My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Chris Stapleton

Album Review: Varous Artists: ‘Gentle Giants: The Songs Of Don Williams’

Don Williams had a very successful career in Country Music and is pretty much beloved throughout the English-speaking world. Don would have a long run of chart singles (46 as a solo artist) that would run from 1973 to 1992, and he would continue to release albums of new music through 2014.

With such a long discography, the task is twofold: (1) find artists whose styles are sympathetic to the honoree’s style without being mere imitations, and (2) find some interesting catalog songs rather than simply covering the biggest hits. Moreover, tribute albums tend to be a mixed bag with some of them being very good, and others merely star vehicles for current stars rather than genuine tributes. Gentle Giants is a genuine tribute to Don.

This project succeeds in both respects. The artists cover a broad range of styles and while the songs are mostly big hits, a few lesser known songs are covered as well.

The album opens up with the Pistol Annies’ version of “Tulsa Time” a song written by Danny Flowers, one of Don’s band members. The arrangement of this 1979 #1 record for Don is considerably funkier than Don’s arrangement.

“I Believe In You” was written by Roger Cook and Sam Hogin, hitting #1 in 1980. This was probably Don’s biggest international hit, even reaching #4 on New Zealand’s pop charts. Brandy Clark does a decent job of the song, although it probably should have been tackled by a more grizzled artist than young Brandy.

“We’ve Got A Good Fire Going” was not one of Don’s bigger hits, only reaching #3 in 1986. Written by master songsmith David Loggins, the song seems perfectly suited for a vocal trio such as Lady Antebellum. The arrangement is very gentle with a light string accompaniment.

There’s a storm rollin’ over the hill
And the willow trees are blowin’
I’m standin’ here starin’ out the window
Safe and warm
I feel her put her arms around me
And it’s a good feelin’ that I’m knowin’
Oh, I’ve got a good woman and we’ve got a good fire goin’

“Some Broken Hearts Never Mend” comes from the pen of Wayland Holyfield. The song reached #1 in 1977, Dierks Bentley gives the song an acoustic, nearly bluegrass arrangement. I love the song and I love Dierks’ performance of the song.

While there are no complete misfires on the album, “Amanda” seems ill suited for the duo of Chris Stapleton and Morgane Stapleton. I really like Chris but his voice is just wrong for this song. His version is acceptable but both Don and ol’ Waylon did far better versions of the song.

Similarly Alison Krauss makes the mistake of slowing the tempo in “Till The Rivers All Run Dry”. Since all of Don’s songs are taken at slow to medium slow tempos, reducing the tempo on any of Don’s songs is a mistake. Alison provides a gorgeous vocal, but the song just seems to drag. Don co-wrote this song with Wayland Holyfield, his fourth #1 from back in 1976.

I regard John Prine as a talented songwriter but a poor vocalist with his vocal efforts ranging from mediocre to terrible. Somehow “Love Is On A Roll” works. It was a good idea to pair him with Roger Cook, especially since Prine and Cook were the writers on the song. Don took this song to #1 in 1983.

Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You”, as sung by Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, was a bit of a disappointment, mostly because Amanda Shires is no Emmylou Harris as a harmony singer. I think the song originally was an Emmylou Harris single featuring Don Williams since it was released on Warner Brothers, which was Emmylou’s label. The song only reached #3 but I thought it was an outstanding effort by Don and Emmylou.

“Maggie’s Dream” missed the top ten when released in 1984 but by then Don was staring to lose momentum as a singles artist. Also the album from which the song came, Cafe Carolina, was Don’s least successful album in a decade. Written by David Loggins and Lisa Silver, Trisha Yearwood does a masterful job with the song. I think it has one of the more interesting lyrics that Don ever tackled:

Maggie’s up each morning at four am
By five at the counter at the diner
Her trucker friends out on the road will soon be stopping in
As the lights go on at Cafe Carolina

Maggie’s been a waitress here most all her life
Thirty years of coffee cups and sore feet
The mountains around Ashevill,e she’s never seen the other side
Closer now to fifty than to forty

Maggie’s never had a love
She said she’s never had enough time
To let a man into her life
Aw but Maggie has a dream
She’s had since she was seventeen
To find a husband and be a wife

I am not that familiar with Keb Mo’ but he nailed “Lord I Hope This Day Is Good”, adding a very sincere vocal to an arrangement that is nearly a clone of Don’s original. The song was written by Dave Hanner, best known for his role in the Corbin/Hanner Band. The song reached #1 in 1981.

“Good Ole Boys Like Me”, written by Bob McDill is probably my favorite Don Williams song and Garth Brooks version tells me that Garth definitely grew up on and was inspired by Don’s songs. Billboard had this song dying at #2 but Cashbox and Record World both had it reaching #1.

All said, this is a pretty nice album. Don Williams was a pretty laid back artist and I wish someone had selected some of the more up-tempo songs (admittedly, there were not that many from which to choose). Other than Leon Redbone and Bobby Bare, no one was as good at laid-back as Don Williams.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Chris Stapleton – ‘From a Room: Volume 1’

Ever since he swept the 2015 CMA Award and his career-defining performance with Justin Timberlake at that show, Chris Stapleton has been regarded by many as the savior of country music, who will lift the genre out of its creative doldrums and set it back on a path towards traditionalism. The great irony is that Stapleton’s music is really not that traditional for the most part. Roots-oriented, organic, and substantive yes, but he’s hardly the modern day equivalent of Randy Travis in 1986. Nevertheless, there is no denying that the genre has benefited from his success. He has a powerful voice but his style owes more to blue-eyed sound southern rock than traditional country. His style is not usually my cup of tea, but I actually like Chris Stapleton quite a lot and have ever since he was the lead singer for The SteelDrivers. And regardless of whether or not one likes his vocal style, one can’t help but root for someone who can have commercial success while bypassing the cesspool that is country radio.

The follow-up to his immensely successful debut album Traveller was originally envisioned as a two-disc set, but Mercury apparently had some reservations about a double album and opted to release From a Room in two volumes, with the second set tentatively slated for an autumn release. One of the unfortunate consequences of his is that the first volume consists of a mere nine tracks. No album should consist of less then ten songs, in my opinion. I was annoyed when RCA trimmed back its albums to nine tracks in the 1980s and the practice, though rare nowadays, still does not sit well with me. Surely there were more songs recorded that could have been used to flesh out the album a bit. That criticism aside, From a Room is, for the most part, an outstanding collection.

Like Traveller, From a Room: Volume 1 was co-produced by Stapleton and Dave Cobb and recorded in RCA Studio A. Eight of its nine tracks were co-written by Stapleton (many apparently from his extensive back catalog), the sole exception being a stunning version of “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning”, which was a #2 hit for Willie Nelson in 1982. It tells the story of a morning in which everything goes wrong: the delivery of a past-due bill notice, an alarm clock that fails to go off on time, a spilled pot of coffee, among other things, culminating in the narrator’s wife or girlfriend calling an end to their relationship. Stapleton’s wife Morgane Hayes-Stapleton provides the harmony vocals.

Another tune that will be familiar to many listeners is “Either Way”, which was originally included on Lee Ann Womack’s Call Me Crazy album in 2008. A ballad about a relationship taking its last dying breaths, it is the perfect vehicle for Stapleton’s powerhouse voice. Wikipedia lists it as the current single. Don’t expect to hear it the radio.

