My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Daniel Lanois

Album Review: Shelby Lynne – ‘I Am Shelby Lynne’

220px-I_Am_Shelby_LynneIn 1998, Shelby Lynne moved to Palm Spring, California to work with producer Bill Bottrell on her seventh studio album. A year later the results of those sessions emerged as I Am Shelby Lynne. The project remains her magnum opus, a singular work that cathartically unleashed her wild abandon and announced her arrival as a fully-formed artist who finally found her own identity.

Lynne unleashed the heavily produced 60s throwback “Your Lies” as the project’s lead single, with crashing drums and drenching strings startling the listener awake. The slow-burning “Leavin,” in which she recites the verses in a sexy whisper, came next. The final single found her embracing radio-friendly pop, with hints of Bonnie Raitt in her vocal performance. “Gotta Get Back” was justly rewarded and became the project’s only sizeable hit, peaking at #26 on the Hot AC chart.

The three singles, all of which are uniquely excellent, couldn’t be more different yet sonically cohesive enough to work as small pieces of the larger puzzle that is I Am Shelby Lynne. Of even greater significance, “Your Lies” and “Leavin,” open the album hitting the listener with an adventurous sonic sucker punch that takes us on a unique and joyous journey to parts unknown.

That unfamiliar territory led south to Hollywood, where the producers of Bridget Jones’ Diary plucked the ethereal ballad “Dreamsome” for use in the film. It’s an ambiguous selection for an otherwise upbeat romantic comedy, but it works splendidly as a stand-alone recording.

Lynne had a hand in co-writing each of the tracks on I Am Shelby Lynne, including eight with Bottrell. The pair cover vast lyrical acreage, from the esoteric stream-of-consciousness of “Life Is Bad” to the emotional confrontation of “Thought It Would Be Easier.” She subtly addresses her new direction on “Where I’m From,” declaring “never far away from Alabama frame of mind.”

“Why Can’t You Be” is a contextually vague thumper that works from the prospective of Lynne lamenting the end of a romantic relationship, but evolves into brilliance if she’s actually singing about herself, painting the picture that it’s her who’s “the only enemy.” “Lookin’ Up” foreshadows the journey to come, offering sonic glimpses into such projects as Just A Little Lovin’ and I Can’t Imagine. The lyric itself seeps with delicious venom and finds Lynne on the warpath for “the next thing that brings me down.” The original edition of I Am Shelby Lynne closes with “Black Light Blue,” a too-slow string drenched ballad that continues Lynne’s penchant for esoteric stream-of-consciousness songwriting.

To commemorate the album’s fifteenth anniversary, Rounder Records released a deluxe edition complete with six previously unreleased songs and a concert DVD. The six unearthed tunes including a seven minute acoustic ballad entitled “The Sky Is Purple,” in which Lynne addresses her teenage years through a revelatory vocal performance. “Should’ve Been Better” is a pep infused slice of funk, “Wind” is gorgeous pop ballad, and “She Knows Where She Goes” is melodically country. “Miss You Sissy” and “Bless The Fool” lean smooth jazz.

The relationship between Lynne and Bottrell, who also helmed Sheryl Crow’s Tuesday Night Music Club, recalls Emmylou Harris’ reinvention with Daniel Lanois on Wrecking Ball. Like Harris’ seminal classic, I Am Shelby Lynne is a masterpiece that showcases Lynne in her most unbridled form. She richly deserved the Best New Artist Grammy Award she won courtesy of this project, even though, after six previous albums, she logically shouldn’t have been eligible at all.

Lynne hasn’t reached these heights since, but she also hasn’t tried, which is the mark of an astute artist. I Am Shelby Lynne is the rare album that stands in a class by itself where no other project by its maker can even come close to surpassing its brilliance. I Am Shelby Lynne is an ageless beauty.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘Hard Bargain’

Beginning with the release of the rock-oriented Wrecking Ball, Emmylou’s music has been very hit or miss for me. I disliked that 1995 project, which Emmylou herself describes as her “weird album”, and I was similarly disenchanted with 2000’s Red Dirt Girl and 2003’s Stumble Into Grace, although all three albums did have their bright spots. All I Intended To Be, which reunited her with Brian Ahern, was a step back in the right direction for those of us who had longed for another Brand New Dance or Cowgirl’s Prayer, but anyone who thought that her 2008 album was the beginning of a journey back to more traditional country music will perhaps be slightly disappointed with her newest offering Hard Bargain.

