My Kind of Country

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

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Album Review: Midland — ‘Midland’

NOTE: Occasional Hope reviewed this upon release. Paul’s view of the album appears below: 

I know I’m a little late to the party in discovering this late 2017 release but I rarely listen to over-the-air country stations these days.

Other than my brother Sean, who knows my tastes in folk, jazz & pop standards (but knows little about country or bluegrass music), none of my family or friends give me music as a birthday or Christmas present. So much to my surprise, I received this CD at Christmas from a nephew of mine who claimed this to be “old style” country music. Of course, my nephew is only 18 so his idea of “old style” country might have been Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban, and Jason Aldean, whereas my definition differs considerably.

Well, it has been a really busy last few weeks for me so it wasn’t until a few days ago that I got around to popping On The Rocks into my CD player (prompted by the fact that I would see my nephew again in two weeks). Much to my surprise, I found myself listening to a real country record, one actually coming out of Nashville.

No, this is not a country record of the sort that could have been played in the classic country period (1944-1978), but it would definitely have fit into the country playlists of the period 1979 – 2005. Instead of a band whose influences were the likes of Eagles, Marshall Tucker and, James Taylor, I was hearing a band that was influenced by Alabama, Diamond Rio, Bellamy Brothers, Clint Black and perhaps John Anderson or Keith Whitley.

I do not know much about this act and perhaps they would tell you of other influences but I can definitely hear traces of the acts cited above. Moreover, this album has the sound of a country album, with prominent steel guitar, audible lyrics and, strong melodies.

Three singles were released to radio. The first single “Drinkin’ Problem” went to #3 on the US Country Airplay chart and went to #1 on Canadian Country chart. The song is an excellent low-key ballad with a good melody and nice steel guitar.

One more night, one more down

One more, one more round

First one in, last one out

Giving this town lots to talk about

They don’t know what they don’t know

 

People say I’ve got a drinkin’ problem

That ain’t no reason to stop

People sayin’ that I’ve hit rock bottom

Just ’cause I’m living on the rocks

It’s a broken hearted thinkin’ problem

So pull that bottle off the wall

People say I got a drinkin’ problem

But I got no problem drinkin’ at all

The second single was “Make A Little” which reached #15 and #12 respectively on the charts referenced above. The song is a mid-tempo rocker that would make a good dance floor number:

 It’s a hard living, tail kicking

Trip that we’re all on, but I’m betting

We can find a little sunshine in the night

It’s a back breaking, soul taking

Road we walk, so what are we waiting for

Baby let’s turn off the lights

‘Cause girl, there’s just not enough love in the world

 

So we should make a little

Generate a little

Maybe even make the world a better place a little

We could turtle dove, Dixie land delight

You know it can’t be wrong when it feels so right

It all comes down to you and me, girl

There’s just not enough love in the world

So we should make a little

Then make a little more tonight

The final single was “Burn Out” which reached #11 on The US Country Airplay chart but inexplicably just barely cracked the forty in Canada. This is probably my favorite song on the album

Watchin’ cigarettes burn out

‘Til all the neon gets turned out

There’s nothing left but empty glasses now

It’s all flashes now

Smokin’ memory that ain’t nothin’ but ashes

In the low lights

These done-me-wrong songs hit me so right

I was so on fire for you it hurts how

Fast a cigarette can burn out

I think that the following two songs would have made good singles: “Electric Rodeo:”

 It’s a lonely road

Two for the pain and three for the show

You put your life on hold chasin’ layaway dreams

That ain’t all they seem

With a hotel heart just tryin’ to find a spark

 

Electric rodeo

We’re paintin’ on our suits

We’re pluggin’ in our boots

We’re ridin’ high tonight

On Acapulco gold

And the rhinestones shine

Just as bright as diamonds

Underneath the lights

Electric rodeo

and “Out of Sight:”

Clothes ain’t in the closet, shoes ain’t under the bed

I should’ve believed her when she said what she said

“You’ll never change I know you never will”

I just sat there watching tailights rollin’ over the hill

I called her mama and I called her best friend

They said “She called it quits, so boy don’t call here again”

Up and down these streets lookin’ for her car

Tried to make it back home, but ended up at the bar

 

She’s gone (she’s gone, so long) never coming back

So gone (so gone, so gone) the train went off the track

And all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put me and my baby back together again

So long (she’s gone, so long) that’s the way it goes

She’s gone (so long, so long) and everybody knows

That I’m going crazy one night at a time

She’s out of sight and I’m out of my mind

The band consists of Jess Carson (acoustic guitar & background vocals), Cameron Duddy – (bass guitar & background vocals) and Mark Wystrach (lead vocals), with all three members being involved in the writing of eleven of the thirteen songs with Carson being involved as a co-writer on all thirteen songs, with an occasional assist from outside sources. The band is supplemented by some of Nashville’s finest studio musicians with Paul Franklin and Dan Dugmore swapping steel guitar duties, often carrying the melody line.

