My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Carl Jackson

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Trouble Free’

Rhonda’s second Giant album took broadly the same approach as its predecessor. Producers James Stroud and Richard Landis provide sympathetic backings for Rhonda’s sparkling vocals. Sadly, however, country radio had begun its move in a poppier direction following the crossover success of Shania Twain, and Rhonda’s music was just a little too traditional for the time.

‘What More Do You Want From Me?’ (written by Bob Regan and Mark D. Sanders) was the only single, and it failed to gain enough airplay to chart. That was a shame, because it’s an excellent up-tempo song with some attitude and banked harmonies as Rhonda bemoans her lot to the personification of Love.

The opening ‘Somebody’, written by Al Anderson and Robert Ellis Orrall, sounds as though it was recorded with an eye on chart potential. It is well sung but feels a bit generic (despite Alison Krauss’s harmony), and is the only disappointing moment. Another song written by Orrall, this time with Curtis Wright and Billy Spencer, the wistful lost-love ‘If I Could Stop Loving You’, is better.

‘It Ain’t Nothin’ New’ is a lovely duet with Randy Travis, written by Larry Cordle, Larry Shell and Betty Keys. Randy’s voice is at its best, and the pair’s voices meld extremely well, while the song is a sweet look at the hard work developing a relationship and keeping it alive once the shine has worn off a little, and affirming their love. It is one of my favorite tracks, with some beautiful fiddle. The love song ‘You Beat All I’ve Ever Seen’ was written by the winning combination of hitmaking songwriter Kostas, veteran Melba Montgomery, and Kathy Louvin (daughter of Ira). It has a pretty melody and a sweet and sincerely delivered lyric.

Melba Montgomery wrote ‘An Old Memory (Found Its Way Back Home Again)’ with Jerry Salley. This is a delightful up-tempo number with Rhonda wryly facing the revival of feelings she thought she had left behind, with an unexpectedly cheerful feel as she attacks the lyric, comparing her ex’s memory to
an old dog that you drop off just outside of town, uninvited, comin’ back anyhow.

The vibrant up-tempo title track was written by Carl Jackson and Jerry Salley, and is also highly enjoyable. Rhonda triumphantly denies that her ex’s departure has caused her any sleepless nights. The sunny ‘The Blues Ain’t Workin’ On Me’ was written by George Teren and Tom Shapiro, and features a cameo from Dolly Parton on harmony.

‘When I’m Through Fallin’ Apart’ written by Michael Huffman, Gene Dobbins and Bob Morrison, is another good song, with Rhonda deferring a promising new prospect for new romance until she has got over the last one.

The John Jarrard/Kenny Beard-penned ballad ‘At The Corner Of Walk And Don’t Walk’ has a lovely traditional feel and tune with some atmospheric steel guitar underpinning the melancholic mood, although the metaphor feels a little forced. The underlying story, with the protagonist calling from a payphone as she has second thoughts about leaving, and uncertain whether her future lies with or without her lover, is still good, and Rhonda’s vocal is excellent, making this another favourite of mine.

The album was no more successful than its predecessor, and it marked the end of Rhonda’s flirtation with mainstream country music. It is however, a very fine album which has a lot to appeal to country fans.

Grade: A

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Written In The Stars’

It is unfortunate that the fledgling Giant label was the label chosen to break Rhonda Vincent into mainstream country music. Giant was one of Nashville’s many “flatfish” labels (it starts up, flounders around for a while and then disappears) and didn’t have the marketing muscle to promote Rhonda’s music properly. That notwithstanding, Written In The Stars is a very good album, well recorded with Ms. Vincent’s vocals front and center in the mix and a cast of supporting musicians comprised from Nashville’s A-List.  Rhonda is in excellent voice and the album is well laid out in terms of tempo and style variations. The album was released in October 1993.

The album opens up with an up-tempo number, “What Else Could I Do”, which was released as the second single from the album. I am not sure why this song failed to chart as it has engaging lyrics and a memorable melody (supplied by Curtis Wright and Robert Ellis Orrall) and Rhonda nails the lyrics:

I wasn’t looking to jump into love

But I had no choice when your push came to shove

I guess I should not be surprised that I fell for you

Tell me, what clse could I do?

“Written In The Stars” follows. This song is a slow ballad, also from the pen of Robert Ellis Orrall. The lyric takes us to a place many of us have been:

I guess the love written ever so deep in my heart

Was not written in the stars

Another up-tempo romp, “Ain’t That Love” follows, this time from the pen of noted songwriter Kostas. This is one of my two favorite songs from this album. This song has more of a bluegrass sound and feel to it than most of the songs on this album.

Harley Allen penned “In Your Loneliness”,  treated here as a slow ballad. Harley was a gifted songwriter, but this is just another song.

“Mama Knows the Highway” was a #8 single released in June 1993 by Hal Ketchum. Written by Pete Wasner and Charles John Quarto, the song fits Rhonda’s style well. This might have made a good single for Rhonda if Hal hadn’t gotten to it first.  “When Love Arrives” is another slow ballad from the pen of Harley Allen. Again, in my opinion it’s just another song.

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Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Timeless And True Love’

Rhonda’s fourth and last album for Rebel (another 1991 release) heralded the move she was about to make into straight country music. Produced by Rhonda with brother and band member Darrin and Ronny Light, it was her best effort to date with a nice collection of material, although many of the songs were covers, some of them surprisingly recent country songs given a tasteful bluegrass or semi-bluegrass treatment. A ballad-dominated set, whose songs were picked out with the assistance of the great songwriter Jim Rushing (although he did not write any of them himself), this is basically a bluegrass influenced country album rather than a pure bluegrass one, with piano, drums, steel and electric guitar added to the basic bluegrass band, although the instrumentation is mainly acoustic and bluegrass-sounding with Rhonda’s mandolin much in evidence. Guests include banjo stars Allison Brown and Bela Fleck.

The beautiful title track was previously recorded by The McCarters, a sister trio who had a top 5 country hit with it in 1987. A sunny version of ‘Birmingham Turnaround’, a song written by Sanger D Shafer and Warren Robb which had been cut on Keith Whitley’s 1988 classic Don’t Close Your Eyes, opens the set in straight bluegrass style. Neither of these quite matches the originals, but they are agreeable listening nonetheless.

The best of the covers is a charming version of another Sanger D Shafer co-write, ‘I Do My Cryin’ At Night’, an old Lefty Frizzell song, which works well for Rhonda. Another favorite track is ‘I’m Not That Lonely Yet’, a lovely traditional country song written by Bill and Sharon Rice about the hard process of getting over an ex, and resisting the temptation of getting back together with him. It was a #3 hit single for Reba McEntire in 1982.

‘Midnight Angel’ is not the country song recorded by both Barbara Mandrell and Highway 101, but an excellent plaintive number written by two of the finest bluegrass songwriters, Pete Goble and Bobby Osborne, but given a classic country arrangement. Steel guitar dominates as Rhonda addresses the title character, her errant spouse who spends the nights preying on other women while she waits unloved at home.

‘Let’s Put Love Back To Work’, written by Larry Cordle and Mark Collie, is an attractive love duet sung with bluegrass singer David Parmley (credited only as a harmony vocalist), The lovely sounding ‘Artificial Tears’ features prominent harmonies from Alison Krauss. Despite the sweetness of the music, Rhonda gives an ultimatum to a partner unwilling to show his true feelings and pretending to be upset about her leaving.

‘Lucinda’ is a story song painting a picture of a kindly truck stop waitress who, having her own lover taken from her, lives vicariously through the truckers’ tales. Another story song, ‘Bobby And Sarah’ relates a love story from teenage romance to marriage and babies.

‘Homecoming’ is a pretty Carl Jackson gospel song about the promise of heaven. ‘Moving On’ is an early Irene Kelley song, written with Nancy Montgomery, pleasant but not that memorable.

Rhonda plays both mandolin and fiddle on the record, and showcases her skills on a self-composed instrumental, ‘Cherry Jubilee’.

This is a fine record which reveals Rhonda at a time when she was planning to spread her wings beyond bluegrass. The vocals are not quite as golden as on her later records, but the overall package is very good indeed.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘A Dream Come True’

A Dream Come True was Rhonda Vincent’s second solo album, and also her second album for Rebel Records, a Roanoke Virginia label that already had a long and distinguished history of preserving and presenting bluegrass music.

Rebel certainly put their best foot forward with this album, assembling a fine cast of musicians to augment Rhonda’s usual supporting cast, with such great musicians as Jerry Douglas (dobro) and Roy Huskey (bass) plus some other guests appearing on selected tracks. Carl Jackson, Kathy Chiavola , Wayland Patton and Tensel Davidson provide vocal harmonies throughout the album.

