My Kind of Country

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

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Album Review: Kasey Chambers – ‘Bittersweet’

Kasey-Chambers-BittersweetKasey Chambers’ tenth album, which has finally been released in the United States, has quickly become one of my favorite records of the year. Composed on the heels of her divorce from Shane Nicholson, Bittersweet is also her first set of music without her brother Nash at the helm.

Chambers wanted something different this time around and enlisted the aide of Nick DiDia, a rock producer best known for collaborating with Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen. As a result, Bittersweet is a tender collection soaked in Banjo, tasteful piano, and a whole lot of emotion.

At its heart and soul, Bittersweet showcases a woman grappling with the sensations that follow unexpected life turns. On “I Would Do” Chambers beautifully lays out her devotion to her man, vowing to go to the ends of the earth for him – even if the journey leads to heartbreak. The waltzy “House on a Hill” likens her brokenness to the plight of a dilapidated house, spelled out with gorgeous poetry:

And it’s old and it’s worn

And the curtains are torn

And tomorrow they’re tearing it down

And just like a heart

It’s falling apart

It couldn’t stand up

If a hard wind blew

And it’s been through it all

And there’s cracks in the wall

They may as well just

Take me down too

She spells out her pain in the devastating title track, my favorite song on the album. A duet with Bernard Fanning, “Bittersweet” is a masterful reflection by a couple that have grown so far apart they don’t need each other anymore. Chambers relinquishes the lead to Fanning, which gives the track its bite. As a result, her interjections are all the more powerful.

“I’m Alive,” in direct contrast, finds Chambers turning defiant, declaring she’s gone through the fire and come out the other side a stronger woman. Backed by acoustic guitar and harmonica, Chambers adds every ounce of pathos to the lyric she can muster:

And through all the blood and the sweat and the tears

Things ain’t always what they appear

I made it through the hardest fucking year

Rockers like “I’m Alive” are hard to come by on Bittersweet, but they’re also some of the album’s finest moments. I adore lead single “Wheelbarrow,” a collaboration with Ashleigh Dallas. The lyric relies on repetitive phrasing, which allows it to joyfully get under your skin. I’m not usually one for loud arrangements but the mix of blistering rock and back porch picking is perfection. “Hell of a Way To Go” applies similar production techniques to frame Chambers’ request of what should be done with her remains if she dies of a broken heart.

“Stalker” finds Chambers unleashing her inner crazy while “Heaven or Hell” has her warning an egomaniac to come off his high horse. The almightily plays a surprising role on Bittersweet, showing up at the beginning and end of the album. The beautiful “Is God Real” finds Chambers looking for something to believe in. “Christmas Day” is an exquisite holiday tune about Mary and Jesus.

Bittersweet is my favorite album so far this year because Chambers has a way with a lyric that keeps the project from detouring into ‘breakup record’ territory. Her ability to traverse a wide array of emotions, while coming to terms with the changing tides of life, is striking.

Grade: A

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Favorite Country Songs Of The 80s: Part 7

It seems to me that I never did finish off this series, the last installment being posted on February 11, 2014 (and the installment before that appeared April 9,2013). Here are some more songs from the 1980s that I liked. This is an expanded and revised version of the February 11, 2014 article which was a rush job :

Shame On The Moon” – Bob Seger
Bob’s 1982 recording of a Rodney Crowell song charted on the country charts in early 1983, reaching #15 in the process. The song was a bigger hit on the pop charts, reaching #2 for four weeks.

Finally” – T. G. Sheppard
He worked for Elvis, sang background for Travis Wammack, and eventually emerged with a solo career worth noting, racking up 42 chart singles from 1974-1991. This 1982 single was one of fourteen #1 record racked up by Sheppard, eleven of them reaching #1 during the 1980s.

Doesn’t Anybody Get High On Love Anymore” – The Shoppe
The Shoppe was a Dallas based band that hung around for years after their 1968 formation. In the early 1980s they had eight chart records, but this was the only one to crack the top forty, reaching #33. They had a record deal with MTM Records in 1985, but that label vanished, taking the Shoppe with them.

Crying My Heart Out Over You” – Ricky Skaggs
Ricky Skaggs was one of the dominant artists of the first half of the 1980s with his bluegrass/country hybrid. Starting with 1981’s “You May See Me Walking” and ending with 1986’s “Love’s Gonna Get You Some Day“, Skaggs ran off sixteen consecutive top ten singles with ten of them reaching number one, This 1982 classic was the first chart topper. Eventually Ricky returned to straight bluegrass, but I like the hybrid recordings better. In my original article I spotlighted “Honey (Open That Door)“, a straight forward country Mel Tillis song recorded by Webb Pierce.

Don’t Stay If You Don’t Love Me” – Patsy Sledd
Stardom never really happened for Patsy, who was a good singer marooned early in her career on a bad label. She was part of the George Jones-Tammy Wynette show in the early 1970s. This song reached #79 in 1987.

“Nice To Be With You” – Slewfoot
This band replaced Alabama as the feature band at the Bowery Club in Myrtle Beach. This was their only chart single, a cover of Gallery’s #4 pop hit from 1972 that reached #85 in 1986.

King Lear” – Cal Smith
The last chart hit for the former Texas Troubadour. This song reached #75 in 1986.

“A Far Cry From You” – Connie Smith
After a six year recording hiatus, the greatest female country recording artist of all time returned with this one-shot single on the Epic label. It’s a great song but received no promotional push at all from the label landing at #71 in 1985. Unfortunately, this single has never appeared on an album.

“The Shuffle Song” – Margo Smith
Exactly as described – a shuffle song that reached #13 for Margo in early 1980. Margo had a brief run of top ten hits in the middle and late 1970s but the string was about over. In my prior article I featured “He Gives Me Diamonds, You Give Me Chills” but The Shuffle song is actually my favorite 80s hit from Margo. She lives in The Villages in Florida and still performs occasionally.

Cheatin’s A Two Way Street” – Sammi Smith
Her last top twenty song from 1981. Sammi only had three top ten hits but made many fine records. This was one of them.

Hasn’t It Been good Together” – Hank Snow and Kelly Foxton
The last chart record for the ‘Singing Ranger’. The record only got to #78 for the 65 year old Snow in 1980 but I couldn’t let pass the opportunity to acknowledge the great career of the most successful Canadian country artist. By any legitimate means of chart tracking, his 1950 hit “I’m Moving On” is still the number one country hit of all time. Hank had perfect diction and was a great guitar player.

Tear-Stained Letter” – Jo-El Sonnier
A late bloomer, this was the forty-two year old Jo-El’s second of two top ten records and my favorite. It reached #8 in 1988. There were brief periods in the past when Cajun music could break through for a hit or two. Eddy Raven was the most successful Cajun artist but most of his material was straight-ahead country.

Sometimes You Just Can’t Win” – J.D. Souther and Linda Ronstadt
George Jones charted this record twice, but it’s such a good song it was worth covering. This version went to #27 in 1982. J.D had a big pop hit in 1980 with “You’re Only Lonely” which reached #7.

Honey I Dare You” – Southern Pacific
Southern Pacific was a bunch of guys who previously played with other bands such as Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Doobie Brothers and Pablo Cruise, making some real good country music in the process. This was one of their four top ten hits of the 1980s. “A Girl Like Emmylou” from 1986 only reached #17 but the song tells you where this band’s heart was located.

