My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Dawn Sears

Album Review: Jeannie Seely – ‘Written In Song’

61wcxdrzxl-_ss500Grand Ole Opry star Jeannie Seely, best known for her 1966 hit “Don’t Touch Me”, enjoyed only moderate success as a recording artist, but many do not realize that she is also an accomplished songwriter. Written In Song, her latest collection, was released last month. It consists of 14 tracks, all of which were written or co-written by Seely. Twelve of the songs were previously recorded by other artists, while two were newly written for this project. None of them, however, had ever been recorded by Jeannie herself, until now.

In the 1960s, Monument Records had marketed Seely as “Miss Country Soul”, which was likely in part an acknowledgement that her initial success had occurred outside the realm of country music. “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is”, the oldest song on this album had been a 1964 R&B hit for Irma Thomas. The other 13 selections are strictly country. At age 76, Seely’s voice is a little rough around the ages at times, but not enough to detract from my enjoyment of the album.

I have to admit that I wasn’t previously familiar with any of the songs on this album. “Leavin’ and Sayin’ Goodbye” was a Top 10 hit for Faron Young in 1971 and had also been recorded by The Time Jumpers. Kenny and Tessa Sears, widower and daughter of the late Dawn Sears, join Jeannie on this track, which is one of the album’s standouts. Aside from that, none of the others seem to have been major hits that are well remembered today. I suspect that most of them were album cuts that were never released as singles. Nevertheless, they are all worthy of another listen. My favorite tracks are “Senses”, a co-write with Glen Campbell that features local harmonies by Marty Stuart and Connie Smith, “Sometimes I Do”, which had been recorded by Ernest Tubb, and “Enough to Lie”, which had been recorded by Ray Price. On a number that had been recorded by her old duet partner Jack Greene, Seely promises “You don’t need me, but you will.”

The album’s two new numbers allow Jeannie’s sense of humor to shine through. “Who Needs You” casts her in the role of a jilted lover, who is comforting herself with alcohol and shopping — standard operating procedure for a country song. Then comes the song’s final verse which discloses that she’s been enjoying a little marijuana as well. It’s hardly a shocking revelation in this day in age — and as Seely points out in her spoken disclaimer before starting the final verse, it’s legal now in many states — but it sure wasn’t what I was expecting to hear on this album. The closing number is “We’re Still Hanging In There, Ain’t We Jessi”, which name drops the names of many famous women of country music — from Audrey Williams and Jan Howard to Tammy Wynette and Jessi Colter — who survived difficult relationships with some of country music’s famous men. Her own failed marriage to Hank Cochran is also referenced, all in an upbeat, tongue-in-cheek manner. Jan Howard and Jessi Colter both lend their voices to the track.

Written In Song is a surprisingly fresh-sounding album. It’s mostly traditional country, with plenty of fiddle and some fine steel guitar work, but it manages to avoid sounding retro despite the fact that many of the songs are fifty or more years old. I’m sure that many listeners, like me, will be hearing these songs for the first time. If it is something you don’t want to spend money on, it is available on streaming services such as Amazon Unlimited and is worth checking out.

Grade: B+

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.

Album Review: The Time Jumpers – ‘Kid Sister’

kid-sisterThe Time Jumpers’ third album is in many ways a tribute to the late Dawn Sears, who died of cancer in December 2014.

Dawn makes her last appearance on record on ‘My San Antonio Rose’, a Freddy Powers song which is quintessential western swing, and performed as a duet with Dawn’s husband Kenny Sears – an unexpected bonus. (Powers also died this year.) Dawn also sang harmony on ‘I Miss You’, a Vince Gill/Ashley Monroe song which was recorded for Gill’s solo Guitar Slinger album but didn’t make the final cut. It is an affecting ballad about enduring love for one who has gone, the verses of which Gill has rewritten to fit Kenny’s grieving for Dawn. ‘This Heartache’ is a very moving song written and sung by Kenny, inspired by his feelings about Dawn’s loss. The title track, written by Gill, was also inspired by Dawn, and the band members’ collective feelings about her.

Vince has written a charming introduction for the band, ‘We’re The Time Jumpers’. ‘Honky Tonkin’ is not the Hank Williams classic, but an entertaining love song written by Gill with Troy Seals, about adopting a simple domestic life and abandoning the protagonist’s old ‘favorite thing to do’. Some fabulous fiddle is particularly notable.

The band revive the effervescent ‘I Hear You Talkin’’, written by Cindy Walker with country legend Faron Young in the 50s. Joe Spivey sings lead on the Time Jumpers’ delightful version.

Moving away from western swing, ‘Table For Two’ is a gorgeous sad country ballad originally written by Gill with Max D. Barnes for Loretta Lynn. The Time Jumpers’ performance has weeping steel and a lovely vocal from Gill, and would have fitted in perfectly on one of his classic solo albums. Beautiful. The delicate ballad ‘The True Love Meant For Me’, which has an exquisite Gill vocal, is also outstanding.

