My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Chris Stapleton

Week ending 11/21/15: #1 singles this week in country music history

Chris+Stapleton+Celebs+O+Music+Awards+Nashville+YXyP6PSnHqll1955 (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: Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way/Bob Wills is Still the King — Waylon Jennings (RCA)

1985: Hang On to Your Heart — Exile (Epic)

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

2005: Better Life — Keith Urban (Capitol)

2015: Tennessee Whiskey — Chris Stapleton (Mercury)

2015 (Airplay): Break Up With Him — Old Dominion (ReeSmack/RCA)

Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Damn Country Music’

1035x1035-image003Tim McGraw’s fourteenth album, Damn Country Music, is his third release for Big Machine Records in as many years. Like the majority of his work, McGraw co-produced the album with Byron Gallimore.

Lead single “Top of the World” currently sits just inside the top ten. The sweeping ballad is a pop confection, complete with beats surrounding McGraw’s smooth voice. He’s done better, but he’s also given us far worse.

McGraw previewed the title track in lead up to the album’s release. “Damn Country Music” is a chase your dreams in the music industry song, set to a somewhat cluttered unmistakably country arrangement. I really like the message that no matter what, life always circles back to the same thing:

It’s the hum of wheels on a blacktop

The strum of strings on a flat top

It’ll take you, break you

Damn sure, make you

Do things; you never thought you’d be doing

Damn country music

Rodney Clawson scored three co-writes on the album. “Losin’ You” is a progressive laundry list pop ballad about all the places he keeps losing the woman who already broke up with him. “Want You Back” is more of the same, but this time he’s begging his girl to come back home. “California” is the most ‘country’ of the three, but the arrangement is so progressive, you’d never know it. The track features Big & Rich, but their ‘contributions’ are basically inaudible.

“Here Tonight,” the other duet, features his eldest daughter eighteen-year-old Gracie, the front woman of alt-rock band Tingo. It’s very good, although McGraw and Gallimore should’ve stripped away the wailing guitars to reveal the organic charm underneath.

I first heard “Humble and Kind” when Little Big Town brought Lori McKenna on stage to sing it at a local concert last year (McKenna lives in my area and has even appeared on the radio station where I assist with the morning news show). The song is excellent and I like what McGraw has done with it. I only wish the key could’ve been moved up so McGraw could sing in a more pleasing place in his voice. As it stands, he doesn’t have the vocal to carry the song.

“How I’ll Always Be” is one of the more charming songs, with a shuffle arrangement echoing “Just To See You Smile.” The latter blows the former out of the water, but at least McGraw gives us one track that tries to retain some hint of country music.

I can hear how “Love Does” would’ve easily fit into an early 2000s context, but the proceedings are ruined by a clubby arrangement and processed vocal that renders McGraw almost unrecognizable. “What You’re Looking For” is just more of the same.

What isn’t more of the same is “Don’t Make Me Feel At Home,” the only track on the album that is unmistakably country music through and through. The arrangement is crap, but the obvious country elements shine through loud and clear. In the late 1990s, this tune about a guy begging to be loved would’ve been clean, sharp and a multi-week chart topper. As it stands right now, the track is just too cluttered.

Damn Country Music, despite its title, is country music by association only. Tim McGraw has made a progressive pop record, and a bad one at that. I’m sick of him showing his gravelly side dressed up with gritty gruff guitars. I’m sick of the processed vocals and watered down vibe he continues to go for. McGraw should’ve been at the CMAs to watch Chris Stapleton execute this style correctly. Let the new guy teach the old guy how its done.

Grade: C

Predictions for the 49th Annual CMA Awards

CMA Awards 2015 graphicThe leaves are changing colors, the days are shorter and the weather is getting progressively colder by the day. When autumn rolls around, so do the annual Country Music Association Awards. The telecast, airing next Wednesday (November 4) on ABC, is the 49th in the show’s history.

The blending of ‘country’ with outside influences continues with scheduled duets between John Mellencamp & Keith Urban as well as Thomas Rhett & Fall Out Boy. Sam Hunt, Kelsea Ballerini and Maddie & Tae will take the stage for the first time. In an exciting twist, Hank Williams Jr will open the show with his brand new single “Are You Ready For The Country.” His cover of the Waylon Jennings tune will be presented as a duet with Eric Church.

Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley will return to host. You can check out the nominees, here.

ec_0184crop_300cmyk_webEntertainer of the Year

Garth Brooks has had more embarrassing gaffs in the last year than any artist should have in their whole career. His tour has been massive, but he’s more than botched his comeback. By falling short, he’s made a win here feel a bit disingenuous.

Should Win: Eric Church – In his first headlining tour he struck out on his own and invited a slew of Americana based acts to open for him. He doesn’t give a damn about the establishment and refuses to be anyone other than himself. 

Will Win: Luke Bryan – There isn’t a single artist in mainstream country who’s bigger than him right now. He’s got his second consecutive win in the bag.

Male Vocalist of the Year

Dierks_Bentley-514x336The endless debate rages on. How many times does one person have to win a single award? Blake Shelton hasn’t done anything in 2015 extraordinarily special. He’s been on tour, had a few chart toppers, and continued as a coach on The Voice. Yawn. This is a battle between Dierks Bentley and Eric Church. Both equally deserve it, but sonority should win in the end.

Should Win: Dierks Bentley – He’s been topping the charts and going to battle for authentic country music going on thirteen years now. It’s time the CMA take his career to the next level.

Will Win: Eric Church  – Bentley is on his second consecutive nomination for the first time, but Church has more nominations overall in a year he didn’t even release an album. That kind of recognition should mean he’s the favorite to win his first trophy in this category.

Female Vocalist of the Year

hc-lee-ann-womack-performs-at-ridgefield-playhouse-0416-20150416Miranda Lambert’s reception at country radio has significantly cooled since this time last year and Kelsea Ballerini  is so new her debut album hasn’t even been released. This is Carrie Underwood’s award to loose, with two massive hits under her belt all the while laying low after giving birth.

Should Win: Lee Ann Womack – no other nominee has shown as much nuance in his or her vocal delivery over the past year than Womack. Her gifts are astonishing and shockingly undervalued. She should win on principle, collecting her second trophy in fifteen years.

Will Win: Kacey Musgraves – Underwood’s overall lack of nominations is a strong indicator that Musgraves will finally be the one to dethrone Lambert.

littlebigtown30-1423681046Vocal Group of the Year

 Both The Band Perry and Zac Brown Band spent 2015 selling their souls to the devil. Rascal Flatts and Lady Antebellum are just more category filler.

Should Win: Little Big Town – None of the other nominees combined had a song as impactful as “Girl Crush” this year. They deserve this.

Will Win: Little Big Town – Songs like “Girl Crush” only happens once in a career. They won on the strength of far weaker material in the past few years. They’ll win in a landslide.

0515-maddie-new-1Vocal Duo of the Year

Competition in the CMA’s dullest category doesn’t happen very often. Florida Georgia Line find themselves in the commercial verses artistic battle once again, a contest they lost to Musgraves in round one two years ago.

Should Win: Maddie & Tae – They’re a fresh force on the scene, calling out clichés and stereotypes with gusto. They could be ballsier still, but they’re on the right track.

Will Win: Florida Georgia Line – Maddie & Tae are very new, which could hurt them. That’ll leave the category open for the establishment to swoop in for a third consecutive win. (Since M&T and FGL are both on Scott Borchetta’s label group, it’ll be interesting to see whom he puts his influence behind).

New Artist of the Year

0115weberiverbendhunt1798024130_t755_he05f79007e18b2a270e2a6ff224d41a8e296151bThomas Rhett’s appeal has only grown since his first nomination last year. He isn’t quite a superstar yet, but he’s well on his hip-hop, Bruno Mars influenced way. Also on his way is Drake influenced Sam Hunt, who has risen twice as fast as Rhett. Then there’s Maddie & Tae, the duo who openly admires Dixie Chicks and has taken down Bro-Country.

