My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Dan Tyminski

Album Review: John Michael Montgomery – ‘Brand New Me’

The last couple of singles from Home To You had not got the new millennium off to a good start for John Michael Montgomery, but later in 2000 he came up with his biggest hit for years.

‘The Little Girl’, written by Harley Allen, is a story song allegedly based on a true story about a neglected child who witnesses the fatal culmination of her father’s domestic violence, and later tells her loving foster parents she recognises a picture of Jesus as the one who protected her on the night her father killed her mother and herself. A gently soothing melody and harmonies from Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski make this a very pretty sounding song. It topped the Billboard country charts for three weeks.

The two other singles from JMM’s gold-selling 2000 album Brand New Me fell short in comparison. The up-tempo and rather rowdy country-pop ‘That’s What I Like About You’ was probably too much of a contrast in tone to do well while ‘The Little Girl’ was still getting a lot of radio play, and it isn’t a strong enough song to stand on its own. ‘Even Then’ (written by Pat Bunch and Shane Teeters) is better, a smooth AC-leaning love song which plays to JMM’s vocal strengths. However, neither song cracked the top 40.

‘That’s Not Her Picture’ is a beautiful pure country ballad written by Bill Anderson and Gary Burr, which was also recorded in 2000 by Jason Sellers, ex-husband of Lee Ann Womack, who was an aspiring artist at the time. A tasteful steel-led arrangement is perfect for the song and JMM sounds great on the poignant song abot a man who has torn up his ex’s real photos (presumably in anger or grief) and kept a standard shot sold with his wallet purely because it looks a little like her.

Another highlight is ‘Thanks For The G Chord’, written by Byron Hill and Mark Narmore, a tribute to a loving father who taught him music with other life advice.

Also very good is ‘Bus To Birmingham’, an emotional song written by Jess Brown and Tony Lane about a man watching his loved one leaving, thinking he has done the right thing driving her away:

I know she missed her mama
‘Cause that’s the kinda life she comes from
Ain’t no kinda life I’m ever gonna have
She said she’d call me from the station
But I’ll be gone before she gets there
And I’ll see her every time I’m lookin’ back

Heaven knows I ain’t no angel
And I don’t always do the right thing
And right now I know that she don’t understand
But I’ll sleep better knowin’
The only thing I ever loved
Is on that bus to Birmingham

Tonight I’ll slip back in the shadows
And I’ll sip a glass of whiskey
And I’ll try to keep from whispering her name
But there’s some highways I ain’t driven
And there’s some towns that I ain’t lived in
And there’s some times that I can’t get out of the rain

And Lord I can’t bear to break another promise that I made her
So I made out like I wanted her to go
And I’m better off believin’ that she’s better off without me
‘Cause I don’t want her to see me do her wrong

‘Weekend Superstar’ is a fun honky tonker with some nice fiddle about letting loose as a release from a hard week’s work.

The title track, which opens proceedings, is an upbeat song about survival, written by Kris Bergnes and Lee Thomas Miller. ‘Real Love’ (from the pens of Kent Blazy and Neil Thrasher) is a mid-paced country pop love song which is fairly forgettable.

The closing ‘I Love It All’, co-written by JMM himself with Blair Daly is a tribute =e to his love of his career as a musician, and is pretty good.

Overall, a pretty strong album which is worth finding, esecially if you like JMM.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Forever My Girl soundtrack

The latest country music themed movie, Forever My Girl, featuring an acting role for Travis Tritt, is really more of a romantic drama. I don’t know what the film is like, although it doesn’t sound particularly good, but my attention was caught by the official soundtrack album. This is already available on iTunes, and includes some new songs by artists including the aforementioned Tritt and Josh Turner.

Most of the songs are co-written by one Brett Boyett, the film’s music director, presumably either to fit emotional moments in the plot, or for the country singer characters to perform. British actor Alex Roe, who plays the country singer male lead in the film, is surprisingly convincing singing a brace of tunes which are presumably his character’s hits. ‘Don’t Water Down My Whiskey’ is typical contemporary pop-country (which is to say not recommended). Rather better is ‘Enough’, quite a nice love song, although it leans AC rather than country. It is reprised at the end of the set as a suet by Little Big Town’s Phillip Sweet and Lauren Alaina; their take is glossier and even less country sounding, better sung but somehow with less character.

The best of Roe’s tracks is ‘Smokin’ And Cryin’’, one of the few not written by Boyett. This is rather a good song about a woman undergoing heartbreak, written by Jackson Odell (who also helps with a number of Boyett’s songs here) and Caroline Watkins, with an acoustic arrangement. The worst, ‘Finally Home’, would actually be a decent song if not for the ghastly, out of tune duet vocal from a child actress in the film which is quite unlistenable.

Pop-country starlet Alaina makes a solo appearance with the contemporary sounding ballad ‘Wings Of An Angel’. She has a strong voice, and although it’s not quite my cup of tea it is well done of its type.

The best track is probably ‘Can’t Tame A Fire’, a very good song ruing a heartache, performed by Dan Tyminski. Josh Turner sounds good on ‘Back From Gone’, a fairly strong song but on the more contemporary sounding side.

Travis Tritt has a role in the movie, and sings a new song called ‘Slowing Down’, which Boyett wrote with Paul Overstreet. It’s a good song, but Tritt’s voice is sadly showing the signs of age – very disappointing. Another Overstreet co-write, ‘Who Needs Mexico’, sung by the unknown (at least to me) Mason James, is more effective and I rather enjoyed this.

Another newcomer, Destin Bennett, is pleasant but forgettable on ‘Wild And Free’. Canaan Smith, who was a rising star for Mercury a few years ago but has faltered since, is horribly over produced on ‘Always And Forever’, which is typical of today’s radio hits and provides the film title. Mickey Guyton’s ‘Caught Up In Your Storm’ is blues rather than country.

Producer Boyett takes on one lead vocal himself, and shows on ‘Solid Ground’ he has a rather limited voice, but it is not unsuited to the wearied lyric.

Alongside the new songs, the set includes what is perhaps Miranda Lambert’s worst recording, ‘Little Red Wagon’, and a number of very pop leaning Little Big Town cuts, the best known of which is ‘Little White Church’.

So there are a few worthwhile tracks, but on the whole this soundtrack is not very inspiring.

Grade: C

RazorX’s Top 10 Albums of 2016

91pRGFM-iWL._SX522_All in all, 2016 was a good year for country album releases. Last year when compiling my top picks, I had trouble coming up with ten albums that I liked. This year, I had to actually pare the list down a little bit. As usual, there are some familiar names on my list as well as a few more obscure ones. None of them, however, will be heard on mainstream country radio.

10. Tracy Byrd — All American Texan. Tracy Byrd’s first collection of all-new material in nearly a decade is a solid collection that is reminiscent of his better major label work, but without the plethora of novelty tunes that chipped away at his credibility in his hit making days.

travis-tritt-a-man-and-his-guitar-album-cover9. Travis Tritt — A Man and His Guitar. A live “unplugged” concert recording, this collection proves that minimalist arrangements do nothing to detract from the enjoyment derived from listening to a talented vocalist singing well-written songs.