The album opens up with “Kentucky Sweetheart”, an uptempo romp by bluegrass stalwarts Carl Jackson and Tony King. Blaine Sprouse plays fiddle on this track. The vocal harmonies on this track are somewhat reminiscent of those of the Osborne Brothers during the 1960s. “We Were Almost Like A Dream Come True” is slow ballad co-written by Larry Cordle, a very pretty and wistful song.

One doesn’t think of Pat Alger as a bluegrass songwriter and he isn’t. That said, “Lone Star State of Mind” definitely works as a bluegrass song. This song is performed at a medium fast tempo.

What would a bluegrass album be without a religious song ? The song chosen for this album is a pretty tune titled “Mama’s Angels” from the recently departed Charlie Louvin. Rhonda does a really nice job with this song. David Parmley provides the harmony vocal.

“Wishing Well Blues” is a wistful medium slow ballad which gives Rhonda some opportunity to show off her mandolin playing. “Just For Old Time’s Sake” is a vocal duet with one of Nashville’s finest voices in Jim Ed Brown. I really love this song – Jim Ed and Rhonda harmonize beautifully – and having the great John Hartford playing banjo doesn’t hurt either.

“Break My Heart” is a somewhat generic uptempo number, in that the song itself is nothing special. Rhonda and her cast sound just fine on this number.

Steve Earle and Jimbeau Hinson penned “A Far Cry From You”, a song which was a minor hit for Connie Smith. Today, Rhonda is one of the few vocalists I would compare to Connie Smith, but when this album was recorded in 1989, she was still developing her style. This is not a criticism as Rhonda does an excellent job with this song, but I think if she recorded it today it would be better still.

Jennifer McCarter and Carl Jackson penned “Love Without A Trace”. Jennifer McCarter was the lead singer of the McCarters, a sister act whose music harkened back to a much earlier style of music. This track is a bit more modern sounding than the music of the McCarters, but it has a lovely and intricate harmony arrangement reminiscent of some older musical styles. Blaine Sprouse plays fiddle on this track.

“Goin’ Gone” is another Pat Alger tune that Kathy Mattea took to #1 in early 1988. I love the arrangement on this tune with Blaine Sprouse and John Hartford doing their thing in a very tasteful manner. It’s a tossup as to whether I like this version better than Mattea’s version.

Allen Reynolds is better known as a producer for such artists as Crystal Gayle, Emmylou Harris and Garth Brooks, but he is also a talented songwriter and “Till I’m Fool Enough To Give It One More Try” is a nice medium fast tempo ballad that Rhonda handles to perfection.

Closing out the set is “Sundown”, an instrumental written by Ms Vincent herself. In recent years Rhonda has developed into quite an accomplished songwriter but at this stage of her career she was relying on others for material. This song provides a nice closing to the album and gives Rhonda a chance to let her pickers shine a little.

A Dream Come True is not Rhonda’s best album, but it is a very entertaining album and shows Rhonda as a recording artist of considerable promise. The powerful rafter-rattling vocals would come later as would her development as a songwriter and development of a sense of humor in her music, only hinted at here and there on this album. This was the first Rhonda Vincent album I purchased, the one that served to get me hooked on Ms. Vincent’s remarkable talents.

This album is somewhere in the range of B+/A-.

Favorite country songs of the 1980s, Part 3

The 1980s got off to a poor start with the early 1980s producing some of the lamest country music ever recorded, as the Urban Cowboy movie wreaked havoc on the genre. Fortunately, there was still good country music being released. The first flowering of the late 1980s “New Traditionalist” movement arrived in 1981 with the first hits of Ricky Skaggs and George Strait, but they remained outliers until 1986 as far as good new artists were concerned. The latter part of the decade, however, produced some truly excellent country music with the 1986 arrival of Randy Travis and company.

Here are some more songs that I liked and remember. See if you recall any of these records.

Blue Blooded Woman
Alan Jackson
This 1989 ballad was the opening salvo for the career of Alan Jackson. While the song only reached #45, the next year it was released as the flip side of Alan’s first top five record “Here In The Real World”.

She’s Gone, Gone, GoneCarl Jackson
This 1984 cover of a Lefty Frizzell classic reached #44, the top chart performance for an incredibly talented musician better known for his work in bluegrass/ Americana.

Innocent Lies
Sonny James
After a two year chart absence, the Southern Gentleman resurfaced on the Dimension label for one last top twenty tune in early 1982. According to Billboard, Sonny had and forty-three top tens recordings of which twenty-three went all the way to the top.

Just Give Me What You Think Is FairTommy Jennings with Vern Gosdin
Tommy was Waylon’s younger brother. This was the biggest of his three chart hits, reaching #51 in mid-1980.

Theme From The Dukes of Hazzard
Waylon Jennings
Fess up – we all watched the show, mindless as it was at times . This song would reach the top slot in the fall of 1980, also reaching #21 on Billboard’s Pop Charts.

North WindJim & Jesse with Charlie Louvin
This song reached #56, a very good showing for a bluegrass act in 1982.

Give Me Wings Michael Johnson
The late 1970s-early 1980s were Johnson’s peak as a pop artist with “Bluer Than Blue”, reaching #12 Pop/#1 Easy Listening in 1978. A very talented guitarist and songwriter, Johnson found himself classified as country during the mid-1980s although his basic style remained unchanged. “Give Me Wings” and its follow up “The Moon Is Still On Her Shoulders” would both reach #1 in 1987.

Wine Colored RosesGeorge Jones
The 1980s were a huge decade for King George with three number one records and another fifteen songs that reached the top ten. George is at his best with sad songs and this wistful ballad from 1986 is one of my favorites.

Two Story House George Jones & Tammy Wynette
No longer a married couple, George and Tammy still had enough vocal chemistry to take this 1980 entry to #1 on Cashbox. There would be one more single released on Epic but this marked the end for a remarkable duo.

Why Not MeNaomi & Wynonna Judd
I was not a big fan of the Judds, but I liked this #1 record from 1984.

It’s Who You Love Kieran Kane
Basically an Americana artist, this 1982 hit was one of only two top twenty records Kane would have as a solo artist. A few years later he would be part of a more successful duo.

Thank God For The RadioThe Kendalls
I have no idea why the Kendalls faded away during the 1980s as I would have expected the “New Traditionalist” movement to have resurrected their career. The Kendalls had already started to fade away when this 1984 #1 hit returned them to the top ten for one last visit. Jeannie Kendall is about as good a female vocalist as the genre has seen in the last thirty years.

Oklahoma BorderlineVince Gill
It took Vince a while for his solo career to take off after leaving Pure Prairie League. This song reached #9 in early 1986 and was his second top ten recording. The really big hits would start in 1990 with “When I Call Your Name”.

Walk Softly On This Heart of Mine Kentucky Headhunters
This rocked up cover of a Bill Monroe song landed the group their first top thirty hit in 1989. While they would only have one top ten record, the Kentucky Headhunters brought something different and distinctive to county radio.

Cajun BabyDoug Kershaw with Hank Williams Jr.
This song was set to music by Hank Jr., from some lyrics he found among his father’s papers. Hank got to #3 with the song in 1969, but this time it topped out at #52.

Mister GarfieldMerle Kilgore with Hank Williams Jr. & Johnny Cash
Diehard Johnny Cash fans may remember the song from a 1960s album about the Old West. This 1982 record reached #52. Kilgore didn’t have a lot of chart success as a performer, but he wrote or co-wrote a number of huge hits for others such as “More and More”, “Wolverton Mountain” and “Ring of Fire”.

I Still Miss Someone
Don King
A nice take on a Johnny Cash classic, this 1981 recording topped out at #38 in 1981. Don King was a successful songwriter and publisher who was not wild about touring. When he quit working the road, his road band kept going, changing their name to “Sawyer Brown” and had considerable success.

Killin’ TimeFred Knoblock & Susan Anton
Fred Knoblock is a talented singer; Susan Anton was (is) really pretty. This record made it to #10 in 1981. Go figure.

They Killed HimKris Kristofferson
Most of Kris’s best songs date back to when he was a starving songwriter. This 1987 tribute to Jesus Christ, Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King was one of his few later songs that reached his earlier standards. This song deserved a better fate than to be marooned at #67 in 1987, but back then, religious (or even quasi-religious) themes were normally the kiss of death for radio.

Sweet Sexy EyesCristy Lane
The follow up to “One Day At A Time “ (Cristy’s lone #1) this 1980 single saw Cristy returning to the shimmering pop country she had been recording. This record reached #8 in late 1980. This would be Cristy’s last top ten record. She would continue to record pop country for a few more years before turning into a largely religious performer.

Lock Stock and TeardropsKathy Dawn Lang (k.d. lang)
Lang was always a little too left field to have much success at country radio. This single reached #53 in 1988, her third of five charting singles. This song was penned by Roger Miller and this recording is the quintessential recording of the song.