While I do not regard any of the tracks on the album as being timeless classics, I at least liked all of the tracks on the album since I never hit ‘skip’ on any of them. If you wonder whatever happened to that good country music of my early-to-middle adulthood youth (i.e. through the late 1970s and the 1990s), then give this CD a listen. I look forward to their next album.

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Tanya Tucker dazzles at Lancaster Fair

The Lancaster Fair, located on a flat grassy fairground in rural New Hampshire, has been carrying on a Labor Day weekend tradition since 1870. In recent years, the featured entertainment has been legacy country acts including Jo Dee Messina, Sawyer Brown and Pam Tillis & Lorrie Morgan. In fact, it was through Tillis herself I found out the fair even existed at all.

The act this year, who plays a free concert at the bandstand with admission to the fair, was Tanya Tucker. Having never seen her live before, I jumped at the opportunity to add her name to my ever-growing concert resume. As I suspected she dazzled the crowd and didn’t skip a beat as she ran through a nice cross-selection of her vast catalog.

What struck me the most, was her vitality. I had very wrongfully conjured up the perception in my mind that Tucker was on her last legs as a performer without much of a singing voice anymore. I’m thrilled to report she couldn’t have looked or sounded more like herself.

Her band opened the performance with a faithful rendition of Vince Gill’s “One More Last Chance” before Tucker graced the stage in a black western button-down, black pants, and a rhinestone-studded belt. She began with “Some Kind of Trouble” and kept the setlist tied to her work from the 1980s and 1990s, running through most of the hits from her well-deserved and celebrated comeback.

The majority of her set was accentuated by her up-tempo material with the gorgeous twangy guitars that always set her apart from the pack. She flubbed, and quickly recovered from forgetting the opening line of “Hangin’ In,” and turned in stellar renditions of “If Your Heart Ain’t Busy Tonight” and “Walking Shoes.”

She referenced 1997’s Complicated, the final album of her commercial peak, to introduce a surprise performance of “Little Things,” her most recent top ten single. It comes off a bit slicker and more pop-leaning than her earlier hits, especially mixed in the company of the earlier hits she performed, but it’s still classic Tucker and remains one of my favorites of hers.

Another favorite of mine, and one of hers too thankfully, is “Strong Enough To Bend,” which was dosed with gorgeous mandolin licks throughout. “Love Me Like You Used To” was equally as wonderful. The biggest surprise was the non-single “Can’t Run From Yourself,” the title track from her 1992 album, and a song she said she’s always liked. Her passion for the track was on fully display and her performance was feisty and incredible.

Mid-way through, she dipped her toes back into the 1970s, beginning with the creepy “What’s Your Mama’s Name” and continuing through “Lizzie and the Rainman” and “San Antonio Stroll.” “Texas (When I Die)” was another highlight, and the perfect excuse for a sing-a-long by the end.

Another detour found Tucker covering a few hits from her favorite artists. She began with a joyous and faithful reading of the Eagles “Peaceful Easy Feeling” before jumping into a unique medley of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” mixed with Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” Despite the obvious differences between the two songs, Tucker and the band found a way to blend them together perfectly and with ease. She concluded with Merle Haggard’s “Ramblin’ Fever,” which she recorded on her most recent album, the country standards covers record My Turn in 2009. Tucker’s performance was a revelation, and for me, one of the top highlights of the whole night.

Returning to her hits, Tucker somewhat stumbled through “It’s A Little Too Late,” inadvertently switching the first and second verses. Her performance was excellent though, and even included a nice bit of line dancing during the instrumental breakdown. She dedicated “Two Sparrows In A Hurricane” to her parents.

While Tucker doesn’t move on stage like she used to thirty years ago, she did inject her signature personality into the performance. I would say she did a lot of folding her arms and posing at the ends and between songs, but she never once stood still. At one point she even said she’d like to do a Harley trip in the area sometime during the autumn months some year, this after seeing the biggest cow she had ever seen, in the area that day, or possibly even at the fair itself.

If I could find any fault with the show at all, it came as Tucker began an impromptu and long intermission where she signed autographs from the stage for what felt like an eternity. Concertgoers were rushing to the front of the stage in droves for autographs and selfies, much to the disdain of everyone else, like myself, who would’ve rather seen the time filled with more music (such as “If It Don’t Come Easy,” “(Without You) What Do I Do with Me” and “Soon”).

