My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Darrin Vincent

Album Review: Dailey & Vincent – ‘Patriots and Poets’

The title and cover artwork of Dailey & Vincent’s new album are somewhat misleading as they create the false impression that this is a collection of patriotic-themed tunes. What it actually is is a collection of well-crafted bluegrass songs, including a healthy dose of spiritual numbers, all written or co-written by Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent themselves.

Patriots and Poets is the duo’s first project under a new deal with Dreamlined Entertainment. In addition to showcasing the Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent, the spotlight is shared with their backing band, which includes bass vocalist Aaron McCune, which gives them a somewhat fuller sound than their earliest work. They also team up with an impressive line-up of guest artists including bluegrass greats Bela Fleck, Doyle Lawson, and David Rawlings. Comedian and banjo virtuoso Steve Martin also makes an appearance, as does Christian Singer TaRanda Greene.

Consisting of a generous sixteen tracks, the album opens with the energetic but lyrically light “Gimme All The Love You Got” and then veers off into more substantive territory with the religious number “Beautiful Scars”. “Baton Rouge”, which references “leaving Louisiana in the broad daylight” and walking from Baton Rouge to Birmingham is reminsicent of Shenandoah’s “Next to Me, Next to You” with acoustic instrumentation.

Surprisingly, “Until We’re Gone”, the collaboration with TaRanda Greene is a secular love song, rather than a religious one. I’m not familiar with her work but she is a pleasant but not great vocalist. Based on its title, I expected “Bill and Ole Elijah” to be a religious number, and it does have a revival meeting vibe to it and a soaring high lonesome sound that would make Bill Monroe proud, but it is actually a song about a prison break, with an interesting twist at the the end.

My favorite track is “California”, which is almost like a tongue-in-cheek retelling of the old George Jones and Tammy Wynette classic “Southern California”, in which a wife tells her good ole boy husband that she’s leaving to find her fortune in Hollywood. In this telling, however, her husband goes with her, expecting her to get discouraged and eventually want to return home. When she doesn’t, he eventually returns home without her, but he bailed out a little too soon as he learns a few months later when he discovers his Mrs. on reality television show. Steve Martin plays banjo and recites the song’s spoken verse that reveals the wife’s eventual success.

“America, We Love You” seems like it is the patriotic component referenced in the album’s title but it is actually more of an expression of appreciation for the fans who have come out to support the duo on their nationwide tours.

This is an impressive collection with no throwaway tracks, which is no mean feat considering that there are sixteen of them and it plays for about an hour. It might be a little long for those who are ambivalent about bluegrass but I thoroughly enjoyed it from beginning to end.

Grade: A

Album Review: Irene Kelley – ‘Pennsylvania Coal’

pennsylvania coalPennsylvania-born Irene Kelley is one of the finest songwriters around. A decade on from her excellent Thunderbird album she is back on record in her own right. She wrote all the songs with a variety of collaborators, and all have pretty melodies which showcase her pure, beautiful voice. Produced by Mark Fain, the music is in that overlap between acoustic country and bluegrass, and is beautifully played.

The opening ‘You Don’t Run Across My Mind’ is a thoughtful song about someone who the protagonist can never forget despite the passage of time. Darrin Vincent sings harmony on this attractive tune. It is co-written with Peter Cooper, as is the even prettier ‘Feels Like Home’. The latter has bluegrass’s Dale Ann Bradley and Steve Gulley on backing vocals and some lovely fiddle lines from Stuart Duncan (who plays throughout). A cold rainy day in Nashville brings reminders of Irene’s Pennsylvania birthplace, whose weather is remembered with less fond nostalgia than many songs about childhood:

You can take a trip but you can’t go back
Too many times I’ve heard that
It’s prettier in clouded memory
Just today a north wind came
Tapped my shoulder
Brought the grey
And a chill I know by heart came over me

Feels like home
Though I never felt at home there
And I know that the winters were too long
Like the wind against the shutters
In a town I used to know
Any time it looks like rain
Feels like home

‘Pennsylvania Coal’ (written with Thomm Jutz) is an atmospheric story of the Pennsylvania coal country where Kelley’s immigrant grandfather was a miner, and later a farmer. Its honesty and emotional insight rivals some of the great coalmining songs from Kentucky and West Virginia.

Family is an important theme running through the album, with Irene’s daughters Justyna and Sara Jean contributing both with harmonies and songwriting. The record even closes with a bonus track, ‘You Are Mine, on which Kelley’s daughter Sara Jean sings the lead over her mother and sister’s trio harmony. Written by the three of them, it has a charming old fashioned feel.

The delightful ‘My Flower’ uses the traditional ‘You Are My Flower’ (which Irene sang as a lullaby for her children as babies) as its theme. It was written with Irene’s daughter Justyna, who also sings harmonies alongside Claire Lynch. Irene then segues into a few lines of the original song, accompanied by herself on autoharp, which is charming.

Lynch also sings background on ‘Angels Around Her’, about Irene’s relationship with her late mother, using her collection of angel-themed ornaments as the focus of the song. Dale Ann Bradley sings harmony on the brooding ‘Sister’s Heart’, a heartfelt tribute to Irene’s beloved sister, which she wrote with Jon Weisberger. Bradley is also present on the idealistic ‘Garden Of Dreams’, inspired by Kelley’s daughters, which is a beautiful and poetic ballad.

Trisha Yearwood sings harmony on the graceful waltz ‘Better With Time’, a mature love song (written with Peter Cooper and Justyna) about the way love matures and grows, with a delicate stripped down arrangement.

Another outstanding song, ‘Breakin’ Even’ (written with Mark Irwin) takes a bleakly moving look at the pain of a breakup. ‘Things We Never Did’ is full of tender regret at lost chances, with its wistful look at what was “nearly a dream come true”. Carl Jackson’s harmony and Jeff Taylor’s tasteful accordion add the perfect finishing touches to the arrangement.

