My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Buddy Cannon

Album Review: George Strait — ‘Honky Tonk Time Machine’

Late last month, George Strait released his 30th studio album, his first collection of all-new music in four years. The record, entitled Honky Tonk Time Machine, is a thirteen-track set co-produced by Strait and Chuck Ainlay.

Strait wrote six of the album’s tracks along with his most frequent co-writers — his son Bubba and Dean Dillion. The strongest of the songs is the affecting ballad “The Weight of the Badge,” a beautiful tribute to our everyday law enforcement officers. Also excellent is lead single “Every Little Honky Tonk Bar,” which Occasional Hope reviewed last month.

The trio’s remaining co-writes are very good. “Blue Water” is about longing for escapism from our modern world. He sings about a “Sometimes Love” he can’t seem to forget and shows his woman he’ll always be there on “Take Me Away.” The outlier is “Código,” which serves as little more than a commercial for a brand of tequila Strait has an investment in.

“What Goes Up,” a nice spiritual ballad about leaning on God, was co-written by father and son and Jeff Hyde. They branched out even further, bringing in Willie Nelson and Buddy Cannon for “Sing One with Willie,” a duet with Nelson. The track is pure honky-tonk and while the melody is delightful, the lyric boards on cutesy.

Bubba also has some co-writes of his own. “Some Nights” is a mid-paced ballad about getting over a lost love. The title track is a barnburner in the same vein as “Heartland.”

The remaining tracks were penned by outside writers. The spiritual “God and Country Music,” which laments about the only things worth saving, was co-written by Luke Laird, Barry Dean, and Lori McKenna. “Two More Wishes” reunites him with Jim Lauderdale. The results are just as you would expect. The final track is a fine cover of Johnny Paycheck’s “Old Violin,” on which you can hear off of Strait’s life experience coming out in his vocal.

Honky Tonk Time Machine is a fine addition to Strait’s catalog. It’s refreshing to hear his voice and perspective again.

Grade: B+ 

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Album Review: Reba McEntire – ‘Stronger Than The Truth’

Back in the 1980s Reba McEntire was the leading female neo-traditionalists as well as the best selling female artist of her generation. Then around the time of her second marriage, to music industry executive Narvel Blackstock, her music began to take a more contemporary turn, one which became more pronounced as the 90s wore on. It brought her a new fanbase and enormous sales, but many of her older or more traditional-leaning fans regretted her choices.

Then a couple of years ago, after Reba’s marriage came to an end she chose to make a wonderful album of religious material, much of which harked back to older times. Now her first studio album is=n several years shows a definite return to traditional country sounds. It has been vaunted her her most country album ever, which I would disagree with – 1984’s My Kind Of Country, whose name inspired this very blog, and 1987’s The Last One To Know, would both fit that description better. But it is undoubtedly a country album, and a very good one, produced by the estimable Buddy Cannon.

For a start, Reba calls on her Oklahoma roots with two fabulous Western Swing number. Opening track ‘Swing All Night With You’ was written by Jon Randall and Sidney Cox, and is a true dancefloor delight. She wrote the equally charming ‘No U In Oklahoma’ herself with Ronnie Dunn and Donna McSpadden.

Many of the songs are slow sad ones. Jonathan has already reviewed the lead single and title track, a subtle song about heartbreak written by Reba’s nice Autumn McEntire and Hannah Blaylock. ‘Tammy Wynette Kind Of Pain’ was written by Brandy Clark, Mark Narmore and Shelley Skidmore, and is another devastating depiction of a broken heart set to a traditional country soundtrack:

‘Standing by your man’
That’s a broken plan
When he breaks your heart and all your trust
With his two cheatin’ hands
So it’s ‘D-I-V-O-R-C-E’
And you don’t want him to see you cryin’
So you’re ‘crying in the rain’
And this is Tammy Wynette
We’re talkin’ Tammy Wynette kind of pain

There’s a sky full of tears in every single note
And every single word is wine and whiskey soaked
So I guess it’s me and her together in this alone
‘Til I can make it on my own’

Also reflecting on a failed marriage, but from the point of view of the husband, is ‘In His Mind’, which was written by Liz Hengber and Tommy Lee James based on Reba’s idea.

In ‘The Bar’s Getting Lower’, written by Kellys Collins, Erin Enderlin, Liz Hengber and Alex Kline, the unhappy protagonist settles for a one night stand when old dreams of marriage and family haven’t been realised:

Her dreams are disappearin’ like smoke from his cigarette
She hasn’t said yes but she’s thinkin’ she might
The closer it gets to closing time
A lonely heart will take a pick-up line
Anything to get her through the night

‘Cactus In A Coffee Can’ is a heartwrenching story song written by Steve Seskin and Allen Shamblin, and previously recorded by Jerry Kilgore and Melonie Cannon. Reba’s version is superb, and the arrangement has a mournful feel as we hear the story of a young woman who has been reunited with the drug addict and prostitute mother who gave her up at birth, just before the latter’s death. This might be the highlight of an excellent group of songs.

Another ballad, but a little more sophisticated AC in its feel, ‘The Clown’ is a beautifully detailed story about the horrifying moment of finding out her marriage is over in public, and having to keep a brave face on it. It was written by Dallas Davidson, Hillary Lindsey and James Slater.

The minor-keyed ‘Your Heart’, written by Kellys Collins, has a classical Spanish guitar accompaniment and is atmospheric and moody. Reba sings it beautifully, but it isn’t really a country song.

A couple of more commercial contemporary up-tempo songs are well performed if less to my personal taste, and may be included to appeal to Reba’s younger fans and possibly with an eye on radio play. ‘Storm In A Shot Glass’ is quite catchy in a 90s pop country way. ‘Freedom’ is more of a rock ballad rejoicing over finding love.

The album closes with the gentle piano-led ‘You Never Gave Up On Me’, dedicated to Reba’s late mother.

While not quite as traditional as one might have been led to believe from the publicity, this is definitely the best thing Reba has released in decades. It is highly recommended, and a strong contender already for album of the year.

Grade: A+

Album Review: David Lee Murphy – ‘No Zip Code’

Mid-1990s hitmaker David Lee Murphy has finally shifted his attention back to his own music after a decade and a half focused on writing major hits for the likes of Kenny Chesney and Thompson Square. He produced No Zip Code, his first album since 2004, alongside Chesney and Buddy Cannon.

To ensure his comeback at radio, “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright,” a duet with Chesney, was issued as the album’s lead single. The track’s breezy escapism was cotton candy to radio programmers, who helped push the song to #1. I quite like it, although it is light, and a bit too processed. It won the pair Musical Event of the Year at the recent CMA Awards, giving Murphy his first nomination and win. They were also due to perform the song on the telecast, but a death in the family caused Chesney to have to miss the ceremony.

The album’s second single “I Won’t Be Sorry” is classic Murphy, recalling hits like “Every Time I Get Around You.” Unsurprisingly, the song is dressed for the modern era, with a blaze of electric guitars blending together to create a wall of noise that distracts from the defiant lyric.

“Way Gone” is a step in the right direction, taking the listener back to the days when the female protagonist in a song was more than an object of desire. In this case, she’s on the run, leaving her no-good man in a cloud of dust. The driving arrangement, while hideous, does give the track an adrenaline rush in keeping with the overall theme.

