My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Carlene Carter

Album Review: Del McCoury — ‘Del McCoury Still Sings Bluegrass’

Like bourbon aging in oak barrels, the voice of Del McCoury seems to take on more depth and character with each album. Del McCoury stands as one of the last of bluegrass’s second generation in still keeping the music alive both as a recording artist and as an active touring performer. Whether performing before small audiences or large crowds, Del is a consistent force in performing the true-grass so adored by traditionalists, while leaving the door open for innovation.

Del McCoury Still Sings Bluegrass is comprised of 14 songs that range from murder ballads and train songs to songs about love last and found. The sources of the songs range from old country classics to tunes by modern bluegrass songsmiths. Whatever you like, you will find it here.

The opening track is “Hot Wired,” the opening song, is a cover of what I’ve heard described as a country-rock song. Written by Shawn Camp, the song is a car song that compares a woman to a car – the song features a bunch of hot solos by the various musicians. I guess you could call this newgrass.

“That Ol’ Train” sounds more folk-country than bluegrass, although it would work in either genre as it tells an effective story.

“Letters Have No Arms” was written by the Texas Troubadour Ernest Tubb and were a big hit for ET back in 1950. Del effective conveys the angst of the lyrics, a soldier reacting to his sweetheart’s letter.

“The First One Back in Town” is a song currently in hot rotation on bluegrass radio and is a classic murder ballad, in which his the narrator sees his sweetheart murdered from a distance and needs to get back to town before the killer, who might otherwise convince the authorities that he is the killer.

The next song “Build It Up” is a gospel tune written by Rob Clark. It is straightforward bluegrass gospel that Del’s band provides very effective harmonies.

“Bottom Dollar”, written by Fred John Elgersina feels like a folk ballad, a tale of woe and despair. Jason Carter plays some mighty lonesome fiddle on this piece.

Glen Duncan penned “Deep Dark Hollow Road” a song in which the singer calls on Loretta, his love, to abandon Kentucky in search of a better life.

I really liked the up-tempo “Ace of Hearts”, easily the most upbeat song in the set, about a fellow who got lucky in love and realizes just how lucky he was. The song was an album track on Alan Jackson’s debut album in 1990. The song was written by Lonnie Wilson, Ron Moore, and Carson Chamberlain and deserves to be better known

Love’s a gamble every heart will take

You roll the dice in hopes that it won’t break

One night I bet on your blue eyes and took a chance

And I won a whole lot more than one night of romance

 

I held the ace of hearts that night in the dark

How lucky can one man be

I hold the winning hand anyway life deals the cards

No way to lose ‘cause I’ve got you, my ace of hearts

Jerry Lee Lewis had a number one country single in early 1969 with the Jerry Kennedy – Glenn Sutton collaboration “To Make Love Sweeter For You”. Most of Jerry Lee’s country hits generated few covers because of how personal Jerry Lee made the songs seem. I thought that this was one of those songs that Jerry Lee had rendered incapable of being covered, but Del McCoury is fearless and was able to fashion a unique arrangement (reminiscent of 1890s honky-tonk) that carries the idiosyncratic feel of Jerry Lee’s recording, while still sounding dramatically different.

Well, I’d like to send an orchid at the start of every day

For flowers show more beauty than words could ever say

You’ve done so much for my world till all I want to do

Is try my best in every way to make love sweeter for you

 

A thousand special compliments I’d pay to you each day

Your ears would never tire of all the sweet things I would say

You never would be lonely, honey, you never would be blue

‘Cause my one aim in life would be to make love sweeter for you

Del himself wrote the next two songs, “Joe” and “Love Love Love”. The former is an up-tempo number about a performer who doesn’t mind bringing his fists into the equation, whereas the latter is a ballad that mixed tempos in telling its story.

“I’ll Be On My Way” is a dramatic ballad about the life of a wanderer. Written performed as a mid-tempo, the song features some nice fiddling by Jason Carter.

“You Could Be Me” is a ballad in which the narrator warns the listener that however bad the listener’s tale of woe, that the narrators are even worse. This song has received considerable airplay. Del has been singing bluesy and woeful ballads for decades and may be the ultimate master of the subgenre. This song was written by Tim Crouch, Edgar Sanders, Kenneth Mcafee, and Dennis Crouch.

The album closes with “I Fell In Love”. Those who listened to country radio will remember the song from the 1990 recording by Carlene Carter, a song that reached #3 on Billboard’s country chart. Needless to say, Del’s take does not remind you of Carlene Carter, but Del and his band infuse the song with a considerable dose of Del’s personality

Hey, I hit town without a clue

Minding my business like I always do

Just my luck I ran smack into you

And I never could’ve known it would be like this

You got the kind of charm that I can’t resist

I figure what’s the harm in a little bitty kiss or two

 

But I fell in love

(Whatcha want to do that for)

Oh I fell in love

(Whatcha want to do that for)

I fell in love

With the exception of guest pianist Josh Shilling on the Jerry Lee Lewis cover, this album is a self-contained album by Del and his band with Del playing the guitar and singing lead vocals, sons Ronnie (mandolin) and Rob (Banjo) adding harmony vocals and Jason Carter (fiddle) and Alan Bartram (upright bass) also adding harmony vocals. If you want to know how modern bluegrass should sound, this is a good place to start – a solid A

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Album Review: Dawn Sears – ‘Nothin’ But Good’

Mark Wright produced Dawn Sears’ second album, Nothin’ But Good, which arrived on Decca Records in August 1994. She was the first artist signed to the label’s newly revived country music branch.

The investment proved moderately successful from the onset. The rockin’ “Runaway Train,” which was co-written by fellow spotlight artist Kim Richey, peaked at #52. Sears’ fortunes would, unfortunately, reverse, as the mid-tempo title track, co-written by songwriter-of-the-moment Kostas, failed to chart.

“Close Up The Honky Tonks” is a clean and precise cover of the Buck Owens classic. “That’s Where I Wanna Take Our Love” is a classically styled torch song, written by Dean Dean Dillon and Harlan Howard and flawlessly executed by Sears.

“No Relief In Sight” is a contemporary ballad about the inability to move on from a past relationship. “Uh Oh (Here Comes Love)” is an excellent ditty, with an infectious melody, co-written by Carlene Carter.

“Planet of Love,” easily a standout track, is a spellbinding torch song co-written by Jim Lauderdale and John Leventhal. “It was Too Late” returned Sears to the up-tempo stylings that comprise the majority of the album.

Around this time, Sears also became known for her collaborative work with her fellow contemporaries. She teamed with Tracy Byrd for the duet “Out of Control Raging Fire” (later covered by Patty Loveless and Travis Tritt) from his debut album and provided backing vocals for Vince Gill on I Still Believe in You.

The association with Gill would prove most fruitful as she would continue to guest on many of his albums, accompany him on tour, and join his Western Swing band The Time Jumpers along which her husband Kenny. Their friendship impacted this album with the brilliant traditional ballad “If I Didn’t Have You In My World,” which Gill co-wrote with Jim Weatherly.

The album’s centerpiece closed out the album. Sears would have just one writing credit on this album, “Little Orphan Annie,” which she wrote solo. She wrote the tune in tribute to her parents, who died far too soon. It’s as perfect and effective a country song as I’ve ever had the good fortune to hear:

I saw the love

In mama’s eyes

I saw the fear she tried to hide

She knew she’d never see the morning sun

She left this world so young

 

On a windy day

In my Sunday best

I watched them lay my dad to rest

After months of pain, I tried to help him through

But there was nothing I could do

 

I feel like

Little Orphan Annie

Left here all alone

Little Orphan Annie

Trying to be strong

Every night I kneel and pray

Lord help me through another day

Help me fill this empty heart

Please don’t let me fall apart

Give me the strength to be

Little Orphan Annie

 

I miss them more

Then I can say

It’s not supposed to be this way

All grown up I should understand

But the child in me

Can’t comprehend

There are moments of sheer brilliance on Nothin’ But Good that show why Sears was one of the best and most criminally underrated female artists to fly under the radar in the 1990s. Some of the uptempo material is aimed at commercial viability and is, therefore, filler, but the vast majority of the album is beyond excellent.