Rhonda Vincent sings a close harmony on the quirky upbeat ‘Rattlesnake Rattler’, in which part of a dead snake is incorporated into a guitar.

This is a lovely sounding record, and one filled with moving songs, beautifully sung.

Grade: A

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Christmas Grass: The Collection’

christmas grassThis two-disc compilation of the best tracks from a series of three Christmas Grass albums released in 2002, 2004 and 2007 respectively comprises equal parts instrumentals and vocal tracks, and mixes the reverent with the fun/nostalgic side of the season. Most of the material is fairly well known, but the impeccable, cleanly played arrangements and excellent vocals make these versions a welcome addition to your Christmas playlists.

Dolly Parton gets things going to a bright and cheery start with her perkily irresistible reading of ‘Christmas Time’s A-Comin’’, backed by the harmonies of Dailey & Vincent. The duo also back up Russell Moore on the briskly cheerful ‘Christmas Time Is Near’.

A charmingly nostalgic look back at Christmases past in Tom T Hall’s likeable ‘Oh Christmas Candle’ is attractively sung by the trio of Jamie Dailey, Barry Scott and Doyle Lawson. Rhonda Vincent is warm and tender on Amy Grant’s Southern-themed ‘Tennessee Christmas’, while the Larkins take on a bluegrass version of Alabama’s ‘Christmas In Dixie’, which is quite nice.

Larry Sparks lends an unexpectedly wistful melancholy to ‘I Heard The Bells Ring On Christmas Day’ (with a lyric comprising a Longfellow poem), which I liked very much. My favourite track is the most downbeat one, ‘Merry Christmas Ho Ho Ho’, about a man facing his first Christmas alone, sung with a gentle sadness by Ronnie Bowman with supporting harmonies from Darrin Vincent and Sharon White.

John Cowan provides some variety by contributinga sultry soul-style vocal on ‘Please Come Home For Christmas’, which works surprisingly well with the bluegrass instrumentation.

On the religious side of things, Dailey & Vincent sing a quietly reverent and beautifully harmonised version of ‘Beautiful Star Of Bethlehem’, set to a simple guitar and mandolin backing. This must be one of their earliest recordings together. Sonya Isaacs sounds lovely on ‘Mary, Did You Know?’, while Sarah Jarosz is pleasantly soothing on ‘One Bright Star’.

3 Fox Drive get two tracks, both rather forgettable: ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’ and ‘The Christmas Song’, which I usually find boring anyway.

Approximately half the tracks are instrumental versions of well-known Christmas tunes (the first of the three albums this compilation draws on was all-instrumental). I was initially a little disappointed by this, even though they are all flawlessly played, but they make for contemplative interludes. My favourite is a gently melodic performance of ‘What Child Is This’ (the Renaissance tune ‘Greensleeves’), featuring Alison Krauss on fiddle and Ronnie McCoury on mandolin, which is quite lovely. The stately melody of ‘Silent Night’ (one of my favourite carols) is also very fine, while a bouncy ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’ is fun.

This is a very tasteful bluegrass collection, leaning more to the mellow and contemplative sides of Christmas than to revelry. I would recommend it to all fans of bluegrass and acoustic music at this time of year.

Grade: A

Occasional Hope’s top 10 albums of 2013

This year has seen some excellent albums released. I had to leave off my final top ten fine records by Amber Digby, Ashley Monroe, Jamie Richards, Julie Roberts and Eric Strickland. The most notable thing for me has been the resurgence in artistic terms at least, if not commercial ones, of great female voices. Last year none of my top albums was from a female artist. This year there are four solo women (all excellent writers as well as singers, although one chose to release predominantly covers this time), four male leads, and two mixed duos, and while I don’t like quotas or judging for anything other than the quality of the music, increased diversity of life experience can only be good for the variety of experiences reflected in the music.

10. Old Yellow MoonEmmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell
The long awaited reunion project was a delight, and well worth the wait. Seeing them live was a personal highlight of my year.
Best tracks: ‘Dreaming My Dreams’, ‘Here We Are

roots of my raising gregory9. Roots Of My RaisingThe Clinton Gregory Bluegrass Band
Another project presenting country classics with bluegrass arrangements. Clinton Gregory’s underrated tenor matches his fine fiddle playing, and his excellent vocal interpretations make this one worth hearing.
Best tracks: ‘New Patches’, ‘Roots Of My Raising’, ‘I Never Go Around Mirrors’

8. Made To LastJoey + Rory
While not really groundbreaking, the latest from husband and wife duo Joey Martin and Rory Feek contains some beautiful songs, tastefully produced. The couple may slow down their busy schedule next year and they are expecting their first baby together in the spring, but this (and the year’s earlier religious album) will keep fans going.
Best tracks: ‘Just A Cup Of Coffee’, ‘Now That She’s Gone’, ‘50,000 Names’ with a bonus mention for ‘The Preacher And The Stranger’ on Inspired.

showin my roots7. Showin’ My RootsDonna Ulisse
A delightful mix of country and bluegrass on a collection of the songs which inspired Donna. She’s a fine bluegrass singer and songwriter – but her majestic alto is petrfect for traditional country, and setting them against beautifully played bluegrass abackings is the best of both worlds.
Best tracks: ‘If That’s The Way You Feel’, ‘Somebody Somewhere Don’t Know What He’s Missing Tonight’, ‘In The Good Old Days When Times Were Bad’

6. Brothers Of The HighwayDailey & Vincent
The best duo in bluegrass return with their first secular album of new material since 2009. This is spectacular playing and singing, a masterclass in bluegrass.
Best tracks: ‘When I Stop Dreaming’, ‘Hills Of Caroline’, ‘Brothers Of The Highway’

i let her talk5. I Let Her TalkErin Enderlin
It only had nine tracks, which lost it a few points, but the outstanding quality of the songs and Erin’s strong voice meant this forced its way onto my top 10 list.
Best tracks: ‘I Let Her Talk’, ‘Get That At Home’, ‘Last Call’, ‘Monday Morning Church

