My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Buck White

Album Review: The Whites – ‘A Lifetime in the Making’

mi0001612026In 2000 the soundtrack to the film O, Brother Where Art Thou? came from nowhere to sell eight million copies, on the strength of the Soggy Bottom Boys’ classic rendition of “Man of Constant Sorrow.” The record went on to claim the Album of the Year Grammy and kick off a mini-revival of acoustic based sounds within country music. This was the period of time in which Nickel Creek first came to prominence and Alison Krauss saw renewed acclaim for her music. The Whites weren’t necessarily a part of this although they did contribute an excellent rendition of “Keep On The Sunny Side” to the soundtrack.

They released A Lifetime in the Making, their twelfth album, in August, just before the craze hit. The record, their only for Ricky Skaggs’ Ceili Records, was lovingly produced by Jerry Douglas. The album, which retains the acoustic feel for which they’re best known, is an impeccable collection of songs from beginning to end.

The disc kicks off with “Always Comin’ Home,” a dobro and mandolin drenched uptempo Gospel number, written by Don Gillion. They continue in this vein on “Jesus is the Missing Piece,” a mid-tempo ballad in which Buck takes over the lead vocals. “Key To The Kingdom” is stunning, with Sharon’s soaring and throaty lead vocal commanding attention.

Billy Joe Foster, a Bluegrass musician who died in 2013 aged 51, is represented with two tracks. “Texas To A T” is acoustic Western Swing while “Before The Prairie Met The Plow” is a gorgeous bluegrass ballad nodding to Midwestern sensibilities. “How Many Moons,” which was co-written by Claire Lynch, wonderfully showcases their family harmonies.

Patty Loveless originally recorded “I Miss Who I Was (With You)” on The Trouble With The Truth. Both versions are excellent and I was glad to see that Loveless’ recording retained the organic elements of the song. The Whites had the first version of “Old Hands,” another tune about farming life. I’ve never heard of Adam Brand, but he nicely covered the song two years later. Emmylou Harris joins the band for a stunning rendition of Mother Maybelle Carter’s “Fair and Tender Ladies.”

Buck White solely wrote “Old Man Baker,” a strikingly good uptempo instrumental. “Apron Strings” is an appealing ballad about the stronghold our mother will always have on our lives. The album’s final track, “The Cowboy Lives Forever,” is a breakneck uptempo number about an everyman who found his home on the Western Plains.

There truly aren’t words to describe the high quality of A Lifetime in the Making. The album is superb through and through even though it hardly breaks new ground within this style. I’ve never spent any time with The Whites, despite always knowing who they were so reviewing this album was a treat. I highly recommend it for those who may have missed it the first go-around or just want to listen to it again. You won’t be disappointed.

Grade: A

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Album Review: The Whites – ‘Give a Little Back’

51rbd9bcgvl-_ss500_pjstripe-robin-largetopleft00The Whites continued to record only sporadically when their stint as a major label act ended. 1996’s Give a Little Back, appeared nearly a decade after their final release for MCA/Curb. Released by the independent Nashville-based Step One Records, it has a more contemporary, less down-homey feel to it than their earlier work. Even at their commercial peak, The Whites were somewhat at odds with the mainstream. It does not seem to have been a serious attempt to reignite their recording career; no singles were released and the album received little promotion, but it is an impressive effort given the small-label constraints they had to work with.

I’m guessing that Give a Little Back was produced for a mere fraction of the cost of a typical major label release of the day, but no corners whatsoever were cut where the session musicians were concerned. Some of Nashville’s finest — Jerry Douglas (dobro), Buddy Emmons (pedal steel), and Ricky Skaggs (mandolin and fiddle) — appear in the musician credits.

The songs themselves are also quite good and are a mixture of both old and new from a cover of The Louvin Brothers’ “Steal Away and Pray” to more contemporary fare by Karen Staley, Jerry Fuller and John Hobbs, all well known composers of the day. Allmusic lists “I’d Jump the Mississippi”, a song written by George Jones, on the tracklist but it does not appear on the iTunes version of the album.