Should Win: Chris Stapleton – I’m not jumping up and down, but I do recognize quality when I hear it. He’s easily the most articulate artist of this bunch.

Will Win: Sam Hunt  – There’s talk Montavello could score an Album of the Year Grammy Nomination. The industry has been bending over backwards to give him one of the flashiest launches in country music history. A win here is likely part of that plan.

815sIYbfiAL._SL1500_Album of the Year

Jason Aldean is the most overrated artist in commercial country right now, with one empty single after another. Broken Bow deserves a lot of credit for manipulating the CMA to give him a nomination. Pain Killer is Little Big Town’s weakest album to date. Traveller is the strongest overall album, by a wide margin.

Should Win: Pageant Material – Musgraves’ uneven sophomore set isn’t a tour-de-force, but it is the most interesting album of this bunch. 

Will Win: Pageant Material – Consider it an apology trophy for being the only organization that didn’t give this honor to Same Trailer Different Park. The CMA rarely acknowledges debut albums, but they see fit to celebrate their follow-up sets.

little-big-town-single-art-girl-crush-2015-03Single of the Year and Song of the Year

The battle here is between “Girl Crush” and “Take Your Time,” the two biggest singles of the past year. The only distinction between the two is that “Girl Crush” made waves for its content. Is it about lesbians? Are Little Big Town pushing a gay agenda? In that context, I see a very real and significant split.

(As an aside: overlooking “Something In The Water” is a major snub. Had Underwood’s single been nominated, I doubt we’d even be discussing even a remote chance of Hunt walking away a winner).

Will Win (Single): “Take Your Time” – The CMA have a history of awarding one-off singles such as “Cruise,” “Hurt,” “Man of Constant Sorrow,” “Achy Breaky Heart” and “Elvira,” which are flavors of the moment. The flavor right now is Hunt.

Will Win (Song): “Girl Crush”  – Ten years after Faith Hill brought her national attention, Lori McKenna will walk away with her first CMA Award for co-writing a song she thought no one would ever record.

Musical Event of the Year

Willie_Nelson_&_Merle_Haggard_-_Django_and_JimmieA full-length album goes up against four typical mainstream duets. It’s the second straight year the CMA has opted to nominate an LP, and like Bakersfield last year, the project deserves to compete in the Album of the Year category instead.

Should Win: Django and Jimmie – It’s been thirty-two years since Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard have come together for a collaborative effort. I wish Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell had been nominated instead, but it’s Nelson and Haggard.

Will Win: “Lonely Tonight” – Blake Shelton will win as a consolation prize when he hopefully looses his sixth straight Male Vocalist of the Year trophy. Then again, this is a duet with Ashley Monroe. Much like the country music community as a whole, the CMA have been criminally cool towards her. Hopefully Shelton can pull the pair over the top.

Music Video of the Year

carrie-underwood-something-in-the-waterIt should be a celebration that all five nominees are videos by female artists. But the CMA has regulated this as an off camera award, which dampens the progressiveness of the category this year. It’s always interesting to see who wins since this is often used as a consolation prize when the CMA overlooks artists in other categories.

Should Win: Something In The Water – Underwood is often overlooked, especially since her Female Vocalist run ended in 2009. She deserves this.

Will Win: “Something In The Water” was criminally overlooked for both Single and Song of the Year. It’s exclusion in those races only helps Underwood here. This is a consolation prize if there ever was one.

1885141596Musician Event of the Year

Mac McAnally has been nominated in this category for the past eight years. He’s won for the past seven years straight. He’s all but a lock to take it again.

Should Win: Dann Huff – It won’t count until next year, but he did a bang up job producing Maddie & Tae’s Start Here. I’d like to see him take this home.

Will Win: Mac McAnally – Betting against the status quo? Not this year.

Album Review: Diamond Rio – ‘I Made It’

i made itIt has been several years since Diamond Rio were last in the studio, and more since they made a country record (their last effort was a Christian Contemporary effort which lacked the band’s signature harmonies). Their self-released return was an unexpected surprise.

Unfortunately, a couple of songs in, I was wondering if they had lost the plot completely. The opening ‘I Love This Song’ is a piece of mid-tempo fluff which would be bearable if forgettable, but is marred by bizarre vocal interjections; it was previously an unsuccessful single for its co-writer Marcel. ‘Ride The Range’ is a weird self-indulgent experimental melange; it has country instrumentation, but does not sound country structurally or melodically , with semi-spoken vocals and a rudimentary lyric. I strongly disliked it, and scheduling the record’s worst songs at the start unbalances it as a whole. Luckily, things improve.

The pop-country ‘Crazy Life’ is not very interesting, despite a perky arrangement, with oddly syncopated vocals. ‘Lay Your Lovin’ On Me’ has a similar bouncy feel but is much catchier and more entertaining, and I rather enjoyed it.

The title track is much better. Co-written by band member and album producer Jimmy Olander with Josh Shilling and Michael Dulaney, it is a charming ballad reminiscing about Olander’s arrival in Nashville as an aspiring musician, which turns half way through into an AC-leaning love song to his wife. The romantic ‘I Can’t Think Of Anything But You’ (a Skip Ewing co-write) is a cover of a song formerly recorded as a duet by Sammy Kershaw and Lorrie Morgan, and is quite nicely done.

The album’s outstanding song does see the group back at their best. ‘Beckett’s Back Forty Acres’ is a delightful story song with an acoustic arrangement, about a local farmer who makes it big by a secret (and illegal) crop – but eventually gets hauled away by the police. Ashley Gorley, Michael Rossi and Hugh Bryan Simpson wrote the song, and this track is well worth downloading.

The love song ‘If You’re Willing’ is typical Diamond Rio mid-tempo fare, an enjoyable track written by Jason Sellers and Stewart Harris. ‘I’ll Wait For You’ is also quite attractive.

‘Findin’ My Way Back Home’ was the single released from Lee Ann Womack’s ‘lost’ unreleased album in 2006. LAW’s version of the Craig Wiseman/Chris Stapleton song had something of an Americana-meets-pop feel to it which didn’t really work. The Diamond Rio version is a bit more more organic, and more successful.

The beautiful ‘Walking By Beauty’, written by Patrick Jason Matthews and Jason White, was inspired by an experiment undertaken in 2007 by acclaimed classical violinist Joshua Bell, when he busked in a Washington DC Metro station to see who would pay attention. Bell guests on the track, whose profits are devoted to the doTerra Healing Hands Foundation.

This is definitely a mixed bag, but on the whole the good outweighs the bad.

Grade: B

Album Review: Ashley Monroe – ‘The Blade’

the bladeAshley Monroe’s second Warner Brothers release has been among my most-anticipated albums this year. While it lacks the immediate charm of the wonderful Like A Rose, the Vince Gill/Justin Niebank-helmed set has substance and beauty which grows on repeated exposure to reward the listener. Ashley’s delicately pretty voice is perfect for the vulnerable emotions expressed in many of the songs.

Ashley co-wrote every song but one. That outside contribution is the title track, written by Marc Beeson, Jamie Floyd and Allen Shamblin. It is a truly outstanding song about the disillusonment of finding one has always loved more than one’s partner, and is now left high and dry:

I let your love in, I have the scar
I felt the razor against my heart
I thought we were both in all the way
But you caught it by the handle
And I caught it by the blade

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

Gill and Niebank’s understated production perfectly backs up Ashley’s hushed vocal. The whole thing is quite stunning.

The exquisite ballad ‘Has Anybody Ever Told You’ (written with Tyler Cain) is a charming love song supported with lovely steel guitar.