4. The HighwayHolly Williams
Hank Jr’s daughter comes of age as an artist with this fine singer-sogwriter record. Her sultry voice, the tasteful production and excellent songs combine to make a memorable listening experience.
Best Tracks: ‘Giving Up’, ‘Drinkin’’, ‘Waiting On June

randy3. Influence Vol 1:- The Man I AmRandy Travis
Randy Travis has seemed to be on a downward spiral both personally, with well-publicised troubles with the law and an increasingly concerning alchol problem, and professionally, with his voice showing disturbing signs of deterioration. His health took a turn for the worse this year, but his Haggard-heavy album of classic covers was an unexpected highlight of the year. The man who was at the heart of the revival of more traditional styles of country music in the 1980s reveals his greatest influences, and is back in better voice than he has been for some years. the slightly lopsided selection of material may be a casualty of his health issues – perhaps more recording sessions were planned. I only hope that he recovers and a Volume 2 may be a possibility.
Best tracks: ‘What Have You Got Planned Tonight, Diana’, ‘I’m Always On A Mountain When I Fall’, ‘Someday We’ll Look Back

2. BakersfieldVince Gill and Paul Franklin
I wouldn’t necessarily have associated Vince Gill’s honeyed tenor with the Bakersfield sound, but his labor of love collaboration with steel player Paul Franklin was a revelation. Vince’s heartfelt interpretations of these classics breathes new life into them.
Best tracks: ‘Holding Things Together’, ‘Branded Man’, ‘But I Do’, ‘Together Again

12 stories
1. 12 StoriesBrandy Clark

The songwriter has been very successful in recent years selling her songs to more mainstream acts, but it turns out she kept her best songs for her own album. She serves up a dozen believable slices of life on her debut album, a pointed reminder that at its best country music is the genre which records real lives in troubled times. Ranging from the quirky wit of single ‘Stripes’ to dark cheating songs like ‘What’ll Keep Me Out Of Heaven’, and taking in the soothing sweetness of ‘Hold My Hand’ and ‘Just Like Him’, this is one of those rare albums without a weak track, and one which demonstrates that contemporary country can be great. Brandy also has a rich, expressive voice. Much-deserved critical acclaim has not yet been matched by sales – but this is an outstanding record.
Best tracks: ‘What’ll Keep Me Out Of Heaven’, ‘In Some Corner’, ‘Take A Little Pill’, ‘Pray to Jesus’, ‘Just Like Him

Album Review: Dailey & Vincent – ‘Brothers Of the Highway’

brothers of the highwayAfter a detour with their Statler Brothers tribute and two gospel releases, the duo who burst onto the bluegrass scene in 2008-2009 are back on Rounder with an exceptional album mixing old and new material. The duo is in fine form vocally, with Jamie Dailey generally taking the lead and Darrin Vincent providing a close harmony, but they vary the arrangements as best suits each song. The band is augmented by the brilliant fiddler Andy Leftwich and acoustic guitarist Bryan Sutton, among others.

The sometimes frenetic pace and constantly changing rhythms of the opening ‘Steel Drivin’ Man’ make for an arresting start, and the music never let’s go. It is one of two Jamie Dailey compositions, and may be the first country or bluegrass song to be inspired by reading a Wikipedia article. The subject may have been garnered at second-hand, but the story sounds as authentic as if it were a traditional number, while the lengthy instrumental passages allow the band to show off their musical chops. Dailey’s other song here, ‘Back To Jackson County’, is pleasantly nostalgic about a childhood in the country. The similarly titled ‘Back To Hancock County’, written by Pete Goble and Leroy Drumm, has a little more substance with its wistful consciousness of change. It is one of a few songs where Darrin shares the lead vocals with Jamie evenly, as they do on the playful Porter Wagoner top 20 country hit ‘Howdy Neighbor Howdy’, another opportunity for an instrumental showcase.

Dailey & Vincent are challenged only by the Gibson Brothers among current proponents of close bluegrass harmony, and their version of the Louvin Brothers’ ‘When I Stop Dreaming’ is simply perfect. Darrin takes the lead vocal, and does an excellent job, with Jamie’s harmony vocal twining around it on the chorus to create a magical sound. Darrin also sings lead, and band members Jeff Parker and Christian Davis add a full spectrum of voices to the harmony on the well-played and sung but otherwise unremarkable ‘Big River’.

Bill Monroe’s bluegrass classic ‘Close By’ gets Jamie’s highest high lonesome vocal with no harmony and more superb playing. ‘Tomorrow I’ll Be Gone’ is a Wilma Lee Cooper song which has been recorded by a number of bluegrass artists including Monroe; Dailey & Vincent’s version is as excellent as one would expect.

A gentle laid back take on ‘Brothers Of The Highway’, the ode to truckers recorded by George Strait on his Troubadour set, is an unexpected inclusion, but a very welcome one. Jimmy Fortune of the Statler Brothers adds a third harmony voice. Gospel tune ‘It Will Be Wonderful Over There’ gets a Statlers-style gospel quartet arrangement.

Vince Gill’s ‘Hills Of Caroline’ gets a stripped down arrangement and spare lead vocal very reminiscent of Gill’s version, with a delicate harmony – simple and beautiful, and another outstanding moment. Kathy Mattea’s 80s chart-topper ‘Where’ve You Been’, with its sensitive portrayal of a couple divided by Alzheimers but united in love, has a full-scale string section backing Jamie’s vocal, making it the one song not to adhere to traditional bluegrass stylings. It works quite well, but is slightly out-of-place.

This is the best bluegrass album I’ve heard in a couple of years – and my favorite record so far this year.

Grade: A+

Get it at amazon.