I wasn’t sure what to expect with this album, so I came to it without any preconceived notions about the style of music. Having listened to it a few times, I’m not sure how to classify this genre-defying project except to say that by and large, it isn’t country. It’s not the sort of music I generally enjoy listening to, but nevertheless, I found Hard Bargain to be a quite pleasant listening experience. Emmylou wrote the majority of the songs, and only three musicians play all of the instruments on the album: Jay Joyce, who produced the project, Giles Reaves, and Emmylou herself. Although there are some production missteps along the way, the extremely limited number of musicians participating helps them to avoid falling into the trap of wall-of-sound overproduction, such as the kind that plagued Wrecking Ball.

Nearly forty years after she was recruited by Gram Parsons, her mentor still casts a long shadow over Emmylou’s music, as evidenced in the album’s opening track and lead single “The Road”, which talks about the time they spent touring together:

I can still remember
Every song you played
Long ago when we were younger
And we rocked the night away
How could I see a future then
Where you would not grow old
With such a fire in our bellies
Such a hunger in our soul.

… I still think about you
Wonder where you are
Can you see me from some place
Up there among the stars

One of the more heavily-produced tracks on the album, “The Road” has some Daniel Lanois Wrecking Ball-esque production flourishes. It has not charted and is not likely to garner much airplay from country radio.

More stripped down are “Home Sweet Home” and “My Name Is Emmett Till”, a 60s-style folk number that tells the story of a 14-year-old hate crime victim in pre-Civil Rights era Mississippi. “New Orleans”, which Emmylou co-wrote with Will Jennings deals with the floods that ravaged that city after Hurricane Katrina. It’s a surprisingly upbeat-sounding song given the subject matter, and somewhat distracting to listen to due to the way the recording was mixed. The track is somewhat heavy on percussion, and Emmylou’s voice sounds very faint, as if it were recorded through a telephone line. This same flaw plagues the title track and “Cross Yourself”, but not to the same extent as “New Orleans”.

Emmylou is well known for her animal rescue work,a subject that is near and dear to my own heart, and one that is the topic of “Big Black Dog”, a homage to a rescued canine. Large black dogs are the least likely to adopted from shelters, but as Emmylou correctly points out, they can make wonderful pets:

Big black dogs they’re everywhere
Lookin’ for a home they’re hungry and scared
All they need is food and attention
They’ll give you back love
Sometimes redemption I swear
You could find it there
In a big, black dog.

Despite the somewhat somber lyrics, this is an upbeat, almost happy-sounding and surprisingly catchy number.

The most poignant song in this collection and my favorite is “Darlin’ Kate”, Emmylou’s tribute to her good friend and frequent collaborator, the late Kate McGarrigle, who died last year. The, the simple lyrics and acoustic arrangement enhanced by Jay Joyce’s ganjo (six-string banjo) playing, give the track a more country feel than most of the others songs on the album.

I seem to be a sucker for bonus tracks; for some reason they usually end up being some of my favorite tracks, and “To Ohio”, which appears on the deluxe version of Hard Bargain, is no exception. Breaking with the three-musicians-only formula of the rest of the album, Emmylou is joined on this track by the folk band The Low Anthem, who provide very nice duet and harmony vocals. There aren’t any musician credits for this track in the CD booklet, but the production is a little more filled-out on this track, so I suspect the band members are playing some of the instruments.

Overall, while I enjoyed this album quite a bit, it doesn’t quite stack up with the very best of Emmylou’s past work, which admittedly, is a very high standard. Though I would have preferred another All I Intended To Be, or better yet, something closer to the type of albums she regularly released in the 70s, Hard Bargain rates higher than most of Emmylou’s post-1995 work, and should satisfy most of her longtime fans.

Grade: B

Hard Bargain can be purchased from Amazon and iTunes.

Spotlight Artist: Emmylou Harris

Emmylou Harris was not born to be a country singer. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1947, daughter of an Air Force officer, she grew up in North Carolina and Virginia. She dropped out of college to pursue a career as a folk singer, inspired by the 60s revival of traditional folk music in America. After releasing one album, Gliding Bird (suppressed for years) and following the failure of her first marriage, her life took a defining turn when she met Gram Parsons in 1971 (recommended by Chris Hillman who had been impressed by Emmylou when he saw her in concert). Parsons, an alumnus of the seminal country-rock bands The Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, introduced Emmylou to country music. Emmylou’s haunting harmonies added a touch of magic to Gram’s more shambolic vocals, and her vocal contributions to the two albums on which they collaborated, GP and Grievous Angel, were so significant to their sound that (although billed as solo Parsons records) they were really a duo act. Parsons, a self-destructive soul addicted to drugs and alcohol, died of an overdose in 1973, and, traumatic though this loss was, Emmylou was freed to pursue her own star.