One concertgoer had her sign their copy of her autobiography Nickel Dreams, which had her proclaim the book might’ve been billed as a tell-all but “a lot of people would have to die” before she could really “tell all.” Tucker joked she’ll have to write a sequel (none is currently in the works) and at this point, call it “Quarter Dreams.” She was sharp as a tack, even as people began filling out to get to their cars before a mad rush. Tucker did redeem herself, closing the show with a beautiful medley of “Amazing Grace” and “Delta Dawn,” the latter of which had the audience singing the final chorus back to her.

The crowd was mixed with people ranging from both young to older, with many young boys (5-7 years old) who were moving, grooving, and clearly had music in their souls. It was heartwarming to see young people exposed to authentic and traditional honky-tonk country music, which the seemed to be enjoying.

I also sincerely appreciated the lack of alcohol at the show. People may have had their share of soda, and other drinks, but there wasn’t any beer and the ruckus it causes. It truly was a refreshing thing not to have that added aggravation to potentially put a damper on the night.

I had never been to the Lancaster Fair before, despite having a ski condo in the area for the past 24+ years. I only went for Tucker and she was incredible. I’ve been to many unique and special concerts through the years, and this one was right up there with the best I’ve seen.

I hope this goes without saying, but if Tucker comes to your area, make it your duty as a country music fan to attend the show. She’s still got every bit the swagger she had all those years ago. You will most certainly not be disappointed.

Spotlight Artist: Little Texas

dsc003271The founding members of Little Texas got their start in music 1983 when Porter Howell and Duane Propes joined forces while still in High School. Tim Rushlow and Dwayne O’Brian began playing together in Arlington, Texas the following year. They first came together, with additional members, as The Varsities, performing both on the road and at Opryland as a 1950s show band.

The band concept eventually dissolved and the guys invited old friends Brady Seals and Del Gray, who started as musicians in country singer Josh Logan’s backing band, to join them in their new venture as a country/southern rock band. They started playing 300 dates a year around the United States. The six of them officially became Little Texas, named for a place outside Nashville where they used to rehearse, in 1988.

They caught the ear of Warner Bros. and were signed to the label in 1989. The band released their debut album, First Time For Everything, in 1991. The album went gold and garnered the hits “Some Guys Have All The Love” (#8), “You and Forever and Me” (#5) and the title track, which peaked at #13.

Their biggest success came in 1993 with their 2x platinum, Big Time, which spawned “What Might’ve Been (#2), “God Bless Texas” (#4) and their sole chart topper “My Love.” The band’s rendition of “Peaceful Easy Feeling” was included on Common Thread: Songs of the Eagles, which won them the CMA Award for Album of the Year.

The Academy of Country Music named Little Texas their Top Vocal Group in 1994. Kick A Little came in September, with both the title track and “Amy’s Back in Austin” charting in the Top 5. The band also went through a regime change when Seals, who had co-written all the band’s biggest hits, departed to embark on a solo career. Their Greatest Hits album would feature their final Top 5, “Life Goes On” the following year.

With the band now in transition, they contributed “Kiss A Girl,” from The Little Mermaid to the various artists collection The Best of Country Sings the Best of Disney. Another tribute track, “Beast of Burden” was featured on Stone Country: Country Artists Perform The Songs of the Rolling Stones. They also collaborated with Jeff Foxworthy on “Party All Night” from his Crank It Up: The Music Album.

Little Texas released their self-titled fourth album, the band’s final for Warner Bros., in 1997. Coming three years after Kick A Little, they had lost their momentum and thus weren’t able to regain traction with country radio. Shortly thereafter the band officially disbanded. Rushlow went on to a one-hit-wonder solo career when the excellent Alzheimer’s themed “She Misses Him” peaked at #8 in 2000.

Propes, Gray, Howell and O’Brian resurrected Little Texas in 2004, but faced pushback from Rushlow and Jeff Huskins, who sued in a failed attempt to block them from using the ‘Little Texas’ name. This second incarnation has produced two studio albums – Missing Years (2007) and Young For A Long Time (2015). A concert album, The Very Best of Little Texas: Live and Loud has also been released.

I hope you enjoy our look back at Little Texas throughout the month, sprinkled amongst our Best of 2016 coverage.

Dixie Chicks Live: long time gone, but back once again

imageIf there was ever a time for Dixie Chicks to mount a comeback tour in the United States, it would be now, while we’re in the midst of the most decisive presidential election in our nation’s history. Dixie Chicks are a political band, for better or worse, and not just because they register folks to vote in the concession area before, during and after each show.

The election does play a role, albeit a small one, in this latest production. The MMXVI Tour, as it’s being called, exists to commemorate the watershed moment Natalie Maines replaced Laura Lynch as lead singer twenty years ago. The success that followed forever changed the trajectory of mainstream country music, although this show, fierce country-tinged rock, spends more time ignoring that legacy than honoring it.