Another highlight is one of two songs written by Ashley with Chris Stapleton and Jessi Alexander, the traditional country lament ‘If The Devil Don’t Want Me’, in which a broken heart fails to find comfort anywhere:

I’ve heard stories ’bout honky tonk angels
Pickin’ up pieces of broken strangers
I’m at rock bottom with a smoke and a sin
When the party is over, then I’m lonely again

If the devil don’t want me
Where the hell do I go?
If I can’t see the light
In the neon glow
If there ain’t enough whiskey
To kill the fire in my soul

This writing partnership also produced the rapid paced bluesy rock ‘Winning Streak’, backed with wild honky tonk piano, on a similar theme, down and out with not even the devil interested. This is less to my taste musically than the other song, but well written and performed.

Alexander also co-wrote the contemporary ballad ‘If Love Was Fair’ with Ashley and with Steve Moakler. Miranda Lambert joined Ashley and Jessi to write the closing track, ‘I’m Good At Leavin’’, another excellent country tune, this time about an unapologetic rambling soul and free spirit, given a Celtic style arrangement.

Justin Davis and Sarah Zimmermann of the dup Striking Matches joined Ashley to write two songs. The gently pretty ‘From Time To Time’ has a tender lullabyish mood, while the memorable up-tempo ‘Dixie’ has a retro feel and a dramatic southern Gothic storyline:

It was the mines that killed my daddy
It was the law that killed my man
It was the Bible Belt that whipped me
When I broke the Fifth Command
I don’t hate the weather
I don’t hate the land
But if I had it my way I’d never see this place again

When I cross that line, man I’ll sing a brand new song
Instead of sitting here by the railroad tracks whistlin’ Dixie all day long
And I’m so tired of paying, praying for my sins
Lord get me out of Dixie Land
Jesus’ name, Amen

When I tread out of these parts
Look me up on the other side
Cause I’ll be damned if I go down in Dixie when I die

‘Bombshell’, written with Steve McEwan and Gordie Sampson, is about facing the guilty decision to tell a lover she is leaving, and knowing there is never going to be a good time to do it. Very good indeed.

Producer Gill co-wrote ‘Weight Of The Load’, a nice song about sharing the burdens of doubt and fear. Ashley’s friend Brendan Benson of the rock band The Raconteurs helped her with the pretty folky ballad ‘Mayflowers’. The first single, the upbeat and catchy ‘On To Something Good’ is agreeable listening if one of the lighter tracks.

The one track I didn’t much care for was the repetitive minor-keyed moody ‘I Buried Your Love Alive’ (a co-write with Matraca Berg), and even this grew on me a bit.

Overall, this is a great album which should raise Ashley Monroe’s profile.

Grade: A

Album Review: Chris Stapleton – ‘Traveller’

imagesUpon learning that Chris Stapleton had penned a solo deal with Mercury, I assumed that the resulting album would be an eclectic and decidedly non-commercial one in the Americana vein – the sort of thing I like to listen to occasionally for a change of pace but not on a regular basis. Now that Traveller has finally been released I have to say that it comes as a somewhat of a surprise — and a pleasant one at that. While he does cover a number of musical styles, it is a much more polished affair than what I was expecting. Afew years ago it would have been considered a mainstream effort, though Stapleton’s voice is a bit too rough to enjoy widespread commercial success in any era.

Produced by Dave Cobb, Traveller consists of a generous 14 tracks, twelve of which were written or co-written by Stapleton. Among the two that he didn’t write are a bluesy cover of “Tennessee Whiskey” and “Was It 26”, a Don Sampson composition that sounds like it would have been at home on Jamey Johnson’s That Lonesome Song album. Although his rendition of “Tennessee Whiskey” isn’t quite in alignment with my taste, Stapleton deserves credit for putting his own stamp on the song rather than doing a note-for-note reproduction of George Jones’ classic 1983 recording.

Longtime readers will not be surprised to hear that my favorite tracks are the more country-leaning ones. I particularly liked the stripped-down “Whiskey and You”, “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore”, and “Nobody To Blame” which sounds like a rediscovered Travis Tritt recording from the 90s. The album’s best track is “More of You” a beautiful mandolin-laced ballad which features a harmony vocalist that sounds a lot like Emmylou Harris. I’m a little less enthusiastic about the Southern rock numbers “Parachute”, “Might As Well Get Stoned” and “Outlaw State of Mind”, although I can’t actually say that I didn’t enjoy these songs.

I don’t expect Traveller to spawn any big radio hits but I think it’s one of those albums that might sell well despite a lack of airplay. I certainly hope so because it deserves to be heard.

Grade: A

Single Review: Chris Stapleton – ‘Traveller’

imagesIt’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly five years since Chris Stapleton gave up his gig as lead vocalist for The SteelDrivers. Since then, in addition to writing hits for the likes of Kenny Chesney, Josh Turner, George Strait Darius Rucker and Miranda Lambert (among others), he briefly fronted the rock band The Jompson Brothers before being signed as a solo act to Mercury Nashville in 2013. “Traveller”, which was sent to radio yesterday is his second single for Mercury and the title track of his upcoming solo debut album which will become available one week from today.

The mid-tempo “Traveller” is decidedly more mainstream than the music Stapleton made with The SteelDrivers, yet it still has an Americana feel to it that makes it different from anything else that is played on country radio stations these days. Part of that is due to Stapleton’s soulful and somewhat gravelly voice, which at times is reminiscent of Travis Tritt. However, that voice is accompanied by acoustic guitar, plenty of pedal steel and a beautiful harmony vocal from an unidentified female singer, all of which should appeal to fans who are tired of arena rock masquerading as country, even if this is a little more left-of-center than what those fans usually listen to. Thematically (though not sonically) it is similar to Merle Haggard’s “Ramblin’ Fever.”

Unfortunately for Stapleton — and for country music in general — neither he nor his music is what radio is generally looking for today. With his Jamey Johnson-style long hair and beard, he is no pretty boy, and while that shouldn’t matter, in this day and age good looks trump talent almost every time. Additionally, his voice is probably a bit too rough for many fans who are used to more cookie-cutter singers. I don’t expect it to be a huge commercial success, but it will likely get some attention in the Americana world as well as from followers of The SteelDrivers as well as fans who have learned to look beyond the mainstream for decent entertainment.

Listen to it here.

Grade: A

Single Review: Gary Allan – ‘Hangover Tonight’

Hangover-TonightI’ve come to think of Gary Allan as the male Martina McBride — an artist that I really like, who has shown in recent years, a seeming inability to select quality material. I hold out hope, with each new release, that things are getting back on track, and each time I am disappointed. It is particularly disheartening since Allan’s latest single “Hangover Tonight” is a co-write with Chris Stapleton, formerly of The SteelDrivers.

I suppose it is unrealistic for me to have any expectation that a mainstream artist struggling to get airplay in this day and age will release anything that sounds even remotely country, but the title did suggest that this might actually be a honky-tonk song. Any hopes of that were cruelly dashed by the first notes of the funky, bluesy electric guitar that dominates the track. Not only isn’t this honky-tonk, it isn’t even a drinking song. Alcohol is mentioned, of course, but the term “hangover” is used more in the sense of hanging out all night long, rather than the consequences of the morning after.

Little effort seems to have been put into the writing of this song — the lyrics are superficial, repetitious and don’t really say anything. That in itself is not a huge problem; not every song has to be deep and meaningful. But it would be nice if it actually sounded as though it belonged in the genre under which it is being marketed. I realize that this is not a new complaint, but it is frustrating in the extreme when an artist who is nearly 20 years into his recording career – who has demonstrated in the past that he can do better – phones it in instead of trying to elevate the genre above the usual dreck we’ve come to expect. The newer generation might not know any better but Gary Allan does. Too bad he has chosen the path of least resistance once again.