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Good Thing Going’

While 2006’s All American Bluegrass Girl wasn’t quite up to par with her previous work, Rhonda Vincent recovered nicely with her next project. Released in January 2008, Good Thing Going is a more eclectic set of songs than we’d heard to date from Rhonda, with elements of traditional folk, Western swing and contemporary country offered up alongside the standard bluegrass. The project was co-produced by Rhonda along with her brother Darrin. Her road band The Rage is also featured on the album, which reached #1 on the Top Bluegrass Albums chart and produced two non-charting singles.

The opening track “I’m Leavin'” is one of five tracks on the album written by Rhonda and is reminiscent of some of the lesser known songs in Dolly Parton’s catalog, such as “If You Need Me” and “I’m Gone”. It was released as a single but did not chart despite the excellent vocal performance by Rhonda and fiddle-playing by Stuart Duncan. The next track, the Western swing flavored “The World’s Biggest Fool”, is a far cry from bluegrass but Rhonda pulls it off with gusto. The wedding ballad “I Give All My Love To You” is exquisitely performed and produced but it is one of the least “grassy” songs here, despite the duet vocal from fellow bluegrass star Russell Moore of the band IIIrd Tyme Out. No complaints here, but hardcore bluegrass fans may have been expecting something different. Those traditionalists should be pleased, however, with the title track, which features more traditional instrumentation and high-lonesome vocals.

The most traditional bluegrass song in the collection is a spirited cover version of Jimmy Martin’s fast paced “Hit Parade of Love”, which is possibly my favorite song on the album, though “Scorn of a Lover” is also in contention for best track. The latter features a bluegrass arrangement but the lyrics owe more to traditional country and it sounds like something that Patty Loveless would have nailed on one of her nineties albums. Dottie Rambo’s “Just One of a Kind” is also a nicely done number that should please bluegrass traditionalists.

Rhonda’s albums usually contain at least one religious song. “I Will See You Again” fills that slot this time around. It’s definitely not bluegrass, but it’s a very touching story about an elderly woman who is about to bury her husband but who has faith that she will see him again soon.

Given its close relationship to bluegrass and country, it’s perhaps logical that Rhonda would choose to include some music of Celtic origin on her albums. Ironically, however, the traditional Irish air “The Water Is Wide” is stripped of most of its Celtic elements, and thus, the tune is this album’s biggest stretch. Featuring a guest vocal from Keith Urban, the song is very pretty but is also somewhat bland. I’ve always liked this song and was looking forward to hearing Rhonda’s take on it, but disappointingly, it comes across as an attempt to appeal to a wider audience, a la Alison Krauss. I highly doubt that was the intent, but the track is one of Rhonda’s rare missteps. The album closes with the self-penned “Bluegrass Saturday Night”, which describes the hectic lifestyle of a road musician.

Though not quite as strong as Back Home Again and the excellent The Storm Still Rages, Good Thing Going is nonetheless an enjoyable collection and that is worthy of inclusion in any country or bluegrass fan’s collection.

Grade: A-

Abum Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘One Step Ahead’

One Step Ahead was Rhonda’s 2003 release for Rounder and the first of her albums to really showcase her skills as a songwriter. As always, Rhonda is accompanied by a fine cast of supporting musicians including such aces as Aubrey Haynie (mandolin), Bryan Sutton (guitar), Ronnie Stewart (banjo), Stewart Duncan (fiddle) and brother Darrin Vincent (bass).

The album opens up with “Kentucky Borderline”, a fine breakdown composed by Ms Vincent and Terry Herd. You could describe this one as a train song in the finest tradition of Hank Snow, Jimmie Rodgers and Roy Acuff. The great vocal harmonies on this track are supplied by Jamie Dailey and brother Darrin.

“You Can’t Take It With You” is a gentle ballad from the pens of Curtis Wright and T.J. Knight about a love possibly about to disintegrate slowly.

I’ll give you my love
For the rest of my life
But I want to make sure you know
You can’t take it with you when you go

This song was released as a single to radio, reaching #58.

“One Step Ahead of The Blues” is another Vincent & Herd composition, an up-tempo tune featuring Alison Krauss on harmony vocals. This song probably should have been released as a single. Instead it was the second song on a CD single of “If Heartaches Had Wings” (a song not on this album) released in 2004.

Another Vincent/Herd composition is “Caught In The Crossfire” a rather sad story of divorce as seen through the eyes of a child

I’m caught in the crossfire
Of a world that’s so unkind
I love ‘em both but I can’t choose
Which one to leave behind

“Ridin’ The Red Line” is the song of a truck driver’s homecoming. Another Vincent/Herd composition, the song is noteworthy for the fine mandolin work by Aubrey Haynie with augmented mandolin fills by Cody Kilby.

Webb Pierce, June Hazelwood and Wayne Walker share the songwriting credits on an oldie, “Pathway of Teardrops”. This song has been recorded by many artists, but this version is very reminiscent of the Osborne Brothers recording of the song some years earlier.

The great female vocalist Melba Montgomery supplied “An Old Memory Found Its Way Back”. While Montgomery wasn’t a bluegrass artist, I’ve found that her songs lead themselves to bluegrass interpretations. This is a great ballad sung to perfection by Rhonda Vincent.

I don’t know much about Jennifer Strickland but she sure can write a pretty ballad, this one titled “Missouri Moon” about a love that has come to its end.

Who ever thought I’d be so blue
As I cry beneath that old Missouri moon

As I asked in a prior review, what would a bluegrass album be without a religious song? Much poorer for its absence, so Rhonda has chosen the old Stoney Cooper and Wilma Lee classic “Walking My Lord Up Calvary’s Hill. No version will ever replace the Stoney & Wilma Lee version in my heart, but Ms. Vincent’s version comes close, with Darrin Vincent contributing an excellent guitar solo and harmony vocals.