The balance skewed Taking The Long Way-heavy (although “Easy Silence, complete with a lyrical video, and the unexpected and rarely performed “Silent House” were fabulous), which allowed banjos, fiddles and dobros to act as accents opposed to centerpieces for the majority of the evening. But this being a Dixie Chicks show, they honored their past with fiery renditions of “Sin Wagon,” “Wide Open Spaces,” “Some Days You Gotta Dance,” “Mississippi” and “Not Ready To Make Nice.” Lush renditions of “Cowboy Take Me Away” and “Landslide” were also excellent, while the latter had a beautiful backdrop containing reflective images of the Chicks’ heads.

The rock theme was matched by the black and white set, minimal yet powerful, which hit you in the face with lights and sound as Dixie Chicks took the stage for the one-two punch of “The Long Way Around” and “Lubbock or Leave It.” They added significant muscle to the uptempos from Home, giving “Truth No. 2” and “Long Time Gone” a charge of energy unmatched by their humble acoustic beginnings.

The show is broken into two separate sections at the conclusion of highlight “Goodbye Earl,” and is bridged by a black-and-white car chase in which the ladies race to the sounds of Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades.” They returned with the night’s strongest segment, an acoustic set that hinted at their beginnings (“Traveling Soldier” and “White Trash Wedding”) while nicely showing where they could go with a cover of Beyoncé’s “Daddy’s Lessons,” from her recently released Lemonade. (They excluded their brilliant reading of Patty Griffin’s “Don’t Let Me Die In Florida,” for obvious reasons). They concluded this portion with an instrumental they concocted that had Maines banging a single drum framed in bluegrass beats.

FullSizeRenderThey skewed the presidential race jib-jab style on “Ready To Run,” my favorite moment of the whole show, which ended with red, white and blue confetti festively blanketing the audience. The eluded to Donald Trump just twice more; giving him devil horns during “Goodbye Earl” and when Maines said she’d protect a bug that had flown on stage by ‘building a wall’ around it.

It actually wasn’t Trump, but the recently deceased Prince that dominated the evening. They set the stage for the evening with him singing “Let’s Go Crazy” (after a video about wrongly incarcerated inmates, Dixie Chicks trivia questions and a random selections of Maines’ always colorful tweets) and treated the crowd to a stunning cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U” that brought fourth unforeseen colors in Maines’ voice soaked in a backdrop of his giant purple symbol. They ended the evening with Ben Harper’s “Better Way,” which they dedicated to the Pulse Nightclub victims in Orlando.

This Mansfield, MA stop on their tour was my fourth time seeing Dixie Chicks live. I saw them open for George Strait in 1999 and headline their own Top of The World (2003) and Accidents and Accusations (2006) tours. I was supposed to see them open for Eagles in 2010 at Gillette Stadium, but an unforeseen engagement got in the way. Each show has been dramatically different from the last, providing its own distinct flavors and textures.

While I’ll likely always regard their 2003 outing as their finest, this show wasn’t without considerable charms. The Chicks haven’t lost an ounce of the spunk they’ve cultivated over the past twenty years. They may have been pushing a bit too hard – the show was much louder than it needed to be – but the true essence of Dixie Chicks came through wonderfully. They’ve only gotten better, which is a testament to their incredible prowess. Ten years was a long time, but it was certainly worth the agonizing wait.

Predictions for the 58th Annual Grammy Awards

logoCountry music fans have much to look forward to come Grammy Night, which is coming up on Monday this year. Carrie Underwood and Sam Hunt will croon their duet “Heartbreat.” Chris Stapleton is slated to join Bonnie Raitt and others in a tribute to B.B. King. Luke Bryan is joining a slew of pop artists in honoring Lionel Richie, who is the Grammys MusiCares Person of the Year. Little Big Town will take the stage as well.

Best of all is the last minute announcement is that Eagles will honor Glenn Frey along with their good friend Jackson Browne. The rest of the show promises to be equally as jammed packed, with just about every major artist under the sun slated to take the stage.

Here are my predictions for the country nominees, plus categories that feature artists marketed within the country or American Roots genres. Please leave a comment and let us know who you think/hope will walk away with Grammy Gold.

Best Country Solo Performance

Little-Toy-GunsThis is a very solid group of nominees. Perennial favorite Carrie Underwood has lost this category only once – when Taylor Swift’s “White Horse” bested “Just A Dream.” Cam, surprisingly, is the weak link. Her hit version of “Burning House” is nowhere near as good as Emily Ann Roberts’ from The Voice last season. Who would’ve imagined a contestant on a reality singing competition would find the hidden nuance in a song its own singer couldn’t?