The Whites’ radio singles all featured Sharon as the lead singer, but she shares the spotlight just a little with her father – who is a surprisingly good vocalist on “Whose Heart Are You Breaking Tonight” and “Give Love an Inch” – and her sister Cheryl who sings lead on “Slow Dancin’”, “Til This Ring Turns Green” and “Try a Little Kindness”. The latter is best known as a hit for Glen Campbell, but The Whites had previously recorded it as a bluegrass song in the 70s when they were still relatively unknown. Cheryl is not the vocalist that Sharon is. The two numbers on which Buck sings lead are similar in arrangement to the uptempo material Ricky Skaggs released when he first emerged as a mainstream artist in the early 80s. I thought that Ricky might have produced the album, but Ray Pennington is the credited producer.

Martina McBride fans will recognize “Walk That Line”, a song that was included on Martina’s 1992 debut album. The Whites version, with Sharon singing lead, is faithful to Martina’s original version. I slightly prefer Martina’s version because it’s more familiar to me but The Whites’ version is also very good. My favorite track is the upbeat “I’ve Changed the Lock on My Heart’s Door.”
Give a Little Back shows that The Whites still had a lot to offer after their hitmaking days ended and makes one wish that they had recorded more frequently in the post-major label phase of their career.

Grade: A

Album Review: The Whites – ‘Old Familiar Feeling’

old-familiar-feelingSadly, far too little of the Whites’ music is available digitally, including most of their most commercially successful work. This album, originally released in 1983, has somehow found its way onto iTunes – it would be good if its successors were to follow it. In many respects it was their debut as The Whites, since previous music had been billed as Buck White, mostly with The Down Home Folks. Following Buck’s daughter Sharon’s 1981 marriage to rising superstar Ricky Skaggs, the band (now consisting of Buck with daughters Sharon and Cheryl) was signed to Curb/Warner Brothers, and the album (which Skaggs produced) was released in June 1983.

Half of the album’s ten tracks ended up as singles, as the label was trying to break a group whose old-time traditional roots flew in the face of the then popular Urban Cowboy sound. An initial single, a cover of the classic ‘Send Me The Pillow You Dream On’ did not do well, and was never included on an album, but the next attempt, the lovely ‘You Put The Blue In Me’ was a top 10 country hit in 1982. Sharon White’s honeyed voice is backed up by the group’s gentle harmonies on this pretty but sad song.

The more upbeat ‘Hangin’ Around’ and ‘I Wonder Who’s Holding My Baby Tonight’ (a beautiful ballad) both reached #9, also featuring Sharon’s lead vocals. Like many groups who have multiple lead singers, one of them is clearly superior to the others, and in the case of the Whites, it was Sharon, who sang lead on all the singles from this album. ‘When The New Wears Off Of Our Love’, written by Paul Craft, was less successful, peaking at only #25, but it is a pretty tune. The final single, and almost-title track, the slow and wistful ‘Give Me Back That Old Familiar Feeling’ took them back to the top 10.

Sister Cheryl took the lead on the upbeat gospel ‘Follow The Leader’ and the gentle romantic ballad ‘I’ll be Loving You’. While she lacks Sharon’s lovely natural tone, she is nonetheless a fine singer.

Buck takes over on the retro ‘Blue Letters’, with the trio harmonising together on the chorus. Son law Ricky Skaggs can also be heard in the harmonies on ‘Old River’. Buck also sings the blues authentically, on the old Moon Mullican tune ‘Pipe Liner Blues’.

Ricky Skaggs produced the set beautifully with clean, sparkling arrangements allowing the vocals to shine. The musicians include the great Jerry Douglas.

This is a charming album which I warmly recommend.

Grade: A

After this album, Curb moved the Whites to an affiliation with MCA, and regrettably none of the albums they made for that label is commercially available today apart from their Greatest Hits, which I would also recommend.