Listen to it here.

Grade: C

Album Review: Dierks Bentley – ‘Riser’

riserOf today’s current crop of artists, Dierks Bentley is one of the few who at least tries to get it right. Much of the time he succeeds, though occasionally his projects fall short of expectations. Unfortunately, his latest effort Riser, which was released last month falls mostly into the latter category. If you like your country arena-rock style, then you’ll probably enjoy this album, but if you think country music should actually sound country, you’ll likely be disappointed.

Riser was produced by singer-songwriter Ross Copperman. Though he has dabbled in country music from time to time — he co-wrote “Tip It On Back” (one of my least favorite Dierks Bentley singles) as well as songs for Steve Holy and Jennette McCurdy — Cooperman is best known for songs like “All She Wrote”, which was a 2007 pop hit in the UK and “Holding On And Letting Go”, which was featured in the television series The Vampire Diaries. Not surprisingly, bringing in a producer from outside the genre has resulted in one of Dierks’ least country-sounding albums.

Things get off to a decent start with “Bourbon In Kentucky”, the album’s lead single featuring background vocals from Kacey Musgreaves. Surprisingly, the record stalled at #40. The current single “I Hold On”, which Bentley wrote with Brett James, has fared much better. It currently resides at #3 on the charts, but it’s not particularly memorable.

Though not in alignment with my tastes, Riser is at least several notches above the usual dreck heard on country radio today, and it does contain some substantive songs. “Here on Earth” was inspired by the death of Dierks’ father and the 2012 Sandy Hooks school shootings in Connecticut, and “Damn These Dreams”, about trying to juggle competing priorites is well written. But I am bored to distraction with arena rock laced with a bit of banjo and steel guitar so people will think it’s country.

I became more and more disillusioned with this album with each passing track, when I was pleasantly surprised by the very last one — “Hurt Somebody”, which — surprise! actually sounds country and even contains a bit of fiddle and background vocals by Chris Stapleton, whose gravelly voice complements Dierks’ nicely. “Hurt Somebody” is the album’s one truly great song. Download it along with “Bourbon In Kentucky” and “Here on Earth” and skip the rest.

Grade: C

Album Review – Don Williams – ‘Reflections’

4096_donwilliamsreflectionsOn his second Sugar Hill Release, and his third album in a decade, 74-year-old Don Williams spends a lot of time reflecting, just as the album’s title suggests. In the forty-plus years he’s been in the music industry he’s certainly earned the right, and with ten expertly chosen songs, he also gets right to the point.

As per usual Garth Fundis is along for the introspective journey and he succeeds masterfully in placing Williams’ distinctive baritone front and center, allowing the conversational way in which he sings to anchor the album extraordinarily.

This is no more apparent than on the one-two punch that opens the project. Townes Van Zant’s folksy “I’ll Be There In The Morning” is as honest a love song as it was forty-six years ago, with Williams breathing new life into the number with a combination of acoustic and steel guitars accentuated with ribbons of glorious harmonica. “Talk Is Cheap,” a Guy Clark co-write (with Chris Stapleton & Morgane Hayes) that previously found a home on Alan Jackson’s Thirty Miles West, lays bare our tendency to dream hypothetically and brings out the song’s urgency (‘wine’s for tasting, roads for taking’) in a way Jackson’s version didn’t. Both are two of the finest moments on record all year thus far.

Jennifer Hanson, Marty Dodson, and Mark Nesler’s “Back To The Simple Things” furthers the urgency felt in “Talk Is Cheap” by lamenting on modern technology and the stronghold is has on society. On one hand Williams is calling on us to live, on the other he’s making sure we remember what’s most important along that journey – human connection. The chugging beat, which backs the song, is fabulous, too, as is the uncomplicated way Williams is gets the message across.

“Working Man’s Son” finds Williams ruminating on a life lived while perfectly capturing the male psyche. Where most singers desire to run in the opposite direction from their elderliness, Williams stairs it squarely in the face with a stunningly age-appropriate lyric by Bob Regan and Jim Collins:

 I’ve had my fun, I’ve made some friends

I’ve loved and lost and loved again

Been down that less traveled road

Just to see how far it goes

Spoke my mind to defend myself

Tried not to hurt nobody else

But if I did, I hope they’ll forgive

Williams turns negative on Doug Gill’s “Stronger Back,” an antidote to the man taking the good with the bad on “Working Man’s Son.” He may be wishing for ‘a stronger back, a bigger heart, the will to keep on walking when the way is dark” but instead of letting his problems go, he just wants to embrace them and thus take responsibility. The flourishes of steel help to extenuate the track’s beautifully steady beat, and keeps the proceedings from getting too dark and moody.

“Healing Hands” is another life-well-lived moment, this time from a grandchild lamenting on the calluses as a benchmark of life in one’s years and the relationship between healing hands and a kind heart. The sentiment is there in Steve Gillette & Rex Benson lyric, but the execution is too schmaltzy. Fundis nicely makes up for it and saves the song with a striking mandolin and guitar heavy arraignment that’s slightly addictive.

In life, you know you ‘get it’ when you realize our days on earth are a journey full of lessons that never cease to reveal themselves to us. Steve Wariner and Tony Arata wrote “The Answer” about this phenomenon and framed the tale as a boy with countless questions for his all-knowing father. Williams does an impeccable job of bringing the ballad to life as does Fundis with his gorgeous production.

Much like he did with “I’ll Be There In The Morning,” Williams breathes new light into Jesse Winchester’s “If I Were Free” not by removing the song’s simplicity, but by adding to it. He turns the folk song into a country ballad backed solely by an acoustic guitar. The track takes on new meaning, too, with Williams at the helm.

With reflections on a life-well-lived, laments against modern technology, and disgust for people who dream without execution, a song like Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home,” about a man watching a prison execution, is the odd one out. But the tale does work, seeing as Reflections is an album, in part, about looking back on one’s life. The album’s real weak link is “I Won’t Give Up On You.” There’s nothing wrong with the beautiful love song at all, it just isn’t as spectacular a moment for Williams when compared to the rest of the record.

Often when singers make a record they talk about the idea of ‘having something to say’ with the songs they’re releasing. It’s especially true of songwriters, which makes Reflections all the more remarkable – Williams didn’t write a single word (he did co-produce) yet he has more to say in these ten tracks than most anyone over the course of their whole careers. His gifts as a singer and song interpreter are unmatched and help to elevate Reflections above the usual faire. If you’ve been waiting for a substantive collection full of meaning, with tasteful country production and class – than this is it. I can’t recommend Reflections enough.

Grade: A 

Album Review: Jason Eady – ‘Daylight And Dark’

daylight and darkJason Eady says his latest release, following up to the excellent AM Country Heaven, is not a concept album, but in effect it is, as it tells one story. Eady himself summarises it by saying,

“‘Daylight And Dark’ was written as a ‘day in the life’ story of a man who is trying to find his way through a bad period of his life. He is struggling between his intentions during the daytime and his temptations at night. Every morning he wakes up determined to make changes and do the right thing but as evening approaches he starts to give in and lose his way again…. The entire album is sung from this same character’s point of view and the order of the songs also tells the same story.”

The complex emotions of the story of a troubled individual ring very true. It is produced with understated taste by Kevin Welch to put the excellent songs and compelling story center stage.

The rhythmic lead single ‘OK Whiskey’, which I reviewed back in November makes a compelling, attention-grabbing opener, and sets the scene with the protagonist at a metaphorical crossroads on a literal highway.

He is back on the road in ‘The Other Side Of Abilene’. This excellent song is addressed to the woman he has left at home, with the resigned vocal delicately ornamented by real-life fiancée Courtney Patton’s sweet harmony vocal, which is also in evidence on other tracks. After a night in a motel he realises he has
got to turn back to see what lies ahead”.