8. Randy Rogers Band — Nothing Shines Like Neon. The Randy Rogers Band returned to its indie roots this year, after a decade of chasing the big time with the major labels. This is a highly enjoyable collection that features guest stars such as Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski, Jamey Johnson, and Jerry Jeff Walker, that is only slightly marred by a couple of MOR song selections.

7. The Cactus Blossoms — You’re Dreaming. This sibling act from Minnesota is reminiscent of The Everly Brothers with a dash of The Louvin Brothers thrown into the mix. The production is stripped down, which really allows their harmonies to shine.

willie-nelson-for-the-good-times-a-tribute-to-ray-price-album-cover6. Willie Nelson — For The Good Times: A Tribute to Ray Price. 83-year-old Willie Nelson is way past his vocal peak and nowhere near the league of the man to whom he is paying tribute, but his sincerity in paying homage to his fallen friend — as well as some support from The Time Jumpers — helps this collection overcome Willie’s vocal shortcomings.

5. Mark Chesnutt — Tradition Lives. Like Tracy Byrd, Mark Chesnutt returned this year following a lengthy gap since his last album. Tradition Lives was well worth the wait, since it is arguably his best album since he left the major labels. “Is It Still Cheating” and “So You Can’t Hurt Me Anymore” are particularly good.

61UuqSUlcHL._SS5004. Dolly Parton — Pure & Simple. Dolly isn’t exactly breaking new ground with her latest effort, which consists of some new material, some re-recordings of some old material, and a rewritten version of a 1984 hit (“God Won’t Get You” now known as “Can’t Be That Wrong”), but everything is well performed, and the brand new title track, inspired by her recent 50th wedding anniversary, is excellent.

3. The Time Jumpers — Kid Sister. The Nashville-based Western Swing band’s latest effort is in large part a tribute to the late Dawn Sears, and is a delight to listen to from start to finish.

hymns2. Joey + Rory — Hymns That Are Important to Us. 2016 will go down in the history books as one that saw the deaths of an unusually high number of music legends. None were as heartbreaking as the passing of Joey Martin Feek, who lost her hard-fought battle with cancer in March. This collection of religious tunes was recorded while she was undergoing treatments for her disease. The songs all succeed on their own merit, but it’s difficult, if not impossible, to separate one’s feelings about the album from the circumstances under which it was made. It will simultaneously inspire and sadden you.

1. Loretta Lynn — Full Circle. Loretta Lynn’s first new album since 2004’s Van Lear Rose was without a doubt country music’s highlight of the year. Produced by her daughter Patsy Russell and John Carter Cash, it is the first of a series of new albums planned under a new deal with Sony Legacy. She sounds terrific on the new material, as well as the re-recordings of some old hits and covers of some pop and country standards. Highly recommended.

Retro Album Review: Alison Krauss – ‘A Hundred Miles Or More: A Collection’

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

A Hundred Miles Or More is Alison’s second solo effort, but her first since 1995’s Now That I’ve Found You. The album is similar to the 1995 release in that it is a hodge-podge of soundtrack recordings, recordings from tribute albums, songs from other artists’ albums and some previously unreleased tracks. The biggest difference is that this new collection seldom features her Union Station band mates in any meaningful role.

As an aside, Alison Krauss reminds me of Emmylou Harris in that she has a very pretty, shimmering voice that is rather thin (although not as thin as Emmylou’s voice) meaning that Ms Krauss is at her best when she either is playing off another voice or has background harmony singers such as Dan Tyminski and Ron Block behind her. As a solo artist Ms. Krauss loses me after a while.

Tracks 1-4 and 16 are previously unreleased material. Tracks 1-4 have Alison going it alone vocally. Track by Track:

1) “You’re Just A Country Boy” – this is the worst track on the album, a misguided cover of the Don Williams classic from 1977. The lyric does not survive the translation to the feminine perspective any more than singing “Your Squaw Is on The Warpath” would work from the masculine perspective – F

2) “Simple Love” C-

3) “Jacob’s Dream” C-

4) “Away Down on The River” C

These three are modern day Adult Contemporary.

5) “Sawing On The Strings” – this is the best track on the album, a joyous romp through that debuted on CMT’s 2004 Flame Worthy Video Awards Show. This is the only real bluegrass number of the album. Krauss and Stuart Duncan play fiddle with Sam Bush on Mandolin and Krauss’s idol Tony Rice on guitar – A

6) “Down To The River To Pray” – a nice gospel number with nice harmony provided by the First Baptist Church Choir of White House, TN (and others). This was the standout track from O Brother, Where Art Thou? – B+

7) “Baby Mine” was from the Best of Country Sings the Best of Disney album and is a nice number with Dan Tyminski adding vocal harmony. I believe this lullaby was in the film Dumbo – B

8) “Molly Ban (Bawn)” was from the Down The Old Plank Road album the Chieftains recorded about ten years ago in Nashville. Bela Fleck plays banjo on this nice ballad – A

9) “How’s The World Treating You” – this duet with James Taylor was from a 2003 tribute to Charlie & Ira Louvin. It wasn’t the best track on the album, but it’s quite nice and was a successful video – B

10) “The Scarlet Tide” – this song appeared in a film I didn’t see Cold Mountain. It’s different, I’ll give it that – C+

11) “Whiskey Lullaby” – a recent hit duet with Brad Paisley. Alison and Brad play well off each other – this is a pairing I’d like to see again – B+

12) “You Will Be My Ain True Love” – another song from Cold Mountain. Alison sings well, Sting adds vocal (dis)harmony – D

13) “I Will Give You His Heart” from The Prince of Egypt: Nashville Soundtrack – Dan Tyminski provides vocal harmonies on this number – C+

14) “Get Me Through December” – This appeared on a Natalie MacMaster album. Alison sings, Natalie fiddles, and Alison’s brother Viktor plays bass – an enchanting track – B

15) “Missing You” appeared on one of John Waite’s albums. Waite isn’t a very good singer but the pairing works to some extent (Rock really isn’t Alison’s forte) on this song, which I think was a hit for Waite about twenty years ago – C

16) “Lay Down Beside Me”, also with John Waite, is the second Don Williams classic murdered on this album – D-

My chief criticism of this album is that it is again too ballad laden. It is a nice way for Alison’s fan to pick up tracks scattered across albums that her fans might not want to purchase.

Grade: C

Album Review: Randy Rogers Band – ‘Nothing Shines Like Neon’

41c2t4yC8TL._SS280After a decade on the dark side chasing mainstream success, The Randy Rogers Band has returned to its indie roots with Nothing Shines Like Neon, their first album in nearly three years. In the interests of full disclosure, I have to admit that I’m not familiar with the band’s back catalog, although I did thoroughly enjoy Randy Rogers’ side project with Wade Bowen (Hold My Beer, Vol. 1), which was reviewed by Occasional Hope last year. Though not as traditional as Hold My Beer, Neon is reportedly more rootsy than any of the Band’s four releases for Mercury and MCA, which ought to please fans who had been complaining that the band had lost its edge during its tenure in Nashville.