Lonely But Only For You” – Sissy Spacek
Loretta Lynn wanted to Spacek to portray her in the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter, and it turns out that Sissy can really can sing. This song reached #15 in 1983.

Standing Tall” – Billie Jo Spears
Billie Jo Spears, from Beaumont, Texas, was incredibly popular in England and Ireland, where “Blanket On The Ground” and “What I’ve Got In Mind” were top five pop hits in the mid 1970s and she had many more lesser successes. Many of her later albums were not released in the US but she had a substantial US career with thirty-four charted records, including two #1 hits. “Standing Tall” reached #15 in 1980.

Chain Gang” – Bobby Lee Springfield
More successful as a songwriter than as a performer, Springfield had two chart sings in 1987 with “Hank Drank” (#75) and “Chain Gang” (#66) which was NOT the Sam Cooke hit. Bobby Lee was both too country and too rockabilly for what was charting at the time. I really liked All Fired Up, the one album Epic released on him.

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Album Review: The Mavericks – ‘What A Crying Shame’

51C7p4ENGmL._SS2801994’s What A Crying Shame was The Mavericks’ third album overall, their second for a major label and the first to have any significant commercial impact. It paired them for the first time with Don Cook who would produce (or co-produce with Raul Malo) all of the group’s albums for MCA from this point forward.

The Mavericks made their first chart appearance in 1992 with a remake of Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Looking'”, which peaked at #74. “What A Crying Shame” did significantly better, reaching #25. There were four additional singles released from the album. two of them – “O What A Thrill” and “There Goes My Heart”, reached the Top 20. “I Should Have Been True” reached #30 and the final single “All That Heaven Will Allow” topped out at #49.

As noted in some other discussions, The Mavericks were largely considered to be a “fringe” act; however, What A Crying Shame is bonafide country with plenty of fiddle and pedal steel — albeit with glossy production and highly polished vocals from Raul Malo that are often reminiscent of Roy Orbison. It is solidly within what was considered mainstream country at the time, which makes radio’s tepid response a bit puzzling. I can only speculate that it is because there was a lot of formidable competition in the 90s. Perhaps in another era The Mavericks would have made more of an impact.

What A Crying Shame may not have received a lot of support from radio, but it did connect with fans, and generated platinum-level sales. It’s a shame that it didn’t get more airplay because it is an excellent album from start to finish. Most of the songs have a 60s feel to them. Raul Malo had a hand in writing seven of the album’s eleven tracks, teaming up on several of them — including the title track and my favorite “There Goes My Heart”, with Kostas, who was one of the hottest songwriters in Nashville at the time.

In addition to Raul Malo and Kostas, What A Crying Shame boasts some impressive songwriting credits, including Jesse Winchester who wrote “O What A Thrill”, Bruce Springsteen who wrote “All That Heaven Will Allow” and the great Harlan Howard who co-wrote “Ain’t Found Nobody” with Kostas.

Even though it sold more than a million copies in the US, the album’s limited radio airplay means that few outside of the million people that bought it have heard most of these songs, and younger fans are unlikely to have heard them at all. I strongly recommend that anyone who hasn’t heard the album pick up a copy; this is exactly the sort of country music that Nashville should be making today.

Grade: A

Fellow Travelers: Creedence Clearwater Revival / John Fogerty

john fogertyFor a Californian who had never resided in the southeastern United States, John Fogerty sure sounded like someone from that region of the country and his band reeked of a swamp-rock vibe. For a few years, Creedence was an overwhelming force on both Billboard’s singles and albums pop charts. After an acrimonious break up, Fogarty soldiered on alone, continuing his successful ways

Who Were They?

Creedence Clearwater Revival was basically a garage band with a very talented singer-songwriter in John Fogerty. The real breakthrough for CCR came with the 1968 single “Proud Mary” which hit #2 in the US and Canada (and reached #1 in Austria). The next single “Bad Moon Rising” also reached #2 (#1 in Great Britain). This was followed by “Lodi” (#52), “Green River” (#2), “Down On The Corner” (#3), “Who’ll Stop The Rain” (#2) and “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” (#2). Curiously , CCR never had a #1 single in the US although various singles went to #1 outside of the US.

CCR’s first six albums were all certified by the RIAA as platinum or multiple platinum. Their final album, released in 1972 was certified gold.

By 1973 the group was no more, racked by internal disagreements and squabbles with their record label. Their label, Fantasy, continued thereafter reissuing various hit collections and anthologies.

John Fogerty had considerable success as a solo artist issuing a number of successful singles and albums

What Was The Connection to County Music?

While CCR only landed one single on the country charts (a reissued album track “Cotton Fields” in 1982), country acts recorded many of their songs as singles and album tracks. Anthony Armstrong Jones had a country hit with “Proud Mary”, Buddy Alan Owens hit the country charts with “Lodi”, and such stalwarts as Dave Dudley recorded “Bad Moon Rising” and Proud Mary”. “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” established CCR’s country credibility with the lyric:

There’s a giant doing cartwheels, a statue wearing high heels
Look at all the happy creatures dancing on the lawn
Dinosaur Victrola, listenin’ to Buck Owens
Doot doot doot lookin’ out my back door

John Fogerty was never afraid of anything as he battled record labels and bandmates over the years. He also, at a time country wasn’t cool, wasn’t afraid to show his country roots. In fact his first solo album (a one-man band effort) titled THE BLUE RIDGE RANGERS featured John singing a bunch of classic country songs, including the 1973 single “Jambalaya” which charted in 1973.

Fogarty would wait awhile before doing another country album but 2009’s BLUE RIDGE RANGERS RIDE AGAIN proved worth the wait. In some ways this album was better than the original as he eschewed the one-man band gimmick and used some of the genre’s finest sidemen in addition to having some vocal partners like Don Henley and Bruce Springsteen.

Album Review: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘The Rest Of The Dream’

the rest of the dreamThe follow up to Will The Circle Be Unbroken Vol 2 was always going to be a challenge. The band kept Randy Scruggs, who had overseen the Circle II sessions on hand as their producer for 1990’s The Rest Of The Dream, but did not attempt to copy that album at all. Instead it is a solid return to the country-rock which had done so well for them in the 1980s. Unfortunately they may have lost momentum with their focus on the less overtly commercial Circle II, while country radio was being engulfed with fresh new faces and the move to a more traditional sound. Sadly, they were never again to enjoy a top 40 country hit.

The lead single was a cover of rock star Bruce Springsteen’s ‘From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)’. A dramatic story song about a young girl who elopes with first one man and then another, then shoots her second lover, while the abandoned husband awaits her release from prison, it is delivered in upbeat fashion. It sounds very radio friendly (and convinces as a country-sock song), but peaked at a very disappointing #65. The pleasant but forgettable ballad ‘You Made Life Good Again’ didn’t do much better.

The sunny mid-paced title track, released as the last single with a supporting video, failed to chart at all. It was one of a brace of songs contributed by singer-songwriter John Hiatt, who had appeared on Circle II. It’s enjoyable enough, but I prefer the other one, ‘Just Enough Ashland City’, a charming up-tempo story song in which the narrator finds true love and learns not to judge by outward appearances:

I was Mr Sophisticated and she was “just a country girl”
She wound up showing me everything
I’d ever been dreaming of
I may have known the way to San Jose
But I didn’t know a thing about love

This might have been a more successful single, as might aacouple of other tracks. The gentle ballad ‘Waitin’ On A Dark Eyed Gal’, written by Ron Davies (brother of Gail), is an excellent tune, about holding on to forlorn hope and defying the reality that the narrator has been stood up.