Spotlight Artist: The Whites

After featuring more than 100 artists over the past eight years of writing for this blog, it’s becoming more challenging to find interesting artists to spotlight. This month we decided to do something a little different. When discussing possibilities, it occurred to us that there have been quite a few country music acts that have shared the surname White. Since none of them really has a discography large enough to write about for an entire month, we’ve decided to do a group spotlight and feature the best work of each:

the-whites1. The Whites are a family act consisting of Buck White and his daughters Sharon and Cheryl. Buck played piano for Ernest Tubb and Hank Snow in the 1950s. He and his wife Pat performed in Texas and Arkansas with another couple and were known as The Down Home Folks. Their daughters joined the family act in the 1960s. The family relocated to Nashville in 1971 and Pat retired from the group shortly thereafter. Buck White and the Down Home Folks released a few independent albums in the 70s and in 1978 Sharon and Cheryl were invited by Emmylou Harris to sing harmony vocals on her Blue Kentucky Girl album. Sharon married Ricky Skaggs in 1982 and the following year the group, now known as The Whites, released their first major label album on Curb Records in partnership with Warner Bros. The album yielded four Top 10 hits, including “You Put The Blue In Me”, “Hangin’ Around”, “I Wonder Who’s Holding My Baby Tonight”, and “Give Me Back That Old Familiar Feeling”. The following year they moved to Curb/MCA and enjoyed another handful of hits, which tapered off by the end of the decade. They joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1984 and have been one of its flagship acts ever since.

larigreengrillecu2. Lari White, a native of Dunedin, Florida, grew up singing gospel with her family, and in 1988 she was a winning contestant on The Nashville Network’s You Can Be a Star. She was awarded a recording contract with Capitol, but was dropped from the label when her debut single failed to chart. She joined Rodney Crowell’s band in 1991 and he produced her first album when she landed a deal with RCA the following year. She released three albums for RCA, and scored three Top 10 hits in the process: “That’s My Baby”, “Now I Know”, and “That’s How You Know (When You’re In Love)”. She released one album for Lyric Street in 1998 and has released a pair of independent albums after leaving that label.

mwhite23. Michael White is the son of songwriter L.E. White, who wrote some of Conway Twitty’s hits. Michael’s composition “You Make It Hard To Take The Easy Way Out” was released as the B-side of Twitty’s 1973 hit “You’ve Never Been This Far Before”. Michael’s brief stint with Reprise Records in the early 90s produced one album and a few singles, one of which (“Professional Fool”) reached the Top 40.

p_tqj4. Joy Lynn White, also known as simply Joy White, is a critically acclaimed singer who released two albums for Columbia and one for Mercury in the 1990s, before moving to indie labels in the early 2000s. Her 1993 single “Cold Day In July” reached the lower rungs of the Billboard country singles chart and was later a hit for The Dixie Chicks.

bryan-white5. Bryan White enjoyed a string of hits in the 90s as an Asylum Records recording artist, beginning with “Eugene You Genius” which was released when he was just 20 years old. In 1995 he enjoyed his first #1 hit with “Someone Else’s Star”. In 1998 he teamed up with Shania Twain for the duet “From This Moment On”. By the time his fourth album was released, his commercial momentum had slowed, so he took a five-year sabbatical from the music business. He returned in 2009 with the independently released Dustbowl Dreams and is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to finance the release of a new album.

We hope that you will enjoy revisiting — or discovering for the first time — the work of this group of artists during the month of February.

Album Review: Ricky Skaggs – ‘Waitin’ for The Sun To Shine’

Ricky’s work with Emmylou Harris had brought him to the attention of Nashville, and in 1981 he signed a solo deal with Epic Records. His Epic debut was self-produced, and he played guitar, fiddle and mandolin himself, backed by some stellar pickers. Future wife Sharon White and her sister Cheryl sing harmonies, and their father Buck plays piano. It was country rather than bluegrass, with electric instruments, steel guitar and piano added to the mix, but there was a distinctly bluegrass and sensibility to it, particularly in the song selection. Where it is not rooted in bluegrass, the inspiration is in traditional country, with most of the songs being relatively obscure covers. The tasteful playing is excellent throughout, but remains in service to the songs.

A vibrant cover of Flatt & Scruggs’s bluegrass classic ‘Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’’ was Ricky’s first chart single, peaking at #16. The rhythmic ‘You May See Me Walkin’’ (written by Tom Uhr of bluegrass band the Shady Grove Ramblers) then sneaked into the top 10 at 9. Ricky scored his first chart topper with ‘Crying My Heart Out Over You’, another Flatt & Scruggs song, cowritten by county veteran Carl Butler. It works perfectly for Ricky, whose understated version has become the standard.