One of the problems with music that falls under the Americana/alt-country Red Dirt umbrella is that much of it really isn’t country and much of it is a wasteland of non-commercial material sung by those with vocals that are too rough to have any kind of mass appeal. There is always some wheat among the chaff, though it can often be difficult to separate the two. The effort is worth it, though, when an album like this one comes along. Produced by Buddy Cannon, it’s more polished than I expected. The most surprising thing about it is that 10 or 15 years ago it would have been solidly within the realm of the mainstream, though it would definitely be out of place on today’s radio next to the Sam Hunts and Jason Aldeans.

Randy Rogers co-wrote seven of the album’s tracks, two of them with producer Cannon, but the album’s best cuts are the ones contributed by outside songwriters, starting with the opening track, the fiddle-led “San Antone” written by Keith Gattis. I particularly enjoyed “Things I Need to Quit”, which follows the tried-and-true theme of comparing an ex-lover to bad habits that need to be broken, in the vein of Patty Loveless’ “A Thousand Times a Day”. The mid-tempo “Old Moon New”, a Rogers co-write with Lee Thomas Miller and Wendell Mobley, sounds like something Collin Raye might have released early in his career.

The album’s best track is “Look Out Yonder”, which features beautiful harmonies by Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski. Jamey Johnson joins the band on “Actin’ Crazy”, a number about the morning after a night of tying one on, and fellow Texan Jerry Jeff Walker joins in on “Takin’ It As It Comes”, a party number that probably works better live in concert than it does on record.

The album’s weaker moments come when the band tries to be too middle-of-the-road; “Rain and the Radio”, “Neon Blues” and “Tequila Eyes” (a Cannon and Rogers collaboration with Dean Dillon) all fall into this trap. It was a little surprising to find songs like these on a Texas indie release. Perhaps the band hasn’t fully freed itself of Nashville’s shackles. Nevertheless, Nothing Shines Like Neon is a solid effort that refugees from bro-country and radio’s other atrocities are sure to enjoy.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Dan Tyminski – ‘The Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn’

Album Review: Alison Krauss & Union Station – ‘Lonely Runs Both Ways’

lonelyOver the course of their career, Alison Krauss & Union Station have been both torchbearers for traditional bluegrass and trailblazers who have stretched the genre’s boundaries. 2004’s Lonely Runs Both Ways combines elements of bluegrass with folk, gospel and traditional country, but thankfully does not venture as far into mainstream pop as their previous album New Favorite did. By now, they had fine-tuned their approach of combining different musical styles, with Alison taking the lead on the more progressive, middle-of-the-road type songs, while Dan Tyminski and Ron Block tackle the more hardcore bluegrass numbers. The list of contributing songwriters will also be familiar to most fans, with Robert Lee Castleman, Jerry Douglas, David Rawlings, Gillian Welch, and Sidney and Suzanne Cox supplying much of the material.

The commercial success of AKUS has owed little to the support it received from country radio. The group typically releases three or four singles from each album, one of which usually reaches the lower rungs of the chart, while the others fail to to chart at all. Lonely Runs Both Ways is no exception. “Restless”, “Goodbye Is All We Have” and “If I Didn’t Know Any Better” were all released to radio, with only “Restless” enjoying some limited chart success, landing at #36.

The opening track, Robert Lee Castleman’s “Gravity” is pretty but a bit dull; it is my least favorite of the four Castleman compositions. I greatly prefer “Restless”, “Crazy As Me”, and “Doesn’t Have To Be That Way”, all of which are exquisitely sung by Alison. Alison truly shines, however, on the closing track “A Living Prayer”, written by Union Station’s banjoist Ron Block.

When it’s time for Union Station to kick up its heels, the lead vocal duties are primarily turned over to Dan Tyminski, who does a first-rate job interpreting classics such as Del McCoury’s “Rain Please Go Away” and Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty”. He also sings the lead on the uptempo “Crazy As Me”, one of Alison’s rare original compositions, co-written with Alison Brown. Ron Block sings the lead on his own “I Don’t Have To Live This Way”, and “Unionhouse Branch” is the obligatory instrumental Jerry Douglas number.

Despite a lack of radio support, Lonely Runs Both Ways climbed to #6 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and earned gold certification. The album doesn’t hold any surprises; fans of Alison Krauss & Union Station will not be disappointed, while those who don’t care for bluegrass will find little here to win them over.

Grade: A

Album Review: Alison Krauss and Union Station – ‘So Long So Wrong’

Alison Krauss - So Long So Wrong - FrontAlison’s first album after her big breakthrough was a collaboration with her band Union Station, but marks something of a change in style, with the incorporation of more adult contemporary influences alongside some very traditional bluegrass fare. it goes almost without saying that the musicianship is superb.

As always with Alison’s records where Union Station shares lead billing, her bandmates get a number of chances to sing lead vocals, and they generally keep to traditional bluegrass stylings.

Ron Block sings his own excellent ‘Pain Of A Troubled Life’, which has an upbeat melody belying a world-wearied lyric, very much in classic bluegrass style. Alison’s robust fiddle leads the instrumental arrangement. Dan Tyminski (the best vocalist among the guys) takes the lead on the traditional ‘I’ll Remember You, Love, In My Prayers’, the high lonesome ‘Blue Trail Of Sorrow’(written by Jeff White) and the airy up-tempo ‘The Road Is A Lover’ with Alison adding subtle harmonies.

Mandolinist Adam Steffey sings a gruff lead on the traditional bluegrass ‘No Place To Hide’, with its plangent strings. These tracks, together with the lively instrumental ‘Little Liza Jane’ (a traditional tune) keep the band grounded in bluegrass by breaking up the more adventurous experiments with Alison’s lead vocals, in which her silvery voice is let loose on a selection of songs drawing together a variety of musical influences.

Two of the ballads, ‘Find My Way Back To My Heart’ and ‘Looking In The Eyes of Love’, were released as singles to country radio. Both are lovely songs and performances but failed to recapture the commercial magic of her hits. ‘Looking In The Eyes Of Love’, written by Kostas and Tricia Walker, had been recorded a few years earlier by Patty Loveless; Alison’s version is a little more delicate and understated.

Alison’s voice positively shimmers over the gorgeous melodies of ‘Deeper Than Crying’ and the religious Ron Block-penned ‘There Is A Reason’, both of which are exquisite. My favourite of the ballads , however, is the beautiful Harley Allen song ‘It Doesn’t Matter’. Alison’s hushed vocal is particularly effective on this very slow song. The gentle ‘I Can Let Go Now’ is also very pretty.

Blue-eyed soul man Michael McDonald’s ‘I Can Let Go Now’ is an ethereal ballad, which is pretty sounding but a little on the dull side. McDonald also wrote ‘Happiness with Alison’s brother Victor, which is similarly unexciting. I don’t find the title track very interesting either, but Alison’s voice cuts through it like a bell.

The album won three Grammies in country and bluegrass categories, and was her first studio set to win gold certification. It neatly balances her traditional bluegrass background with her newer taste for beautiful melodic ballads, and is exemplary.

