My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Brennen Leigh

Album Review: Rodney Crowell – ‘Christmas Everywhere’

If you’re tired of every Christmas album containing mostly the same old songs, this is the Christmas album for you. Every song is a Rodney Crowell original, and the mood is neither sentimental nor jolly.

The record opens with ‘Clement’s Lament (We’ll See You In The Mall’, sung by a syrupy sweet female duo, belying the ironic lyric pointing out the contemporary commercialisation of Christmas when “The season starts in August now“. The title is a nod to Clement Moore, author of ‘The Night Before Christmas’.

In the frantic ‘Christmas Everywhere’, a co-write with John Jorgenson, Rodney is a harried father complaining about the competing demands and wishes of all around him (while “Daddy wants a stiffer drink”. The pace shifts midway to allow a slow dreamy cameo from guest Lera Lynn before the tempo increases again but the tone changes again to a newly cheery Rodney embracing all the season entails. A lovely arrangement holds it all together, just about, but this is a very odd confection and definitely not playing it safe.

‘Very Merry Christmas’ is a rock jam with not much in the way of lyrics, which I could happily live without. ‘Christmas In Vidor’, an angry, dark and definitely not family-friendly take on the season in a troubled town in Texas (“that’s ash, that ain’t snow”) with spoken vocals from Rodney and his co-writer poet Mary Karr, is an outtake from the pair’s duet album a few years back. ‘Let’s Skip Christmas This Year’, another Karr collaboration, is rather better, with an upbeat tongue-in-cheek feel.

‘Christmas In New York’ is a downbeat reflection on Christmasses past and a lost relationship. The soulful jazz of ‘When The Fat Guy Tries The Chimney On For Size’ reassures a child that Santa really does exist.

Chuck Cannon co-wrote ‘Christmas Makes Me Sad’ opens with jolly Christmas music, but a downbeat lyric has a newly lovelorn protagonist expecting to

Spend my silent night alone

Also sad is the delicately mournful ‘Merry Christmas From An Empty Bed’, a moving duet with Brennen Leigh as a couple muse separately on the failure of their love while decorating for Christmas:

Brennen
Somehow I thought believing in our love would make it grow
And God knows faith can cover up a multitude of sins
But you wouldn’t let me in

Rodney
She learned to read my lies like tea leaves in a cup…

Now she’ll never know
How much I loved her so

This I excellent. I also very much liked ‘Christmas For The Blues’, another sad reflection on failed romance which is pure country. ‘Come Christmas’ is a simple, pretty song with a folky tune, the latter being composed by Rodney’s young granddaughters Adeline and Iris Brue.

The final track, the playful ‘All For Little Girls And Boys’ was written when Rodney’s own children were young. Three of his daughters sing along.

This is an ambitious and very different Christmas album. Not everything is to my taste, but it’s worth giving it a listen to see if you like it.

Grade: A-

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Single/song review: Sunny Sweeney and Brennen Leigh – ‘But You Like Country Music’

but-you-like-country-musicI’m a fan of both Sunny Sweeney and Brennen Leigh, so I was intrigued to hear their new duet. Although it’s not a formal radio single, it’s available now as an iTunes download, and it is well worth hearing.

A closely observed (if comically exaggerated) and witty debate between two women with very different outlooks on life who share a deep love of country music, the song wraps up a serious message about diversity and tolerance in a set of funny putdowns.

Brennen plays the environmentally aware hippie, and Sunny her ultra-conservative neighbour. they disdain and ignore one another until they discover a shared love, criticising one another’s choice of cars, garden layout and clothing, and swapping insults.

Sunny opens with:

I saw you pull up next door in your Subaru
I bet that thing runs on veggie oil…
I bet you’re probably growing marijuana
In that big organic garden in your yard
You walk around in sandals and pyjamas
Was getting dressed really all that hard?

Brennen responds,

I’m surprised you even saw me where you’re sitting
Behind that 747 in your drive
That’s the greenest grass I think I’ve ever seen
It’s probably from all the dangerous pesticides

They add in some political gibes, before they find common ground:

I was gonna keep my distance
‘Cause we are so different
Til one day I heard you cranking up the Hag

You like country music do ya?

What if I do, what’s it to ya?

