. In 2006 a compilation of tracks recorded at the concert over the years was released in aid of St Jude’s Hospital, and this sequel contains performances from more recent years. The music was all recorded live but the excellent mixing would not be out of place in a studio set. The musicianship is without exception superb, as one might expect, and this is a fine bluegrass sampler in its own right, with a range of subject matter. The two CD-set includes a generous 39 tracks.

The outstanding track as far as I’m concerned is Bradley Walker’s cover of ‘Revelation’, a somber Bobby Braddock vision of the Second Coming which was originally recorded by Waylon Jennings and more recently served as the title track of an album by Joe Nichols. Walker’s superb 2006 debut album Highway Of Dreams has been far too long waiting for a follow up and it is good to hear him again. He is accompanied by a simple acoustic guitar backing allowing the bleakness of the song to take center stage.

I’m a fan of the compelling sibling harmony of the Gibson Brothers, and they contribute the fascinating ‘Ragged Man’, a tale of bitter sibling rivalry. The brother who is reduced to homeless poverty while the brother once preferred by their mother now rolls in riches, rails against “that golden boy” and warns him to “watch his back”. I’m also a big fan of Brandon Rickman’s soulful voice, and he teams up with bandmates from the Lonesome River band for a beautifully judged reading of the traditional ‘Rain And Snow’. Later the Lonesome River Band provide one of the best instrumentals on offer, the lively ‘Struttin’ To Ferrum’, which holds the attention all the way through.

Rhonda Vincent sings a simple but lovely, plaintive version of the traditional ‘The Water Is Wide’. She also sings harmony on Kenny and Amanda Smith’s take on gospel classic ‘Shouting Time In Heaven’. Marty Raybon is excellent on the gloomy Harlan Howard song ‘The Water So Cold’ (once recorded by country star Stonewall Jackson), which sounds made for bluegrass. Read more of this post

Album Review: Joey + Rory – ‘A Farmhouse Christmas’

Everybody’s favourite country music couple are the perfect pair to share their Christmas festivities with us. This album, their third on Sugar Hill, is designed to accompany their special seasonal live show, which sounds like the perfect evening to get you in the holiday spirit.

‘It’s Christmas Time’, last year’s charming holiday single from the duo, is a sweetly sung and neatly observed expression of the stress and joy of preparing for a family Christmas. It was written by Rory, and has typically lovely sounding production from Carl Jackson, who was responsible for their two previous albums. He was obviously busy this year, as the newly recorded material has been placed in the hands of Gary Paczosa, who has done the engineering on recent albums by the likes of Dolly Parton and Alison Krauss. His production work is excellent, and if not quite as sparkling as that provided by Carl Jackson, it is lovely and clean and focuses attention on Joey’s lovely voice. Musicians are sadly uncredited, but I was particularly struck by some nice fiddle work. The excellent Rounder artist Bradley Walker sings backing vocals on most of the album, and it would be good to hear news of a new album from him in the near future. (Incidentally, he has a track on the Mark Twain project recently produced by Carl Jackson.)

There is less self-composed material than usual for the pair, but more original songs than is customary on Christmas albums, which have a tendency to rehash the same old songs year after year. Here there are just three well known numbers, all worth revisiting. The warmth of Joey’s vocal lends a hopeful undertone to Haggard’s desperate and still-topical ‘If We Make It Through December’. For once the sweetness verges on too much, compared to the bleak original, but is counterbalanced by a gruff cameo appearance from Hag himself. Joey sings a plaintive version of the classic ‘Blue Christmas’, and she and Rory swap verses on a sincere version of ‘Away In A Manger’. The remainder of the material is either new or not very well known.

The saucy western swing ‘I Know What Santa’s Getting For Christmas’ was written by Garth Brooks and Kent Blazy but does not appear to have been previously recorded. Garth did however record ‘The Gift’, a Stephanie Davis story song on his multiple platinum Beyond The Season Christmas album almost 20 years ago. The sweet story of a little Mexican girl who nurses an injured bird back to health and sets it free as her gift to Jesus is well revived here with an attractive retro western feel, and ends with what sounds like the genuine recorded singing of a nightingale. ‘The Diamond O’ is another good Stephanie Davis song, this one about a cowboy Christmas, which allows Joey to try out her yodel.

