My Kind of Country

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

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Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘The Lonely, The Lonesome And The Gone’

Lee Ann Womack’s latest album is something of a departure, leaning in a bluesier direction than previously. This arose largely out of the lyrical theme of the album, adrressing hard times and lost love.

The opening ‘All The Trouble’ (written by Lee Ann with Adam Wright and Waylon Payne) is a hushed blues with a doomladen air, rising into a wail as she bemoans her life. Lee Ann’s vocals are fabulous, but the guitar work is unnecessarily muddy for my taste. It sets the tone for the album as a whole.

The same writing partnership is responsible for a further trio of songs. The sophisticated 60s pop/R&B ballad ‘Hollywood’ (apart from intrusive backing vocals) is a well written and exquisitely sung song about a troubled marriage which I would have preferred in a more traditional country arrangement. ‘Mama Lost her Smile’ is a closely observed story song reminiscing about the protagonist’s childhood and musing over the lacunae of memory. ‘Sunday’ is a pure blues tune which doesn’t do much for me.

‘Wicked’, written by Lee Ann with Adam Wright, is a dramatic southern gothic story song, about a mother who turns to murder to protect her child. It’s a compelling story, and well sung, but spoiled somewhat by the intrusive production:

You can’t blend in down in San Jacinto
With long blonde hair and an orange El Camino
But two things I never thought I’d need to get by
A 38 special and an alibi

Whatever I get I guess I’ve earned
But I never hurt anyone that didn’t deserve it

Oh, wicked is as wicked does
And if this ain’t wicked
Well, it’s close enough
I thought I was good and maybe I was
But wicked is as wicked does

Somethin’ had to happen
Somethin’ had to be done
And it turns out I’m pretty good with a gun
It doesn’t make it right but it is what it is and
Any mama in the world woulda done what I did

On his own, Adam Wright contributed the charming ‘End Of The End Of The World’, a pretty lilting waltz about getting back together. The title track is a subdued country ballad featuring steel guitar, gently regretting all that has been lost – a broken heart and changing times. It was written by Adam Wright with Jay Knowles.

Dale Dodson and the great Dean Dillon co-wrote ‘Talking Behind Your Back’, a lovely conversational song with the protagonist admitting to her lover’s ex over an awkward lunch that the man still really loves the other woman. A slightly loungy arrangement is okay but doesn’t quite do the song justice. Dodson teamed up with Lee Ann again, together with Dani Flowers, to write ‘Someone Else’s Heartache’, a nicely understated song of apparent resignation to a breakup, with the vulnerable vocal telling a different tale.

Covers of a couple of country classics are thrown in, remade in a soulful style fitting the overall mood of the album. ‘Long Black Veil’ (with no gender twist to the original lyric) is slow and soulful, with a stripped down arrangement and fragile vocal. ‘He Called Me Baby’, a Harlan Howard song once recorded by Patsy Cline, gets an intensely sultry jazzy makeover. An obscure George Jones-penned rockabilly gospel song, ‘Take The Devil Out Of Me’ is retro, vivacious and all too short.

Brent Cobb is a rising singer-songwriter, and Lee Ann is obviously a fan as she has covered two of his songs. ‘Shine On Rainy Day’ (the title track of Cobb’s own recent album) is a dreamy ballad with a messy, dirty sounding production I didn’t like at all set against Lee Ann’s pure vocals. The mid paced ‘Bottom Of The Barrel’ is a bit monotonous.

I’ve never been a big fan of Frank Liddell’s production choices, but I have little doubt that this album is exactly what Lee Ann wanted this time. My own feelings are mixed: it is a beautifully realized piece of work from a general artistic point of view, but I really miss the traditional country Lee Ann Womack.

Grade: B+

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Album Review: Miranda Lambert – ‘Weight Of These Wings’

the-weight-of-these-wingsMiranda Lambert lost her crown as Female Vocalist of the Year at this year’s CMA awards. Listening to her new double album, I wonder if she is consciously moving beyond the genre. Even by today’s standards this sounds more like an Americana or alt-country record to me than a country one. Produced by Frank Liddell, Glenn Worf and Eric Masse, it is too often loaded with reverb and echo-ey production that is a long way from Nashville, particularly on the first of the two discs. As a country fan I’m disappointed, as the songwriting is strong and shows Miranda really developing artistically in this collection of songs reportedly inspired by her recent divorce.