The title track is a pleasant ode to life so far out in the country the spot isn’t detectable on a map. The story has its appeal, but the overall mix leaves much to be desired. The cranked up loudness, do to compression of natural dynamics, gives the track an overall loudness that is unforgivable and unnecessary. But I do like the story and feel the song would benefit greatly from a softer arrangement.

When I was looking over the tracklist in preparation for writing this review, “As The Crow Flies” jumped out at me. Murphy co-wrote the song with Dean Dillon, Jamey Johnson, and Phil O’Donnell, and with that pedigree, it had better rise above the rest of the album. I’m sad to say, it doesn’t. The lyric, about a guy determined to follow his woman wherever she goes, is pedestrian and the overall mixing ensures the only thing the listener will focus on is the noise level of the song.

“Winnebago,” which Murphy wrote solo, is a left-over bro-country relic with all the usual tropes. “Haywire,” “Get Go,” and “That’s Alright” are just more heavily compressed uptempo rockers. “Voice of Reason” is much better, with a pleasing melody, that could’ve benefited greatly from a softer more acoustic arrangement. “Waylon and Willie (and a Bottle of Jack)” isn’t as good as its title suggests, unfortunately.

I’ve been a fan of Murphy’s since the beginning, so I was expecting great things from No Zip Code. Sure, I figured a number of the tracks would make concessions for modern commercial country, but I wasn’t expecting the whole album to have been ruined by cranked up loudness and compressed dynamics. There are some listenable songs throughout, but mostly this album is a throw-away missed opportunity. Murphy, and his longtime fans, deserve better than what’s presented here.

Grade: C-

Album Review: Jim Lauderdale – ‘This Changes Everything’

It was back to traditional country for Jim’s 2016 release This Changes Everything, recorded in Texas with a strongly Texas flavour to the music. Steel guitarist Tommy Detamore produced, and a number of Texas mainstays formed the backing band. Most of the record was produced in a single all-day session.

The opening track, written with Texan singer-songwriter Bruce Robison, is a very nice conversational, steel laden song about falling in love. It would be ideal for George Strait (who did record this record’s ‘We Really Shouldn’t Be Doing This’). Robison also co-wrote the gentle ‘There Is A Horizon’. A singer-songwriter of a more recent vintage, Hayes Carll, is the co-writer on ‘Drive’, a rather laid back sounding song about being on the road written very much in Carll’s voice.

Sunny Sweeney adds her distinctive harmony on the engaging ‘All The Rage In Paris’, about being a superstar local act – in Paris, Texas, and environs. ‘You Turn Me Around’, written with Terry McBride, is a charming Western Swing number. Buddy Cannon and Kendell Marvel joined Jim to write ‘Nobody’s Fault’, a laidback song about falling in and out of love.

‘Lost In The Shuffle’, written with Odie Blackmon, is the most delightful of several traditional country shuffles with glorious fiddle from Bobby Flores. ‘It All Started And Ended With you’, written with Frank Dycus, has a mournful feel, helped by the gorgeous steel and Jim’s plaintive wail. Dycus also co-wrote the romantic love song ‘I’ll Still Be Around’ and the sober cheating song ‘The Weakness Of Two Hearts’.

This is an excellent album which has become one of my favorites of Jim’s work.

Grade: A

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘Last Man Standing’

While Willie Nelson isn’t the last of the great country music stars of the 1950s and 1960s (Roy Clark, Jan Howard, Stonewall Jackson, Connie Smith, Charley Pride and Bill Anderson are still around), the title still seems appropriate as Willie is one of the few still active, albeit less active than previously.

Last Man Standing is the 2018 release for Willie, containing original songs co-written by Willie with the album’s producer Buddy Cannon. Most of these songs were penned shortly after the release of last year’s Nelson release God’s Problem Child.

The album opens up with the title track, a song which poses the dilemma faced by the aging – we want to keep living but there are times when it seems that all of our friends are disappearing. This is a great song that country radio won’t play but which can be heard on Sirius XM and other sources.

I don’t wanna be the last man standing

Or wait a minute maybe I do

If you don’t mind I’ll start a new line

And decide after thinking it through

Go on in front if you’re in such a hurry

Like heaven ain’t waiting for you

I don’t wanna be the last man standing

On second thought maybe I do

 

It’s getting hard to watch my pals check out

Cuts like a wore out knife

One thing I learned about running the road

Is forever don’t apply to life

Waylon and Ray and Merle and old Harlan

Lived just as fast as me

I still got a lotta good friends left

And I wonder who the next will be

The next track is “Don’t Tell Noah”, a funky number somewhat difficult to characterize, but which reminds somewhat of the sort of lyrics that Mose Allison penned. This is not a religiously themed song.

I suppose all of us have been plagued with “Bad Breath” at one time or another, but as Willie notes “bad breath is better than no breath at all”. This song features the harmonica playing of Mickey Raphael. This song is about more of the problems associated with aging.

“Me and You” reflects the state of affairs that I think everyone experiences at one time or another. For most of us, after all it really comes down to one trusted companion.

Turn the sound down on my TV

I just can’t listen anymore

It’s like I’m in some foreign country

That I’ve never seen before

 

So come now here to think about it

What in the hell are we goin to do?

after all is said and all is done

It’s just me and you

 

It’s just me and you

And we are definitely outnumbered

There’s more of them than us

Just when you think you made a new friend

They throw you under the bus

So it’s just me and you

It’s just me and you

Willie slows down the tempo for the contemplative “Something You Get Through”. This song deals with the emotional effects of loss. Mike Johnson plays some lovely steel guitar on this track.

“Ready To Roar” kicks up the tempo for this western-swing flavored track. We’ve all been there – “It’s Friday and we’re ready to roar”.

“Heaven Is Closed” is Willie’s take on reasons to keep living after his girl has left him. It’s an odd perspective but rather appropriate anyway.

Heaven is closed and hell’s overcrowded

So I think I’ll just stay where I am

So many people, well it sure is lonely

But who even gives a damn?

I hear someone callin’, “Come in from the craziness”

But there ain’t nobody around

Heaven is closed and hell’s overcrowded

So I think I’ll just stay where I am

 

Heaven left for California on a midnight plane

Hell stayed behind so I wouldn’t be lonely

For reasons that’s hard to explain

Could it be hell is heaven and that heaven is hell

And each one are both the same thing?

Well I hope heaven finds what she’s lookin’ for

And that hell treats us both just the same

“I Ain’t Got No Nothin’ “ is a rollicking mid-tempo honky-tonk ballad that might as easily been played by Fats Domino, Bob Wills, or Amos Milburn with only slight changes of instrumentation.

  I got a dog, I got a cat

An I-phone and a hip-hop hat

But I ain’t got nothin’ ’cause you ain’t here with me

 

I got house, I got a barn

A big truck and a red Jaguar

But I ain’t got nothin’ ’cause you ain’t here with me

Willie remains in this mid-tempo honky-tonk mode with “She Made My Life” then shifts gears with “I’ll Try To Do Better Next Time”, a somewhat religiously themed slow song about trying to keep to the God’s path.

“Very Far To Crawl” closes out the album, a song about the end of a relationship and the desperation of someone looking to rekindle it. The instrumentation is very bluesy and I can see this song being picked up by blues performers, should they chance to hear the song.

