My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Clint Daniels

Album Review: Mike Bentley & Cumberland Gap Connection – ‘Mike Bentley & Cumberland Gap Connection’

mike bentley cumberland gap connectionThe bluegrass band Cumberland Gap Connection, now slightly rebranded by featuring the name of its lead singer and chief songwriter, and with an almost completely new lineup, has strong country influences behind the traditional bluegrass instrumentation. Bentley’s smooth lead vocal and a solid collection of songs make this album well worth tracking down.

‘Truck Drivin’ opens the album with a soulfully sung depiction of a truck driver’s life, as he heads home after a trip away. Bentley’s own ‘Coal Miner’s Dance’ offers a somber look at a miner’s dangerous life with a tragic culmination. The emotional ‘Chill Of A Late Frost’ (written by Shannon Slaughter) bewails the hard life of a farmer.

Slaughter also co-wrote (with Gerald Ellenburg) ‘Giving Up On You’, a sad song with a soothing melody which really suits Bentley’s voice. Nice harmonies, too, help to make this track a real winner.

The talented Bentley wrote four of the songs altogether. ‘Better Days’ is a fine song about a relationship on the edge. He teamed up with Terry Foust and Daniel Salyer to write the inspirational ‘He Knows My Name’, which is about a homeless ‘lost soul’ who nonetheless has inner peace. Together with Mark Brinkman they wrote ‘She Don’t Talk To The Moon’, another portrait in song, this one about an elderly woman with her feet on the ground and her heart set on heaven.

Terry Foust wrote ‘Back To Carolina’ with Ray Edwards; this picks up the pace with its optimistic tale of a an starting over by going back home. Also up-tempo, the good-humored ‘Old Steamboats And Trains’, written by Edwards and Larry Joe Cox, offers a travelogue. The upbeat ‘I Hear Kentucky Callin’ Me’ is very pretty.

Bentley is a big fan of the late great Keith Whitley, and he pays tribute here with a lovely version of the Lefty Frizzell classic Keith made his own, ‘I Never Go Round Mirrors’.

The record closes with an accappella hymn, ‘When I Make My Last Move’, sung solo by Bentley.

This is a highly enjoyable album, generally low key and mellow, centring on Bentley’s warm voice. It is recommended to anyone who likes the overlap between country and bluegrass.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Jon Pardi – ‘California Sunrise’

71aFoU3QlUL._SX522_When reviewing new music, I always try to follow two basic rules: (1) not to expect too much and (2) not to read any other reviews until I’ve had a chance to listen to it myself, so as not to be influenced by anyone else’s opinion. I didn’t initially expect to review Jon Pardi’s California Sunrise, so I’d already inadvertently broken Rule #2 by the time I decided to do it. The generally favorable reviews I read caused me to break Rule #1 and raise my expectations — which set me up for a huge disappointment.

Hailed as an album that tries to steer country music back towards it roots, California Sunrise is the most uninspired collection of songs that I’ve heard so far this year. I do give Pardi and producer Bart Butler for avoiding the EDM elements that have infested country music in recent years and for mostly avoiding bro-country cliches. They also make more use of country instrumentation – i.e., fiddle and steel – than is usually the case these days and that is appreciated, but ultimately the country elements are drowned out by too-loud electric guitars and hick-hop rhythms. Pardi’s vocals, which remind me of a blend of Brad Paisley and early Gary Allan, are also drowned out by the too-loud production.

Pardi is credited as a co-writer on eight of the album’s twelve songs, which partially explains why listening to the album seems like playing the same song over and over. One exception is the lead single “Head Over Boots”, which he wrote with Luke Laird, which really isn’t bad but it’s not great either. Pardi did not the album’s two most noteworthy songs: “She Ain’t In It” and “Dirt On My Boots”, which are the album’s best and worst cuts respectively. The former, written by Clint Daniels and Wynn Varble is the only song on the album that I truly liked — the one bonafide country number about a protagonist trying to resume his social life after a bad break-up. The bro-countryish “Dirt On My Boots” comes to us courtesy of Rhett Akins, Jesse Frassure and Ashley Gorley is downright terrible (I’m guessing it will be the next single), but to be fair “All Time High” written by Pardi, Bart Butler and Brice Long isn’t a whole lot better.

The remaining songs are bland, lyrically light and tend to all bleed together and aren’t worthy of individual commentary.

Jon Pardi is a talented but not exceptional vocalist, who has a lot of potential if he can only find better material. California Sunrise is not a traditional album, though it certainly comes closer than most of today’s other mainstream releases. If Pardi can tone down the rock elements and volume, and lean a little more on those country roots, he may release a great album one day, but he’s not there yet. Download “She Ain’t In It” and skip the rest.