“Ranger Doug” Green sings his own ‘Empty Rooms’, a stately mid-tempo tune about living with a broken heart. The quirky ‘Bloodshot Eyes’ is a cover of an old Hank Penny tune, which is an amusing takedown of a drunken partner:

Your eyes look like two cherries
In a glass of buttermilk

Don’t roll those bloodshot eyes at me
I can tell you’ve been out on the spree
It’s plain that you’re lying
When you say you’ve been crying
Don’t roll those bloodshot eyes at me

Looks like our little romance has kinda quietened down
You oughta to join a circus
You’d make a real good clown

‘Blue Highway Blue’ is a smooth jazzy ballad sung by band member Billy Thomas; a bit less to my personal taste than other racks, but very well done. The Gill-fronted blues ‘Sweet Rowena’ was also not quite my cup of tea.

Wonderful steel guitar player Paul Franklin is nominated for the umpteenth time this year as CMA Musician of the Year – isn’t it time he won? As a key member of the Time Jumpers, he contributes throughout the album, but gets a special chance to shine on his self-composed instrumental ‘All Aboard’.

I was very much looking forward to the release of this album, and I am pleased to report that I am not disappointed. Brilliantly played throughout, this is an excellent and thoroughly enjoyable album.

Grade: A

Edited to add: the Time Jumpers are currently running a contest on facebook to win a copy: https://www.facebook.com/TheTimeJumpers/?hc_ref=NEWSFEED&fref=nf

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘1996’

MI0000090327-1Merle Haggard’s tenure with Curb came to an end with the release of 1996. While on the surface, this album had the same austere packaging as 1994, the reality is that the packaging was much more elaborate including liner note and full song lyrics. Unfortunately Curb did less than nothing to promote the album.

As for the music inside, 1996 contained many fine songs although proved to be the first Merle Haggard album not to chart. Haggard’s sound becomes a little more jazz-oriented than the earlier Curb albums and there are some guests to liven up the proceedings.

The album opens with “Sin City Blues” written by Merle, Joe Manuel and Merle’s last wife Theresa. The track has a boisterous honky-tonk blues arrangement somewhat reminiscent of “Living With The Shades Pulled Down’).

Next up is the Iris Dement composition “No Time To Cry” a stoic look at some of the problems associated with growing older. Iris plays piano on this track.

My father died a year ago today.

The rooster started crowing when they carried Dad away.

There beside my mother, in the living room, I stood,

With my brothers and my sisters, knowing Dad was gone for good.
Well, I stayed at home just long enough,

To lay him in the ground and then I,

Caught a plane to do a show up north in Detroit town.

Because I’m older now and I’ve got no time to cry.

Next up is “Beer Can Hill”, a Haggard & Abe Manuel collaboration about growing up and honky-tonkin’ in Bakersfield. Merle is joined by Dwight Yoakam, Buck Owens and Bob Teague on this track, with Dawn Sears adding harmony vocals.

Well, I learned how to walk and I learned how to run in Bakersfield

Should’ve done time over things I’d done in Bakersfield

I tasted my first taste of romance in Bakersfield

I learned how to fight and I learned how to dance in Bakersfield
Dancin’ on Beer Can Hill

Overlookin’ Bakersfield

Remembering my first thrill
Dancin’ on Beer Can Hill

Merle’s “Truck Drivers’ Blues” is a pretty standard county blues about the men who drive trucks for a living whereas Merle’s “Too Many Highways” deals with the choices a trucker and his family make – his choice of career and his wife’s choice to stick with him

Too many highways
Too many byways
Too many canyons
And too many turns
Too many bright lights
Too many long nights
And she’s one bridge I don’t want to burn.

“Five Days a Week” is Merle retelling the story he told in an earlier song “Working Man Blues”. It is a good song, but hardly essential.

“Kids Get Lonesome Too” sounds like it’s a song about kids but Haggard and co-writer Lou Bradley have something additional in mind, with the song’s narrator actually directing the song at his girlfriend or wife.

Merle and ex-wife Bonnie Owens collaborated on “If Anyone Ought to Know”, an older song from 1976 revived on this album. I cannot recall if Merle recorded this earlier, but I do regard this as good album filler.

“Untanglin’ My Mind” is a Merle Haggard song that Clint Black partially rewrote before recording it and taking it to #4. Clint’s lyric changes really neither added nor subtracted from the song’s merits. It’s a very good song. Haggard assisted Johnny Paycheck on his classic album Mr. Hag Told My Story. Here, Mr. Paycheck returns the favor:

And I’m sure no one will wonder where I’ve gone to,
But if anyone should ask from time to time
Tell ’em that you finally drove me crazy,
And I’m somewhere untanglin’ my mind.

And for what it’s worth I prefer Haggard’s recording to that of Clint Black .

The album ends with the very philosophical “Winds of Change”, Haggard’s most environmentally conscious song. Merle is assisted by John (“Seminole Wind”) Anderson on this song.