Grade: A

Album Review: Alison Krauss & Union Station – ‘Every Time You Say Goodbye’

everytimeAlthough Alison Krauss had received her fair share of critical acclaim almost from the very beginning of her career, it wasn’t until the release of 1991’s I’ve Got That Old Feeling that she began to slowly build some commercial steam as well. That album peaked at #61 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. The following year’s Every Time You Say Goodbye was her first collaboration with Union Station to chart. It only reached a modest #75, but it was still a notable achievement for a bluegrass act at that time. It won the Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album in 1993, becoming the group’s first, and Alison’s second overall.

At this particular point in time Union Station consisted of Ron Block (banjo), Barry Bales (bass), Tim Stafford (guitar), Adam Steffey (mandolin), and of course, Alison on fiddle. She shares lead vocal duties with the other band members, as she had done on the group’s previous effort Two Highways. Alison has always been at her best when singing ballads, so she allows the other band members to take the lead with some of the more uptempo numbers such as “Another Night”, “It Won’t Work This Time”, and “Another Day, Another Dollar”, one of the alubm’s highlights which was written by future Union Station member Dan Tyminiski.

Although Every Time You Say Goodbye finds Alison assuming production duties for the very first time, the album’s content doesn’t differ much from her earlier works. The pop flourishes which characterize her later work are largely absent here. The album’s best tracks are the ballad “Heartsrings”, “New Fool” and the title track, which is the sole contribution by John Pennell, who had provided much of the material for the group’s previous album as well as Alison’s solo efforts. All three of these tracks were released as singles, though none of them charted. Rounder had begun releasing singles to country radio beginning with 1991’s “I’ve Got That Old Feeling” but only “Steel Rails” had charted and it peaked at an underwhelming #73. It would be another three years before Alison enjoyed her mainstream breakthrough with her cover of Keith Whitley’s “When You Say Nothing At All”, after which she became a much sought-after guest vocalist in Nashville. At this stage, however, her success and that of Union Station, were still confined to the bluegrass world. Every Time You Say Goodbye is a solid effort that will appeal to Alison’s fans, but will probably do little to win over bluegrass skeptics.

Grade: A

Spotlight Artist: Alison Krauss

alison kraussFor many years bluegrass was seen as country music’s less commercial cousin, far less likely to cross over to a wider audience. Alison Krauss shattered many of these preconceptions in the course of her career. She has been met with acclaim from both critics and her peers. She has won 27 Grammy awards – more than any other female artist, across all genres; and sold millions of records, to both bluegrass fans and the general public. She was named the Country Music Association’s Female Vocalist of the year in 1995 and has been nominated on a number of occasions despite relatively little exposure on mainstream radio.

Born in Decatur, Illinois, on 23 July 1971, Alison’s musical gifts were apparent from an early age. A child prodigy bluegrass fiddler who was active in the fiddle contest world by the time she was seven, it was to be her beautiful singing voice which led her to fame as an adult. At 12 she and her bass-playing brother Viktor joined a bluegrass band then called Silver Rail, which was eventually to become Union Station. The group was then led by singer-songwriter/musician John Pennell, who became Alison’s early mentor and tutor in bluegrass history, and Alison began to sing as well as well as play fiddle.

She signed her first record deal with the well-respected acoustic label Rounder in 1984, when she was only 13, and released her first album in 1987. Her early work was rooted in traditional bluegrass, but from the first her records were notable for their inclusion of high-quality new songs – many of them written by Pennell. Throughout her career she has interspersed solo albums with band records featuring Union Station. Over the years Union Station has featured a shifting lineup of some of the finest living bluegrass musicians, including, at various times, banjo players Alison Brown and Ron Block, guitarist/mandolin player Dan Tyminski, and celebrated dobro player Jerry Douglas (the only one to get his own featured billing). The records Alison has made with her band are very much band records, with the guys taking their share of lead vocals.

In 1993 she became the first pure bluegrass performer in almost 30 years to be invited to join the Opry. Her undoubted abilities a fiddle player were soon to become almost secondary to her exquisite voice, and she became a frequent guest on country records when a particularly notable harmony was required. Her contribution to Shenandoah’s ‘Somewhere in The Vicinity Of The Heart’ in 1994 made it a top 10 hit. In the same year, she was invited to participate in a multi-artist tribute to Keith Whitley, and Alison’s enchantingly beautiful cover of his hit ‘When You Say Nothing At All’ began to receive unsolicited radio airplay, both alone and mixed in with Whitley’s original to create a duet. This unexpected success led to the single being officially released in 1995, and it reached the #3 spot on the country chart.

This breakthrough to the commercial mainstream was cemented by the repackaging of samples of her early work with some new tracks further removed from straight bluegrass, as Now That I Found You, also released in 1995. It sold two million copies – unprecedented for a bluegrass album, and Alison found herself welcomed within country music, winning four CMA awards that year: the Horizon Award for rising stars, Single of the Year for ‘When You Say Nothing At All’, ‘Vocal Event’ for the duet with Shenandoah, and, most surprisingly for an artist new to country radio, Female Vocalist of the Year.

Her music began to branch away from the more traditional styles she had recorded earlier. Her marriage to jazz guitarist Pat Bergeron (1997-2001) may also have encouraged her to widen her musical horizons. A further appeal to a broader public came when she was involved in the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou, the 2000 George Clooney movie which is credited with sparking new interest in bluegrass and acoustic music. Union Station’s Dan Tyminski sang Clooney’s part on the project’s ‘Man Of Lonesome Sorrow’. Alison’s music has been included on many other films and television programs, making her the most visible of today’s bluegrass artists to the wider public.

Her collaboration with Brad Paisley on ‘Whiskey Lullaby’ was another remarkable duet which gave Alison exposure on country radio in 2004. In 2007 her career took another surprising turn with her award-winning duet album and tour with rock musician Robert Plant. She has also produced albums for several artists, including Alan Jackson’s Like Red On A Rose.

We will be taking a look back at her career this month.

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘To All The Girls’

to all the girlsThe newest Willie Nelson album finds Willie treading familiar ground, recording eighteen duets with various female partners. These partners range from young to old, famous to fairly unknown and across a wide array of genres.

The album opens up with the “From Here To The Moon And Back”, an introspective ballad from the catalogue of duet partner Dolly Parton. This song has a very quiet arrangement with piano being the dominant sound, along with a very light string arrangement – very nice song.

Another very quiet song is “She Was No Good For Me” with the normally boisterous Miranda Lambert assisting Willie on an old Waylon Jennings tune. It is nice to hear Miranda sing a song that requires nuance and restraint.

She was a good looking woman no doubt
A high steppin’ mover that men talk about
Everything bad in me she brought it out
And she was just no good for me

[Chorus:]
Don’t be taken by the look in her eyes
If she looks like an angel
It’s a perfect disguise
And for somebody else she may be
But she was just no good for me

“It Won’t Be Very Long” opens with a harmonica intro which comes to a dead stop and then starts to a song with a very country gospel feel – something either Roy Acuff or the Nitty Gritty Dirt band might have tackled. The Secret Sisters aren’t really very well known but probably do the best job of any act on the album of actually harmonizing with Willie. Willie and producer Buddy Cannon wrote this song.

“Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends” is a Kris Kristofferson song that originally was a top ten hit for new Country Music Hall of Famer Bobby Bare (it reached #1 on Record World) in 1971. In 1974 it reached #1 on Billboard for Ronnie Milsap. I always preferred Bare’s version as I think the song benefited from Bare’s more laid back approach to the song. Nelson and duet partner Rosanne Cash adopt the more relaxed approach to the song, with Willie’s guitar being the dominant sound of the background, but with a tasteful organ undertone by Moose Brown. Willie and Rosanne’s voices really don’t mesh well together and Willie’s eccentric phrasing is difficult for any singer to handle, but actual harmonizing on this tune is kept to a dead minimum.

“Far Away Places” is one of the classics of the American Pop Standards canon. The song was written by Joan Whitney and Alex Kramer way back in 1948, and was an immediate hit by three artists in late 1948-early 1949, reaching #2 for the legendary Bing Crosby, #3 for Margaret Whiting and #6 for Perry Como. The Como version is probably the best remembered version since RCA kept the song available for most of the last 65 years whereas the other versions have frequently been out of print. Willie and partner Sheryl Crow harmonize well and recreate the dreamy feel of the 1948 versions. This is my favorite track on this album:

Far away places with strange soundin’ names
Far away over the sea
Those far away places with the strange soundin’ names
Are callin’, callin’ me

Goin’ to China or maybe Siam
I want to see for myself
Those far away places I’ve been readin’ about
In a book that I took from the shelf

I don’t know how many times Willie has recorded his own “Bloody Mary Morning” but this version must be the fastest version on disc. I’m not a big Wynonna Judd fan but this is the kind of song she handles well. Mike Johnson (steel) and Dan “Man of Constant Sorrow” Tyminski (acoustic guitar) really shine on this track.

Writers Wayne Carson, Mark James and John Christopher, Jr cashed in big time with “You Were Always On My Mind” as it was a hit thrice (Brenda Lee, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson) and appeared on many albums generating many millions of sales (and royalties for the songwriters). On this recording Willie is joined by Carrie Underwood in a nice version with fairly minimal backing.

During the 1960s and 1970s semi-permanent male-female duos abounded, nearly all of whom tackled Merle Haggard’s “Somewhere Between”. It’s a great song and Willie is joined by the legendary Loretta Lynn, singing in better voice than anything I’ve heard from her recently. Willie and Loretta trade verses (usually in different keys) and do not harmonize except one line at the end. It’s a great song and full justice is done to the song.

“No Mas Amore” written by Keith Gattis and Sammy Barrett, is given the Mexican treatment by Willie and partner Alison Krauss complete with trumpets. Willies band member Mickey Raphael plays chord harmonica and bass harmonica; Alison’s band member Dan Tyminski adds background vocals and plays mandolin. Usually Alison Krauss duets produce a certain magic, but this one is merely pleasant listening.

“Back To Earth” features Melonie Cannon on this Willie Nelson ballad, taken at a languid pace. The song is nothing special but Melanie and Willie execute it well.

Mavis Staples is one of the best known gospel singers, carrying on the fine tradition of the legendary Staples Family. “Grandma’s Hands” was penned by Bill Withers, probably best known for his monster hits “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lean On Me”. The song was about Wither’s own grandma and is an affectionate look at a loved one, now departed. Willie and Mavis give it a bit of a ‘swamp blues pop’ treatment that fits the song exactly.

“Walkin” features Wiliie’s good friend Norah Jones on a Willie composition. This is a bluesy slow ballad about leaving.

“Till The End of World” is an old Vaughn Horton standard given an up-tempo western swing arrangement. Back in 1949 Ernest Tubb, Jimmy Wakely and Johnny Bond all had top twelve hits with the song, then in 1952 Bing Crosby and ace guitarist Grady Martin took it back into the top ten. Shelby Lynne reestablishes her country credibility with this effort.

“Will You Remember Mine” is a lovely ballad from Willie’s pen. I don’t know anything about Lily Meola but she is a perfect complement to Willie on this song.

Gone are the times when I held you close
And pressed your lips to mine
Now when you kissed another’s lips
Will you remember mine?

I’m sure we’ve all had this thought – indeed.

“Dry Lightning” comes from the pen of Bruce Springsteen. Emmylou Harris can sing with anyone. Therefore it is no surprise that this song works as a duet. It’s another slow ballad, but Emmylou, as usual is exquisite.

I first ran across Brandi Carlile some years ago when the late and lamented Borders chain distributed sampler CDs of her work. On “Making Believe” she proves both that she can sing effective harmony and can sing country music with feeling. This song was written by Jimmy Work but is best remembered as a major hit for Kitty Wells in 1955, with Emmylou Harris taking it back to the top ten in 1977.

“Have You Ever Seen The Rain” is a John Fogarty composition given a slow folk arrangement that enables Willie and (I think) daughter Paula Nelson to convey the lyrics in an uncluttered manner. I really like this recording.

Tina Rose is the daughter of Leon & Mary Russell. Willie recorded an album with Leon Russell in 1979, so it seems only proper that he should record a song with Leon’s daughter. I’m not that impressed with Ms Russell’s vocals, but they work well enough on the vehicle chosen, L.E White’s “After The Fire Is Gone”, which White’s boss, Conway Twitty took to the top of the charts with Loretta Lynn in 1971. Willie and Tina don’t have the chemistry Conway and Loretta had (few do) but the end result is worthwhile.

It remains true:
There’s nothing cold as ashes
After the fire’s gone

All told, there is a very pleasant offering from Willie – I’d give it a B+, mostly because a few more up-tempo numbers were needed. Willie, of course, is always Willie, and as always, he was chosen well in his selection of female guests.

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: Martina McBride – ‘Timeless’

Timeless

Timeless

By 2005 Martina McBride’s music had seemingly progressed further and further away from her country roots. She showed she had not forgotten those roots by recording a classic covers album. Tt was received enthusiastically by her fans – in fact she achieved her highest ever first-week sales with this release, and the album was ultimately a platinum seller despite poor radio support.

The prospect of one of the finest and most naturally gifted country singers of her generation tackling great songs with mostly more traditional country arrangements was mouthwatering. There was also an exceptionally generous number of tracks – the standard US edition boasted 18 songs, with four added tracks on the European version. The vocals, as expected, are impeccable, and the beautifully realised arrangements are reverent recreations of the originals – but that is really the main criticism that the album faces – some critics complained that Martina was too faithful to the original versions and brought too little new. Martina had co-produced some of her earlier albums, but produced this one solo.

The lead single was Lynn Anderson’s signature song ‘Rose Garden’, which made it into the top 20 for Martina. This was probably a poor choice as it is one of the more dated sounding tracks with an efficient but somewhat anonymous vocal, and a timeless sounding ballad with more emotional weight would have been a more comfortable fit for Martina’s fans and country radio; my feeling is that this single choice set the tone for the album’s under-performance at radio., which was unfortunate.