Sears would sadly exit Decca shortly after the release of this album.

Grade: A

Album Review: Lisa McHugh – ‘Wildfire’

Unlike Robert Mizzell, with whom I had some familiarity, Lisa McHugh was totally unknown to me. Wildfire is her third studio album, released in September 2015 on the Sharpe label. Because my purchase was via digital download, the album came with no information beyond the song titles and timings.

Like most country albums from outside the USA, there are a large number of covers of US hits, but why not? Many of the songs are new to their target audiences and those that aren’t new are crowd favorites.

I am surprised that neither of the two earlier reviews mentioned how similar in tone and timbre Ms. McHugh’s voice is to Dolly Parton, especially on certain songs. Obviously, Lisa does not have Dolly’s East Tennessee accent.

The album opens with “Mean”, a Taylor Swift composition. McHugh’s version has a very bluegrass feel to it with banjo and fiddle dominating the mix with some mandolin thrown in. McHugh is very much a superior vocalist to Swift, so I actually enjoyed the song.

Someday I’ll be living in a big old city
And all you’re ever gonna be is mean
Someday I’ll be big enough so you can’t hit me
And all you’re ever gonna be is mean
Why you gotta be so mean?

“Bring On the Good Times” is an upbeat, uptempo song with a sing-along quality to it. I’m not entirely sure about the instrumentation but there are portions with either a subdued brass section, or else synthesizers mimicking brass. This song has a 1990s country feel to it, and appears to have become a line dancing favorite.

Next up is “Never Alone”, a piano oriented slow ballad that is a cover of a 2007 Jim Brickman single that featured Lady Antebellum:

May your tears come from laughing
You find friends worth having
With every year passing
They mean more than gold
May you win but stay humble
Smile more than grumble
And know when you stumble
You’re never alone

“57′ Chevrolet” is one of the better known songs of the late great Billie Jo Spears, an artist who was underappreciated in her native USA but was venerated in the UK and Ireland. This is a very nice update of Billie Jo’s 1978 classic, a song numerous Irish artists have covered.

Come and look at this old faded photograph.
Honey, tell me what it brings to mind.
It’s a picture of that ’57 Chevrolet.
I wish that we could ride it one more time.

I still get excited when I think about,
The drive-in picture shows you took me to.
But I don’t recall a lot about the movie stars:
Mostly that old Chevrolet and you

[chorus]
They don’t make cars like they used to.
I wish we still had it today.
The love we first tasted,
The good love we’re still living:

We owe it to that old ’57 Chevrolet.
Remember when we used to park it in the lane,
And listen to the country radio?
We’d hold on to each other while the singer sang,
And we’d stay like that ’til it was time to go

“Wrong Night” was written by Josh Leo and Rick Bowles and was a 1999 single for Reba McEntire. The song reached #6 for Reba:

Suddenly I heard love songs.
Playing real soft on the jukebox.
Somebody ordered up moonlight.
And painted stars all across the sky.
Is it gravity or destiny.
Either way there’s nothing I can do.
Looks like I picked the wrong night.
Not to fall in love with you.

Lisa’s vocal resemblance to Dolly is very pronounced on both “Wrong Night” and the next song “Blue Smoke”, a Dolly Parton song from 2012. This song is given the full bluegrass treatment. I very much like this track.

Blue smoke climbin’ up the mountain
Blue smoke windin’ round the bend
Blue smoke is the name of the heartbreak train
That I am ridin’ in

“Dance With the One” was written by Sam Hogin and Gretchen Peters and featured on Shania Twain’s first major label release for Mercury back in 1993 (before Mutt Lange). When I first heard the song, I thought it would be Shania’s breakthrough song – it wasn’t topping out at #55. Lisa does a nice job with the song.

Well he shines like a penny in a little kid’s hand
When he’s out on a Saturday night
He’s a real go-getter and the best two-stepper you’ll see
But when I’m sittin’ alone at a table for two
Cause he’s already out on the floor
I think about somethin’ that my mama used to say to me

You got to dance with the one that brought you
Stay with the one that want’s you
The one who’s gonna love you when all of the others go home
Don’t let the green grass fool you
Don’t let the moon get to you
Dance with the one that brought you and you can’t go wrong

“Favourite Boyfriend of the Year” comes from the song-bag of the McClymonts, a very attractive Australian sister trio. The McClymont version was a little sassier than McHugh’s version, but she does a fine job with this up-tempo romp. I would have liked Lisa’s voice to be a little more up front in the mix. Again, this sounds like 1990s country to my ears.

I’m a little fussy
But I got a little lucky
When the boss from the corner store
He took me out to dinner
And the waiter was a winner
And the boss he was out the door
You’re the one who’s caught my eye
This could be something worth your while

Hey it’s not a waste of time
You’re maybe one of many but you will never
Be the last in line
Hey I’m really glad you’re here cuz you’re one
Of my favourite boyfriends of the year

Nathan Carter (the next artist up in our spotlight) is featured on “You Can’t Make Old Friends”, a quiet ballad that was a Kenny Rogers-Dolly Parton duet back in 2013. While Lisa sounds a lot like Dolly, Nathan does not remind me of Kenny Rogers, although he is a fine singer. Anyway the voices blend nicely.

What will I do when you are gone?
Who’s gonna tell me the truth?
Who’s gonna finish the stories I start
The way you always do?

When somebody knocks at the door
Someone new walks in
I will smile and shake their hands,
But you can’t make old friends

You can’t make old friends
Can’t make old friends
It was me and you, since way back when
But you can’t make old friends

Carly Pearce currently has a song on the radio titled “Every Little Thing” but this is NOT that song. The song Lisa McHugh tackles here is the up-tempo #3 Carlene Carter hit from 1993. Lisa’s voice does not have the power of Carlene’s voice (the daughter of country legends June Carter and Carl Smith should have very substantial pipes) but she does an effective job with the song:

I hear songs on the radio
They might be fast or they might be slow
But every song they play’s got me thinkin’ ’bout you
I see a fella walkin’ down the street
He looks at me and he smiles real sweet
But he don’t matter to me
‘Cause I’m thinkin’ ’bout you

Every little dream I dream about you
Every little thought I think about you
Drives me crazy when you go away
I oughta keep you locked up at home
And like a wild horse I want to break you
I love you so much I hate you
Every little thing reminds me of you
Honey when you leave me here all alone

“The Banks of the Ohio” is an old warhorse, a murder ballad that has been covered by everyone from Ernest Stoneman, The Monroe Brothers and Charley Pride to Olivia Newton-John. Lisa gives this song a very slow folk-Celtic treatment after a spoken narrative. It is very nice and does not sound very similar to any other version I recall hearing.

Lisa gives “Livin’ In These Troubled Times” a Celtic/bluegrass touch with accordion, mandolin taking it at a somewhat faster clip than Crystal Gayle did in her 1983 top ten recording of this song, written by Sam Hogin, Roger Cook and Philip Donnelly. It’s probably heresy to say I like Lisa’s version better than the original, but in fact I do.

It takes all the faith that’s in you
Takes your heart and it takes mine
It takes love to be forgiven
Living in these troubled times

When it rains on the range
And it snows in the Spring
You’re reminded again
It’s just a march of the dying
Living in these troubled times

When I saw the song list for the album, I wondered whether this was the Michael Martin Murphey classic about a horse or the Mac Wiseman bluegrass romp or even possibly the Demi Lovato song from a few years back. As it turns out this “Wildfire” is an entirely different song, by someone named John Mayer. It’s taken at a very fast tempo and given a quasi-bluegrass arrangement.