With my ears I have heard the eagle call my name
He flew in from the night to talk to me
We talked about his freedom and he spoke with great concern
He said, “Mother earth is aging rapidly”

He said, “The winds of change are blowing
And the land is disappearing more each day
Farewell my son, I must be going”
He turned and then forever flew away

With my eyes I have seen pretty mountain streams
Change from crystal clear to factory brown
The old bear shook his herd and through his eyes
He said, “I guess there’s no more salmon to be found”

He said, “The winds of change are blowing”
Telling me that I can’t stay
Farewell my friend, I must be going
He turned and then forever walked away

I’ve lived in the land where the wolf mistrusted me
He taught me that the stronger shall survive
Even in our world today, the weaker are the prey
And if we don’t fight for our planet she will die

And the winds of change keep blowing
Yet we turn the other way
If we don’t stop the wrong we’re doing
Then mother earth will surely pass away

This wouldn’t qualify as one of Merle’s fifteen or twenty best albums, but it is a very good album, with perceptive lyrics, excellent guest artists and solid instrumentation. I can’t decide whether or not this is a A- or a B+, but in memory of Merle’s recent passing I’ll go with the A-.

Classic Rewind: Dawn Sears – ‘Leaving And Saying Goodbye’

Classic Rewind: Dawn Sears and the Time Jumpers – ‘Someone Had To Teach You’

Classic Rewind: Dawn Sears – ‘Sweet Memories’

It’s been reported that Dawn Sears, who missed out on the solo stardom she richly deserved in the 1990s, but became an integral part of the Time Jumpers, has lost her fight with lung cancer. She died on Wednesday 11 December aged 53.

Album Review: Tracy Byrd – ‘Tracy Byrd’

Tracy byrd debut

Most of Tracy’s self-titled debut album, released in 1993, was produced by Keith Stegall in solidly neotraditional vein. However when the pleasant but somewhat anonymous initial single, ‘That’s The Thing About A Memory’ failed to make much traction, and he went back into the studio with label head Tony Brown to add three further tracks, which included the next two singles.

A cover of Johnny Paycheck’s hit ’Someone To Give My Love To’ (like the previous effort) showed off his deep voice and underlined his traditionalist credentials, but didn’t quite crack the top 40, and like its predecessor it didn’t really stand out. The big break came with single number three, ‘Holdin’ Heaven’ becoming the artist’s first charte topper. A very commercial rhythmic number with line dance potential it is not particularly memorable now

A fourths ingle, ‘Why Don’t That Telephone Ring’ then flopped just inside the top 40. That’s a shame because it’s an excellent mature ballad about man clinging on to a forlorn hope that his relationship is not over, which is the best of the three singles to my ears.

‘An Out Of Control Raging Fire’ (the third track produced by Tony Brown) is a duet with Dawn Sears, who was another rising star at the time. Both vocalists sing beautifully on the tune (which was later recorded by Patty Loveless with Travis Tritt).

My favorite trick, however, is the fabulous shuffle ‘Hat Trick’, written by Jim Weatherly and Glenn Sutton. The protagonist responds with wry resignation as he gets thrown out by his ex:

Now I ain’t no magician
Can’t change the way things are
I can’t make you love me if its not in the cards
I can’t wave a magic wand and make you want me near
But I can do a hat trick
I’ll put it on and disappear

I quite liked his cover of the western swing ‘Talk To Me Texas’, although it lacks the character of Keith Whitley’s version. Much the same goes for ‘Back In The Swing Of Things’, which was written by Vern Gosdin, Dean Dillon and Buddy cannon, and which Gosdin later cut himself.

At this stage of his career Tracy had not quite found his own voice as an artist. In particular the regret-filled ‘Why’ and ‘Edge Of A Memory’ are both excellent songs which sound as though Tracy is trying a little too hard to sound like George Strait (one of his big influences).

While this is not an essential purchase, it was a promising debut, and you can find used copies very cheaply. Or just download ‘Hat Trick’.

Grade: B

Concert Review – ‘An Evening with Vince Gill’ – August 10, 2013

1373942682001-VG-PF-0487-GPub-300rgb-1307152246_4_3I was witness to a major bucket list moment for the second time in four years Aug 10 – an in the round performance by Vince Gill at one of my favorite venues, The 2,250 seat South Shore Music Circus in Cohasset, MA. With his full band in toe (including Paul Franklin and Dawn Sears, who sang, but held back on many songs, likely due to her ongoing cancer battle), he ran through a two and a half hour set that mixed his legendary recordings with the iconic numbers he and Franklin made their own on Bakersfield.

I knew the night would be special when I bought the tickets last June, before I’d heard the album, or knew Franklin would join him. Gill is easily one of my favorite people in country music, a constant professional who can write, sing, play, and host with an ease that hasn’t been duplicated by any superstar that’s risen in his wake. He’s also the rare exception who’s only gotten better with age. Gill is as good (if not better) now at 57 then he was in his commercial prime more than twenty years ago.