The second, and much better, single was a beautiful version of ‘I Still Miss Someone’, with Dolly Parton harmonising. Unfortunately I think the poor showing of ‘Rose Garden’ meant radio had no enthusiasm for another cover, and it peaked at #50, but had this been the first release, I suspect it would have done better.

Another highlight comes with the beautiful, measured melancholy of Martina’s version of the Haggard classic ‘Today I Started Loving You Again’, where she brings out the sadness of the song’s emotion, and does succeed in making it her own (and entirely convincing). This is one of the finest moments of Martina’s career from an artistic viewpoint, and really deserved wider dissemination. ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’ and Tammy Wynette’s ‘Til I Can Make It On My Own’ are also exqusitely done with sensitively interpreted vocals and subtle interpretations.

A pensive ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ recalls the Nashville Sound with its dated backing vocals but lovely steel in the arrangement. Martina’s emotional vocal is one of her best performances, but this is a case where fidelity to the original version was unwise (because the strings overwhelm it towards the end).

The very authentic steel-heavy treatment of the Hank Williams classic ‘You Win Again’ is the most traditional Martina has ever been, with an arrangement identical to the original. What she does bring of her own to the performance, is a sensitive, believable vocal which works well.

Martina brings some personality to a perky ‘I’ll Be There’, backed up by Dan Tyminski and Rhonda Vincent. ‘You Ain’t Woman Enough’ (the third single) is confident and sassy but lightweight compared to Loretta Lynn’s original. Similarly, ‘Once A Day’ is fine, but not as good as Connie Smith’s peerless original and Martina does not convince the hearer of her emotional meltdown here. ‘Pick Me Up On Your Way Down’ and a brisk take on ‘Thanks A Lot’ also sound a bit too upbeat for the material.

‘Love’s Gonna Live Here Again’ isn’t bad but feels a little characterless vocally. ‘Heartaches By The Number’ is more successful, sung with great energy and characteristic harmonies from Dwight Yoakam. ‘Satin Sheets’ boasts another excellent performance from Martina.

‘I Don’t Hurt Anymore’ (one of the less remembered songs today, it was a massive hit in the 50s for Hank Snow, staying at #1 for over 20 weeks) is done well, with a bright, liquid vocal and attractive melody. ‘Make The World Go Away’ is nicely done (but pales compared to the most recent version of the song by Jamey Johnson and Alison Krauss).

Smoothly and sweetly sung, Buddy Holly’s ‘True Love Ways’ is rather reminiscent of some of Patsy Cline’s more sophisticated pop work from her later career; it seems rather a shame, in retrospect that Martina didn’t pick one of Patsy’s signature songs because I feel they would have suited her really well.

The European release included four bonus tracks. ‘Dreaming My Dreams With You’ has a very pretty piano-led arrangement and gentle, melodic vocal. An understated take on ‘Crying Time’ loaded with steel is very fine indeed, and I also enjoyed Martina’s version of ‘Take These Chains From My Heart’. The cheating song ‘Walk On By’ rounds out the selection with another fine performance.

Lack of originality aside, this album features great songs sung extremely well by a very fine singer, and is well worth catching up with, but get the European release if you can for the added material.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Alison Krauss ft Vince Gill and Dan Tyminski – ‘Down To The River To Pray’

25 Greatest Live Country Albums

All readers of this website are fans of recorded music. I would assume that most also enjoy seeing and hearing music performed live. After all, there is electricity which permeates a live performance, the interaction of performer and audience coupled with the ambiance of the venue. Tempos are usually faster, there is banter between the performer and the band and/or audience, and often songs are performed that never are recorded by the artist.

That said, it can be very difficult to capture that electricity and the landscape is littered with poor live recordings, victims of either poor recording technology, poor venue acoustics or sub-par backing bands (I had a cassette copy – probably a bootleg – of a live Chuck Berry performance in France where he was backed by what was essentially a polka band, complete with tuba and accordion). Below is my  listing of the greatest live country albums.  My list is solid country, without too many fellow travelers such as Americana or alt-country artists. I may admire John Prine and Townes Van Zandt as songwriters but I cannot stand to listen to either of them sing. The less said about the Eagles and Gram Parsons, the better.  In putting my list together, I’ve limited any given artist to one album, although I may comment on other live albums issued by the artist.

Yes, I know that bluegrass and western swing are underrepresented in my list as are modern era artists, although if I expanded to a top forty list, I’d have albums by Alabama, Tracy Lawrence, Tom T. Hall, Brad Paisley, The Osborne Brothers, Glen Campbell, Bob Wills, Hank Thompson, Rhonda Vincent and Hank Williams to include. Moreover, over time there have been improvements in recording technology and the sound of live recordings has improved, so sonically, some of the albums I’ve left off will sound better than some I’ve included.

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Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘I Hope You Dance’

Lee Ann Womack’s most commercially successful album features crystalline vocals, an ambitious selection of material ranging from the traditional sounds closest to her heart to Americana to adult contemporary influences which barely escape being bland.

The title track was a massive crossover hit, thanks to the combination of the song’s message, very AC sounding, sophisticated production, and the lovely and obviously heartfelt vocal which Lee Ann directed to her two young daughters. The counterpoint of the Sons of the Desert (singing a different set of lyrics) is unusually set against the sweetness of Lee Ann’s optimistic vocal. The song’s ubiquity has led to some backlash, but I think it still stands up for what it is: a genuinely inspiring wish for a child to live life to the full and not regret any missed opportunities. And its message is worth hearing:

Loving might be a mistake but it’s worth making

Lee Ann’s only #1 hit, ‘I Hope You Dance’ registered platinum, won a stack of awards for both Lee Ann and its writers Mark D Sanders and Tia Sillers, crossed over to hit the top of the AC chart, and even got some pop and international airplay. It may not be her best record, but it is undoubtedly her best-known, particularly among non-country listeners.

The next single was a contrast in style and mood, a gutsy version of Rodney Crowell’s onetime minor pop hit ‘Ashes By Now’, which peaked for Lee Ann at #14. It’s one of her less country recordings, but undoubtedly technically an impressive achievement with Lee Ann successfully navigating the song’s awkward jerky rhythms, jaded mood and shifting intensity.

It was back to the ballads with ‘Why They Call It Falling’, another excellent song, written by Don Schlitz and Roxie Dean. It contrasts the thrill of falling in love with the devastation of subsequent heartbreak, and Lee Ann’s vocal is masterly, although the strings are a bit overwhelming in places. It peformed similarly to its immediate predecessor, and reached #13.

The last and best single, however, failed to make it into the top 20. The intense ‘Does My Ring Burn Your Finger?’ is a superb Buddy and Julie Miller song with a stinging lyric. Production on this track (one of three from the hands of Lee Ann’s husband Frank Liddell) is edgy but organic, with Lee Ann’s high lonesome wail just right for the starkness of the lyric addressed to the faithless spouse, with the Millers on harmony vocals.