Don’t get up just to get another
You can drink from mine
We can’t leave each other
We can dance with the dead
You can rest your head
On my shoulder if you want to
Get older with me
‘Cause a little bit of summer makes a lot of history

And you look fine, fine, fine
Put your feet up next to mine
We can watch that water line
Get higher and higher
Say, say, say
Ain’t it been some kind of day
You and me been catchin’ on
Like a wildfire

I got a rock from the river in my medicine bag
Magpie feather in his medicine bag

Say, say, say
Ain’t it been some kind of day
You and me been catchin’ on
Like a wildfire

“Thinking Out Loud” comes from the pen of Ed Sheeran. I don’t know anything about Sheeran (or John Mayer, for that matter) except that my stepson says both are good singers. This is a nice song, a slow ballad nicely sung but I don’t like the instrumentation which strikes me as smooth jazz or cocktail lounge R&B

When your legs don’t work like they used to before
And I can’t sweep you off of your feet
Will your mouth still remember the taste of my love
Will your eyes still smile from your cheeks
And darling I will be loving you ’til we’re 70
And baby my heart could still fall as hard at 23
And I’m thinking ’bout how people fall in love in mysterious ways
Maybe just the touch of a hand
Oh me I fall in love with you every single day
And I just wanna tell you I am

So honey now
Take me into your loving arms
Kiss me under the light of a thousand stars
Place your head on my beating heart
I’m thinking out loud
Maybe we found love right where we are

I’m not a huge Dolly Parton fan so I thought that I would find Lisa’s vocal resemblance to Dolly Parton off putting. I should note that the Parton resemblance only shows up on some songs – on other songs she reminds me of Liz Anderson (mother of Lynn Anderson and a fine songwriter). I’ve listened to this album constantly for the last two days and find that I really like it. With the exception of the last song, the instrumentation is solidly country and while the focus is on faster songs, Lisa varies the tempos sufficiently to keep it interesting and sticks within her vocal range.

With the possible exception of “Bring On the Good Times” for which I could not find any information, all of the songs are covers of earlier recordings. That does not bother me in the least as I’ve always preferred a cover of a great song, than a recording of an unworthy new song.

I’d give this album an “A” – with a better arrangement on the the last song, I’d be tempted to give it an “A+”

Retro Album Review: Miranda Lambert – ‘Crazy Ex Girlfriend’ (2007)

crazy ex girlfriendBack in the days writing for the 9513 Blog, I would post occasional reviews on Amazon. We are republishing updated versions of some of those reviews here.

Miranda Lambert is a brave singer, exploring the dark crevices of life and romance. This is territory that other female singers may explore for an occasional song, but not for an entire album. Needless to say, most of the album is about romance gone wrong.

My two favorite cuts, however, are not about romance at all. “Dry Town”, written by David Rawlings and Gillian Welch, is the most traditional country sounding track, a humorous song about wanting a cool one and finding that liquor sales are banned where you are. “Famous In A Small Town” is one of those neat little ‘slices of life’ songs dealing with the realities of life in a very small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business and ‘everyone dies famous in a small town’.

The rest of the CD is about the down side of romance (I certainly hope Ms Lambert’s real life isn’t as bleak as depicted here – she penned or helped pen eight of the songs on the album). The opening cut “Gunpowder & Lead” is unfortunate choice to open the album as it (a) isn’t country” and (b) isn’t very good, the one misfire on the album. Hopefully listeners will work through this track to get to the good stuff. If they do, they are immediately rewarded with the lighter fare of “Dry Town” and the lighter “Famous In A Small Town”.

After that it’s back to the main theme. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” didn’t get much airplay in my area but it’s an interesting number with some nice banjo work by Mike Wrucke. The self-penned “Love Letters” about letters written (I presume) on tear-drenched paper is a song with the depths of despair and desolation Hank Williams found in “Alone and Forsaken”.

“More Like Her” is a wistful song about her beau returning to his former girlfriend whom he realized was really what he wanted anyway. The remaining songs deal with loss of self-respect, recriminations and regrets.

The album closes with the classic “Easy From Now On” penned by Carlene Carter & Susanna Clark that was a hit for Emmylou Harris back in 1978 – a classic about getting oneself readjusted after the end of a romance. I hoped they would issue this track as a single.

In the hands of a less capable singer, this almost unremitting collection of “emotional downers” would be hard to stomach. Since the songs are well written and the singer so expressive, it is well worth the time spend listening to it. I originally rated the CD on amazon as 5 stars since it is a hair better than 4.5 stars, but if allowed fractional ratings I’d have given it 4.75 stars with the major deduction for the opening track. Today (2016):

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Carlene Carter ft Emmylou Harris – ‘Wildwood Rose’

Top 20 Albums of 2014: A Hidebound Traditionalist’s View

Rosanne CashWe didn’t get a chance to run this before the end of the year, but we figured our readers wouldn’t mind reading Paul’s year in review a little late. — Razor X

1. Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread

This album came out fairly early in the year, and yet I was fairly sure it would be the best new album I would hear in 2014. Elegant and insightful would be the terms I would think best describe this album.

2. Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard

So timeless are the songs are the songs of Merle Haggard that even marginal talents such as Jason Aldean and Jake Owen couldn’t mess up the songs. If fact I would regard Aldean’s take on “Going Where The Lonely Go” as he best recording he’s ever made. This tribute album is largely composed of modern country artists (Toby Keith, Parmalee, Dustin Lynch, Kristy Lee Cook, Randy Houser, Joe Nichols, Jake Owen, Jason Aldean and James Wesley) with Merle’s son Ben thrown in for good measure and Garth Brooks on the physical CD available at Walmart. The two tracks by Thompson Square (“You Take Me For Granted”, “Let’s Chase Each Other Around The Room”) are given a playful reading and are my favorite tracks, but every artist keeps the spirit of the Hag alive with these songs.

3. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison – Our Year

The follow-up to Cheater’s Game dishes up another nice serving of real country music with more focus on newer material but with some covers including a nice take on the Statler Brothers classic “I’ll Go To My Grave Loving You” .

4. Jerry Douglas – Earls of Leicester

An instant classic, this album is almost a theatre piece with various stellar musicians cast in the roles of the members of the classic Flatt & Scruggs lineup of the 1950s and 1960s, doing a program of classic Flatt & Scruggs material. Starring Jerry Douglas on dobro, Barry Bales on bass, Shawn Camp on acoustic guitar and vocals, Johnny Warren – fiddle, Tim O’Brien – mandolin, & Charlie Cushman – banjo and guitar. Johnny Warren is the song of longtime F&S fiddler Paul Warren.

5. Carlene Carter – Carter Girl

Carlene Carter pays tribute to her musical heritage with a classic collection of Carter Family tunes plus a pair of original compositions. These recording have a modern sound that differs from, but is true to, the spirit of the originals.

6. Ray Price – Beauty Is

I wanted to call this the best album of 2014 and if Ray had been in top vocal form I would have, but this is the swan song of a dying man who knows the end is but months away. The album is elegant and heartfelt, in many respects a valentine to his wife of many years.

7. Jeff Bates – Me and Conway

For as popular as Conway Twitty was during his heyday (think George Strait), he has been almost entirely forgotten. A tribute to Conway Twitty is long overdue and while I think a multi-artist album would be nice, if it has to be a single artist tribute album, there is no one better to do it than Jeff Bates, whose voice can sound eerily similar to that of Conway Twitty. The album is about half Conway Twitty songs and half new material including the title track. My favorite tracks are the title track, “Lost In The Feeling” and Jeff’s duet with Loretta Lynn on “After The fire Is Gone” .

8. Mandy Barnett – I Can’t Stop Loving You: The Songs of Don Gibson

Mandy is a masterful singer, if somewhat addicted to slow songs. Don Gibson was a top-drawer song writer, as well as a soulful performer. This album, initially available as a Cracker Barrel exclusive is proof that when you pair great songs with a great singer that very good things can happen. Don’s been gone for over a decade so it’s nice to see someone keep his songs in front of the American public.