Also great is ‘Blow Out The Stars, Turn Off the Moon’, an excellent song about the end of a relationship written by the brilliant Bobby Braddock, filled with images of their romantic nights under the stars:

When our love was new as the first evening star
We both said “I worship you just as you are”
Then I tried to change you, girl, and I don’t know why
You tried to change me, hey, might as well try
To blow out the stars, turn off the moon
Fade out the crickets and the nightingales too
Take down the magnolias that ride the soft wind
Another love story has come to an end

It is sensitively sung by Jeff Hanna, and beautifully played by the band. This lovely song is my favourite track.

The band’s Jimmie Fadden co-wrote (with Kim Tribble and Bob Garshelis) the charmingly quirky ‘Snowballs’, fantasising about winter walks with a sweetheart, throwing snowballs at the moon:

And after every throw we’d share a little kiss
Make sweet love together every time we’d miss

Hillbilly Hollywood (covered by John Anderson a year or so later on his comeback Seminole Wind album) is about the draw of Nashville for a young musician, which was written by Vince Melamed and Jim Photoglo. I prefer Anderson’s version, but this one is decent.

Jimmy Ibbotson co-wrote ‘Junior’s Grill, a tribute to a favorite diner which would be a great commercial jingle but is a little dull as a song. All four current band members (Hanna, Ibbotson, Fadden and Bob Carpenter) cowrote ‘Wishing Well’, but the song is disappointingly bland.

Overall, though, this is worth picking up –especially as used copies can be found cheaply.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Hold On’

220px-Nitty_Gritty_Hold_OnBy the late 80s, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was routinely peaking in the upper regions of the country charts and had even scored two number one hits along the way. But they’d yet to release their signature song, which would change when Hold On hit stores in July of 1987.

The album saw three singles released. Non-descript rocker “Baby’s Got A Hold On Me” came first, peaking at #2. The album’s third single “Oh What A Love” was much better, with a pleasant acoustic-based shuffle arrangement featuring prominent mandolin. The mid-tempo ballad comes off a tad cheesy today, but the arrangement and tight harmonies from the band keep it listenable.

Between those two singles, which are forgettable at best, came the aforementioned signature song. Written by Wendy Waldman and Jim Photoglo, “Fishin’ In The Dark” is an iconic single from the period, a modern masterpiece that sounds as timeless today as it did twenty-seven years ago. The combination of Jeff Hanna’s commanding vocal and Josh Leo’s flawless production is irresistible. Not since Alabama’s “Mountain Music” a full five years earlier had an opening sequence (Gentle acoustic guitar plucking building to include twangy electric guitar, ribbons of harmonica, and attention-grabbing drum beats) been so identifiable.

Eddy Raven took his version of “Joe Knows How To Live,” written by Max D. Barnes, Lyle Graham, and Troy Seals to number one in 1988. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s version is just as good as Ravens, albeit identical except for Hanna’s smoother vocal tone and the band’s inclusion of harmonica.

Bruce Springsteen solely wrote “Angelyne,” a slick slice of synth drenched country rock that contains a good lyric but is packaged too neatly for my taste. Richard Leigh co-wrote “Blue Ridge Mountain Girl,” a brilliantly excused ballad that would’ve been even stronger had Hanna sang lead. Karen Staley wrote the album’s closing number, “Tennessee.” I love the fiddle, steel, and band harmonies on the track, but the overtones of synth drown out any real enjoyment of the neo-traditional leaning track. Wayne Holyfield co-wrote “Dancing To The Beat of a Broken Heart,” which still leans on the synth, but is better with Hanna in the lead.

Various members of the band contributed songs to the project as well. Hanna co-wrote, “Keepin’ The Road Hot,” a generic number similar to Restless Heart’s style at the time. Jimmie Fadden, meanwhile, solely wrote “Oleanna.” The production on the ballad is too synth driven, and Fadden’s vocal is bland.

Hold On is a mixed bag of an album, heavy on synth, and lacking any real identity beyond “Fishin’ In The Dark.” The harmonies are fantastic, though, but to today’s ears the album is a bit too 80s.

Grade: B

Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Plain Dirt Fashion’

plaindirtfashionIn 1982, The Dirt Band, as they were then known, reverted back to their former name and moved toward a more mainstream country sound. They scored their first Top 10 country hit in 1983 with “Dance Little Jean”. A year and a label change later, they solidfied their reputation as a mainstream country band with all of their singles through the end of the decade reaching the Top 10.

Plain Dirt Fashion was the band’s first album for Warner Bros., and in the summer of 1984, the song from which the album’s title was derived became the first of their three number one country hits. Written by Rodney Crowell, “Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper’s Dream)” is a nostalgic look back at an impovershed but happy childhood and my favorite Nitty Gritty Dirt Band single. With tight harmonies and plenty of fiddle, it is one of their most traditional efforts, foreshadowing the upcoming New Traditionalist movement which would take off in earnest about a year later. It was followed by the upbeat “I Love Only You”, written by Dave Loggins and Don Schlitz, which reached #3. “High Horse”, penned by Dirt Band member Jimmy Ibbotson, became the album’s third single. It peaked at #2 in early 1985. All three singles were tailor-made for country radio without any of the rock elements that had been the hallmark of much of the band’s earlier work. Two album cuts, however, are covers of old rock-and-roll hits — Bruce Springsteen’s “Cadillac Ranch and Meat Loaf’s “Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad”, neither of which is particularly memorable.

In general, while the singles are timeless and have managed to avoid sounding dated, the album cuts haven’t aged as well, mainly due to the somewhat heavy-handed — and typical of the era — use of the drum machine, which mars “Cadillac Ranch”, “Run With Me” and “‘Til The Fire’s Burned Out”. “Video Tape”, the album’s closing track, gives away the album’s age by its reference to a now-obsolete medium. It asks, “wouldn’t you be in good shape if your life was on video tape?” a question that would never be asked in the era of iPhones and social media when so many have regretted having their actions recorded. The one truly great non-single cut is “The Face On The Cutting Room Floor”, about a has-been (or more accurately, never-was) actress who fails to make it in Hollywood after refusing to sleep her way to the top. The tune was written by Steve Goodman with band members Jeff Hanna and Jimmy Ibbotson.

In addition to the band members themselves, the album credits list some marquee names as additonal musicians, with Steve Gibson, Mark O’Connor, and Ricky Skaggs all lending their talents to the project.

Although it occasionally shows its age, Plain Dirt Fashion is still an enjoyable album and worth a listen if you haven’t already heard it. It is available for download or on a 2-for-1 CD with the band’s next project Partners, Brothers and Friends.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘To All The Girls’

to all the girlsThe newest Willie Nelson album finds Willie treading familiar ground, recording eighteen duets with various female partners. These partners range from young to old, famous to fairly unknown and across a wide array of genres.

The album opens up with the “From Here To The Moon And Back”, an introspective ballad from the catalogue of duet partner Dolly Parton. This song has a very quiet arrangement with piano being the dominant sound, along with a very light string arrangement – very nice song.

Another very quiet song is “She Was No Good For Me” with the normally boisterous Miranda Lambert assisting Willie on an old Waylon Jennings tune. It is nice to hear Miranda sing a song that requires nuance and restraint.

