My Kind of Country

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Album Review: The Desert Rose Band – ‘The Desert Rose Band’

desert rose bandThe Desert Rose Band was Chris Hillman’s biggest success in mainstream country music. The initial acoustic lineup, which crystallised on a tour with Dan Fogelburg, comprised Chris, Herb Pedersen, lead guitarist John Jorgensen, and bass player Bill Bryson. Drummer Steve Duncan and steel guitarist Jay Dee Maness were then added to the band, and a fresh yet mainstream sound emerged. They signed a deal with MCA/Curb and launched with their self-titled debut album in 1987, produced by Paul Worley. Their country-rock and traditional country influences combined to make an infectious and irresistible sound which was very radio-friendly.

A sturdy cover of ‘Ashes Of Love’, which Chris had recorded on his solo Desert Rose album, was the group’s first single, and peaked at #26. It was followed by the band’s first top 10 hit, ‘Love Reunited’, which was written by Chris with Steve Hill. The steel-laced song advises a couple not to separate but to work at their relationship. A second Hillman/Hill co-write here is ‘Glass Hearts’, a great up-tempo song about the conflicting emotions of a new relationship, with the fear of getting hurt if it doesn’t last.

Only love can set you free
I’ll open up so she can see
My glass heart will break
Cause it’s made of sand

‘One Step Forward’ almost made it to the top of the Billboard country chart, peaking at #2. A catchy and punchy number about the frustration of a relationship not going anywhere, it was one of three songs Hillman wrote for the record with Bill Wildes, with whom he had written ‘Desert Rose’ (although that song was never actually recorded by the band it gave its name to). The other Wildes co-writes here are both fine songs: the optimistic insistence that ‘Hard Times’ will pass, and the downbeat ‘Leave This Town’, which is about the disappointment of a failed relationship, with the protagonist complaining,

If she’s the one in trouble why’s it me that has to go?

Finally, the album’s fourth and last single topped the charts. ‘He’s Back And I’m Blue’, a sad ballad about being the rebound guy who is out of the picture when the ex returns.

Underlining the fact that the Desert Rose Band was a real group and not just a solo Hillman effort, Herb Pedersen sang lead on the country classic ‘Once More’. The wistful thoughts of the ‘One Who Got Away’ are (a Hillman co-write with Peter Knobler) are set to a sweet melody. The band revived Chris Hillman’s song ‘Time Between’, previously recorded by the Byrds, which is actually one of the less interesting songs.

Great harmonies, great musicianship and great songs make this a classic and irresistible record.

Grade: A

Album Review: Chris Hillman – ‘Desert Rose’

desert roseChris Hillman’s second album for Sugar Hill (produced by Al Perkins) wasn’t entirely acoustic, but electric instruments are kept to a minimum. Featuring future Desert Rose Band cohorts Herb Pedersen on harmony vocals and rhythm guitar and Jay Dee Maness on steel, sets the template for the sound of the Desert Rose Band. A selection of mainly old country and bluegrass songs is delivered with sparking musicianship and Chris Hillman’s most accomplished vocals to date. Hillman might have been making music for the best part of 20 years, but this is where he really found his voice as a singer as well as musician and songwriter. In addition, his musical partnership with Herb Pedersen is one of the unsung pairings of country music, and this (or technically on the preceding Sugar Hill album Morning Sky) is where it started.

Chris’s version of the mid-tempo Mickey Newbury song ‘Why You Been So Long’ has a loping country rock feel. He turns to classic country with the Wilburn Brothers’ ‘Somebody’s Back In Town’, a lonesome number in which the protagonist’s loved one is going back to a returning ex, meaning that his own chance of winning her is gone. It’s not that well known a song, although Loretta Lynn cut it on her Fist City album, and Ricky Van Shelton later covered it, but it is an excellent one.

The delicately subdued Reno & Smiley ballad ‘Wall Around Your Heart’ is another outstanding song with a downbeat emotion. Even better is Chris’s version of the Louvin Brothers’ plaintive ‘I Can’t Keep You In Love With Me’, which shows off Herb’s harmonies at their best. Byron Berline’s fiddle is particularly effective on this track.

Jimmie Rodgers’ Rough And Rowdy Ways’ is cheerier, with a rambler happy with who he is. ‘Treasure Of Love’ is a George Jones song about the value of love over material things which Chris sings with great warmth and tenderness. Chris takes on the old Johnnie & Jack hit ‘Ashes Of Love, which he was to redo in similar style a couple of years later with the Desert Rose Band; the lyric is sad enough, but the performance is joyous.