9. Ray Price – A New Place To Begin

I am mystified that the tracks on this album went unreleased on an album for so long. During the mid 1980s Ray Price and Snuff Garrett collaborated on a number of successful singles (some of which were used in movie soundtracks) plus some other songs. True, producer Snuff Garrett fell ill somewhere along the line and retired, but Garrett was a big name producer and you would think these would have escaped somehow. This CD features seven chart singles that were never collected on an album, and seven other songs that were never released on an album. Sixteen tracks from one of the masters most featuring more steel guitar than was common for Ray during this period .

10. George Strait – The Cowboy Rides Away (Deluxe Edition)

This album has some flaws including what sounds like auto-tune on some tracks and the standard issue of the album doesn’t warrant a top twenty listing since it has only twenty songs on it. The Deluxe Edition, however, plants you into the middle of a George Strait concert – twenty-eight songs on the two CD set plus the entire 40 song set on the concert DVD with some bonus features. George never did tour extensively and when he hit town, the tickets were expensive and sold out quickly so I never did get to see him live in concert. This set is the next best thing. While the studio recordings are better, this is still worth having.

11. Chris Thile & Edgar Meyer – Bass & Mandolin

This album is a little hard to characterize – it’s not exactly bluegrass, folk, jazz or classical music, but it is all of them and more on the ten featured tunes, all of them co-writes. Meyer plays piano on a few tunes but mostly plays bass. Thile shines on the mandolin. The listener exults in the magic.

12. Sammy Kershaw – Do You Know Me: A Tribute To George Jones

True, Sammy is a distant cousin to Cajun pioneers Rusty and Doug Kershaw, but Sammy’s musical muses were Mel Street and George Jones. Here Sammy pays tribute to George Jones and does it well. My favorite among the dozen Jones hits (plus two new songs) covered is “When The Grass Grows Over Me”.

13. Joe Mullins – Another Day From Life

Joe Mullins has been around the bluegrass scene for a while, but this album was the first of his albums I happened to pick up. It’s very good and I’ll be picking up more of his albums when I hit the bluegrass festival in Palatka, Florida on February 20.

14. Rhonda Vincent – Only Me

Half country/half grass but 100% excellent. I wish that Rhonda would do an entire album of western swing and honky-tonk classics. It was silly to split this up into two six song discs, but I guess that the ears of the bluegrass purists needed protection from the country classics. My favorite track is “When The Grass Grows Over Me” which was also my favorite George Jones song. Rhonda’s takes on “Once A Day” and “Bright Lights and Country Music” are also highlights.

15. Lee Ann Womack – The Way I’m Livin’

It is good to see new music from Lee Ann. I don’t regard this as highly as I did her first few albums, but it is a welcome return to form.

16. Willie Nelson – Band of Brothers

Death, taxes and a new Willie Nelson album are the only things you can really count on seeing every year. This one is up to the usual standards, with Willie having written nine of the fourteen songs on the album.

17. Secret Sisters – Put your Needle Down

I actually liked their debut album better, but this one will appeal more to younger listeners. At this rate they won’t be a secret much longer. Buy it at Cracker Barrel as their version has two extra songs.

18. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

A lot has been written about this album, but the truth is that words really don’t adequately describe it. This album requires repeated listening.

19. Dierks Bentley – Riser

I like this album, but I keep expecting more of DIerks Bentley. “Drunk On A Plane” and “I Hold On” were the big radio/ video singles but I don’t think they were the best songs on the album.

20. Cornell Hurd Band – Twentieth Album

In some ways the Cornell Hurd Band is like Asleep At The Wheel, a very versatile band that can handle anything. Both are terrific swing bands but AATW leans more to the jazzy side while the CHB is more honky-tonk and more prone to novelty lyrics. All of their albums are filled with many and varied treasures.

Razor X’s Top 10 Albums of the Year

johnnycashCompiling a list of the year’s best albums is a much easier task than putting together a list of the year’s best singles. My list is comprised entirely of works by veteran artists who have more or less been put out to pasture by country radio but continue to produce quality music for their loyal fans.

10. Provoked — Sunny Sweeney

In a sane world, Sunny Sweeney would be a superstar. But even though she never quite found her niche at radio and is no longer on a major label, her first release in three years makes it crystal clear that she’s not about to quietly fade away.

Ray Price9. Beauty Is … The Final Sessions — Ray Price

Ray Price was dying of cancer while recording his swan song, but you’d never know it by listening to it. His voice sounded remarkably strong for an 87-year-old in declining health. Fans of Price’s countrypolitan period will enjoy this one.

8. Carter Girl — Carlene Carter

Her tribute to her famous ancestors has a few missteps along the way — mostly when the arrangements get a little too contemporary but overall Carlene Carter’s labor of love is very well done and well worth the asking price.

7. Band of Brothers — Willie Nelson

Willie’s voice has grown weaker with age but he is still a top-notch musician and songwriter and shows that he can still deliver the goods with this collection produced by Buddy Cannon.

Do You Know Me6. Do You Know Me: A Tribute to George Jones — Sammy Kershaw

I can’t think of anyone better suited to do a Jones tribute album, whether it be covers of the Possum’s classic hits or biographical title track that was written for but never recorded by Jones.

5. Influence, Vol. 2: The Man I Am — Randy Travis

This album’s tracks were all recorded in the same sessions as those that appear on the first Influence volume that was released last year. I had initially feared that Volume 2 would be made up of the leftover tracks that weren’t deemed good enough for the first disc, but I was pleasantly surprised at how strong Volume 2 actually is. I may even prefer it to its predecessor.

4. Our Year — Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis

This sparsely produced follow-up to last year’s Cheater’s Game is the perfect antidote to the overproduced bro-country currently being pushed by Nashvegas. I was a little surprised that they released this album only a year after its predecessor. Is it greedy to wish for another one in 2015?

blue smoke album3. Blue Smoke — Dolly Parton

After releasing a trio of critically acclaimed bluegrass albums in the early 2000s, Dolly lapsed back into the pop-country territory that she’d explored throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. She recovered nicely with Blue Smoke, and I really hope that this is the beginning of another creative surge and not just a one-off.

2. The Way I’m Livin’ — Lee Ann Womack

This was the comeback story of the year as far as I’m concerned. The Way I’m Livin’ is the sort of album I had hoped she would release as a follow-up to There’s More Where That Came From. It took almost a decade to happen but it was well worth the wait.

1. Out Among The Stars — Johnny Cash

This vintage Cash album was recorded mostly in the 1980s when the Man In Black was still in good voice. He was in the midst of a commercial dry spell and label politics prevented the completion and release of the album for 30 years. It was recently discovered and completed by his son John Carter Cash and is a real treat for Cash fans.

Album Review – Miranda Lambert – ‘Platinum’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Album Review: Carlene Carter – ‘Carter Girl’

carlenecarterCarlene Carter’s own music is vastly different from that of her famous family, so when plans were announced for a Carter Family tribute album, I wasn’t expecting a collection of faithful-to-the-original remakes. On one hand it makes sense to update these old classics, many of which date back to the 1920s, for the benefit of modern audiences. And who better to do so than the heiress to the Carter Family musical legacy? On the other hand, changing them too much runs the risk of alienating fans. Although she does take some liberties with the arrangements, for the most part Carter and producer Don Was get things right, although there are a few production missteps along the way.

Carter Girl, which was released last week on Rounder Records boasts an impressive lineup of guest artists from Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Kris Kristofferson and Elizabeth Cook to Sam Bush and the late Cowboy Jack Clement. The song selection is impeccable, consisting mostly of old chestnuts written by A.P. Carter, Helen Carter, June Carter Cash, and of course Mother Maybelle. Carlene herself gets songwriting credit on two numbers: “Me and the Wildwood Rose”, a remake of a recording she included on her 1993 album I Fell In Love and “Lonesome Valley 2003”, an old A.P. Carter and Al Anderson number which gets some updated lyrics.