Another religious song follows, this one penned by Becky Buller, “Fishers Of Men”. This song is performed a cappella by Rhonda Vincent with Darrin Vincent, Mickey Harris and Eric Wilson providing the harmony vocals. This is my favorite track on the album.

Cast your nets aside
And join the battle tide
He will be your guide
To make you fishers of men

Molly Cherryholmes composed the instrumental “Frankie Belle”, the only tune on the album to feature Rhonda’s own mandolin playing.

The album closes with a short rendition of “The Martha White Theme”, a tune long associated with Flatt & Scruggs, whose portion of the Grand Ole Opry was sponsored by Martha White for decades.

One Step Ahead is a very entertaining album and shows Rhonda as a fully realized artist. I’d give it an A. The strength of this album’s songs is demonstrated by the fact that six of these songs would be reprised in her very next album Ragin’ Live.

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘The Storm Still Rages’

A year and a half after her triumphant return to bluegrass, Rhonda Vincent did the unthinkable and released an album that was actually better than 2000’s excellent Back Home Again. Like its predecessor, it is a collection of contemporary and traditional bluegrass songs, along with a handful of covers of country classics with acoustic arrangements. Slightly more traditional than Back Home Again, The Storm Still Rages was self-produced. Ronnie Light, who shared production duties on Back Home Again, acts as engineer this time around. Rhonda’s brother Darrin is once again in tow, playing bass and singing harmony. Also present are some of Nashville’s most prestigious musicians, including Stuart Duncan on fiddle, and Sonya Issacs and Alison Krauss whose harmonies are what really give this album an edge over Back Home Again.

By 2001, bluegrass was on a hot streak and the rising tide that lifted albums by Alison Krauss and the O, Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack to the top of the charts also benefited Rhonda, who had an album on the charts herself for the very first time. The Storm Still Rages reached #59 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart and #9 on their Top Bluegrass Albums chart.

In addition to her roles as lead singer, mandolin player and producer, Rhonda is also credited as a songwriter, having had a hand in creating three of the album’s songs — the opening track “Cry of the Whippoorwill” and “On Solid Ground”, which she co-wrote with Terry Herd, and “When The Angels Sing” which she co-wrote with Herd and her brother Darrin.

One of the album’s standout tracks is “Is The Grass Any Bluer”, which is a tribute to the late Bill Monroe. Addressing the father of bluegrass directly, Vincent asks:

Is the grass any bluer on the other side?
Did it look like old Kentucky when the gates swung open wide?
Bet the good Lord’s got you playin’ somewhere up there every night.
Is the grass any bluer on the other side?

Rhonda also pays tribute to Lester Flatt with the album’s closing track “The Martha White Theme”.

My favorite song on the album is “Don’t Lie”, which had been a single for Trace Adkins two years earlier and ranks among his most underrated recordings. Rhonda’s version was also released as a single but it did not chart. The album produced two more non-charting singles, “I’m Not Over You” and a cover of the Hank Williams classic “My Sweet Love Ain’t Around”. Also among the country classics Rhonda covers is a version of the Jack Clement tune “Just Someone I Used To Know”, which was originally recorded by George Jones and is best remembered as a hit for Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. Rhonda’s version reminds me of the version Lee Ann Womack would record a few years later for her There’s More Where That Came From album.

Two gospel tunes are included in the set, the aforementioned “When Angels Sing” and “If You Don’t Love Your Neighbor You Don’t Love God”, a rousing toe-tapper that is probably the best known of Rhonda’s religious tunes.

The Storm Still Rages is one of those rare albums without a single misstep; the singing, playing, production and the songs themselves are all top-notch. Even if you think you don’t like bluegrass, give this one a listen and you may find that you’ve changed your mind.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Back Home Again’

Although Rhonda Vincent’s pursuit of a mainstream career resulted in only two albums, it took her away from the bluegrass scene for nearly a decade. With the major label phase of her career now over, Rhonda returned to the indies and began a decade-long association with the roots-based Rounder Records. The aptly named Back Home Again, released in January 2000 was her first project for the label. It was an exciting time in bluegrass, as the genre was enjoying somewhat of a commercial resurgence. Dolly Parton had released the first album of her bluegrass trilogy a few months earlier, and the following year the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack would be named Album of the Year by the CMA.

Back Home Again was produced by Rhonda with Ronnie Light. In addition to singing lead vocals, Rhonda also played guitar and mandolin on several tracks and was also joined by her brother Darrin who sang harmony. Many of Nashville’s finest musicians, including Jerry Douglas on dobro and Glen Duncan on fiddle, also participated in the project.

Rhonda and Darrin’s vocals soar on the opening, banjo-led track “Lonesome Wind Blues”, a cover of a Bill Monroe classic. Equally good are their take on Jimmy Martin’s “Pretending I Don’t Care”, and “Out of Hand”, a cover of a Louvin Brothers song on which Rhonda and Darrin are joined by their father Johnny Vincent. “Passing of the Train” is an updated version of a song that Rhonda had included on her first mainstream album, Written In The Stars.

Like most of Rhonda’s albums, not everything on Back Home Again is strictly bluegrass; three contemporary country songs are given bluegrass arrangements, with stunning results. “When I Close My Eyes”, my favorite track on the album, is far superior to Kenny Chesney’s 1996 original and Rhonda’s take on “You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are” is equal to Patty Loveless’ 1993 recording. And after hearing Rhonda sing Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”, it’s somewhat surprising that Dolly herself never did a bluegrass version of the song. I’d never thought of it as a bluegrass tune, but it works extremely well with an acoustic arrangement and soaring harmonies on the song’s chorus.

The album’s only misstep is “Little Angels”, a song sung from the point of view of a child sexual abuse survivor. The tune is pretty and it is well sung and played, but it all sounds a little too pleasant for a song about such a weighty and uncomfortable topic, and as such, it doesn’t quite work.