The gospel classic ‘Turn Your Radio On’ has great harmonies from Herb and from ex Eagle Bernie Leadon. (At the time Chris was a recently professed Evangelical Christian, although he later converted to Greek Orthodoxy).

Amidst the classic songs, there are two Hillman originals, both about a relationship in which the couple face frequent separation. The title track is a melodic song about a couple facing hard times; the protagonist wonders if his “sweet desert rose” will still love him while he’s away looking for work in another town. This was a cowrite with Bill Wildes, a California-based horse trainer and songwriter whose life and character was reportedly the inspiration for the Eagles’ song ‘Desperado’. In the breezy ‘Running The Roadblocks’ a man is rushing home to a loved one, not caring how far over the speed limit he is. These are both pretty good songs, but perhaps not quite up to the standard of the rest.

This is a fantastic record which should appeal to fans of the Desert Rose Band, and to anyone whose tastes lean to more traditional country with bluegrass influences. It’s easy to find cheaply, and is well worth adding to your collection. Predecessor Morning Sky is rarer, and not quite so good, but worth picking up if you can find it.

Grade: A+

Spotlight Artist: Chris Hillman and the Desert Rose Band

ChrisHillmanChristopher Hillman was born in rural California on December 4, 1944. His older sister got him interested in country and folk music when she was in college and he was a teenager, and he began learning guitar and mandolin. At 17 he joined his first band, the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, playing mandolin, and the group recorded an album, Bluegrass Favorites (now a rare collector’s item), in 1963. Other members included future Eagle Bernie Leadon. When they broke up later that year (something which seems to have been an occupational hazard of California bands of the period), Chris joined the Golden State Boys, another bluegrass band which featured Vern Gosdin on lead vocals. Soon afterwards, the band changed its name to the Hillmen. The band’s eponymous album was released in 1969, some years after their disbanding, and has been reissued a few times since with some additional tracks.

The lack of bigtime success was beginning to frustrate the young musician, who was contemplating abandoning music in favour of attending college, when he got a big break thanks to Jim Dickson, who had produced the Hillmen’s recordings and tried to get them a record deal. He was invited to join a new folk-rock band called The Byrds, playing bass guitar – a new instrument for him. The Byrds’s first single, a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, was an international hit in 1965. Hillman was initially one of the less prominent members of the band, but he continued to develop as a songwriter and musician, and began to take a bigger share in the vocals on albums like Younger Than Yesterday, which had quite a strong country influence. In 1968 he and new member Gram Parsons, a fellow country fan, were instrumental in the creation of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, often regarded as the seminal country-rock album.

Chris and Gram departed the Byrds the following year, and together formed the Flying Burrito Brothers, a slightly shambolic but talented outfit who continued in the pioneering of country-rock. While the albums they recorded were not particularly commercially successful, being too country for rock and too rock for country, they have over time proved extremely influential, and some of the songs the pair wrote stand up as classics (for instance, ‘Sin City’).

The California country-rock-folk scene was somewhat incestuous and very quarrelsome, with frequent changes of band personnel. In 1971, Chris, who had fallen out with the unreliable Parsons (who went on to a solo career and launching that of Emmylou Harris, who Chris had actually discovered and introduced to Parsons), joined the eclectic Stephen Stills (formerly of Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) in the band Manassas; there was then a shortlived Byrds reunion; and then a venture with singer-songwriter J. D. Souther and Buffalo Springfield’s Richie Furay to form the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band. Later in the 1970s Chris made his first attempt at a solo career with a couple of not very successful albums, before rejoining old Byrds bandmates Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark as McGuinn-Clark-Hillman.

The 1980s saw a change of emphasis, as Chris turned to his first musical loves: country and bluegrass, and really found himself as an artist. He recorded two excellent semi-acoustic records for Sugar Hill, Morning Sky and Desert Rose, with the help of his friend Herb Pedersen, who he had known for 20 years. The pair then formed the nucleus of the Desert Rose Band, a country-rock band with the emphasis on country which was to provide Chris Hillman’s greatest mainstream country success.