Lady, Lady
Kelly Lang
Her father was Conway Twitty’s road manager, she is married to T.G. Sheppard and she is a very fine singer. Despite all that, this was Kelly’s sole chart entry reaching #88 in 1982.

That’s How You Know When Love’s RightNicolette Larson with Steve Wariner
Basically a pop artist, her “Lotta Love went to #1 on the AC charts in 1978. This song reached #9 in 1986, her only top ten country record. Nicolette sang background on may pop and country recordings. She died in 1997 at the age of 45.

I Wish I Had A Job To ShoveRodney Lay
His biggest hit, this song reached #45 in 1982. Rodney was better known as a musician and was on Hee Haw for a number of years as a member of the house band.

Ten Seconds In The SaddleChris LeDoux
This song reached #96 in 1980, no small feat considering it was pressed on LeDoux’s own label and sold at rodeos. The Garth Brooks tune mentioning him was still five years in the future

Broken TrustBrenda Lee with The Oak Ridge Boys
Brenda’s last top ten record, reaching #9 in 1980. Brenda would continue to chart for another five years, but even if she had ceased charting a decade earlier, she still had a remarkable career.

Cherokee Fiddle
Johnny Lee
Johnny Lee was the ultimate beneficiary of the Urban Cowboy movie. Johnny’s career had gone nowhere in he five years prior to the movie (six chart singles, only one reaching the top twenty). “Looking For Love” kicked off a strong five year run with five #1 records and a bunch more top twenty hits. This record reached #10 in 1982 and remains my favorite of all of his records. Charlie Daniels and Michael Martin Murphey provide backing vocals on this record.

Album Review: Marty Stuart – ‘Busy Bee Cafe’

It’s common to hear today’s singers speak about their country roots, but it’s relatively rare to come across an artist who not only talks the talk but walks the walk as Marty Stuart has done. He was already a seasoned veteran at the age of 24 when his second solo album, 1982’s Busy Bee Cafe, was released. Instead of using the album as a platform to propel himself to stardom, he seems to content to share the spotlight with the many guest artists — Johnny Cash, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Merle Watson, Carl Jackson and Jerry Douglas — who contributed to the project. It perhaps should have been billed as an album by “Marty Stuart and Friends”. An acoustic and heavily bluegrass-flavored collection, it seems like an odd choice for a young artist trying to make his breakthrough. Instead, it appears to be one of those rare projects made for the love of the music, without much regard for commercial considerations.

The album contains a few traditional numbers, a few written by Marty himself, and a few more written by his musical mentors Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and Johnny Cash. Cash lends his vocals to three tracks — the album opener “One More Ride”, Lester Flatt’s “Get In Line Brother” and a remake of Cash’s 1954 hit “Hey Porter”. All three songs are billed as duets, but Cash’s vocal is much more prominent than Marty’s on “One More Ride”. “Hey Porter” is strictly a Cash vehicle; Stuart’s voice can only be heard occasionally as he gives shout-outs to the other musicians playing on the track. “Get In Line Brother” is arranged more as a vocal quartet, with Cash again dominating. Marty’s voice can be heard, but it is overwhelmed by Cash and the other two uncredited singers. Marty’s singing is more prominent on tracks like “Blue Railroad Train”, “Busy Bee Cafe”, and “Down The Road” — which features the unmistakable banjo-picking of Earl Scruggs — but he sounds very little like the singer we’re familiar with today. His voice is not as strong, nor his style as distinct. The only glimpse of the singer who would one day break through with “Hillbilly Rock” is the album’s closing track, the rockabilly-flavored “Long Train Gone.”

Though Stuart was yet to fully blossom as vocalist at the time of this album’s release, this project is more noteworthy for the picking than the singing, as evidenced in its several instrumental tracks such as “I Don’t Love Nobody”, “Watson’s Blues”, “Soldier’s Joy”, and “Boogie For Clarence”. The entire project has a feel of a bunch of friends sitting around the living room and just letting the music happen. It won’t appeal to those who don’t like bluegrass or instrumental music, but it will be very much enjoyed by those who do.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Musicians Against Childhood Cancer – ‘Life Goes On’

Musicians Against Childhood Cancer is the umbrella name for an annual charity concert by some of the best current bluegrass musicians. In 2006 a compilation of tracks recorded at the concert over the years was released in aid of St Jude’s Hospital, and this sequel contains performances from more recent years. The music was all recorded live but the excellent mixing would not be out of place in a studio set. The musicianship is without exception superb, as one might expect, and this is a fine bluegrass sampler in its own right, with a range of subject matter. The two CD-set includes a generous 39 tracks.

The outstanding track as far as I’m concerned is Bradley Walker’s cover of ‘Revelation’, a somber Bobby Braddock vision of the Second Coming which was originally recorded by Waylon Jennings and more recently served as the title track of an album by Joe Nichols. Walker’s superb 2006 debut album Highway Of Dreams has been far too long waiting for a follow up and it is good to hear him again. He is accompanied by a simple acoustic guitar backing allowing the bleakness of the song to take center stage.

I’m a fan of the compelling sibling harmony of the Gibson Brothers, and they contribute the fascinating ‘Ragged Man’, a tale of bitter sibling rivalry. The brother who is reduced to homeless poverty while the brother once preferred by their mother now rolls in riches, rails against “that golden boy” and warns him to “watch his back”. I’m also a big fan of Brandon Rickman’s soulful voice, and he teams up with bandmates from the Lonesome River band for a beautifully judged reading of the traditional ‘Rain And Snow’. Later the Lonesome River Band provide one of the best instrumentals on offer, the lively ‘Struttin’ To Ferrum’, which holds the attention all the way through.

Rhonda Vincent sings a simple but lovely, plaintive version of the traditional ‘The Water Is Wide’. She also sings harmony on Kenny and Amanda Smith’s take on gospel classic ‘Shouting Time In Heaven’. Marty Raybon is excellent on the gloomy Harlan Howard song ‘The Water So Cold’ (once recorded by country star Stonewall Jackson), which sounds made for bluegrass. Read more of this post

Album Review: Joey + Rory – ‘A Farmhouse Christmas’

Everybody’s favourite country music couple are the perfect pair to share their Christmas festivities with us. This album, their third on Sugar Hill, is designed to accompany their special seasonal live show, which sounds like the perfect evening to get you in the holiday spirit.

‘It’s Christmas Time’, last year’s charming holiday single from the duo, is a sweetly sung and neatly observed expression of the stress and joy of preparing for a family Christmas. It was written by Rory, and has typically lovely sounding production from Carl Jackson, who was responsible for their two previous albums. He was obviously busy this year, as the newly recorded material has been placed in the hands of Gary Paczosa, who has done the engineering on recent albums by the likes of Dolly Parton and Alison Krauss. His production work is excellent, and if not quite as sparkling as that provided by Carl Jackson, it is lovely and clean and focuses attention on Joey’s lovely voice. Musicians are sadly uncredited, but I was particularly struck by some nice fiddle work. The excellent Rounder artist Bradley Walker sings backing vocals on most of the album, and it would be good to hear news of a new album from him in the near future. (Incidentally, he has a track on the Mark Twain project recently produced by Carl Jackson.)

There is less self-composed material than usual for the pair, but more original songs than is customary on Christmas albums, which have a tendency to rehash the same old songs year after year. Here there are just three well known numbers, all worth revisiting. The warmth of Joey’s vocal lends a hopeful undertone to Haggard’s desperate and still-topical ‘If We Make It Through December’. For once the sweetness verges on too much, compared to the bleak original, but is counterbalanced by a gruff cameo appearance from Hag himself. Joey sings a plaintive version of the classic ‘Blue Christmas’, and she and Rory swap verses on a sincere version of ‘Away In A Manger’. The remainder of the material is either new or not very well known.

The saucy western swing ‘I Know What Santa’s Getting For Christmas’ was written by Garth Brooks and Kent Blazy but does not appear to have been previously recorded. Garth did however record ‘The Gift’, a Stephanie Davis story song on his multiple platinum Beyond The Season Christmas album almost 20 years ago. The sweet story of a little Mexican girl who nurses an injured bird back to health and sets it free as her gift to Jesus is well revived here with an attractive retro western feel, and ends with what sounds like the genuine recorded singing of a nightingale. ‘The Diamond O’ is another good Stephanie Davis song, this one about a cowboy Christmas, which allows Joey to try out her yodel.

Rory takes the lead on more songs than usual. By far the best of these is the understated ‘Remember Me, which he wrote with Tim Johnson. Rory takes the role of Jesus reminding us what the celebrations are really about, and this is one of my favourite tracks on the album. In complete contrast, I also enjoyed the bouncy and very secular ‘Come Sit On Santa Claus’ Lap’, written by Shawn Camp and Brice Long with a few lyric changes personalizing it for the couple. This is just fun.