He opened with the weary “One More Last Chance” before launching into “Take Your Memory With You.” Gill then preceded “High Lonesome Sound” with the joke that if you want to win a Grammy Alison Krauss should play on your song, a bit of irony seeing as he’s as much a Grammy magnet as Krauss. “Pocket Full of Gold” came in tribute to the cheaters as Gill wanted to know who he should look at while he sings.

His set, billed as an “Evening With Vince Gill,” was broken into two segments, bookending a 25-minute intermission to sell merchandise and beer. He spent a lot of time in the first act on his admiration for songwriter Max D. Barnes, complementing his talent on “Chiseled In Stone” and “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes.” A detour into sad songs led to a childhood memory of his dad singing “Old Shep” to him, before he told of the writing session behind “Look At Us,” a would be weeper that Barnes had Gill flip around to extenuate the positive. One of my favorite of his recordings, he sang it with beautiful precision while Franklin made the steel solo come alive. Another favorite was “Old Lucky Diamond Motel,” a Guitar Slinger album cut that I was glad he brought out.

What surprised me the most about the whole show was how little emphasis was placed on Bakersfield. They closed the first half with the requisite five songs an artist usually plays from their newest release, but they almost felt like an afterthought, when they should’ve been the main attraction. They opened this portion with Owens’ “Foolin’ Around” before gracing us with their timely cover of Haggard’s “The Fighting Side of Me,” which was a little loud, but excellent. His odes to Emmylou Harris – “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “Together Again” were stellar, but I got the most joy from “I Can’t Be Myself,” which is as perfect a lyric as I’ve ever heard. “Together Again” had the right amount of steel, but “I Can’t Be Myself” was the winner of the Bakersfield songs.

Gill opened the second half with “What The Cowgirls Do,” another of my least favorites, but won redemption with “Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away.” He was more musically focused and thus didn’t interact as much this time around, but with his catalog front and center, that didn’t matter. I was surprised when he went way back into that catalog and pulled out “Never Alone” and the breakneck “Oklahoma Borderline,” which he flubbed a little lyrically (it was funny to watch him reading the lyrics from a monitor). Both were good, but I wasn’t as familiar with the latter as I would’ve liked to have been.

The highlights were a mix of both expected and somewhat surprising. Gill brought out his usual greatness on “Go Rest High On That Mountain,” but it was an out of nowhere “What You Give Away” that threw me. I had forgotten about that single, a top 30 hit from 2006, and was pleased when an audience member had requested it. He was also great on “Pretty Little Adriana,” “Trying to Get Over You,” and show closer “Whenever You Come Around.”

As intricately specialized as Gill is, the show wasn’t without a couple of minor cracks. Frankly, I would’ve killed for a little more experimentation. Gill and the band was almost too tight a unit, too perfect. The show would’ve been even stronger had they reworked some of Gill’s classics in the Bakersfield Sound, like he did with “Go Rest High On That Mountain” in the wake of Kitty Wells’ passing last year. Franklin, meanwhile, was regulated as the onstage steel player, thus he didn’t talk at all – the album was as much his project as Gill’s, so it wouldn’t have hurt to hear him talk about the music from his perspective. I didn’t expect his presence to feel like just another member of the band, and it was jarring seeing as Bakersfield was a collaborative album.

But that doesn’t excuse the fact that Gill put on an incredible show from start to finish that’s a must see for any country music fan. In thinking about his place in music, I would put Gill up there with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney as an icon who may not be as transcendent as those rock pioneers, be he’s arguably just as important to the genre he’s helped shape for the better part of the last thirty-five years.

Album Review: Vince Gill & Paul Franklin – ‘Bakersfield’

BakersfieldIn recent years, covers and tributes albums have been a dime a dozen; it seems that nearly every artist past his or her commercial peak has released a collection of songs that he/she grew up listening to. Bakersfield, the recently released effort from Vince Gill and steel guitar virtuoso Paul Franklin, takes a different approach; instead of paying tribute to a particular artist or compiling their favorite songs, they opted to pay homage to a specific sub-genre of country music: the Bakersfield Sound, which emerged in California in the late 1950s, in response to the increasingly crossover-oriented countrypolitan music being made in Nashville at the time.

The two most successful and well-known Bakersfield artists were Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, and it is from their catalogs that the material on Bakersfield is culled. Although some of Buck’s and Merle’s big hits are represented here, Gill and Franklin, who produced the project themselves, also delved deeper into the two legends’ discographies and included some lesser known gems.

There isn’t a Vince Gill album that I don’t own, so from the time that this project was announced it was a must-have for me. Paul Franklin’s participation was a bonus, as it ensured that the album would include a generous amount of pedal steel guitar, arguably the most important instrument in country music, and one that is criminally underrepresented on most contemporary country recordings.

Although I did initially have some reservations that Vince could do justice to some of the Haggard tunes, he rises to the occasion most of the time. Both “Branded Man” and “The Bottle Let Me Down” are performed beautifully with the wonderful Dawn Sears taking over harmony duties from Bonnie Owens. However, “The Fightin’ Side Of Me”, while good, doesn’t pack the same punch as Merle’s original 1969 version. I’m not as intimately familiar with the Buck Owens material, so I’m inclined to slightly favor the ones that are newer to me, namely “But I Do” and “Nobody’s Fool But Yours”.