She was a good looking woman no doubt
A high steppin’ mover that men talk about
Everything bad in me she brought it out
And she was just no good for me

[Chorus:]
Don’t be taken by the look in her eyes
If she looks like an angel
It’s a perfect disguise
And for somebody else she may be
But she was just no good for me

“It Won’t Be Very Long” opens with a harmonica intro which comes to a dead stop and then starts to a song with a very country gospel feel – something either Roy Acuff or the Nitty Gritty Dirt band might have tackled. The Secret Sisters aren’t really very well known but probably do the best job of any act on the album of actually harmonizing with Willie. Willie and producer Buddy Cannon wrote this song.

“Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends” is a Kris Kristofferson song that originally was a top ten hit for new Country Music Hall of Famer Bobby Bare (it reached #1 on Record World) in 1971. In 1974 it reached #1 on Billboard for Ronnie Milsap. I always preferred Bare’s version as I think the song benefited from Bare’s more laid back approach to the song. Nelson and duet partner Rosanne Cash adopt the more relaxed approach to the song, with Willie’s guitar being the dominant sound of the background, but with a tasteful organ undertone by Moose Brown. Willie and Rosanne’s voices really don’t mesh well together and Willie’s eccentric phrasing is difficult for any singer to handle, but actual harmonizing on this tune is kept to a dead minimum.

“Far Away Places” is one of the classics of the American Pop Standards canon. The song was written by Joan Whitney and Alex Kramer way back in 1948, and was an immediate hit by three artists in late 1948-early 1949, reaching #2 for the legendary Bing Crosby, #3 for Margaret Whiting and #6 for Perry Como. The Como version is probably the best remembered version since RCA kept the song available for most of the last 65 years whereas the other versions have frequently been out of print. Willie and partner Sheryl Crow harmonize well and recreate the dreamy feel of the 1948 versions. This is my favorite track on this album:

Far away places with strange soundin’ names
Far away over the sea
Those far away places with the strange soundin’ names
Are callin’, callin’ me

Goin’ to China or maybe Siam
I want to see for myself
Those far away places I’ve been readin’ about
In a book that I took from the shelf

I don’t know how many times Willie has recorded his own “Bloody Mary Morning” but this version must be the fastest version on disc. I’m not a big Wynonna Judd fan but this is the kind of song she handles well. Mike Johnson (steel) and Dan “Man of Constant Sorrow” Tyminski (acoustic guitar) really shine on this track.

Writers Wayne Carson, Mark James and John Christopher, Jr cashed in big time with “You Were Always On My Mind” as it was a hit thrice (Brenda Lee, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson) and appeared on many albums generating many millions of sales (and royalties for the songwriters). On this recording Willie is joined by Carrie Underwood in a nice version with fairly minimal backing.

During the 1960s and 1970s semi-permanent male-female duos abounded, nearly all of whom tackled Merle Haggard’s “Somewhere Between”. It’s a great song and Willie is joined by the legendary Loretta Lynn, singing in better voice than anything I’ve heard from her recently. Willie and Loretta trade verses (usually in different keys) and do not harmonize except one line at the end. It’s a great song and full justice is done to the song.

“No Mas Amore” written by Keith Gattis and Sammy Barrett, is given the Mexican treatment by Willie and partner Alison Krauss complete with trumpets. Willies band member Mickey Raphael plays chord harmonica and bass harmonica; Alison’s band member Dan Tyminski adds background vocals and plays mandolin. Usually Alison Krauss duets produce a certain magic, but this one is merely pleasant listening.

“Back To Earth” features Melonie Cannon on this Willie Nelson ballad, taken at a languid pace. The song is nothing special but Melanie and Willie execute it well.

Mavis Staples is one of the best known gospel singers, carrying on the fine tradition of the legendary Staples Family. “Grandma’s Hands” was penned by Bill Withers, probably best known for his monster hits “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lean On Me”. The song was about Wither’s own grandma and is an affectionate look at a loved one, now departed. Willie and Mavis give it a bit of a ‘swamp blues pop’ treatment that fits the song exactly.

“Walkin” features Wiliie’s good friend Norah Jones on a Willie composition. This is a bluesy slow ballad about leaving.

“Till The End of World” is an old Vaughn Horton standard given an up-tempo western swing arrangement. Back in 1949 Ernest Tubb, Jimmy Wakely and Johnny Bond all had top twelve hits with the song, then in 1952 Bing Crosby and ace guitarist Grady Martin took it back into the top ten. Shelby Lynne reestablishes her country credibility with this effort.

“Will You Remember Mine” is a lovely ballad from Willie’s pen. I don’t know anything about Lily Meola but she is a perfect complement to Willie on this song.

Gone are the times when I held you close
And pressed your lips to mine
Now when you kissed another’s lips
Will you remember mine?

I’m sure we’ve all had this thought – indeed.

“Dry Lightning” comes from the pen of Bruce Springsteen. Emmylou Harris can sing with anyone. Therefore it is no surprise that this song works as a duet. It’s another slow ballad, but Emmylou, as usual is exquisite.

I first ran across Brandi Carlile some years ago when the late and lamented Borders chain distributed sampler CDs of her work. On “Making Believe” she proves both that she can sing effective harmony and can sing country music with feeling. This song was written by Jimmy Work but is best remembered as a major hit for Kitty Wells in 1955, with Emmylou Harris taking it back to the top ten in 1977.

“Have You Ever Seen The Rain” is a John Fogarty composition given a slow folk arrangement that enables Willie and (I think) daughter Paula Nelson to convey the lyrics in an uncluttered manner. I really like this recording.

Tina Rose is the daughter of Leon & Mary Russell. Willie recorded an album with Leon Russell in 1979, so it seems only proper that he should record a song with Leon’s daughter. I’m not that impressed with Ms Russell’s vocals, but they work well enough on the vehicle chosen, L.E White’s “After The Fire Is Gone”, which White’s boss, Conway Twitty took to the top of the charts with Loretta Lynn in 1971. Willie and Tina don’t have the chemistry Conway and Loretta had (few do) but the end result is worthwhile.

It remains true:
There’s nothing cold as ashes
After the fire’s gone

All told, there is a very pleasant offering from Willie – I’d give it a B+, mostly because a few more up-tempo numbers were needed. Willie, of course, is always Willie, and as always, he was chosen well in his selection of female guests.

Concert Review – ‘An Evening with Vince Gill’ – August 10, 2013

1373942682001-VG-PF-0487-GPub-300rgb-1307152246_4_3I was witness to a major bucket list moment for the second time in four years Aug 10 – an in the round performance by Vince Gill at one of my favorite venues, The 2,250 seat South Shore Music Circus in Cohasset, MA. With his full band in toe (including Paul Franklin and Dawn Sears, who sang, but held back on many songs, likely due to her ongoing cancer battle), he ran through a two and a half hour set that mixed his legendary recordings with the iconic numbers he and Franklin made their own on Bakersfield.

I knew the night would be special when I bought the tickets last June, before I’d heard the album, or knew Franklin would join him. Gill is easily one of my favorite people in country music, a constant professional who can write, sing, play, and host with an ease that hasn’t been duplicated by any superstar that’s risen in his wake. He’s also the rare exception who’s only gotten better with age. Gill is as good (if not better) now at 57 then he was in his commercial prime more than twenty years ago.

He opened with the weary “One More Last Chance” before launching into “Take Your Memory With You.” Gill then preceded “High Lonesome Sound” with the joke that if you want to win a Grammy Alison Krauss should play on your song, a bit of irony seeing as he’s as much a Grammy magnet as Krauss. “Pocket Full of Gold” came in tribute to the cheaters as Gill wanted to know who he should look at while he sings.