He also sings the piano-led ‘What The Hell (It’s The Holidays)’, an amusing bluesy number written by Wynn Varble and Frank Rogers about the temptations of the Christmas table to a dieter, but one which really demands a more charismatic lead vocal. (Having been entertained by natural comedian Varble’s run on CMT’s Next Superstar this year, I’d rather like to hear his version.) Rory shows more personality on ‘Let It Snow (Somewhere Else)’, a slight but pleasant and cheery tale of a Christmas in the Caribbean, which seems to be this year’s Christmas single (at least, there’s a video). It was written by Rory with Tom Johnson and James Slater and sounds as though it was intended for a Kenny Chesney Christmas album, complete with Jimmy Buffett reference. Rory sounds a little like Garth Brooks on this, the album’s most disposable track (although it is quite cleverly constructed).

Joey is back on lead on the optimistic ‘Another Wonderful Christmas’ which ends the record on the same theme as it opened with ‘It’s Christmas Time’. With its many references to the foibles of their own family and friends, this is perhaps just a little too personal to work more widely.

Overall, this is the kind of Christmas project one would expect from Joey + Rory, sweet but not saccharine, with a helping of humor, and there is a pretty good and un-hackneyed selection of material. It may not get much play in my home eleven months out of twelve, but I can see this as a standby for Christmases to come.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Vince Gill – ‘I Still Believe In You’

Released in 1992, this album transformed Vince from star to superstar, with four of the five singles hitting #1 on Billboard, and excellent sales figures and a string of awards for the album itself. It showcases Vince Gill at his very best, with lovely soaring vocals, supported by tasteful and subtle production overseen by Tony Brown. Vince wrote or co-wrote every song, and the quality is exceptionally high. Backing singers include Alison Krauss and Dawn Sears.

The title track was Vince’s very first #1 hit. It won Vince and co-writer John Barlow Jarvis Song of the Year awards from both the ACM and CMA. Reportedly written for Vince’s then-wife Janis about their sometimes troubled relationship, the message is one of the power of true love to surmount such difficulties, and even though the couple were eventually to divorce, the song’s message stands up in its own right.

The mid-tempo follow-up, ‘Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away’ is an appeal to a wife in a marriage which is beginning to fray at the seams, which Vince wrote with his keyboard player Pete Wasner. It is pleasant enough and quietly catchy, but pales in comparison to most of the other material. The fact that it still made it to #1 is an indication that Vince’s career was in overdrive.

Surprisingly, although it was still a big hit, the next single did not do quite as well, although I think it is abetter song. The gently mournful ballad ‘No Future In The Past’, co-written with Carl Jackson, forms a sequel of sorts to ‘When I Call Your Name’, where the protagonist accepts there is no point dwelling on his memories of the good times. Peaking at a still-respectable #3 it was the album’s poorest chart performer, possibly due to competition for airplay from ‘The Heart Won’t Lie’, his duet with Reba.

It was a change of pace and back to the top of the charts with the next single, the lively and amusing ‘One More Last Chance’, written with Gary Nicholson. Vince begs his woman for mercy after one too many nights out with the boys. Delbert McClinton guests on harmonica, and the video (but not the song) featured a cameo from George Jones, whose own life probably inspired the lines:

Well, she might’ve took my car keys
But she forgot about my old John Deere

There was enough juice left in the album for a fifth single, and yet another #1 with the lyrically bleak but beautiful sounding ‘Trying To Get Over You’ (written with Gary Nicholson), where he confesses that “it’ll take dying” to help him get over the woman who has broken his heart.

My favorite track is another gorgeous ballad, the absolutely beautiful ‘Love Never Broke Anyone’s Heart’, written with Jim Weatherly. This finds Vince offering wise words of consolation to a woman who has suffered a broken heart:

It’s not love that causes the pain
Whenever a heart has been shattered
It’s the losing of love that’s to blame

Love never broke anyone’s heart
It never left anyone scarred
It’s not really love
If it tears you apart
Love never broke anyone’s heart

Andrea Zonn’s solemn fiddle and John Hughey’s sympathetic steel add to the mood set by the perfectly judged vocal and lovely melody.

‘Under These Conditions’ is an agonized almost-cheating song, with two potential lovers held back from a good relationship from the fact that both are already married with children. It is another excellent song and performance, written by Vince with Max D Barnes. ‘Say Hello’ (another co-write with Pete Wasner) is a traditional shuffle on another heartbreak theme, with prominent harmonies.

Romantic ballad ‘Nothing Like A Woman’, written with Reed Nielsen, has a mellow, more AC feel than the bulk of the material and I don’t care for it as much, but it is very well done. I preferred the uptempo appeal to a woman being led astray by a persuasive liar’s ‘Pretty Words’, written with Don Schlitz.

The best selling album of Vince’s career, it has been certified quintuple platinum and was deservedly the CMA Album of the Year in 1993, and also helped him with his run of CMA Male Vocalist titles (1991-1995) and his wins as Entertainer of the Year in 1993 and 1994. It is excellent from start to finish, and warmly recommended. Used copies are available incredibly cheaply, making this a bargain not to be turned down.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Larry Cordle – ‘Pud Marcum’s Hanging’

Larry Cordle’s new album was supposedly released a few months back, but, perhaps because it is on the artist’s own label, distribution had been limited, and it has taken some time for me to track down. I’m glad I took the trouble to do so, because this is an excellent album full of memorable songs.

A brilliant songwriter and an emotive singer, Cordle wrote all the songs with a small band of collaborators, most frequently Larry Shell (with whom he wrote ‘Murder On Music Row’) and Connie Leigh. This record contains elements of bluegrass, country and acoustic Americana, in roughly that order. Cordle also produced the record, in dobro player Randy Kohrs’ studio.

Almost all the material consist of absorbing story songs rooted in Kentucky, three of them dealing with murders. The pure bluegrass title song tells us of a young man hanged for murdering a hated relative despite having found God in jail, bolstered by strong harmonies from bluegrass legend Del McCoury. It is based on a true story, which took place in Kentucky in 1886-1887; the unfortunate Pud was the last man ever hanged in eastern Kentucky and the very public occasion seems to have made a lasting impression on locals.

‘Justice For Willy’ tells the very modern story of a man murdered by his wife, planning to spend the insurance payout on Botox and lipo and a trip to Europe with the grocery boy – but satisfyingly, she is arrested at the funeral. As she poisoned him I’m not quite sure how she was trapped by DNA evidence as the song states, but I’m prepared to accept the resolution.

A third murder tale comes with ‘The Death Of Bad Burch Wilson’, in which the killer (most likely the narrator, whose wife was having an affair with the deceased) gets away with it:

I don’t believe he slipped and fell
I don’t believe he drowned
Nobody mourned his passing when they laid him in the ground
Things happen in the mountains that the mountains only know
Some secrets are as dark and deep as any seam of coal

The delightfully effervescent ‘Uncle Bob Got Religion’ has an appropriate old-time gospel feel with a wailing Pentecostal chorus. Fat, lazy uncle Bob is a counterfeiter and general bad lot but eventually comes to regret his sins and gets baptised in the river. The Oak Ridge Boys Richard Sterban sings bass, while Carl Jackson adds tenor and Jerry Salley baritone harmonies.

The religious ‘Gone On Before’ is pretty and soulful, and features harrnonies from its co-writer Ronnie Bowman and his wife Garnet. Ronnie and Garnet also contribute suitably angelic harmonies to ‘Angel On His Shoulder’, which portrays the internal battle faced by one man with a restrained passion:

There’s an angel on his shoulder and the devil by his side
One’s trying hard to save him
One wants to take his life
And there’s a war that’s raging down in his soul tonight
Between the angel on his shoulder and the devil by his side

Steel guitar adds a touch of melancholy.

On a similar note, Larry also gives us his own version of his song ‘Sometimes A Man Takes A Drink’, with Randy Kohrs on harmony. This was an instant classic when it was recorded a couple of years ago by Trace Adkins. I think Trace’s version is just a little better, but this is still very well done, and the song packs a massive emotional punch as it unsparingly shows up the power alcohol can gain over its victims.

The sole love song included has a dark undercurrent as the protagonist makes advances to ‘Molly’, whose husband is off somewhere cheating on her.

On a more light-hearted note, ‘Shade Tree Mechanic’ paints a fond portrait of the kind of guy who is a natural with machinery and whose home looks like his own junkyard. The sardonic ‘Brown Check’ is the story of “sorry sot” Delbert Meeks/Biggs, “too dang lazy to hold down a job”, who decide to become a welfare fraudster claiming to be too sick to work (unless he gets paid cash under the table, of course).

Coal has been a mixed blessing for the people of Kentucky and West Virginia, providing work for generations but also bringing death. The atmospheric ‘Hello My Name Is Coal’, sung as a duet with co-writer Jenee Fleenor (who has a strong voice and also plays fiddle on the track) anthropomorphises the substance and illustrates some of the things it means to the people of the Appalachians.