Well, if you like country music
Then I guess you’re not so bad

They conclude,

It’s true that we’ve got nothing in common
But a love of country music conquers all

This is highly entertaining. The production is very traditional – no wonder, when their respective record collections,

cover all the bases
From Kitty Wells all the way to Dwight

Generally, a delight. <a href="http://“>Watch them performing it live.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Brennen Leigh and Noel McKay – ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’

in the bleak midwinterI loved Brennen Leigh’s new Lefty Frizzell album, so I had high hopes for her Christmas album, a duo effort with Noel McKay, a singer-songwriter she has worked with before (although it wasn’t my favorite of her past projects). Most country albums mix up traditional carols with modern religious tunes, sad country songs given a seasonal setting, and secular festive fare – with the latter tending to get the lion’s share. Unusually, this album focuses solely on carols, making it less suitable for your Christmas parties, but a good choice for devotional preparation. The arrangements are tasteful and subdued, with carols one is accustomed to hear belted out by a choir or congregation stripped back down to the bare essentials.

Unfortunately, I admit that I was disappointed on first listen. Brennen sings lead on almost all tracks, with McKay on close harmony. At first listen, much of it lacks vitality, coming across a little too polite and respectful on tracks like ‘Good King Wenceslas’, and the pitch sounds slightly off on the opening ‘Angels We Have Heard On High’. However, repeated exposure revealed a subtle quiet beauty to the record as a whole. Nothing on the album is what one might call upbeat, but a song like ‘Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus’ sounds positively dreary if the listener is not in the right mood. But close attention bears soothing reward.

A slow, sincere ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’ with mimimal instrumentation fits the song well, bringing out its poetic simplicity. A reflective ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ has McKay’s voice to the fore, for a change, but is also touching. McKay also takes the lead on a nice understated version of ‘It Came Upon A Midnight Clear’.

‘The Holly And The Ivy’ is delicately subdued and sounds much as it must have done when brought over to America by the early colonists and sung in remote households. ‘O Little Town Of Bethlehem’ is also rather lovely in this simple acoustic setting, and the closing ‘O Come All ye Faithful’ is also gently subdued compared to its more usual treatment.

My favourite track is a lovely, melodic reading of ‘The Friendly Beasts’, a charming story of the animals present at the Nativity.

I think since it focuses on the original Christmas story I might have resequenced it so it is in chronological order, with the carols not actually retelling the story at beginning or end. However, this is a very interesting project. As suggested above, it’s not the record to play for getting you in a good time Christmas mood, but it’s just right for the quieter moments in the run up to Christmas.

Grade: B+

Occasional Hope’s top 10 albums of 2015

so this is lifeIt’s been a solid year rather than an outstanding one, with a number of interesting albums released but few really exciting ones. But any of my top 10 is well worth hearing.

angels and alcohol10. Alan Jackson – ‘Angels And Alcohol

The veteran star is reliable as ever with his latest release. It may break no new ground, but it’s good country music, and that’s something we always need more of.
Highlights: ‘Angels and Alcohol’, ‘The One You’re Waiting On’, ‘You Can Always Come Home

pageant material9. Kacey Musgraves – ‘Pageant Material
Unlike many, I actually preferred this to Kacey’s lauded debut because I found the production choices more sympathetic to her voice.
Highlights: ‘Pageant Material’, ‘Biscuits’, ‘Late To The Party

cold beer conversation8. George Strait – ‘Cold Beer Conversation
He may have retired from touring, and have lost his golden touch with country radio – but like Alan Jackson, George Strait is still making fine music. A solid classy album.
Highlights: ‘Something Going Down’, ‘Everything I See’, ‘Even When I Can’t Feel It’.

brennen leigh sings lefty frizzell7. Brennen Leigh – ‘Sings Lefty Frizzell
Only just released, this lovely tribute to one of the cornerstones of country music made a late charge up my best of the year list. A true delight. Brennen also teamed up this year with bluegrass singer Brandon Rickman and singer/fiddler Jenee Fleenor in a trio project called Antique Persuasion, which released a delightful acoustic tribute to the Carter Family in August which almost made this list, and a recent Christmas EP.