The album’s main weakness is that some of the updated arrangements are too heavy-handed with the percussion, which doesn’t suit some of these old songs. This is immediately apparent with the opening track “Little Black Train”, which I instantly disliked. Upon hearing it, I was convinced that the entire album was going to be a disaster. The production on “Blackie’s Gunman” is also a bit cluttered. I did not initially like her take on her mother’s composition “Tall Lover Man” at all, finding the production a bit heavy-handed, but it’s been growing on me with repeated listenings.

Carlene and Don Was may have pushed the envelope a little too far on some of these numbers but they more than compensate for those excesses on the ones they get right, which is the rest of the album. She does a stunning version of “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight”, which features harmony vocals by Elizabeth Cook. Willie Nelson is her duet partner on “Troublesome Waters”, and Vince Gill provides the harmony on “Lonesome Valley 2003”, which is the centerpiece of the album. The original tune dates back to the 1930s. Carlene wrote the updated and deeply personal lyrics, which deal with the 2003 death of her mother June Carter Cash as well as the death of Johnny Cash four months later.

Production missteps aside, Carter Girl is a very fine tribute and a great introduction to one of the most influential families that country music has ever known.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Johnny Cash – ‘Out Among The Stars’

johnnycashThere hasn’t been any shortage of “new” Johnny Cash music in the decade since the Man In Black’s death. But unlike most of those releases, this week’s Out Among The Stars isn’t a reissue, an alternate take, a demo or a recording made during the singer’s declining years when he was long past his vocal peak. Rather, Out Among The Stars is a full-fledged studio album that was mostly recorded in the 1980s and produced by Billy Sherrill. The nearly completed album was discovered two years ago by John Carter Cash, who was in the process of mining the Sony archives while trying to catalog his parents’ extensive discographies. He brought in some additional musicians, including Marty Stuart, Buddy Miller and Carlene Carter, to bring the project to completion. The final product was released last week.

Normally, news of this sort would be cause for great celebration but any excitement about the album had to be tempered with the knowledge that the 1980s were, as even the most die-hard Cash fans will admit , a period in which the singer released mostly less than stellar work. Add to that the fact that Billy Sherrill had been the producer behind “The Chicken In Black”, widely regarded to be one of the worst singles of Cash’s career, and no one was quite sure what to expect.

Considering that Out Among The Stars was mostly recorded in 1984, while Cash’s career was in the middle of a long dry spell and just two years before Columbia dropped him from its roster, it isn’t surprising that the album was forgotten. But those who were braced for the worst will be pleasantly surprised because it is far superior to most of his output from that era. So far the album has produced one non-charting single, “She Used To Love Me a Lot”, which David Allan Coe took to #11 in 1984. It was written by Charles Quillen with Dennis W. Morgan and Kye Fleming. Morgan and Fleming were one of Nashville’s top songwriting teams of the day, having written many hits for Ronnie Milsap, Barbara Mandrell and Sylvia.

Many other top 80s songwriters teams are also represented. Ed and Patsy Bruce contributed “After All”, a pop-tinged ballad that was a departure from Johnny’s usual fare and Paul Kennerley and Graham Lyle wrote “Rock and Roll Shoes”. Johnny himself contributed the sentimental “Call Your Mother” and the inspirational “I Came To Believe”, which was written while Johnny was struggling with addiction and completing a stint at the Betty Ford Center. Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman wrote the tongue-in-cheek “If I Told You Who It Was” about a country music fan who has a fling with a female Opry star after changing her flat tire. No names are named, but the lady’s identity is revealed (for those old enough to recognize it) by an uncredited vocal appearance near the end of the song. It’s not Dolly Parton; that’s all I’m going to say.

Although traditionalists like to claim Cash as one of their own, The Man In Black was no purist and frequently pushed the boundaries of the genre. In this collection he sticks close to his country roots, and unlike many of his records, there is plenty of steel guitar on this album. Among the most traditional tunes are two excellent duets with June Carter Cash — “Baby, Ride Easy” and a cover of Tommy Collins’ “Don’t You Think It’s Come Our Time”. Johnny sounds relaxed and refreshed on these tracks, and June is also in fine vocal form. “Baby, Come Easy” features harmony vocals by Carlene Carter and “Don’t You Think It’s Come Our Time” features some excellent picking by Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Bryan Sutton. Waylon Jennings joins Johnny for a faithful-to-the-original cover of the Hank Snow classic “I’m Movin’ On”. Jennings’ presence elevates a performance that otherwise wouldn’t be particularly memorable.

The album closes with a remixed version of “She Used To Love Me A Lot” that was produced by Elvis Costello. Not surprisingly, this version isn’t country but it is in keeping with some of Cash’s genre-pushing efforts. It doesn’t really add anything to the album, however, and I could have done without it. “I Came To Believe” would have been a more appropriate closing track, but that is the only negative thing I can say about an otherwise exceptional album.

It is unlikely that Out Among The Stars would have fared well commercially had it been released thirty years ago. It was not then and is not now what mainstream Nashville wanted. It won’t produce any big radio hits, but now there is a greater appreciation of Johnny Cash than there was in 1984. Sony is giving the release the promotional effort it deserves and I imagine it will sell quite well.

Grade: A+

Classic Rewind – Carlene Carter – ‘My Dixie Darlin’

Spotlight Artist: Lorrie Morgan

lorrie-morgan-07During Monday night’s broadcast of An Intimate Evening with Eddy Stubbs featuring Vince Gill and Paul Franklin, Gill said:

“Our very earliest memories of why we love country music so deeply is because of when it hit us.” 

I’ll never forget hearing Lorrie Morgan sing “What Part of No” when I was five and being hooked. I was a fan of the Eagles before then, but Morgan’s 1993 #1 hit was my first exposure to country music and began a reverence for 1990s country that still holds strong today. From Morgan I discovered Alan Jackson, Collin Raye, and George Strait. Needless to say, the music seeped into my soul and became an integral part of who I am.

But Morgan was the artist who started it all. She was born, ironically, Loretta Lynn Morgan June 27, 1959 about a year before that other Loretta Lynn charted with “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl.” She was born in Nashville to country singer George Morgan, who’d taken his sole #1, and signature song, “Candy Kisses” to the top ten years earlier. I remember hearing Morgan say the similarities between their names were pure coincidence.

Morgan made her Grand Ole Opry debut at age 13 singing “Paper Roses,” and her father passed away in 1975. She subsequently took over his band, only to leave two years later and join Little Roy Wiggins. Morgan then held a receptionist and songwriting job at Acuff-Rose Music before joining Ralph Emery’s morning television show as a featured vocalist.

Her music career began in 1978 when she charted a single with minor success. A similarly received and electronically dubbed duet with her dad followed, as did opening slots on tours featuring the likes of Jack Greene and Jeannie Seely. Morgan was also a regular singer on Nashville Now, part of the Opryland USA Bluegrass Show, and a touring duet partner of George Jones. She scored another minor hit in 1984, the same year she became the youngest person to ever join the Grand Ole Opry.

Morgan was already divorced from George Jones’ former bass player when she met and married up and coming country singer Keith Whitley in 1986. The couple had a son, her second child, a year later. Whitley was notoriously known for his drinking and Morgan was said to have handcuffed them together with a bathrobe tie while they slept, in order to keep him from getting up to drink. She hit the big time when, now under the care of RCA Nashville, her single “Trainwreck of Emotion” went top 20 in 1988. The follow-ups were more successful – “Dear Me” hit #9 and “Out of Your Shoes” went to #2.

She was in the middle of an international tour and on her way to Alaska when she received the call that Whitley had died May 9, 1989. Morgan rushed back to Nashville. Two days later, May 11, her debut record Leave The Light On was released. That week Morgan gave an emotional performance of her hit “Dear Me” on the Grand Ole Opry, and famously accepted his CMA Single of the Year Award for “I’m No Stranger To The Rain” that fall.