She signed to the Warner Brothers imprint Reprise Records (a contract which was passed to Warner when the smaller label was closed), and began working with producer Brian Ahern, who she was to marry in 1977. Starting with 1975’s Pieces Of The Sky, Emmylou Harris released a sequence of now-classic albums through the 70s, notable for their selection of material: country and bluegrass classics, rock covers, and new songs; for the extraordinary singing and harmony work; and for the superb musicianship mostly from her own Hot Band. Her work was critically acclaimed and also well received on country radio, with a string of hits including five #1s. She won her first Grammy in 1976 for her second album, Elite Hotel.

Emmylou’s live bands have been a large part of her success over the years. The legendary Hot Band in the 70s and 80s had a changing but always stellar lineup, starting with Elvis Presley’s guitarist James Burton(succeeded by the British born virtuoso Albert Lee, writer of ‘Country Boy’), pianist Glen D Hardin, steel player Hank De Vito, and bassist Emory Gordy Jr. One significant member was singer songwriter Rodney Crowell on rhythm guitar for three years. When Crowell moved on to start his own solo career, he was replaced by the multiple instrumentalist Ricky Skaggs, who brought a bluegrass influence to the band before launching his own spectacular career in country music.

From 1979 onwards, Emmylou, always eclectic, began to experiment further, with the pure country Blue Kentucky Girl, the bluegrass Roses In The Snow, an acoustic Christmas album (Light Of The Stable), live recordings (Last Date), even the odd disco song on 1983’s more rock-influenced White Shoes. Her marriage to Ahern broke down, and in 1985 she released the underrated concept album The Ballad Of Sally Rose, with a storyline very loosely inspired by her early career with Gram Parsons, all of which she wrote with English-born songwriter Paul Kennerley, who also took over as her producer, and soon became husband #3 (the couple divorced in 1992). The record was a commercial failure, although one song, ‘Woman Walk The Line’, was later picked up by other artists (Highway 101 and Trisha Yearwood have both recorded it).

She had collaborated frequently on other artists’ records throughout her career (and brought them in to sing on her own), but in 1987 she combined with her friends Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt to record the acclaimed, and platinum selling, Trio, and she also recorded a solo country gospel record, Angel Band, produced by longtime Hot Band member Emory Gordy Jr, with Vince Gill singing harmony.

Notwithstanding the success of Trio, her solo star was waning by this point, and in 1991 Emmylou made another major change, replacing the Hot Band with a new acoustic group called the Nash Ramblers. Their musicianship was just as high quality, including Sam Bush on fiddle and mandolin, and a young singer/guitarist then billed as Randy Stewart who was later to pursue a solo career as singer and songwriter Jon Randall, and is currently known by his full name, Jon Randall Stewart. This lineup gave Emmylou’s music a new impetus, and they recorded a Grammy winning live album at the Ryman (her last release on Warner Brothers). However, commercial success was still diminishing, and after the relative failure of 1993’s Cowgirl’s Prayer on Warners subsidiary Elektra, Emmylou made the most radical change yet in her music.

In 1995 she turned to rock producer Daniel Lanois to create the controversial Wrecking Ball. This album’s connections with country music are limited, but it brought Emmylou acclaim from outside the genre, and earned her a Contemporary Folk Grammy. Another new band, Spyboy, featured guitarist Buddy Miller. A live album, Live In Germany 2000, has just been released (I think in Germany) and showcases this period. She was to continue in the vein for the next few years, investing more in her own songwriting than she had done earlier in her career. 2008’s All I Intended To Be, her most recent album, reunited Emmylou with Brian Ahern, and combined elements of her more recent style with aspects of her classic work of the 70s. A new album (Hard Bargain) is due later this month on Nonesuch Records, another Warner Brothers subsidiary which has released Emmylou’s solo work since 2003. She will appear on the Letterman Show to promote it on April 27. Also hot off the presses, a new imported budget box set brings together five of her classic albums, all of which we plan to feature as part of our coverage.

Emmylou Harris was inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 2008. She was the CMA Female Vocalist of the Year in 1980, and has won numerous Grammy’s. At her peak she was able to appeal to both country and non-country audiences without compromising her music, and she introduced new generations to artists like the Louvin Brothers. Even when I haven’t cared for some of her changes in direction, they were clearly rooted in her artistic vision rather than in the hunt for sales figures. During April we hope to share with you some of the highlights of the career of one of the most adventurous and significant artists in country music in the past 40 years.