I can find no fault with the material or how it is performed; these recordings are impeccably performed and are a reminder of what country music once was and what it ought to be. The album falls short only in what it does not provide — namely, more music. It contains a mere ten tracks and clocks in at just under 37 minutes. I wish that it contained a few more tracks, and that Gill and Franklin had seen fit to include a few songs from other Bakersfield artists. It’s inevitable that Owens and Haggard will dominate a project like this one, but it would have been nice to have heard a Wynn Stewart, Tommy Collins or Maddox Brothers and Rose song or two. Let’s hope that a second volume is in the works to rectify these omissions.

It goes without saying that Bakersfield will receive no support from country radio, but it is worthy of a Grammy nomination and I hope that it sells respectably and gets the critical acclaim that it so richly deserves.

Grade: A+

Occasional Hope’s Top Albums of 2012

It’s not been a bad year for country music – as long as you ignore the charts and mainstream country radio. My #1 album of the year was released on a major label but with no singles success, and most of my other selections came from independent labels, although some of the names will be familiar. Just missing the cut were, among others, albums from Joey + Rory (some delicious moments but more hit and miss than their previous efforts), Terri Clark’s classic covers, the always reliable Alan Jackson, Kathy Mattea, and current star Dierks Bentley.

For full reviews, and purchase details, click on the links in the album title and artist name respectively.

10. Alive At Brushy Mountain PenitentiaryMark Collie

The live prison album was recorded in 2001, but only escaped the vaults of MCA this year. It was worth the wait, with an energetic set of suitably themed mainly original songs.

Best tracks: ‘I Could’ve Gone Right’, ‘Rose Covered Garden’, ‘Maybe Mexico’, ‘On The Day I Die‘.

marty raybon9. Southern Roots And Branches: Yesterday and TodayMarty Raybon

Former Shenandoah lead singer Marty Raybon released a pair of albums this year. This, the secular one of the pair, was the better, with Marty’s smoky voice sounding as good as ever on a bluegrass influenced set including the odd reworking of a few Shenandoah hits.

Best tracks: ‘Long Hard Road’, ‘Big Pain’, ‘Ghost In This House’, ‘Get Up In Jesus’ Name’.

8. Honky Tonk Till I DieEric Strickland and the B Sides

Solidly enjoyable, unpretentious honky-tonk with some great original songs written by the North Carolinian lead singer. It may be obscure, but it’s really good.

Best tracks: ‘Haggard And Hell’, ‘Freedom’, ‘Standing In The Headlights’, ‘Womankind‘.

wesley dennis7. Country EnoughWesley Dennis

An excellent return from one of the best singers who never made it. The former Mercury Records artist has a classic country voice and has written some fine songs for this independent releases.

Best tracks: ‘A Month Of Sundays’, ‘Lady’s Choice’, ‘That Dog Won’t Hunt’, ‘Sun, Surf And The Sand (And My Ties)‘.

6. The Time JumpersThe Time Jumpers

The part-time supergroup featuring Vince Gill and Dawn Sears came up with a delightful confection of country, jazz and western swing for their first studio alum together. The musicianship sparkles and this is a real celebration of the joy of making music.

Best tracks: ‘So Far Apart’, ‘Three Sides To Every Story’, ‘The Woman Of My Dreams’, ‘Someone Had To Teach You’.

gene watson5. Best Of The BestGene Watson

I wasn’t sure whether to include this album in my list but in the end the quality shone through and I had to keep it in. A veteran star who still has the vocal goods to shame most of his younger, more commercially successful rivals, Gene Watson has chosen to revisit some of his best-loved recordings for this release. I would really have preferred new material from him, but this is just a lovely listening experience.

Best tracks: ‘Farewell Party’, ‘What She Don’t Know Won’t Hurt Her’, ‘Nothing Sure Looked Good On You’, ‘Between This Time And The Next Time’.

4. Pourin’ Whiskey On PainTim Culpepper

The unknown newcomer gave me my most pleasant surprise this year with his traditional sound and some excellent songs.

Best tracks: ‘One More For The Road’, ‘When Misery Finds Company’, ‘Pourin’ Whiskey On Pain’, ‘Toss And Turn’.

jason eady3. AM Country HeavenJason Eady

I called this a “low-key delight” when I reviewed it earlier this year, and my judgment stands. This mature thoughtful record has no weak spots at all. Patty Loveless duetting on one track is an unexpected bonus.

Best tracks (though everything is worth hearing): ‘AM Country Heaven’, ‘Man On A Mountain’ (with Patty Loveless), ‘Water Into Wine’, ‘Old Guitar And Me’.

2. Too Much Ain’t EnoughClinton Gregory

Sweet voiced singer/fiddler Clinton Gregory is back after years of silence with a lovely set of mainly sad songs.