While it’s regrettable that Rhonda didn’t enjoy the commercial success she deserved in mainstream country, after listening to Back Home Again, one can’t help but think that perhaps things worked out for the best, as bluegrass is where she truly belongs. Some mainstream country fans are resistant to bluegrass, but there is much to like in this collection, so it’s well worth keeping an open mind and giving it a try.

Grade: A

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Timeless And True Love’

Rhonda’s fourth and last album for Rebel (another 1991 release) heralded the move she was about to make into straight country music. Produced by Rhonda with brother and band member Darrin and Ronny Light, it was her best effort to date with a nice collection of material, although many of the songs were covers, some of them surprisingly recent country songs given a tasteful bluegrass or semi-bluegrass treatment. A ballad-dominated set, whose songs were picked out with the assistance of the great songwriter Jim Rushing (although he did not write any of them himself), this is basically a bluegrass influenced country album rather than a pure bluegrass one, with piano, drums, steel and electric guitar added to the basic bluegrass band, although the instrumentation is mainly acoustic and bluegrass-sounding with Rhonda’s mandolin much in evidence. Guests include banjo stars Allison Brown and Bela Fleck.

The beautiful title track was previously recorded by The McCarters, a sister trio who had a top 5 country hit with it in 1987. A sunny version of ‘Birmingham Turnaround’, a song written by Sanger D Shafer and Warren Robb which had been cut on Keith Whitley’s 1988 classic Don’t Close Your Eyes, opens the set in straight bluegrass style. Neither of these quite matches the originals, but they are agreeable listening nonetheless.

The best of the covers is a charming version of another Sanger D Shafer co-write, ‘I Do My Cryin’ At Night’, an old Lefty Frizzell song, which works well for Rhonda. Another favorite track is ‘I’m Not That Lonely Yet’, a lovely traditional country song written by Bill and Sharon Rice about the hard process of getting over an ex, and resisting the temptation of getting back together with him. It was a #3 hit single for Reba McEntire in 1982.

‘Midnight Angel’ is not the country song recorded by both Barbara Mandrell and Highway 101, but an excellent plaintive number written by two of the finest bluegrass songwriters, Pete Goble and Bobby Osborne, but given a classic country arrangement. Steel guitar dominates as Rhonda addresses the title character, her errant spouse who spends the nights preying on other women while she waits unloved at home.

‘Let’s Put Love Back To Work’, written by Larry Cordle and Mark Collie, is an attractive love duet sung with bluegrass singer David Parmley (credited only as a harmony vocalist), The lovely sounding ‘Artificial Tears’ features prominent harmonies from Alison Krauss. Despite the sweetness of the music, Rhonda gives an ultimatum to a partner unwilling to show his true feelings and pretending to be upset about her leaving.

‘Lucinda’ is a story song painting a picture of a kindly truck stop waitress who, having her own lover taken from her, lives vicariously through the truckers’ tales. Another story song, ‘Bobby And Sarah’ relates a love story from teenage romance to marriage and babies.

‘Homecoming’ is a pretty Carl Jackson gospel song about the promise of heaven. ‘Moving On’ is an early Irene Kelley song, written with Nancy Montgomery, pleasant but not that memorable.

Rhonda plays both mandolin and fiddle on the record, and showcases her skills on a self-composed instrumental, ‘Cherry Jubilee’.

This is a fine record which reveals Rhonda at a time when she was planning to spread her wings beyond bluegrass. The vocals are not quite as golden as on her later records, but the overall package is very good indeed.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Dailey & Vincent with Jimmy Fortune – ‘I Believe’

Album Review: Dolly Parton – ‘The Grass Is Blue’

Dolly Parton found herself without a record deal for the first time in 30 years when Decca Records closed its Nashville office in 1998. Throughout the decade, she had been losing ground with country radio, though her album sales had remained solid for much of that time. With the major label phase of her career now over, she decided that it was time to make a legacy record and partnered with Sugar Hill Records for a trilogy of critically acclaimed bluegrass albums. The first and best was 1999’s The Grass Is Blue, which is one of the finest — perhaps the finest — albums of her career.. Finally free of major-label constraints and commercial considerations, she finally made the bluegrass album she’d first talked about a decade earlier. With longtime producer Steve Buckingham once again on board, she assembled a who’s who list of bluegrass musicians, including Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Stuart Duncan, Bryan Sutton, Jim Mills and Barry Bales, and recorded a collection that included some bluegrass standards, grassed-up covers of other artists’ hits and four of her own original compositions. Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski, Claire Lynch, Keith Little, Patty Loveless, Rhonda Vincent and Darrin Vincent all contributed harmony vocals to the project.

The album opens with a spirited cover of Billy Joel’s “Travelin’ Prayer” that is so effective it is difficult to remember that it wasn’t originally conceived as a bluegrass song. It is followed by covers of The Louvin Brothers’ “Cash On The Barrelhead”, Hazel Dickens’ “A Few Old Memories”, and Lester Flatt’s “I’m Gonna Sleep With One Eye Open”. The best of the cover songs, however, is a beautiful rendition of Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone”, on which Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski contribute harmony vocals.

The four original Parton compositions are reminders of Dolly’s tremendous talent as a songwriter. “Steady As The Rain” and “Endless Stream Of Tears” sound like rediscoveries of previously forgotten long-lost gems, while “Will He Be Waiting For Me” has a slightly more contemporary feel. Dolly’s sister Stella had taken “Steady As The Rain” into the Top 40 in 1979, while “Will He Be Waiting For Me” was a remake of one of Dolly’s own album cuts from the early 70s. But the centerpiece of the album is the gorgeous title track, on which Dolly’s vocal performance and songwriting, as well as the musicians’ performances, shine. “The Grass Is Blue” is vintage Dolly that, with a slightly different arrangement, would have been equally at home on her albums from the early 70s or the 90s. The album closes with an acapella gospel number, “I Am Ready”, which was written by Dolly’s sister Rachel Dennison. Rhonda Vincent, Darrin Vincent and Louis Nunley provide the harmonies.