Morgan reached another milestone when her single “Five Minutes” became her first #1 in 1990. That same year she charted with “Till A Tear Becomes A Rose,” a duet with Whitley. They’d win the CMA Vocal Event of the Year Award for their record that same year. She also married a one-time truck driver for Clint Black, and released Something In Red in 1991. The title track, a top 15 hit, would become her signature song.

Her third album Watch Me dropped in 1992, featuring her second #1 “What Part of No.” She divorced her third husband the following year and took up with Dallas Cowboys Quarterback Troy Aikman. Watch Me became Morgan’s third consecutive platinum album, making her the first female artist to reach that feat.

Morgan was now a hit with the fans, as displayed in her win for Female Vocalist of the Year at the 1994 TNN/Music City News Awards (a win she’d repeat several times), the fan voted award show that’s since morphed into the CMT Video Music Awards. Her fourth album War Paint, released that May, saw three singles tank on the charts. A Greatest Hits album and her final #1, “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” followed a year later. She was also romantically involved with US Senator and Actor Fred Thompson.

A fourth marriage, to country singer Jon Randall, took place in 1996. A duet between the pair, “By My Side,” went top 20 and led Morgan’s Greater Need album, which also included the top 5 “Good As I Was To You.” Morgan embarked on a headlining tour with Pam Tillis and Carlene Carter that summer. Her final big hits came from Shakin’ Things Up in 1997 – “Go Away” went top 5, while “One Of These Nights Tonight” peaked top 15. She released her autobiography, Forever Yours, Faithfully that fall.

Her hits may’ve dwindled, but the spotlight was shining bright. A duet with Sammy Kershaw (1999’s “Maybe Not Tonight”) led to the pair’s wedding in the fall of 2001. They released a duets album and Morgan said she’d never get divorced again. Their tumultuous six-year marriage (Morgan’s fifth) was a mess – they constantly fought, he allegedly tried to kill her, and broke up only to make up numerous times. She released an independent album, Show Me How in 2004.

The past decade has been the tamest of Morgan’s career. She filed for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy in 2008, and married her sixth husband beachside in 2010, the same year she was set to perform on Broadway in Pure Country, a part that never came to fruition. She’s currently touring as one half of the duo Grits and Glamour with Tillis. The pair released their long-awaited duets project Dos Divas late last month.

Hope you enjoy our (drama free) look back at Lorrie Morgan’s career throughout the month.

Sounds like last century: Pam Tillis live in Switzerland

Last month our friend Thomas Kobler reported on a recent Suzy Bogguss concert in Switzerland. Our current Spotlight Artist Pam Tillis has also just paid a visit to that beautiful country, and Tom has kindly shared another review with us.

We must have been real good here last year, since I cannot think of any other reason, why on earth Lorrie Morgan in March, Suzy Bogguss in April and now Pam Tillis in June all should find their way across the Atlantic to Switzerland to play us some of the best 90’s country that there is.

So far, the last one in line of those 90’s greats was Pam Tillis on the big stage in the huge white tent of the 20th (Anniversary) International Trucker & Country Festival in Interlaken on June 29. If the name of that place rings a bell, you might have heard it on TV. It is the pretty resort in between two alpine lakes just around the corner from that dramatic north face of the Eiger mountain, where Clint Eastwood had been hanging around quite a bit in the 1975 spy thriller The Eiger Sanction.
As usual at festivals, the slots can be more or less favourable. Pam Tillis’s slot was a slightly tricky one. She came on after the Bellamy Brothers – whose country music is quite similar to popular German hit-radio tunes except for pedal steel and language. (The Bellamy Brothers’ 70‘s hit song ‘Let Your Love Flow’ is the biggest German hit single of the last forty years or so, according to a representative audience poll in a popular German TV-show a couple of years ago. Here it is called ‘Ein Bett im Kornfeld’, sung by German singer Jürgen Drews.) Hence, coming on after them and their Swiss friends – which gave them almost something like “home field advantage” – at around 11 p.m. was probably not the most desirable slot.

However, Pam Tillis could not be bothered and hit the stage with two more women beside and a further four musicians behind her. In a glittery white blouse, matching dangly earrings and glittery tight blue jeans, tucked into – you might have guessed – glittery black knee-high boots, she looked as shiny, proper and attractive as it could get.

Consequently, she started her show warning not to leave anything hanging around – especially not your heart – only to think over the whole mess love life can bring a couple of minutes later and ending up wondering: ‘How Gone Is Goodbye’. It most likely was not very far, but far enough to consider flirting with the ‘Shake The Sugar Tree’ experience. In the end, things sounded as if they got worked out because next came ‘Sweetheart’s Dance’ just before things turned somewhat sour again, making her shout ‘Don’t Tell Me What To Do’, and coming to the conclusion that ‘Life Has Sure Changed Us Around’. . So far, so good. In a pre-concert interview Pam Tillis told CountryStyle:

“I love to express all kinds of feelings, be it through music or acting.”

No doubt, I thought after this opening selection of songs.

Then came a series of covers consisting of ‘Ring Of Fire’, ‘Walking After Midnight’ and Dolly’s ‘Do I Ever Cross Your Mind’. Had not Carlene Carter performed an absolutely stunning ‘Ring Of Fire’ the night before, I might have enjoyed Pam’s take more.

Turning back to her own material, she picked things up with the never recorded ‘Dance To The Sweet Rhythm Of Mine’, and reiterating her heart‘s desire unmistakably when continuing, ‘I Sure Could Use Your Company Now’. Something ‘Blue Rose‘s’ been dreaming of too, right afterward. Still one of those songs that almost make you want to thank the good Lord for the pedal-steel and Pam Tillis a lot.

After that, the concept of the playlist got more difficult to read, but ‘Calico Plains’, ‘Band In The Window’, ‘Put Yourself In My Place’, ‘Train Without A Whistle’ and the funky-bitter and witty ‘Cleopatra Queen Of Denial’ did not make you miss any greater underlying scheme at all. She delivered these songs grippingly, supported by a fine band in which the multi-talented Mary Sue Englund stood out playing second fiddle, keyboard and acoustic guitar as well as providing background vocals and Lorrie Morgan’s part in the duet ‘I Know What You Did Last Night’ from the remarkable Grits and Glamour song catalog. In fact, I found it quite difficult to read my hastily scribbled notes for this review because I was somewhat afraid of missing a single moment of that part of the show.

After ‘Early Memories’, a running around ‘Pony’, the insightful ‘I Know What You Did Last Night’ and a good look at her ‘Vida Loca’ in general, it was almost 1 a.m. when her doubts about whether ‘Memphis’, the southern summer nights or just her and him being a little frisky were to blame for a doubtless great time there. Closing the night with wanna holding hands Beatles-style a little later was a rather charming, innocent and fitting encore in the light of what had happened there in Memphis.

Well, what really can you say after such a show? I felt, it might have been an even better concert than perhaps some during her country radio heydays in the 90’s had been, for it included so much of the music from a long and distinguished career of a wonderful artist and most charming person (with quite a particular taste when it comes to sunglasses, I found out at the media event). Or inversely: If Pam Tillis and her band had such a good time in Switzerland as the fans around me and I had during her concert – they must have had a blast.

Spotlight Artist: Pam Tillis

pamtillisBeing related to a famous country entertainer can be a mixed blessing. Although the family ties can open doors for the aspiring singer, they can also serve to set unrealistic expectations. Just ask Roy Acuff Jr., Ronnie Robbins (billed as Marty Robbins, Jr.), The Lynns (daughters of Loretta Lynn), Riley Coyle (daughter of Jeannie C. Riley), Pake McEntire (Reba’s brother), Jay Lee Webb (Loretta Lynn’s brother), Peggy Sue (Loretta Lynn’s sister), and Hillman Hall (Tom T. Hall’s brother), each of whom issued an album or two and then disappeared. John Carter Cash has avoided the problem entirely by working behind the scenes.