‘Runnin’ Just In Case’, written with Gwen Sebastian, is a case in point: an interesting song about a restless soul beginning to regret her rootlessness just a little:

What I lost in Louisiana I found in Alabama
But nobody ever taught me how to stay
It ain’t love that I’m chasin’
But I’m running just in case

I ain’t unpacked my suitcase since the day that I turned 21
It’s been a long 10 years since then
It’s getting kind of cumbersome

‘Ugly Lights’ (written with Natalie Hemby and Liz Rose), is a nicely observed song about the morning-after drinking away the protagonist’s troubles, with a touch of self deprecating humor as she does the ‘Monday morning drive of shame’ picking up her car from the bar. ‘Use My Heart’, which Miranda wrote with Ashley Monroe and Waylon Payne, is a downbeat tune about the aftermath of a broken heart.

But good as these songs are, the arrangements and production simply don’t sound like they belong on a country album.

‘We Should Be Friends’, written by Miranda solo, is a fun song about female friendship and bonding over shared experience. The subdued ‘Getaway Driver’, written with Miranda’s new boyfriend Anderson East and old friend Natalie Hemby, is quite a good song about a pair of lovers on the run, written from the man’s viewpoint. In the lead single ‘Vice’, written with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, the protagonist is defiant about her sins.

Love song ‘Pushin’ Time’ (reportedly about her new romance) was okay but not very interesting. I didn’t much care for the perky ‘Highway Vagabonds’, and hated the noisy mess ‘Covered Wagon. ‘Pink Sunglasses’ was irritating and tuneless. ‘Smoking Jacket’ is boring and overwhelmed by the production. ‘You Wouldn’t Know Me’ was boring.

The production on side 2 is generally more bearable, and the songs less commercial.

My favorite tracks is ‘To Learn Her’, which has a pretty melody and sweet lyric about love and loss, which Miranda wrote with Ashley Monroe and Waylon Payne. It is the most country the album gets, and is a pleasure. ‘Tin Man’ is a delicately subdued tune about the pain of knowing love and heartbreak which Miranda wrote with Jon Randall and Jack Ingram.

The mid-tempo ‘Good Ol’ Days’ (a co-write with Brent Cobb and Adam Hood) is pretty good. The sunny ‘For The Birds’ is reminiscent of Kacey Musgraves. The ode in celebration of a Southern ‘Tomboy’ also reminded me of Musgraves. The wearied, gentle ‘Well-Rested’ is another nod to her split from Shelton.

In ‘Keeper Of The Flame’, written with Hemby and Liz Rose , she places herself as representative of a tradition of singer-songwriters, although without dropping any names or reflecting any specific tradition. ‘Dear Old Sun’ is rather boring, but perhaps on purpose as it is about surviving depression; less intentional is the fact that the backing vocals do not sound to be in tune.

In ‘Things That Break’ (written with Jon Randall’s wife Jessi Alexander and Natalie Hemby), Miranda reflects on a propensity for accident. The rocky ‘Bad Boy’ is less effective despite some perceptive lines, while ‘Six Degrees Of Separation’ is another muddy mess.

If much of the record is dominated conceptually by the experience of Miranda’s divorce, by the final track she is optimistic:

Sometimes these wheels
Get a little heavy
I can’t stay between the lines but I’m rockin’ steady
When I can’t fly
I start to fall
But I’ve got wheels
I’m rollin’ on

This is the kind of album it’s hard to assign a grade to. The songwriting is of a very high quality, really showing Lambert coming into her own as a mature artist. But the production choices are just not enjoyable for me.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Southern Family’

southern familyMixed artist compilations can often be hit and miss. This concept album based on life in the American South, produced by Dave Cobb, is no exception. The concept itself hangs together a little vaguely, and the artists come from country and Americana with a side of (white) soul and rock. However, if it is intended to represent the South as a whole, it is rather lacking in the ethnic diversity of participants.