Should Win: “Chances Are” – Lee Ann Womack has yet to win a single award for her seventh album, a transitional record that showcased the artistic sensibilities she’s only hinted at until now. This is the album’s finest track, possibly the greatest performance she’s given to date. Real country music deserves to slay the competition.

Will Win: “Little Toy Guns” – It’s a fool’s game to bet against Carrie Underwood. Not only does she stand the strongest chance of winning, she’s the only one powerful enough to stop Chris Stapleton in his tracks. He will walk away a Grammy winner before the night it through, it just won’t be for the title track of his debut album.

Best Country Duo/Group Performance

81T8Z9H91mL._SL1500_This is a hodgepodge of nominees, with some forgettable performances along side some treasures.

Should Win: “If I Needed You” – Joey + Rory have the sentimental vote and a serge in name recognition since Joey’s cancer turned terminal last fall. They deserve to walk away the winner on what is their first and will likely be their only Grammy nomination.

Will Win: “Girl Crush” – There’s no stopping the Little Big Town behemoth, which is also in the running for the overall Song of the Year award. No one else is going to win this award.

Best Country Song

lovejunkies-660x400This is a heavyweight category, with a few extremely worthy nominees. I would love to see an upset here, but like the category above, there’s a very clear winner.

Should Win: “Hold My Hand” – Brandy Clark stole the show with her simple performance of this tune on last year’s telecast. The story of a woman determined to hold on to her man in the face of his ex is an instant classic. Clark deserves the prize for a tune she wrote and smartly kept for herself.

Will Win: “Girl Crush” – Should they lose Song of the Year, this will be their consolation prize. Should they win both, this will serve as icing on the cake.

travellerBest Country Album

Of all the country categories, this is easily the weakest. Little Big Town’s album was a dud, Kacey Musgraves’ was charming yet very uneven and Sam Hunt is…Same Hunt. The Grammys do deserve credit though – this is the first time in her career that Ashley Monroe has been nominated for an award for her own music.

Should Win: Traveller – I’m not fully on the Chris Stapleton bandwagon, but he does have the strongest album in this bunch. 

Will Win: Traveller – This is one, if not the only place, the Chris Stapleton bandwagon won’t be stopped.

A few more Predictions:

Jason-Isbell-24-frames-single-500x500Best American Roots Performance: I’d like to see Punch Brothers take this and finally win a Grammy of their own.

Best American Roots Song: Jason Isbell and “24 Frames.” The genius in the lyric is criminally underrated.

Best American Roots Album: I liked the upbeat nature of Punch Brothers Who’s Feeling Young Now better than the somber tone of The Phosphorescent Blues. They still deserve it, but I’d love to see Jason Isbell take this one. He hasn’t been recognized enough for his brilliant work.

Best Bluegrass Album: I haven’t a clue, but it would be interesting if the Steeldrivers take home an award the same night as their former lead singer Chris Stapleton does the same. If not, I’d go with Dale Ann Bradley.

Album of the Year: A strong category from which I’ve heard cases for each nominee to win. Stapleton could take it, as couldUnknown Alabama Shakes. But I’m going to go with Taylor Swift’s 1989, easily the most important pop album of the eligibility period.

Song of the Year: Taylor Swift has never won an award for her pop work with Max Martin. I expect that to change this year, when “Blank Space” deservedly takes this category. “Girl Crush” has a shot, but “Blank Space” is far more developed and clever.

Best New Artist: I’ll take a shot in the dark and choose Courtney Barnett. I just don’t see how this award could go to Sam Hunt. But stranger things have happened.

Album Review: Zac Brown Band – ‘Jekyll + Hyde’

Social-Profile-Icon-ndash-576-X-576-_zpslo9jbbovSince debuting eight years ago, Zac Brown Band has been a bright light on the increasingly barren landscape of mainstream country music. Ballads “Highway 20 Ride,” “Colder Weather” and “Goodbye In Your Eyes” join rompers “As She’s Walking Away” and “The Wind” as some of the strongest radio singles of the period. I’ve always loved Brown’s affable voice and his instance that fiddle prominently factor into the core of his band’s harmonic sound.

Still, the need for change has always been there. Zac Brown Band is quick to grow complacent, retreading musical ground when they should be pushing to elevate to the next level artistically. Uncaged, for example, beat their island-themed subset into the ground with the ear piercing “Jump Right In.”

Like clockwork, they’ve managed to do it again. Jekyll + Hyde is their widest album yet stylistically, covering everything from EDM and rock to jam band and, yes, more of those island rhythms. In turn, it mixes a hodge-podge of everything with a lot of retreaded ground.