“Up to No Good Livin'”, the sole traditional track on the album, is my favorite. Again featuring Morgane signing harmony, it is a pedal-steel drenched up-tempo number about a reformed hell raiser whose wife refuses to believe that he’s mended his ways:

Wish I could come home from workin’
And not have her checking my breath
I’m tired of her turning her questions
Into the Gettysburg Address
There’s no reason why she shouldn’t trust me
The fact that she don’t makes me mad
Can’t count all the times that I’ve begged her
Honey, just let my past be the past

I used to drink like a fish and run like a dog
Without a whole lotta sh*t not committed by law
People called me the Picasso of painting the town
I’ve finally grown up
I’ve finally changed from that someone I was
To somebody I am
But she finds it hard to believe that she’s turned me around
So I’ll probably die before I live all my
Up to no good livin’ down

It’s no surprise, given Stapleton’s reputation as one of Nashville’s best songwriters, that From a Room: Volume 1 consists of very well-crafted and well executed songs. The sole dud is “Them Stems”, a tongue-in-cheek number about a marijuana user who has come to the end of his stash and desperate for a fresh supply. It’s catchy, but songs about drug use make me uncomfortable and as a result, I really can’t get into this one. One throwaway track on an album is no big deal but it’s a little harder to overlook when there are only nine songs in total.

From a Room: Volume 1 is sure to be one of 2017’s best sellers, and deservedly so. I’ve already played it several times and actually prefer it to Traveller. I’m looking forward to hearing the second volume in a few months.

Grade: A

Single Review: Chris Stapleton – ‘Broken Halos’

Chris Stapleton has finally shared the first official taste of his highly-anticipated sophomore album, From A Room, Volume 1. He may have sung “Second One to Know” on the ACM Awards earlier this month, but “Broken Halos” is the first audio Stapleton and Mercury Records have shared with fans.

I must admit I haven’t been able to drink the Stapleton branded cool-aid. I’m not much of a fan of his style or voice, which do not excite me. My brain keeps wanting to compare him to Jamey Johnson, which for me is no contest. I love Johnson and adore That Lonesome Song. I still can’t get into Traveller no matter how many times I listen to it.

“Broken Halos” doesn’t change my perception. It’s a blues rocker, not a country song, a style that fits him well. I admire how structured the song sounds, there’s no wild abandon impeding on the listening experience. “Broken Halos” is probably as straight a reading as we’re ever going to get from Stapleton.

The song, though, is a good one. I really like the spiritual nature of the lyric, which offers a poignant message of redemption:

Angels come down from the heavens

Just to help us on our way

Come to teach us, then they leave us

And they find some other soul to save

 

Seen my share of broken halos

Folded wings that used to flysang

They’ve all gone wherever they go

Broken halos that used to shine

Broken halos that used to shine

 

Don’t go looking for the reasons

Don’t go asking Jesus why

We’re not meant to know the answers

They belong to the by and by

They belong to the by and by

My personal feelings don’t distract from how well he executes this record. The lyric could be flushed out a bit more, but the arrangement is tasteful and he uses his god-like voice to the fullness of its powers. “Broken Halos” is signature Chris Stapleton and a fine beginning to what promises to be one of the strongest artistic achievements for mainstream country this year.

Grade: B+

Single Review: Zac Brown Band – ‘My Old Man’

The Zac Brown Band have always maintained that they are not a strictly country band; however, they they have been one of the few (mostly) bright spots at country radio over the past decade.  With the release of the polarizing Jekyll + Hyde album, they ventured into the world of EDM and reggae.  It didn’t seem to hurt them commercially but it did alienate many of their fans.  The Band now seems to be extending an olive branch to those fans with their new release, “My Old Man”.

Written by Zac Brown with Niko Moon and Ben Simonetti, “My Old Man” is the latest in country music’s long-standing tradition of honoring one’s parents.  It channels old chestnuts as “Coal Miner’s Daughter”, “Daddy’s Hands”, “That’s My Job” and “Love Without End, Amen” and delivers essentially the same message as those classic songs.  While it doesn’t break any new ground, it does take the initial steps needed to get country music in general – and the Zac Brown Band in particular – back on track artistically.

A sparsely arranged ballad consisting of acoustic guitar, a little fiddle, a subtle string arrangement and the Band’s trademark harmonies, “My Old Man” opens with the narrator’s boyhood reminiscences of his father.  In the second verse, the narrator is grown with a son of his own.  The third verse reveals that the narrator’s father has passed away.  The narrator expresses hope that he can live up to the example that was set for him, and looks forward to an eventual reunion with his father in the afterlife.

“My Old Man” was produced by Dave Cobb, best known for his work with Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson.  It’s the refreshing glass of water that  fans have been crying out for during a long drought in the bro-country desert.  I look forward to hearing the Band’s forthcoming album.

Grade:  A

50th CMA Awards: Grading the Twenty Performances

Instead of the typical CMA Awards prediction post, I thought it might be fun to rank the twenty performances, all of which brought something special to the evening. Here they are, in ascending order, with commentary:

20.

imrs-phpBeyoncé Feat. Dixie Chicks – Daddy’s Lessons

The most debated moment of the night was the worst performance in recent CMA history, an embarrassment to country music and the fifty years of the organization. Beyoncé was the antithesis of our genre with her staged antics and complete lack of authenticity. If Dixie Chicks had performed this song alone, like they did on tour, it would’ve been a slam-dunk. They were never the problem. Beyoncé is to blame for this mess.

Grade: F

19.

Kelsea Ballerini – Peter Pan

I feel bad for her. It seems Ballerini never got the memo that this was the CMA Awards and not a sideshow at Magic Kingdom. Everything about this was wrong – the visuals, wind machine and, most of all, the dancers. Once I saw the harness in plain sight, I knew it was over.

Grade: F 

 18.

362x204-q100_121d9e867599857df2132b3b6c77e0c8Luke Bryan – Move

Nashville is perennially behind the trends as evidenced by Bryan’s completely out of place performance. One of only two I purposefully fast forwarded through.

Grade: F 

 17.

Florida Georgia Line feat. Tim McGraw – May We All 

Stood out like a sore thumb, for all the wrong reasons. Not even McGraw could redeem this disaster.

Grade: F  

16.

gettyimages-620669440-43407842-8b2a-437b-a6e4-f643a1b5b104Carrie Underwood – Dirty Laundry

The newly minted Female Vocalist of the Year gave the third weakest performance of this year’s nominees. I commend her use of an all-female band, but disliked everything else from the visuals to Underwood’s dancing. It all starts with the song and this one is among her worst.

Grade: D+

15.

Thomas Rhett – Die A Happy Man

The biggest hit of the year gave Thomas Rhett a moment his other radio singles proves he doesn’t deserve. He remained gracious throughout the night, proving he can turn it on when it counts. I just wish it wasn’t an act.

Grade: B- 

14.

362x204-q100_b63432d74b677e29d35917efd7490170Keith Urban – Blue Ain’t Your Color

A perfectly serviceable performance of an above average song. He did nothing to stand out from the pack neither adding to nor distracting from the night’s more significant moments.

Grade: B

13.

Dierks Bentley feat. Elle King – Different for Girls 

At least Bentley wasn’t showcasing the rowdier side of Black. He and King didn’t do anything to stand out and the whole thing was more middle of the road than anything else.

Grade: B

 12.

landscape-1478192054-gettyimages-620693852Martina McBride, Reba McEntire, Kacey Musgraves, Jennifer Nettles and Carrie Underwood – Dolly Parton Tribute 

I have nothing against Parton nor do I deny her incredible legacy as a pioneer in the genre. But it’s time to honor someone else. Parton has been lauded and it’s so old at this point, it’s unspectacular. That’s not to say this wasn’t a great medley, it was. I just wish it had been for someone different, like say, Tanya Tucker.