Best tracks: ‘Too Much Ain’t Enough’, ‘Too Country For Nashville’, ‘Has Love Taken Its Toll?’, ‘Chase Away The Lonely’.

jamey johnson21. Living For A Song: A Tribute To Hank CochranJamey Johnson

It was obvious as soon as I listened to this album that it was going to be this year’s highlight. Songs by one of the greatest country songwriters ever, performed by Jamey Johnson and some of his friends including legends like Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Ray Price and Emmylou Harris, and more recent stars like Lee Ann Womack, Ronnie Dunn and George Strait. From the exquisite opening notes of ‘Make The World Go Away’, with Alison Krauss’s angelically sweet counterpoint to Jamey’s gruff tenderness, every single song here is a gem, and almost every track is excellent. This really is an outstanding album.

Best tracks: hard to pin down, but if I must then ‘Would These Arms Be In Your Way’ solo; ‘Make The World Go Away’ with Alison Krauss; ‘You Wouldn’t Know Love’ with Ray Price; and ‘Don’t Touch Me’ with Emmylou Harris.

Album Review: The Time Jumpers – ‘The Time Jumpers’

Nashville’s very own 11-person supergroup, the Time Jumpers may have started as a side project allowing its members a regular live outlet, but they have now come into their own on record. Their mixture of country, jazz and western swing has been showcased before on two live albums, and the members’ brilliant musicianship and sheer love of music shines through at every turn on this, their first studio album, out now on Rounder Records.

Instrumental tracks often tend to be tacked on at the end of an album, seeming almost like an apologetic afterthought. It is rare for one to open proceedings, and the Time Jumpers’ decision to place ‘Texoma Bound’, composed by Larry Franklin, one of the group’s three fiddle players, allows them to show off their chops in dazzling style. Members include regular CMA instrumentalist of the year nominee Paul Franklin, perhaps Nashville’s most in-demand steel guitarist, as well as superstar Vince Gill.

Fiddler Kenny Sears sings lead on his own song ‘Nothing But The Blues’. It’s a pleasant western swing song with a relaxed feel and a great instrumental section, but Kenny is an average vocalist. The same goes for Ranger Doug, better known as lead singer of the retro-western group Riders in the Sky. His western ballad ‘Ridin’ On the Rio’ suffers from his limited vocals, but is quite a nice song, and an interesting reminder of a marginalized sub-genre.

Kenny’s wife Dawn on the other hand, has a fabulous voice and knows how to use it with subtlety. Her bid for a solo career never really got off the ground, but she is an aoutstanding vocalist, and shows that here. My favourite of her cuts here is on her own song ‘So Far Apart’, a regretful look at a once happy marriage which has grown cold. Dawn’s vocal interprets the emotion beautifully, supported by Paul Franklin’s equally perfect steel guitar , and this sounds like a lost classic from the 1960s. I also love her version of the Harlan Howard-penned Someone Had To Teach You, which George Strait recorded 20-odd years ago on Livin’ It Up. Dawn then comes across as sultry jazz chanteuse on ‘Faint Of Heart’, written by Vince Gill and Al Anderson.

Dawn and Kenny duet on the western swing ‘Texas On A Saturday Night’, written by minor 70s act Mundo Earwood. It is entertaining, but more about the overall groove and musicianship than the vocals. This is definitely music to dance to. Dawn sings with Ranger Doug on ‘Yodel Blues’, the title of which is explanatory.

Vince Gill, long a member of the group when other commitments permitted him, makes his first appearance with them in record now that he is free of his major label deal. ‘New Star Over Texas’, which he wrote with Leslie Satcher is a rather charming western swing ballad with prominent steel, while ‘On The Outskirts Of Town’ (which he wrote with Reed Nielsen) is lyrically slight but the swingy feel and sparkling playing carry it off.

‘Three Sides To Every Story’ is a classic styled country ballad about the end of a relationship following cheating and lies. This excellent song is quintessential Vince Gill and my favourite track. ‘The Woman Of My Dreams’ is another really fine traditional country song loaded with Paul Franklin’s steel, which has Vince lamenting the fact that the love of his love has moved on to somebody new. He really shines vocally on these songs, and they show his songwriting is on a roll as well. Hopefully another solo album is not too far away.

While this is clearly a democratic group with every member allowed to shine, Dawn Sears and Vince Gill are the clear vocal stars of the group, and the songs on which they take the lead are the highlights.

Grade: A

Album Review: Vince Gill – ‘Next Big Thing’

Vince wrote or co-wrote all 17 of the songs on 2003’s Next Big Thing, and produced the album himself. It represents a marked return to form after the gloopy lovefest that was Let’s Make Sure We Kiss Goodbye, inspired by Vince’s second marriage to contemporary Christian singer Amy Grant.

He might have had a top 10 hit from his last album, but this album sees him apparently (and presciently) accepting that his time in the spotlight might be over. The beaty and surprisingly upbeat title track (written with Al Anderson and John Hobbs and featuring horns) and the more resigned ‘Young Man’s Town’ (with Emmylou Harris on harmony) both take a look at the fleeting nature of the music business and its fascination with youth and good looks. Both were released as singles, with the brassy party sound of ‘Next Big Thing’ providing Vince with his last top 20 hit and the more reflective ‘Young Man’s Town’ not making the top 40; perhaps the accuracy of the lyric hit a bit too close to home for country radio.