Jason Isbell is normally more Americana than country, but ‘God Is A Working Man’ is definitely a country song, and an excellent one to boot. The lyric pays tribute to a working class family with lots of colourful details about a Pentecostal preacher and his son. The melody and rustic vibe remind me of ‘Grandpa Was A Carpenter’, as recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and John Prine on Will the Circle Be Unbroken Part II. I like it better than any of Isbell’s past recordings.

Brent Cobb is producer Dave’s cousin (actually, first cousin twice removed). His track, ‘Down Home’, is quite pleasant without being very memorable. I also quite enjoyed Holly Williams’ ‘Settle Down’, about starting a new family.

I tend to prefer Miranda Lambert when she isn’t rocking it up, so I enjoyed her song, ‘Sweet By And By’ – not the gospel classic but a reflective depiction of rural life and family philosophy which sounds as though it was written for the prompt of the album concept. The old fashioned folky lyric and vocal are charming, although a more stripped down arrangement would have been even better.

‘Learning’, by Miranda’s new boyfriend, Anderson East, an Americana/R&B artist based in Nashville, is not my style of music, but is pretty good of its kind. Shooter Jennings’ ‘Can You Come Over’ is in similar vein, but more listenable. Rich Robinson of the rock band the Black Crowes offers a loud and boring number.

John Paul White’s former duo the Civil Wars were much admired by many critics, but they were never quite my thing, and I’m afraid I strongly disliked White’s whispery tune here, ‘Simple Song’.

Not all the songs here are new. Zac Brown (who appears to have lost the plot on his last album) is back on form here with a nice cover of Skip Ewing’s ‘Grandma’s Garden’. Lee Ann Womack adds a sweet harmony. Jamey Johnson wrote the tender ‘Mama’s Table’ for the Oak Ridge Boys a few years ago, and revives it here himself. The song remembers childhood happiness. Brandy Clark has recorded the affecting ‘I Cried’, about a family funeral, before, but it fits neatly in the theme for this collection, and she sings it beautifully.

Morgane Stapleton, wife of Chris, once had her own record deal, although nothing was ever released. She has a very pretty voice in the vein of Lee Ann Womack or Dolly Parton, so I was disappointed that her contribution (backed by Chris) was not really to my taste. It is a dramatically slowed down blues/rock take on the oldie ‘You Are My Sunshine’ which sounds suicidally depressed.

This is a bit too varied for me as a whole, but there are several worthwhile tracks.

Grade: B

Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘The Way I’m Livin”

wayimlivinIt’s a bit early for year-in-review reflections, but 2014 will surely go down as an important year in country music history — the one that saw the long-awaited comebacks of two of its most important female artists, Trisha Yearwood and Lee Ann Womack. Womack’s long-awaited debut on Sugar Hill Records finally hit the market last week.

Womack may be frustratingly unprolific but anyone who listens to The Way I’m Livin’ — her first effort since 2008’s Call Me Crazy — will be hard-pressed to make the case that it wasn’t worth the wait. Whereas Call Me Crazy was a somewhat uneven affair, that is decidedly not the case here. Womack seems to have made good use of her time during her long hiatus from recording; she didn’t write any of the songs on The Way I’m Livin’ but she and her producers Chuck Ainlay, Frank Liddell, and Glenn Worf have compiled an excellent selection of songs from some of Nashville’s best songwriters. In an era where mainstream country music seems to have lost its way, The Way I’m Livin’ could be used as a textbook for a course called “Country Music Done Properly” that ought to be compulsory for every recording artist, producer and label executive in Nashville.

While the sound of The Way I’m Livin’ is no way retro, the songs do harken back to a time, not that long ago, when country music relied on melody rather than beat and the lyrics weren’t afraid to tackle serious topics. Much of The Way I’m Livin’ deals with life’s darker side — from the right-and-wrong struggles of the title track, Brennan Leigh’s “Sleeping With The Devil”, and Mindy Smith’s Delta-blues flavored “All His Saints”, to the beautiful and understated opening track “Prelude: Fly”, which deals with the death from spinal menangitis of songwriter Brent Cobb’s friend. Womack’s performance here has been compared to some of Dolly Parton’s early work.