Highlights: ‘I Love You A Thousand Ways’, ‘Mom And Dad’s Waltz’, ‘How Far Down Can I Go’, ‘You Gotta Be Putting Me On

throwback6. Kevin Moon – ‘Throwback
A fabulous traditional country album from an unknown singer with a great voice. It’s a wonderful reminder of what country music used to be, with guest turns from artists including John Anderson, Rhonda Vincent and Ken Mellons. If there had only been a few more original tunes of the same quality, this would have been even higher in my year-end list.

Highlights: ‘The Storms Of Life’ (with Daryle Singletary), ‘Tennessee Courage’ (with Kevin Denney, Wesley Dennis and Billy Droze), ‘I’d Be Better Off (In A Pine Box)’ (with Doug Stone).

pocket full of keys5. Dale Ann Bradley – ‘Pocket Full Of Keys
Dale Ann has a pure, beautiful voice, and is one of my favorite bluegrass vocalists. This gorgeous effort shows her at her very best.

Highlights: ‘I’m So Afraid Of Losing You Again’, ‘The Stranger’, ‘Pocket Full Of Keys’.

traveller4. Chris Stapleton – ‘Traveler
Chris Stapleton’s triple triumph at the recent CMA awards, and subsequent sales spike, was one of the most unexpected in country music history. Although he was formerly lead singer of the SteelDrivers, and has been a very successful songwriter for years, he had rather flown under the radar as far as mainstream acknowledgement went. His solo debut album is a very strong piece of work, showcasing his bluesy, soulful vocals. I don’t love every track – occasionally his more esoteric leanings to blues and rock wander too far from country music for me – but when he’s at his best, he is magnificent.

Highlights: ‘Whiskey And You’, ‘Nobody To Blame’, ‘Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore’.

the underdog3. Aaron Watson – ‘The Underdog
Texan Watson has been steadily plugging on for a decade or so, and his latest album is as good as anything he’s done, with a powerful depiction of Johnny Cash at his turning point and a reflection on the state of country music. Solid Texas country music which deserves a mainstream hearing.
Highlights: ‘The Prayer’, ‘Fence Post’, ‘Bluebonnets (Julia’s Song)’.

the blade2. Ashley Monroe – ‘The Blade
A fine album by one of the best artists currently on a major label – even if that label isn’t bothering to push her work at radio. The title track in particular is exquisite.
Highlights: ‘The Blade’, ‘If The Devil Don’t Want Me’, ‘Dixie’, ‘I’m Good At Leaving’.

so this is life1. Courtney Patton – ‘So This Is Life
A lovely mature piece of work from a fine singer-songwriter, loaded with gorgeous country waltzes. For my money this is the most consistently great album of the year.
Highlights: ‘Little Black Dress’, ‘Need For Wanting’, ‘Killing Time

Album Review: Brennen Leigh – ‘Sings Lefty Frizzell’

brennen leigh sings lefty frizzellLefty Frizzell is one of the great names of country music, a major influence on Merle Haggard and many others, and he used to be spoken of in the same terms as Hank Williams. But increasingly he seems to be just a name to younger artists, so it is a particular pleasure to see his legacy granted this kind of tribute. Brennen Leigh is a fine singer-songwriter in her own right, with a folky and slightly quirky edge. Tackling these classic tunes shows her to be a fine singer as well, who has improved since she made her last record. Lovely authentic arrangements redolent of the 1950s and 60s show how since a project this is.

One deliberate choice which (for me) detracts slightly from Brennen’s treatment of some of the songs is her refusal to change any of the gender specific words. This is most intrusive in the classic story song ‘Saginaw, Michigan’. Brennen sings the song beautifully, and she sounds great, but she just doesn’t convince as the poor boy who is the protagonist. The lesser known ‘My Baby Is A Tramp’ is another man’s song, about a cheating woman from the wrong side of the tracks who the protagonist loves anyway:

Friend you better treat her like a lady
How I love this tramp that I call baby

Her daddy’s doing life in a pen in Illinois
Her mama had eleven most unwelcome girls and boys
She was born by accident, raised in the slums
Surrounded by hustlers, rushers and bums
Yeah my baby is a tramp and a cheater
She can’t change no matter how I treat her
And even though I know she’ll always be
No one had better call her that but me

‘You Don’t Have To Be Present To Win’ is a ballad in which the (male) protagonist relaises that his beloved is still hung up on her ex. It’s a fine song, although I found the backing vocals a touch intrusive, and the key may be a little bit lower than ideal for Brennen’s voice. The charming ‘You Want Everything But Me’ chastises a lover who is more interested in material goods, and the gender switch works well, apart from the purchase of dresses.