‘I Don’t Care’ also made it to #1, as it did for the original artist, honky tonk star Webb Pierce, in 1955. It was written by the great Cindy Walker and is a sweet love song refusing to pry into his sweetheart’s possibly murky past, which Ricky delivers with sincerity:

I don’t care if I’m not the first love you’ve known
Just so I’ll be the last

The gently resigned hurt of ‘If That’s The Way You Feel’, a cover of a Stanley Brothers classic, is delightful, with tasteful harmonies from Sharon and Cheryl. ‘Lost To A Stranger’ is a plaintive ballad with a lovely tune, which was originally recorded by its writer Hylo Brown in 1954.

‘Your Old Love Letters’, cover of a 1961 hit by Porter Wagoner, feels charmingly old fashioned now, with Ricky pondering a past love affair as he burns the titular letters (tied up in blue ribbons). The rhythmic ‘Low And Lonely’ is catchy, and another older song, a single for the legendary Roy Acuff in 1942. Merle Travis’s ‘So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed’ also dates from the 1940s.

The title track, virtually the only new song included, is a beautiful ballad which has become a modern country classic with perhaps the best known version by Lee Ann Womack on her superlative There’s More Where That Came From in 2005. Ricky’s version isn’t quite as gorgeous, but still very good, and the song is lovely with an optimistic feel about the likelihood of getting past current heartbreak.

There really is not a weak track on this excellent album. A real breath of fresh air in the Urban Cowboy era, it is astonishing to contemplate today how warmly such a bluegrass-influenced album was received in the country mainstream. Sales were excellent for the era, and the album was certified gold. Its follow up, Highways & Heartaches (which Razor X reviewed when it was reissued on Skaggs Family Records in 2009), was to do even better, and really set Ricky Skaggs up as a mainstream country star. Both albums stand up very well today, and cheap used copies of both can be found easily.

Grade: A

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Untasted Honey’

The confidence engendered by the success of Walk The Way The Wind Blows enabled Kathy to follow the same path with its successor released in 1987. Allen Reynolds’s clean, crisp production marries tasteful rootsiness with radio appeal, and the songs are all high quality and well suited to Kathy’s voice.

Poetic lead single ‘Goin’ Gone’ headed straight to #1, becoming Kathy’s first chart topper. Reflecting Kathy’s folkier side, it was written by Pat Alger, Fred Koller and Bill Dale, and like her earlier hit ‘Love At The Five And Dime’, it had been recorded by Nanci Griffith on her The Last Of The True Believers. Kathy is a significantly better singer than Nanci, and her version of the song is quite lovely.

The second #1 from the album was ‘Eighteen Wheels And A Dozen Roses’, probably Kathy’s best remembered song and certainly one of her biggest hits. The warmhearted story song (written by Paul and Gene Nelson) has a strong mid-tempo tune and a heartwarming lyric about a trucker headed for a happy retirement travelling America with his beloved wife.

Singer-songwriters Craig Bickhardt and Beth Nielsen Chapman provide vocal harmony on both these singles, as they do on the title track, which Bickhardt wrote with Barry Alfonso. Here, a restless self-styled “free spirit” yearns for the wide open spaces,

Where a soul feels alive
And the untasted honey waits in the hive

It sounds beautiful, although the faithful lover left behind gets short shrift.

Tim O’Brien’s ‘Untold Stories’ made it to #4. An insistent beat backs up a positive lyric about looking past all the hidden hurts of the past in favour of reconciliation with an old love. O’Brien, a fellow West Virginian who was at that time the lead singer of bluegrass band Hot Rize, sings harmony and plays mandolin and acoustic guitar on the track, while The Whites’s Buck White plays piano. O’Brien also wrote ‘Late In The Day’, a highlight of the record with a downbeat lyric about late night loneliness, an acoustic arrangement and perfectly judged vocal. It’s the kind of song Trisha Yearwood would have done well with a few years later, and Kathy’s version shows just how good a singer she is, both technically and as a master of interpretation.

