My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Dolly Parton

Album Review: Charley Pride – ‘The Sensational Charley Pride’

Produced by Jack Clement with Felton Jarvis (best known for his work with Elvis Presley), The Sensational Charley Pride was released in May 1969. The record is in the same style which fans had come to expect from Charley – solid country with a restrained version of the Nashville Sound.

It produced only one single, the #4 ‘Let The Chips Fall’. Written by Clement, it is a dramatic, slightly ponderous, ballad about a suspicious husband prepared to fond out the worst. It is not among my favorite Charley Pride hits, but Pride’s vocal is excellent. Another Clement tune, ‘She’s Still Got A Hold On You, is a nice song about not getting over an old love.

A song that perhaps should have been a single (and was by Mickey Gilley), ‘(It’s Just A Matter Of) Making Up My Mind’, is my personal favorite song on the album. A slow ballad about coping with a breakup, it is one of two Foster & Rice songs on the set. The other, ‘Even After Everything She’s Done’, serves as a kid of sequel to the former, and is also pretty good. Here the protagonist realises the day after a tumultuous goodbye that love endures despite all the angst:

I said I could despise her by the dawn of another day
But there’s the sun and I don’t hate her
Even after everything she’s done

I tried to make myself believe that I’m much better off
I’ve told myself she’s nothing special
And still I find that she’s the only one

‘Come On Home And Sing The Blues To Daddy’ is an enjoyable midpaced song, addressed to an ex whose new romance has faltered, with Charley once more playing the protagonist we met in ‘I Know One’, but sounding a little less rueful:

You’re like a child who’s found a brand new plaything
Each one is more fun than those before
But there’s a faithful one who’s always waiting
To be picked up and kicked around some more

It was also recorded by several the artists including Waylon Jennings, Faron Young and Bobby Bare.

Charley goes playfully Cajun for a pair of songs – a cheery cover of the classic ‘Louisiana Man’, and the less well remembered Jim Reeves hit ‘Billy Bayou’ (a Roger Miller penned tune). Both recordings are great fun, with Charley tackling them them with the same joie de vivre he showed in his live take on the Hank Williams song ‘Kaw Liga’, not included on this album but a #3 hit for him in 1969.

There are three songs written by Alex Zanetis, all quite good. ‘Never More Than I’ is a ballad with an attractive melody, comparing the poor man’s love to his richer rival. The steel-dominated ‘Let Me Live Again’ pleads a former love to take him back. In ‘Take Care Of The Little Things’ he regrets neglecting home and wife, versed as a message to the man who has taken his place.

The similarly titled ‘It’s The Little Things’ is a tender love song, paying tribute to a wife’s care. Lots of steel guitar ornaments the song beautifully. The album closes with ‘We Had All the Good Things Going’, a wistful look back at love. This song was a minor hit for Jan Howard in 1969, and also recorded by Dolly Parton.

This album is another strong offering from Charley Pride, and well worth finding. It is available individually or on a bargain 4-on-1 CD and has been certified gold.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Charley Pride – ‘Make Mine Country’

Make Mine Country, Charley Pride’s fourth album, was released via RCA Victor in 1968. The album didn’t produce any singles but featured covers of many notable songs that have become classics. It was produced by Chet Atkins along with Jack Clement, Bob Ferguson, and Felton Jarvis.

The album opens with Jack Clement’s “Now I Can Live Again,” a minor hit for Mickey Gilley the previous year. The uptempo track, about a newly-single man finally putting the sorrow behind him, is brimming with sunshine.

“A Word or Two to Mary,” written by Vince Bulla and Peter Cotton, is a ballad between friends in which a man asks his buddy to compose a letter to the woman he’s leaving behind in death. The track, typical of the era, is beyond creepy and has an inappropriate sing-song melody that clashes with the subject matter.

“If You Should Come Back Today” was also recorded by Johnny Paycheck although I couldn’t find the year he released his version. The honky-tonk uptempo number returns the album to the sunny disposition of the opening track, with a lyric (written by Johnny Mathis and Harlan Howard) about a guy who would forgive his ex if she came back into his life.

Clement also solely wrote “Guess Things Happen That Way,” which Johnny Cash took to #1 the year previous. Pride’s version is slicker sounding than Cash’s, which is the sole difference between the recordings.

The album’s fifth song is “Before The Next Teardrop Falls,” which appears here seven years before Freddy Fender had an international hit with it. Pride’s version is terrible by comparison, a by-the-numbers take that lacks the nuance Fender was able to find within the lyric.

Make Mine Country continues with Clement’s arrangement of “Banks of the Ohio.” The track, drenched in mandolin, feels rushed and like the song before it, lacks any care to bring the emotional qualities out in the lyric.

“Wings of a Dove” was already eight years old when Pride released his version. It’s a solid take, although the arrangement is far too cheesy for my tastes.

“A Girl I Used To Know” was six years old by 1968, a top 5 hit for George Jones that would top the charts as “Just Someone I Used to Know” in a duet recording by Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton the following year. Pride’s version is very good, but hardly an essential take on the song.

“Lie To Me,” which only saw this version by Pride, is another sunny uptempo number. This one is about a guy who wants his woman to confess her love to him, even if she doesn’t truly feel it deep inside.

The regretful “Why Didn’t I Think of That” appears next, with Pride taking on the role of voyeur, watching the way his ex’s new love shows his affection towards her. The track is merely good.

Eight years after Buck Owens took it to #3, Pride unleashes his rendition of “Above and Beyond (The Call of Love).” He handles the song beautifully, allowing it to stand out among the twelve tracks on the album. “Baby Is Gone,” a mid-tempo ballad, closes out the record.

Make Mine Country is a very strong album, with solid takes on some of the hits from the day. Given that it didn’t have any singles, I can only guess it was an obligatory record aimed at fulfilling some clause of his recording contract. I found the album to be bogged down by a few second-rate relationship songs that could’ve been swapped out for a bit more meaty material.

Grade: B

Album Review: Charley Pride – ‘The Pride Of Country Music’

Charley Pride’s second album was released in June 1967, and was the record which broke him through into stardom. There were two top 10 singles, both of which were written by Charley’s producer Cowboy Jack Clement and became instant classics. ‘Just Between You And Me’, the breakthrough hit, which peaked at #9, is an excellent song about a broken heart. Perhaps better known today thanks to the Garth Brooks cover, is the ultra-traditional ‘I Know One’, which reached #6. The song is almost perfect in its simplicity.

Another Clement tune, ‘Spell Of The Freight Train’, is a pleasant song about a rambler who doesn’t want to settle down, with some nice harmonica. The endearing ‘Best Banjo Picker’, about an aspiring musician, features some great banjo (some deliberately faltering to illustrate the song), played by bluegrass great Sonny Osborne who also gets a name drop.

‘Take Me Home’, written in slightly tongue in cheek fashion by Clement with Allen Reynolds, is about a wanderer’s rather more rueful longing to return home:

Well, I’ve slept all night in a water trough
Had the flu and the croup and the whoopin’ cough
Had the mumps and the measles and the seven year itch
And I can’t count the times that I’ve had a cold (and sore throat)
Not to mention all the times that I cut my fingers on a sardine can

Take me home
My heart is heavy and my feet are sore
Take me home
I don’t want to roam no more

It had also been recorded by Johnny Cash and Bobby Bare.

As was customary at this date, Charley included a selection of recent and older covers, which make for enjoyable listening but cannot be described as essential. The delightful mandolin-led ‘A Good Woman’s Love’ was first recorded by Hank Locklin in 1955 but has also become a bluegrass standard following Bill Monroe’s recording. The mandolin is played by Bobby Osborne, brother of Sonny. There is a slow, emotional version of the Johnny Paycheck-penned ‘Apartment #9’, which was Tammy Wynette’s debut hit. ‘Touch My Heart’ is a broken hearted ballad which had been a big hit for Ray Price in 1966.

Tom Paxton’s contemporary folk classic ‘The Last Thing On My Mind’ was a popular choice of cover for country artists in the 60s, and Charley’s version is nice but forgettable set next to Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton’s hit version same out the same year. ‘The Middle Of Nowhere’ also has a somewhat folky feel, with its melancholy tale of a return to a childhood home where the narrator is now a stranger out of place.

‘I‘m Not The Boy I Used To Be’, written by Curly Putman, is a shamefaced confession from an ex-con on his way home:

You see, mama,
I’ve spent time in prison
For a crime that I’m too ashamed to tell
And when you meet me there tomorrow
Don’t be surprised at what you see
Cause mama I’m not the boy I used to be

For I’ve been gone away too long
And I’ve done everything that’s wrong
But I think I’ve finally found myself at last
And just you wait and see
Another chance is all I need
But mama I’m not the boy I used to be

Charley is a little too clean cut to completely sell the part of the guiltridden sinner. ‘Silence’, written by Margie Singleton and Leon Ashley, is a steel laced ballad about loneliness and missing an ex.

The music on this record stands up pretty well today, although it is the singles which have endured the best. The Nashville Sound trappings of the arrangements do not overwhelm what is essentially solid country music from one of the great country singers. You can find it on a joint CD with three other early Pride albums.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Charley Pride – ‘Country Charley Pride’

RCA took an unconventional approach in introducing Charley Pride to country audiences. Legend has it that they avoided putting his picture on the sleeves of his singles, in order to conceal his race and increase the likelihood that radio would play them. However, his debut album Country Charley Pride, which does have his photo on the cover, was released in 1966 before he’d scored any charting singles.

Produced by Jack Clement, Country Charley Pride consists mostly of covers of well-known songs of the day. The only original song is Pride’s debut single, the non-charting “The Snakes Crawl at Night”, a tale of infidelity and revenge, written by Mel Tillis and Fred Burch. Given the subject matter, it is a surprisingly upbeat number about a cuckolded husband who sentenced to hang after shooting his unfaithful wife and her paramour. The album’s other non-charting single was “Before I Met You”, one of my favorite Charley Pride songs. Originally a hit for Carl Smith a decade earlier, the song was later recorded by Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. Reba McEntire also covered it in 1984 on her My Kind of Country album.

It was unusual in the 1960s (and now) to release a full album for a new artist that had yet to prove himself at radio but for whatever reason, RCA did sanction an album release. Interestingly, the lack of a radio hit did not impede the album’s sales. It reached #16 on the album charts and earned gold status — a rare feat for a country album, particularly one as traditional as this one. Clearly audiences connected with Pride’s voice. It also didn’t hurt that Clement and Pride played it safe and went with mostly well-known songs of the day, beginning with Harlan Howard’s “Busted”, and including credible covers of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City” (another Mel Tillis tune co-written with Danny Dill). Curly Putman’s “Green, Green Grass of Home” is also included, as are a pair of Jack Clement tunes, “Miller’s Cave” and “Got Leavin’ on Her Mind”, which closes out the disc.

None of these tunes lent themselves particularly well to 1960s Nashville Sound orchestral arrangements, so strings are mercifully absent from the album. Most of the songs do contain vocal choruses, though, which are quite intrusive at times as they tend to drown out Pride’s voice. That is my sole complaint about an otherwise stellar album. In addition to very strong material and wonderful singing by Pride, there is also a lot of prominent steel guitar work throughout.

Charley Pride is one of those artists, who despite being a huge star in his hey-day, is not as well remembered today as he ought to be. This is partially because he peaked before the CD era and for decades RCA did a poor job of managing its back catalog and allowed most of his work (and many of their other artists) to go out of print. That error is finally being rectified. Country Charley Pride is available on a 2-disc import set that also contains three of Pride’s other early albums, all of which are worthy of a listen.

Grade: A

Week ending 5/20/17: #1 singles this week in country music history

1957 (Sales): Gone — Ferlin Husky (Capitol)

1957 (Jukebox) (tie): Gone — Ferlin Husky (Capitol)
A White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation) — Marty Robbins (Columbia)

1957 (Disc Jockeys) (tie): Gone — Ferlin Husky (Capitol)
Honky Tonk Song — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1967: Sam’s Place — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1977Some Broken Hearts Never Mend — Don Williams (ABC/Dot)

1987: To Know Him Is To Love Him — Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt & Emmylou Harris (Warner Bros.)

1997: One Night at a Time — George Strait (MCA)

2007: Settlin’ — Sugarland (Mercury)

2017: Body Like a Back Road — Sam Hunt (MCA)

2017 (Airplay): Body Like a Back Road — Sam Hunt (MCA)

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘Ain’t Gonna Worry’

aint-gonna-worryThe rise of the New Traditionalists changed the face of commercial country music, with crossover artists like Crystal sidelined. Her final #1 hits came in 1986, and her last top 40 country song a couple of years later. Warner Brothers dropped her, but rival Capitol Records (just starting to benefit from the breakout of Garth Brooks, with whom Crystal shared a producer in Allen Reynolds) still saw commercial potential in her. Crystal’s brief tenure on Capitol resulted in this one album in 1990, which saw her drawing back a little from the overly sentimental and sometimes lifeless MOR material she had been recording through most of the 1980s.

‘Everybody’s Reaching Out For Someone’ is a very nice song, written by Allen Reynolds and Dickey Lee, with a pretty melody, a lovely vocal from Crystal and a tasteful arrangement. Despite its merits it was ignored by radio when released as Crystal’s first single for her new label. In other circumstances, it could easily have been a big hit.

An enjoyable upbeat remake of the pop/country oldie ‘Neverending Song Of Love’ with a bouncy accordion backing got marginally more attention, but she would never chart again. Also promoted as singles were ‘Just An Old Love’, a classy lost-love ballad with a string arrangement; and the semi-title track, ‘It Ain’t Gonna Worry My Mind’. Written by Crystal’s favourite writer Richard Leigh, it is a bluesy gospel-sounding tune set to a piano and string backing.

Three other songs are familiar from other versions. J D Souther’s ‘Faithless Love’ suits Crystal perfectly, as does ‘Once In A Very Blue Moon’, written by Pat Alger and Gene Levine, which had been Nanci Griffith’s first single and had also been cut by Dolly Parton. Alger also co-wrote ‘What He’s Doing Now’, this time with Garth Brooks. Brooks would have an enormous hit with this a few years later, as ‘What She’s Doing Now’. Crystal’s version is excellent.

‘Just Like The Blues’, written by Roger Brown, is in a more contemporary style, but very well done. ‘More Than Love’, written by Roger Cook and Bobby Wood, is also pretty good, while ‘Whenever It Comes To You’, written by Richard Leigh and Susanna Clark, is a lovely ballad.

I overlooked this album when it first came out but I enjoyed much more than I anticipated. Released at a different time I think it would have produced several big hits, and it’s well worth a listen.

Grade: A

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘When I Dream’

when-i-dreamBy 1978 Crystal was one of the biggest stars in country music, thanks to her massive crossover success. It was no surprise that the lead single from her new album, ‘Talking In Your Sleep’, raced to #1 on the country chart. A fine ballad with a beautiful melody and melancholy underpinning written by Roger Cook and Bobby Wood, it sets out a woman’s doubts of her man’s fidelity. The lush instrumentation and Crystal’s outstanding vocal helped it cross over, and it was her second biggest international hit. It was also top 20 US pop hit, and peaked at #3 on the AC chart.

It was followed by another chart topper, the handclapping ‘Why Have You Left The One You Left Me For’. Another strong emotional vocal and well-written song, albeit not as good as its predecessor, it was catchy and also crossed over, peaking at #22 on the AC chart.

It was still relatively rare to issue more than two singles from one album in the late 1970s, and it is a sign of Crystal’s stature that the third single from When I Dream, the title track, reached #3 on the country chart. The wistful ballad is a fine Sandy Mason song which Crystal re-recorded for this album, and which has become a standard.

‘Heart Mender, written by Richard Leigh and Milton Blackford, is another melodic AC ballad with a tune somewhat reminiscent of Dolly Parton’s ‘Here I Come Again’ and a delicately delivered vocal. It was released as a single in 1980 to promote Favorites, a compilation of non-hits from her time on United Artists, after she had jumped ship for Columbia; but competing with brand new material, it barely charted.

‘Hello I Love You’, written by Roger Cook and Charles Cochran, is rather boring MOR, and Dave Loggins’ ‘Don’t Treat Me Like A Stranger’ is awkwardly paced and very pop sounding.

Much better is Bob McDill’s pretty love song about keeping a marriage going, ‘Too Good To Throw Away’. ‘Paintin’ This Old Town Blue’, written by W T Davidson, is also very good in a jazzy vein.

There are a handful of covers illustrating the range of Crystal’s influences. The standard ‘Cry Me A River’ also draws on her jazz leanings, and is given a sultry reading. Story song ‘The Wayward Wind’ is also beautifully sung in an AC style. Ian Tyson’s cowboy love story ‘Someday Soon’ gets a more stripped back arrangement, and is lovely. Best of all is Crystal’s gorgeous reading of Johnny Cash’s ‘I Still Miss Someone’.

This album showcases Crystal Gayle at the peak of her powers. While it’s not the kind of country music I personally prefer, I can’t deny it’s an excellent record of its kind, well produced by Allen Reynolds, and i enjoyed listening to most of the tracks.

Grade: A

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘Crystal Gayle’

crystalgaylecrystalgayleCrystal Gayle released her eponymous debut album in February 1975. The legendary Allen Reynolds produced the record, which was her first for United Artists. It peaked at #25.

The first single was “Wrong Road Again,” written by Reynolds. The short ballad is lyrically generic, but found significance sonically. The heavy orchestration was a sharp diversion from sounds typically associated with country music at the time. The gamble, which became a genre norm going forward, paid off – the song rose to #6.

She wouldn’t receive as a warm a reception with the album’s other two singles. “Beyond You,” which she co-wrote with Bill Gatzimos, is a gorgeous piano ballad that petered out at #27. The far more appealing, and a lot more country, “This Is My Year for Mexico” peaked at #21.

Reynolds also contributed “Loving You So Long Now,” an excellent guitar-driven mid-tempo number reminiscent of his work with Waylon Jennings. Gayle also shines on Paul Craft’s “Counterfeit Love (You Know I Got It),” a gentle uptempo number. Canadian Country Singer Ray Griff, who passed away earlier this year, wrote the jaunty and steel drenched “Gonna Lay Me Down Beside My Memories.” Singer/songwriter Marshall Chapman is behind the fantastic “A Woman’s Heart (Is A Handy Place To Be).”

I also love the ear-catching “Hands,” which may have a slightly cutesy lyric, boasts the strongest production work on the entire album. Crystal Gayle also features the first rendition of “When I Dream,” which Gayle would rerecord as the title track to her 1978 album. Issued as a single it would peak at #3. I much prefer the version found here, which finds the song in a more organic setting, with a nice cadence. Lush ballad “You,” written by Dolly Parton was the only song on the album not quite to my tastes.

As we know from Occasional Hope’s excellent review of I’ve Cried The Blue Right Out of My Eyes, these aren’t Gayle’s first recordings. Paul also pointed out United Artists issued three low-charting singles prior to the release of “Wrong Road Again,” her fourth single for the label. But these are the songs that saw Gayle as the artist she would become, her own woman, outside of her sister’s shadow. Reynolds has crafted an excellent showcase for her while simultaneously contributing to a changing landscape in country music (I always refer to as ‘slick country,’ although a more fitting moniker may exist) that wouldn’t be properly rectified for another decade. But it’s still a fabulous album, that nicely fits into the greater legacy of the genre.

Grade: A

EP Review: J.P. Harris (with Nikki Lane, Kristina Murray, Kelsey Waldon and Leigh Nash) – ‘Why Don’t We Duet In The Road’

jpharris_duet_largeweb_1024x1024J.P. Harris, whose sound is described as ‘booming hippie-friendly honky-tonk,’ found the inspiration for Why Don’t We Duet In The Road in the collaborative spirit of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s seminal Will The Circle Be Unbroken. The EP finds Harris covering iconic duets with some of Nashville’s most innovate female singer/songwriters, in an effort to bottle his experiences in Music City with a record aimed at prosperity over commercial viability.

Harris hunkered down in Ronnie Milsap’s former studio to record the four-track album, which he self-produced in a single six-hour session. What resulted is rough around the edges, fueled by twangy guitars and a gorgeous interpretation of outlaw country.

No one better exemplifies the modern outlaw spirit than Nikki Lane, who burst onto the scene in 2011 blending rockabilly and honky-tonk. She teams with Harris on “You’re The Reason Our Kids are Ugly,” which finds the pair embodying the spirit of Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn’s 1978 original. Harris’ choice of Lane to accompany him is a smart one. You can hear her ballsy grit as she uses her smoky alto to channel Lynn’s feisty spirit without sacrificing her distinct personality.

The least familiar of Harris’ collaborators is likely Americana darling Kristina Murray, who joins him for an excellent reading of George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s “Golden Ring.” The pair is brilliant together, with Murray emerging as a revelation with her effortless mix of ease and approachability. I quite enjoyed the arrangement, too, which has the perfectly imperfect feel of a band completely in sync with one another.

Harris is the star on “If I Was A Carpenter,” which finds him with the criminally underrated Kelsey Waldon. Her quiet assertiveness, which could’ve used a touch more bravado, is, unfortunately, no match for his buttery vocal. Waldon’s contributions are by no means slight; he’s just magnetic.

The final selection, Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner’s “Better Move It On Home,” finds Harris with the most recognizable vocalist of the bunch, Leigh Nash. She’s best known as the lead singer of Sixpence None The Richer, the band that hit #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the iconic “Kiss Me” in 1998. She’s since gone on to a solo career, which includes a country album released in September 2015. She taps into that grit here, and erases any notion of her pop sensibilities, but proves she doesn’t quite measure up to Parton on the 1971 original. The pair had an uphill battle ahead of them from the onset and they didn’t quite deliver.

That being said Why Don’t We Duet in the Road is a fantastic extended play highlighting five uniquely talented vocalists. If country artists continue to churn out releases of this high a quality than 2017 is going to be a very good year, indeed.

Grade: A

NOTE: Why Don’t We Duet in the Road is offered as a random colored double 7” limited to 500 copies, which as of press time are about halfway to sold out. Rolling Stone Country also has the tracks accessible for streaming, which I highly recommend. The EP is also available on iTunes as of January 6.

Top 10 hidden gems of 2016

drinking-with-dollyIn previous years, I’ve compiled a top 10 singles list, but although there have been some encouraging signs on country radio, I didn’t feel inspired by this year’s releases. Instead I want to highlight some of the best individual songs which appeared on albums which didn’t make my top 10 albums list, together with the odd single not yet featured on a full length release.

10. ‘What I’d Say’ – Lorrie Morgan
Realising her voice was in decline, Lorrie took steps to get it back to something approaching its best. This gorgeous reading of the classic was the highlight of her new album.

9. ‘I Never Will Marry’ – Loretta Lynn
Loretta goes old-time country folk on this track from Full Circle. A delight.


8. ‘Pawn Shop’ – Shelley Skidmore

A great Brandy Clark story song about hard lives and broken dreams reminiscent of the best country songs.

7. ‘Can’t Be That Wrong’ – Dolly Parton
A ballad about cheating, guilt and refusal to repent.

6. ‘Drinking With Dolly’ – Stephanie Quayle
A truly delightful wistful reimagining of the lives of country stars of the past.

5. – ‘It’s Just A Dog’ – Mo Pitney
A heartbreaker about the love of a rescue dog.

4. ‘Had A Thing’ – Curtis Grimes
The best song from Curtis’s excellent eight-track EP/album which, with a few more songs would have had a shot at making my top 10 list.

3. ‘Lonesomeville’ – William Michael Morgan
A lovely neotraditional lost love ballad from a young man who is starting to make real headway in the mainstream. Very reminiscent of early Joe Nichols.

2. ‘Still A Child’ – Dori Freeman
25 year old Dori Freman from Virginia is a folk-country singer-songwriter whose self-titled debut album was produced by British folk musician Teddy Thompson. Not all of it is perfect, but her pretty, fragile voice shines, and the best song by far is this graceful waltz. A gentle melody belies a hard hitting lyric rejecting a man who just can’t grow up. Excellent.

1. ‘Sad One Coming On’ – Vince Gill
Vince’s latest solo album was a sad disappointment, but it was almost redeemed by this superb, heartfelt tribute to George Jones, which is an instant classic.

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.

Christmas Album Review: Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood – ‘Christmas Together’

christmas-togetherSuperstar Garth Brooks and wife Trisha Yearwood have been talking about recording a duet album together for years, especially since they came out of retirement. It was something of a surprise, though, to find they had chosen a Christmas album.

The opening ‘I’m Beginning To See The Light’ is a bit too jazzy and cutesy for me. It is a true duet. ‘Marshmallow World’ is too sweet. The pair work together best on the playful ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’, which is my favorite track by far.

Garth takes the lead on the silly novelty ‘Ugly Christmas Sweater’, and on a boring attempt at the Mexican ‘Feliz Navidad’. ‘Merry Christmas Means I Love You’ is bland and tries too hard to be inclusive. Almost the entire record is purely focussed on the secular side of Christmas, the one exception coming with the thoughtful and rather lovely ‘What I’m Thankful For’, which is a duet between Garth and singer-songwriter James Taylor.

Trisha is, quite literally, unrecognisable on the vampish ‘Santa Baby’. Infinitely better is a gorgeous reading of ‘What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve’, although it gets a tiny bit self-indulgent towards the end. ‘Hard Candy Christmas’, from the Dolly Parton movie ‘Best Little Whorehouse In Texas’ does have a musical theater vibe about it, but is beautifully sung. ‘Her version of ‘The Man With the Bag’ is also very well done, and I enjoyed it a lot despite its lack of any country elements.

I was very disappointed by this album as a whole, but there are a few bright spots.

Grade: C

Album Review: Tammy Wynette – ‘Heart Over Mind’

515m5b-5vol-_ss500There comes a point in even the most respected and revered artist’s career when the hits stop coming. Tammy Wynette’s commercial success began tapering off in the 1980s. 1985’s “Sometimes When We Touch”, a duet with Mark Gray, was her last Top 10 record. 1987’s Higher Ground found her embracing the New Traditionalist movement. That disc spawned two Top 20 hits. 1989’s Next To You was in many ways a throwback to the style for which she was known in the 1960s and 1970s. Neither of that album’s two singles reached the Top 40. Wynette never stopped trying to get back to the top of the charts, and her label, to its credit, stuck by her. 1990’s Heart Over Mind, produced by Bob Montgomery, was an attempt to modernize her sound without sacrificing the element that made her identifiable and unique. And for a brief moment, it appeared that the strategy might actually work.

The album’s lead single “Let’s Call It a Day Today” was one of those tear-jerkers that Tammy sang like no one else could. It finds her packing her things and plotting her escape from a floundering marriage while her soon-to-be ex sleeps. Her voice was showing some signs of age, but the production was contemporary and fresh. And country radio, which had ignored her last several releases, seemed to be paying attention. I heard the record quite a lot on my local station when it was first released. Unfortunately, it soon lost its momentum and topped out at #57. The songs lyrics make reference to the couple’s children and imply that Wynette is taking them with her, but the video which was directed by Tammy’s former lover interest Burt Reynolds, shows her leaving them behind, casting her in a slightly less sympathetic vein.

The second single “I’m Turning You Loose” is a light-hearted uptempo kiss-off written by Sonny Throckmorton and Curly Putman. It failed to chart. The third and final single “What Goes With Blue” is another uptempo number which finds Tammy picking out a wardrobe as she prepares to re-enter the dating scene. It charted at #56. It is the fourth song on the album and I’ve always thought of it as the follow-up to the story told in the album’s third track, “Suddenly Single”, a ballad which finds Tammy still picking up the pieces following a break-up.

Although it produced no hits, Heart Over Mind is a consistently strong effort from beginning to end, from the bouncy title track to “Half the Way Home”, a poignant look back at al lifelong friendship, and “If You Were The Friend”, which finds Tammy agonizing over whether to tell her best friend that her husband is cheating on her, and wondering what the friend would do if the situation were reversed.

Heart Over Mind was valiant effort to regain Wynette’s commercial momentum, but sadly it confirmed for once and for all that radio was through with her. With the exception of “Where’s The Fire”, which is ill-suited for Tammy’s voice, there are no missteps. Although she continued to record until almost the end of her life, this was her final solo album. Her subsequent releases were all collaborative efforts: 1993’s Honky Tonk Angels teamed her up with Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, 1994’s Without Walls found her singing with a variety of guest artists from both within and outside the country music community, and 1995’s One reunited her with George Jones. Epic also released a three disc boxed set, Tears of Fire, in 1992 to commemorate Wynette’s 25 years with the label. None of the tracks from Heart Over Mind were included, and it’s highly likely that this album was overlooked by some fans. It’s well worth a listen if you’ve missed it.

Grade: A

50th CMA Awards: Grading the Twenty Performances

Instead of the typical CMA Awards prediction post, I thought it might be fun to rank the twenty performances, all of which brought something special to the evening. Here they are, in ascending order, with commentary:

20.

imrs-phpBeyoncé Feat. Dixie Chicks – Daddy’s Lessons

The most debated moment of the night was the worst performance in recent CMA history, an embarrassment to country music and the fifty years of the organization. Beyoncé was the antithesis of our genre with her staged antics and complete lack of authenticity. If Dixie Chicks had performed this song alone, like they did on tour, it would’ve been a slam-dunk. They were never the problem. Beyoncé is to blame for this mess.

Grade: F

19.

Kelsea Ballerini – Peter Pan

I feel bad for her. It seems Ballerini never got the memo that this was the CMA Awards and not a sideshow at Magic Kingdom. Everything about this was wrong – the visuals, wind machine and, most of all, the dancers. Once I saw the harness in plain sight, I knew it was over.

Grade: F 

 18.

362x204-q100_121d9e867599857df2132b3b6c77e0c8Luke Bryan – Move

Nashville is perennially behind the trends as evidenced by Bryan’s completely out of place performance. One of only two I purposefully fast forwarded through.

Grade: F 

 17.

Florida Georgia Line feat. Tim McGraw – May We All 

Stood out like a sore thumb, for all the wrong reasons. Not even McGraw could redeem this disaster.

Grade: F  

16.

gettyimages-620669440-43407842-8b2a-437b-a6e4-f643a1b5b104Carrie Underwood – Dirty Laundry

The newly minted Female Vocalist of the Year gave the third weakest performance of this year’s nominees. I commend her use of an all-female band, but disliked everything else from the visuals to Underwood’s dancing. It all starts with the song and this one is among her worst.

Grade: D+

15.

Thomas Rhett – Die A Happy Man

The biggest hit of the year gave Thomas Rhett a moment his other radio singles proves he doesn’t deserve. He remained gracious throughout the night, proving he can turn it on when it counts. I just wish it wasn’t an act.

Grade: B- 

14.

362x204-q100_b63432d74b677e29d35917efd7490170Keith Urban – Blue Ain’t Your Color

A perfectly serviceable performance of an above average song. He did nothing to stand out from the pack neither adding to nor distracting from the night’s more significant moments.

Grade: B

13.

Dierks Bentley feat. Elle King – Different for Girls 

At least Bentley wasn’t showcasing the rowdier side of Black. He and King didn’t do anything to stand out and the whole thing was more middle of the road than anything else.

Grade: B

 12.

landscape-1478192054-gettyimages-620693852Martina McBride, Reba McEntire, Kacey Musgraves, Jennifer Nettles and Carrie Underwood – Dolly Parton Tribute 

I have nothing against Parton nor do I deny her incredible legacy as a pioneer in the genre. But it’s time to honor someone else. Parton has been lauded and it’s so old at this point, it’s unspectacular. That’s not to say this wasn’t a great medley, it was. I just wish it had been for someone different, like say, Tanya Tucker.

Grade: B

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Spotlight Artist: Tammy Wynette (1942-1998)

tammy-wynette-200-030612One day in 1966, a receptionist was absent from her desk and the course of country music was forever altered. It sounds like an unlikely scenario, but an unattended receptionists’ desk is what prompted Wynette Byrd, an aspiring singer and divorced mother of three, to knock on the office door of producer Billy Sherrill.  Sherrill tried to brush her off, telling her to leave a tape that he would listen to later.  She didn’t have one, so she offered him a live audition, right then and there.  He listened to her and then politely dismissed her, but shortly thereafter had a change of heart.  He had been trying to obtain the rights to an independent label recording of “Apartment No. 9”, a tune written by Bobby Austin and Johnny Paycheck.  When his efforts failed, he decided to have one of his own artists record the song instead.  He offered it to Wynette, who, having been turned down by every major label in Nashville, was about to return home to Birmingham, Alabama and abandon her dream of becoming a singer.

“Apartment No. 9”, produced by Sherill, was a modest hit for Tammy Wynette, as she was now known, reaching #44 on the Billboard country singles chart.  It performed well enough to secure her a contract with Epic Records.  Her second single, “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad”, reached #3, was followed by a string of #1s, and a star was born.  Tammy Wynette was eventually credited by her label as the first female country artist to have a million-selling album and became known as The First Lady of Country Music.

She was born Virginia Wynette Pugh on May 5, 1942 in Tremont, Mississippi.  Her father died from a brain tumor when Wynette was nine months old.  She was raised by her grandparents when her mother obtained work in a Memphis defense plant. After World War II ended, her mother remarried and returned to Mississippi.  Like many mother s and daughters, they did not always get along.  The desire to get out from under her mother’s control played a large part in Wynette’s ill-advised decision to marry Euple Byrd a month before she was to graduate from high school.  Unsurprisingly, the union was not a happy one and Wynette left him prior to the birth of their third daughter.  Shortly after obtaining work as a hairdresser in Birmingham, Alabama, she began to pursue her dream of becoming a country singer.

After securing her deal with Epic, success came quickly for Tammy.  “I Don’t Wanna Play House” became her first #1 hit in 1967.  That same year, “Take Me To Your World” also chopped the charts, as did “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” in early 1968.  Then, one day in the recording studio she helped Sherrill finish a song that he had been writing.  She had some reservations about the final product, but he convinced her to record “Stand By Your Man”, which became her signature hit and one of the most recognized songs in country music.  In 2003, CMT ranked it at #1 on its list of top 100 country songs of all time.

Although very successful professionally, Wynette’s personal life continued to be tumultuous.  She married her childhood idol George Jones in 1969, shortly after her brief second marriage to songwriter Don Chapel was annulled.  She and Jones had a daughter together, Tamala Georgette Jones, who was born in 1970, and they also recorded a number of successful duet records.  They divorced in 1975, primarily because of Jones’ alcoholism.  Another brief marriage to Michael Tomlin ended after only 44 days.  In 1978 Tammy married producer and songwriter George Richey, to whom she remained wed for the rest of her life.

Beginning in the 1970s Tammy was frequently plagued with ill health, which began with complications from a hysterectomy that she underwent shortly after Georgette’s birth.  She was frequently hospitalized for bile duct infections and underwent dozens of surgeries, which led to a dependency on prescription painkillers.  She entered the Betty Ford Center in 1986 to overcome her addiction.

Tammy’s hits began to taper off in the early 1980s, although she remained a concert draw.  She continued to work a grueling schedule despite her continuing health problems.  She landed a role on the CBS daytime soap Capitol in 1986.

The entire nation mourned when Tammy Wynette passed away peacefully in her sleep on April 6, 1998, at age 55.  The initial cause of death was said to be a blood clot in her lung, but like her life, her death was shrouded in drama.  Her daughters alleged that Wynette’s husband George Richey had overmedicated her and filed a wrongful death lawsuit against him.  Wynette’s body was disinterred and an autopsy cited cardiac arrythmia as the cause of death.  The lawsuit against Richey was subsequently dropped.

In 1998 the Country Music Hall of Fame voted to induct her into its hallowed halls. Wanting to keep the decision a surprise, her family kept the news from her. Sadly, she passed away shortly before her induction, unaware of the honor that had been bestowed on her.

Along with Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette was a trailblazer for women in country music during the 1960s and 1970s.  While we cannot do her rich legacy justice in a single month, we are attempting to cover at least some of the highlights as we spotlight her career during the month of November.  Keep the Kleenex at hand.

Classic Rewind: Dolly Parton – ‘Precious Memories’

Single Review: Artists of Then, Now and Forever – ‘Forever Country”

forevercountry-1110x400

The Country Music Association has found a way of honoring their fiftieth anniversary – gather 30 of the genre’s biggest stars from the past, present and future for an unprecedented collaboration. The result is certainly buzzworthy and continues the tradition of the ‘all-star jam’ that saw its beginnings with the original 1972 recording of ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken.’ The trend continued into the 1990s (Think “I Don’t Need Your Rocking Chair” and “One Heart At A Time”) before seemly dying off.

“Forever Country,” as the collaboration is called, blends three country standards – “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “I Will Always Love You” and “On The Road Again” into a single song showcasing each of the artists involved with dedicated solos. The John Denver classic is the bedrock, with the others woven in.

The song succeeds because of Shane McAnally, who subtracts not distracts with his warm production values. He does a superb job of complimenting each artist with a sense of balance that allows each one to shine individually. While they also beautifully come together as a collective whole, it’s obvious that some do shine brighter than others, which is understandable in such a context.

It’s been a long time since the legacy of country music has been honored and I admire the Country Music Association for bringing their theme and mission alive in such a public way. To have all these artists in one place, on one track truly is astonishing. We’ve let history fall by the wayside in recent years as boom era veterans (the last artists to grow up on classic country music) have been pushed out in favor of younger artists who meet demographic needs but have little knowledge of or appreciation for what it took to make their careers possible. This pattern is cyclical and leaves behind those who refer to the past as ‘the good ole days’ when country music still had a soul.m_forevercountrycma

Those unworthy younger performers, of which there are too many to mention, are nowhere to be found, which begs a question – are they subtly making the claim that no one, save Brett Eldridge (who adds is voice to the mix), is truly worthy of carrying the torch for the next generation? It also saves the track from coming off as a laughing stock.

“Forever Country” could’ve exercised a bit more imagination than having Dolly being Dolly at the end, there are legends missing I would’ve liked to have seen included and it’s odd to have Jason Aldean (who was shut out of the nominations entirely) figure so prominently. But the intention and heart of the project is carried out in execution, which is why “Forever Country” shines so brightly. It’s the gimmick that succeeds in not being gimmicky at all. It’s far from the greatest recording I’ve ever heard, but it is a welcomed surprise. I’ll take it.

Grade: A

 

 

Album Review: Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris & Linda Ronstadt – ‘The Complete Trio Collection’

81a3vfrcssl-_sx522_-2Thirty years ago, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt finally cleared their schedules and went into the studio to record the album they had talked about making for years. Released in March 1987, Trio was an immediate critical and commercial success, selling more than four million copies and winning two Grammy Awards. A follow-up album was released in 1999. The ladies reportedly would have liked to have recorded a third volume, but sadly Parkinson’s disease has rendered Ronstadt unable to sing. There was however, enough unreleased material from the first two albums to piece together a third collection. It consists of songs that were not used for the first two projects, as well as alternate takes and mixes of some of the songs that were used. These alternate takes/mixes sometimes differ radically from the previously released versions and at other times the changes are more subtle.

The Complete Trio Collection, released last week via Rhino Records is a three disc set consisting of remastered versions of the first two albums and a third disc of mostly previously unreleased material. Presumably most of our readers are familiar with Trio and Trio II, so I will focus on the third disc.

Despite the title, this is not a complete collection of the recordings Parton, Harris and Ronstadt made together. Noticeably absent is “Palms of Victory”, which was included in Emmylou’s 2007 Songbird collection and I assume that are other commissions. “Palms of Victory” was recorded in 1978 during one of the ladies’ earlier recording sessions from which no album was ever released. Two tracks from those sessions – “Mr. Sandman” and “Even Cowgirls Get The Blues” were released on Emmylou’s solo albums in the early 80s. Parton’s and Ronstadt’s vocals were removed from the single version of “Mr. Sandman”, since they were signed to different labels at the time.

Also labeled as unreleased is “Softly and Tenderly”, one of my favorite hymns. This track too was included in the Songbird collection. It concludes with a majestic vocal performance by Ronstadt and is well worth hearing again.

Dolly’s “Wildflowers” was a single released from the original album that reached #6 in the spring of 1988. It was a semi-biographical number on which she sang lead, with Emmylou and Linda providing the harmony vocals. The alternate take provided here has a completely different arrangement, with each of the ladies taking a turn singing the lead. The overall effect is more in the vein of “Palms of Victory” and the music that Emmylou made with Brian Ahern in the 70s. It’s quite different from the version we’re all familiar with but I liked it quite a lot. “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind” is another Dolly composition that she has revisited many times over her career. An Emmylou-led version appeared on Trio II, but the alternate version has Dolly singing the lead. It is also faster paced with a lot of handclaps. Quite different from the previous version but it works equally well.

“Making Plans” was one of the last hits that Dolly had enjoyed with Porter Wagoner. A three-part harmony version appeared on the first Trio collection. The newly released version features Dolly singing solo. It’s a beautiful performance and for a song about being alone, a single voice is quite effective. “My Dear Companion” is given a similar treatment — omitting Dolly’s and Linda’s harmony vocals. Although Emmylou does a lovely job singing it, I do miss hearing Dolly and Linda echoing her words on the chorus. “Lover’s Return” from Trio II appears here as a Linda solo. Other tracks such as “I’ve Had Enough” and “Farther Along” are remixed so subtly that many fans might not notice the differences at first.

The disc also includes a number of previously unreleased songs that are not alternate takes or remixes – i.e., “new” material. Some of them we’ve heard before in different versions: Dolly’s “My Blue Tears” done in three-part harmony here, Emmylou’s “Waltz Across Texas”, and “Grey Funnel Line” which was previously recorded by Emmylou with Irish singers Mary Black and Dolores Keane. Others are less familiar. Dolly does a beautiful job on Tony Arata’s “Handful of Dust”, although I still prefer Patty Loveless’ more uptempo version. “You Don’t Knock” is a wonderful uptempo Gospel number, and “Are You Tired of Me” is a Carter Family classic from 1927. Dolly’s original composition “Pleasant as May” was written and recorded during the 1986 sessions but sounds like something that could have come from the Carter Family era.

Rhino Records enjoys a well deserved reputation for the way it handles reissues of classic material, and for that reason I decided to purchase the physical CD set instead of downloading from iTunes as I usually buy music nowadays. I must say that I’m a bit disappointed in the packaging. I hate digipaks and was hoping for a more deluxe package similar to Songbird, but given the economic realities in the music industry today, the decision to go with cheaper packaging is understandable. That is really my sole complaint about the collection. It may be overkill for casual fans but for diehards like me, this collection is a real treat.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Lonestar – ‘Lonely Grill’

41mmbvjspklFor their third outing, Lonestar joined forces with a new production team consisting of Dann Huff, Sam Ramage and Bob Wright. The result was a slicker and more pop-oriented sound and the best-selling album of the band’s career with more than three million units sold in the United States alone.

The lead single was the beat-driven, lyrically light party song “Saturday Night”, with a chorus consisting of song’s title being spelled out repetitively. Such a terrible song would be a monster hit today, but in the pre-bro country era, radio wasn’t impressed and it died at #47. I had never heard it before and did not even know it had been a single.

“Saturday Night” may have underperformed, but the album’s subsequent singles all rose to #1. The best-remembered of these is “Amazed”, the band’s signature tune which was also a huge crossover hit, reaching #1 on the Hot 100 — marking the first time a country act occupied that slot since Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton scored a #1 pop hit with “Islands in the Stream” in 1983. “Smile”, “What About Now” and “Tell Her” were the remaining singles. All of them rank among Lonestar’s best loved hits, and deservedly so. These songs solidified Lonestar’s position as one of the era’s most successful — perhaps THE most successful — country bands. The upbeat “What About Now” is a nice change of pace from the ballads. “Smile” and “Tell Her” are a little more AC-leaning than I would like, but both are decent songs.

The album cuts are a little more of a mixed bag. I enjoyed the reggae-flavored Don Henry-Benmont Tench number “Don’t Let’s Talk About Lisa” and “I’ve Gotta Find You”, written by Richie McDonald with Ron Harbin and Marty Dodson. None of the other tracks are particularly memorable, with the exception of the closing number which is an acoustic remake of Lonestar’s earlier hit “Everything’s Changed”, which proves that a gifted vocalist and a good song can shine without the aid of glossy production.

Lonely Grill is a must-have for diehard Lonestar fans, but more casual listeners will probably be just as happy with their Greatest Hits package.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton – ‘The Pain Of Loving You’