Some songs work perfectly. Brennen’s version of Lefty’s first #1, ‘I Love You A Thousand Ways’ is just lovely. One of my favourite Frizzell songs, the sweet but not saccharine tribute to loving parents, ‘Mom And Dad’s Waltz’, is also gorgeous. The stripped down ‘When It Comes To Measuring Love’ also about parental love.

The melancholic ballad ‘How Far Down Can I Go’ is another highlight, a sad tale of someone felled by the combination of lost love and drink. ‘Don’t Stay Away Til Love Grows Cold’ is, perhaps, a little old fashioned for some listeners, but is a very nice love song.

Raising the tempo, ‘Mama’ is western swing with a Christmas setting. ‘You Gotta Be Putting Me On’ has a jazzy feel and wry lyric as the protagonist politely declines to take back an errant spouse:

I even left the key where it oughta be
But you forgot your way back home
You say you went down south to see your rich uncle
Trying to get us a loan…

Well it’s strange to me
I can’t see why you didn’t use the phone
It just cost you a dime to ease my mind
And let me know when you would be back home
“The phone was busy every time you called
I was always gone
And you were thinking ‘bout me constantly”
Well, you gotta be putting me on

‘Run Em Off’ is about jealousy and possessiveness; it is treated playfully, but the lyric is actually a little threatening. ‘What You Gonna Do Leroy’ is slightly odd, with an ethereal lead vocal and retro backing vocals and effects which didn’t quite work for me.

Overall, though, this album is a labor of love which I loved.

Grade: A

Occasional Hope’s Top 10 Albums of 2010

While great mainstream releases have been a little thin on the ground, there’s been some good music released if you look around, on both major and minor labels. Here are my favorite albums of the year (with links to fuller reviews):

10. Aaron Watson – The Road And The Rodeo

The best Texas country album of the year by a solo male vocalist. In the opening track Aaron talks about “seldom being heard on your radio”, but this is just the sort of music which ought to be at the heart of the mainstream.

9. Dierks Bentley – Up On The Ridge

Not quite everything gelled for me on Dierks’s bluegrass-influenced project, but it was a brave attempt at artistic growth and one of the most ambitious and adventurous records of the year. He was rewarded with three CMA nominations, more airplay than bluegrass can usually command, and respectable sales figures.

8. Merle Haggard – I Am What I Am

The legend returns with his best work in years. His voice has suffered the ravages of age, but his songwriting is still inspired, with ten of the twelve tracks consisting of solo Haggard compositions which stand comparison with his past repertoire. Highlights include the reflection on the changes brought by time, ‘I’ve Seen It Go Away’, which opens and sets the tone for the album.

7. Amber Digby and Justin Trevino – Keeping Up Appearances

A delightful set of covers of classic country duets by the excellent Amber Digby with her producer Justin Trevino recall the best of country music’s proud duet tradition.

6. Brennen Leigh – The Box

A really charming set of folk-country songs with pretty tunes mostly penned by the singer. The highlight is the Louvin Brothers style ‘Are You Stringing Me Along’, but it’s all worth hearing.

5. Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song

Jamey’s magisterial double album opens with his cover of a previously unrecorded Keith Whitley song, ‘Lonely At The Top’, contrasting the miseries of fame with the greater problems of those less successful. It is chock full of songs about broken hearts, an unsentimental look at poverty (‘Poor Man Blues’, ‘Can’t Cash My Checks’), God (‘I Remember You’, ‘My Way To You’), country life, and country music itself, plus a song for Jamey’s little girl (‘Baby Don’t Cry’). Alongside the Whitley song are covers of Vern Gosdin’s ‘Set ‘Em Up Joe’, the Kris Kristofferson-penned Ray Price classic ‘For The Good Times’, and a malevolent take on ‘Mental Revenge’ (written by Mel Tillis but best known by Waylon Jennings), and legendary songwriter Bill Anderson duets with Jamey on the title track. This is not as dark as Jamey’s masterpiece That Lonesome Song, and I didn’t feel the songs were quite up to that standard. With the whole more than the sum of its parts, this is still a deeper and more challenging record than almost everything else cut in Nashville these days. Jamey has managed to sell pretty solid numbers despite the lack of a real radio hit so far this time around.