His contribution to the album did not end with these two songs, as he also duets with Kathy on Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet’s beautiful ‘The Battle Hymn Of Love’, a wedding song based on the vows of a marriage ceremony. It was belatedly released as a single in 1990, to promote Kathy’s A Collection Of Hits compilation, and reached the top 10. A slight folk feel is lent by both Tim’s vocal stylings and the use of hammered dulcimer in the pretty arrangement.

The album’s last official single (another to peak at #4) was the melancholy ballad ‘Life As We Knew It’. It is almost a prequel to ‘Untold Stories’ with its story of a woman packing up her things, filled with regret for the life she is leaving behind. It was written by Walter Carter and Fred Koller, and has a particularly beautiful, soaring melody. Jerry Douglas guests on dobro, and Tim O’Brien harmonizes again.

One of Kathy’s favorite writers, Pat Alger, teamed up with Mark D Sanders to write ‘Like A Hurricane’, which picks up the pace a bit. West Virginia references ad lovely instrumentation lift a well-performed but otherwise unremarkable song. The tender love song ‘As Long As I Have A Heart’, written by Dennis Wilson and Don Henry, has a pretty tune and acoustic arangement, and is very good. The delicately sung ‘Every Love’, co-written by folkie Janis Ian with country songwriter Rhonda Kye Fleming, offers an introspective overview of the nature of love, and has a stripped down acoustic backing featuring the harp.

Untasted Honey was Kathy’s best selling album to date, and her first to be certified gold. It is also a very fine record which stands up well after quarter of a century, and contains some of Kathy’s best work. It is available digitally, and can be found cheaply on CD.

Grade: A

Album Review: Marty Raybon – ‘Southern Roots & Branches (Yesterday & Today)’

Barely weeks after his last album release, the enjoyable religious record Hand To The Plow, ex-Shenandoah singer Marty Raybon has come up with a mainly secular bluegrass-based effort which is even better than the latter.  He produced it himself and has done a fine job.  A variety of pickers were used, with an average of four players of any given instrument across the album (but no detailed breakdown by track)but the end result is very cohesive, sparklingly performed bluegrass with Marty’s distinctive, warm voice taking center stage.  Marty sounds great again, and the songs are all pretty good, with an overarching theme of the past.

A nice cover of the Rodney Crowell-penned Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s nostalgic hit ‘Long Hard Road (Sharecropper’s Dream)’, with particularly pleasing fiddle, is a highlight, and Marty is entirely convincing singing of a childhood in poverty but a happy one.

The religious focus is not completely abandoned.  Marty actually co-wrote the joyfully urgent gospel of ‘Get Up In Jesus’ Name’, which Lee Ann Womack recorded on her debut album in the 90s, and here he gives his own reading, which is very good (although I would still just give the edge to the earlier recording).  An absolutely beautifully sung close-harmony ballad, ‘Beulah Land’ is another religious number, and there is an enjoyable cover of the bright mid-tempo ‘Prayer Bells Of Heaven’, written by bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin and Buck White (member of the Whites and father in law of Ricky Skaggs).

Bluegrass heritage gets several nods with interesting revivals of generally lesser-known songs.  Bill Monroe’s ‘Rocky Road Blues’ rhythmically melds blues and bluegrass, while ‘White House Blues’, another Monroe song, taken at a frenetic pace, takes on a political theme – but neither a contemporary one nor a controversial one.  It wasn’t even contemporary when Monroe recorded it in 1954, as it deals with the 1901 assassination of President William McKinley and his replacement in the White House by Theodore Roosevelt.  Lyrically, it seems an odd choice to revive, but musically it sounds very good.  ‘Down The Road’ is a Flatt & Scruggs song which is bouncily enjoyable, and Jimmy Martin’s vivacious up-tempo ‘Home Run Man’ rather engagingly uses baseball as the metaphor for a man courting his love interest.

Marty also pays heed to his personal musical heritage by redoing a couple of Shenandoah hits.  The melodic ‘Ghost in This House’ is lovely, and ‘Next To You, Next To Me’ is also well done, but both are probably inessential if you have the original recordings.