The album opens with the wailing “Beautiful Drug,” which attempts to cross-pollinate by mixing EDM with acoustic country instrumentation. They venture into acid rock on the disastrous second single (it was a #1 on the Billboard Rock Chart) “Heavy Is The Head,” which features an assist from Soundgarden lead vocalist Chris Cornell. They further hone this sound on “Junkyard,” another slice of head pounding acid drivel.

Lead single “Homegrown,” while not a complete misstep, is the worst song they’ve ever sent to country radio. The suffocating production, complete with harmonies lifted from Eagles “The Long Run,” is only compounded by a lyric that’s too rudimentary to be interesting. Brown, Niko Moon, and Al Anderson ingeniously give third single “Loving You Easy” a catchy chorus to distract from the fact the song is nothing more than blandly warmed-over 1970s soft rock, a slower sonic counterpart to “Keep Me In Mind.” The jam band aesthetic continues on groovy love songs “One Day” and “Young and Wild.”

Brown employs a hoard of songwriters, a tradition in modern pop music, to help with two of the album’s tracks. “Wildfire,” which is co-written with Eric Church, follows in the same musical vein as “Homegrown” and feels primed to be a single. “I’ll Be Your Man (Song for a Daughter),” presumably written from Brown’s personal experience (he has four of them), explores a pop-leaning waltzing style complete with staccato beats.

The resurrection of their island-theme signature comes in the form of “Castaway.” A breezy ukulele and steel drum soaked jam that continues the escapism of “Knee Deep,” the song beautifully evokes the intended feeling in a way that feels somewhat fresh yet cheesy at the same time. They go a step further by fully exploring horn-laden Swing on “Mango Tree,” a duet with pop vocalist Sara Bareilles. The upbeat jazzy grove fits Brown like a glove, which surprised even me.

The remainder of the album showcases how Zac Brown Band fares when they revisit what they’ve already done musically, but with fresh eyes. Life affirming “Remedy” preaches love as the answer with ribbons of Celtic influence. Discourse continues on “Tomorrow Never Comes,” a bluegrass romp delivering the same central message as the Garth Brooks classic. “Bittersweet” tells a dark tale about lost love with a melody that recalls, but adds a bit more meat to, their penchant for tracks with a delicate acoustic softness.

The Jason Isbell composition “Dress Blues” is easily the album’s most hyped moment, a rare instance where a mainstream artist uses their platform to elevate the stature an independent singer/songwriter. The proceedings are marred by a production that favors slick over raw, but it doesn’t hinder the overall beauty of the song, which features harmonies by Jewel. It says a lot about the quality of an album when its strongest track comes courtesy of an outside songwriter.

Grade: B

Album Review: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Acoustic’

220px-NGDB-AcousticTwenty years ago, when their string of radio singles came to end, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band returned their roots with a collection entitled Acoustic. Like other similarly titled projects through the years, this isn’t re-recordings of past hits, but rather an album of all-new material.

While the album didn’t spawn any singles, it’s most notable for introducing the world to “Bless The Broken Road,” a Jeff Hanna, Marcus Hummon, and Bobby Boyd co-write that would top the charts for Rascal Flatts ten years later. Not many know the song began as a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band tune, with a lush piano drenched arrangement not too far removed from Rascal Flatts’ hit recording.

Jimmy Ibbotson had a hand in writing a few of the album’s tunes. “Sara In The Summer” is a harmonica laced folksy country shuffle, “How Long” is a mid-tempo love song, and “One Sure Honest Line” is a song about songs. All are excellent, showcasing the band’s tight harmonies set to clean, appealing production. Ibbotson co-wrote “This Train Keeps Rolling Along,” a fantastic story song with Jim Photoglo and Vince Melamed.

Bob Carpenter was another prominent songwriter on the album. He co-wrote Harmonica ballad “Let It Go,” America-like “Badlands,” and harmony rich “Love With Find A Way.” While all of the tracks are good, “Love With Find A Way” is the highlight, sounding like The Eagles from their Desperado era in the early 1970s.

Dennis Linde contributed “Hello, I Am Your Heart” a slice of filler that really doesn’t go anywhere. Jimmy Fadden had two cuts. “Cupid’s Got A Gun” is a plucky ballad while “Tryin’ Times” is heavy on mandolin yet light on social commentary, as the title suggests.

If anything, Acoustic is too polished. The album still sounds impeccable but the immaculate arrangements hinder any chance for letting loose, which a lot of these songs could benefit from. It’s still a great album, though, and well worth seeking out.