Grade: C-

Album Review: James Dupre – ‘Stoned To Death’

stoned to deathSix years ago, James Dupre parlayed some popular youtube covers into a fine Kyle Lehning and Jerry Douglas produced debut album. That record was then picked up by Warner Brothers, and it seemed as if he might make a breakthrough. Unfortunately, Warner Brothers failed to do anything with James and his music other than re-releasing his album. A stint on The Voice later, the Louisiana born singer is back with new music, mostly self-composed, whereas he only contributed two of the songs on his debut. It is an encouraging step forwards artistically, while continuing to showcase his attractive, warm vocals. The new album is produced by Jordan Lehning (son of Kyle); he doesn’t do a bad job overall but lacks his father’s light touch. Backing vocalists include former American Idol runner-up Kree Harrison, although she isn’t very audible.

James’s Louisiana roots, traditional country music and his big influences Randy Travis and folk rocker James Taylor all infuse his own country music. The upbeat ‘Green Light’, which James and Jordan wrote with Skylar Wilson and Andrew Combs, opens the album to good effect with its optimistic attitude.

James wrote four songs with Neal Coty and Brent Baxter, all reflective ballads about the aftermath of a relationship. The mellow sounding but sad ‘Forgiving Me’ is about regrets for the mistakes he made, and coming to peace with himself:

So I pack that pack
Light up some self destruction
Let it lay me back for the night that I got coming
Throwin’ rocks in a muddy river
One for each regret
And writin’ the past a goodbye letter
Sending it off with a match
Chipping away at a heavy stone that ain’t half what it used to be
Working on forgiving me

Even time takes time
That’s one more thing I’m learning
And peace of mind is what you spend a long night earning

‘Someday Today’ is about coping with the loss by returning home, and is full of New Orleans atmosphere. In ‘Lonesome Alone’ he calls on his ex, bearing alcohol as “an ice-cold olive branch if it needs to be”. ‘Whatever That Was’ reflects on a relationship which was “never quite lovers, more than friends”, and which may not be over yet. It’s a fine song with a catchy tune, marred by an arrangement which is too heavy on the electric guitar.

‘Sad Song’, a co-write with Jeremy Spillman, is a mellow song about the way music helps to heal melancholy, and is very good. In contrast, the upbeat ‘Till The Real Thing Comes’, which James wrote with Adam Wright, celebrates a bar room hookup and offers a rare up-tempo moment.

The quietly melodic ‘Perfect Time’, written by Neal Carpenter and Scooter Carusoe, fits nicely with James’ own songs, and although the production has some intrusive elements, it is restrained. The rather dull ‘Hurt Good, written by Mike Mobley, Jessi Alexander and Travis Meadows, has a contemporary arrangement which adds nothing of value.

Finally, the title track, contributed by Alexander with Jeff Hyde and Clint Daniels, is a compelling drama comparing being left to a prison sentence:

I plead guilty and I wear my regret like a number on my soul

This is an excellent song, although yet again the production does its best to overwhelm it.

James’s warm voice sounds great throughout on the set, and the song quality is high. Minor niggles with the production aside, this is a strong album worth hearing.

Grade: A-

For those interested, James also stars in a new straight-to-Netflix and video film in which he plays the son of Randy Travis.

Album Review: Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice – ‘The Story Of The Day That I Died’

the story of the day that i diedOne of my favorite current bluegrass acts is Virginia-based Junior Sisk & Rambler’s Choice. Excellent musicianship sparkles throughout the set, and they have a knack for picking interesting material. On their fourth album, everything comes together perfectly.

The outstanding title track is a witty story song written by Ashby Frank about a man who fakes his own suicide in order to make a new life in Mexico (paid for with his cheating wife’s IRA investments and credit cards):

I guess that sorry girl will never cheat again
After the way I did me in

I hope that you never learn the truth
You’re dead to me and now I’m dead to you

This is a sheer delight.

There is more misery on offer in the classically high lonesome ‘A House Where A Home Used To Be’, another fine song, written by Daniel Salyer. ‘Another Lonely Day’ is another Salyer-penned hurting song, with the band’s bass player Jason Tomlin given the chance to sing lead. While his vocals are a little uncertain, the song itself is pretty good. Another faithless wife leaving her man for a lover causes the moonshining protagonist to flee ‘High In The Mountains’, a fast paced number allowing the band to show off their instrumental chops.

‘Lover’s Quarrel’ is a sad traditional third-person story song once recorded by the Stanley Brothers, and with that pure mountain music style, about a couple who argue and separate for petty reasons. The young man begs his sweetheart to make things up, but she refuses, and after a while he dies.