Rory takes the lead on more songs than usual. By far the best of these is the understated ‘Remember Me, which he wrote with Tim Johnson. Rory takes the role of Jesus reminding us what the celebrations are really about, and this is one of my favourite tracks on the album. In complete contrast, I also enjoyed the bouncy and very secular ‘Come Sit On Santa Claus’ Lap’, written by Shawn Camp and Brice Long with a few lyric changes personalizing it for the couple. This is just fun.

He also sings the piano-led ‘What The Hell (It’s The Holidays)’, an amusing bluesy number written by Wynn Varble and Frank Rogers about the temptations of the Christmas table to a dieter, but one which really demands a more charismatic lead vocal. (Having been entertained by natural comedian Varble’s run on CMT’s Next Superstar this year, I’d rather like to hear his version.) Rory shows more personality on ‘Let It Snow (Somewhere Else)’, a slight but pleasant and cheery tale of a Christmas in the Caribbean, which seems to be this year’s Christmas single (at least, there’s a video). It was written by Rory with Tom Johnson and James Slater and sounds as though it was intended for a Kenny Chesney Christmas album, complete with Jimmy Buffett reference. Rory sounds a little like Garth Brooks on this, the album’s most disposable track (although it is quite cleverly constructed).

Joey is back on lead on the optimistic ‘Another Wonderful Christmas’ which ends the record on the same theme as it opened with ‘It’s Christmas Time’. With its many references to the foibles of their own family and friends, this is perhaps just a little too personal to work more widely.

Overall, this is the kind of Christmas project one would expect from Joey + Rory, sweet but not saccharine, with a helping of humor, and there is a pretty good and un-hackneyed selection of material. It may not get much play in my home eleven months out of twelve, but I can see this as a standby for Christmases to come.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘Homecoming’

It isn’t widely known that prior to his stint as a mainstream country hitmaker in the 1990s, Joe Diffie was an accomplished bluegrass musician, having been a member of the bluegrass band Special Edition. He returns to those roots for his first album in six years. Co-produced by Diffie with Luke Wooten, Homecoming is a comprised of some bluegrass classics along with some newer songs and original compositions, and features an impressive roster of guest artists including The Grascals, Rhonda Vincent, Sonya Isaacs, Carl Jackson, Alecia Nugent, and Bradley Walker.

The album opens with a traditional bluegrass number, the Earl Scruggs-written “Somehow Tonight” and continues in a similar vein with “Lonesome and Dry as a Bone”, which was written by Shawn Camp, Matt Lindsey, and Mel Tillis. “Tall Cornstalk” reflects Diffie’s well-known penchant for novelty songs, though this number, told from the point of view of the cornstalk, never approaches the level of hokeyness that characterized many of Joe’s 90s novelty ditties.

The high lonesome sound is evident on numbers such as “Fit For A King” and “I Know How It Feels”, which feature exquisite harmony vocals from Sonya Isaacs and Michael L. Rogers respectively. “Raining On Her Rubber Dolly” is an original composition which Diffie co-wrote with Shawn Camp. One of those uptempo songs with mournful lyrics that is unique to bluegrass, it uses the imagery of a child’s doll, left out in the rain in the yard, to symbolize a father’s heartbreak in the aftermath of a marital breakdown and separation from his family.

It’s quite evident that Diffie is well within his comfort zone and more than competent at singing bluegrass credibly. That being said, there are a few tracks that are more acoustic country than traditional bluegrass, which, with different arrangements would have been quite at home on any of his mainstream country albums. “Route 5 Box 109”, on which Joe is joined by Rhonda Vincent, is reminiscent of his 1990 breakthrough hit “Home”. Along with “Free and Easy” and “Stormy Weather Once Again”, it is one of the best tracks on the album. I’m not sure how bluegrass purists feel about these songs; to my admittedly non-expert ears, they sound more like acoustic country than bluegrass, but that in no way suggests that they are not excellent, regardless of how one categorizes them.