Her performance on Hayes Carll’s “Chances Are” — my favorite track on the album — has evoked comparisons to another female legend, and although it’s not hard to imagine the treatment that Billy Sherrill and Tammy Wynette would have given this one, I think it’s just vintage Lee Ann Womack that sounds like something that could have been included on her masterpiece There’s More Where That Came From. The mournful “Send It On Down” sounds like something that Patty Loveless might have sung with gusto, but it’s hard to imagine her or anyone else topping Lee Ann’s version.

The great Bruce Robison contributed two tracks to the project: “Nightwind” and “Not Forgotten You”, which might have been considered the highlights on a weaker ablum, but the material on The Way I’m Livin’ is so consistently excellent, it’s really difficult to pick favorites. I didn’t realize at first that Kenny Price’s “Tommorow Night In Baltimore”, about a man in love with a nightclub dancer, was a remake of a 1971 Roger Miller hit. I’m not sure how I managed not to hear this one until now.

I simply cannot praise this album enough; it is one of those rare collections that is flawless from beginning to end. If you are only going to buy one album this year, make sure it’s this one.

Grade: A +

Album Review – Miranda Lambert – ‘Platinum’

MirandaLambertPlatinumMidway through Miranda Lambert’s new album Platinum comes a jarring exception to the rule as daring as the twin fiddles that opened Lee Ann Womack’s There’s More Where That Came From nine years ago. The one-two punch of a Tom T and Dixie Hall composition coupled with a glorious arrangement by The Time Jumpers has yielding “All That’s Left,” a rare nugget of traditional western swing with Lambert channeling high lonesome Patty Loveless. Besides producing one of the years’ standout recorded moments, “All That’s Left” is a crucial nod to our genre’s heritage, and the fulfillment of the promise Lambert showed while competing on Nashville Star.

Suffice it to say, there’s nothing else on Platinum that equals the brilliance of “All That’s Left,” since Lambert never turns that traditional or naturally twangy again. Instead she opts for a fifteen-slot smorgasbord, mixing country, pop, and rock in an effort to appeal to anyone who may find his or her way to the new music. In lesser hands the record would be an uneven mess, but Lambert is such an expert at crafting albums she can easily pair western swing and arena rock and have it all fit together as smaller parts of a cohesive whole.

The main theme threading through Platinum is one of getting older, whether for purposes of nostalgia, or literally aging. She continues the nostalgia trip she began with fantastic lead single “Automatic” on “Another Sunday In The South” as she recruits Jessi Alexander and fellow Pistol Annie Ashley Monroe to reminisce about the good ‘ol days of 90s country music, among southern signifiers like lazy afternoons and times spent on the front porch. The only worthwhile name check song in recent memory, “Another Sunday” cleverly weaves Restless Heart, Trace Adkins, Pam Tillis, Clint Black, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and song namesake Shenandoah through the lyrics without pandering or sounding cutesy. I only wish she had referenced Diamond Rio and had producer Frank Liddell pepper the track with more of a 90s throwback production, which would’ve fit slightly better than the soft rockish vibe the track was given.

Lambert actually does recapture the Patty Loveless-like twang on “Old Shit,” Brent Cobb and Neil Mason’s love letter to the appealing nature of antiques. The framing technique of using the grandfather and granddaughter relationship coupled with the organic harmonica laced organic arrangement is charming, and while I usually don’t advocate for swearing in country songs, it actually works in this case and seems more appropriate than any of the cleaner words they could’ve used instead.