Then there are those who achieve modest success and carve out respectable careers but never achieve top-drawer status, such as Shelly West (daughter of Dottie West), David Frizzell (brother of Lefty Frizzell), Tommy Cash (brother of Johnny Cash), Carlene Carter (daughter of Carl Smith and June Carter) and Thom Bresh (son of Merle Travis). Jazz guitarist Lenny Breau, son of country stars Hal Lone Pine and Betty Cody, might have fit into this category had he not died young.

True superstar success for those with famous kinfolk is indeed rare. The three biggest that come to mind are Crystal Gayle (Loretta Lynn’s sister), Lynn Anderson (the daughter of songwriter Casey & singer-songwriter Liz Anderson) and Hank Williams Jr. Pulling up behind these three are George Morgan’s daughter Lorrie, Rosanne Cash and this month’s spotlight artist, Pam Tillis.

Pamela Yvonne Tillis was born on July 24, 1957 in Plant City, Florida, the daughter of singer-songwriter-actor-comedian Mel Tillis.

As the daughter of one of the best-known songwriters around, and living in Nashville, Tillis was exposed to the elite of the country music industry even before her father had achieved recording star status. She made her Grand Ole Opry debut at the age of eight in an appearance with her father singing “Tom Dooley.” She grew up wanting to be a performer and tried her hand at songwriting at an early age and also found some work as a background singer. The results of an automobile accident at age 16 derailed her career for a while as several years of reconstructive facial surgery were needed to restore her appearance. Following her surgeries, Tillis enrolled at the University of Tennessee; then later at Belmont University in Nashville, TN, forming her first band. Since her only real interest was music, she eventually dropped out of college to pursue her own musical career.

Wanting to make it “on her own,” Tillis went to San Francisco where she joined a jazz-rock band Freelight.

After tiring of the San Francisco scene, she returned to Nashville and found work as a demo singer. She signed with Warner Brothers. in 1982, where she took a shot at pop success. Her sole album for Warner Brothers was Above and Beyond The Doll of Cutey. During the period between 1983 and ’87, Warner Brothers would issue at least eight singles on Tillis, five of which charted on Billboard’s Country chart, although none made the Top 50–not surprising since they were not being marketed as country singles. Unreleased were early versions of several of her later hits, which were released after she achieved success.

During this period, Tillis signed on as a staff songwriter with Tree Publishing in Nashville, where she shifted her focus to contemporary country music and achieved much success as a songwriter, with artists as diverse as Chaka Khan, Martina McBride, Gloria Gaynor, Conway Twitty, Holly Dunn, Juice Newton, Sweethearts of the Rodeo, Dan Seals, and Highway 101 recording her songs.

Her visibility was greatly improved when she started making regular appearances on shows aired on the late lamented Nashville Network, especially on Nashville Now, a nightly variety show hosted by Ralph Emery. By 1991 she had signed with Arista Records, where her career took off. For part of this period (until 1998) she was married to fellow songwriter Bob DiPiero.

The Arista years saw Tillis emerge as a steady and reliable hit-maker as the following list demonstrates:

•“Don’t Tell Me What To Do” / “Melancholy Child” – #5 (1990)

•“One Of Those Things” / “Already Fallen – #6 (1991)

•“Put Yourself In My Place” / “I’ve Seen Enough To Know” – #11 (1991)

•“Maybe It Was Memphis” / “Draggin’ My Chains” – #3 (1991)

•“Blue Rose Is” / “Ancient History” – #21 (1992)

•“Shake The Sugar Tree” / “Maybe It Was Memphis” #3 (1992)

•“Let That Pony Run” / “Fine Fine Very Fine Love” – #4 (1992)

•“Cleopatra Queen Of Denial” / “Homeward Looking Angel” – #11 (1993)

•“Do You Know Where Your Man Is” / “We’ve Tried Everything Else” – #16 (1993)

•“Spilled Perfume” / “Till All The Lonely’s Gone” – #5 (1994)

•“When You Walk In The Room” / “Till All The Lonely’s Gone” – #2 (1994)

•“Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life)” / “Ancient History” – #1 (1994)

•“I Was Blown Away” / “Calico Plains” – #16 (1995)

•“In Between Dances” / “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To” – #3 (1995)

•“Deep Down” / “Tequila Mockingbird” – #6 (1995)

•“River And The Highway” / “All Of This Love” – #8 (1996)

•“It’s Lonely Out There” / “You Can’t Have A Good Time Without Me” – #14 (1996)

•“All The Good Ones Are Gone” / “Land Of The Living” – #4 (1997)

•“I Said A Prayer” / “Lay The Heartache Down” – #12 (1998)

•“Every Time” / “You Put The Lonely On Me” – #38 (1998)

After 1998, the hits started drying up as the next wave of young performers arrived.

Tillis’ Arista albums were generally quite successful, starting with 1991’s Put Yourself In My Place which had three Top 10 hits in lead single, “Don’t Tell Me What to Do,” “One of Those Things” and “Maybe It Was Memphis.” The album ultimately reached gold status.

Her 1992 follow-up Homeward Looking Angel was equally successful, with “Shake the Sugar Tree” and “Let That Pony Run” reaching the Top 5. Homeward Looking Angel reached platinum status. In 1993, she won her first major award: the CMA Awards’ Vocal Event of the Year with George Jones and Friends for “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair.”

In 1994, her third Arista album, Sweetheart’s Dance, was released, reaching #6 on the Billboard’s Country Album chart (her highest placement). Singles “Spilled Perfume” and “When You Walk in the Room” both became Top 5 hits and she had her only #1, “Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life),” helping push the album to platinum status.

Issued in late 1996, All of This Love, became Tillis’ last gold non-compilation album. The only single to reach Top 10 status was “The River and The Highway.” It was the first album she produced on her own.

In 1997, Arista released her first (actually only) Greatest Hits album. The compilation featured two new tracks, both released as singles: “All the Good Ones Are Gone” and “The Land of the Living,” both of which reached the Top 5 in 1997. This collection also went platinum.

After 1997, the country music market shifted, becoming more youth-oriented and less country, with a resultant drop in both chart and sales success for Tillis. Her 1998 album Every Time featured “I Said A Prayer”, which just missed the Top 10 and was her last Top 20 single. Her last Arista album, issued in 2001, Thunder & Roses performed reasonably well on the album chart (both it and Every Time reached #24) but generated no real hit singles.

Since 1998 Pam Tillis has remained active, both in live appearances, occasionally performing with her father Mel, and occasionally recording. She became a Grand Ole Opry member in 2000, which was several years before her father, and had the honor of inducting him into Opry membership. She has tried her hand at acting, both on stage and on television, with considerable success.

She still records occasionally. In 2002 she fulfilled a lifetime dream of recording an album of songs written by or associated with her father. Titled It’s All Relative, the album found Pam ignoring the Mel Tillis template and giving her own interpretation of her father’s material, most notably on “Heart Over Mind”.

She started her own record label, Stellar Cat, and issued her album Rhinestoned under that imprint in 2007. One of the singles from the album, “Band In The Window,” earned considerable acclaim, although the album ultimately yielded no hits.

All told, Pam Tillis had over 30 chart records including 13 Top 10s. In 1994 she was named the Country Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year. In 1999, she earned a Grammy Award for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals. When CMT did their countdown of the 40 Greatest Women of Country Music in 2002, Tillis ranked at #30. Kevin Coyne of Country Universe ranked her at #35 in his 100 Greatest Women of Country Music countdown in 2008.

Discography

With the exception of the Warner Brothers album, which originally was issued on vinyl and audio cassette, all of Tillis’ subsequent recordings have been released on CD. Most of the titles remain in print, others can be located used with a little bit of effort. Unlike country singers from generations before, the Pam Tillis catalog is fairly shallow with a total of a dozen original studio albums, plus some anthologies (Greatest Hits, Super Hits, Best Of, etc.) and whatever unreleased tracks may be lying around in somebody’s vault. Accordingly, collecting a fairly complete Pam Tillis collection isn’t that difficult, especially since her Warner Brothers debut recently was reissued on CD by Wounded Bird. All of her post-Warner Brothers albums are worthwhile and even her debut album (which I originally purchased on vinyl) has its moments.