The album closes with “Hard To Handle”, a remake of a 1968 Otis Redding record, which is impressive if only for the speed at which it is sung. I’ll confess to complete ignorance of the original version, but I’m betting it bears little resemblance to Diffie’s rendition. While not my favorite track on the album, it is nonetheless enjoyable.

Joe Diffie was one of the most talented male vocalists of the 1990s, who didn’t always get the attention and acclaim that he deserved. Unfortunately he is most remembered today for his novelty tunes and not for some of the stronger entries in his catalog. Homecoming should go a long way to restoring his gravitas as an artist, and will easily appeal to both bluegrass aficionados and fans of Joe’s more mainstream work.

Grade: A

Homecoming is available from major retailers, such as Amazon and iTunes. A bonus track “Ocean of Diamonds” is available for download but is not included on the CD version. Those who download the album from Amazon are advised to select the version that includes “[+ digital booklet]” in the title. This is the version that contains the bonus track; inexplicably, it is the same price as the 12-track version with no liner notes or bonus track, which Amazon also sells.

Some hidden treasures of the decade

At the end of last year, I shared a list of my favorite 50 singles of the decade. Some of them were big hits, others more obscure, but at least in theory they got some attention at the time. Now that the decade is well and truly over, I thought I would mention some hidden treasures – album tracks that you probably only heard if you’re a fan of the artist, and purchased the full album. Some of them are from albums and artists that were more successful than others. I’ve omitted anything that made it to radio (even if it wasn’t a hit) as I considered those for my last list, and I have also left out anything from an album which made our collective Albums of The Decade list, although I have included tracks from other albums by artists who appeared on both of those lists. I have restricted my list to one track per artist named.

40. ‘Cold All The Time’ – Irene Kelley (from Thunderbird, 2004)
Songwriter Irene Kelley has released a couple of very good independent albums, showcasing her own very beautiful voice as well as her songs. This is a gently resolute song about a woman stuck in a bad relationship, summoning up the courage to make a move.

39. ‘All I Want’ – Darius Rucker (from Learn To Live, 2008)
There is still a chance that this might make it to the airwaves, as Darius’s platinum country debut is his current release. As a whole, the material was a little disappointing, but this great song is definitely worth hearing, and not only because it’s the mos country song on the album. It’s a jaundiced kiss-off to an ex, offering her everything as “all I want you to leave me is alone”.

38. ‘I Met Jesus In A Bar’ – Jim Lauderdale (from Country Super Hits Volume 1, 2006)
Songwriter Jim Lauderdale has released a number of albums of his own, in more than one country sub-genre, and in 2006 he issued two CDs on one day: one country, the other bluegrass. This great co-write with Leslie Satcher, a melancholy-tinged song about God and booze, also recorded by Aaron Watson, comes from the country one.

37. ‘A Train Not Running’ – Chris Knight (from The Jealous Kind, 2003)
Singer-songwriter Chris Knight co-wrote this downbeat first-person tale of love and a mining town’s economic failure with Stacy Dean Campbell, who also recorded a version of the song.

36. ‘Same Old Song’ – Blake Shelton (from Blake Shelton, 2001)
These days, Blake seems to attract more attention for his girlfriend Miranda Lambert and his Tweeting than for his own music. This song, written by Blake’s producer Bobby Braddock back in 1989, is an appeal for country songs to cover new ground and real stories.

35. ‘If I Hadn’t Reached For The Stars’ – Bradley Walker (from Highway Of Dreams, 2006)
It’s probably a sign of the times that Bradley Walker, who I would classify as a classic traditional country singer in the Haggard/Travis style, had to release his excellent debut album on a bluegrass label. This love song (written by Carl Jackson and previously recorded by Jon Randall) is all about finding happiness through not achieving stardom.

34. ‘Between The River And Me’ – Tim McGraw (from Let It Go, 2007)
Tim McGraw is not one of my favorite singers, but he does often have a knack for picking interesting material. It was a travesty that the best track on his 2007 album was never released as a single, especially when far less deserving material took its place. It’s a brooding story song narrated by the teenage son of a woman whose knack seems to be picking the wrong kind of man, in this case one who beats her. The son turns to murder, down by the river.