Their breezy sound was a big mainstream country hit between 1987 and 1991. Chris Hillman’s lead vocals were supported by Herb’s high harmonies, and the latter also contributed the odd lead vocal. The remainder of the lineup varied, but notably included lead guitarist John Jorgensen, steelie Jay Dee Maness, and Steve Hill, who became Hillman’s chief songwriting partner. The band won the CMA Horizon Award in 1989, and the Vocal Group of the Year in 1990.

After the Desert Rose Band called it a day in 1994, Hillman explored a number of mainly acoustic projects, sometimes solo, sometimes with friends. He and Pedersen have continued to work together frequently, and the pair have also recorded with bluegrass legends Tony and Larry Rice. There have also been live reunions of the Desert Rose Band.

In 2004 the Americana Music Association gave Hillman a Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to so many genres of American music.

Over the next month we will be exploring highlights of Chris Hillman’s eclectic career, concentrating on the country elements, especially his period of mainstream success with the Desert Rose Band.

Classic Rewind: Desert Rose Band – ‘He’s Back And I’m Blue’

Album Review: Travis Tritt – ‘The Restless Kind’

the restless kindAfter the Greatest Hits album, 1996’s The Restless Kind denotes a new start of sorts, with long term producer Gregg Brown dropped for veteran rock producer Don Was, with Tritt also getting a co-production credit. The pairing does a pretty good job, and the general feel of the album is not that far removed from Tritt’s usual style, except that the harmonica is more prominent than the steel guitar. Travis wrote or co-wrote seven of the songs, and friend and tour partner Marty Stuart also contributed.

The first single, ‘More Than You’ll Ever Know’ is a very well sung but not particularly interesting ballad of devotion to a wife. The album’s biggest hit, it peaked at #3.

It was followed by ‘Where Corn Don’t Grow’, which made it to #6. Written by Roger Murrah and Mark Alan Springer, it had originally been recorded by Waylon Jennings in 1990, and is an excellent story song about a country boy who has to find out the hard way how hard city life is.

‘She’s Going Home With Me’ and ‘Still In Love With You’ both peaked in the 20s, and are equally forgettable mid-tempo numbers.

Sent to radio in between those two, the much better ‘Helping Me Get Over You’ did creep into the top 20 but should have done better. It is a sensitive ballad Tritt wrote and sings with Lari White about a couple both struggling to move on with new partners. An excellent vocal from Tritt is matched by White’s distinctive voice.

My favorite non-single (and a clear missed opportunity) is the ballad ‘Did You Fall Far Enough’, written by Tritt with Troy Seals. The protagonist is wracked with doubt for no clear reason:

You’ve given me no cause to doubt you
And I know passion burns in your heart
But does that same fire keep on burning
In the hours that we spend apart?

If you knew the question that burns in my mind
Then you know why I worry so much
I can’t help but wonder when we fell in love
Sweetheart, did you fall far enough?
]

Mark O’Connor’s beautiful fiddle winds through the song, and with Travis’s excellent vocal, helps to make this a real highlight.

‘Sack Full Of Stones’ is the best of the three songs here co-written by Marty Stuart, a somber breakup song with a fine vocal. ‘Draggin’ My Heart Around’ is a pretty good chugging Marty Stuart/Paul Kennerley song typical of what Stuart was doing at that period, with a strong groove and the Desert Rose Band’s Herb Pedersen on high harmony. The less successful ‘Double Trouble’ is a self-indulgent buddy duet with Stuart with a silly story of two friends accidentally dating the same girl, which the pair wrote with Kennerley. Stuart also plays electric guitar throughout the album.

‘Back Up Against The Wall’ is pure Southern rock/outlaw, and while it is catchy and enthusiastically performed, I was entirely unconvinced by the hardboiled jailbreak story. A meaty version of the title track, an uptempo number penned by Michael Henderson which has been recorded by a number of other artists, including Highway 101 and Trisha Yearwood, is pretty good. The romantic commitment of ‘More Than You’ll Ever Know’ is quite a nice ballad benefitting from a sincerely delivered vocal and attractive folky harmonica-led arrangement.

Overall, this is a fairly solid album with a couple of high spots. It’s worth picking up especially at cheap used copy prices.