 I knew that you had hurt me bad

The brokest heart I ever had

And I’m still right where you let me fall

So I don’t have very far to crawl

 

You kicked me right in the heart, babe

I shouldn’t even be here at all

Tryin’ hard to get back to you

I don’t have very far to crawl

In recent years Willie would release three or four albums per year and while those days are probably gone, what we have here is an excellent album, which found Willie (mostly) good voice, accompanied by a group of musicians who truly understand what Willie is all about

I would give the album as described above an A- ; however, the version of the album I have was purchased at the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain and contains three bonus cuts that add value to the album:

The Front Row – another Nelson & Cannon collaboration that I love

Who’ll Buy My Memories – a piano and acoustic guitar remake of an older Nelson tune

Summer of Roses / December Day – also piano and acoustic guitar, originally Willie’s RCA years

Album Review: Ronna Reeves – ‘The More I Learn’

Ronna’s second album for Mercury was released in 1992. It was slightly more successful in gaining radio play, although there were still no bona fide hits.

The mid-paced title track, ‘The More I Learn (The Less I Understand About Love)’, was written by one of the most successful female songwriters of the era, Karen Staley, with Steve Dean, and it is radio friendly enough to have been a potential hit. Its #49 peak would make it the closest ever Ronna ever got to the charts.

Follow-up ‘What If You’re Wrong’, written by Austin Cunningham and Denise Davis, is a big ballad in which Ronna offers to set her a restless husband free:

If you think the magic is gone
I agree, maybe you should move on
If you’re sure that your love for me has really died
If there’s something still missing for you
Then there’s nothing more I’ll know to do
So I’ll have to go along with whatever you decide

But what if you’re wrong?

Some nice steel augments the song effectively. It peaked at a dismal #70, one place higher than the third and last single, the pacy ‘We Can Hold Our Own’, which is pleasant if unremarkable.

My favorite track is ‘Nobody Here To Love’, an excellent Bob Mc Dill ballad about the loss of love. There is a gentle Celtic feel to the fiddle arrangement on the verses behind Ronna’s vulnerable vocals, which then soar on the chorus:

I was living all alone
And though I had a heart of stone
You touched my hand and melted me
And I believed

It was you that made me see
What love could be
But I walked in today and no one was there
Now nothing matters after all

Funny how things work out
Can’t believe somehow
You could leave me now
Tell me, what were you thinkin’ of
‘Cause now that you taught me how
There’s nobody here to love

Another solid McDill tune, ‘Honky Tonk Hearts’, had been a minor hit for Dickey Lee in 1980, and was also recorded by John Anderson. Ronna’s version is pretty good. ‘I’ll Be Faithful To You’ is a sweet love song (written by Paul Kennerley) offering a second chance to someone who has been hurt by another. It was previously recorded by Don Williams. I also quite enjoyed the up-tempo ‘Heartbreak Shoes’.

‘Frontier Justice’, written by Bobby Fischer, Charlie Black and Austin Roberts, is a dramatic number in which Ronna seethes about being done wrong and lied to:

‘Cause you can’t hang ’em high
You can’t lay ’em low
The way you could a hundred years ago
When love and honor were the law of the land
If frontier justice prevailed today
My daddy and brothers would make you pay
That’s the kind of justice you’d understand

Ronna’s attitude is directed triumphantly at her lover’s ex in the upbeat ‘Bless Your Cheatin’ Heart’, an entertaining song written by Buddy Cannon and Jessica Boucher:

You know, it’s almost funny to see you standing there in tears
I just wanna thank you dear, because he no longer cares about you

You had everything you didn’t want but then somehow
He started looking good to you the minute he fell in my arms
And I’m obliged to you
And bless your cheatin’ heart

Sammy Kershaw duets with Ronna on ‘There’s Love On The Line’. Their voices work well together on this song (written by Jerry Fuller) about a separated couple laying phone tag as they try to make a connection again.

There was a lot of strong material on this album, and it’s one I enjoyed listening to.

Grade: B+

Album Review: The Oak Ridge Boys – ’17th Avenue Revival’

The Oak Ridge Boys started out as a gospel quartet, and after many years in country music have returned to their roots for this latest album, produced by Dave Cobb.

In many ways this is more of a traditional southern gospel record than a country one. It’s pretty good in that respect, although the guys’ advancing age is rather obviously showing in their vocals, particularly on the solos, although the harmonies are still stirring and they still have plenty of energy.

The opening ‘Brand New Star’, a rousing farewell to a deceased friend, is still highly enjoyable despite the vocal deficiencies. I also quite liked the traditional ‘Walk In Jerusalem’. The upbeat ‘God’s Got It, however,’ is a bit too bluesy for my taste.

‘There Will be Light’, written by Jamey Johnson, Buddy Cannon and Larry Shell, is a slow, churchy ballad with piano accompaniment. There are reverent takes on the Southern gospel hymns ‘I’d Rather Have Jesus’ and ‘Where He Leads Me I Will Follow’ which are quite effective.

A cover of Brandy Clark’s ‘Pray To Jesus’ sounds great musically with some fabulous Jerry Lee Lewis style piano and the best vocals on the album, but the semi-ironic lyrics feel out of place on this project.

Much more appropriate is the record’s most country track, Vince Gill’s Ashley Monroe co-write ‘If I Die Drinkin’’, which is emotionally sung with a gentle piano-led arrangement. This is excellent.

Also good is a cover of folk-blues legend Leadbelly’s ‘Let It Shine On Me’, which makes for an effective closing track.

One final note of disappointment: there are only nine tracks, and a total playing time of less than half an hour.

Grade: B

Album Review: Willie Nelson and The Boys: ‘Willie’s Stash, Volume 2’

This collection is a follow-up to Willie Nelson’s 2014 collaboration his sister Bobbie, December Day:  Willie’s Stash, Volume 1.   This time around Willie is teamed up with his two youngest sons, Micah and Lukas, who join him on eleven country classics and one contemporary number that leans heavily on the Hank Williams catalog.

Material-wise, there are no real surprises here.   As always when Willie Nelson records cover material, the unknown is always how much Willie will deviate from the originals.  In the case of this album, the answer is not much.   The seven Williams songs are handled reverently.   The two younger Nelsons, despite their youth, show great enthusiasm for the material and one gets the distinct impression that they have great respect and passion for, it and that these are not just a bunch of old songs that Dad forced them to record.    The three Nelsons harmonize well together, as family groups typically do, and there are some fantastic steel guitar solos courtesy of Mike Johnson.  Rarely have these old chestnuts sounded so energetic.

The one thing that did surprise me is how good Willie’s voice sounds throughout the album, with little signs of the wear-and-tear that has been apparent on some of his recent work.  From what I can gather, these recordings were made in 2011 and 2012, so that partially explains it.  However, his voice is noticeably stronger than it was on 2010’s Country Music collection for Rounder.  Whatever the reason, it’s good to hear Willie in such good vocal form.

This album could have been titled The Nelsons Sing Hank, since some of country music’s famous Hanks wrote the marjority of the album’s songs.  In addition to the seven Williams numbers (“Move It On Over”, “Mind Your Own Business”, “ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” , “Cold Cold Heart”, “Mansion on the Hill”, and “Why Don’t You Love Me”), the album contains a remake of Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On”, Hank Locklin’s “Send Me The Pillow You Dream On”, and Hank Cochran’s “Can I Sleep In Your Arms”, which is my favorite song on the album.  Set to the melody of “Red River Valley”, it was a hit in 1973 for Cochran’s then-wife Jeannie Seely, and it was later recorded by Willie for his Red Headed Stranger album in 1975.

The album is rounded out by a cover of Willie’s original composition “Healing Hands of Time” and a modern-folk tune “My Tears Fall” written by singer/songwriter Alyssa Miller.  This contemporary number fits in surprisingly wel l with these old classics and doesn’t sound out of place at all next to them.

Buddy Cannon’s production is tastefully understated and for the most part the album has a sitting around the living room jam-session type feel to it.  I cannot find any fault with it, other than to say I wish it had been released as a double album.   I highly recommend it without reservation.

Grade:  A+

Album Review: Robert Mizzell – ‘Redneck Man’

Released in 2010, Robert Mizzell’s seventh album Redneck Man contains 15 songs, the majority of them covers, but some of them relatively obscure songs. Mizzell has a strong baritone voice which does justice to the material, and he is effectively backed by an excellent band performing mostly traditional country arrangements.

Although not a songwriter himself, the one original song on the album draws directly on Mizzell’s own life story. ‘Mama Courtney’, specially written for him by Irish songwriter Henry McMahon, is a moving tribute to the loving foster parents who helped to raise him in Louisiana when his birth mother “lost her way in life”.

Us kids are all now grown up and gone our separate ways
I look back on my childhood of many happy days
And when I go back to Shreveport I place flowers on her grave
And I thank Mama Courtney for all those kids that she saved

There are many children in this world that suffered hurt and shame
I thank all the Mama Courtneys that took away their pain
God works in mysterious ways
I believe this is true
Though she had no children of her own she fostered 32…

God rest you Mama Courtney
I’ll always love you

This is a genuinely moving song, and was understandably a success for the artist on Irish country radio.

Another single for him was a duet with US country star Collin Raye on ‘Murder On Music Row’. The two singers swap lines rather than harmonising except on the odd chorus line, but they contrast well, and both sing with feeling. Perhaps as a nod to Raye, Mizzell covers ‘I’m Gonna Love You’, a fluffy novelty song written by Robert Elis Orrall, which Raye cut on his children’s album Counting Sheep. It isn’t a very good song, and adds nothing to the album.

Much better is an entertaining cover of ‘Ol’ Frank’, a tongue in cheek story song about a young trophy bride who cashes in after “he died with a smile on his face”, which George Jones recorded in the 80s. Another late Jones cut, the up-tempo ‘Ain’t Love A Lot Like That’, is pleasant but definitely filler (plus it’s far too cavalier about missing pets).

Another excellent track is ‘More Behind The Picture Than The Wall’, a traditional country ballad written by Bill Anderson, Buddy Cannon and Don Miller, about a father remembering happy times past after the death of his soldier son in action. Mizzell’s vocals do the poignant nostalgia of the song (previously recrded by bluegrass band Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver) justice.

Too soon our little family was scattered to the winds
You fell out of love with me and wouldn’t fall back in
I was sleeping by myself the night I got that call
Yeah, there’s more behind this picture than the wall

Casey died a hero, that’s what the chaplain said
We couldn’t find sweet Lorrie, I doubt she knows it yet
You and I still tortured by the memories we recall
But there’s more behind this picture than the wall

Four happy loving faces, back then we had it all

Also very good is Mizzell’s version of ‘Someone To Hold Me When I Cry’, a great Wayland Holyfield/Bob McDill song which was a hit for last month’s Spotlight Artist, Janie Fricke and has also been recorded by Don Williams and Loretta Lynn.

He adds a soulful tinge to Jamey Johnson’s ‘She’s All Lady’, a married singer’s polite but firm rebuff to a potential groupie.

Thanks for coming out to see me
I hope you liked the show
Yeah, that’s right, I settled down about six months ago
No, she ain’t here tonight, she stayed at home
Yeah, it sure does get lonely out here on the road

By looking in your eyes, I can tell what’s on your mind
Yeah, I’d love to drive you home and’ hold your body close to mine
You’re everything a man could dream of, baby
Cause you’re all woman
But she’s all lady

I met her at a Baptist church in Tennessee
She was looking for someone
I was prayin’ it was me
No, she never thought she’d fall in love with a guitar man
Oh, it took some gettin’ used to
She does the best she can
No, she don’t like to stay at home alone
No, I don’t need your number
She’s probably waitin’ by the phone…

No, it ain’t you, Lord knows you’re a sight
Yeah, I probably could
But I could never make believe it’s right
I’d rather be alone, and I know that sounds crazy
‘Cause you’re all woman
But she’s all lady
You’re all woman, but she’s my lady

The album’s title comes from a briskly delivered version of Alan Jackson’s early single ‘Blue Blooded Woman’, which opens the album. Loaded with fiddle, this is a strong cut. Darryl Worley’s minor hit ‘Tennessee River Run’ is bright and pleasant. ‘The Wind Beneath My Wings’ is a bit more well worn; Mizzell’s warm vocal sells it convincingly, but gets a little overblown towards the end.

Also on the less successful side, John Denver’s ‘Love Is Everywhere’ is forgettable, while ‘Two Ways To Fall’ once recorded by Garth Brooks sideman Ty England is quite a good song but suffers from dubious production choices with the first couple of lines horribly muffled and echoey.

Mizzell was already a reasonably well established star on the Irish country scene by this point, and in 2009 he acted as mentor to Lisa McHugh, another of the artists we are spotlighting this month, on a TV talent show. She guests here on a duet of the Randy Travis hit ‘I Told You So’; this is quite nicely sung but feels inessential. The same goes for ‘I Swear’; Mizzell sings with emotion but the arrangement feels a bit dated.

Overall I was very pleasantly surprised by this album. Mizzell has a strong voice and interprets the songs well; it’s just a shame that there was not more original material available.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘God’s Problem Child’

Although he has had to cancel a few shows lately because of illness, 83 year old Willie Nelson is still touring and releasing records at a pace which puts to shame artists a quarter of his age. His latest album is his 62st studio album, and although it is his first of brand new songs for some time, he has written a good proportion of the songs here.

Opener ‘Little House On The Hill’, written by producer Buddy Cannon’s 90-something mother Lyndel Rhodes, has a charmingly old fashioned feel. The delicate piano/harmonica ballad ‘Old Timer;, written by Donnie Fritts and Lenny Le Blanc, Is a pensive reflection on growing old and outliving friends. Understated and beautiful, this is excellent.

‘True Love’, one of a number of songs Willie wrote with Buddy Cannon, is sweetly optimistic. ‘Your Memory Has A Mind Of Its Own’ is a lovely, very traditional country tune about battling with heartbreak. Another favorite is the irony-tinged, ‘I Made A Mistake’:

I told a big lie, Lord
And then I forgot
I thought I was Jesus
And believe me I’m not
I thought I was right
And I was wrong by a lot

‘It Gets Easier’ is a plaintive ballad about love and loss. ‘Lady Luck is about compulsive gamblers.

The wrily amusing ‘Still Not Dead’ was inspired by an erroneous report of Willie’s death:

I woke up still not dead again today
The internet said I had passed away…

I run up and down the road makin’ music as I go
They say my pace would kill a normal man
But I’ve never been accused of bein’ normal anyway

More cynical, ‘Delete And Fast Forward’ is a rare venture by Willie into political commentary.