His set, billed as an “Evening With Vince Gill,” was broken into two segments, bookending a 25-minute intermission to sell merchandise and beer. He spent a lot of time in the first act on his admiration for songwriter Max D. Barnes, complementing his talent on “Chiseled In Stone” and “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes.” A detour into sad songs led to a childhood memory of his dad singing “Old Shep” to him, before he told of the writing session behind “Look At Us,” a would be weeper that Barnes had Gill flip around to extenuate the positive. One of my favorite of his recordings, he sang it with beautiful precision while Franklin made the steel solo come alive. Another favorite was “Old Lucky Diamond Motel,” a Guitar Slinger album cut that I was glad he brought out.

What surprised me the most about the whole show was how little emphasis was placed on Bakersfield. They closed the first half with the requisite five songs an artist usually plays from their newest release, but they almost felt like an afterthought, when they should’ve been the main attraction. They opened this portion with Owens’ “Foolin’ Around” before gracing us with their timely cover of Haggard’s “The Fighting Side of Me,” which was a little loud, but excellent. His odes to Emmylou Harris – “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “Together Again” were stellar, but I got the most joy from “I Can’t Be Myself,” which is as perfect a lyric as I’ve ever heard. “Together Again” had the right amount of steel, but “I Can’t Be Myself” was the winner of the Bakersfield songs.

Gill opened the second half with “What The Cowgirls Do,” another of my least favorites, but won redemption with “Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away.” He was more musically focused and thus didn’t interact as much this time around, but with his catalog front and center, that didn’t matter. I was surprised when he went way back into that catalog and pulled out “Never Alone” and the breakneck “Oklahoma Borderline,” which he flubbed a little lyrically (it was funny to watch him reading the lyrics from a monitor). Both were good, but I wasn’t as familiar with the latter as I would’ve liked to have been.

The highlights were a mix of both expected and somewhat surprising. Gill brought out his usual greatness on “Go Rest High On That Mountain,” but it was an out of nowhere “What You Give Away” that threw me. I had forgotten about that single, a top 30 hit from 2006, and was pleased when an audience member had requested it. He was also great on “Pretty Little Adriana,” “Trying to Get Over You,” and show closer “Whenever You Come Around.”

As intricately specialized as Gill is, the show wasn’t without a couple of minor cracks. Frankly, I would’ve killed for a little more experimentation. Gill and the band was almost too tight a unit, too perfect. The show would’ve been even stronger had they reworked some of Gill’s classics in the Bakersfield Sound, like he did with “Go Rest High On That Mountain” in the wake of Kitty Wells’ passing last year. Franklin, meanwhile, was regulated as the onstage steel player, thus he didn’t talk at all – the album was as much his project as Gill’s, so it wouldn’t have hurt to hear him talk about the music from his perspective. I didn’t expect his presence to feel like just another member of the band, and it was jarring seeing as Bakersfield was a collaborative album.

But that doesn’t excuse the fact that Gill put on an incredible show from start to finish that’s a must see for any country music fan. In thinking about his place in music, I would put Gill up there with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney as an icon who may not be as transcendent as those rock pioneers, be he’s arguably just as important to the genre he’s helped shape for the better part of the last thirty-five years.

“Remember country music?” – An Evening with Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell at Birmingham Symphony Hall, Friday 10 May 2013

promo for emmylou harris rodney crowell birminghamHaving relished their new album together, Old Yellow Moon, I couldn’t pass up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Emmylou Harris reunited live with Rodney Crowell when their tour to promote the record came over to Europe. I was joined at Birmingham Symphony Hall by an enthusiastic audience; it was almost, but not quite a sell-out, and the crowd clearly enjoyed every second.

It was a generous set; two hours and twenty minutes revisiting highlights of the pair’s past careers (mainly the 70s when they first worked together with a sprinkling of songs from the new millennium), as well as songs from Old Yellow Moon. There was no opening act, and no time for one. The focus was on music rather than chat, with the first four songs completed before anyone spoke a word.

The evening opened with a reminder of Emmylou’s time with Gram Parsons as the band walked on stage and launched straight into ‘Return Of The Grievous Angel’, followed by his song ‘Wheels’ which Emmylou included on Elite Hotel and which was magical here.

A change of pace led to a beautifully understated version of ‘Pancho And Lefty’, opening with Emmylou and her acoustic guitar, with the band later coming in and finally Rodney adding his vocal – a stylistic template for many of the evening’s best songs.

Rodney then sang his own ‘Earthbound’ (from 2003’s Fate’s Right Hand), which I enjoyed much more live than on record. Emmylou then introduced the wonderful ‘Til I Gain Control Again’ as the first song Rodney ever sang for her. He sang a tender lead on the song, with a lovely harmony from Emmylou. The pair then sang ‘Tragedy’, a song they wrote together for her Red Dirt Girl album; while okay, it was not my favorite moment of the evening.

Emmylou paid tribute to the late Susanna Clark by singing Clark’s song ‘I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose’, which Emmylou recorded on 1978’s Luxury Liner. This was just delightful, with honky tonk piano. It was followed by a stripped down ‘Red Dirt Girl’, which was very good.

Rodney then spoke for the first time, unexpectedly sounding a little nervous, before singing his autobiographical ‘Rock Of My Soul’.

The couple then duetted on ‘Heaven Only Knows’, a song written by Emmylou’s ex-husband Paul Kennerley. It was perhaps the most unexpected song choice as it came from Emmylou’s largely overlooked 1989 record Bluebird, and the only song in the set to date from that decade. It sounded very good, though, and was a welcome inclusion.

The swooping melody of ‘Love Hurts’ was a highlight, with emotional vocals from both Emmylou and Rodney (who is a much better singer than the late Gram Parsons). I was less impressed by the martial beat of ‘Luxury Liner’, although I was probably alone in that reaction – it seemed to get a particularly enthusiastic amount of applause, perhaps to reward the band’s virtuoso performances. The sound was a bit muddy for me on this song, although generally the acoustics were superb, and I wasn’t surprised when Emmylou asked for the sound to be turned down for the next song.

The band took a much needed break while Emmylou sat down for a simple acoustic number, ‘Darlin’ Kate’, her lament for her late friend Kate McGarrigle. Friendship was perhaps the overarching theme of the night. Rodney returned on stage to join Emmylou on a lovely traditional version of the Louvin Brothers’ ‘The Angels Rejoiced’. Emmylou then sang ‘Longtime Girl Gone By’, the song she sang on Rodney Crowell’s Kin album of songs written with poet Mary Karr. She didn’t know the song well, and had to use a lyric sheet, while Rodney accompanied her on guitar (he confessed he didn’t know the songs from that album all that well either).

By now the rest of the band was back, and Rodney sang ‘I Know Love Is All I Need’, which he introduced as something he had dreamed.

The Old Yellow Moon portion of the evening then arrived, with a joyful version of the album’s opener ‘Hanging Up My Heart’, followed by a excellent (if slightly too loud) ‘Invitation To The Blues’. Emmylou asked pointedly,

“Remember country music? It’s hard to find sometimes back in the States. But it’s in our hearts, and it’s on our record.”