Things slow down further for an introspective reflection on the fight with ‘Temptation’, a very fine song with a haunting steel guitar dominating the arrangement.

The wry ‘One, Two … Many’ offers a little self-directed justification for a fall from grace drinking too much:

I’ve had one, two … many
And that’s just enough to make me
Think so much that I can’t stand

‘Liars & Fools’ addresses two kinds of man, concluding he prefers the latter because

Liars, they live in their own little world
While the fools lay it all on the line

Yet he himself fits in the firmer category, as he reveals regretfully:

I watched as it all came undone
She was a fool for leavin’ my lies
And now I’m left with the damage I’ve done

Picking up both mood and tempo, ‘We Just Might Miss Each Other’ is a charming duet with Courtney Patton about trying to avoid an awkward encounter with the ex, with a lovely retro feel and bright fiddle.

The gently melancholic title track sees the protagonist facing up to his tangled life the morning after a drunken hookup with a stranger, but with no answers for himself:

I hear the normal people talkin’
Walkin’ right outside my window
And I wonder what they know that I don’t
Are they just survivin’ after all this time
And just going through the motions that I won’t?

‘Lonesome Down & Out’ is more forceful, as he admits defiantly that his druinking lifestule is due to his relationship breakdown:

I started runnin’
After the stayin’ failed to work

The melancholic ‘Whiskey & You’ (a Chris Stapleton tune which is one of only two songs on the album not written by Eady, and has previously been recorded by Julie Roberts and Tim McGraw) is a more somber reflection of life after divorce, almost a despairing one, which fits perfectly into the sequence. It is followed by the other outside song, Adam Hood’s ‘Late Night Diner’, which adds similar insight and sounds as if it was written for the project with its wistful acceptance of the high cost of failed love.

Finally, Eady joins up with Hayes Carll for the amusing story song ‘A Memory Now’, which ends the record on an upbeat note, with the passage of time having got the protagonist over his ex at last and revisiting all the warning signs. The sardonic tone makes this slightly out of keeping with the more thoughtful mood elsewhere, and it feels like more of a Carll song than an Eady one, but it does provide a positive conclusion to the story told through the album.

This portrait of a troubles soul is Jason Eady’s most ambitious record to date, and his finest achievement. This is highly recommended top anyone who wants some depth in their country music.

Grade: A+

Occasional Hope’s favorite singles of 2013

i let her talkCountry radio may have gone from bad to worse this year, but as ever there were a few bright spots – and some great singles away from the mainstream offerings. Here are my favorite singles of 2013:

10. Wagon Wheel – Darius Rucker
A vibrant, charming cover with rootsy production. What a pity the rest of the album was so deadly dull.

9. It Ain’t The Whiskey – Gary Allan
A bit loud, and perhaps rather similar to past songs, but a great vocal makes this worthwhile.

8. Songs About Trucks – Wade Bowen
An emotion I think we can all get behind – no more songs about trucks, please. But this isn’t just a complaint, this song also has a genuine emotional storyline which lets it stand on its own merits.

overnight success7. Overnight Success – Zane Williams
The independent artist explains how to become a country star, overnight (well, after nine or ten years hard work, of course). A fine song, by turns ironic, self-deprecating and good humoured.

6. Stripes – Brandy Clark
The witty song isn’t the best on the singer-songwriter’s excellent album 12 Stories, but it’s highly entertaining nonetheless. It’s a pity it hasn’t got more mainstream attention.

what are you listening to5. What Are You Listening To – Chris Stapleton
A very tastefully arranged recording, a well written song, and intensely emotional vocal. It wasn’t as successful as I had hoped it would be, and the singer-songwriter and former SteelDriver still awaits release of his solo album for Mercury, but it’s a fine and memorable record.

4. I Got A Car – George Strait
The story song about a couple’s journey from first meeting to starting a family, written by Keith Gattis and Tom Douglas, was an obvious single choice from George’s current album. It is packed full of charm, and shows the veteran (unexpectedly named the CMA Entertainer of the year) still has commercial potential.

3. Could It Be – Charlie Worsham
A debut single from a young artist with a fresh, youthful sound. Utterly charming. I wasn’t as taken by the album, but the single (which reached #13 on the country airplay chart) stands up as one of the more refreshing moments on country radio this year.

borrowed2. Borrowed – LeAnn Rimes
A cheating song from LeAnn’s somewhat controversial Spitfire album. Her mature vocals are beautiful, and the self-penned song draws with an unsparing honesty on LeAnn’s own experiences with her early relationship with her current husband, when both were married to others. The song’s complicated emotions didn’t help LeAnn’s increasingly chequered image, but it’s a fine and deeply truthful song – what country music is all about. The production is delicately sensitive and allows the vocals to shine.

1. I Let Her Talk – Erin Enderlin
A fantastic story song from the singer-songwriter, this beautifully realised tale narrates a bar room encounter between two women drowing their troubles. In an unexpected twist the meeting turns out to be between a man’s wife (the narrator) and his clueless “careless drunk” lover. Erin wrote the song with the great Leslie Satcher, and it is perfectly constructed. This was the promotional single for Erin’s independent album of the same name, and although it received limited mainstream attention it was absolutely the best single of the year for me.

Album Review: Kellie Pickler – ‘The Woman I Am’

picklerI wasn’t terribly impressed with Kellie Pickler when she first arrived on the scene and quickly wrote her off as a marginal talent without a lot of staying power. I was forced to reassess my opinion of her with the release of last year’s surprisingly good 100 Proof, which found her eschewing the trappings of contemporary country in favor of a more traditional sound. Predictably, 100 Proof’s singles received little support from radio and the album sold poorly. Pickler’s contract with BNA Records was terminated shortly thereafter, and I figured that the artistic growth she showed on 100 Proof was just a one-off. But once again Pickler proved me wrong. She signed with Black River Entertainment last fall, and The Woman I Am, her first album for the indie imprint, was released just this month.

Like 100 Proof, The Woman I Am was produced by Frank Liddell and Luke Wooten. Unlike 100 Proof, it is aimed squarely at a mainstream audience, serving notice that though Kellie may no longer be a major label artist, she still has her eye on the charts. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I consider most of today’s mainstream releases unlistenable, but I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this album. It has a couple of weak songs and some questionable production choices at times, but from beginning to end it maintains a semblance to actual country music and never dissolves into the lackluster Lite-FM sound that mars so much of today’s country music.

Two singles have been released so far. “Someone Somewhere Tonight” is a decent ballad that I probably would have liked a lot more if I’d never heard Pam Tillis’ version. The uptempo “Little Bit Gypsy” is Kellie’s current single. I quite enjoyed this one, despite the slightly cluttered nature of the production towards the end. Sadly, neither single has garnered much attention from radio. I don’t know how aggressively Black River will continue to promote this project, but there are several other worthy contenders for future single release.

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and Pickler is no exception as she opts to hock her engagement ring rather than return it to her two-timing ex-fiance in “Ring For Sale”, which was written by Jim Beavers and Chris Stapleton. “Bonnie and Clyde”, on which Kellie shares a co-writing credit with Kyle Jacobs and Liz Rose, is also quite good, despite a somewhat heavy-handed “Indian Outlaw” like arrangement. It is the ballads, however, on which Pickler truly shines, particularly on the lovely title track, which she also co-wrote, and “Tough All Over”, a Gary Nicholson and Leslie Satcher composition and not the 1990 Shelby Lynne song of the same name. “Buzzin'” is pleasant but lyrically shallow, and “No Cure For Crazy” quickly disintegrates into a too loud and too cluttered sonic mess.