Perhaps as an acknowledgement that there was little here to appeal to radio, no singles were released, but the album managed to reach #24 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and is credited with aiding the resurgence of the bluegrass genre in the early 2000s. It also earned Dolly a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album, which, along with her induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1999, allowed her to close out the millennium on a high note. More importantly, The Grass Is Blue, along with its successors Little Sparrow and Halos & Horns, helped to erase lingering memories of some of Dolly’s less than stellar efforts from the late 70s and early 80s, and went a long way towards restoring her credibility amongst those who still regarded her as a pop sellout. These three albums were to Dolly’s career what the American Recordings albums were to Johnny Cash’s – they reaffirmed that veteran artists who were past their hitmaking days could remain relevant, and that their finest work often comes after the mainstream has stopped paying attention.

The Grass Is Blue
is still easy to find on CD and in digital form from Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Dolly Parton – ‘Hungry Again’

As the youth movement began to dominate in the 90s, Dolly’s mainstream country success declined. Slow Dancing With The Moon sold well, but after that both sales and airplay tailed off, and she seemed to lose steam creatively. Although it did not restore her commercial fortunes, 1998’s Hungry Again marks a definite return to form for Dolly. Produced by Dolly with her cousin Richie Owens, with his band providing most of the instrumental backings, the record was her most traditional since Ricky Skaggs’ work on White Limozeen almost a decade earlier. Many of the tracks are acoustic, and there is a strong foreshadowing of the bluegrass records which were to follow in the nest few years. Bluegrass star Rhonda Vincent and her brother Darrin (now of Dailey & Vincent) provide harmony vocals on most tracks. Dolly is in fine voice, and her songwriting muse served her well. She wrote every song on the record over a three month period after a period of fasting and prayer re-energized her musical batteries.

The first single ‘Honky Tonk Songs’ is one of my favorite tracks, a solid honky tonker which has an unlucky-in-love Dolly drinking away her troubles, and asking,

Why don’t more women sing honky tonk songs
About the heartache and the tough breaks and the men that’s done ‘em wrong?

Dolly’s sister Rachel Dennison and childhood friend Judy Ogle are among the choir of “honky tonk women” credited with providing crowd noise at the end.

The kissoff to a man not worth the ‘Salt In My Tears’ is a well-written song, but the beaty production is too geared to pop-country, with monotonous backing vocals and slightly intrusive electric guitar. The compromised sound still failed to make any impact at radio when this became the album’s second single.
I much preferred the bluegrass production on ‘Time And Tears’, another better-off-without-him number which has Dolly happily telling her ex she is much better off without him, and the lively banjo and confident vocal make the mood convincingly positive.

Also foreshadowing Dolly’s bluegrass period of the 2000s, the high lonesome ‘Blue Valley Songbird’ tells the dramatic story of a young Tennessee singer who flees an abusive father at her mother’s urging. Like Dolly herself, this girl “sings like a bird and she writes like a poet” but she doesn’t enjoy Dolly’s career success. This is a real highlight, with a lovely mandolin-led melody and poignant lyric, and sweet harmonies from Rhonda and Darrin. It inspired – or was inspired by – a TV movie of the same title starring Dolly, which was broadcast the following year.

The delicately acoustic title track looks back pensively, with a wistful desire to regain the passion of youth and restore the feeling to a longstanding marriage, declaring “let’s love like we’re hungry again”. The mid-tempo ‘I Wanna Go Back There’ is pleasant filler on the same theme. The underlying inspiration may have been the sense that Dolly’s career had stagnated artistically as well as commercially, which clearly underpins the whole album, although the lyrics are translated into romantic terms.

‘When Jesus Comes Calling For Me’ is an optimistic gospel song about looking forward to dying, wrapped up in the story of a loveable old man, with a semi-spoken verse and catchy chorus. There is more gospel with the idealistic closing track ‘Shine On’, which is largely acappella with harmonies growing into a full choir, with Richie Owens adding a little judicious bouzouki and autoharp. It is more hymn than country song, but is beautifully done.

The protagonist of the gently-sung ballad ‘I’ll Never Say Goodbye’ is still in love with the man who left and willing to take him back. The forlorn undercurrent – and the suggestion that she has “convinced herself” he’ll be back – suggest she know in her heart that won’t really be happening. But the equally good ‘I Still Lost You’ strikes a different note when she refuses to start things up again with her ex, because the damage has already been done.

Less successfully, the metaphor in ‘The Camel’s Heart’ is awkward; the latest “other woman” in the protagonist’s husband’s life is “just the straw that broke the camel’s heart”. It’s a pretty sounding song, but lyrically too forced.

‘Paradise Road’ looks back to Dolly’s poor childhood (so poor, she says “the wolf didn’t even hang around our door”) and the power of dreams to transform life. A guesting Al Perkins comes in on pedal steel on this track.

There is a very positive feel to this record which is the bridge between her final chart period and her roots records of the following decade. Even the artwork has Dolly looking as downhome and non-glamorous as she is capable of, reflecting the authenticity of the music within.

It is widely and cheaply available, and well worth adding to your Dolly Parton collection.

Grade: A

Album Review: Ken Mellons – ‘Rural Route’

Ken Mellons was a Sony artist in the mid 90s, whose biggest hit was ‘Jukebox Junkie’, and he has also spent time signed to Curb. I always liked his incisive and emotional voice and pure country-style, and thought his albums had a lot of great cuts which never got the exposure they deserved. Like the better known Joe Diffie he is now trying to make a career in bluegrass. His late father was apparently a big bluegrass fan and always wanted his son to make a bluegrass record. The musicians are some of the best bluegrass pickers out there, including Adam Steffey on mandolin, Rob Ickes on dobro and Darrin Vincent on bass, and they do an excellent job, with producer Joe Caverlee on fiddle. Ken still sounds as good as he did in the 90s, and he has picked some fine outside material to record here alongside his own songs.