The protagonist of the presumably tongue-in-cheek ‘Old Bicycle Chain’ complains about his wife’s (mostly rather minor) bad behaviour and threatens her with violence:

You trashed my trailer last Sunday
While I was at church singing hymns
I’ve had enough of your bad ways
So hold this anchor and take a swim

It’s never too late to change your ways, dear
Face your mistakes and take the blame
And don’t come back messing round here
Or I’ll whoop you with an old bicycle chain

On a more serious note, the excellent ‘If The Bottle Was A Bible’ takes a thoughtful look at a man taking refuge from the misery of bereavement in “the haze of neon lights and tortured souls” rather than God. The song was written by Ronnie Bowman, Clint Daniels and Billy Ryan. Sisk, whose vocals are at their best here, plays the part of a sympathetic bartender watching the man staring at the labels from his bottle of gin:

Imagine what he’d know
If the bottle was a Bible

I bet he’s drank the River Jordan
The flesh is weaker than what they’re pourin’
And right there in that bar we’d have revival
If that bottle was a bible

‘Walking In Good Company’, written by Sisk with his father, offers up some traditional bluegrass gospel. ‘Prayers Go Up’ is sung by mandolin player Chris Davis, and he has a warm voice well-showcased on a pleasant song celebrating homespun philosophy, written by three country songwriters, Ben Hayslip, Patrick Matthews and Bryan Simpson. The lyric is a little cliche’d, but the sincere spirit of the vocal sells the song. The title of the cheerfully pacy ‘Good To See The Home Place Once Again’ tells you all you need know about the song.

The record closes out with a cheerful Larry Sparks song praising the comradeship found at a local bar, ‘Drinking At the Water Hole’.

This album is an example of bluegrass at its best.

Grade: A

Buy the album at amazon.

Album Review: Neal McCoy – ‘XII’

One way for a minor 90s star to get some attention for his independent comeback is to recruit two of today’s biggest names to assist with production. Neal McCoy called on Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert to produce his twelfth album, helped by the experienced Brent Rowan. Together they do a good and unexpectedly restrained job on the sound of the album, and although some of the material is pleasant but forgettable, there is a good humored mood which makes the record thoroughly engaging.

The relaxed lead single ‘A-OK’ is quite catchy with its whistled opening and would be radio friendly if cut by a current star. Blake and Miranda sing recognisable backing vocals, contributing to the feelgood mood. On similar lines is the slightly jerky and bluesy ‘Real Good Feel Good’.

Much better is the soul-laced ‘Judge A Man By The Woman’, which is very well done with excellent phrasing and emotional interpretation. It was previously done by Heartland, best known for their one and only hit ‘I Loved Her First’ a few years back, and has also been cut by actor John Corbett, but Neal’s version, dedicated to his wife of over 30 years, is the best.

The most entertaining track is the frivolous but amusing western swing ‘Mouth’, written by Jamey Johnson and Barry Tolliver. It is about putting one’s foot in it. There is more wry humor in ‘That’s Just How She Gets’, a plaintive complaint from a drinking man, previously cut by Australian Adam Harvey:

All that liquor made her different
And I knew I couldn’t win
She wasn’t the girl that I knew when I met her
She was makin’ a fool of herself and I let her
Kept cussin’ and a-screaming ’till I couldn’t even think
That’s just how she gets when I drink

The bright up-tempo ‘Shotgun Rider’ is one of the Peach Pickers’ standard efforts lyrically (but better than most of their work), but some nice production choices and Neal’s warm vocal make it an attractive listening experience. ‘Borderline Crazy’ is a Mexican styled tale of dreams of Mexican vacations, “countin’ Margaritas instead of sheep”. ‘Crazy Women’, written by George Teren and Rivers Rutherford, is mellow and frankly a bit unexciting for a song with that title.

Neal co-wrote a couple of the songs. ‘That’s You’ (written with Clint Daniels and Jeff Hyde, is quite a nice love song with a sincere vocal bringing it to life. ‘Lucky Enough’ is more generic and over- produced, and is a co-write with Hyde and Ryan Tyndell.

The melodic ‘Every Fire’ was written by John Scott Sherrill and Cathy Majeski, and although I don’t think it’s ever been a single, it has been recorded by a number of artists in the past, starting with Shenandoah on their 1994 effort In The Vicinity Of The Heart. It’s a pretty tune with a faintly melancholic undertow, which is well worthy of a revival, with Miranda Lambert’s harmony adding sweetness to Neal’s convincing lead.