Grade: A

Album Review – Garth Brooks – ‘Blame It All On My Roots: Five Decades of Influence’

758_1386719351When the message came down a few months ago that “the sevens have aligned” on Garth Brooks’ website, I was over the moon excited for his return to country music, in any form. He’s the precursor to the country-rock of today and the main reason country artists in his wake have been so lucrative on the road. But he’s also the only one who got it right. At his core, Brooks is a song man. If you stripped away his mesmerizing stage show, put aside his never-before-seen album sales, and listened to the music, you’ll find a legacy of incredible songs. I cannot say that about any genre superstar (Kenny Chesney, mostly) who’s risen to similar levels since he retired.

But even more then his ear for great songs, I was far more interested in seeing how the new generation (those born after 1997/1998) would respond to Brooks’ return. Without the ability to digitally download or stream his music and no memory of a live Brooks’ special on TV (let alone seeing him in person with his full band), would they care? Time will be the ultimate judge, but the ‘Garth Brooks magic’ remains as strong as ever. His Black Friday concert special was watched by an estimated 10 million people and the accompanying boxed set has just surpassed One Direction as the #1 album in the country, all-genre.

Blame It All On My Roots – Five Decades of Influence is more then just an 8-disc set; it’s a celebration of Brooks’ residency in Las Vegas. For the past four years, he’s been performing weekends in the Encore Theatre at Steve Wynn’s Hotel & Casino. But instead of bringing his legendary live act, Brooks performs a one-man show where he tells his life story though the music that built him – just his voice, a guitar, and a hooded sweatshirt. The boxed set extends that idea to four CDs, 11 songs each, with Brooks covering a handful of these songs in full broken down as Country Classics, Classic Rock, Blue-Eyed Soul, and Melting Pot.

The most obvious disc is Country Classics, where Brooks covers everyone from Conway & Loretta to George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Keith Whitley. He’s trying to fill some big shoes here and the results are far more underwhelming then they should be. Opener “Great Balls of Fire” and closer “Jambalaya” comes off as cheesy karaoke while he isn’t quite convincing as a hillbilly on “White Lightnin’.” I really wanted to love “After The Fire Is Gone,” his sole duet with Trisha Yearwood, but the pair didn’t bring any ache to their vocals, merely turning in gorgeous performances that fail to convey the sense they’re a couple on the outs. He’s better on the more traditional numbers like “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “Act Naturally,” and I really enjoyed his take on “Unwound.” But my favorite track by a mile is “Good ‘Ol Boys Like Me.” I’ve always thought Brooks’ does a wonderful job on more tender songs (like “She’s Every Woman”) and this selection from Don Williams’ catalog fits him like a glove.

Classic Rock is a bit better, with Brooks turning in three of the set’s best tracks. It’s not surprising he does a fantastic job on “Against The Wind,” seeing that Bob Seger is one of his major influences and the inspiration behind “That Summer.” Brooks’ is equally wonderful on Elton John’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” on which he gives one of the most passionate vocals of any song on any disc. Listening to it, I felt like I was back in the Fresh Horses era. But the highlight is one I wasn’t familiar with going in, Billy Joel’s stunning rock opera “Goodnight Saigon.” The song is an ode to the Vietnam War that Brooks tares into with vengeance. The rest of the disc is mostly bad karaoke, with songs like  “Addicted To Love,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” and “Somebody To Love” that fail to translate when anyone but the original artist is singing them. But I do have to give Brooks credit for doing the Eagles justice and turning in an above average “Life In The Fast Lane.”

Blue-Eyed Soul is by far my least favorite disc, mostly because soul music just isn’t my taste. But he does cover songs I actually like. “Midnight Train to Georgia” is my favorite, as Brooks puts his own stamp on the song. Other favorites are “Lean On Me” and “Drift Away,” but they become disjointed in Brooks’ hands, loosing the flow of the original versions. He’s in top form on “Ain’t No Sunshine,” but even Brooks cannot get me to enjoy “Stand By Me,” no matter how great his vocal may be. The rest of the record is just ok, with “Shout” being the only real clunker.

Melting Pot is where Brooks covers a bunch of tracks that didn’t fit categorically on the other discs. It’s hands down the best of four, and the one I enjoy most, because of the song selection. He does a wonderful job on rock standards “Mrs. Robinson” and “Maggie May” while turning in another of the box sets’ best performances with “Amie,” one of Pure Prairie League’s best known hits. “Operator (That’s Not The Way It Feels)” and “Wild World” are just as good, as is “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” although I would’ve chosen a different James Taylor song, like “Sweet Baby James” instead. I just happen to like some of Taylor’s other songs better.

In addition to the four discs of covers, Blame It All On My Roots also has The Ultimate Hits two disc set and DVD and a DVD of his Las Vegas show. Repackaging his 2007 collection is pointless, but Brooks’ has made a career out of repackaging his albums, so this is hardly a surprise. The four albums of covers are the real draw and while they’re good, they fail to be anything exceptional because Brooks stays too faithful to the originals (especially on “Don’t Close Your Eyes”). I would’ve liked to see him put his own stamp on the tracks, opposed to just covering them faithfully. That being said, Blame It All On My Roots is still worth checking out, especially for those like me who’ve been Garth fans since they can remember.