I first heard the Luke Bryan co-written title track as recorded earlier this year by indie artist Jamie Richards, with whom Ken has written and from whom I suspect he may have picked up the song. I didn’t much like it then, but this version has a cheery charm and works really well with the bluegrass instrumentation and backing vocals from Darrin Vincent and Larry Cordle (who is, incidentally quoted in the liner notes). The up-tempo ‘Take It Like A Man’, written by producer and fiddle player Joe Caverlee with Wendell Mobley and Kenny Beard, about a sexy girlfriend, is not that interesting lyrically but has some delightful instrumental fills and a great vocal.

Much better is an understated cover of ‘Still They Call Me Love’. It’s not quite as intense as the version on Gene Watson’s most recent release, Taste Of The Truth, but still very good, with thoughtful phrasing and Vince Gill and Sonya Isaacs on harmony. The vibrant ‘Tennessee’, a classic bluegrass number from the pen of Jimmy Martin and Doyle Neukirk, pays tribute to Ken’s home state, with Darrin and Rhonda Vincent and Daryle Singletary on call-and-response backing vocals.

Also pure bluegrass is the didactic but lovely ballad ‘Don’t Neglect The Rose’, written by Emma Smith and previously recorded by Larry Sparks, with bluegrass stars Dale Ann Bradley and Steve Gulley on backing vocals. Bradley and Gulley also sing backup on ‘Blue Wind’, written by the SteelDrivers’ Chris Stapleton and Mike Henderson. This is a fine country ballad which sounds lonesome but is actually a committed love song about holding on to your loved one through the winter:

There’s a blue wind that comes out of nowhere
It cuts to the heart and the bone
But it can’t cut the vine between your heart and mine
It’s the strongest that I’ve ever known
I don’t care how hard the rain falls
I don’t care if the weather turns cold
Honey, I’ll keep you warm through the eye of the storm
No matter how blue the wind blows

Ken, an accomplished songwriter who wrote much of his major label material, co-wrote six of the twelve tracks this time. He gives a sparkling bluegrass makeover to ‘Memory Remover’, one of his old songs, written with Jimmy Melton and Dale Dodson in 1991 and recorded originally on his second album, Where Forever Begins, in 1995, as a straight honky tonker.

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Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Destination Life’

dest_life

Rhonda Vincent’s latest album underlines her status as one of the best of today’s female bluegrass singers. It is part of what has proved to be a very consistent body of work over the course of her career. The main innovation this time is that Rhonda’s road band, the Rage, takes center stage with her for the first time, providing every aspect of the music we hear. It almost goes without saying that the musicianship is impeccable. The band’s fiddle player Hunter Berry takes on co-production duties with Rhonda, a task borne for the last couple of albums by Rhonda’s brother Darrin, who is now concentrating on his own career with duo Dailey & Vincent.

One of my favorite tracks is ‘It’s Crazy What A Lonely Heart Will Do’, a lovely duet with the Rage’s guitar player Ben Helson.  The traditionally-styled country ballad, written by former Highway 101 lead singer Paulette Carlson with Nashvile writer Jimbeau Hinson, is perfectly suited to Rhonda’s bell-like voice as the lovelorn protagonists attempt to ease their loneliness in another’s arms. Helson’s pleasant and listenable voice is not quite in the same league as Rhonda’s, but he complements her well. I also really like Pete Goble’s ‘I Can Make Him Whisper I Love You’, another take on love lost as she wistfully fantasizes about a long-gone ex still thinking of her as she still does of him, but is forced to admit it is only in her imagination.

My outright favorite, though, is a delightful and committed bluegrass cover of the much-recorded country classic ‘Stop the World (And Let Me Off)’, which I like more every time I hear it. Rhonda’s voice also sounds particularly beautiful on 70s country-rockers Poco’s ‘Crazy Love’, perhaps a more unexpected choice of song, but one which she manages to make fit in well with her sound.

The title track, penned by New Zealand’s Donna Dean, offers a word-picture of a woman in the process of driving away from a neglectful and unloving husband one moonlit night. “He cannot criticize her if she ain’t around”, she notes bitterly, reflecting that they would have stayed together “if only he’d respected, loved and cared for her”. Although the overt message of the song is that there’s no going back and her future is a new life, in fact the lyric focuses more on what has passed than what may lie in store for the protagonist.

Rhonda co-wrote three of the songs, the best of which is the gospel ‘I Heard My Savior Calling Me’, a genuinely compelling first-person account of conversion at a country church revival. This track also features some of Rhonda’s finest singing, and traditional gospel bluegrass harmonies from the band. ‘What A Woman Wants To Hear’ is a pleasant but slightly old-fashioned sounding love song paying tribute to the kind of man who says and does all the right things. ‘Last Time Loving You’, the opening track, sounds beautiful musically, but is rather forgettable lyrically.

The fast-paced ‘Heartwrenching Lovesick Memories’, in contrast, has an interesting lyric but is taken at too brisk a pace for the lyric to make an emotional impact on the listener; I simply can’t detect any heartwrenching (or even mild regret) in the vocal delivery. It gives the impression of having been picked in order to allow the band the opportunity to stretch out and show off their impressive licks, and this may be the downside of not using an external producer. A better balance is achieved with the love-on-the-road ‘Anywhere Is Home As Long As You’re With Me’, which has some dazzling instrumental passages, but the best showcase of the band’s musicianship comes with a version of Chubby Wise’s brilliantly entertaining composition ‘Eighth Of January’.

The album ends with a slow, serious and really rather beautiful acappella performance of the hymn ‘When I Travel My Last Mile (He Will Hold My Hand)’, starting with Rhonda solo, gradually joined by the boys from the band.

Grade: A-