Grade: B+

Favorite country songs of the 1980s, Part 1

The 1980s were a mixed bag, with the early 1980s producing some of the lamest country music ever recorded, as the Urban Cowboy movie wrecked havoc on the genre. Fortunately, there was still good country music being released. The first flowering of the late 1980s “New Traditionalist” movement arrived in 1981 with the first hits of Ricky Skaggs and George Strait, but they remained outliers until 1986 as far as good new artists were concerned. The latter part of the decade, however, produced some truly excellent country music with the 1986 arrival of Randy Travis and company.

This list is meant neither to be a comprehensive list of great country songs from the 1980s, nor any sort of ranking of records. It’s just a list of some songs that I liked and remember. See if you recall any of these records.

If You’re Gonna Play In Texas (You Gotta Have A Fiddle In The Band)“ – Alabama
Alabama made excellent music during the 1980s, although the country content of some of it was suspect. Not this song, which is dominated by fiddle. One of the few up-tempo Alabama records that swings rather than rocks.

I’ve Been Wrong Before” – Deborah Allen
An accomplished songwriter who wrote many hits for others, particularly with Rafe VanHoy, this was one of three top ten tunes for Ms. Allen, reaching #2 in 1984. This is much more country sounding than her other big hit “Baby I Lied”.

Last of The Silver Screen Cowboys” – Rex Allen Jr.
After some success as a pop-country balladeer, Rex Jr. turned increasing to western-themed material as the 1980s rolled along. This was not a big hit, reaching #43 in 1982, but it featured legendary music/film stars Roy Rogers and Rex Allen Sr. on backing vocals.

“Southern Fried” – Bill Anderson
This was Whispering Bill’s first release for Southern Tracks after spending over twenty years recording for Decca/MCA. Bill was no longer a chart force and this song only reached #42 in 1982, but as the chorus notes: “We like Richard Petty, Conway Twitty and the Charlie Daniels Band”.

Indeed we do. Read more of this post

Classic Rewind: Desert Rose Band – ‘Summer Wind’

Classic Rewind: The Desert Rose Band – ‘Ashes Of Love’

Album Review: Mary Chapin Carpenter – ‘Shooting Straight In The Dark’

Mary Chapin Carpenter’s third album was released in 1990, and gave her a real breakthrough. Produced with longterm collaborator John Jennings, the record saw her draw on a wide variety of influences. The material (all written by Carpenter herself) is a mixture of slow songs showcasing the velvety texture of her voice, and more commercial up-tempo numbers. It is far from traditional country with fiddle on just two tracks and steel conspicuous only by its complete absence, but it is one of her best records.

The intense lead single ‘You Win Again’ reached #16, peaking in 1991. It’s one of my favorite MCC songs, a despairing mid-tempo tale of a woman in love but aware she is in a losing situation:

I’ve been holding my breath just wondering when
You’ll make some kind of decision
To let me in or let me go
I’ll always lose if I never know
Where I fit in
Baby you win again

The insistently bluesy rock ‘n roll cover ‘Right Now’ followed it to radio and did about as well, reaching #15. The third single, though, was Mary’s biggest hit to date. The irresistible Cajun-styled ‘Down At the Twist And Shout’, featuring Cajun band BeauSoleil, just missed the top spot, peaking at #2, and won the singer her first Grammy. Atypical of most of the artist’s work, it is one of her best remembered songs and a sheer delight.

The final single, the measured ‘Going Out Tonight’, written with John Jennings, was less successful, making #14. It is a well-written song with a sultry vocal about a woman “going out tonight to find myself a friend” in the aftermath of a failed relationship.

My personal favorite track is the charming story song ‘Halley Came To Jackson’ about a family watching Halley’s Comet in 1910, and the baby seeing it again as an old woman 76 years later from the same back porch in Jackson. Tasteful fiddle and dulcimer from Mark O’Connor and John McCutcheon respectively underpin the pretty melody, and the Desert Rose Band’s Herb Pedersen sings backing vocals on the album’s loveliest (and most country) moment. The story was inspired by the life of novelist Eudora Welty, and was adapted some years later into an illustrated children’s book. It is still one of my favorite Mary Chapin Carpenter songs.