33. ‘Three Sheets In The Wind’ – Randy Archer (from Shots In The Dark, 2005)
In the early 9s, Randy Archer was one half of the duo Archer Park,who tried and failed to challenge Brooks & Dunn. His partner in that enterprise is now part of The Parks. Meanwhile, Randy released a very good independent album which has been overlooked. My favorite track is this sad tale of a wife tearing up a husband’s penitent note of apology and leaving regardless.

32. ‘It Looked Good On Paper’ – Randy Kohrs featuring Dolly Paton (from I’m Torn, 2007)
A forlorn lost-love ballad from dobro player Kohrs featuring exquisite high harmonies from Dolly. the ret o the record is very good, too – and you can listen to it all on last.fm.

31. ‘Mental Revenge’ – Pam Tillis (from It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis, 2002)
After her mainstream stardom wound down, 90s star Pam Tillis took the opportunity to record a real labor of love: a tribute album to her father Mel. This bitter diatribe to an ex is my favorite track.

30. ‘You Don’t Love God If You Don’t Love Your Neighbour’ – Rhonda Vincent (from The Storm Still Rages, 2001)
A traditional country-bluegrass-gospel quartet take on a classic rebuke to religious hypocrites, written by Carl Story. The track isn’t the best showcase of Rhonda’s lovely voice, but it’s a great recording of a fine song with a pointed message.

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Album Review: Alecia Nugent – ‘Hillbilly Goddess’

HillbillyGoddessI first heard Alecia Nugent back in 2004, when she released her eponymous debut album. It had some great songs on it, but I must confess that I didn’t really enjoy her singing, which I felt lacked subtlety and verged on the strident. Because of that, I passed on her follow-up in 2006, A Little Girl … A Big Four Lane, and it is only now, with the release of her third album Hillbilly Goddess, that I have rediscovered Alecia.

Her singing has improved immeasurably. Her tone has become warmer and fuller, the stridency I disliked has disappeared, and she has developed the ability to sing with subtlety as well as emotion. Carl Jackson’s production is faultless, and the pair of them have picked some very good songs well-suited to Alecia’s voice and style, which is very much in the country-meets-bluegrass vein.

The change is evident from the first track, the edgy ‘Wreckin’ The Train’, where Alecia gives it some rambling-girl attitude as she refuses to settle down: “I just had to walk away, he would have made a good husband, I guess that’s why I couldn’t stay.”

There is a gorgeous version of Buddy and Julie Miller’s modern classic ‘Don’t Tell Me’, which is imbued with delicately understated emotion, which is perhaps the best exemplification of how far Alecia has progressed as a vocalist. She gives a beautifully understated reading of Tim O’Brien’s regretfully poetic ‘Wishing Hard’: “Sugar just can’t hide the taste of bitterness that you get from wasting a heart that’s full of love but just can’t show it”.

Several of the songs are told in the third person, although they tend more towards snapshots of lives rather than true story songs. Some of them work rather nicely together. The downbeat ‘Just Another Alice’ takes a sympathetic look at aspiring singers “believing they’re a song away from being stars” but really “just another Alice here in Wonderland”. In ‘The Last Greyhound’ an 18 year old girl who might be one of those Alices leaves home to follow her dreams, only to find home is what she really dreams of. A male protagonist learns the same lesson later in life in the mellow-sounding closing track, ‘Already Home’:

“He knew the road like the back of his own hand,
He’d been on it a lifetime, still he wouldn’t call it a friend,
He said, he guessed some people search forever for something they already own,
And he could have saved himself a lot of miles if he had only known”

The joyful title track, co-written by Alecia herself with Jackson and Sonya Kelly, is a light-hearted but at heart, deeply romantic, tale of true love, set to a lively up-tempo tune featuring banjo from J D Crowe. The downhome heroine “may not be a glamor queen”, but to her man, she is the eponymous “hillbilly goddess”. The label should try this irresistible song as a single.

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