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Album Review: Travis Tritt – ‘No More Looking Over My Shoulder’

TNomorelookingovermyshoulderravis Tritt changed producers once again, replacing Don Was with Billy Joe Walker, Jr for 1998’s No More Looking Over My Shoulder. His sixth studio album, it was his least successful release to date spawning three singles that didn’t peak any higher than #29 on the charts.

The #29 peaking single was the first, “If I Lost You,” which Tritt co-wrote with Stewart Harris. The beautiful piano led ballad is a charming story about a man’s undying love for a woman and his feelings if he should loose this person. The record is near perfection; from the tasteful production to Tritt’s sensitive vocal. Even the video was excellent as it served as the conclusion to his Mac Singleton trilogy, a fitting tribute to the five year old daughter Mac shares with now deceased wife Annie.

I also thoroughly enjoy the Craig Wiseman and Michael Peterson penned title track, which served as the second single, peaking at #38. An excellent sing-a-long mid-tempo rocker, the song has an engaging energy and I love the acoustic guitar riffs throughout.

Unlike the majority of Tritt’s rockin’ anthems, third and final single “Start The Car” doesn’t have many overly dated elements within the production track, and Tritt adds a strong, confident vocal performance to the mix. The rock elements don’t bother me either at all but the whole thing comes off very underwhelming thanks to Jude Cole’s inability to add anything memorable to the lyrics. It’s the type of song you forget the second you’ve heard it, which likely accounts for its poor chart performance (it peaked at #52).

The rest of the project isn’t as bland as I was expecting, but as a whole the album doesn’t really get off the ground. There just isn’t that standout track needed to raise the album above just okay. It’s solid, but nothing really special.

The best album cut is probably the weakest lyric, saved only by the production, which feels heavy influenced by Patty Loveless’ seminal When Fallen Angles Fly. “Girls Like That” boasts a nice, rollicking dobro that recalls “Half Way Down” and “Handful of Dust.” It’s too bad the lyric is beyond inane, as Tritt could’ve had a showstopper here. You’d think he and co-writer Bruce Ray Brown could’ve tried to put in some effort, and not resorted to a three-minute list of attributes talking about “Girls Like That.”

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Single Review – Eric Church – ‘Springsteen’

When a singer desires to prove their worth they’ll often name check a music legend in their song in hopes of drudging up a modicum of credibility. Of late, the practice has been in overdrive morphing from adoration to insolence. And it seems the songs with the most name checking often rock harder than any of the legends being cited within.

So it’s refreshing that Eric Church would co-write a song, about a legend, that smartly avoids those pitfalls. “Springsteen” is by and large one of the strongest songs currently vying for airplay because the details in the story and the choices in the production are nearly flawless.

We’ve all heard it before – the teenage couple in love and the song that binds them together for life, long past the confines of the relationship. Here that song is “Born In The USA,” Bruce Springsteen’s classic from 1984. But what makes “Springsteen” a cut above the rest is the masterful way Church and co-writers Jeff Hyde and Ryan Tyndell craft the story.

The song begins with the male protagonist thinking back on the memories drudged up whenever the magical song comes on the radio:

To this day when I hear that song

I see you standin’ there on that lawn

Discount shades, store bought tan

Flip-flops and cut-off jeans

Somewhere between that setting sun

I’m on fire and born to run

You looked at me and I was done

And we’re, we’re just getting started

While Church does mumble the opening lines a bit too much for my taste, he makes up for his delivery by nicely setting the scene for the love affair to be fleshed out in more detail later. The second verse has the lead character running into this girl in the present day yet she doesn’t remember him that well. The writers glaze over this meeting but use it as a bridge to further develop the love story back when the characters were 17:

 Back when I was gasoline

And this old tattoo had brand new ink

And we didn’t care what your mom would think

About your name on my arm

Baby is it spring or is it summer

The guitar sound or the beat of that drummer

You hear sometimes late at night

On your radio

And like any well-crafted song, it isn’t just the tiny details in the lyrics (like mentioning the jeep they would ride around in) but also choices in the production that add to the overall feeling of the song. Sonically, “Springsteen” is unlike anything else on country radio right now – a little gritty and atmospheric with a steady drumbeat to help guide the story along.  When listening you get the impression that you’re hearing the work of a singer/songwriter and not just another four minutes of filler churned out by the Nashville machine. It’s that level of concentration that elevates “Springsteen” above the standard piece of nostalgia.

This may be another song about songs, but it works because the whole thing is believable. Brad Paisley’s “Old Alabama,” for instance, failed because he tried to mix novelty and tribute in his ode to Alabama. Adding in that touch of playfulness only extenuated the weaknesses in the lyrics and turned what could’ve been great, into something corny. It’s as if Church learned from the faults of that and other recent songs about songs and decided to write something truly outstanding that honored the artist being mentioned without that singer getting in the way of the song.

But you’ll see in the coming months that “Springsteen” is more than just the third single from an album, but rather a turning point in a career. It’s now that Church will begin to be taken seriously as an artist and not just as a singer. I’ve always preferred his rockish stylings to Jason Aldean – there’s an authenticity to Church you don’t get with Aldean. Like Miranda Lambert he’s a real country singer and I’m glad to see the material is finally matching the promise I’ve seen in him since I first heard Sinners Like Me seven years ago.

Grade: A 

Album Review: Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers – ‘At The Ryman’

With her singles increasingly ignored by country radio as a new generation swept in, Emmylou decided to disband the Hot Band and make a new start. She launched the replacements by recording a live album, at the Ryman Auditorium, historic home of the Grand Ole Opry, which was at the time basically disused. One of the big tests of any artist who sounds good recorded is whether the voice holds up in a live setting. Emmylou Harris’s certainly does, and over her career she has released several live recordings. However, typically of Emmylou, she has never chosen the most trodden path and released a concert of her greatest hits, performed in close imitation of the records. Her 1981 album Last Date, which produced three hit singles including the #1 title track, had consisted of all new material (or at least covers she had not done before). It was not a true live album, though, as the tracks were taken from a series of live dates with her legendary Hot Band. This album, similarly, is not a single gig, but was recorded over three days, 30 April-2 May 1991, and released early the following year. Producers Allen Reynolds and Richard Bennett, and the engineers who worked on the project, deserve special credit for making the final result a seamless whole which sounds like an authentic representation of the experience of seeing Emmylou in concert with her new band.

The material is, once more, all covers of songs she had not previously recorded, mixing up country classics, bluegrass, folk and rock, given an acoustic makeover by Emmylou’s new lineup, the Nash Ramblers. The group, easily as talented as the Hot Band at their hottest and without the assistance of electricity, comprised progressive bluegrass virtuoso Sam Bush on mandolin and fiddle; Roy Huskey Jr on upright bass; West Coast veteran Al Perkins on dobro and banjo, Canadian Larry Atamaniuk on drums and percussion, and a talented young Texan named Jon Randall Stewart on acoustic guitar, mandolin and taking the high tenor harmony, although all four contribute vocals where necessary. Their playing and singing are impeccable throughout. The audience seems to enjoy the occasion rather politely.

For my money. the concert seems to take a while to get going, opening with an enjoyable but fairly sedate version of Steve Earle’s ‘Guitar Town’, followed by a plaintive ‘Half As Much’. ‘Cattle Call’ is prettily and tastefully performed, with delicate yodeling. The chugging ‘Guess Things Happen That Way’ (a Cowboy Jack Clement song made famous by Johnny Cash) is enjoyable, but sounds a little too cheery for the resigned stoicism of the lyric.