Read more of this post

Classic Rewind: The Desert Rose Band – ‘Hello Trouble’

Class of ’89 Album Review: Vince Gill – ‘When I Call Your Name’

whenicallyournameVince Gill was not a new artist in 1989, but it was the year that saw him make his big breakthrough and really established him as the major star he was to be through the 1990s.  He had spent several years signed to RCA, and had released three truncated albums of varying lengths, plus a number of singles which had received varying amounts of radio play, three becoming top 10 hits.  Much of Vince’s RCA output is still worth seeking out; I particularly like ‘The Way Back Home’, ‘Oh Carolina’, ‘Living The Way I  Do’, and ‘If It Weren’t For Him’, a duet with Rosanne Cash.  The production was not always quite right, though, in my opinion, and sometimes making his voice sound a little thin, especially on up-tempo material.  Sales however were not encouraging, and RCA’s lack of faith in Vince is reflected by the fact that none of his album releases were full-length. 

Everything changed when Vince changed labels, and moved to MCA.  When I Call Your Name, his first album for the label, released in November 1989,  was a modern classic which definitely still stands up today.  It was eventually certified double platinum.

Like many of the ‘Class of 89’, Vince Gill was a singer-songwriter, and he contributed seven of the ten tracks on this album.  They vary from good to great, and are allied to sympathetic production from Tony Brown, with whom Vince had played in Rodney Crowell’s band the Cherry Bombs in the early 80s.  Vince’s instrumental abilities are well-known, and he played acoustic and electric guitars and mandolin alongside a team of session musicians.  The music is never allowed to overwhelm the songs, but rather supports them to best effect.

The break with the past was not complete; opening track and leadoff single ‘Never Alone’, had been written by Vince with Rosanne Cash back in 1984, and one suspects it had previously been recorded for RCA but never released.  It certainly sounds very similar to his material from that period, and was only a modest success, reaching #22 on Billboard.  It is a good enough song, but probably my least favorite track on this album.  The move to MCA then began to pay off as Vince was teamed with labelmate Reba McEntire on an engaging western swing tribute to their fellow home state, ‘Oklahoma Swing’, which was released as a single.  It may come as a slight surprise that it only reached #13.

Vince’s real breakthrough came when the album’s title track was released as a single.  The devastating sadness of Vince’s delivery of ‘When I Call Your Name’, supported by Patty Loveless’ harmonies, makes this still one of his finest recordings, perfectly epitomising loneliness and loss.  It was a worthy winner of the CMA’s Single of the Year award in 1990, and Song of the Year in 1991.  Vince’s status as a genuine new star was cemented by the final single released from the album, the almost equally exquisite sadness of ‘Never Knew Lonely’.  This was another song which Vince had cut on RCA, but which they had foolishly overlooked.  Vince would still need to wait a few years for his first #1, as these singles made #2 and 3 respectively, but the former in particular has stood the test of time and is one of the best-remembered songs of its era. It was also a genuine star-making record.

Not all the tracks maintain the same standard, but there are no poor tracks either, with even lesser (comparitively) material like ‘Oh Girl (You Know Where To Find Me)’ and ‘We Won’t Dance’ being very listenable, and possible standouts had they appeared on other artist’s albums.  Of the more up-tempo material, Vince’s cover of Guy Clark’s ‘Rita Ballou’, an ode to a sexy female rodeo rider, is notable for backing vocals from the great Emmylou Harris, and ‘Ridin’ The Rodeo’ features the Desert Rose Band’s Herb Pedersen, and was later covered by 90s group Perfect Stranger.  Given the quality of Vince’s songwriting, it seems surprising that more of his songs have not been covered by other artists – one can only assume that singers feel intimidated by the thought of competing with Vince’s own sublime versions.

Vince’s beautiful soaring tenor is best suited to emotion-infused ballads with melodies allowing him to stretch out both vocally and interpretatively.  My favorite tracks here, after ‘When I Call Your Name’ and ‘Never Knew Lonely’, fall into that category.  ‘We Could Have Been’, one of the few outside songs on the record (written by Don Cook and John Jarvis) is a wistful reflection on an ex-lover and what might have been, which might have been tailor-made for Vince to deliver, and Vince himself wrote the sweet love song, ‘Sight For Sore Eyes’ with Guy Clark. 

When I Call Your Name is still commercially available, and is essential listening for country fans.

A

Week ending 3/7/09: #1 This Week in Country Music History

1959: Don’t Take Your Guns to Town — Johnny Cash (Columbia)

1969: Only the Lonely — Sonny James (Capitol)

1979: Golden Tears — Dave & Sugar (RCA)

1989: I Still Believe In You – The Desert Rose Band (MCA/Curb)

1999: No Place That Far – Sara Evans (RCA)

Sara Evans

Sara Evans