The aging side of getting older, which Lambert and company began tackling with “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty” on Annie Up last year, is far more prevalent a force on Platinum. As has become customary for Lambert, she wrote thumping rocker “Bathroom Sink” solo. The lyric is scathing, detailing scary self-loathing that builds in intensity along with the electric guitars. Lambert’s phrasing is annoying, though; punctuating the rimes so much they begin to sound rudimentary. While true, “Gravity’s a Bitch,” which Lambert co-wrote with Scotty Wray, just doesn’t feel necessary to me. I think being outside the track’s demographic target aids in my assessment, but I do enjoy the decidedly country meets bluesy arrangement.

When the press release for the album said the title track was ‘Taylor Swift pop’ I was admittedly worried, no matter how many times I got down with the dubstep of “I Knew You Were Trouble” or the bubblegum of “22.” Since Max Martin isn’t anywhere near this album, “Platinum” is more “Red” than anything else, and the infamous ‘what doesn’t kill you only makes you blonder’ lyric is catchy as hell. Similarly themed and produced “Girls” is just as good, and like “Gravity’s a Bitch,” it’ll appeal quite nicely to the fairer sex.

The rest of Platinum truly defines the smorgasbord aspects of the album, with some conventional and extremely experimental tracks. Lambert co-wrote “Hard Staying Sober” with Natalie Hemby and Luke Laird and it ranks among her finest moments, with the decidedly country production and fabulously honest lyric about a woman who’s no good when her man isn’t present. “Holding On To You,” the closet Lambert comes to crooning a love song, is sonically reminiscent of Vince Gill’s 90s sound but with touches that makes it all her own. While good it’s a little too bland, as is “Babies Making Babies,” which boats a strong opening verse but eventually comes off less clever than it should’ve and not surprising enough for me.

Ever since Revolution, production on Lambert’s albums has to be taken with a grain of salt, which is unfortunately still the case here. I’m betting, more than anything since Brandy Clark and Lambert co-wrote it together with Heather Little, that “Too Rings Shy” has a strong lyric underneath the unlistenable production that found Lambert asking her production team to go out and lyrically record circus noises. It’s a shame they couldn’t make this work, since they pulled it off with Randy Scruggs reading the Oklahoma Farm Report in the background of “Easy Living” on Four The Record. There’s just no excuse why the track had to be mixed this intrusively.

Polarizing more than anything else is Lambert’s cover of Audra Mae’s “Little Red Wagon,” which I only understood after listening to Mae’s original version. Given that it’s a duet with Little Big Town, I know most everyone expected more from “Smokin’ and Drinkin,’ and I understand why (the approach isn’t traditional), but I really like the lyric and production, making the overall vibe work really well for me. The same is true about “Something Bad,” which isn’t a great song, but works because of the beat, and interplay between Lambert and Carrie Underwood. The two, even on a marginalized number like this one by Chris DeStefano, Brett James, and Priscilla Renea, sound extremely good together.

Nicolle Galyon and Jimmy Robbins teamed up with Hemby to write the album’s most important track, a love letter Lambert sings to Priscilla Presley. While the concept is questionable on paper, the results are a revelation and give Lambert a chance to directly address what she’s been going through since her husband’s career skyrocketed on The Voice. At a time when most artists of Lambert’s caliber are shying away from singing what they’re going through, Lambert is attacking her rise in celebrity head on with a clever lyric, interesting beat, and an all around engaging execution that makes “Priscilla” this album’s “Mama’s Broken Heart.”

Even without the added punch of co-writes with her fellow Nashville Star contestant Travis Howard or the inclusion of a bunch of artistic covers from the pens of Gillan Welch, Allison Moorer, Carline Carter, and others – Platinum ranks high in Lambert’s catalog. She’s gotten more introspective as she’s aged but instead of coasting on past success or suppressing her voice in favor of fitting in or pleasing people, she remains as sharp as ever tackling topics her closest contemporaries wouldn’t even touch. I didn’t care for this project on first listen, but now that I completely understand where she’s coming from, I’m fully on board. All that’s left is my desire she go even more country in her sound, but Platinum wouldn’t be a Miranda Lambert record without the added touch of Rock & Roll.