It really picks up with a subtly impassioned ‘Hard Times’, dating from the 1850s, which Emmylou opens with a crystalline accapella phrase, and which is one of my favourite tracks. There is more contemporary folk music on a socio-political theme with Nanci Griffith’s idealistic but frankly depressing ‘It’s A Hard Life Wherever You Go’, battling racism and sectarian hatred, segueing into the low key Civil Rights theme of ‘Abraham, Martin and John’, a 60s tribute to Messrs Lincoln, King and Kennedy, all of course victims of assassination. Emmylou also covers rock star Bruce Springsteen’s downbeat and down-tempo memories of a working class child remembering the ‘Mansion On The Hill’ overlooking the town and factories. I must admit would have rather have heard the Hank Williams gospel song of the title, as this is beautifully done, but feels a little lifeless. Southern rock gets a nod with an enjoyable take on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Lodi’, although perhaps it feels a little too good humored for the stagnated frustration expressed in the lyrics.

The bluegrass songs have a lot more life, with lovely, sparkling playing as Bill Monroe’s suitably Celtic sounding instrumental ‘Scotland’ allows the band to stretch out while Emmylou buck-danced with the Father of Bluegrass himself (this is where the video version, which I haven’t seen, would come in handy). The mood carries over into the charming western themed ‘Montana Cowgirl’. There is more Monroe with the driving ‘Walls Of Time’ which he wrote with onetime Bluegrass Boy Peter Rowan, which is okay. Better is a committed performance of ‘Get Up John’, with lyrics written by Marty Stuart and Jerry Sullivan for a Bill Monroe tune, with the Nash Ramblers singing call and response vocals.

Emmylou recalls her 70s peak with a really beautiful version of the wistful ‘Like Strangers’ (one of many Boudleaux Bryant songs made into classic Everly Brothers records, and my favorite track on the album). The spiritual ‘Calling My Children Home’ (co-written by another great bluegrass musician Doyle Lawson) is sung exquisitely acappella with the band members on harmony. I also love Emmylou’s version of the O’Kanes’ ‘If I Could Be There’, with Jon Randall Stewart’s ethereal high harmony; it sounds gentler and more wistful than the original (also great).

There is a nice finish with ‘Smoke Along The Track’ with effective train sounds and appropriate lyrics about moving on.

Sales of this fine record and the accompanying video were disappointing and airplay nonexistent, but the album won Emmylou a Grammy. It also helped to inspire interest in the neglected historic Ryman Auditorium itself, which was restored and reopened as a concert venue in 1994.The CD is easy to find inexpensively. The video was never released on DVD but unused copies of the VHS tape seem to be around.

Grade: B+

Our Grammy predictions

The 52nd annual Grammy Awards show airs January 31, 2010 at 8 p.m. on CBS.

Earlier we told you who we’d each like to see winning in the country categories this year. Now it’s time to go out on a limb and say who we expect to win. We didn’t do very well last time, due to collectively underestimating the CMA voters’ enthrallment to commercial success.

Best Male Country Vocal Performance
Trace Adkins – ‘All I Ask For Anymore’: Chris
Billy Currington – ‘People Are Crazy’
Jamey Johnson – ‘High Cost Of Living’: Jordan Stacey, Occasional Hope, Razor X
George Strait – ‘Living For The Night’: J.R. Journey
Keith Urban – ‘Sweet Thing’

Jordan: The Grammys always go for this type of song: critically acclaimed, sold a lot of albums, and has been listed in best of lists all year. The Grammy’s won’t ignore Jamey Johnson.
Razor: While I like the Trace Adkins song very much, I think the award for Male Vocal Performance will – and should – go to Jamey Johnson. It received a tepid response from country radio, but the Grammy’s are somewhat less inhibited and Puritanical in their selections. This was a true highlight of 2009, and I expect that the Grammy voters will recognize that and reward the song appropriately.
OH: See my comments below on Song. I believe Jamey will win at least one of these categories, but possibly not both.
J.R.: Strait is long overdue for a string of trophies from the Grammy’s. His first-ever statuette came from the NARAS last year in the Best Country Album race, and I think he’ll add to his collection this year.

Best Female Country Vocal Performance
Miranda Lambert – ‘Dead Flowers’
Martina McBride – ‘I Just Call You Mine’
Taylor Swift – ‘White Horse’: J.R. Journey, Occasional Hope
Carrie Underwood – ‘Just A Dream’: Chris, Jordan Stacey, Razor X
Lee Ann Womack – ‘Solitary Thinkin”

Razor: ‘Just A Dream’ and ‘White Horse’ are the only two songs in this category that can legitimately be called hits. It would be a further travesty for Taylor Swift to win over Carrie in a vocal performance categeory. The Grammy’s are more prone than the CMAs or ACMs to reward artistry over commercial success. While ‘Just A Dream’ is no artistic masterpiece, Carrie is hands down the superior vocalist.
OH: The Grammy voters don’t always care if something’s a hit, but nothing here is sufficiently artistically compelling to win on that account. I agree it’s between Taylor and Carrie, and travesty or not, I think Taylor will carry it on her current awards and commercial momentum.
J.R.: Taylor is white hot right now, pardon the pun. Grammy voters have traditionally either went for tracks that make strong artistic statements or the flavor of the day. This year, with nothing really standing out from the pack as brilliant in this category, I think name-recognition will swing it for Swift.
Jordan: They seem to like Carrie, and it’s a much stronger song than ‘Last Name, so she will probably walk away with this one.

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Year In Review: J.R. Journey’s Top 10 Albums of 2009

As with my favorite singles of the year list, finding ten albums from 2009 that I really loved wasn’t as big a task as I first expected it to be, but narrowing it down and placing them was the real chore.  I’ve certainly been more influenced by the various blogs and sites I read this year than I ever have before – the influence of sites like The 9513, Country Universe, The Gobbler’s Knob, etc. are definitely showing here.  Not to mention, I’ve picked up lots of great music from the suggestions of my fellow writers here at My Kind of Country.  In case you missed any of them, they’re all worth adding to your collection, and here my ten favorite albums from the past twelve months.

10. EP – Caitlin & Will (Sony)

The debut release from the winners of CMT’s Can You Duet turned out to be a six-song digital EP instead of a full album in CD form.  A varied collection of songs that, in my opinion, is very focused, especially for two singers who were thrown together on a reality show.  Caitlin’s crystal clear vocals provide the perfect balance to Will Snyder’s husky delivery.  There were several great songs on here, and no throwaways.  Check out ‘Even Now’, ‘Leaves of September’, and ‘Dark Horse’.

9. Live On The Inside – Sugarland (Mercury)

Sugarland’s recent live set follows the CD/DVD combo form.  I was a little disappointed that the full show with all their hits wasn’t also the audio CD.  The DVD serves the live album’s purpose – to capture their hits in concert, and the result is a full-blown Sugarland show, complete with all their hits, hamster balls and all.  Rather than being an audio form of that show, the CD features several tracks not found on the DVD, mostly all covers of pop and rock songs from the past 20-something years.  Some I could do without, but the real gems like ‘Circle’ and ‘Better Man’, where Nettles puts her own distinctive vocal stamp on these rock hits, are a real treat.  Their country spin on Beyonce’s ‘Irreplaceable’ is more enjoyable than it probably should be and Kristian does a fine job when he takes a turn at lead on ‘The One I Love’.