Finally, Allen Shamblin and Tom Douglas wrote the introspective ‘Van Gogh’ a rare down tempo moment, offering reflective thoughts on the nature of artistry:

You pour your heart out on the page
You bare your soul up on stage
You’ve got the power to make us feel
You’ve got the power to help us heal

You’re not crazy when it hurts and makes you cry
You draw the beauty from your pain
Life is just too beautiful to put it in a frame
Maybe that’s the reason why
Van Gogh went insane

You offer up your best and it don’t sell
It cuts you to the bone and hurts like hell
Promise me you’ll still give your fragile heart
Cause you and I both know, baby
That it’s still a work of art

This is definitely not the kind of song I expected from Neal, and is the best song included.

Overall, this is a surprisingly attractive record with even the lesser material sounding good. The worst thing about it is the dreadfully unimaginative cover art, but if it was a budget issue I’d rather they spent the money on the music.

Grade: B+

Single Review: Easton Corbin – ‘I Can’t Love You Back’

Two #1 singles into his career, young neo-traditionalist Easton Corbin releases his third single. ‘I Can’t Love You Back’ is a lost love ballad about clinging on to his feelings despite the absence of the loved one, written by Easton’s producer Carson Chamberlain with Clint Daniels and Jeff Hyde.

The emotion expressed is a straightforward one: no matter how much he continues to love her, that will not bring her back to him. It is very nicely presented, with Easton’s nicely understated vocal still sounding very reminiscent of a meld of George Strait and Alan Jackson. The tasteful production adds greatly to the effect, with Paul Franklin’s sweetly slithering steel guitar underlining the delicate sadness of the mood. This alone makes this track a welcome breath of fresh air on country radio.

The song itself is not spectacular, but a competently written, if perhaps a touch too tightly focussed, lyric, and an attractive melody. We don’t learn anything about the circumstances of the breakup: who left whom, why, even how long ago, or details of the relationship, and while that would have deepened the song emotionally, and made it more memorable in the long-term, the relative blank canvas allows a simple focus on the purity of the emotion, and perhaps allows listeners to project their own story into the empty spaces.

There is no trace of blame either addressed to the former loved one, or to himself, but there is clearly absolutely no hope for a reconciliation:

I could write a thousand letters
Call a hundred times a day
Or try to drown my sorrow at the bar
I could go down to the church
Get on my knees and pray
But it still won’t change the way things really are
Won’t bring you back again

If it were not for the lines about writing or calling her, one might assume she had died, so final is the loss. He sounds almost resigned to it, however; this is a subdued regret, not unbearable agony.

I do think that to consolidate his career, Easton needs stronger material for his second album, but this will do very nicely for now.

Grade: B+

Listen here.

Single Review: Clay Walker – ‘Where Do I Go From You’

Clay Walker was one of those 90s sensations that exploded right out of the box, with 5 of his first 6 single releases shooting straight to the top.  Between 1991 and 1998, Walker released 17 singles to country radio, with all of them going into the top 40, and 12 landing inside the top 10.  But somewhere around the end of the decade, mergers and further consolidation between labels relocated Clay to Giant’s parent company, Warner Brothers.  After a few minor hits there, he made a short-lived switch to RCA in 2001, where another sprinkling of top 10 hits followed.  His third label deal came from Asylum’s Curb division.  The interesting aspect to Clay Walker’s chart success, to me, has been his many stops and starts over the past 7 or 8 years.  While most artists struggle to get back in the graces of radio programmers after a year or more hiatus, Walker has found himself staging mini-comebacks on at least 3 occasions, the most recent being last year’s top 5 ‘She Won’t Be Lonely Long’, his best showing on the singles chart in a decade.  But, recent history has shown Walker unable to follow up a career-reviving hit with another.

‘Where Do I Go From You’ attempts to recapture the tone of ‘She Won’t Be Lonely Long’.  It succeeds in being radio-friendly without sounding polished, something the best Clay Walker singles have always done.  A similar laid-back electric guitar groove compliment the driving mid-tempo beat, and Clay’s vocals succeed in clearly cutting through the production.

Where it falters in its unoriginal concept, and very underdeveloped plot.  We learn that the narrator’s love interest left him, got on a plane and skipped town.  Now our narrator is getting lost in his job by day and inhabiting the local beer joint by night, all in his efforts to dull the pain.  The chorus is, interestingly enough, the most abstract part of the lyrics, and the only area of the song where we get any insight into the relationship gone wrong: ‘Where do I go to get over the fact that you got on a plane and you ain’t coming back/I said what I said and you did what you had to do/Where does a man have to go to get over the truth?/Where do I go from you?’

What did he say?  It must have been substantial enough that he understands her reasons for leaving.  All we’re really left with in the end is his continuing plea for guidance from a woman who’s likely a thousand miles away.

Grade: C

Purchase ‘Where Do I Go From You’ digitally at amazon or iTunes.

Songwriters: Don Cook, Clint Daniels, Ryan Tyndell