4. Marty Stuart – Ghost Train

This record was something of a revelation to me. I’ve never really got Marty Stuart’s music before, respecting his musicianship and admiring his approach, but never really loving the results. At last, this statement of what country music should be grabbed me from the first vibrant notes of opener ‘Branded’, in a set which is full of fire and energy. The backing is superb (with a handful of instrumentals including a steel guitar centered performance of ‘Crazy Arms’ by its writer Ralph Mooney). Marty’s vocals are truly heartfelt on the ballads and forceful on the up-tempo material, with wife Connie Smith duetting with him on a love song, and the material is excellent. Favorite tracks include the somber co-write with the dying Johnny Cash, ‘Hangman’.

3. Joe Diffie – Homecoming

Our August Spotlight Artist Joe’s long-awaited bluegrass album was well worth the wait. His voice sounds as good as ever and is ideally suited to the high lonesome sound, the production and musicians were spot-on, and the songs were great.

2. Joey + Rory – Album #2

I loved their debut, and their follow-up has all the charm of the original. Joey’s beautiful voice is still front and center, but Rory gets a bigger profile than previously, with the odd solo line and one lead vocal on his touching tribute to his father, ‘My Old Man’. Carl Jackson’s lovely clean production is the perfect match. Songs range from the witty sideswipe at the music industry which provides the title track to a set of sincere love songs, with a warning to a potentially erring husband (‘God Help My Man’), some western swing and country gospel along the way. This is one of those albums where you believe every word is true.

1. Ken Mellons – Rural Route

Dierks Bentley and Joe Diffie’s respective takes on bluegrass got most of the headlines this year, and both won places in my personal top 10. But for my money, the best of the lot was the underrated Ken Mellons with this superb album with character filled, emotional vocals, excellent material and outstanding bluegrass picking. It was hard to put my top five in order, but in the end this one just edged the rest. If you haven’t heard it, and like bluegrass as well as country, it really is an essential purchase.

Album Review: Brennen Leigh – ‘The Box’

Minnesota born but now Austin based, Brennen Leigh was once a semi-finalist on Nashville Star, but her music is a long way removed from the commercial impetus of modern country media. She has released a string of interesting, low-key albums in the past decade, most recently a set of retro cover duets with Jesse Dayton in 2007. This most recent album consists of mostly melodic mid-paced folky country material with a melancholy tinge, almost all self-penned. She has a real gift for writing attractive melodies allied to thoughtful lyrics, deeply rooted in the traditions of country music. She plays mandolin and/or acoustic guitar throughout the record, with her brother Seth Hulbert on guitar and Tommy Detamore, with whom she produced the record, contributing lovely steel guitar and occasional dobro. Her voice is plaintive and delicately emotional if not very forceful.

She opens with a pensive look at her attitude to the ‘Rolling Green Hills’ of her home, which has turned to restlessness and the need to break away. A happier domestic and pastoral image comes in the Carolina-set ‘Just To Hear My Little Bluebird Sing’.

The love song ‘Distracted’ is an almost loungy ballad with a pretty tune and the steel high in the mix. But the emotions tend more often to the sad and betrayed. ‘You Made A Fool Out Of Me’ is a traditional honky tonk country song about drinking away a heartache with a memorable (and somewhat familiar) tune which I really like, and some tasteful fiddle from Bobby Flores. Addressing the heartbreaker, she declares through the wine,

Well I hope you despise me if you cannot love
Hate is better than nothing at all…

My old childhood friend Depression
Made plans to come and visit today
And I’ll have a new darling companion
There’s no telling how long he might stay

Cause you made a fool out of me
And you can’t even tell me goodbye
You left me here crying and walking the floor
I won’t bother you anymore

My favorite track is the plaintive Louvin Brothers styled ballad ‘Are You Stringing Me Along’, with Seth providing close harmony, as Brennen questions the sincerity of the lover who may have abandoned her, and admits,

I could wait forever if you asked me to
But I’ll never let you know for fear I’d really have to

Brennen’s publishing company Footprints In The Snow takes its name from a line in this song.

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