Grade: B

Spotlight Artist: Clint Black

clint_blackClinton Patrick “Clint” Black was born February 4, 1962 in Long Beach, NJ as the youngest of G.A. and Ann Black’s four children. Black was raised in Houston, moving from NJ to Texas before turning a year old. By age fifteen, Black was playing harmonica and guitar and had joined his brothers in a band. He would drop out of high school (and end his formal schooling) to play with the band full-time.

Black soon became a solo act and in the early 1980s he held gigs playing lounges by night and working construction (among other jobs) during the day. His interest in country music came through Reba McEntire and George Strait, who were bringing the traditional sounds he loved back to the genre. Black had a chance meeting with guitarist Hayden Nicholas in 1987, and was soon sending demos to promoter Sammy Alfano and meeting with ZZ Top’s manager Bill Ham, who quickly signed him as a client.

Not long after RCA Records came calling and signed Black to a record deal. His debut album Killin’ Time was released in May 1989 and success came instantaneously. Black’s first four singles (“A Better Man,” “Killin’ Time,” “Nobody’s Home” and “Walkin’ Away) topped the charts and the album reached multi-platinum status. In addition, he was the first male artist to have his debut single hit #1 in fourteen years and the breakout star in the famed ‘class if ‘89’ which saw debuts from future genre heavyweights including Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, and Travis Tritt among others. The success lead to bountiful recognition from the industry, with the CMA giving him the Horizon Award in 1989 and the ACM showering him with four awards including New Male and Top Male Vocalist and Album of the Year for Killin’ Time in 1990.

His sophomore effort Put Yourself In My Shoes came at the end of that year and he married actress Lisa Hartman in 1991. His second album wasn’t as revered as his debut despite selling more than three million units and containing two #1 hits. He also took part in a Roy Rogers tribute album, collaborating with Rogers on the duet “Hold On Partner.”

Black’s career took a hit in 1992 when he sued Ham for breach of contract, claiming he was being stiffed in royalties for his songs, all of which he had a hand in writing. Black was also hit with a paternity suit from a supposed former girlfriend who claimed Black had fathered her child. Being in and out of court put a strain on Black’s career and caused a one-year delay in the release of his third album, The Hard Way. In that time the country music industry had changed dramatically (Brooks and Tritt were now superstars while Billy Ray Cyrus was a cult favorite), causing RCA to wonder if he’d regain his footing. They need not worry as “When My Ship Comes In” would go #1 in early 1993.

He followed with a sexier image and No Time To Kill in 1994. A duet with Wynonna Judd, “A Bad Goodbye,” was a huge hit at radio and even prompted the ‘Black and Wy’ tour in 1994, the same year he would join Vince Gill as co-host for the CMA Awards. Black took part in winning Album of the Year that evening thanks to his recording of “Desperado” on the multi-artist Eagles tribute, Common Thread: The Songs of The Eagles.

Success continued with One Emotion, and in 1995 he topped the charts with “Summer’s Comin.’” His first Greatest Hits album followed in 1996, and Nothin’ But The Tailights was released in 1997. Black was on top once again, thanks in part to major hits in the title track, “Something That We Do” and “The Shoes You’re Wearin.’” A duet with Martina McBride, “Still Holdin’ On” would be his first single to miss the top 10.

Black was able to keep the momentum going with the all-acoustic D’lectrified in 1999 and had major hits in “When I Said I Do” (a duet with his wife) and the harmonica-laced “Been There” with Steve Wariner. He and Hartman-Black had their only child, Lily Pearl, in May 2001. Black took a three-year hiatus from his career to focus on being a father.

He left RCA during this period to open his own label, Equity Records, and returned with Spend My Time in 2004, producing a top 20 hit with the title track. Another full-length project, Drinkin’ Songs and Other Logic, followed in 2005 and The Long Cool EP was released in 2008. The EP contains Black’s last hit to date, “The Strong One,” which is the first solo single of Black’s career for which he doesn’t have a writing credit.

Equity closed that December amid economic difficulties and the departure of Little Big Town, the label’s only hit-making act. Black’s been very quiet in the years since (although he has been touring quite a bit around New England lately), but I’ve heard he’s working on new music he’s calling the best of his career. The new album is expected sometime this year and from what I understand there’s a push to get him back on the radio again. We shall see how it all turns out, but in the meantime, I hope you enjoy our look back at his career throughout the month.

Classic Rewind – Travis Tritt – ‘Take It Easy’

His cover of Eagles’ classic: