My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Dixie Hall

Album Review: Rebekah Long – ‘Here I Am’

here i amBluegrass singer and upright bass player Rebekah Long from Georgia has a sweet, light voice, and considerable ability as a songwriter. Her skills are well showcased in her new album. Singer-songwriter Donna Ulisse, who has carved out a real niche for herself in bluegrass in recent years, produced the album, and she and Rebekah wrote most of the material.

The two women co-wrote ‘He’s Never Coming Back Again’, an understated ballad about the pain of lost love, and ‘Nellie Mae’, a pretty tune about an adoptive mother’s love.

The pair were joined by Ulisse’s husband Rick Stanley to write a further three songs. My favorite of these, and possibly my favorite on the album, is the doomladen story song ‘Hairpin Hattie’, whose ghost fatally haunts cheating husbands on the dangerous mountain road she died on herself 80 years earlier outrunning the cops after murdering her own:

She never beckons innocents
The pure of heart they drive on by
Her anger’s for the cheatin’ men
The ones that have a roving eye

‘Ain’t Life Sweet’ is a bright cheerful tune lauding old fashioned rural life, which makes a promising opener to the album, while ‘Sweet Miss Dixie Deen’ is an affectionate tribute to the late wife of Tom T Hall. Rebekah spent several years working for the Halls, and also includes a nice cover of Tom T’s song ‘I Washed My Face In The Mountain Dew’.

A more unexpected cover, but one which works surprisingly well bluegrass style is the sultry ‘Somebody’s Knockin’, the sole country hit for Terri Gibbs in the early 80s. Rebekah doesn’t quite have the forcefulness required to really pull off Merle Haggard’s ‘The Fightin’ Side Of Me’ – it’s pleasant to listen to but unconvincing. The Mel Tillis-penned, and much recorded. ‘Unmitigated Gall’ is more effective, and highly enjoyable. The final cover, Cheryl Wheeler’s ‘I Know This Town’ is a fond tribute to a home town.

The title track and ‘The MapleTree And Me’ are delicately pretty Donna Ulisse songs, the former a tender love song, the latter wistful and poetic. The closing ‘December’, written by Ulisse with Dennis Duff, is atmospheric and bleak

This is a very nice bluegrass album with much to recommend it.

Grade: A-

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Album Review: The Crowe Brothers – ‘Forty Years Old’

forty years old

Straddling the boundaries between traditional country and bluegrass, the close sibling Louvin-style harmonies of Josh and Wayne Crowe are always worth hearing, especially as the duo have a penchant for picking great songs. Their latest album is no exception.

A number of country classics given bluegrass instrumentation include the opening ‘Lost Highway’, written by Leon Payne but best known from Hank Williams’ recording. the Crowe Brothers’ version is excellent. I also enjoyed ‘Excuse Me, I Think I’ve Got A Heartache’, which is suitably plaintive, with soaring fiddle. The romantic ‘Send Me The Pillow’ is also nicely done, while a bluegrass classic ‘Don’t Let Our Love Die’ is beautiful. The pleasantly philosophical ‘Someday My Ship Will Sail’ is less well known, but the Allen Reynolds tune has been recorded in the past by Emmylou Harris and Johnny Cash.

‘I’ve Got The Moon On My Side’ was written by Tom T Hall and wife Dixie with Troy Engle. It has been released as a single for bluegrass radio. It has a perky feel as the protagonist takes comfort in the country moonlight while his ex lives it up in town. The quirky ‘Livin’ In A Mobile Home’ was written by country songwriters Rory Michael Bourke and Ronny Scaife. It celebrates a life on the road in a Winnebago, and is entertaining and memorable.

‘Green Fields Of Erin’ is about the Irish emigrant experience and the longing for home.

The more-or-less title track ‘You Turned Forty Years Old’ is an old man’s fond tribute as his beloved son reaches a landmark age, written by Steve Watts. A charming lullaby rhythm and melody make this very memorable as the protagonist reminisces about his boy’s childhood.

‘Where Will You Be’ is a gospel tune written by Wayne Crowe and delivered with good cheer. ‘Angel Mother’ is an old fashioned (in a good way) pure bluegrass tribute to a mother. The set closes with the rapid-paced ‘Two Feet On The Floor’, which is typical up-tempo bluegrass.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Junior Sisk & Ramblers’ Choice – ‘Trouble Follows Me’

trouble follows meOver the past few years Virginia’s Junior Sisk and Ramblers’ Choice have been making quite a name for themselves in bluegrass. Sisk was named the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Male Vocalist of the Year last year. His latest album is an excellent example of his work, and has great appeal for bluegrass fans who like songs with substance alongside sparkling musicianship.

The vibrant opener ‘Honky Tonked To Death’ is a great mixture of uptempo bluegrass vocals and arrangement and a honky tonk country song, written by Bill Castle. The unrepentant protagonist blames the break up of his marriage on his drinking habits:

I guess our love began to die when I found swinging doors
And every night I stayed out late it died a little more

The rhythmic ‘Don’t Think About it Too Long’ celebrates making music. It is co-written by Ronnie Bowman, who also wrote the high lonesome ballad ‘A Cold Empty Bottle, a story song about a man whose broken heart (and love of sad country songs) only feed his alcoholism.

‘I’d Rather Be Lonesome’ is a plaintive up-tempo disclaimer of love for an unfaithful woman. ‘Gonna Make Her Mine’ is perkier, about a shy man’s determination to declare his unrequited love for a neighbour’s daughter.

The title track, written by Sisk, is a fast-paced story song about a hard-pressed farmer who turns to crime after losing his farm. He ends up in a new prison built on his former home.

The slower ‘Walk Slow’, written by Tom T Hall and his wife Dixie, takes a more contemplative, philosophical approach, advising living like a small child to appreciate life fully.

‘Frost On The Bluegrass’ is about the enduring pull of home. ‘Jesus Walked Upon The Water’ is a briskly delivered acappella gospel quartet.

An eclectic selection of covers wounds out the set. The perfectly-constructed country classic ‘All I Have To Offer You Is Me’ works well, while the band also takes on a Carter Stanley tune, the mournful yet up-tempo ‘Our Darling’s Gone’. Most unexpected is a version of Michael Martin Murphey’s ‘What Am I Doin’ Hangin’ Round’, which also suits a bluegrass interpretation. The band’s Jason Tomlin takes lead vocals on this one.

Grade: A

Album Review – Miranda Lambert – ‘Platinum’

MirandaLambertPlatinumMidway through Miranda Lambert’s new album Platinum comes a jarring exception to the rule as daring as the twin fiddles that opened Lee Ann Womack’s There’s More Where That Came From nine years ago. The one-two punch of a Tom T and Dixie Hall composition coupled with a glorious arrangement by The Time Jumpers has yielding “All That’s Left,” a rare nugget of traditional western swing with Lambert channeling high lonesome Patty Loveless. Besides producing one of the years’ standout recorded moments, “All That’s Left” is a crucial nod to our genre’s heritage, and the fulfillment of the promise Lambert showed while competing on Nashville Star.

Suffice it to say, there’s nothing else on Platinum that equals the brilliance of “All That’s Left,” since Lambert never turns that traditional or naturally twangy again. Instead she opts for a fifteen-slot smorgasbord, mixing country, pop, and rock in an effort to appeal to anyone who may find his or her way to the new music. In lesser hands the record would be an uneven mess, but Lambert is such an expert at crafting albums she can easily pair western swing and arena rock and have it all fit together as smaller parts of a cohesive whole.

The main theme threading through Platinum is one of getting older, whether for purposes of nostalgia, or literally aging. She continues the nostalgia trip she began with fantastic lead single “Automatic” on “Another Sunday In The South” as she recruits Jessi Alexander and fellow Pistol Annie Ashley Monroe to reminisce about the good ‘ol days of 90s country music, among southern signifiers like lazy afternoons and times spent on the front porch. The only worthwhile name check song in recent memory, “Another Sunday” cleverly weaves Restless Heart, Trace Adkins, Pam Tillis, Clint Black, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and song namesake Shenandoah through the lyrics without pandering or sounding cutesy. I only wish she had referenced Diamond Rio and had producer Frank Liddell pepper the track with more of a 90s throwback production, which would’ve fit slightly better than the soft rockish vibe the track was given.

Lambert actually does recapture the Patty Loveless-like twang on “Old Shit,” Brent Cobb and Neil Mason’s love letter to the appealing nature of antiques. The framing technique of using the grandfather and granddaughter relationship coupled with the organic harmonica laced organic arrangement is charming, and while I usually don’t advocate for swearing in country songs, it actually works in this case and seems more appropriate than any of the cleaner words they could’ve used instead.

The aging side of getting older, which Lambert and company began tackling with “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty” on Annie Up last year, is far more prevalent a force on Platinum. As has become customary for Lambert, she wrote thumping rocker “Bathroom Sink” solo. The lyric is scathing, detailing scary self-loathing that builds in intensity along with the electric guitars. Lambert’s phrasing is annoying, though; punctuating the rimes so much they begin to sound rudimentary. While true, “Gravity’s a Bitch,” which Lambert co-wrote with Scotty Wray, just doesn’t feel necessary to me. I think being outside the track’s demographic target aids in my assessment, but I do enjoy the decidedly country meets bluesy arrangement.

When the press release for the album said the title track was ‘Taylor Swift pop’ I was admittedly worried, no matter how many times I got down with the dubstep of “I Knew You Were Trouble” or the bubblegum of “22.” Since Max Martin isn’t anywhere near this album, “Platinum” is more “Red” than anything else, and the infamous ‘what doesn’t kill you only makes you blonder’ lyric is catchy as hell. Similarly themed and produced “Girls” is just as good, and like “Gravity’s a Bitch,” it’ll appeal quite nicely to the fairer sex.

The rest of Platinum truly defines the smorgasbord aspects of the album, with some conventional and extremely experimental tracks. Lambert co-wrote “Hard Staying Sober” with Natalie Hemby and Luke Laird and it ranks among her finest moments, with the decidedly country production and fabulously honest lyric about a woman who’s no good when her man isn’t present. “Holding On To You,” the closet Lambert comes to crooning a love song, is sonically reminiscent of Vince Gill’s 90s sound but with touches that makes it all her own. While good it’s a little too bland, as is “Babies Making Babies,” which boats a strong opening verse but eventually comes off less clever than it should’ve and not surprising enough for me.

Ever since Revolution, production on Lambert’s albums has to be taken with a grain of salt, which is unfortunately still the case here. I’m betting, more than anything since Brandy Clark and Lambert co-wrote it together with Heather Little, that “Too Rings Shy” has a strong lyric underneath the unlistenable production that found Lambert asking her production team to go out and lyrically record circus noises. It’s a shame they couldn’t make this work, since they pulled it off with Randy Scruggs reading the Oklahoma Farm Report in the background of “Easy Living” on Four The Record. There’s just no excuse why the track had to be mixed this intrusively.

Polarizing more than anything else is Lambert’s cover of Audra Mae’s “Little Red Wagon,” which I only understood after listening to Mae’s original version. Given that it’s a duet with Little Big Town, I know most everyone expected more from “Smokin’ and Drinkin,’ and I understand why (the approach isn’t traditional), but I really like the lyric and production, making the overall vibe work really well for me. The same is true about “Something Bad,” which isn’t a great song, but works because of the beat, and interplay between Lambert and Carrie Underwood. The two, even on a marginalized number like this one by Chris DeStefano, Brett James, and Priscilla Renea, sound extremely good together.

Nicolle Galyon and Jimmy Robbins teamed up with Hemby to write the album’s most important track, a love letter Lambert sings to Priscilla Presley. While the concept is questionable on paper, the results are a revelation and give Lambert a chance to directly address what she’s been going through since her husband’s career skyrocketed on The Voice. At a time when most artists of Lambert’s caliber are shying away from singing what they’re going through, Lambert is attacking her rise in celebrity head on with a clever lyric, interesting beat, and an all around engaging execution that makes “Priscilla” this album’s “Mama’s Broken Heart.”

Even without the added punch of co-writes with her fellow Nashville Star contestant Travis Howard or the inclusion of a bunch of artistic covers from the pens of Gillan Welch, Allison Moorer, Carline Carter, and others – Platinum ranks high in Lambert’s catalog. She’s gotten more introspective as she’s aged but instead of coasting on past success or suppressing her voice in favor of fitting in or pleasing people, she remains as sharp as ever tackling topics her closest contemporaries wouldn’t even touch. I didn’t care for this project on first listen, but now that I completely understand where she’s coming from, I’m fully on board. All that’s left is my desire she go even more country in her sound, but Platinum wouldn’t be a Miranda Lambert record without the added touch of Rock & Roll.

Grade: A

Return to bluegrass: Tom T Hall today

tom t hall todayAfter 1985’s Song In A Seashell, Tom T Hall would take the next decade off from recording, with only 1989’s Country Songs For Kids (essentially a reissue of the 1974 children’s album Songs of Fox Hollow with some new songs added) making an appearance.

In 1996 album, Mercury would release Songs from Sopchoppy. Although released by Mercury, it was actually an independent album featuring some of Tom’s Florida friends (and none of Mercury’s session musicians), recorded at a barn in Sopchoppy, Florida. Frankly, I did not like this album as the production sounds like a cross between 1980s pop-country and so-called smooth jazz, with electric keyboard and Kenny G-style saxophone competing the debacle. The songs are good, if often downbeat, but the backing does not suit Hall’s voice. Alan Jackson rescued “Little Bitty” from this album and turned it into a number one single.

Finally, in 1997, Mercury released the final (thus far) major label album of new Tom T Hall material with Home Grown. While albums such as Magnificent Music Machine and other scattered album tracks had hinted at a turn to bluegrass, this album made it clear that TTH had returned to his roots. All of the songs were written by Hall, sometimes with an assist from his wife Dixie and are in acoustic settings.

The first track on the album, “Bill Monroe For Breakfast”, basically says it all:

When I was just a little boy we lived down on a farm
Seven miles from nowhere and a hundred miles from harm
We made our livin’ from the dirt if anything would grow
And we got our country music from a big old radio
And we had Bill Monroe for breakfast every day
Then we’d head out to the fields a hoein’ corn and mowin’ hay
Aw, mama loved his singin’, daddy loved to hear him play
And we had Bill Monroe for breakfast every day
We had a big old battery that ran the radio
Sometimes we run it down a listenin’ to the Opry Show
But we all had our instruments and most of us could play
So we had Bill Monroe for breakfast anyway

I’ve heard many bluegrass bands cover this song, as well as other songs from this album.

Since 1997, Tom T Hall has continued to write songs, usually in conjuction with his wife Dixie, and always in the bluegrass genre. He makes the occasional live appearance at a bluegrass performance, and his songs are eagerly snapped up by bluegrass performers. In 2002 Charlie Sizemore issued The Story Is … Songs of Tom T Hall, a collection of TTH’s country songs cast as bluegrass. In 2007 Blue Circle Records released Tom T Hall Sings Miss Dixie and Tom T, a bluegrass album featuring some of Tom’ friends such as Josh Williams, Sonya Isaacs and Don Rigsby with guest appearences by Earl Scruggs and Jimmy Martin.

Tom T Hall considers himself retired (although a peek at the Bluegrass Unlimited charts suggests no such thing) and at 78 years of age (as of May 25, 2014) he’s surely earned the right to retire, as no singer-songwriter today, other than perhaps Willie Nelson or Merle Haggard, has produced as large a catalog of interesting and memorable songs.

Spotlight Artist: Tom T. Hall

tom t hallSongs that told a story were once a staple of country music, unlike the majority of today’s songs which seems to celebrate beer, girls and pickup trucks without there being much point to it.

Think of the country songs that have endured from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s – “PT 109”, “Big Bad John”, “El Paso”, “Sink The Bismarck”, “The Battle of New Orleans”, “Cross The Brazos At Waco”, “Wreck On The Highway”, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and countless others. They weren’t just lyrics slapped together – they had something specific to say. While not every song was a story song, many of them were and they were among the most memorable songs of Country Music’s ‘Golden Age’ (roughly 1948-1975).

Even by the standards of Country Music’s ‘Golden Age’ our May Spotlight Artist, Tom T. Hall was unique. It is one thing to tell the story of great historical events (real or imagined) or of heroic figures such as soldiers and cowboys. It is something entirely different to tell the story of everyday people and make their stories seem interesting.

Tom T Hall wrote about waitresses, grave diggers, bluesmen, guitar pickers, fathers and blind children, wonder horses, people with two left feet, janitors, factory workers, single mothers wearing miniskirts, cheap motels, odd and/or deranged people, army experiences, and oh so many more, making their stories pop off your record player and into your conscience.

Thomas Hall was born on May 25, 1936, in Olive Hill, Kentucky. Solid biographical information on Hall is scarce as he has kept his personal life as private as possible. It is known that as a teenager, Hall organized a band called the Kentucky Travelers that performed before movies for a traveling theater. The band had some success, recording a number of songs, although Tom doesn’t appear on any of the recordings, having left the band to join the Army in 1957. He was stationed in Germany at the same time as Elvis Presley, and remembers that Elvis would buy hamburgers for the entire platoon on the day before payday. While in Germany he performed on Armed Forces Radio Network. His army experiences served as the inspiration of several of his later songs. After leaving the army in 1961 Hall served as an announcer or disk jockey for several radio stations in Kentucky and West Virginia, as well as performing live and writing songs.

A friend of Hall’s took some of Tom’s songs to Nashville with him, where they came to the attention of Jimmy Keys, the head of Newkeys Music, a company co-owned with Jimmy “C” Newman and Dave Dudley. Keys saw something there as he forwarded “D.J. For A Day” to Jimmy “C” Newman and offered Hall a draw against royalties to move to Nashville and become a staff writer. Newman’s recording of “D.J. For A Day” reached #9 in early 1964 becoming Newman’s first top ten recording in nearly four years. Newman was to record many more of Tom’s songs.

To augment his songwriting income, Hall went on the road with Dave Dudley. The two of them became good friends and before long, Hall was co-writing with Dudley and also giving Dudley first crack at his new solo compositions. Among the many hits Dave Dudley had with Tom T compositions were “Mad” (#6), “What We’re Fighting For” (#4), “There Ain’t No Easy Runs” (#10) and Dave’s sole #1 record “The Pool Shark”.

In 1965 Hall caught two big breaks as a songwriter when Johnny Wright took “Hello Vietnam” to #1, the first Tom Hall composition to reach #1. At approximately the same time, the Statler Brothers recorded “Billy Christian” a song which few remember but which sold millions of copies. “Billy Christian” was a fine song but it was the B-side of the record; however, the A-side, “Flowers On The Wall” kick-started the Statler Brothers recording career and provided Hall with substantial songwriting royalties.

In 1967, after several years of Hall supplying songs for other artists, Jimmy Keys thought it was time for Tom Hall to start recording his own songs. Tom had served as his own demo singer and Keys approached Mercury producer Jerry Kennedy with the idea of signing Hall to Mercury Records. Feeling that “Tom Hall” lacked oomph as a stage name, Keys relabeled Tom as “Tom T. Hall”.

The first few Tom T. Hall recordings were modest hits but before Tom T could score a big hit on his own, a song that Tom T. had written for Margie Singleton, the ex-wife of Shelby Singleton (Jerry Kennedy’s boss at Mercury), made a huge splash on the pop and country throughout the English speaking world. The song lay idle for a few years before Shelby Singleton, by then the owner of Plantation Records , had Jeannie C. Riley record “Harper Valley PTA”. Jerry Kennedy played dobro on the record, which would sell over six million copies, and won both a Grammy Award and CMA award for the singer.

Hot on the heels of “Harper Valley PTA, Tom T would have his first top ten recording as a recording artist when “Ballad of Forty Dollars” reached #4 in early 1969. This would kick off a solid string of top twenty hits that would run through 1980.

During his years on Mercury Tom T. Hall’s albums were more than merely collections of songs, they were slices of life set to music, telling the stories of everyday people doing the various things that people do. There were songs about winners, losers, and eccentrics, about situations mundane, heroic, ridiculous and implausible. People who bought the albums wore them out from frequent playing and absorbed the lyrics of the songs and the stories as if by osmosis.

Tom T. Hall, being from rural Kentucky, had grown up with and loved bluegrass music. Some of his album tracks had a bluegrass feel to them, and in 1976 Tom T came out of the bluegrass closet and released The Magnificent Music Machine, a collection of some originals cast as bluegrass, some classic bluegrass standards, and one rock song, “Fox On The Run” which had been a late 60s pop hit in England for Manfred Mann.

As far as mainstream country fans are concerned, Tom T Hall is a nearly forgotten figure who has been inactive for many years. While it is true that he took an extended hiatus from performing, in recent years Tom T Hall has emerged as a very active bluegrass songwriter, usually with his wife Dixie. Tom and Dixie record occasionally, perform rarely but supply a seemingly endless supply of hit records for many bluegrass artists. The most recent issue of Bluegrass Unlimited (April 2014) shows Hall as having three songs in the Bluegrass Top 30 – “I’m Putting On My Leaving Shoes” (#1 as recorded by Big Country Bluegrass), “That’s Kentucky (#7 By Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road), and “I Want My Dog Back” (#12 by The Spinney Brothers).

Tom T Hall was inducted to the country music Hall of Fame in 2008, an honor long overdue. In his career charted fifty-four songs, ten reaching #1 on one or more of the Billboard, Cashbox or Record World charts. Along the way he won numerous BMI songwriting awards, hosted a syndicated television, made numerous appearances on network television shows ands made millions of people reflect and smile as a result of his keen eye for detail and ability to fit it into songs that told many small truths about you and your friends and your neighbors.

In celebration of his 78th birthday, we present to you May’s Spotlight Artist, “The Storyteller” – Tom T Hall.

Country Heritage: The Storyteller, Tom T. Hall

If Tom T. Hall had never had a hit record for himself, he would be still an important figure in the history of country music. “Harper Valley PTA” alone, would have been enough to ensure him at least a footnote in the history of the genre, but long before that song became a world-wide hit, Tom T. Hall was influencing the direction of country music.

I first became aware of Tom T. Hall through my father’s collection of Dave Dudley and Jimmie C. Newman albums. All of Dave Dudley’s Mercury albums except Travelin’ With Dave Dudley (a cover album of older country songs) contain at least one song written or co-written by Tom T. Hall and you could put together a “best of ” collection for Dave Dudley comprised of nothing but songs written or co-written by Tom T. Hall. As much as any writer, the songs of Tom T. Hall helped define the sub-genre of truck driving music – and he’s not even particularly known for it!

Thomas Hall was born May 25, 1936, in Olive Hill, Kentucky (The “T “ was added later in life to give his name a more distinctive ring). Solid biographical information on Hall is scarce as he has kept his personal life as private as possible. It is known that as a teenager, Hall organized a band called the Kentucky Travelers that performed before movies for a traveling theater. In 1957 Hall entered the Army for a four-year hitch. He was stationed in Germany at the same time as Elvis Presley, and remembers that Elvis would buy hamburgers for the entire platoon on the day before payday. While in Germany he performed on Armed Forces Radio Network. His army experiences served as the inspiration of several of his later songs. After leaving the army in 1961, Hall served as an announcer or disc jockey for several radio stations in Kentucky and West Virginia, as well as performing live and writing songs.

A friend of Hall’s took some of Tom’s songs to Nashville with him, where they came to the attention of Jimmy Keys, the head of Newkeys Music, a company co-owned with Jimmy “C” Newman and Dave Dudley. Keys saw something there as he forwarded “D.J. For A Day” to Jimmy “C” Newman and offered Hall a draw against royalties to move to Nashville and become a staff writer. Newman’s recording of “D.J. For A Day” reached #9 in early 1964, becoming Newman’s first top ten recording in nearly four years. Newman was to record many more of Tom’s songs. Read more of this post