The only mis-step (and one which will still appeal to many listeners) is the clumsy closing track, which has Larry plaintively wondering ‘America Where Have You Gone’. It sounds good aurally, but the (conservative) sentiments are expressed surprisingly unimaginatively – not a criticism I would give to anything else on offer here.

Overall, this is an excellent record which I highly recommend.

Grade: A

You can listen on Larry Cordle’s website. The CD can be purchased there or from CDBaby, while Amazon has it as a digital download only.

Album Review: Brad Paisley – ‘This Is Country Music’

Brad Paisley was our Spotlight Artist last November, and he has produced some outstanding material in the past. His last few releases, however, have been on a downward spiral, and sadly his latest release accelerates the trend. He cowrote almost all the material with a variety of partners, most often including Kelley Lovelace and/or Chris Dubois. To be frank, he would have been well advised to look elsewhere, because so much of this is just plain uninspired.

Thhe three outside songs provide the most worthwhile tracks. The spiritual ‘Life’s Railway to Heaven’ former is the record’s sole nod to the traditionalism which marked Brad’s early career, and features guest vocals from Marty Stuart, Sheryl Crow and Carl Jackson. ‘A Man Don’t Have To Die’, written by Rivers Rutherford, George Teren and Josh Thompson, is the album’s highlight for me, although the story’s set-up is not as well set up as it might be. The song is largely addressed to a preacher, “new around here”, but it isn’t clear what he’s been saying to his flock to prompt this response:

It don’t really scare us when you yell and shake your fist
You see we already know that Hell exists

The body of the song is much more effective, with its depiction of the hell on earth of being laid off by a ungrateful employer, “six months short of 30 years“, struggling to repay a mortgage, or a broken marriage. The chorus has effective harmonies, but the track is marred by out of place and very irritating wordless backing vocals in the second half possibly intended to be the voices of angels.

The charmingly playful ‘Toothbrush’ (written by Joel Shewmake, Jon Henderson and Danny Simpson) details the growth of romance, and this track boasts an imaginative arrangement which makes it the best sounding track on the record. Brad’s composition ‘Eastwood’ is a rather good atmospheric Western style instrumental with Clint Eastwood adding a few words at the beginning and end. Brad’s little boys gurgle a few words as well, and are less irritating than most intrusions of child voices.

None of Brad’s songs here is up to the standard of his earlier work, but I still quite like the title track’s tribute to the inclusiveness of country music, which I reviewed last autumn – at least until it collapses into an uninspired litany of (much better) song titles. The current hit, ‘Old Alabama’ is a fair tribute to the band of that name, but far less effective as a song in its own right, even when Randy Owen joins in, and it is over-produced to boot.

Also acceptable is the rueful ‘I Do Now’ which has the protagonist looking back at his wedding and regretting breaking the promises he made then. It starts out very well indeed, with an understated regret imbuing the first verse, but the chorus is predictable and the later verses don’t take us anywhere unexpected. ‘New Favorite Memory’ is a pleasant but slightly dull evocation of domestic bliss. The affectionate wedding-set ‘Love Her Like She’s Leavin’’, complete with advice (from the bride’s Uncle Bill) of how to keep the relationship going, has a very pop-influenced melody and a pleasant but cliche’d lyric. The Eagles’ Don Henley sings harmony.

On a similar theme, the new single ‘Remind Me’, the duet with Carrie Underwood (reviewed recently by J.R. Journey) is actually a pretty good song about a couple longing for the sweetness of the early days of a love affair which has become a stale marriage, but Carrie oversings her parts, sounding too intense where the lyric seems to call for wistfulness, and overwhelms Brad when they are singing together, while the track is too heavily produced. It will probably be a monster hit.

‘One Of Those Lives’ is a well-meaning and earnestly sung pieces comparing the protagonist’s petty problems with more serious ones faced by others, but it is awkwardly phrased and generally feels a bit forced, and I don’t care for Brad’s ventures into a falsetto.

Brad includes his usual brace of songs intended to be funny but which don’t raise a smile. Of these, the silly novelty ‘Camouflage’ with yelled call-and response backing vocals reminiscent of Joe Diffie’s worst moments at least makes an impact, if not a positive one. The Mexican vacation-set ‘Don’t Drink The Water’, a duet with Blake Shelton, falls completely flat and is a waste of both men’s talent. ‘Working On A Tan’ is a boring beach song which sounds very poppy with Beach Boys style harmonies. ‘Be The Lake’ is equally dull, as Brad leches over his love interest.

This is a disappointing offering from an artist who seems to have run out of steam creatively. Unless he manages to recharge his batteries, I suspect this will be the last Brad Paisley album I’ll buy.

Grade: C-

Album Review: Diamond Rio – ‘Close To The Edge’

Diamond Rio’s second album was rush-released in October 1992. It was produced as before by Monty Powell and Tim Dubois along broadly similar lines to its predecessor. Although not quite as consitently high quality as the songs on their debut, the chosen material showcases the band’s trademark harmonies and sparkling playing well. Although, apparently they had only a month to pick the songs, and felt they had fallen short of their debut, everything is presented with verve and I think it stands up well today.

The first two singles had downbeat lyrics about failed relationships. The ballad ‘In A Week Or Two’ (one of my favorite tracks) was received well at radio and hit #2. The rueful protagonist has been blindsided when he kept on putting off those romantic gestures, only to find his lover loses patience and leaves him. Equally regretful in the face of a vanished lover, the bouncily catchy ‘Oh Me, Oh My Sweet Baby’ was another top 5 hit, with particularly strong harmonies and picking. The perky ‘This Romeo Ain’t Got Julie Yet’ about a thwarted teenage couple (co-written by the lead guitarist Jimmy Olander), the slightest of the album’s singles, did less well, peaking at an unlucky 13.

My favorite of the singles then disappointingly failed to crack the top 20. Set to an understated but pretty tune, it offers a pensive reflection on the lost innocence of childhood:

When we knew Jesus was the answer
And Elvis was the King
‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and ‘Rock Of Ages’
Were the songs we learned/loved to sing
Innocence went out of style
We just watched it go
Yesterday got left beneath
The dust of Sawmill Road

We learn the protagonist’s brother was mentally destroyed by service in Vietnam, and he keeps minimal contact with the sister, who now has three failed marriages behind her. Only the narrator remains living in the eponymous ‘Sawmill Road’, where the three siblings “were raised up on the path of righteousness” so long ago. The song was written by the band’s keyboard player Dan Truman with Sam Hogin and Jim McBride.

It leads appropriately into an appeal to the lonely and lost in life, ‘Calling All Hearts (Come Back Home)’, an idealistic number written by Monty Powell, Kent Blazy and Wade Kimes, which I also like a lot.

My absolute favorite track, though, is the high lonesome ‘Demons And Angels’. Written by former singer Judy Rodman and Ronnie Samoset, the song portrays the intense struggle of a man(and his wife) fighting his addiction to alcohol,

He swore it was over and all in his past
A few hours later his hand’s round a glass
A voice on the left says,
“There’s peace in the wine”
From the right a voice whispers,
“Don’t do it this time”
When he looks for the answer
Down in his heart
Demons and angels tear him apart

There’s not much that’s sweeter
Than a new life begun
Ain’t much that’s sadder
Than a promise undone
He stares at the bottle,
Longs for her arms
While demons and angels tear him apart

‘Old Weakness (Coming On Strong)’ is not the song of that title recorded by both Tanya Tucker and Patty Loveless, but an intensely sung ballad about struggling with the thought of encountering an old flame he’s not really over, written by Powell with Chapin Hartford. A cheery riposte to old friends comparing the fun of bachelor life to the protagonist’s newlywed happiness, ‘It Does Get Better Than This’ is unremarkable lyrically, but is lifted by the charming vocal and instrumental performance, and could be a hit today.

The love songs ‘I Was Meant To Be With You’ (co-written by Dubois and Powell with Debi Cochran and Diamond Rio’s lead singer Marty Roe) and Jimmy Olander’s ‘Nothing In This World’ (co-written with Eric Silver) are pleasant filler, performed exceptionally well. The upbeat title track (written by the band’s mandolin and occasional fiddle player Gene Johnson with Carl Jackson) is also fairly forgettable lyrically, but it has a great groove and lets the band show off their chops , closing the album on a high.

The record has been certified gold, so it did not sell quite as well as their debut. However, despite the band’s own misgivings about the quality of the material, I think it compares pretty well, and there are some outstanding moments. Cheap used copies are easy to find, and it is also available digitally.

Grade: A-

Emmylou & Friends: Sweet Harmonies

From the very beginning, collaborations with other artists have been an integral part of Emmylou Harris’ career. Over the span of nearly 40 years, she is perhaps as well known for supplying harmony vocals to other artists records and championing promising newcomers as for her own solo work. It would perhaps be easier to list the names of the artists with whom she has not worked; like Willie Nelson she has worked with a variety of performers from both within and outside the country genre. It isn’t possible to do justice to such a large body of work in a single article, but I’d like to touch on some of my favorites.

Emmylou was performing in small venues in the Washington, DC area when she was discovered by Chris Hillman, who was then the bandleader of The Flying Burrito Brothers. It was he who recommended her to Gram Parsons, who hired her to be his duet partner and introduced her to the world of country music. She sang prominent harmonies on Parsons’ 1973 solo debut album GP, as well as on the follow-up Grievous Angel, which was released in 1974 after Parsons’ death from a drug overdose. Both albums were re-released on a single disc by Reprise. They are also available digitally and are well worth a listen. Emmylou later covered many of the songs on these two volumes on her solo albums. One of the best is a rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Love Hurts”, which also appears on Emmylou’s Duets compilation, which was released by Reprise in 1990 and is an excellent sampler of her non-solo work.

Duets also includes such hits as “We Believe In Happy Endings” with Earl Thomas Conley, “If I Needed You” with Don Williams, and “That Lovin’ You Feeling Again” with Roy Orbison, which won a Grammy in 1980 for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group. Two new tracks were recorded for the project: “The Price I Pay” with Chris Hillman’s Desert Rose Band and a beautiful rendition of Nanci Griffith’s “Gulf Coast Highway” with Willie Nelson.

After the death of Gram Parsons and before she secured her solo deal with Reprise, Emmylou had sung backup on some of Linda Ronstadt’s records, and formed what was to become a lifelong friendship. Ronstadt eventually returned the favor, singing backup on Emmylou’s solo records, as did Dolly Parton, whose “Coat of Many Colors” Emmylou had covered on her Pieces of the Sky album. The three women formed an alliance and recorded together sporadically over the next several years. For many years, legal issues and record label politics thwarted their attempts to release an album together, but their collaborations occasionally turned up on Emmylou’s albums, notably “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” from 1979’s Blue Kentucky Girl and “Mister Sandman” from 1981’s Evangeline. Parton and Ronstadt also both contributed to 1980’s Roses In The Snow. Eventually the three women released Trio and Trio II in 1987 and 1999, respectively. Emmylou and Linda teamed up again in 1999 for Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions. Dolly wasn’t available to participate this time around; let’s just say that her presence is sorely missed as this particular album is not one of my favorites.

In 2007 Rhino Records released the four-disc boxed set Songbird: Rare Tracks and Forgotten Gems, which includes a generous sampling of Emmylou’s lesser-known solo and non-solo efforts. Some of the highlights include “Spanish Johnny” with Waylon Jennings, “One Paper Kid” with Willie Nelson and “Here We Are” with George Jones. It also contains some of the outtakes from the Trio sessions with Ronstadt and Parton, as well as some of their earlier recordings that had not previously seen the light of day, including 1978’s “Palms of Victory” and an exquisite reading of “Softly and Tenderly” from the second Trio sessions. Also of note are some of Emmylou’s contributions to tribute albums, such as the title track to the 1994 Merle Haggard tribute Mama’s Hungry Eyes, which she sings with Rodney Crowell, and “Golden Ring” from 1998’s Tammy Wynette Remembered, on which she is joined by Linda Ronstadt and Kate and Anna McGarrigle. “Mary Danced With Soldiers” from The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Volume 2 also makes an appearance, as does “I Don’t Love You Much, Do I” with Guy Clark and “Sonny”, sung with Ireland’s Mary Black and Dolores Keane. The third and fourth discs of Songbird rely heavily on duet material, including collaborations with artists such as Sheryl Crow, Patty Griffin, Mark Knopfler, Carl Jackson, Randy Scruggs, Iris Dement, The Pretenders, and The Seldom Scene. Songbird is a somewhat pricy collection, but it is one of the best music purchases I ever made.

In addition to the artists previously mentioned, Emmylou has lent her voice to recordings by Terri Clark, The Judds, Vince Gill, Trisha Yearwood, and countless others. As someone who became interested in country music during the Urban Cowboy’s heyday in the early 80s, Emmylou’s music was something of an acquired taste for me. It took a few years for me to fully appreciate her artistry, and it was primarily through her work with others that I became a huge fan.

Album Review: Terri Clark – ‘Just The Same’

Terri’s second album, released in 1996, followed along broadly the same pattern as her debut, balancing high-energy radio friendly entertainment with traditional roots. She co-wrote most of the material, most often alongside the established songwriting team of Chris Waters and Tom Shapiro, and the quality is consistently high. Waters also co-produced with Terri and Keith Stegall.

The first single was, however, actually a cover of the Warren Zevon song/Linda Ronstadt 70s hit ‘Poor Poor Pitiful Me’. Terri’s vibrant version (belying the dark lyrics) peaked at #5 on Billboard and #1 in Canada. The equally lively up-tempo Emotional Girl’ (written with Rick Bowles and Chris Waters) was another Canadian #1 and US top 10 hit. The title track and third single is a gorgeous mellow love ballad with a little more of an AC feel and a subtle string arrangement, which allowed Terri to show off her vocals, but radio was less receptive to Terri’s ballads than to her up-tempo numbers, and this peaked disappointingly low at #16.

The twangy ‘Something In The Water’ was the last single, but while it has a good groove and attacking vocal, it is not particularly memorable, and only just squeaked into the top 40. Equally twangy, but more memorable, is the ironic salute to an old ‘Neon Flame’ (written by Terri and Chris Waters with Chuck Jones), and perhaps this would have been a better single choice. I really like the catchy and uncompromising ‘You Do Or You Don’t’ (one of the few outside songs, written by Bob DiPiero and Karen Staley), and this too would have made a great choice as a single. Terri’s love interest isn’t quite committed to her, and she sets out an ultimatum, telling him firmly he either loves her, or he doesn’t:

Love ain’t followed by a question mark…
We’re not talkin’ brain surgery

The other song not written by Terri is the amped-up bluegrass of ‘Hold Your Horses’, a revival of a song written by Carl Jackson and Pam Gadd for the latter’s former band Wild Rose. ‘Twang Thang’ keeps up the energy levels, but is rather noveltyish. The mid-tempo ‘Not What I Wanted To Hear’ has a rueful admission to herself that the guy isn’t going to call.

My favorite song here is Terri’s solo composition ‘Keeper Of The Flame’, with its beautiful melody, excellent vocal, and downbeat lyric about a neglected wife desperately holding on to hope that things will somehow go back to the way things were:

I am the keeper of the flame
You only helped my build the fire
And it’s getting harder every day
To make our love burn with desire
Cause if I left it up to you
Only ashes would remain

Another outstanding ballad is ‘Any Woman’, where Terri gives us a sympathetic portrait of a woman’s heartbreak, suffered in silence:

Night can be so cold when a memory’s all you hold
Yeah, I know what she’s going through tonight
Any woman who’s been hurt by a man understands
It’ll take some time for her to find a way to love again

There is another great vocal here, balancing sympathetic advice to a man interested in the heartbreak victim, and sisterly empathy with the woman.

Just The Same has been certified platinum in the US and double platinum in Canada.  This is an excellent record, full of fine material delivered with commitment.

Grade: A

It’s still easy to find, both digitally and on CD, with used copies being extremely cheap.

Album Review: Steve Wariner – ‘I Got Dreams’

Steve came more to the fore as a writer on this album, released in 1989. He wrote or co-wrote nine of the ten songs on a pleasantly melodic record which showcases his sweet tenor and leans to the AC side of country. As with its predecessor, I Should Be With You, he produced the set with Jimmy Bowen. The record has a more consistent sound than its predecessor, but it lacks a real standout song.

While sales were not spectacular, the album’s singles continued Steve’s hot streak at radio, kicking off with two straight #1 hits. ‘Where Did I Go Wrong’ (the only solo Wariner composition included) is a sweetly sung ballad about losing love with an attractive melody, which is (though hardly groundbreaking) one of my favorite tracks. He wrote the optimistic mid-tempo ‘I Got Dreams’ with Bill LaBounty about hoping for his ex’s return. This was radio-friendly but while pleasant enough has not stood the test of time very well.

Another ballad, the gentle piano-led ‘When I Could Come Home To You’, written with Roger Murrah, was the third single, and this peaked at #5. It has a tender vocal as the protagonist reflects wistfully on the past with a former loved one, and this song is probably the best here.