Grade: A

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 

Album Review: Kellie Pickler – ‘100 Proof’

For some years, former American idol contestant Kellie Pickler has been saying encouraging things about her interpretation of country music, but not backing them up with her music, with her first two albums being somewhat over-produced pop-country efforts with average material and processed vocals. At last she has come through with something really worth hearing. She has obviously worked on her singing as well, and makes the most of a voice which is nice enough but not outstanding. Frank Liddell and Luke Wooten support her vocals infinitely better than her previous producers. There is a lot of variety in tempos and styles here, ranging from very traditional to more contemporary but recognisably country.

The voice and artistry of one of my favourite current songwriters, Leslie Satcher, underpin the vision of this record. She wrote or co-wrote five of the eleven tracks, including the first two singles, and anyone familiar with her own excellent records will recognise the style here. Underperforming lead single ‘Tough’, written especially for Kellie, about a rough-edged girl, has an energetic beat and I would have expected it to do better than a #30 peak, which is an ominous sign for the commercial prospects of this project, but despite its pedigree it is one of the less stellar songs. The title track and current single ‘100 Proof’ is a tender love ballad with a pretty tune, written by Satcher with James T Slater. The protagonist compares her own experience of true happiness with those she sees in a bad relationship.

The best of Satcher’s compositions here is ‘Where’s Tammy Wynette’ which opens the set. It is an excellent, pure country song, written by Satcher with Jimmy Ritchey and Don Poythress, from the point of view of the lonely wife of a man “torn between neon lights and home”, and searching for wisdom in Tammy’s music. On this track in particular Kellie’s vocal inflections are highly reminiscent of writer Leslie Satcher’s stylings. Leslie co-wrote a couple of the songs with Kellie. The rhythmic banjo-led ‘Unlock That Honky Tonk’ is pretty good, and sung with aggressive attack once more reminiscent of Satcher, with ex-SteelDriver Chris Stapleton’s backing vocals evident. However, the ballad ‘Turn On The Radio And Dance’, while not unpleasant, is forgettable filler.

Kellie also had the opportunity to co-write with Dean Dillon (another of my favourite writers) and Dale Dodson; this threeway partnership produced a bruised reflection on the end of a love affair , where she says she’ll be alright ‘Long As I Never See You Again’. This is a fine, downbeat song which grows on repeat listening. They also worked together on the therapeutic In ‘The Letter (To Daddy)’, an incredibly personal open letter to Kellie’s father, whose addiction-fueled crimes led him to spend most of his daughter’s childhood in prison, but, according to this song, has found sobriety. This is rather touching and definitely a highlight.

She has addressed her difficult family background before, with her early single ‘I Wonder’, addressed to the mother who, unable to cope, abandoned her to the care of her grandparents, and those emotions are revisited here. ‘Mother’s Day’, written by Kellie with her husband, Kyle Jacobs, is gentle and rueful as she broods on the absence of her mother from her childhood, and speculates about becoming a mother herself. To be perfectly honest, although this is a more mature reflection, delivered with a delicate vulnerability which shows the pain of that early abandonment has still not left Kellie, the song is not as emotionally immediate as the emotionally rawer ‘I Wonder’ on her debut album.

She also contemplates babies in the not-too-distant future in ‘Rockaway (The Rockin’ Chair Song)’, a pleasant and more contemporary sounding song about domestic happiness which she wrote with Brent Cobb and Barry Dean, and which one assumes is addressed to Jacobs. It’s quite a slight song, but is soothing and attractively melodic.

My favourite song by far is the fantastic and very traditional country ‘Stop Cheatin’ On Me’, written by Chris Stapleton, his wife Morgane Hayes, and Liz Rose. Paul Franklin’s steel slides under Kellie’s deceptively sweet vocal, as the lyric pays off with an ultimatum:

Stop cheatin’ on me – or I’ll start cheatin’ on you

This would have been a smash hit in the 70s. Today’s country radio wouldn’t touch it, which is a sad indictment.

I also enjoyed the upbeat ‘Little House On The Highway’, written by Rodney Clawson and Natalie Hemby, about the traveling life.

Overall, this was a surprisingly enjoyable release from an artist for whom my expectations were limited. I hope it does well for her.

Grade: A-