Liddell’s other tracks are another Julie Miller song, the ponderous ‘I Know Why The River Runs’, which I could live without, and the infinitely better ‘Lonely Too’, written by Texas singer-songwriter Bruce Robison. This is my favorite on the record, a beautiful downbeat song, given a quietly impassioned delivery. The melody is quite lovely, with some strong fiddle from Aubrey Haynie and Larry Franklin and harmony vocals from Jon Randall making this a great sounding track. Lee Ann gently rebukes the careless lover who cannot understand why she is coping so badly:

You tell me you wondered if I was okay
Well, that’s a damn fool thing to say…

And you seem so surprised that I’m feeling this way
How am I so lonely today?
If you’d ever loved me the way I loved you
You would be lonely too

There are several other gems here.

The gorgeous ‘The Healing Kind’ opens the album with a subtle portrayal of disconsolate heartbreak which just won’t go away. This is a great song written by bluegrass singer/songwriter Ronnie Bowman and Greg Luck. Lee Ann’s exquisite vocal is backed by tasteful acoustic instrumentation and Ricky Skaggs’ harmonies, as she reveals a broken heart that hurts more every day, concluding bleakly as she meets yet another cold December alone,

Guess I’m just not the healing kind

Equally fine is the delicate Tammy Wynette styled ‘Stronger than I Am’ written by former singer Bobbie Cryner. A beautiful melody and tasteful strings sweeten a heartbreakingly incisive lyric about an abandoned wife who contrasts her failure to cope with live without her man, to her little girl’s innocence,

She finally learned to say goodbye
She’s sleeping through the night
She don’t wake up crying
And she’s walking on her own
She don’t need no one holding to her hand
And I hate to admit she’s stronger than I am

She’s just like her old man
Stronger than I am

Perhaps the most traditional country number included, the vivacious ‘I Feel Like I’m Forgetting Something’ is a co-write by Lee Ann with Wynn Varble and Jason Sellers. The copyright date is 1997, so one suspects it was left over from one of her previous albums. A chirpy mid-tempo number with a lot of personality about getting over an ex, it isn’t the best song here, but it was well worth reviving. Less successful is ‘After I Fall’, written by producer Mark Wright with Ronnie Rogers and Bill Kenner, which is the blander side of adult contemporary and falls completely flat.

‘Thinkin’ With My Heart Again’ is a pretty but melancholy sounding song written by Dean Dillon, Donny Kees and Sanger D Shafer with another delicate vocal conveying the complex emotions brought out when encountering a former love. An airy acoustic cover of ‘Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good’ (a chart topper for Don Williams back in 1982) ends the album on a high, with Ronnie Bowman and Dan Tyminski singing harmony.

Thanks to the juggernaut of the title song, this remains Lee Ann’s best selling album, earning triple platinum status. The singing is outstanding throughout, and although the material is mixed, there is a lot of good stuff here, making it worth finding a cheap copy.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Vince Gill – ‘These Days’

As we’ve often noted here, it was common practice in the 1960s and 1970s for artists — inside and outside of country music –to release three or four albums a year, unlike the present day when most artists release one album every two or three years. While preparing to work on a new album in 2006, Vince Gill was inspired by The Beatles’ prolific output and decided to put a 43-track four disc collection instead of a single album. Released to tremendous critical acclaim in October 2006, These Days was an ambitious project that showcases the depth and breadth of Vince’s musical taste. It encompasses a variety of genres from rock, pop, jazz, and blues to traditional country and bluegrass. Vince wrote or co-wrote all 43 songs and produced the project himself, with some help from John Hobbs and Justin Niebank. The production team put together a impressive roster of guest artists from both within and outside country music.

The first disc, titled Workin’ On A Big Chill: The Rockin’ Record, is as the title implies, a collection of ten rock and rockabilly tunes. Though the songs are all well performed, I’m not much of a rock fan, so this is my least favorite disc in the collection. I do like the rockabilly number “Nothin’ For a Broken Heart”, on which Rodney Crowell is a guest artist, and even better is the bluegrass-tinged collaboration with the Del McCoury Band, “Son of a Ramblin’ Man”. The rest of the songs on this disc don’t interest me very much, and consequently this one has been played less than the other three.
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Album Review: Randy Travis – ‘You And You Alone’

Partly due to the disappointing performance of 1996’s Full Circle, Randy Travis departed from Warner Bros. to become the flagship artist of the newly-formed DreamWorks Nashville in 1998. You And You Alone was his first collection for the fledgling label. Hoping to rejuvenate his flagging career, he put together a new production team consisting of himself, Byron Gallimore and James Stroud, marking only the second time in his career that he worked without Kyle Lehning. The result was a slightly more contemporary, definitely more radio-friendly but still true to the traditions of country music, collection of songs. The uptempo “Out Of My Bones” was released as the advance single in March 1998. It found Travis sounding more energetic than he had in quite some time, and it quickly re-established him at country radio. Returning to the Top 10 for the first time since 1995’s “The Box”, “Out Of My Bones” told the tale of a man’s vain attempts to rid himself of the memory of his ex. It peaked at #2.

DreamWorks decided to follow up this success with another uptempo number, the album’s opening track “The Hole”, which didn’t fare quite as well, but still managed to crack the Top 10, landing at #9. Next, they sent to radio the beautiful midtempo “Spirit Of A Boy, Wisdom Of A Man”, written by Trey Bruce and Glen Burtnik and previously recorded by Mark Collie. More contemporary than most of Randy’s singles, it may have been an acknowledgement of the changing tides at country radio, which had shifted back towards pop. Like “Out Of My Bones”, “Spirit of A Boy” just missed topping the chart, leveling out at #2.

The album’s fourth single was the decidedly more country — and possibly too country for country radio — “Stranger In My Mirror”, written by Kim Williams and the great Skip Ewing. The sound was a throwback to Randy’s Storms of Life days, but despite being the best track on the album, it stalled at #16 and unfortunately marked the beginning of Randy’s declining chart performance.

There is only one throwaway track in this collection — the Billy Livsey and Don Schlitz-penned “I Did My Part”, but the rest of the collection is first rate and holds its own with Randy’s better known earlier work. Particularly good are the bluegrass-tinged “I’m Still Here, You’re Still Gone” which features background vocals from Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski, and the superb title track, which features harmony vocals from two of its co-writers, Leslie Satcher and Melba Montgomery, along with Vince Gill. Melba, of course, is best known for her duet work with George Jones before he began recording with Tammy Wynette.

You And You Alone reversed Randy’s declining fortunes at country radio, albeit temporarily, but it failed to garner the impressive sales he’d enjoyed at the beginning of his major label career. Travis teamed up with Gallimore and Stroud one more time for 1999’s A Man Ain’t Made Of Stone, which was a critical and commercial failure. Shortly thereafter, he was dropped from the DreamWorks Nashville roster and spent most of the next decade recording religious music, which resulted in one final #1 hit, 2000’s “Three Wooden Crosses.” He later rejoined Warner Bros. and returned to secular music with 2008’s Around The Bend.

Despite having produced three substantial hit singles, You And You Alone tends to be another overlooked gem in the Travis discography, and as a very small part of his catalog not controlled by Warner Bros., its singles rarely appear on hits compiliations. The album itself is still available at reasonable prices from third-party sellers at Amazon, and is highly recommended.