These were probably the best choices as singles, because most of the remaining material falls into the category of listenable but ultimately forgettable. Perhaps more outside material would have been better advised, because one of my favorite tracks is the one song Steve did not contribute to writing. John Jarvis and Joe Henry’s solemn piano-led AC ballad ‘The Flower That Shattered The Stone’ (later recorded by John Denver) has a beautiful melody, subtle, pure vocal, and spiritual lyric about the power of the natural world:

As the river runs freely the mountain does rise
Let me touch with my fingers and see with my eyes
In the hearts of the children your love still grows
Like a bright star in heaven that lights our way home
Like the flower that shattered the stone

It took four writers including Steve to write ‘I Could Get Lucky Tonight’, a slightly dragging mid-tempo number without much lyrical substance. The love song ‘Do You Wanna Make Something Of It’ written with Wood Newton, sounds pretty enough but a bit boring. The same goes for ‘Plano Texas Girl’ (co-written with Steve’s brother Terry), notable only for its rather feeble play on words.

The beaty ‘Nothin’ In The World (Gonna Keep Me From You)’, a co-write with Mike Reid, reverts to the pop-country of Steve’s RCA work, and has the least impressive vocal on the record. A much better up-tempo effort is the engaging ‘Language Of Love’, written by Steve with John and Johanna Hall, and the best of his songs here apart from the singles. It has a metaphorical lyric comparing romance to international travel, and some nice mandolin from Carl Jackson.

The only other song to stand out is the slightly wimpy ‘The Loser Wins’. This starts out with a ruefully fond reminiscence of a high school football team who “won 5 and lost 17”, but is really about the comfort brought in failure by a loved one. The production feels a bit dated but the subject is temporarily quite topical with the Grammy ceremony this weekend.

The vocals are beautiful throughout, but this is the sort of record that sounds very nice in the background but where the songs lack individual interest.

Grade: C+

Cheap used copies are easy to find, and the album is avilable digitally.

Album Review: Steve Wariner – ‘Greatest Hits’ (MCA)

Steve’s move to MCA in 1985 helped him to become a mainstay of country radio, just as the same move worked for Reba McEntire and, a few years later, Vince Gill. None of his first three albums for the label is readily available on CD or digitally, but a good overview can be gained from his second Greatest Hits compilation, released in 1987. The sound was a little less poppy than his RCA work, but still definitely contemporary rather than traditional. Steve’s smooth vocals sound great even on the lesser material.

Steve’s MCA career kicked off with a bang, with ‘What I Didn’t Do’ reaching #3 on the Billboard country chart in 1985. Written by Wood Newton and Michael Noble, this remorseful look back at mistakes made by a workaholic husband who failed to pay attention to his wife (left “planning her nights by the TV Guide”) is a fine song, sensitively interpreted.

The up-tempo pop-country ‘Heart Trouble’ (written by Dave Gibson and Kent Robbins) also reached the top 10, but is not very memorable. The last single from One Good Night Deserves Another, Steve’s first MCA album, was a vast improvement, and was to become his second #1. A forlorn ballad about unrequited love, ‘Some Fools Never Learn’ was written by John Scott Sherrill, and Steve sings it beautifully, as the central character faces his loved one’s

Heart like a stone
And a wandering eye

He admits to himself, while he finds a second-best alternative relationship with a girl in the same boat,

It’s no good to pretend it won’t happen again
‘Cause it’ll happen again
Some fools never learn
Play with the fire and you’re gonna get burned
It’s only love when you’re loved in return

This is my favorite of the songs included here.

The lead single from Steve’s second MCA album (and his second album of 1985) was ‘You Can Dream Of Me’, which he wrote with John Hall. It was another #1 hit for him. A mellow sounding cheating song with an attractive melody, the soaring, pure vocal belies a less romantic message, about a married man telling his ex-lover he can’t offer her a full-time or “real” love and she will have to settle for the odd phone call, flowers and dreams.

Next up was that album’s title track, the piano-led mid-tempo ‘Life’s Highway’ written by Richard Leigh and Roger Murrah (and covered by Catherine Britt on her RCA album a few years ago). It was Steve’s fourth #1 hit, and had the most traditionally country instrumentation of his early singles. Carl Jackson and Mac McAnally sing backing vocals, and the track features Jerry Douglas on dobro and Mark O’Connor on mandolin.

The last single was the ballad ‘Starting Over Again’ (written by Don Goodman and John Wesley Ryles), with gospelly piano and soothingly sweet vocals about a constant loser who never loses faith that someday things will work out. It peaked at #4.

Life’s Highway was actually a solid modern country album (by far the best of his early work) which displayed discriminating song selection, including early versions of ‘Back Up Grinnin’ Again’ (soon afterwards cut by Kathy Mattea) and Rodney Crowell’s 1988 #1 hit ‘She’s Crazy For Leaving’. Steve’s somgwriting was also developing, and he wrote five of the ten tracks. It really deserves to be re-issued.

The third album, 1987’s It’s A Crazy World, was a bit of a step backward artistically, although each of the singles reached #1. The first of these was the pleasant but fairly forgettable New York-set ‘Small Town Girl’ (written by John Barlow Jarvis and Don Cook), singing the praises of domestic bliss with the protagonist’s wife, the small town girl of the title. Steve sounds very good on the vivaciously beaty ‘Lynda’, written by Bill LaBounty and Pat McLaughlin, and makes a throwaway ditty worth listening to.

The last single, ‘The Weekend’ was the first Steve Wariner record I ever heard. Written by Bill LaBounty again and Beckie Foster. The protagonist laments having fallen in love with his weekend fling, who is not interested in reciprocating:

You had some fun for the weekend
But I’ll be in love for the rest of my life

..and if I can’t have you tonight
At least I had the weekend

Some will find this ballad a little wimpy, but as a teenager who was new to country music, I loved it and thought it extremely romantic, and I still can’t help liking it and Steve’s sweet interpretation.

The nine solo hits (three from each of Steve’s first three albums on MCA) are rounded out with ‘That’s How You Know When Love’s Right’, a duet with Nicolette Larson which was a top 10 hit in 1986. Nicolette was a country-rock singer with a husky alto voice who had some pop success in the 70s. Her country connections included singing backup on Emmylou Harris’s version of the classic ‘Hello Stranger’, and in the mid 80s she made a concerted effort at a country career of her own. She released two pretty good albums, but this was to be her only hit single – making this the first time Steve’s talents lifted another artist to their greatest commercial success. The production sounds a bit dated now, but not overbearingly so, and the vocals work well enough to overcome this. The two singers’ voices work well together on a pleasantly tuneful if rather generic pop-leaning ballad about falling in love, swapping solo lines in the chorus, harmonising on the chorus, and both sound earnestly sincere. The song was written by Wendy Waldman and Craig Bickhardt. Oddly, the selection omitted another hit from this period, Steve’s duet with Glen Campbell on ‘The Hand That Rocks The Cradle’, a tribute to mothers everywhere.

Grade: B

Used copies of the CD are available very cheaply, and the individual tracks can be downloaded.

Occasional Hope’s Top 10 Albums of 2010

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

10. Aaron Watson – The Road And The Rodeo

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

9. Dierks Bentley – Up On The Ridge

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

8. Merle Haggard – I Am What I Am

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

7. Amber Digby and Justin Trevino – Keeping Up Appearances

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

6. Brennen Leigh – The Box

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

5. Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song

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

4. Marty Stuart – Ghost Train

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

3. Joe Diffie – Homecoming

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

2. Joey + Rory – Album #2

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

1. Ken Mellons – Rural Route

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

Album Review: Joe Diffie – ‘Homecoming’

It isn’t widely known that prior to his stint as a mainstream country hitmaker in the 1990s, Joe Diffie was an accomplished bluegrass musician, having been a member of the bluegrass band Special Edition. He returns to those roots for his first album in six years. Co-produced by Diffie with Luke Wooten, Homecoming is a comprised of some bluegrass classics along with some newer songs and original compositions, and features an impressive roster of guest artists including The Grascals, Rhonda Vincent, Sonya Isaacs, Carl Jackson, Alecia Nugent, and Bradley Walker.

The album opens with a traditional bluegrass number, the Earl Scruggs-written “Somehow Tonight” and continues in a similar vein with “Lonesome and Dry as a Bone”, which was written by Shawn Camp, Matt Lindsey, and Mel Tillis. “Tall Cornstalk” reflects Diffie’s well-known penchant for novelty songs, though this number, told from the point of view of the cornstalk, never approaches the level of hokeyness that characterized many of Joe’s 90s novelty ditties.

The high lonesome sound is evident on numbers such as “Fit For A King” and “I Know How It Feels”, which feature exquisite harmony vocals from Sonya Isaacs and Michael L. Rogers respectively. “Raining On Her Rubber Dolly” is an original composition which Diffie co-wrote with Shawn Camp. One of those uptempo songs with mournful lyrics that is unique to bluegrass, it uses the imagery of a child’s doll, left out in the rain in the yard, to symbolize a father’s heartbreak in the aftermath of a marital breakdown and separation from his family.