‘A Woman’s Love’ is a loungy jazz ballad written by Sam Hunter and Mike Reid:

A woman’s love is stronger than a man’s
But it can hold your heart in the palm of his hands.
It’ll keep the faith through the long dark night
It takes a woman’s love, a woman’s love
To see the light.

It’ll make you fly
Sink you like a stone,
It’ll leave you high
Or leave you all alone.
You’ll believe her word
No matter what you’ve heard
Anybody say about it
There’s no life for you without it now

Sonny Throckmorton and Mark Sherrill wrote the gentle, pretty ‘Butterfly’. Tony Joe White and Jamey Johnson wrote the title track, a gloomy blues gospel tune about failure and the enduring love of God. The pair, plus the late Leon Russell, also guest on the song.

The album closes with a touching tribute to Merle Haggard. Gary Nicholson actually wrote ‘He Won’t Ever Be Gone’, but it sounds as if Willie did, with its fond memories of both the musician and the man.

Willie is in surprisingly strong voice given his age and hectic schedule. Combined with the excellent songs included, this is a really good album by a living legend who is still at (or at least not far off) the height of his powers.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Sawyer Brown – ‘Sawyer Brown’

Sawyer Brown’s eponymous debut album, released in 1984 was their highest charting entry on the Billboard Country Albums chart, peaking at #2 and he most successful of their 1980s albums, in no doubt aided by their winning appearance on Star Search. It was produced by Randy Scruggs and spawned three hit singles: “Leona” (#16), “Step That Step” (#1) and “Used To Blue” (#3). The first two were catchy uptempo numbers that set the template for most of their subsequent singles for the next several years. “Used To Blue” proved that they could also handle ballads, though they were not generally associated with ballads in those days.

In addition to writing the band’s first #1 hit, the fluffy but catchy “Step That Step”, lead singer Mark Miller also wrote “Broken Candy”, a very nice ballad about heartbreak, loneliness and trying again. He also co-wrote the uptempo “Feel Like Me” and “It’s Hard to Keep a Good Love Down” with Randy Scruggs.

Some impressive names appear among the songwriting credits: the bluesy “Used To Blue” was written by Fred Knobloch and Bill LaBounty, “Smoking In The Rockies” — which they had performed on Star Search — was written by Buddy Cannon, Gary Stewart and Frank Dycus and “Staying Afloat” was a Don King co-write with J.D. Martin. Sawyer Brown’s origins can be traced to its members’ stint as Don King’s road band. “The Sun Don’t Shine on the Same Folks Every Time” — one of the more country sounding numbers was co-written by Mark Gray with Danny Morrison and Johnny Slate. Gray had secured a record deal with Epic around the same time and is best remembered for “Sometimes When We Touch”, his duet with Tammy Wynette.

Although the album is not particularly country sounding for the most part, it is well within the realm of what was considered country at the time. Although there are no fiddle and steel and just an occasional touch of harmonica, the album is not overproduced like a lot of other music from that era. Only occasionally do the synthesizers betray the album’s age. Sawyer Brown was not particularly taken seriously by the industry at the time and was somewhat unfairly labeled as a “bubble gum” band. It’s true that there’s nothing here as deep as “The Walk” — a big hit that they would enjoy almost a decade later — but the rest of the album is neither more nor less lightweight than anything else that was on the charts at the time. It is a highly enjoyable and solid first effort that for the most part has aged well.

Grade: A

Album Review: Alison Krauss – ‘Windy City’

51paza96cml-_ss500I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first heard that Alison Krauss was about to release a new album.  Although I have always greatly admired her talent, her choices have not always aligned with my tastes. Her penchant for extremely slow tempo songs can grow a bit dull after a while, and more often than not I have not liked her artistic stretches – her 2007 collaboration with Robert Plant, for example.  Adding to my skepticism is the fact that Windy City was to be an album covering ten classic songs; I’ve lost track of the number of artists who have released similar projects over the last decade or so.  The concept no longer holds the inherent appeal it once did.

That being said, I was very pleasantly surprised when I finally sat down to listen to Windy City.  Krauss and producer Buddy Cannon managed to avoid falling into the trap of selecting well-known songs that have been over-recorded by others, instead opting for mostly more obscure deep cuts.    Only two of the songs were familiar to me.   Also surprising was the fact that none of these songs – including the Osborne Brothers and Bill Monroe covers — is performed in a bluegrass style.  There is however, a lot of prominent pedal steel and more uptempo material than we typically hear from Alison.  It’s a very different sound for her and it is very effective.

The opening track and lead single is “Losing You”, a richly melodic ballad that is perfectly suited to Alison’s voice.  There is a subtle and tasteful string arrangement along with the pedal steel.  Originally a pop hit for Brenda Lee in 1963, at times it sounds like another more famous song that was also released that year:  Skeeter Davis’ “End of the World”.   Another Brenda Lee cover “All Alone Am I” appears later in the album.

“It’s Goodbye and So Long to You” is an uptempo number that was a hit for both The Osborne Brothers and Mac Wiseman.   The harmonies hint at its bluegrass origins, but it is performed here a straight country with just a hint of Dixieland jazz.   My favorite tune is the title track, which is also taken from The Osborne Brothers’ catalog.  I don’t know what year this song was originally released, but Alison’s version sounds like something out of the Nashville Sound era, although the strings are more restrained than what we typically heard from that period.   “Dream of Me”,  originally a hit for Vern Gosdin in 1981,  is my second favorite.

“I Never Cared For You” was written and originally recorded by Willie Nelson in 1964.  His only single for Monument Records, it was popular in Texas but not well known elsewhere.  Alison’s version has a slight Spanish flavor to it.   She also pays tribute to the great Roger Miller, overlooking some more obvious choices in favor of the ballad “River in the Rain”, which Miller wrote for the 1985 Broadway musical Big River.

The two best known songs on the album:  “Gentle on My Mind” and “You Don’t Know Me” are tailor-made for Alison.  One can imagine her singing both of these songs without even having heard her versions.    The former was made famous by Glen Campbell in 1967 (although it was not a huge chart hit for him).  The latter, written by Cindy Walker, has been recorded many times, most famously by Eddy Arnold in 1956.

The deluxe version of the album contains four extra tunes, all “live” versions of songs from the standard release.  By “live” they mean live in the studio, not live in concert.  They are all well done but not sufficiently different to really be interesting.  That is the album’s only misstep, and it’s a minor one.   There is also a Target exclusive version of the album with two more cuts:  “Til I Gain Control Again” and “Angel Flying Too Close To the Ground”.   Windy City,is an outstanding album and it deserves the support of all of us who have complained about the direction of country music in recent years.  It won’t generate any big radio hits but I do hope it sells well. I would like to hear more music in this vein from Alison in the future.

Grade: A+

Single Review: Alison Krauss- ‘Losing You’

hqdefaultFor her first solo LP in seventeen years, Alison Krauss’ prerogative was to make a country album featuring songs older than her. She enlisted the aid of Buddy Cannon, who brought the recording sessions to life in 2013. The ten-track collection, Windy City, will finally see release on February 17.