Grade: B

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Single Review: Brad Paisley – ‘Today’

bp_today_webWhen Brad Paisley first arrived on the scene back in 1999, I thought he was destined to be the leader of an overdue shift back towards traditional country music. That shift never really materialized but Brad remained one of the few bright spots in an otherwise bland mainstream. In the next decade and a half things would only become worse, until an all-time nadir otherwise known as bro-country was reached. During that time even some of the genre’s more reliable artists made some questionable choices (2013’s Wheelhouse in Paisley’s case). Thankfully the bro-country fad finally seems to be over, with artists such as Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton helping to end the quagmire.

Paisley’s latest effort “Today” has been lauded in some circles as a return to form for him, but to my ears it doesn’t quite live up to the hype. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I was hoping for another “He Didn’t Have to Be” or “Whiskey Lullaby”. “Today” is neither. That’s not to say that it’s a bad song; on the contrary it’s a fairly sizable step in the right direction. It actually contains some country instrumentation, and more importantly, it’s not a mindless, hip-hop infested party song about tailgating in a cornfield. It does actually say something. It’s a bit slicker than I would like, though with equal parts country and pop power ballad. Paisley seems to be playing it safe; he’s aiming for an adult audience but he seems a little afraid of alienating anyone by going full country. It’s not the bold step towards traditionalism that I’d hoped for and it tries a little too hard to make an emotional connection with the listener, but all in all it’s not bad. It took several years for the genre to be dismantled so I suppose it will take some time to rebuild it to where it should be. As long as things are moving in the right direction, I’ll try not to complain too much.

Grade: B

Album Review: John Prine and Friends – ‘For Better, Or Worse’

for-better-or-worseBack in 1999 singer-songwriter John Prine released a charming collaboration with a group of country and folk female singers, singing classic country duets. 17 years later here comes a sequel, which is just as delightful. Prine’s gruff vocals are set off by his duettist’s much better voices, and the combinations work very well.

Most of the collaborators are different, with the exception of Fiona Prine (John’s wife) and Iris De Ment. The latter featured on no less than four tracks on the first album, and two here, both originally recorded by Loretta Lynn and Ernest Tubb. The tongue in cheek opener ‘Who’s Gonna Take Your Garbage Out’ has Iris throwing out her good-for-nothing husband. He complains of being henpecked, while she declares,

Calling a man like you a husband’s like calling an ol’ wildcat a pet

They take a broken marriage more seriously in the sad ‘Mr And Mrs Used To Be’.

The wonderful Lee Ann Womack is ethereally sweet on ‘Storms Never Last’. She is even better on ‘Fifteen Years Ago’, a pained tale of long lasting heartbreak, which was a hit for Conway Twitty. Turning it into a duet transforms the song from one of solo heartache (a la ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’, but with no end in sight) to one of mutual regret, which is almost more poignant. This is my favourite track.

‘Cold, Cold Heart’ doesn’t work as well as a duet lyrically, but the cut shows duet partner Miranda Lambert can do traditional country with a lovely sounding and emotional vocal. Kacey Musgraves hams it up a bit on the ultra-retro ‘Mental Cruelty’, but the track is fun. Holly Williams is good on the sassy back-and-forth of ‘I’m Telling You’, although the song is very short (less than two minutes).

The pure voice of Kathy Mattea makes two appearances. ‘Dreaming My Dreams With You’ is gorgeously tender and romantic, while ‘Remember Me’ is pretty with a little melancholy undertone. Alison Krauss guests on the gently pretty ‘Falling In Love Again’. Probably the least known singer to a general audience is Morgane Stapleton (wife of Chris), but I’ve loved her voice since she was briefly signed to a major label a decade ago. Her performance on Vince Gill’s ‘Look At Us’ is lovely, and very reminiscent of Lee Ann Womack.

A very pleasant surprise for me was Susan Tedeschi, a blues/rock singer who does an excellent job on ‘Color Of The Blues’. Although she’s not the greatest vocalist, Americana artist Amanda Shires is also decent on ‘Dim Lights, Thick Smoke’ (one of my favourite songs), and adds a bit of quirky personality.

It’s fair to say that Fiona Prine is not in the same class as the other ladies vocally, but her duet, ‘My Happiness’, is quite pleasant. There is one solo track, the closing ‘Just Waitin’’, a surprisingly entertaining narration.

This is an excellent album which is vying to be my favorite of 2016.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Kristy Cox – ‘Part Of Me’

part of meI loved Australian bluegrass singer Kristy Cox’s previous album, so I was keen to hear her latest work, produced, like its predecessor, by songwriter Jerry Salley. She is in great form vocally; last time around I felt she was better on the ballads than the up-tempo material, but now she sparkles on the faster songs too, and is reminiscent at times of Rhonda Vincent.

‘Another Weary Mile’ opens the album briskly in typical bluegrass style. Written by Michael Rogers, Joshua D Trivett, and Jason Barie, it is one of only two completely outside song, with the remainder coming from the pens of Salley and/or Cox. A vibrant vocal brings the tale of life on the road and the lure of home alive.

Kristy co-wrote four songs. Allen Caswell helped her with ‘William Henry Johnson’, a mournful murder ballad about ‘a hero and a villain’ who breaks the protagonist’s heart and ends up dead as a result. Caswell collaborated with Kristy and Jerry Salley on ‘You Walked In’, an upbeat song about the joy of new-found love. Equally sweet is ‘Young Love Never Gets Old’, a romantic tale of a lifelong love story against all the odds, written by Kristy and Jerry. Kristy and Jerry wrote one more song, the pacy but regretful ‘I’m No Stranger To This Lonesome Road’.

‘The Part Of Me (That’s Still In Love With You)’ is a wistful ballad about the emotional power of a memory overshadowing a current relationship, which Salley wrote with Pam Tillis, with a lovely melody.

‘Little White Whiskey Lies’, written by Salley with Tammy Rogers, picks up the tempo with a bluesy edge. ‘Baby, You Ain’t Baby Anymore’ is a bluegrass burner, written by Salley with Jenee Fleenor, which has Kristy bemoaning a faltering relationship. The brisk ‘Your Train Don’t Stop Here anymore’, written with Dani Flowers, is also solid, while the set closes with an optimistic gospel tune penned by Salley with Sally Barris, ‘That’s Where The Faith Comes In’.

Finally, there is a lovely cover of Chris Stapleton’s moving ‘Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore’. Kristy’s vocal style is about as different from Stapleton’s rough hewn soul as one can imagine, and her version adds sweetness and a gentle regret. Beautiful.

The sparkling playing and immaculate arrangements make the perfect backdrop for Kristy’s clear, pure voice. This is an excellent album which I recommend strongly.

Grade: A

Album Review: ‘Wynonna & The Big Noise’

8146Wru52WL._SX522_Wynonna & The Big Noise represents a change in direction for Wynonna Judd, a move away from the bland AC of most of her post-1993 albums. It is not a move back towards country, but I have long since given up hope that she will ever release another completely country album, barring another reunion of The Judds. There are more country moments on this album than we’re typically used to, however, and the entire album has more rootsy, organic feel than anything she’s done as a solo artist.

Wynonna’s husband Cactus Moser produced the album. Chris Stapleton and Julie Miller both contribute songs and Jason Isbell provides the duet vocals on “Things That I Lean On”, which I reviewed back in February. That track was one of a few that were released via iTunes in advance of the full album, but it does not appear to have been released as a single. That seems to suggest a change in strategy on the part of Curb Records, which may be forgoing promoting the album to radio and seeking alternate outlets instead. The album definitely seems to have been made without regard to the charts, with Wynonna and the band performing songs that moved them. There are plenty of songs that cater to Wynonna’s R&B/blues roc k leanings, beginning with the opening track “Ain’t No Thing”, penned by Chris Stapleton and John Scott Sherrill, and continuing on with “Cool Ya”, Julie Miller’s “You Make My Heart Beat Too Fast” and “Choose To Believe”, written by Kevin Welch and Charlie White.

She sounds like she is truly enjoying herself on all of these, but it is the quieter tracks, the ballads, that are the album’s best moments, beginning with the aforementioned “Things That I Lean On.” “Jesus and a Jukebox”, the most country-sounding song in the collection, is my favorite, with the Celtic-flavored “Keeps Me Alive” a close second. “Every Ending (Is Its Own Beginning)” is a very nice middle-of-the-road mid-tempo number that Wynonna and Moser wrote with Doug Johnson and Billy Montana.

The album’s most commercial track “Something You Can’t Live Without” is a Cactus Moser and David Lee Murphy composition that was a non-charting single in 2013, shortly after The Big Noise band was formed. It reminds me of some of Wy’s early solo efforts, although at five minutes and 33 seconds, it is way too long (presumably an edited version was sent to radio) and it begins to drag a bit after a while.

I haven’t been a huge fan of much of Wynonna’s solo work but this album was a pleasant surprise. Moser seems to have helped her find her niche. I look forward to their future projects together.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Southern Family’

southern familyMixed artist compilations can often be hit and miss. This concept album based on life in the American South, produced by Dave Cobb, is no exception. The concept itself hangs together a little vaguely, and the artists come from country and Americana with a side of (white) soul and rock. However, if it is intended to represent the South as a whole, it is rather lacking in the ethnic diversity of participants.

Jason Isbell is normally more Americana than country, but ‘God Is A Working Man’ is definitely a country song, and an excellent one to boot. The lyric pays tribute to a working class family with lots of colourful details about a Pentecostal preacher and his son. The melody and rustic vibe remind me of ‘Grandpa Was A Carpenter’, as recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and John Prine on Will the Circle Be Unbroken Part II. I like it better than any of Isbell’s past recordings.

Brent Cobb is producer Dave’s cousin (actually, first cousin twice removed). His track, ‘Down Home’, is quite pleasant without being very memorable. I also quite enjoyed Holly Williams’ ‘Settle Down’, about starting a new family.

I tend to prefer Miranda Lambert when she isn’t rocking it up, so I enjoyed her song, ‘Sweet By And By’ – not the gospel classic but a reflective depiction of rural life and family philosophy which sounds as though it was written for the prompt of the album concept. The old fashioned folky lyric and vocal are charming, although a more stripped down arrangement would have been even better.

‘Learning’, by Miranda’s new boyfriend, Anderson East, an Americana/R&B artist based in Nashville, is not my style of music, but is pretty good of its kind. Shooter Jennings’ ‘Can You Come Over’ is in similar vein, but more listenable. Rich Robinson of the rock band the Black Crowes offers a loud and boring number.

John Paul White’s former duo the Civil Wars were much admired by many critics, but they were never quite my thing, and I’m afraid I strongly disliked White’s whispery tune here, ‘Simple Song’.

Not all the songs here are new. Zac Brown (who appears to have lost the plot on his last album) is back on form here with a nice cover of Skip Ewing’s ‘Grandma’s Garden’. Lee Ann Womack adds a sweet harmony. Jamey Johnson wrote the tender ‘Mama’s Table’ for the Oak Ridge Boys a few years ago, and revives it here himself. The song remembers childhood happiness. Brandy Clark has recorded the affecting ‘I Cried’, about a family funeral, before, but it fits neatly in the theme for this collection, and she sings it beautifully.

Morgane Stapleton, wife of Chris, once had her own record deal, although nothing was ever released. She has a very pretty voice in the vein of Lee Ann Womack or Dolly Parton, so I was disappointed that her contribution (backed by Chris) was not really to my taste. It is a dramatically slowed down blues/rock take on the oldie ‘You Are My Sunshine’ which sounds suicidally depressed.

This is a bit too varied for me as a whole, but there are several worthwhile tracks.

Grade: B

Album Review: Dave Adkins – ‘Dave Adkins’

dave adkinsBig-voiced bluegrass singer Dave Adkins has just released a second solo album which is worth checking out. Musically this is solid bluegrass with a dominant banjo, but what makes it stand out is Adkins’ voice.

My favourite track is the stunning lost-love ballad ‘Foolosophy’, an outstanding song from two great writers – Larry Cordle and Chris Stapleton. Adkins’s magnificent vocal shows hitherto unguessed elements to his voice as he emotes on this bar room weeper:

Well, I’ve been spending all my nights just searching for some truth
In a bar room with a bottle just crying and trying to prove
That a man can find some peace of mind when a woman he loves leaves
That’s my lonesome heart in foolosophy

Well, I know if I keep drinking
That somehow I won’t hurt
And it won’t take forever to get me over her
Someday soon she’s coming back
It’s just what I believe
That’s my lonesome heart in foolosophy

I bet in a hundred years from now
My researching will show
That a jukebox, smoke and whiskey will heal a broken soul
No doubt I’ll be remembered as Hillbilly Socrates
With my lonesome heart in foolosophy

The mid-tempo ballad ‘Change Her Mind’, one of five on the album which Adkins wrote himself, is very good, with its protagonist’s hope of regaining lost love. He also wrote the cheerfully brisk gospel number ‘A Whole More To Tell’, and the attractive mid-paced love song ‘One And Only’.

Adkins wrote ‘You Don’t Have To Go To Be Gone’ with Paula Breedlove and Brink Brinkman; this is a strong song about a marriage which is hanging on in name only.

The tragic ‘Russell Fork River’ is an intense murder ballad with a twist which Adkins wrote with Dawn Kenny and David Morris. The actual murder is the swift judicial execution of a man believed to have drowned his sweetheart, whose death was actually an accident. The same trio wrote the trucking song ‘Turn And Burn’.

Another dramatic story song, ‘Emmaline’ takes us to Kentucky coal country and a cheating husband whose guilty heart takes him to his death – or has he faked his death to run away with his secret lover?

The subdued ‘Angel Song’ has a very pretty melody and a sad lyric about bereavement. ‘It’s Not Over (Til I Get Over You)’ is an emotional ballad co-written by the great Tom T Hall about facing an empty home after the protagonist’s wife has left.

‘Wasting Away’ is a pacy song written by the late Randall Hylton, and is decent without making the same impact as the ballads. More effectively, Adkins covers John Michael Montgomery’s 1990s country hit ‘Sold’, which works very well given an bluegrass treatment, and is very enjoyable.

This is an excellent bluegrass album from a singer with a strong and distinctive voice.

Grade: A

Single Review: Chris Stapleton – ‘Fire Away’

je8de9m27zycknkziw1qChris Stapleton shook up the world of country music when he won three CMA awards last fall. Since then he’s gone on to win two Grammys and his album Traveller has gone platinum, despite garnering very little support from country radio. This has caused many in the media to regard him as a “savior” of traditional country music, one that will bring about the fall of bro-country and finally allow the genre to reconnect with its roots. It’s an interesting theory, because Chris Stapleton is anything but a traditional country artist. His music is an interesting combination of country, blues and Southern rock. His success may very well change the direction of mainstream country but what direction it is remains to be seen. I’d have preferred a savior in the vein of a Randy Travis or a Dwight Yoakam, but given the current state of things, I’ll take what I can get.

Although Stapleton’s music is hard to categorize, it is an infinite improvement over the usual radio fodder. “Fire Away”, which he wrote with Danny Green, is the third single released from Traveller. The title track and “Nobody to Blame” both charted in the Top 20. Another track, “Tennessee Whiskey”, reached #1 due to sales generated after Stapleton’s CMA wins but it was not officially released as a radio single.

“Fire Away” is one of my favorite tracks from Traveller. Stapleton’s vocals are bluesy, but the song is kept rooted in the country genre by its simple lyrics, and simple production with just the right amount of steel guitar. It is not a happy song; the lyrics suggest a deteriorating relationship at the breaking point, with the protagonist bracing himself for some verbal attacks from his spouse or girlfriend. There are no handclaps, choruses, gratuitous references to cornfields, beer, trucks or anything else relating to mindless partying.

We don’t quite know what’s brought the couple in the song to this point, but we know that a confrontation is looming and it’s going to be uncomfortable. This sort of song used to be a staple at country radio but this kind of substance has been noticeably absent from the airwaves for several years now. Given the serious subject matter and radio’s lukewarm acceptance of Stapleton, I don’t expect this to be his breakthrough radio hit.

A recently released music video of the song takes a different interpretation that is not specifically referenced in the song’s lyrics; the protagonist’s wife is shown to suffer from bipolar disorder, and although he is willing to stand by her despite the difficult circumstances, he is unprepared for the tragic outcome that is looming.

Chris Stapleton may not be exactly what those who yearn for a return to traditionalism had in mind, but he is at least reintroducing songs of substance. Country music could do — and has done — much worse.

Grade: A

Predictions for the 58th Annual Grammy Awards

logoCountry music fans have much to look forward to come Grammy Night, which is coming up on Monday this year. Carrie Underwood and Sam Hunt will croon their duet “Heartbreat.” Chris Stapleton is slated to join Bonnie Raitt and others in a tribute to B.B. King. Luke Bryan is joining a slew of pop artists in honoring Lionel Richie, who is the Grammys MusiCares Person of the Year. Little Big Town will take the stage as well.

Best of all is the last minute announcement is that Eagles will honor Glenn Frey along with their good friend Jackson Browne. The rest of the show promises to be equally as jammed packed, with just about every major artist under the sun slated to take the stage.

Here are my predictions for the country nominees, plus categories that feature artists marketed within the country or American Roots genres. Please leave a comment and let us know who you think/hope will walk away with Grammy Gold.

Best Country Solo Performance

Little-Toy-GunsThis is a very solid group of nominees. Perennial favorite Carrie Underwood has lost this category only once – when Taylor Swift’s “White Horse” bested “Just A Dream.” Cam, surprisingly, is the weak link. Her hit version of “Burning House” is nowhere near as good as Emily Ann Roberts’ from The Voice last season. Who would’ve imagined a contestant on a reality singing competition would find the hidden nuance in a song its own singer couldn’t?

Should Win: “Chances Are” – Lee Ann Womack has yet to win a single award for her seventh album, a transitional record that showcased the artistic sensibilities she’s only hinted at until now. This is the album’s finest track, possibly the greatest performance she’s given to date. Real country music deserves to slay the competition.

Will Win: “Little Toy Guns” – It’s a fool’s game to bet against Carrie Underwood. Not only does she stand the strongest chance of winning, she’s the only one powerful enough to stop Chris Stapleton in his tracks. He will walk away a Grammy winner before the night it through, it just won’t be for the title track of his debut album.

Best Country Duo/Group Performance

81T8Z9H91mL._SL1500_This is a hodgepodge of nominees, with some forgettable performances along side some treasures.

Should Win: “If I Needed You” – Joey + Rory have the sentimental vote and a serge in name recognition since Joey’s cancer turned terminal last fall. They deserve to walk away the winner on what is their first and will likely be their only Grammy nomination.

Will Win: “Girl Crush” – There’s no stopping the Little Big Town behemoth, which is also in the running for the overall Song of the Year award. No one else is going to win this award.

Best Country Song

lovejunkies-660x400This is a heavyweight category, with a few extremely worthy nominees. I would love to see an upset here, but like the category above, there’s a very clear winner.

Should Win: “Hold My Hand” – Brandy Clark stole the show with her simple performance of this tune on last year’s telecast. The story of a woman determined to hold on to her man in the face of his ex is an instant classic. Clark deserves the prize for a tune she wrote and smartly kept for herself.

Will Win: “Girl Crush” – Should they lose Song of the Year, this will be their consolation prize. Should they win both, this will serve as icing on the cake.

travellerBest Country Album

Of all the country categories, this is easily the weakest. Little Big Town’s album was a dud, Kacey Musgraves’ was charming yet very uneven and Sam Hunt is…Same Hunt. The Grammys do deserve credit though – this is the first time in her career that Ashley Monroe has been nominated for an award for her own music.

Should Win: Traveller – I’m not fully on the Chris Stapleton bandwagon, but he does have the strongest album in this bunch. 

Will Win: Traveller – This is one, if not the only place, the Chris Stapleton bandwagon won’t be stopped.

A few more Predictions:

Jason-Isbell-24-frames-single-500x500Best American Roots Performance: I’d like to see Punch Brothers take this and finally win a Grammy of their own.

Best American Roots Song: Jason Isbell and “24 Frames.” The genius in the lyric is criminally underrated.

Best American Roots Album: I liked the upbeat nature of Punch Brothers Who’s Feeling Young Now better than the somber tone of The Phosphorescent Blues. They still deserve it, but I’d love to see Jason Isbell take this one. He hasn’t been recognized enough for his brilliant work.

Best Bluegrass Album: I haven’t a clue, but it would be interesting if the Steeldrivers take home an award the same night as their former lead singer Chris Stapleton does the same. If not, I’d go with Dale Ann Bradley.

Album of the Year: A strong category from which I’ve heard cases for each nominee to win. Stapleton could take it, as couldUnknown Alabama Shakes. But I’m going to go with Taylor Swift’s 1989, easily the most important pop album of the eligibility period.

Song of the Year: Taylor Swift has never won an award for her pop work with Max Martin. I expect that to change this year, when “Blank Space” deservedly takes this category. “Girl Crush” has a shot, but “Blank Space” is far more developed and clever.

Best New Artist: I’ll take a shot in the dark and choose Courtney Barnett. I just don’t see how this award could go to Sam Hunt. But stranger things have happened.

Single Review: Dierks Bentley – ‘Somewhere On A Beach’

dierks-bentley-somewhere-on-a-beach-single-coverWe’ve been down this road before. Dierks Bentley releases something intelligent to country radio and it fizzles. He responds with a horrid piece of tripe just ripe enough to please the powers that be without completely alienating the fans who still consider him one of the last remaining good guys in modern country music. So why does the road look and feel so different this time?

It’s because “Somewhere On A Beach” is Bentley’s most shameless attempt yet at fitting in with the cool crowd. He’s been the sideways, drunk on a plane and bat shit crazy. But he’s never gone as far as to literally have sex in the sand. We’ve come a long way from the days when all it took was a white tank top to get him hot and bothered.

But this isn’t solely about Bentley and his image. It’s about a song that’s nothing more than a pile of dog dung left on the side of the road by an owner to lazy to bend over and pick it up. It’s about a brazen attempt at marrying bro and beach bum-country signifiers. It’s about a marriage made in the deepest depths of hell.

Worse, “Somewhere On A Beach” is about a genre where lines like ‘she’s got a body and she’s naughty’ are liquid gold. Where ‘I’m getting sun, getting some, and I ain’t slept in a week’ passes as a good time. Where the theme of summertime has been grossly exploited growing more blatantly graphic with each passing song.

The genre has been changing – the likes of Jason Isbell, Willie Nelson/Merle Haggard and Aaron Watson did score number one albums last year. The phenomenon that is Chris Stapleton is unstoppable. It makes one wonder, is the ‘cool crowd’ the country music fans or the gatekeepers pushing drivel like this on the unsuspecting public?

Like other reviewers, I don’t blame Bentley for this atrocity. He may be co-hosting the upcoming ACM Awards with Luke Bryan, but he knows quality music. I’d be shocked if his new album, Black, fails to deliver. It better live up to expectations.

Grade: F

Razor X’s Top 10 Albums of 2015

As I’ve mentioned before, I generally find it easier to compile a list of any given year’s top albums, as opposed to a list of top singles, since I don’t listen to country radio. This year I had a more difficult time than I expected putting together my albums list; surprisingly, I didn’t listen to a whole lot of new music this year. So, here is my list, along with a resolution to do a better job keeping up with current music in 2016:

81qQyIJ7gjL._SX522_10. Sammy Kershaw — I Won’t Back Down

I was somewhat underwhelmed with this album when it was first release, and my initial feelings haven’t changed. It’s included simply because I was having trouble finding a tenth album that I didn’t intensely dislike to put on my list.

814d6MygkiL._SX522_9. Daryle Singletary — There’s a Little Country Left

Released this past summer, this independent release is a good example of what I wish contemporary mainstream country music sounded like — the type of music we’d likely be getting if hick-hop, R&B and the bros hadn’t completely hijacked the genre. The track “Too Late to Save the World” says it all: “It might be too late to save the world, but can’t we still save country music?” I sure hope so.

61TTBEi0Q3L8. Dwight Yoakam — Second Hand Heart

This collection is infinitely better than 2012’s disappointing 3 Pears. It’s a throwback to Dwight’s polished 90s country-rock-pop hybrid music. It was very enjoyable but I’d have preferred something more traditional, in the vein of Guitars, Cadillacs, Buenos Noches from a Lonely Room, and his other great 80s music.

711Wx-StaxL._SX522_7. Clint Black — On Purpose

Clint Black’s first full-length album in seven years was a solid, but play-it-safe collection. There are no surprises or artistic stretches, but it sure was good to hear from him again.

the blade6. Ashley Monroe — The Blade

Country radio in recent years has not been welcoming to female artists, particularly traditional-leaning ones. Ashley Monroe is one of the best of today’s crop of artists, though she has yet to garner much attention for her solo work. I keep hoping that her big breakthrough is right around the corner.

81BsXZt8UsL._SX522_5. Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell — The Traveling Kind

The second collaboration between Harris and Crowell is not quite as good as its predecessor, but topping 2013’s Old Yellow Moon would be no mean feat. The fact that it doesn’t in no way diminishes its enjoyment. This is one of the few albums released in 2015 that I kept coming back to.

images4. Chris Stapleton — Traveller

The former SteelDrivers’ lead singer’s solo debut album turned out to be the year’s biggest commercial surprise. Although his soulful, rough-edged voice isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, Traveller is just what is needed in a genre that has become stale. Whether or not its success is a one-off or the beginning of a trend remains to be seen.

cold beer conversation3. George Strait — Cold Beer Conversation

George Strait’s retirement from the road seems to have had a positive effect on his recording career, at least from an artistic standpoint. Cold Beer Conversation, his first collection produced by Chuck Ainlay is his best effort in quite some time, even if radio is no longer paying attention.

angels and alcohol2. Alan Jackson — Angels and Alcohol

Like Clint Black’s latest offering, Angels and Alcohol doesn’t offer much in the way of anything new or different, but it’s vintage Alan Jackson and that is more than good enough.

cass county1. Don Henley — Cass County

If Chris Stapleton’s Traveller was the year’s biggest commercial surprise, then Cass County is the year’s biggest artistic surprise. Country music is notoriously suspicious of artists who “visit” from other genres, with some justification. But Henley got his tribute to country music right — putting together a collection of solid songs and guest artists. Those who call the genre home would be well advised to follow his example. I hope a second volume is in the works.

Razor X’s top 10 singles of 2015

Compiling a list of the year’s best singles has become one of my least favorite tasks. It seems as though with each passing year country radio gets a little worse. I stopped listening to it in 2007; there is plenty of good music available outside the mainstream, but non-mainstream artists don’t always bother releasing singles to radio. Twenty years ago I’d have had trouble paring my list down to just ten songs; nowadays it is challenge to find ten singles that I like. But in the end, I always manage to find a little wheat among the mountain of chaff. It will come as no surprise to longtime readers to discover that my list is dominated by old favorites who are mostly past their commercial peaks. In fact, my list contains only one bonafide hit, and even that hit #1 without much help from country radio:

fae8ca732384cd6a272747f48c4ebbe010. I Met a Girl — William Michael Morgan

In a stronger year, I wouldn’t have taken much notice of this song but it stands out from the pack because it is a legitimate attempt to get country music back on track without all the hip-hop, bro-country and R&B influences that have come to all but drown out traditional country sounds. It peaked just outside the Top 40, but Morgan has got a good voice and is an artist I’m keeping an eye on for the future.

9. Boy and a Girl Thing — Mo Pitney

Like “I Met a Girl”, this tune is a bit generic but it’s a step in the right direction towards bringing the genre back to its roots. It failed to make the Top 40, but Pitney is an artist that deserves to be heard. Hopefully his music won’t be held hostage by his record label (Curb)

8. Time For That — Clint Black

Clint Black was one of a handful of my old favorites who made a comeback in 2015. It was a shame, but no surprise, that this single did not chart. But regardless of its commercial performance, it sure was good to hear from Clint again.

ashley-monroe-48th-annual-cma-awards-2014-arrivals_44470897. On to Something Good — Ashley Monroe

Ashley Monroe is a very talented artist whose shot at stardom has been hampered by bad timing; she’s had the ill fortune to come along at a time when female artists — particularly traditional-leaning ones — are not given much consideration by country radio. The Blade, produced by Vince Gill and Justin Niebank, is one of the year’s best albums. This single, which got stuck at #53, makes some compromises in an attempt to be heard. Hardcore country it is not, but it is very good, and in another era it would have been a big hit.

6. Cold Beer Conversation — George Strait

The title track of an album that took everyone by surprise proves that drinking songs don’t have to be mindless party songs. It also unofficially marks the beginning of Strait’s post-radio career. After an impressive 35-year-run at the top of the country singles charts, this is his fourth consecutive record not to make the Top 20, and as such, as forced his fans to finally acknowledge that even King George is no longer welcome at country radio.

5. Jim and Jack and Hank — Alan Jackson

This catchy kiss-off tune would have been a big hit during the 90s line-dancing craze. It’s a little light in the lyrics department but is an example of what passed for a fun song on the radio before country music became one big frat party in a cornfield.

lwomack4. Send It On Down — Lee Ann Womack

A beautifully crafted ballad that is a prayer to the Almighty for the strength to make it through adverse times.

3. If I Was Over You — Amanda Watkins feat. Jamey Johnson

This independent release is an interesting pairing between Amanda Watkins (formerly of the pop-country Miss Willie Brown) and Jamey Johnson, which works surprisingly well. It is a stripped down, beautifully produced and well-sung ballad, that can’t possibly have been expected to succeed commercially. However, if Watkns’ forthcoming album is as strong as the lead single, she could be well poised to be country music’s next critics’ darling.

2. Tennessee Whiskey — Chris Stapleton

I surprised myself by ranking this one so highly. When I reviewed Traveller last spring, I commented that Stapleton’s bluesy take on this Dean Dillon tune that was previously recorded by David Allan Coe and a hit for George Jones, was not to my taste. While I still greatly prefer Jones’ version, Stapleton’s remake has grown on me. It is the only decent song to make it to #1 this year, having been driven up the charts by download sales after Stapleton’s CMA wins, and without much help from country radio. It’s a ray of hope that mainstream country may finally start to improve before too much longer.

images-91. I Remember You — Trisha Yearwood

Trisha Yearwood is another old favorite who finally released some new music in 2015. This beautiful, stripped down ballad, on which her sister sings harmony, is a tribute to their late mother, and shows that although radio may have left Trisha Yearwood behind, she can still deliver the goods. This is about as good as it gets.

Occasional Hope’s top 10 albums of 2015

so this is lifeIt’s been a solid year rather than an outstanding one, with a number of interesting albums released but few really exciting ones. But any of my top 10 is well worth hearing.

angels and alcohol10. Alan Jackson – ‘Angels And Alcohol

The veteran star is reliable as ever with his latest release. It may break no new ground, but it’s good country music, and that’s something we always need more of.
Highlights: ‘Angels and Alcohol’, ‘The One You’re Waiting On’, ‘You Can Always Come Home

pageant material9. Kacey Musgraves – ‘Pageant Material
Unlike many, I actually preferred this to Kacey’s lauded debut because I found the production choices more sympathetic to her voice.
Highlights: ‘Pageant Material’, ‘Biscuits’, ‘Late To The Party

cold beer conversation8. George Strait – ‘Cold Beer Conversation
He may have retired from touring, and have lost his golden touch with country radio – but like Alan Jackson, George Strait is still making fine music. A solid classy album.
Highlights: ‘Something Going Down’, ‘Everything I See’, ‘Even When I Can’t Feel It’.

brennen leigh sings lefty frizzell7. Brennen Leigh – ‘Sings Lefty Frizzell
Only just released, this lovely tribute to one of the cornerstones of country music made a late charge up my best of the year list. A true delight. Brennen also teamed up this year with bluegrass singer Brandon Rickman and singer/fiddler Jenee Fleenor in a trio project called Antique Persuasion, which released a delightful acoustic tribute to the Carter Family in August which almost made this list, and a recent Christmas EP.

Highlights: ‘I Love You A Thousand Ways’, ‘Mom And Dad’s Waltz’, ‘How Far Down Can I Go’, ‘You Gotta Be Putting Me On

throwback6. Kevin Moon – ‘Throwback
A fabulous traditional country album from an unknown singer with a great voice. It’s a wonderful reminder of what country music used to be, with guest turns from artists including John Anderson, Rhonda Vincent and Ken Mellons. If there had only been a few more original tunes of the same quality, this would have been even higher in my year-end list.

Highlights: ‘The Storms Of Life’ (with Daryle Singletary), ‘Tennessee Courage’ (with Kevin Denney, Wesley Dennis and Billy Droze), ‘I’d Be Better Off (In A Pine Box)’ (with Doug Stone).

pocket full of keys5. Dale Ann Bradley – ‘Pocket Full Of Keys
Dale Ann has a pure, beautiful voice, and is one of my favorite bluegrass vocalists. This gorgeous effort shows her at her very best.

Highlights: ‘I’m So Afraid Of Losing You Again’, ‘The Stranger’, ‘Pocket Full Of Keys’.

traveller4. Chris Stapleton – ‘Traveler
Chris Stapleton’s triple triumph at the recent CMA awards, and subsequent sales spike, was one of the most unexpected in country music history. Although he was formerly lead singer of the SteelDrivers, and has been a very successful songwriter for years, he had rather flown under the radar as far as mainstream acknowledgement went. His solo debut album is a very strong piece of work, showcasing his bluesy, soulful vocals. I don’t love every track – occasionally his more esoteric leanings to blues and rock wander too far from country music for me – but when he’s at his best, he is magnificent.

Highlights: ‘Whiskey And You’, ‘Nobody To Blame’, ‘Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore’.

the underdog3. Aaron Watson – ‘The Underdog
Texan Watson has been steadily plugging on for a decade or so, and his latest album is as good as anything he’s done, with a powerful depiction of Johnny Cash at his turning point and a reflection on the state of country music. Solid Texas country music which deserves a mainstream hearing.
Highlights: ‘The Prayer’, ‘Fence Post’, ‘Bluebonnets (Julia’s Song)’.

the blade2. Ashley Monroe – ‘The Blade
A fine album by one of the best artists currently on a major label – even if that label isn’t bothering to push her work at radio. The title track in particular is exquisite.
Highlights: ‘The Blade’, ‘If The Devil Don’t Want Me’, ‘Dixie’, ‘I’m Good At Leaving’.

so this is life1. Courtney Patton – ‘So This Is Life
A lovely mature piece of work from a fine singer-songwriter, loaded with gorgeous country waltzes. For my money this is the most consistently great album of the year.
Highlights: ‘Little Black Dress’, ‘Need For Wanting’, ‘Killing Time

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Top 10 Singles of 2015

What does it say about me that the highest charting single on my list took eight months to peak at #9? I’ve continued to broaden my tastes as I’ve aged while continuing to closely follow the artists I’ve always admired. There was some stunning music this year and these ten selections are only the tip of the iceberg. Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

cdca72c7ec5625f0f1f483fb_440x44010. I’m With Her – ‘Crossing Muddy Waters’

I’m With Her (Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan) is one of the more unique collaborations of the year and their cover of the fifteen year old John Hiatt song is the amuse-bouche to a main course full-length album that may come within the next few years. This track is too faithful to be a doozy but it more than proves they have the potential to be an artistic force should they go down that road. I really hope they do.

Trisha-Yearwood-I-remember-You9. Trisha Yearwood – ‘I Remember You’

Every Trisha Yearwood album has its own personality and PrizeFighter: Hit After Hit lies on the more Adult Contemporary side of the country spectrum. “I Remember You,” a tribute to her mom, is far from the most dynamic ballad she’s ever recorded. But it shows off a tender side of her voice we’ve never heard before. Yearwood is a vocal chameleon able to adapt to any style and work within any parameters. She’s still a master after twenty-five years. I cannot wait to see what she has in store for us next.

Traveller8. Chris Stapleton – ‘Traveller’

“Tennessee Whiskey,” the early 1980s George Jones hit he sang on the CMA Awards, is the standout showcase for his gifts as a vocalist. “Traveller,” showcases his talents as a songwriter. This autobiographical mid-tempo ballad casts Stapleton as a vagabond who knows his path but cannot see his destination. Like any great artist he’s spent his time paying his dues and working the system until he could shine in his own light. He may always be a “Traveller,” but I bet he has a much clearer picture of where he’s headed now that the world finally knows his name.

Screen-Shot-2015-05-05-at-10.39.03-AM7. Jason Isbell – ’24 Frames’

“24 Frames” is a 1990s inspired gem that owes more to R.E.M. than Alan Jackson, bringing the same addictive quality (minus the mandolins) that made “Losing My Religion” so intoxicating. “24 Frames” is a fantastic meditation on relationships, cumulating with a chorus that compares God to an architect and declares, “he’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow.”

Thile & PB6. Punch Brothers – ‘I Blew It Off’

The coolest track from The Phosphorescent Blues is this plucky slice of bluegrass-pop, a style Chris Thile and the boys have perfected over the course of their four albums. They returned after a three-year hiatus to find Thile with a ‘bad case of twenty-first century stress,’ which is about the only thing he can’t shrug off. He’s furious yet knows he isn’t alone, declaring by the end that modern technology is having an effect on everyone, not just him. “I Blew It Off” is as simple as any song could be saying a lot in a very tiny space. That’s often where the most valuable riches can be found.

Fly5. Maddie & Tae – ‘Fly’

Not since “Cowboy Take Me Away” has a fiddle driven pop-country ballad reached these artistic heights. At a moment when Maddie & Tae had to show the world what else they could do, they blew away the competition with their exquisite harmonies and pitch perfect lyric. They aren’t the Dixie Chicks by any means, but they’re pretty darn close.


Dierks-Bentley-Riser-Album-Art-CountryMusicIsLove4. Dierks Bentley – ‘Riser’

Even in the face of commercial pressures, Dierks Bentley sticks to his convictions. “Riser” is a sweeping tale of overcoming odds and one of his finest singles. I have no clue why he hasn’t risen (no pun intended) to the upper echelon of country greats at a time when he’s bucking trends and releasing worthy songs to country radio. He’s one of the best we have and deserves to be compensated as such.

2647969113. Jana Kramer – ‘I Got The Boy’

Leave it to Jamie Lynn Spears, of all people, to write the strongest hook of the year: ‘I got the boy, you got the man.’ Leave it to Jana Kramer to sell the pain and conviction felt by the scorned ex who is seeing the boy she loved transformed into the man she always wanted him to be.

Eric-Church-Like-a-Wrecking-Ball2. Eric Church – ‘Like A Wrecking Ball’

When Eric Church brought the idea for this song to co-writer Casey Beathard he balked. At the time, Miley Cyrus was hitting big with her similarly titled smash. Church, who cannot be under estimated, knew exactly what he was doing. This tour de force is the most original song about making love to hit any radio format in recent memory. It’s also the coolest one-off artistic statement since Dwight Yoakam hit with “Nothing” twenty years ago. Eric Church is the strongest male country singer in the mainstream right now.

lee-ann-womack_9601. Lee Ann Womack – ‘Chances Are’

What needs to be said about Lee Ann Womack wrapping her exquisite voice around a pure country weeper? She came into her own on The Way I’m Livin’ and finally found the space to create the music in her soul. The album’s third single is a shining example of the perfect song matched with the only artist who has enough nuance to drive it home. Lee Ann Womack is simply one of the greatest female country singers ever to walk the earth.

 

Occasional Hope’s top 10 singles of 2015

law 2015Country radio may be going from bad to worse with the arrival of the likes of the obviously non-country Sam Hunt, but there have been some superb singles released this year, particularly from female artists. A few of them have even made an impact on radio, proving there is still hope. Among the singles that just missed the cut for my top 10 were the charming first two singles from Kacey Musgraves’ second Mercury album – ‘Biscuits’ and ‘Dime Store Cowgirl’; Sunny Sweeney’s dead-marriage duet with Will Hoge, ‘My Bed’; and Chris Young’s sexy ‘I’m Comin’ Over’.

10. Jon Pardi – ‘Head Over Boots’
Sunny and catchy – this is country rock done exactly right. It’s currently working its way into the top 40.

9. Chris Stapleton‘Nobody To Blame’

Singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton’s unexpected triple victory at this year’s CMA Awards was the pleasantest surprise I’ve had at an awards ceremony in years. Showing why he deserved it, his November single release is an excellent song imbued with his bluesy soulful brand of country music.

burning house8. Cam – Burning House
I hear Camaron Ochs as more folky pop rather than a country singer at heart, but I’ve really liked her two 2015 singles, the upbeat ‘My Mistake’ (about embarking on a one night stand with no regrets), and the gentle melancholy of ‘Burning House’. The haunting melody makes this my favourite of the two, and for a change radio agrees with me, as this has proved to be her breakthrough, with the track at #11 on the country radio chart as of early November. Her debut album is due this month.

shut up and fish7. Maddie & Tae – ‘Shut Up And Fish’
An irresistibly catchy tune from the effervescent duo, which uses its comic trappings to dress up a serious message about sexual harassment.

6. Jason James‘I’ve Been Drinkin’ More’
Perhaps the most obscure of my top 10 singles is this solid barroom shuffle, which sounds like a forgotten county classic:

I’ve been drinkin’ more
Since you’ve been lovin’ me less

5. Jana Kramer – ‘I Got the Boy’
Disappointingly the album it heralded turned out to be otherwise terrible, but I still like Jana Kramer’s mature reflection on the passing of teenage romance, written by Connie Harrington, Tim Nichols and former child TV star Jamie Lynn Spears. Her vocal ability may not stand up to the other women who made my top 10 this year, but on this song at least, she has an appealing warmth. It was another genuine hit, and is still rising.

4. Trisha Yearwood‘I Remember You’
The second single from Trisha Yearwood’s 2014 mixture of hits and fine new songs, Prize Fighter, is an impeccable song, written by Canadians Kelly Archer, Ben Caver and Brad Rempel. My review said it was “as close to perfect as it gets”, and it is an exemplary example of understated subtlety in both the vocal and the production.

jamey johnson3. Jamey Johnson‘Alabama Pines’
Jamey Johnson has not been very forthcoming with new music even now that he has launched his own label. But he did share this single with us earlier this year, even initially allowing it to be downloaded free. A beautiful, steel laced melody, it looks back on his southern childhood and the dreams of a life in music who took him away.

the blade2. Ashley Monroe – ‘The Blade
For most of this year, the title track of Ashley’s latest album has been the song I’ve returned to over and over again. When I reviewed that set I called this a truly outstanding song, and my feelings have not changed. Written by Marc Beeson, Jamie Floyd and Allen Shamblin, produced by Vince Gill and Justin Niebank, and sung by the delicately vulnerable Ashley Monroe, this is a beautiful depiction of the pain of love which lasts longer on one side than the other:

That’s the risk you run when you love
When you love and you give it all you’ve got to give
Knowing all along there’s a chance
There’s a chance you’ll reach and they won’t
You’ll bleed and they don’t
For you, it’s over; for me, it’s not
I kept tryin’ and you just stopped
Now I know how you can sound so brave
Cause you caught it by the handle, baby
And I caught it by the blade

It wasn’t a hit of course – it was far too good for country radio: too country, too subtle, and too female.

1. Lee Ann Womack‘Chances Are’
I thought Ashley Monroe’s single was going to make #1 on my list until I heard late in October that Lee Ann Womack had issued the best song on her critically acclaimed 2014 album The Way I’m Livin’ as its third single. A world-wearied and desperately lonely soul still has hope for love and happiness:

Chances are I took the wrong turn
Every time I had a turn to take
And I guess I broke my own heart
Every chance I had a heart to break
And it seems I spent my whole life
Wishin’ on the same unlucky star
As I watch you ‘cross the barroom, I wonder
What my chances are

Well, I know you’ve been around
And you’ve seen what you needed to see
And at night when you’re dreamin’
You’re probably not dreamin’ ‘bout me
Oh, it’s safe to say I’ve stumbled
But I’ve managed to make it through this far
As I take one step and then another
I wonder what my chances are

I have watched the world go by
Hand in hand and wondered why
I’m still so alone
Could I lay down my foolish pride
Maybe finally find my heart a home

The band has started playing
A simple song I used to know
I take your hand and walk you out
Dance to the rhythm way down low
Every heart has got a story
Mine just has a few scars
But they could heal if you would hold me and tell me
What my chances are
Well, they could heal if you would hold me and tell me
What my chances are

I first heard this excellent song sung by its writer Hayes Carll a few years ago, but LAW’s version of this excellent Hayes Carll song is quite exquisitely beautiful: beautifully sung and interpreted like a masterclass in country music, and tastefully produced with lovely steel guitar dominating the mix. Her unexpected but well deserved nomination as the CMA’s Female Vocalist of the Year probably won’t gain her airplay for this stunning record, but it’s unmissable.

Week ending 11/28/15: #1 singles this week in country music history

dicky11955 (Sales): Love, Love, Love/If You Were Me — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1955 (Jukebox): Love, Love, Love/If You Were Me — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1955 (Disc Jockeys): Love, Love, Love — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1965: May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose — Little Jimmy Dickens (Columbia)

1975: Rocky — Dickey Lee (RCA)

1985: I’ll Never Stop Loving You — Gary Morris (Warner Bros.)

1995: Check Yes or No — George Strait (MCA)

2005: Better Life — Keith Urban (Capitol)

2015: Tennessee Whiskey — Chris Stapleton (Mercury)

2015 (Airplay): I’m Comin’ Over — Chris Young (RCA)