If there is an emphasis on ‘yesterday’, the ‘today’ of the album’s sub-title is represented by a couple of new songs.  The plaintive mid-tempo ‘Big Pain’ is an excellent new song written by Marty with Billy Droze and John Fountain.  It bemoans a lost love, causing a pain which hurts so much more than physical injuries.  ‘Dirt Road Heartache’, a mid-tempo heartbreak bluegrass song written by Melissa Peirce and Jerry Salley, is also new and very good.

I am slightly puzzled as to why these two albums have been released quite so close together (and both on Rural Rhythm imprints), yet not quite simultaneously, as there must be a risk that one or the other will get overlooked.  But the music on this second album is flawless, and the song selection makes its potential market wider than its companion.  It really is well worth hearing if you like Marty’s singing, or bluegrass in general.

Grade: A

Retro Album Review: Ricky Skaggs – ‘Highways & Heartaches’

highways-heartaches1Skaggs Family Records recently reissued Ricky Skaggs’ classic Highways & Heartaches album, with plans to reissue three more of his early ‘80s releases. As such, this seems like a good opportunity to revisit Highways & Heartaches:

Released in 1982, Highways & Heartaches was Ricky Skaggs’ second album for Epic Records. The previous year, his Epic debut, the gold-selling Waitin’ For The Sun To Shine, had produced three Top 10 hits, including two #1’s. In 1981, Nashville was still at the height of the Urban Cowboy craze, and there was considerable concern then (as now) that country music was rapidly drifting on an irreversible course towards pop. Therefore, it was nothing short of remarkable that a 27-year-old tradition-based singer, from a bluegrass background, was signed to a major label and given free rein to produce his own album, with little interference from label executives. And that it went on to achieve great commercial success and critical acclaim, was even more astounding.

Whatever fears there may have been about a sophomore slump were quickly alleviated, when Highways & Heartaches quickly outsold its predecessor, becoming Skaggs’ only platinum album, and producing three #1 singles and one more that just missed the top spot.

The album opens with the Guy Clark composition “Heartbroke”, which was the album’s lead single and first #1. It’s interesting to note that this song was also included on the sophomore release of another newcomer who had also made his major label debut in 1981. And like Skaggs, George Strait was also one of the first of a group of artists that would eventually be known as the “neotraditionalists”, who, in a few years’ time would knock virtually all of the pop-country artists of the day off the charts and return country music to its roots.

The next single was the heartfelt “I Wouldn’t Change You If I Could”, which also peaked #1 on the Billboard Country Singles chart, as did the toe-tapping up-tempo number “Highway 40 Blues”. “You’ve Got a Lover” just missed the top spot, peaking at #2 in early 1983. Unlike many albums of the day, there is no “filler” on Highways & Heartaches. Any one of the ten tracks could have been released to radio as singles, and all of them would have performed well. My particular favorites among the non-singles are Wayland Patton’s “Don’t Think I’ll Cry” and “Let’s Love the Bad Times Away”, Rodney Crowell’s “One Way Rider”, and the Bill Monroe classic “Can’t You Hear Me Callin’”, with which Skaggs pays homage to his bluegrass roots and That High Lonesome Sound.

Nowadays many albums coming out of Nashville sound like the vocalist is singing along with a karaoke machine. This is decidedly not the case with Highways & Heartaches – or any Skaggs record, for that matter. A roster of top-notch musicians was assembled for this project, from pianist Buck White (Skagg’s father-in-law) to steel-guitarist Weldon Myrick, who had played in Connie Smith’s band and on many of her recordings, to Dobro player Jerry Douglas, and Sharon White (Skaggs’ wife) who provided the background vocals on several tracks. And then there is Skaggs himself, providing the lead vocals and playing several instruments including guitar, mandolin and fiddle.

I’ll admit that as a teenager who had been weaned on Urban Cowboy country-pop, Ricky Skaggs was somewhat of an acquired taste for me, but once acquired, that taste was never lost. Listening to his early ‘80s work makes me hope that the current generation’s answer to Ricky Skaggs will emerge soon.

Grade: A+

Purchase Highways & Heartaches from Amazon.

Listen to Ricky Skaggs at Last FM:

Heartbroke
I Wouldn’t Change You If I Could
Highway 40 Blues
You’ve Got a Lover