I’ve been longing for new music from Krauss ever since Paper Airplane back in 2011, hoping she would give us something new, not another ballad-driven album with Union Station. I love when she plays with tempo and texture and doesn’t rest comfortably in her signature style.

To kick off the new set, Krauss has graced us with ‘Losing You,’ the Brenda Lee classic from 1963. Lee’s hit recording, it should be noted, wasn’t a country one – it peaked top 10 in pop and adult contemporary. It’s an excellent recording, too, with Lee singing the fire out of the torch ballad, which was perfectly produced by Owen Bradley.

In approaching anything with Krauss’ voice on it, it’s very easy to be swept away by the beautiful marriage of the arrangement with her angelic vocal. The result is stunning – Cannon perfectly complements her with lush AC-leaning tones that afford her opportunity to soar. Technically, this record is perfection.

But like most cover tunes, I have trouble deciphering the newness that separates this version from the original. We all know Krauss is otherworldly, but does she bring enough of a bite to her vocal to allow us into the complexities within the lyric? Or is beauty masking our judgment towards thinking critically about the recording? I truly cannot find anything wrong with it, although I cannot get Paul tearing apart her Don Williams’ covers out of my head. I loved those (especially ‘You’re Just A Country Boy’) as much, if not more so than ‘Losing You.’

I cannot wait to see what the rest of Windy City has in store. ‘Losing You’ is a fantastic first taste of what appears is going to be another early highlight of this already interesting year.

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

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

Album Review: Craig Morgan – ‘Craig Morgan’

CraigMorganAlbumIt is hard to believe that Craig Morgan’s debut album, released by Atlantic Records, came way back in 2000. While this album proved to be a false start for the 36 year old Morgan in that Atlantic shut down its Nashville operations in 2002, the resulting album revealed the US Army veteran to be a fine singer capable of drawing both on past experiences and imagination in selling a song.

The album opens up “Paradise”, a song written by Craig with Harley Allen. The initial military cadence sets the song apart from any other song I’ve heard recently. The song tells of Craig’s experience as a soldier and how it affected his outlook on life. As the chorus to the song notes:

Once I was a soldier and not afraid to die

Now I’m a little older and not afraid to try

Everyday I’m thankful just to be alive

When you’ve been where I’ve been any kind of life

Is paradise

“Paradise was the second single released and topped out at #46, more a reflection of Atlantic’s promotional efforts than the song’s merits.

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Album Review: Randy Rogers Band – ‘Nothing Shines Like Neon’

41c2t4yC8TL._SS280After a decade on the dark side chasing mainstream success, The Randy Rogers Band has returned to its indie roots with Nothing Shines Like Neon, their first album in nearly three years. In the interests of full disclosure, I have to admit that I’m not familiar with the band’s back catalog, although I did thoroughly enjoy Randy Rogers’ side project with Wade Bowen (Hold My Beer, Vol. 1), which was reviewed by Occasional Hope last year. Though not as traditional as Hold My Beer, Neon is reportedly more rootsy than any of the Band’s four releases for Mercury and MCA, which ought to please fans who had been complaining that the band had lost its edge during its tenure in Nashville.

One of the problems with music that falls under the Americana/alt-country Red Dirt umbrella is that much of it really isn’t country and much of it is a wasteland of non-commercial material sung by those with vocals that are too rough to have any kind of mass appeal. There is always some wheat among the chaff, though it can often be difficult to separate the two. The effort is worth it, though, when an album like this one comes along. Produced by Buddy Cannon, it’s more polished than I expected. The most surprising thing about it is that 10 or 15 years ago it would have been solidly within the realm of the mainstream, though it would definitely be out of place on today’s radio next to the Sam Hunts and Jason Aldeans.

Randy Rogers co-wrote seven of the album’s tracks, two of them with producer Cannon, but the album’s best cuts are the ones contributed by outside songwriters, starting with the opening track, the fiddle-led “San Antone” written by Keith Gattis. I particularly enjoyed “Things I Need to Quit”, which follows the tried-and-true theme of comparing an ex-lover to bad habits that need to be broken, in the vein of Patty Loveless’ “A Thousand Times a Day”. The mid-tempo “Old Moon New”, a Rogers co-write with Lee Thomas Miller and Wendell Mobley, sounds like something Collin Raye might have released early in his career.

The album’s best track is “Look Out Yonder”, which features beautiful harmonies by Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski. Jamey Johnson joins the band on “Actin’ Crazy”, a number about the morning after a night of tying one on, and fellow Texan Jerry Jeff Walker joins in on “Takin’ It As It Comes”, a party number that probably works better live in concert than it does on record.

The album’s weaker moments come when the band tries to be too middle-of-the-road; “Rain and the Radio”, “Neon Blues” and “Tequila Eyes” (a Cannon and Rogers collaboration with Dean Dillon) all fall into this trap. It was a little surprising to find songs like these on a Texas indie release. Perhaps the band hasn’t fully freed itself of Nashville’s shackles. Nevertheless, Nothing Shines Like Neon is a solid effort that refugees from bro-country and radio’s other atrocities are sure to enjoy.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Glen Campbell – ‘Letter To Home’

letter to homeFor his second Atlantic album, 1984’s Letter To Home, Glen turned to a new producer, Harold Shedd, and something of a new approach, deliberately aiming the album at mainstream country radio.

The concerted effort to appeal to country radio paid off. The first single, a nicely performed and tastefully arranged cover of J. D. Souther’s ‘Faithless Love’, was a top 10 country hit – Glen’s first since the theme song from movie ‘Any Which Way You Can’ in 1980. it was also the first time the song had been a hit single for anyone, although it was a decade old, having been cut by Linda Ronstadt on her classic Heart Like A Wheel album.

It was followed by Glen’s biggest country hit since 1977 – the #4 peak of ‘A Lady Like You’. This song, written by Jim Weatherly and Keith Stegall, is a solemn AC leaning ballad with a pretty tune. The somewhat tinny keyboard backing has dated a bit, but the vocal is impeccable. Disappointingly ‘(Love Always) Letter To Home’, a charming Carl Jackson song which lent its title to the album and which was released as the album’s last single, only made it to #14.

The beautiful Paul Kennerley ballad ‘I’ll Be Faithful To You’ has been recorded by others, including Don Williams and Marie Osmond, and even making an appearance on the third volume of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ (featuring Kennerley’s former wife Emmylou Harris), but I don’t believe anyone ever released it as a single, which definitely seems like a missed opportunity, because it’s a lovely song. Glen’s version may just be the best of all of them, sincerely sweet and tender, and deeply romantic.

He reflects on the vicissitudes of stardom in a brace of tunes. The wistful lullaby ‘Goodnight Lady’ (written by Buddy Cannon and Steve Nobels) is pretty, as it voices a touring musician’s wistful longing for the loved one back home. ‘After The Glitter Fades’, about the loneliness lying behind stardom, is a cover of a minor pop hit for Stevie Nicks, one of the members of rock band Fleetwood Mac. It suits Glen pretty well. ‘Tennessee’, a Micheal Smotherman-penned tribute to the state, is a bit repetitive melodically but has an attractive feel to it

The mid-tempo ‘Leavin’ Eyes’ is very dated mid-80s country pop, although Glen does invest it with some energy. It was the first cut for its writer, Ted Hewitt. The beaty ‘Scene Of The Crime’, written by Carl Jackson and T Kuenster, also has a dated arrangement, but is quite catchy.