It’s quite evident that Diffie is well within his comfort zone and more than competent at singing bluegrass credibly. That being said, there are a few tracks that are more acoustic country than traditional bluegrass, which, with different arrangements would have been quite at home on any of his mainstream country albums. “Route 5 Box 109”, on which Joe is joined by Rhonda Vincent, is reminiscent of his 1990 breakthrough hit “Home”. Along with “Free and Easy” and “Stormy Weather Once Again”, it is one of the best tracks on the album. I’m not sure how bluegrass purists feel about these songs; to my admittedly non-expert ears, they sound more like acoustic country than bluegrass, but that in no way suggests that they are not excellent, regardless of how one categorizes them.

The album closes with “Hard To Handle”, a remake of a 1968 Otis Redding record, which is impressive if only for the speed at which it is sung. I’ll confess to complete ignorance of the original version, but I’m betting it bears little resemblance to Diffie’s rendition. While not my favorite track on the album, it is nonetheless enjoyable.

Joe Diffie was one of the most talented male vocalists of the 1990s, who didn’t always get the attention and acclaim that he deserved. Unfortunately he is most remembered today for his novelty tunes and not for some of the stronger entries in his catalog. Homecoming should go a long way to restoring his gravitas as an artist, and will easily appeal to both bluegrass aficionados and fans of Joe’s more mainstream work.

Grade: A

Homecoming is available from major retailers, such as Amazon and iTunes. A bonus track “Ocean of Diamonds” is available for download but is not included on the CD version. Those who download the album from Amazon are advised to select the version that includes “[+ digital booklet]” in the title. This is the version that contains the bonus track; inexplicably, it is the same price as the 12-track version with no liner notes or bonus track, which Amazon also sells.

Album Review: Joey + Rory – ‘Album #2’

Joey + Rory’s long-awaited sophomore effort was released last month. The appropriately-titled Album #2 finds the duo joining forces once again with producer Carl Jackson, and using the same primarily acoustic-based formula that worked so well for them on their 2008 debut album The Life Of A Song, which we reviewed last month as part of our coverage of the new New Traditionalists.

The most noteworthy change from The Life Of A Song, is that Rory, who wrote ten of the album’s twelve tracks, is featured more prominently here, occasionally chiming in to share lead vocals with Joey, and taking the lead completely on “My Ol’ Man”, a moving tribute presumably written about Rory’s own father. Rory is not a particularly gifted vocalist, but the well-written material and understated production more than compensate for his vocal shortcomings.

The album opens with the title track, a witty number about the pressures a fledgling country music act faces as it tries to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump:

This last year’s been a whirlwind, but we’re doing well we’re told,
Been up and down the highway, and on the radio
Sold a lot of our first record, we even had a hit
Now the big wigs back in Nashville say we better kick it up a bit
The critics all are waiting, to see what we will do
For much anticipated album number two.

Some say to go more country, some say we should turn pop
They’ve all got their opinions, on how to take us to the top
Our new image consultant, says we need a fresh hairdo,
As if that’s gonna make or break album number two …

In a similar vein, “Baby I’ll Come Back To You” offers a clever when-hell-freezes-over theme and manages to name-check a number of country stars in a manner that would have made The Statler Brothers proud:

Now I’m not saying there’s no chance at all
But it don’t take no crystal ball
To see the chance is mighty slim, Chris Gaines or me are coming back again
When Willie gives the weed up, and cuts off all his hair,
When George Jones finally says he need’s his rockin’ chair,
When Dolly gets a breast reduction down a size or two,
Then maybe, just maybe, maybe I’ll come back to you

And later they indulge in a little self-deprecating humor with:

When we sell a million copies of album number two,
Huh? We’ve sold how many?
I said maybe, just maybe, maybe I’ll come back to you.

Like its predecessor, Album #2 is a rather quiet affair, managing to avoid the traps of over-production and engaging in the loudness war, which plague so many contemporary country albums. The stripped-down, mostly acoustic arrangements and Joey’s understated vocal performance work exceedingly well on tracks such as “Born To Be Your Woman”, “The Horse Nobody Could Ride”, “Farm To Fame”, and “Where Jesus Is.” It doesn’t work quite as well on “God Help My Man”, which cries out for a feistier performance. I would have loved to have heard what Loretta Lynn would have done with this song back in her heyday.

“You Ain’t Right”, which is one of only two songs in the collection contributed solely by outside songwriters, is a decent song that suffers in comparison to Randy Travis’ superior version. The album’s biggest misstep, however, is the closing track, “This Song’s For You”, on which the duo collaborates with the Zac Brown Band. It is the only track on the album not produced by Carl Jackson. Instead, Keith Stegall is in the control booth. Often criticized for supposedly pandering to fans, “This Song’s For You” is not unpleasant to listen to and might actually work well live on the concert stage, but it seems out of place with the rest of the album. Because of the difference in style and its placement as the last track, it almost seems like a bonus track. However, it was released as the album’s lead single, in an apparent hope that the Zac Brown Band’s current popularity would result in some radio airplay. The strategy was not successful, however, as the single failed to enter the charts.

The second single, the more typical “That’s Important To Me” was sent to radio this month. At this time, it has yet to appear on the charts. None of Joey + Rory’s singles, aside from their debut “Cheater, Cheater” have charted. I suspect that this will be continue to be the case with any future singles released from this album, as they are not in the vein in which country radio is currently interested. However, the album managed to reach #9 on Billboard’s sales-based Top Country Albums chart, which suggests that Joey + Rory may have managed to find a niche of devoted fans that will buy their records, even if they don’t produce any radio hits.

Overall, I like Album #2 better than the first album. It is widely available and is currently available for download at Amazon for the bargain price of $5.

Grade: A

Album Review: Joey + Rory – ‘The Life Of A Song’

The husband and wife duo of Rory Feek and Joey Martin Feek first rose to national attention a mere two years ago when they became contestants on CMT’s Can You Duet. Following a third place finish, they landed a contract with Sugar Hill Records and released their first album in October 2008.

Prior to the competition, the two had never performed together. Joey was an aspiring singer who had briefly been signed to Sony, and Rory was an accomplished Nashville songwriter who had written hits for artists such as Clay Walker and Blake Shelton. Joining forces gave them synergy allowed them the opportunity to play off each others’ strengths.

The Life Of A Song was produced by Carl Jackson. Rory had a hand in writing seven of the album’s twelve tracks, five of which Joey also receives songwriting credit. The album was somewhat of a departure for the roots-oriented Sugar Hill, marking one of the label’s first attempts to market an artist to mainstream country radio. The Life Of A Song is not the typical bluegrass or alternative fare that music fans had come to expect from Sugar Hill; nor does it bear much resemblance to what usually gets played on country radio these days. The production is mostly quiet, acoustic and understated, avoiding obnoxious drum machines, soft-rock electric guitar riffs and bombastic arrangements. Nevertheless, the lead single “Cheater, Cheater” managed to get enough airplay to land at #30 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. Its success is in no small part due to the exposure Joey + Rory gained from the Can You Duet competition. The record was also buoyed by the minor controversy that ensued due to its lyrics referring to a “no good, white trash ho”, possibly the first time that phrase had been uttered in a country song. Written by Joey and Rory along with Kristy Osmunson and Wynn Varble, it is the duo’s only Top 40 hit to date.

Based on their first single, it might be tempting to dismiss Joey + Rory as a semi-novelty act, but the rest of the album is, for the most part, comprised of more serious material that is well written and beautifully performed. The second single, the non-charting “Play The Song” takes a mild swipe at the restrictions placed on artists by radio and/or label executives who continually complain that a given song is

…too fast, it’s too slow
It’s too country, too rock and roll
It’s too happy, too sad, too short, or it’s way too long

….It’s too Garth, too George Strait
Too right down the center, too left of the plate
The hook’s too weak or the subject matter’s way too strong whatever ….

My favorite track on the album is “Sweet Emmylou”, written by Rory with Catherine Britt, who has since included it on her recent self-titled release. Beautifully sung by Joey, it is a song about finding solace in old, preferably sad, country records — something most country fans can relate to. Almost as enjoyable are the happier “Tonight Cowboy You’re Mine” and the poignant “To Say Goodbye”, the album’s third and final single which deals with the pain of losing a loved one. The first verse alludes to the surviving spouse of a 9/11 victim, while the second verse deals with the loss of a spouse to Alzheimer’s disease. Like its predecessor, “To Say Goodbye” failed to chart.

The Life Of A Song was one of the most enjoyable albums of 2008, which admittedly was a year of slim pickings for good country music. Its sole misstep was the duo’s cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird”, which, while not great, is not sufficiently bad to detract from the overall enjoyment of the album.

Despite its modest success at radio, the album sold respectably, peaking at #10 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. Though they continue to seek a breakthrough at radio, it is probably a long shot fora traditionally-oriented act on an indie label to have any kind of sustained mainstream success. As such, Joey + Rory are likely to remain a niche act, which is just fine for those of us who like them just as they are.

Grade: A-

The Life Of A Song is widely available. Digital copies are currently on sale for $5 at Amazon.