Grade: A

Album Review: Brad Paisley – ‘ Mud On the Tires’

Brad’s third album, released in 2003, saw him cementing his status as a star whose music combined comedy and serious songs, and one who genuinely appreciated country music tradition.

Lead single ‘Celebrity’ is a hilarious and sharp sideswipe at reality TV shows and those chasing fame for the sake of it (and the perks), with Brad playing the talentless wannabe with an irony entirely missed when one of the hapless contestants on the generally woeful final season of Nashville Star covered it on the show:

You can act just like a fool
And people think you’re cool
Just ‘cause you’re on TV

Brad also picked a Chris DuBois/Chris Wallin song which approaches a similar theme from a slightly different angle with the quirky ‘Famous People’, where he plays the part of an ingenuous countryman who brings a visiting movie star down to size a little.

The straight-faced ‘The Cigar Song’ is based on an old joke about a man who successfully claims on the insurance for “losing” some fine Cuban cigars in “a series of small fires”. The insurance company gets the last laugh, though, with a prosecution for various counts of arson. The broadest comedy is reserved for the return of Bill Anderson and George Jones (who featured on ‘Too Country’ on Part II), joined this time by Little Jimmy Dickens on the silly but funny deliberately muddled narration ‘Spaghetti Western Swing’, which also serves as a showcase for guest Redd Volkaert’s electric guitar. I enjoy this track but probably wouldn’t want to listen to it too often.

Second single ‘Little Moments’ was the first in what has become a tradition of Brad Paisley odes to domesticity, reportedly directly inspired by his new wife, actress Kimberly Williams-Paisley, who also starred in the video. Written by Brad with Chris DuBois, it has some charm with its loping phrasing and heartfelt delivery, and the theme had not yet outworn its welcome. Also in the happy family life vein is ‘Ain’t Nothin’ Like’, written by Wynn Varble and Don Sampson). The latter has an engagingly bouncy production and good humored feel, but is marred by an irritating small-child chorus. The pedestrian ‘That’s Life’ appears to be meant to be amusing, but falls flat (with comedians Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi unimpressive on unrecognisable backing “yeah yeah yeahs” and occasional yelled interjections). Only Frank Rogers’ inventive production saves these songs.

The exquisitely sad duet with Alison Krauss, ‘Whiskey Lullaby’, one of the few outside songs included here, was the third single. It was a wise decision to record this Bill Anderson/Jon Randall song, which has become a modern classic and may be the song for which Brad is best remembered a generation hence. The single itself has sold a million copies, and won various awards. It tells the story of a man whose failed marriage leads him into a life destroyed by alcohol and eventual death; then the woman who left him is overwhelmed by guilt and grief and also uses whiskey as her mode of self-destruction. The acoustic instrumentation is bolstered by Krauss on viola, Jerry Douglas’s dobro, and Union Station’s Dan Tyminski on backing vocals.

The first three songs were all big hits, but none reached the top of the Billboard singles chart, all peaking at # 2 or 3. The only chart-topper from the album was to be the title track (another Chris DuBois cowrite), to my ears the least interesting of the four, but a very popular single which was certified gold.

Much better is the restrained tenderness of the love song ‘Somebody Knows You Now’, which strains Brad’s voice to the limit, only adding to the authenticity of the emotion. I also like the traditional-meets contemporary feel of of ‘Hold Me In Your Arms (And Let Me Fall)’, addressed to a girl who is reluctant to date the protagonist. Vince Gill lends harmony support.

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Decade in Review: Occasional Hope’s Top 50 Singles

Inevitably, anyone’s list of their favorite singles of the decade is going to be more mainstream-oriented than one of the best albums over the same period, just because independent artists are less likely to get their singles played on radio, and they tend to release fewer. My list doesn’t consist solely of hits, but a good proportion did get the success they deserved.

50. I Still Miss Someone – Martina McBride featuring Dolly Parton.
Martina recruited Dolly Parton to sing harmonies on her cover of this Johnny Cash classic on her Timeless album in 2006. It didn’t appeal to country radio, but it is a lovely recording.

49. How Do You Like Me Now?! – Toby Keith
The only song where Toby Keith managed to exercise his giant ego yet seem appealing at the same time. This #1 hit from 2000 is meanspirited but somehow irresistible. The video’s a bit heavy-handed, though.

48. I Hope You Dance – Lee Ann Womack
The enormous crossover success of Lee Ann’s signature song in 2000 set her on the wrong path musically for a while, but that doesn’t detract from the song itself, a lovely touching offering to LeeAnn’s daughter, featuring additional vocals from the Sons of the Desert.

47. You Shouldn’t Kiss Me Like This – Toby Keith
Toby is a very hit-and-miss artist for me, but he makes his second apearance in this list with my favorite of his singles, the tender realization on the dancefloor that a friend might be turning into a romantic interest. It was another #1 hit, this time in 2001. It has another terribly conceived video, though.

46. The Truth About Men – Tracy Byrd
Tracy Byrd recruited Blake Shelton, Andy Griggs and Montgomery Gentry to sing on this comic song about gender differences. Of course it’s not universally true – but it’s quite true enough to be funny. The single was a #13 hit in 2003, and is one of the few singles of recent years to inspire an answer song – Terri Clark’s ‘Girls Lie Too’, which was an even bigger hit the following year but has worn less well.

45. I Wish – Jo Dee Messina
Jo Dee Messina’s glossy pop-country was very accomplished but not always to my taste. But I did love this relatively subdued ballad which appeared only on her Greatest Hits album in 2003, and reached #15 on Billboard, with its neat twist as the protagonist bravely wishes her ex best, before admitting, “I wish you still loved me”.

44. Does My Ring Burn Your Finger – Lee Ann Womack
This biting reproach to a cheating spouse, written by Buddy and Julie Miller, was the best moment on Lee Ann’s bigselling I Hope You Dance. It was the least successful single from it, however, only reaching #23 in 2001.

43. Long Black Train – Josh Turner
Josh is one of the few traditionally oriented artists currently on a major label, although he has often recorded material which is not quite worthy of his resonant deep voice. His debut single was a heavily allusive religious song about sin which, although it only got to #13 in 2003, really established him as a star.

42. One More Day – Diamond Rio
A #1 hit from 2001 about bereavement and longing for more time with the loved one who has been lost, this touching song has heartfelt vocals and lovely harmonies from one of the best groups in country music over the past 20 years.

41. Another Try – Josh Turner and Trisha Yearwood
A classy ballad about hoping for better luck in love from two of the best mainstream singers around, this reached #15 in 2008, but should have been a #1.

40. I Still Sing This Way – Daryle Singletary
In 2002 Daryle had a single out called ‘That’s Why I Sing This Way’ (written by Max D Barnes) declaring himself a real country singer (“Mama whupped me with a George Jones record, that’s why I sing this way”). Five years later Daryle himself co-wrote this sequel, which I like even more, as he looks wryly at the music industry’s demands for glitz and glamor. He tells his manager he’s fine with a change of image – but he can’t change the way he sings.

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