The set ends with an ethereal version of ‘An American Trilogy’, Mickey Newbury’s medley of three historic tunes reflecting American history and the long shadow cast by the Civil War: the now controversial ‘Dixie’, the spiritual-turned 1960s Civil Rights anthem, ‘All My Trials’, and the Battle Hymn Of The Republic.

This is a pretty good album, but one which does not stand with the very best of Glen’s work – apart from the gorgeous ‘I’ll be Faithful To You’, which I would recommend to anyone.

Grade: A-

Album Review: George Strait – ‘Cold Beer Conversation’

cold beer conversationAlbums these days are usually announced well in advance, with much anxious testing of the waters and delays if singles under-perform. So it was a big shock when George Strait suddenly released his new album on iTunes with just a few days’ notice. It is his first album since retiring from the road, although he simultaneously announced a short Vegas residency.

‘Let It Go’, the first single, sadly showed that country radio has moved on [from real country music] and there is no longer a place for the most consistent hitmaker of the past 35 years. A relaxed tune about taking life as it comes, it was written by Strait with son Bubba and Keith Gattis.

The same trio teamed up with old friend Dean Dillon to write one of the standout songs. ‘Everything I See’, a touching tribute to Strait’s late father John Byron Strait, who died in 2013. The tasteful production support the thoughtful lyrics. Dillon also wrote the gently philosophical defence of faith and optimism, ‘Even When I Can’t Feel It’, with Ben Hayslip and Lee Miller.

The title track, and new single, was written by Hayslip with Jimmy Yeary and Al Anderson, and is a nicely observed conversational number expressing more homespun philosophy. There is a delightful Western Swing confection (written by George and Bubba with Wil Nance and Bob Regan), ‘It Takes All Kinds’, on the theme of mutual tolerance.

Jamey Johnson contributed a couple of songs. The tongue-in-cheek jazzy ode to booze which is ‘Cheaper Than A Shrink’, written with Bill Anderson and Buddy Cannon, was previously recorded by Joe Nichols and is pretty good. Johnson’s other song here, written with Tom Shapiro, ‘Something Going Down’, is a gorgeously seductive and tender love song.

The gently regretful ‘Wish You Well’ is set on a Mexican island resort, with the protagonist set on drinking away his regrets over lost love.

The one real mis-step, ‘Rock Paper Scissors’, written by Bubba with Casey Beathard and Monty Criswell, has a loud rock arrangement which completely overwhelms George’s vocals on what might be a decent breakup song underneath the noise. The Keith Gattis song. ‘It Was Love’ is also over produced in terms of my personal taste, but that fact rather fits the lyrics, which deal with the overpowering nature of young love.

I really liked the mid-tempo ‘Goin’ Goin’ Gone’, a Gattis co-write with Wyatt Earp. It deals with partying over the weekend as a way to forget the protagonist can barely make ends meet on his weekly wage. A likeable bar room chorus adds to the everyman atmosphere:

I put in my forty and they take out way too much
The same old story, same old brown-bag homemade lunch
Might not be the big dream but I guess I can’t complain
It pays the rent but that’s about all that it pays…
Ain’t got no 401
Ain’t got no benefits
They don’t hand out stock options
Not down here in the pits
But I got Ol’ Glory hanging by my front porch light
Might not be the perfect world
But then again, it might

..
I’m overdue so throw it on the card
Bartender, keep it open
I’m just gettin’ started
Come Monday mornin’ I just might be overdrawn
But it’s Friday night so I’m goin’, goin’… gone

The mid-tempo ‘Stop And Drink’ is another celebration of drinking as a way of coping with the annoyances of everyday life.

‘Take Me To Texas’, written by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, was originally recorded for the soundtrack to Texas Rising, a TV miniseries dramatising the Texan Revolution against Mexico in the 1830s. It works okay as a standalone song, expressing pride in the
protagonists’ Texas family roots.

Grade: A

Album Review: Alabama – ‘Mountain Music’

mountain musicThe band’s third album for RCA, 1982’s Mountain Music, was produced by the band with Nashville veteran Harold Shedd. It continued the recipe as before, with similarly successful results.

All three singles were chart toppers, starting with the title track. Opening with the strains of a solo harmonica (played by Michael Douchette), and then a short verbal imitation of an elderly countryman by the band’s roadie Bob Martin, Randy Owen’s song, inspired by his memories of growing up in the shadow of Lookout Mountain, Alabama, paints an idyllic picture of a rural Southern childhood. It is an unexpectedly charming mixture of country-rock and bluegrass influences, with bright effervescent fiddle alongside the electric guitar. There are great harmonies, with Teddy Gentry and Jeff Cook getting a few solo lines to boot.

The second single was competently performed but not at all country sounding (and not to my taste). ‘Take Me Down’ was a cover of a failed pop single by the band Exile (who soon afterwards decamped to country music) also got some pop airplay for Alabama, reaching the top 20 on that chart.

Finally, ‘Close Enough To Perfect’ is a very nice romantic ballad, with a sweet string arrangement.

There are a couple of excellent songs among the remaining tracks. The dramatic ‘Words At Twenty Paces’, which applies Western movie metaphors to a troubled romance, was written by troubadour High Moffatt:

Just like a Western movie
A challenge has been made
A shot was fired in anger
And pride stepped off the train
Won’t we ever stop this
Killin’ me and you,
Till our hearts are up on Boot Hill
And there’s nothing we can do.

Words at twenty paces,
Anger at high noon
This house ain’t big enough for both of us
it’s comin’ soon
We’ll finish off our happiness
And run hope out of town
With words at twenty paces, Lord,
It’s love we’re gunnin’ down.

How did we ever lose
The dreams we used to share?
The gentle touch, the words of love,
The way we used to care
Sometimes your words
Cut like a bullet in my side
Oh, which is more important
Wounded hearts or wounded pride?

I got my ammunition
I know you got yours too
We know each other’s weakness
Lord, the damage we can do
Why can’t we just step aside
And put our guns away
Let love come like a cavalry
Ride in and save the day

Had it been recorded a few years later, it would have been prime fodder for a video treatment. The arrangement is contemporary country, and works well.

‘Changes Comin’ On’ was written by Dean Dillon, Buddy Cannon and Jimmy Darrell, and chronicles the changes in music and American society since the 1960s. It is an excellent song, and Alabama’s version is great – for the first three and a half minutes. Unfortunately, the track then goes “on and on and on” (as they sing themselves) for the same length of time again, without actually going anywhere. Pointless and self indulgent.

Jeff Cook’s vocals are mediocre compared with those of his cousin Randy Owen, but he got his chance to sing lead on two songs here, both heavier of the rock than country. His own ‘Lovin’ You Is Killin’ Me’ is no better than average, while a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Green River’ is dull. Neither song is helped by the monotonous vocal.

Teddy Gentry takes the lead on his own ‘Never Be One’, a sentimental ode to a toddler daughter, which is sweet to the border of saccharine. The child makes a small cameo appearance. In a complete change of tone, the faux sexy ‘You Turn Me On’ (written by Gentry and Owen) features an overdone Conway Twitty impersonation (although Randy sings the verses pleasantly enough).

The record closes with the enjoyably rowdy ‘Gonna Have A Party, written by Kieran Kane (future member of The O’Kanes’), 60s rocker Bruce Channel, and Cliff Cochran.

Mountain Music was the group’s first album to hit the platinum mark, and has now sold five times that. It’s a bit of a mixed bag in terms of material, but has some pretty good tracks.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard – ‘Django & Jimmie’

django and jimmieDjango & Jimmie is the latest endeavor by the ageless comrades Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. While the title suggests an album of songs made famous by Django Reinhart and Jimmie Rodgers, the Django part of the equation would be impossible to pull off since Django was a Gypsy guitarist whose musical compositions were instrumentals, “Nuages” being the most famous.

Instead what we have is an album of interesting songs, mostly new but some old, and taken from a variety of sources.

The Django connection for Willie Nelson is quite strong; you can hear it every time Willie plays his guitar. While Willie is an excellent guitar player, he is not in Django’s class (almost no one is) but listen to some Django recordings and you will know why Willie’s guitar playing sounds like it does.

As for Merle’s connection to Jimmie Rodgers, Merle and those such as Lefty Frizzell who influenced Merle, grew up with the music of Jimmie Rodgers. At the height of his commercial prowess in 1969 (he released six albums in 1969), Merle felt strongly enough about the music of Jimmie Rodgers that he recorded a two album set that he got Capitol Records to release. Ken Nelson, Merle’s producer must have cringed at the idea of releasing a two album set of blues, yodels, thirties pop music, Hawaiian music and parlor songs but release it he did. Nelson also put Rodgers’ “California Blues” as the B side to “Hungry Eyes”.

Surprisingly, the title song “Django and Jimmie” was not written by either Willie or Merle, coming instead from the pens of Jimmy Melton & Jeff Prince. In this jog-along ballad, Willie and Merle discuss where their styles came from

W

illie I’m a kid with a guitar
Trying to play “Nuages”, when they ask
Where does your style come from?

Merle I know what you mean
‘Cause I learned to sing
Listening to blue, yodel number one

Willie We love Hank and Lefty
Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, and Johnny Cash
But if we had to pinpoint
The start of who we are
Or who we go by

Both The Django and Jimmie
Paris, Mississippi
A young singing brakeman
A jazz playing gypsy
Might not have been
A Merle or a Willie
If not for a Django and Jimmie

The rest of the album really has nothing to do with Django or Jimmie, except to the extent that Django and Jimmie flavor all of their music.

“It’s All Going To Pot” has nothing to do with marijuana but instead comments on the general state of the world and the state of their own lives. The song was written by Buddy Cannon, Jamey Johnson and Larry Shell with Jamey joining Merle and Willie in vocalizing. The song is very upbeat in tempo with some Mariachi horns (played by Jamey Johnson):

Well, it’s all going to pot
Whether we like it or not
The best I can tell
The world’s gone to hell
And we’re sure gonna miss it a lot
All of the whiskey in Lynchburg, Tennessee
It just couldn’t hit the spot
I gotta hundred dollar bill, friend
You can keep your pills
‘Cause it’s all going to pot

“Unfair Weather Friend” is a gentle ballad about friendship. Penned by Marla Cannon-Goodman and Ward Davis, the song is the flip of the concept of fair weather friends.

“Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash” is a recent Merle Haggard composition on which Merle and Willie and Bobby Bare swap lyrics and stories about Johnny Cash. The song is an affectionate look back at their departed friend. This is another jog-along ballad that probably cannot be covered in a believable manner by anyone else. Here’s one of Willie’s verses:

Well now Johnny Cash wore black attire
And he fell into that Ring of Fire
He came up swinging like a Boy Named Sue
And he married June Carter and he [?] too
He wrote his songs from deep within
And he hit the stage with a crooked grin
He and I were both Highwaymen
And that record became a smash
Well I’m missing ol’ Johnny Cash

Here’s Bobby Bare’s verse:

Johnny Cash never walked no line
Johnny Cash never did no time, but
When he sang a Folsom Prison Blues
You knew good and well he’d paid his dues
True, he always dressed in black
But he loved folks and they loved him back
Carried his pills in a brown paper sack
Well I don’t care if they found his stash
I’m missin’ old Johnny Cash

Shawn Camp and Marv Green wrote “Live This Long” and I suspect that they wrote it specifically for this album. Another slow ballad, this song look backward at life and what might have done differently if the narrators had known that they would live this long.

“Alice In Hula Land” is a Willie Nelson-Buddy Cannon co-write. As performed here, the song is yet another slow ballad, but with a very Hawaiian sound. As best as I can tell, this song is about a groupie, although I may be very mistaken in my interpretation.

Alice in Hulaland
Come sit here on the front row
And get close to the sound
As close as you can
Are you there for the melody?
There for the lyrics?
Or just for the boys in the band?

“Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” is the Bob Dylan classic from treated as a straight-ahead country ballad with steel guitar featured prominently (Mike Johnson &/or Dan Dugmore) and harmonica by Mickey Raphael featured at points in the song also.

“Family Bible” was one of Willie’s first successful songs. Willie sold the rights to the song so the songwriter credits read Claude Gray, Paul Buskirk and Walt Breeland. Merle sings the verses on this song while Willie limits himself to playing the guitar and singing harmony on the choruses. THis is a very nice recording, perhaps my favorite recording of the song.

WIllie Nelson and Buddy Cannon collaborated on “It’s Only Money”. I don’t know who Renato Caranto is, but his saxophone work. Mike Johnson’s dobro and Jim “Moose” Brown’s keyboards really shine on this up-tempo song.

“Swinging Doors” was a huge Merle Haggard hit in 1966. If you ever wondered how Willie Nelson would tackle the song, here’s your chance to find out. Willie and Merle swap verses on this one.

“This Is Where Dreams Come To Die” is yet another Willie Nelson – Buddy Cannon composition. This slow ballad would make a lovely single in a less brain-dead musical environment.

This is where dreams come to die
This is where dreams come to die
Then they fly back to heaven
But this is where dreams come to die

They’re fun when you dream them
Everyone is laughing at you
And it’s fun, watching them wonder
And all of the dreams are coming true

“Somewhere Between” is a old Merle Haggard song from 1967, an album track from his 1967 album Branded Man. Suzy Bogguss had a nice recording of the song about twenty years ago, but the song never has been a big hit for anyone, being mostly relegated to being an album track on countless albums. Willie sings the vocals on this one.

Somewhere between your heart and mine
There’s a window that I can’t see through
There’s a wall so high that it reaches the sky
Somewhere between me and you

I love you so much, I can’t let you go
And sometimes, I believe you love me
But somewhere between your heart and mine
There’s a door without any key

Yet another Willie Nelson-Buddy Cannon song is next, a cowboy western ballad titled “Driving The Herd”. The subject matter seems self-explanatory, but the song can be interpreted either as a song about a cattle drive, or a song about a singer gauging his audience.

The album closes with “The Only Man Wilder Than Me”, another recent Merle Haggard composition that could be about either Merle or Willie in their younger days. The tempo is that of a slow ballad.

This album is fine – although older, Willie’s voice is in better shape than Haggard’s, but the band is tight, the songs are very good and the songs are treated with proper respect. It’s pretty clear that neither artist has an ego problem because the ebb and flow between Willie and Merle couldn’t be better

Grade: A-