The Ernest Tubb Record Shop currently has seven of her albums available as well as several anthologies.

There is a need for a decent two-disc set containing about 40 of her songs. Lately, the German label Bear Family has been issuing some less-than-exhaustive sets. Maybe they will step up to the plate –she’s worth a decent anthology.

Pam Tillis is still actively performing – you can catch  up with her at her website http://www.pamtillis.com/ . She does have some product for sale there as digital downloads including a Christmas album and a duet single (with Kris Thomas)  titled “Two Kings” which is about Elvis Presley and Martin Luther King, Jr. Her long-awaited duet album with Lorrie Morgan comes out later this month.

Classic Rewind: Carlene Carter – ‘The Sweetest Thing’

Classic Rewind: Carlene Carter – ‘Easy From Now On’

In memory of Susanna Clark who wrote this great song with Carlene, and who died yesterday:

Classic Rewind: Carlene Carter with the Carter Family – ‘Worried Man Blues’

Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town’

Emmylou’s fourth album was released in January 1978 on Warner Brothers, which had taken over her contract from the subsidiary Reprise. A personal favorite of mine, it contains a number of her classic recordings. The lineup marks the replacement of Rodney Crowell in the Hot Band by Ricky Skaggs, with both men playing on the record. The arrangements and musicians are, as usual, impeccable. There was a change of emphasis with the selection of material, with no classic revivals this time (although a number of the tracks have become classics in their own right since), but a concentration on new songs.  The quality of material is as high as Emmylou’s fans had come to expect. Emmylou was now married to producer Brian Ahern, and their personal and professional partnership showed them in perfect tune. Ironically, given her newlywed status, the overarching theme is one of leaving, whether that means a lover or spouse, a parent, or life itself.

One of the classics born on this record was the first single. ‘To Daddy’ was written by Dolly Parton, who generously relinquished the opportunity to sing the song to her friend, not recording it herself for many years. Emmylou’s subtle version was a big hit, reaching #3. The devastating lyric tells the story of a downtrodden wife and mother who suffers silently for years with her neglectful and uncaring husband, and then leaves with as little fuss as she made during the marriage:

She never meant to come back home
If she did, she never did say so to Daddy

Told from the viewpoint of one of the children, Emmylou delivers one of her purest vocals, allowing the lyrics to speak for themselves. This is still one of my favorite Emmylou Harris recordings. It was followed on the charts by the #1 hit ‘Two More Bottles Of Wine’, an up-tempo rocking-blues Delbert McClinton song which offers a defiant response to loneliness and a lover’s departure:

It’s alright cause it’s midnight and I got two more bottles of wine

Another song now widely (and rightly) regarded as a classic, the poetic ‘Easy From Now On’, written by Guy Clark’s wife Susanna and a young Carlene Carter (billed by her first married name of Routh), peaked at #12. Emmylou sounds a little sad as she plans to drink the night away following the end of a relationship. The lyrics provide the album’s title, and Susanna Clark also painted the picture used for the cover art.

Rodney Crowell, about to leave the Hot Band to launch his own solo career, contributed a couple of songs as a parting gift. There are Cajun touches to the story song ‘Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight , which was later a hit for the Oak Ridge Boys. Rick Danko of The Band sings harmony and his bandmate Garth Hudson plays sax and accordion. The driving ‘I Ain’t Living Long Like This’ is a hard-boiled country rocker addressed to a low-life individual headed for life in jail, and Rodney’s own version was to be the title track of his debut album later the same year, also on Warner Brothers.

Willie Nelson sings a prominent harmony on the folky ‘One Paper Kid’, a downbeat story about another of life’s failures, set to an attractive tune and a very simple acoustic backing consisting of Mickey Raphael’s harmonica and Emmylou herself on guitar. The pair had toured together, and their voices blend beautifully on another highlight.

The tribute to the ‘Green Rolling Hills’ of West Virginia, written by folk singer Utah Phillips, is sung as a duet with Emmylou’s longtime harmony singer Fayssoux Starling, which sounds just lovely. Ricky Skaggs, Rodney Crowell’s replacement in the Hot Band, plays fiddle and viola on this track, foreshadowing the changes his influence was to bring in Emmylou’s music.

Singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester contributed two songs, the beautiful and perhaps metaphorical ballad ‘My Songbird’ and the swooping and allusive ‘Defying Gravity’, with Nicolette Larson on harmony. The album closes with the slowed down bluesy rockabilly of ‘Burn That Candle’, which is the only track I don’t much like, with some very odd emphases in the pronunciation.

The 2004 CD reissue included two previously unreleased live cuts from the early 80s with a Cajun flavor – Guy Clark’s ‘New Cut Road’ and ‘Lacassine Special’ (sung in French). They are well performed, but feel a little out of place here.

Grade: A

Album Review: Terri Clark – ‘Fearless’

Perhaps feeling pigeon-holed by country radio, Terri Clark sought a change in direction for her fourth studio release. She hired a new producer, Steuart Smith and turned to fellow singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter to supply her with some new material. The result is a more introspective set of songs, with less twang and more contemporary and middle-of-the-road production. Heralded by many critics as an artistic triumph, country radio was singularly unimpressed and shunned Fearless after the first single peaked at #13. In recent years, radio has become an increasingly unreliable judge of music quality, but this is one time I am firmly in radio’s corner; with one or two exceptions, Fearless is a dull and lifeless collection with little of the charm found in Clark’s previous work. It is my least favorite album in her catalog.

Fearless could just have easily been titled Terri Clark Sings Mary Chapin Carpenter, for Carpenter’s influence can be heard throughout the album, including and beyond the three tracks that she co-wrote. I find Carpenter’s music to be very hit or miss; when she’s great, she’s really great, but many of her albums are tedious to get through. Some of the songs on Fearless might have worked better if Carpenter were singing them, but the style just doesn’t work for Terri Clark. When I listen to a Terri Clark album, I want to hear Terri Clark, not a Mary Chapin Carpenter wannabe.

The lead single, “A Little Gasoline” is one of two tracks on which Terri’s previous producer Keith Stegall acts as a co-producer. It is closer in style to Terri’s earlier work and is the only truly radio-friendly track on the album. There must have been some concern — justified, as it turned out –that radio would not be receptive to Clark’s new sound, and “A Little Gasoline” seems to have been selected as an insurance policy against that. The strategy was somewhat successful; “A Little Gasoline” received enough airplay to reach #13 and become the album’s most successful single. The remaining singles did not fare as well: “No Fear” stalled at #27, “Gettin’ There” reached #41 and the mind-numbingly dull “Empty” did not chart at all.

The one truly enjoyable track on the album is Terri’s exquisite remake of the Carlene Carter-Susanna Clark song “Easy From Now On”. Emmylou Harris, whose definitive version reached #12 in 1978, sings harmony. The stripped-down acoustic guitar and fiddle arrangement gives the track a Celtic feel. It’s a beautiful, well performed and tastefully produced recording. It’s a shame that none of the album’s other tracks come even close to matching it.

Though the album is not to my personal taste, Terri deserves great credit for trying something different, instead of resting on her creative laurels. In theory, collaborating with acclaimed songwriters such as Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kim Richey and Beth Nielsen Chapman sounds like a good idea, but the results just don’t seem to be a good fit for Clark. Like her two previous albums, it reached #4 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart; however, it was her first album that failed to earn gold or platinum certification in the United States. It did earn gold certification in Canada, representing sales of 50,000 units or approximately half the Canadian sales of her previous album.

Grade: C

Fearless is not essential listening, but diehard fans can purchase it inexpensively from Amazon.

Classic Rewind: Carlene Carter – ‘Me And The Wildwood Rose’