The Woman I Am isn’t an outstanding album, but it is a very good one that proves that 100 Proof wasn’t just a fluke and that there is more substance to Kellie Pickler than one might have guessed based upon her first two albums and the dumb blonde shtick she engaged in at the time. The Woman I Am deserves a listen, even if like me, you weren’t a huge fan of Kellie’s early efforts.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Julie Roberts – ‘Good Wine & Bad Decisions’

good wine and bad decisionsIt’s nearly 10 years since Julie Roberts first appeared on the radar of country fans, and in the years since she’s endured more reverses than many artists, including losing her major label deal, losing her home in the Nashville floods, being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and last year being passed up for The Voice. Her career never quite fulfilled the promise of her distinctive emotion-filled voice; even her biggest hit, ‘Break Down Here’, barely cracked the top 20 even though it sold over half a million copies. I loved her two Mercury albums, but was left a little disappointed by her independent album a couple of years ago. Now, she has been signed to a revived Sun Records, and has new music.

Jason Collum co-produces and co-wrote many of the songs with Julie. The result is much stronger than her last record. Collum’s production is often low-key, mixing the country torch balladry at which Julie has always shone, with occasional rock and soul influences, but always allows Julie’s trademark sultry vocals to take center stage.

The outstanding song is ‘Daddy Doesn’t Pray’, written by Chris Stapleton. This is a very touching tribute to a religious father after his death. I also rather liked the album’s other religious song, the longing ‘Arms Of Jesus’, backed by subtle strains of churchy piano and organ.

Steve Earle’s ‘I’m Not Getting Any Better At Goodbyes’ (recorded in the early 90s by Mark Chesnutt) is a reminder that Earle, better known for his country rock and political songs, can write a stunning country ballad when he chooses, and Julie does the song full justice.

‘He Made A Woman Out Of Me’ is a Bobbie Gentry cover, and the production and arrangement of a southern teenager’s sexual awakening. The vocal is convincing enough for it to be an enjoyable track, although the production is like the original to the point of sounding like a pastiche.

Buddy Miller harmonises on his own ‘Gasoline & Matches’. Julie sturdy version is less frenetic than others I have heard, including the recent cut by LeAnn Rimes, allowing the lyrics more prominence. This is a very good recording which grows the more you hear it.

Vince Gill guests on the lonesome ballad ‘Old Strings’, which Julie sings beautifully as she agonises over her continuing feelings for an ex. A lovely melancholy feel and tasteful arrangement make this another highlight.

The seductive ‘Keep Me Up All Night’, addressed to a husband who has let the romance fade, which Julie originally wrote for her debut album a decade ago with Kent Blazy and Cory Batten, but never recorded, is pretty good, and was worth pulling off the shelves.

The title track is an excellent song about a one-night stand with an old flame, regretted almost before it takes place. This should be ideal for Julie’s sultry voice, but unfortunately her pitch sounds noticeably off in places.

‘I’ll Close My Eyes’ is another excellent song about a woman refusing to acknowledge her husband is leaving, with a soothing melody and an understated acoustic arrangement. ‘Old Habit’ is another instant classic, a despairing ballad about facing the last vestiges of a relationship, with a desperate Julie realising her lover is treating her as a convenience. The phrasing and emotional interpretation are beautifully judged.

Some of the material stretches the boundaries a little. The harmonica-led bluesy country-rock of ‘If I Were You’, addressed to a neglectful lover by his partner in adultery, is quite catchy, with a heavy drum beat anchoring the rhythm; the harmonica is played by Willie Nelson sideman Mickey Raphael. The rocking ‘When It’s Over’ is not quite as good, seemingly at odds with the downbeat lyric and not quite right for Julie’s voice. The minor keyed ‘Bones’ is a fairly faithful cover of a song from British retro-soul singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka. It’s not country, but Julie sings it well and it is certainly an interesting choice. The bluesy soul of ‘Wrong About You’ works better for me.

The liner notes are in unreadably tiny print and essentially useless. The music, however, is mostly very good; a little more adventurous than her major label work, and a definite advance on her last release. if you’ve missed Julie’s bluesy voice, this is a very worthwhile purchase or download.

Grade: A

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘The Big E: A Salute to Buddy Emmons’

51GQ-c5OGdL._SL500_AA280_The steel guitar has been an iconic instrument in country music since it was first used in the genre. That doesn’t mean its use has been unchanged; more than almost any other instrument its specification and capabilities have changed with time. a large part of that is down to the legendary Buddy Emmons, one of the most brilliant and innovative musicians ever to be involved in country music, and creators of various new styles of steel guitar.

Emmons is saluted in this fine tribute record. Steel player Steve Fishell, currently touring with Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, produced, and his steel player’s natural understanding for and love of the instrument and the man being paid tribute to help to make this a worthy tribute to one of the giants of country (and not just country) musicianship – Emmons has also been active in jazz. The selected songs are ones where Emmons performed on the classic recording; some of them he wrote. The steel playing, courtesy of a dozen or so of today’s most accomplished steel players, is gorgeous throughout (although it doesn’t feature on every track), and the record recommends itself to a wider audience by the use of some starry guest vocalists on most tracks. A couple of great non-steel guitarists contribute too (Duane Eddy and Albert Lee).

A brace of instrumentals place the instrument center stage, but good though they are, it is the vocal tracks which non-specialists will gravitate to. Fishell plays on my favorite track, a lovely duet by Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell on Gram Parsons’ ‘That’s All It Took’. Emmylou swoops and soars as a counterpoint to Rodney’s more measured vocal as they swap lines.

Also very fine is Willie Nelson on the questioning ‘Are You Sure’, which he wrote with Emmons in the 60s. Nelson belies his age with his usual precise, distinctive phrasing and understated but believable emotional commitment. John Anderson is at his best on ‘Half A Mind’, originally recorded by Ernest Tubb with Emmons. It’s always a pleasure to hear Anderson singing hard country, and this is great, with Buck Reid’s steel backing him up nicely in very traditional style.

Gill and Franklin turn from the Bakersfield sound of their wonderful recent project together to some very retro western swing on ‘Country Boy’ (a 1949 hit for Little Jimmy Dickens, before Emmons joined him, but one he must have played many times).

Raul Malo is ideally suited to a loungy jazzy take on ‘Night Life’, but Chris Stapleton’s take on ‘Feel So Bad’ is a bit too far in the blues direction for my personal taste. Both tracks do, however, help to show the breadth of Emmons’s contributions to music in general.

Veteran Little Jimmy Dickens sounds fairly wrecked vocally on ‘When Your House Is Not A Home’, but then he is over 90 and not in the best of health. His inclusion is a nice touch as he was Emmons’ first major employer in the 1950s, bringing the remarkably talented teenager to Nashville.

The lesser-known Joanie Keller Johnson fails to match the Suzy Bogguss version of cowboy classic ‘Someday Soon’ (Emmons played on the recording by folk singer Judy Collins), although it is quite pleasant, with Keller’s husband Mike Johnson on steel. (Incidentally, as Joanie Keller, the singer has released some attractive independent records.)

A couple of guitarists try singing, with mixed results. I quite enjoyed the folky vocal at the end of ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ by steel player Greg Leisz, following a long, lyrical steel solo, but British-born Albert Lee (once a member of Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band and writer of Ricky Skaggs’s hit ‘Country Boy’) isn’t much good as a vocalist, and ‘Rainbows All Over Your Blues’ is one track which would have been much better off as a pure instrumental.

This is an excellent tribute to someone worthy of all the acclaim he is given, and it is all the better that (unlike the equally good Hank Cochran tribute from last year) it is released in Emmons’s lifetime. It is also genuinely great music in its own right. I recommend it to all country music fans, especially if you like the steel guitar showcased.