8. Twang – George Strait (MCA)

The latest offering from King George finds him stepping outside his comfort zone with off-beat tracks like ‘Arkansas Dave’ and the all-Spanish ‘El Rey’.  Showing up as a co-writer on 3 of the album’s tracks is also a fairly new development for Strait, but judging from the quality of the material he wrote with Dean Dillon and his son, Bubba Strait, I’m hoping George picks up his pen more often, and also takes more chances musically, with his next album.  For now, I’m still enjoying spinning this one.

7. Beautiful Day – Charlie Robison (Dualtone)

When Charlie Robison and Dixie Chicks banjo-playing, multi-instrumentalist Emily Irwin Robison divorced in 2008, the Texas singer/songwriter poured his misery into this collection of songs.  Robison sings here of regrets, heartache, and moving on, all with a tinge of sadness and even a touch of reluctance.  Favorite tracks include ‘Down Again’ and ‘Reconsider’.

6. Sing: Chapter 1 -Wynonna (Curb)

Since leaving The Judds and going solo, Wynonna’s sound has changed a lot over the years.  We’ve heard her incorporating sounds from R&B, pop, rock, jazz, and everything in between.  A collection of classic songs from several genres, with one new song in the way of the title track written by Rodney Crowell, Sing is an interesting and at times inspired collection. Wynonna’s ferocious delivery is front and center the entire time, always reminding us that Wynonna Judd is the owner of one of the finest voices of our time.

5. My Turn – Tanya Tucker (Saguaro Road)

I rightly called 2009 ‘the year of the tribute’ earlier in the year, and looking over my top albums of the year list, I think I made a justifiable generalization since so many of my favorite artists released albums looking back and paying tribute to the classic songs that country music was built on.  Tanya’s covers album was just a step above Wynonna’s mostly for the arrangements behind the songs.  While Wynonna took the songs, changed them up, and made them something different, Tanya took a straightforward approach, and simply infused her patented vocals into these tried and true songs, injecting her personality into them at the same time.  I find myself playing this one more than I expected to, especially ‘Love’s Gonna Live Here’ and ‘You Don’t Know Me’.

4. Keep On Loving You – Reba (Valory)

I admit this is an album that took time to grow on me before I really loved it.  After the first couple listens to Reba’s first album for her new record label, I was a bit disappointed.   I expected more in the way of going back to the classic Reba sound.  But Reba has never been an artist to look back, but instead forges ahead with the trends of the day.  She reminded us why she’s one of the most successful and respected singers in country music’s history with this release, and tracks like ‘Over You’, ‘Maggie Creek Road’, and the chart-topping second single, ‘Consider Me Gone’, are throwbacks to the time when Reba music was golden, and her vocal performances throughout the album are engaging.  This is certainly an album with lasting power in my own library.

3. The List – Rosanne Cash (Manhattan)

The idea behind this album is fascinating in itself.  An eighteen year-old Rosanne, whose father was a bonafide superstar in country music, didn’t seem to know much about its history.  Being a good father, Johnny Cash set out to correct this, making his daughter a list of 100 essential country songs.  The entire list still hasn’t been made available for the public to see, but Rosanne did record twelve of them for her latest offering, simply titled The List.  Cash weaves through these country classics with ease and gives a contemporary interpretation to them, with the help from some of her superstar New Yorker friends like Elvis Costello, Rufus Wainwright, and Bruce Springsteen.  Choice tracks include ‘Sea of Heartbreak’ (with Springsteen), ‘Long Black Veil’, and ‘Girl From The North Country’.

2. Revolution – Miranda Lambert (Sony)

On her third studio album, Lambert has finally come into her own as an artist, and in my opinion, has reached a peak in her evolution as an artist.  Note that I said ‘a peak’ and not ‘the peak’.  While it doesn’t pack the power punch her last album, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend did, and doesn’t seem to have as clear a vision, Lambert has never been stronger as a writer or a vocalist than on Revolution.  She wrote most of the album, but she also had the good sense to draw from the wealth of material coming out of Music City and other places, and a quick glance of the liner notes shows names like Ashley Monroe, John Prine, and Julie Miller, among Lambert’s own many writes and co-writes, a couple with boyfriend Blake Shelton.  Of particular note are ‘The House That Built Me’, ‘Heart Like Mine, and ‘That’s The Way The World Goes ‘Round’.

1. The Long Way Home – Terri Clark (Bare Tracks)

Taking the top spot on my list is Terri Clark’s first independent release after freeing herself from big-label politics.  Terri had taken a sabbatical to her native Canada to care for her mother and write songs when she headed to Nashville earlier this year and recorded this set in three takes.  The result is one of the most focused albums I’ve ever heard.  Whether it was intentional, or just a facet of her state of mind at the time, Clark has taken on a more mature aura to her music and herself, imparting the sort of wisdom that only comes from experience.  ‘A Million Ways To Run’ is a beautiful and telling narrative about running from your problems.  ‘Merry Go Round’ talks of slowing down, enjoying life, and taking stock, while ‘If You Want Fire’ warns and coaches you on the ups and downs of a red-hot love affair.  Clark has never sounded better, nor has her writing been as sharp than on this introverted collection of songs.

Album Review: John Anderson – ‘Nobody’s Got It All’

Nobody's Got It AllAfter the brief resurrection of John Anderson’s career in the early 90s, it died down again in the later part of that decade, although he has continued to release some excellent music on a series of major labels. One of my favorites is this release from 2001, on Columbia. It was produced by hot producers Blake Chancey and Paul Worley, and has some excellent songs, but sadly the chosen singles failed to catch on at radio, and the label deal lasted only for this one album.

The song which is most likely to be familiar is a cover of John Scott Sherrill’s ‘Five Generations Of Rock County Wilsons’, a farmer’s son’s lament at the destruction of his childhood home by developers, previously recorded in the 80s by Dan Seals and in the 90s by Doug Supernaw, but perhaps surprisingly never losing its sense of topicality. I like all three versions of this fine song, but John’s is probably the best and most committed vocal, as you feel the narrator’s pain as it turns to smoldering anger and then defeated sadness as he leaves town:
“I stood on the hill overlooking Red River where my mama and her mama lay
And listened to the growling of the big diesel Cats as they tore up the fields where I played
I said, ‘Mama forgive me, but I’m almost glad that you’re not here today
After five generations of Rock County Wilsons
To see the last 50 acres in the hands of somebody who’d actually blow it away’.”

A more unexpected (and less successful) cover comes in the form of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Atlantic City’, a dark tale of a couple on the edges of the crime world which came to John’s attention via a version by The Band.

John did not contribute many of his own compositions this time around, but one of the songs he did write is one of my favorites, the heavy-hitting ballad ‘I Ain’t Afraid Of Dying’, written with Dean Dillon. It is a trenchant look at some of the darker aspect of modern society and fears for the future, with no punches pulled:
“Some father says in the name of God he took his baby’s life
Well, I don’t think so, the God I know wouldn’t believe that’s right
I may not have the answers when it’s all said and done
Sometimes I have to question where they’re coming from
I know where I’m going when they lay me to rest
Oh, I ain’t afraid of dying, Lord – it’s the living that scares me to death.”

The pair also wrote ‘Go To Town’, a pleasant but not that memorable piece about a party girl and a “smooth operator” growing up and settling down, ending with their children heading off to the excitement of the town in their parents’ stead. The other track John co-wrote was the melodic love song ‘I Love You Again’, written with Craig Wiseman, which is very listenable and sincerely delivered, but doesn’t stick in the mind.

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