‘This Old Guitar And Me’ is an old musician’s love song to his first instrument and fond memories of his early career. The Leslie Satcher co-write ‘Old Time Fiddle’ is an enjoyable love letter to Cajun music, with appropriate fiddle solo and Leslie herself on harmony. Leslie also co-wrote the tenderly delivered ballad ‘Two Hearts’, where Lee Ann Womack provides the harmony vocal.

‘Someday’, the album’s second single (peaking at #31) is a delicately pretty AC-influenced ballad written with former pop star Richard Marx, wistfully dreaming of the possibility of future love. ‘These Broken Hearts’, written by Vince with his keyboard player Pete Wasner, is a sad ballad about breaking up with someone, with blue-eyed soul man Michael McDonald on harmony. Both songs are set against a string arrangement courtesy of John Hobbs and the Nashville String machine, and are pleasant listening without being truly memorable.

There are a few other less inspired moments, like the throwaway ‘The Sun’s Gonna Shine On You’. The mid-tempo ‘Don’t Let Her Get Away’, written with Anderson, is OK filler which sounds like some of Vince’s RCA recordings with banked but thin harmonies.

A number of the songs brood about failed relationships past. In the contemporary ballad ‘She Never Makes Me Cry’, Vince prefers an unexciting life with his new wife to the ups and downs of a passionate past love. ‘We Had It All’ is a mid-tempo plea to rekindle an old flame with a subtle Tex-Mex feel to the instrumentation. The bouncy and solidly traditional country ‘Without You’ delivers a more cheerful reaction to being single again, with Dawn Sears on harmony.

Dawn also sings a piercing harmony on the best song on the album. ‘Real Mean Bottle’ is a standout tribute to Merle Haggard, with a high lonesome feel and Bakersfield guitars:

It must have been a real mean bottle that made you write the songs that way
A real mean bottle
Poured straight from the Devil
It’s a miracle you’re standing here today

‘From Where I Stand’, written with Anderson and Hobbs, is a classic declaration of fidelity in the face of temptation, set to a beautiful tune with a bluesy harmony from Bekka Bramlett. This is another highlight, which could have been a big hit if released a few years earlier in Vince’s peak commercial period.

‘Whippoorwill River’, written with Dean Dillon, gently recalls childhood memories of life with his father. Vince’s daughter Jenny keeps things in the family by singing the harmony. A fictional look at family comes from the fiddle-led ‘You Ain’t Foolin’ Nobody’, written with Reed Nielsen, is addressed to the protagonist’s motherless daughter who is running wild in a small town.

The album closes with the mellow and reflective farewell to a dying friend, ‘In These Last Few Days’, with wife Amy Grant on harmony. It was the fourth and last single to be released, but did not perform very well.

Sales were disappointing, with the record his first not to reach at least gold status since he signed to MCA, but that is no reflection on the quality of the music. The album could perhaps have done with a bit of weeding, as there are a few forgettable songs, but overall this was a strong release with a lot of worthwhile material. It’s easy to find, and well worth adding to your collection if you have previously overlooked it.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Dawn Sears covers Vern Gosdin’s ‘If You’re Gonna Do Me Wrong (Do It Right)’

Enjoy this fantastic cover of a great song by an artist who surprisingly failed to break through when she was on Decca in the 90s. Dawn is also Vince Gill’s former backing singer, and perfomrs with him in the Time Jumpers.

Album Review: Vince Gill – ‘I Still Believe In You’

Released in 1992, this album transformed Vince from star to superstar, with four of the five singles hitting #1 on Billboard, and excellent sales figures and a string of awards for the album itself. It showcases Vince Gill at his very best, with lovely soaring vocals, supported by tasteful and subtle production overseen by Tony Brown. Vince wrote or co-wrote every song, and the quality is exceptionally high. Backing singers include Alison Krauss and Dawn Sears.

The title track was Vince’s very first #1 hit. It won Vince and co-writer John Barlow Jarvis Song of the Year awards from both the ACM and CMA. Reportedly written for Vince’s then-wife Janis about their sometimes troubled relationship, the message is one of the power of true love to surmount such difficulties, and even though the couple were eventually to divorce, the song’s message stands up in its own right.

The mid-tempo follow-up, ‘Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away’ is an appeal to a wife in a marriage which is beginning to fray at the seams, which Vince wrote with his keyboard player Pete Wasner. It is pleasant enough and quietly catchy, but pales in comparison to most of the other material. The fact that it still made it to #1 is an indication that Vince’s career was in overdrive.

Surprisingly, although it was still a big hit, the next single did not do quite as well, although I think it is abetter song. The gently mournful ballad ‘No Future In The Past’, co-written with Carl Jackson, forms a sequel of sorts to ‘When I Call Your Name’, where the protagonist accepts there is no point dwelling on his memories of the good times. Peaking at a still-respectable #3 it was the album’s poorest chart performer, possibly due to competition for airplay from ‘The Heart Won’t Lie’, his duet with Reba.

It was a change of pace and back to the top of the charts with the next single, the lively and amusing ‘One More Last Chance’, written with Gary Nicholson. Vince begs his woman for mercy after one too many nights out with the boys. Delbert McClinton guests on harmonica, and the video (but not the song) featured a cameo from George Jones, whose own life probably inspired the lines:

Well, she might’ve took my car keys
But she forgot about my old John Deere

There was enough juice left in the album for a fifth single, and yet another #1 with the lyrically bleak but beautiful sounding ‘Trying To Get Over You’ (written with Gary Nicholson), where he confesses that “it’ll take dying” to help him get over the woman who has broken his heart.

My favorite track is another gorgeous ballad, the absolutely beautiful ‘Love Never Broke Anyone’s Heart’, written with Jim Weatherly. This finds Vince offering wise words of consolation to a woman who has suffered a broken heart:

It’s not love that causes the pain
Whenever a heart has been shattered
It’s the losing of love that’s to blame

Love never broke anyone’s heart
It never left anyone scarred
It’s not really love
If it tears you apart
Love never broke anyone’s heart

Andrea Zonn’s solemn fiddle and John Hughey’s sympathetic steel add to the mood set by the perfectly judged vocal and lovely melody.

‘Under These Conditions’ is an agonized almost-cheating song, with two potential lovers held back from a good relationship from the fact that both are already married with children. It is another excellent song and performance, written by Vince with Max D Barnes. ‘Say Hello’ (another co-write with Pete Wasner) is a traditional shuffle on another heartbreak theme, with prominent harmonies.

Romantic ballad ‘Nothing Like A Woman’, written with Reed Nielsen, has a mellow, more AC feel than the bulk of the material and I don’t care for it as much, but it is very well done. I preferred the uptempo appeal to a woman being led astray by a persuasive liar’s ‘Pretty Words’, written with Don Schlitz.

The best selling album of Vince’s career, it has been certified quintuple platinum and was deservedly the CMA Album of the Year in 1993, and also helped him with his run of CMA Male Vocalist titles (1991-1995) and his wins as Entertainer of the Year in 1993 and 1994. It is excellent from start to finish, and warmly recommended. Used copies are available incredibly cheaply, making this a bargain not to be turned down.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Vince Gill – ‘Guitar Slinger’

It’s been half a decade since Vince Gill released a new album. On that occasion, he came out with four at once, with the critically acclaimed box set These Days. This time around the same team of Vince, John Hobbs and Justin Niebank has created a more concentrated effort with 15 tracks, recorded in Vince’s home studio. Vince’s vocals sound thoroughly energised and invested in the material, all of which he wrote or co-wrote, and which I feel is more consistent in quality than that on These Days. It is definitely a mature work, with a number of the songs focussed on the prospect of death, but never a depressing one.

The joyous and amusing title track opens proceedings with a bang with many references to Vince’s life ranging from his “contemporary Christian singer” wife to last year’s Nashville floods (“half my stuff’s in the Cumberland River”. This really conveys the sheer joy of making music. In the equally lively up-tempo ‘All Nighter Comin’’ (written with Chris Stapleton and Al Anderson, and only on the deluxe version) a newly unemployed truck driver sets aside his troubles for the evening. Despite the depressing background, the mood is uplifting, and either of these songs would sound great on the radio.

The beautifully sung lead single ‘Threaten Me With Heaven’ is a tender but confident gospel ballad written with Vince’s wife Amy Grant, Will Owsley (who tragically committed suicide last year) and Dillon Osborn. Owsley and Amy also co-wrote the mid-tempo AC ‘When Lonely Comes Around’, which is pleasant but forgettable. Amy and Vince duet on their song ‘True Love’, an AC ballad which pays tribute to their relationship, “true love that found us in time”. It isn’t a particularly interesting song, but the authenticity of the emotions make it touching beyond its merits. Amy’s daughter Sarah Chapman sings harmony.

Talented singer-songwriter and now a Pistol Annie, Ashley Monroe wrote two songs with Vince. The excellent ‘If I Die’, a beautifully constructed reflection on mortality and what comes after, is one of the best tracks on a fine record. Her other contribution, ‘Who Wouldn’t Fall In Love With You’ is a low-key, tender love ballad with a pretty melody and Ashley’s distinctive voice evident on harmony.  Lee Ann Womack, meanwhile, provides tasteful backing vocals on ‘Lipstick Everywhere’, a retelling of a passionate one night stand with no subsequent regrets or repercussions. Another fine artist, Texas traditionalist Amber Digby co-wrote ‘One More Thing I Wished I’d Said’, dwelling with regret on the missed opportunities in a failed relationship. Sadly, she doesn’t sing on the track, but Dawn Sears makes a good substitute. These two are only included on the deluxe version, which is well worth the additional cost.

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