Grade: A

Single Review: Chris Stapleton – ‘What Are You Listening To?’

what are you listening toChris Stapleton has been one of Nashville’s premier songwriters for some years. He has also been known to discriminating music listeners as the lead singer on the SteelDrivers’ first two albums, each of which were recognised by Grammy nominations. Now he takes center stage with a mainstream major label deal as a solo vocalist on Mercury Records. His debut single is available for download now, and a full length album is expected later this year, both produced by veteran Tony Brown. Brown is an inspired choice for Stapleton, whose eclectic tastes have led him in the past to make music spanning country, rock, blues and bluegrass genres.

The gently paced mid-tempo ballad is not really traditional country, with blues and soul influences evident. However, its mellow feel and attractive melody make it more than listenable, helped along by a sympathetic production, the artist’s distinctively smoky, bluesy voice, and the sweet harmonies of his wife Morgane Hayes. The protagonist wonders a little wistfully what the music his ex is listening to implies about her emotional state – is she still not over him, and listening to sad songs, or a love song for a new love interest. He himself is clearly fixated on a record which reminds him of her.

Stapleton has a big powerful voice he is capable of letting rip as he did with former band the SteelDrivers, but here he shows all the understated restraint this downbeat number needs. There is still passion and feeling here, but it is channeled in a more subtle way.

I hope this is not too tasteful for country radio to deal with, because not only is this a fine record in its own right, but Stapleton is a major talent who deserves to be heard.

Listen here.

Grade: A

Album Review: LeAnn Rimes – ‘Spitfire’

spitfireLeAnn Rimes’ chart fortunes have been wildly inconsistent since she emerged on the country scene as a 13-year old. Her turbulent private life has also exposed her to a great deal of public criticism in recent years with her romance with new husband Eddie Cibrian breaking up two existing marriages and the home of two small children. Her excellent Vince Gill-produced covers album reignited my interest in her as an artist, and now she returns with her first records of all-new material in some years. She wrote many of the songs with her co-producer and frequent collaborator Darrell Brown, and it is the most personal and honest material she has ever recorded. She acknowledges that on the album cover, giving it the subtitle “the truth, in no particular order”. In other words, it is effectively a concept album about her affair, divorce and remarriage – meaty reality-based material which makes it a rare example of its kind in today’s market. Musically it’s not as traditional as Lady And Gentlemen but it is recognizably country music, with breathing space for LeAnn’s vocals.

The best songs are the more reflective ones where she shows some self-awareness. Candid cheating songs used to be a staple of country music but have fallen out of favor in recent years. ‘Borrowed’ is a guilt-ridden cheating song set during the affair, this one addressed to her new lover and dealing with her jealousy of his wife.

The remorseful ballad ‘What Have I Done’ (perhaps the outstanding song on the album) addresses the wrong she has done to her first love, who is “not her last”. It is an excellent song with a beautiful melody, with Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski adding harmonies and subtle steel and fiddle.

What have I done?
I broke the sweetest heart
Of the only man that’s ever loved me

I don’t know what I’ve become
I need to get back to where I’m from
Gotta smash every mirror in this empty house
Cause like you I don’t want to see myself
Oh, what have I done?

Both of these songs were released as singles late last year, but have failed to chart.

The haunting ‘Where I Stood’ (written by Australian AC singer-songwriter Missy Higgins) tackles the same theme, opening with the words “I don’t know what I’ve done” as she faces the loss of her husband and contemplates his finding someone new.

A heavy drumbeat leads into the less subtle ‘I Do Now’, which again addresses her cheating, but with less evident remorse, with LeAnn taking comfort in listening to Hank Williams and Merle Haggard but unfortunately not borrowing from them stylistically, instead going for a rock-influenced mid-tempo sound without much melody.

‘A Waste Is A Terrible Thing To Mind’ is another fine song written by LeAnn, as she ponders over her choices. It is one of the most traditional sounding songs on the album. Her diction is a bit muddy on this one (a problem she has sometimes suffered from in the past) so it takes some concentration to decipher the story, but it recounts the protagonist’s regret at separating from husband or lover:

I threw him out like the trash one night
The dumbest thing I’ve ever done
He was the best thing that I’ll ever find
Yeah, a waste is a terrible thing to mind

Darrell Brown contributed ‘Who We Really Are’ (a co-write with Sarah Buxton), a pretty ballad on which Leann’s vocals sound nice but again the words (about discovering oneself through the vicissitudes of love) are hard to make out.

The aggressive ‘Spitfire’ lets loose against a rival in love, and is a little spiteful, calling her rival not only a “dirty little liar” but a brainless one. It’s a brave choice as the album opener and title track as it doesn’t paint LeAnn in the best light and the obviously autobiographical nature of the material elsewhere makes this open to interpretation as a personal attack on her husband’s former wife, so making it the entry into the album could antagonize some listeners (but perhaps those most offended won’t be listening anyway, on principle?). Divorced from its likely context, it’s not a bad song in assertive vein.

She definitely addresses her husband’s ex-wife elsewhere, claiming to be ‘Just A Girl Like You’, acknowledging “he may break my heart too”, but I didn’t like this one much – it feels a bit disingenuous, there is far too much vocal noodling and the instrumentation has a slightly tinny feel. ‘You’ve Ruined Me’ also sounds a bit over-produced and over-wrought vocally.

Buddy and Julie Miller’s frenetic ‘Gasoline And Matches’ is done as a duet with rock singer Rob Thomas, and is quite entertaining, although it definitely leans more in the rock direction than country; rock guitarist Jeff Beck also guests. In the context of this album, it presumably reflects the passion wrought by her relationship with her new husband.

The equally fast-paced ‘You Ain’t Right’ written by Liz Rose with another husband-and-wife team, Chris Stapleton and Morgane Hayes, has a hardworking woman complaining about her layabout man’s lack of effort. It’s a good song, but lacks melody and feels out of place thematically.

I assume the judgmental ‘God Tales Care Of Your Kind’ is an older song as it was written with Leann’s ex-husband Dean Sheremet; it too seems a curious choice for this record unless she is addressing it to herself. Finally ‘Bottle’ is surprisingly bland for a Gary Burr tune.

It seems fairly clear that LeAnn’s personal life has caused a backlash against her music, and this album (apparently her last for Curb) will probably not get the radio play it needs to do well commercially. However, it is a serious artistic work rooted in real life. Perhaps a little too much so at times.

Grade: B+

Album Review: George Strait – ‘Love Is Everything’

love is everythingNow 61, George Strait may be giving up touring next year, but he still seems to be keen on continuing his recording career. As with everything he has done in the past decade, he has co-produced his latest album with Tony Brown, and there are no indications he is running out of steam. The pair know just what works for Strait and his fans, and while there are no real surprises here, it’s an accomplished record which will be well received by the fans.

Lead single ‘Give It All We Got Tonight’ is a rather dull and generic song with irritatingly tinny echoes in the production, written by Mark Bright, Phil O’Donnell and Tim James. It sounds exactly like an attempt at getting some radio attention. Luckily it’s done the job, giving George his 60th chart-topper; better still, it’s the only dud.

The outstanding song is ‘Blue Melodies’, a sad slow song written by Keith Gattis and one Wyatt Earp (yes, really). Loaded with steel guitar and fiddle, this is classic country heartbreak as a songwriter struggles to find the right words to convey his feelings. His sweetheart loves the sad songs, but he admits this will end up “a sad song, that’s too sad to sing” if she isn’t persuaded to return. His years of experience stand him in good stead here, as the phrasing is impeccable. This is absolutely lovely.

Gattis also contributed another pair of songs to the album. The engaging story song ‘I Got A Car’, written with Tom Douglas, narrates a romance from roadside pickup to starting a family together, and is quite charming, although the production gets a little busy towards the end. It would probably work as a single. ‘Sittin’ On The Fence’, a co-write with Roger Creager, is another good song. It is about a man undecided whether to make the move to save a relationship (even though he knows he’d be a “damn fool to let her go”).

Also very good, ‘You Don’t Know What You’re Missing’, written by Chris Stapleton and Al Anderson, reports a bar room conversation comparing one man’s complaints about mundane problems in his family life, to his drinking companion’s real heartaches. ‘I Thought I Heard My Heart Sing’ (by Bill Kenner and L Russell Brown) is an enjoyably bouncy number about the euphoria of falling in love which has a delightfully retro feel.

In the warmhearted ‘When Love Comes Around Again’, penned by Monty Holmes, Donny Kees and Jeff Silvey, Strait offers an older man’s hard-won experience of recovering from a broken heart to find new love, to counsel a younger friend going through it all for the first time. This might be another good single. The title track (written by Casey Beathard and Pat McLaughlin) is a little bland lyrically, but the laidback vocal and generous emotion work well.

‘I Just Can’t Go On Dying Like This’ is a rare solo composition by Strait, and is an impressive sad country ballad. It is an older song which was one of the artist’s first, pre-fame, singles back in 1976, and was also recorded as a bonus on the Strait Out Of The Box box set. The latest version is significantly different from its predecessors, completely reinventing it by slowed down from a honky tonker into a mature ballad which is very fine indeed. He was joined by son Bubba to write ‘That’s What Breaking Hearts Do’, which is a decent song but the vocal feels a bit perfunctory. Father and son teamed up with old friend Dean Dillon for two further songs. ‘The Night Is Young’, a cheerfully delivered invitation to a wife for a long night out (and in), and is quite good, featuring horns.

The more serious ‘I Believe’ is a sensitive, strings-swathed, response to the tragic events at Newtown, Connecticut, last year, capturing the sadness felt across the world at such a horrific incident.

The album closes with the valedictory ‘When The Credits Roll’, written by Randy Montana, Steve Bogard and Kyle Jacobs. I don’t know how much longer Strait plans to continue recording, but this feels intended to evoke images of his life and career as the latter comes to an end. However, it doesn’t quite convince, because George has never really come across as the rebel presented in the lyrics, and the production is a bit cluttered.

This isn’t Strait’s best ever record – that would be quite an achievement – but it’s solid fare with plenty of good songs and one outstanding one. It’s the best mainstream record I’ve heard in a while.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Love Will’

lovewillI never know what to expect from Trace Adkins these days. I’m hard pressed to think of another example of such a talented vocalist whose musical output is so wildly inconsistent. Love Will, his latest effort, while not quite a return to his traditional roots, at least avoids obnoxious songs in the vein of “Chrome”, “Hillbilly Bone” and the infamous “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk”.

He teams up with a variety of producers this time around: Frank Rogers, Mark Wright, Tony Brown, Mickey Jack Cones and Kenny Beard, most of whom he has worked with in the past, and for the most part the results are quite good. The opening track “When I Stop Loving You”, is a catchy number that would be a good choice for a late summer single. It was written by Even Stevens and Marty Brown, who had a brief recording stint with MCA in the early 90s.

Things move in a decidedly more pop direction beginning with the second track “So What If I Do”, which may very well be the first Trace Adkins recording to ever feature a saxophone. “Come See Me”, written by Kenny Beard and Exile members J.P. Pennington and Sonny LaMaire. This song sets the stage for a cover of an Exile song, on which some of the band members appear as guest artists (more on this a little later). I actually didn’t mind the pop leaning songs up to this point, but by the time we get to the overproduced “Altar of Your Love”, the only Adkins co-write on the album, it begins to wear a little thin. And then there’s the cover of “Kiss You All Over”, which was a #1 pop hit for Exile in 1978, which sounds very much like a product of the era in which it originated. Its inclusion on the album seems pointless: Exile spends as much (or perhaps more) time singing as Adkins, and if he had to cover an Exile song, there are much better ones to choose from than this.

Fortunately, things improve dramatically after this. “If The Sun Comes Up” is an excellent number that sounds like vintage Adkins. “Say No To A Woman” is a more respectful look at the fairer sex than some other songs in Trace’s catalog. The current single “Watch The World End”, a duet with pop-singer Colbie Caillat is enjoyable, although the string section is somewhat intrusive. Likewise, I could have done without the strings and choir on the Chris Stapleton and Tim James-penned title track, which closes out the album.

Love Will is more pop-leaning than most of Trace’s other albums, which may be an attempt to remain relevant at country radio. It is however, a more mature sound for him, and the absence of tasteless and sexist redneck anthems is a most welcome change.

Grade: B

Album Review: Travis Tritt – ‘My Honky Tonk History’

honkytonkhistoryThe creative renaissance that Travis Tritt enjoyed with the release of Down The Road I Go was unfortunately short-lived; 2002’s Strong Enough was a commercial and critical disappointment and 2004’s My Honky Tonk History, while slightly better than its predecessor, was likewise a mixed bag.

Based on the album’s title, some fans might have been expecting a back-to-basics collection of traditional weepers; if so, those fans were likely quite disappointed, since the album often is anything but traditional. Ironically, the Luke Bryan and Patrick Jason Matthews title track is one of the most rock-leaning tracks Tritt ever released. The track’s production is rather heavy-handed, and this is also the case with the second track “Too Far To Turn Around”. Two tracks into the album I was bracing myself for a tedious listening experience; “The Girl’s Gone Wild” is more mainstream contemporary country but the lyrics are cliched and the whole song sounds like a retread of the Garth Brooks Hit “Ain’t Comin’ Home Til The Sun Comes Up”; a song of which I was never overly fond. The tune seems to have been carefully tailored to the prevailing tastes at country radio, but radio’s response was lukewarm and the tune topped out at #28.

Fortunately things take a turn for the better starting with the fourth track “What Say You”, a duet with John Mellencamp. It’s not a traditional number by any means; it is more in the vein of something that Bob Dylan or The Byrds might have recorded. I’ve never been a fan of Mellencamp’s music but somehow the tune manages to work. It marks Mellencamp’s first –and to my knowledge, only — entry into the country Top 40. The record just missed the Top 20, peaking at #21.

Following “What Say You” is the excellent “Circus Leaving Town”, a traditional steel-guitar drenched number which is by far the album’s best track. “Monkey Around”, a bluesy number written by Delbert McClinton, Benmont Tench, and Gary Nicholson provides a nice change of pace, and Tritt sounds as though he is thoroughly enjoying himself with this tune. “I See Me” is a more mainstream effort, a ballad about a father observing his young son. Earlier in Tritt’s career, this would likely have been a big hit but by this time radio had cooled toward him considerably and the record stalled at #32.

By the last third of the album, the quality begins to taper off again, as the songs become more rock-oriented with offerings like “When Good Ol’ Boys Go Bad”, the anti-commercialism anthem “It’s All About The Money” and the don’t-get-above-your-raisin’ themed “When In Rome”, which closes the album. The two exceptions are the beautiful ballad “We’ve Had It All”, a Tritt co-write with Marty Stuart and “Small Doses” written by Jerry Salley and Chris Stapleton who would later enjoy a stint as lead vocalist for The SteelDrivers. “Small Doses” is the one tune here that sounds as though it belongs on an album titled My Honky Tonk History.

Though it failed to spawn any major hits or earn gold or platinum certification, My Honky Tonk History did reach #7 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. His declining popularity with radio and creative differences with Columbia led to Travis’ departure from the label in 2005. With the major label phase of his career now over, he went on to experience even greater difficulties with the independent Category 5, with whom he signed in 2006. Uneven in quality though it is, My Honky Tonk History does contain a few very good tracks and for those alone it is worth picking up a cheap copy.

Grade: B


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