My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Emily Robison

Album Review: The Court Yard Hounds – ‘Amelita’

The Court Yard Hounds’ second album, released in 2013, was folky pop rather than country. The material is all self-penned by Emily and Martie, often with the help of Emily’s new partner Martin Strayer.

‘Sunshine’ is quite a pleasant folky pop number which opens proceedings.

The title track is more interesting; the girls’ vocal limitations end up making this sound like a pastiche, but a more compelling vocalist could have brought it alive. The same goes for ‘Phoebe’, which has potential and some nice instrumentation but is dragged down by the vocals.

‘The World Smiles’ is a bit twee. ‘Aimless Upward’ sounds like a 15 year old’s idea of deep and meaningful poetry set to a lifeless tune.

‘Guy Like You’ and ‘The Road You Take’ are very boring indeed. ‘Rock All Night’ has a bit more energy but not as much as the song needs.

One song I did like a lot was ‘Divided’, a gentle song about a couple spending too much time apart. ‘Gets You Down’ is also quite nice. ‘Are You Man Enough’ is not bad in an understated way.
‘Watch Your Step’ is a mess.

This album (like its predecessor) would have attracted little attention had it not been for the Dixie Chicks’ connection.

Grade: C

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Album Review: Natalie Maines — ‘Mother’

For most of this decade, the story of Dixie Chicks has been one of separate lives, at least as far as recordings are concerned. Martie & Emily have released two albums as Court Yard Hounds and Natalie Maines released her own solo record, Mother, in 2013.

Maines has said the album came together serendipitously through sessions with Ben Harper. She has gone on to say she had no idea they were even making an album until they had ten recorded songs. In truth, this isn’t the first time Maines ventured outside Dixie Chicks. In 2008 she appeared alongside Neil Diamond for the spellbinding ballad “Another Day (That Time Forgot)” and she also contributed a version of Beach Boys “God Only Knows” for the final season of the HBO drama Big Love.

Mother is a pop-rock album that makes offers no apologies about its lack of anything even remotely resembling country music. Maines even went as far as to distance herself from country music, saying she never really liked the genre at all and said she found Fly unlistenable because she hated her accent on the songs. This all came from Rolling Stone Magazine, which exaggerates everything for personal gain, so her comments have to be taken with a grain of salt.

The album itself isn’t very imaginative at all, with the ten songs consisting mostly of cover tunes with only a couple originals. The selections themselves are great, but one would’ve liked Maines to let loose a bit with her own pen, especially since it had been seven years since she entered a studio to record anything for herself.

Being mostly a country music fan, I’m not overly familiar with most of these songs. Her version of the title track doesn’t deviate too much from Pink Floyd’s original. I do really like her take on Dan Wilson’s “Free Life” and her interpretation of Jeff Buckley’s “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” is very good.

A highlight for me is the blistering “Silver Bell,” which was the title track of Patty Griffin’s unreleased album where Maines found both “Truth No. 2” and “Top of the World.” The track, while overly loud, is a delight.

Another notable selection, “Come Cryin’ To Me” is an outtake from the writing sessions for Taking The Long Way. The song, which was co-written by the trio with Gary Louris of The Jayhawks, was deemed too rock to appear on the album. Maines had said she wanted to have her bandmates appear on the album, as co-writers, at least once. The lyric is excellent, although I can’t really decipher the meaning of the lyric:

Dragging around

The sins of your father

Handed on down

From one to another

Spinning new wheels

From lover to lover

Afraid to come now

From under the covers

 

When the world’s on your shoulders

And you just feel like hiding

When there’s nowhere to run to

You can come crying

Come crying to me

You know how to fly

On the wings of disaster

 

You try to stand still

But you keep going faster

And faster

You thought it’d be easier

In California

The tables will turn

And they won’t even warn you

 

When the world’s on your shoulders

And you just keep on sliding

When there’s nowhere to run to

You can come crying

Come crying to me

 

When the night seems colder

But the sun’s gonna shine

I won’t leave you behind

No you won’t stay behind

My issue with Mother isn’t that it’s a pop/rock recording. Maines is excellent vocally throughout and it doesn’t feel like a country artist suppressing their twang to fit into a bigger musical landscape. My problem is the album is sonically horrid. The arrangements are very muddled and extremely loud, with no real way to decipher between instruments. This just doesn’t feel like a cohesive album as much as a collection of songs and I don’t hear much masterful artistry in the recording as a whole.

Mother honestly could’ve been so much more. Dixie Chicks put so much into Taking The Long Way and Martie and Emily put effort into Court Yard Hounds. I just wish it had extended here with Maines. Mother could’ve been great. As it stands, it’s just an odd and very strange missed opportunity.

Grade: C

Album Review: Court Yard Hounds – ‘Court Yard Hounds’

During the interval during which the Dixie Chicks were not recording together, sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire issued an album of largely acoustic tunes titled Court Yard Hounds. Recorded in 2009, the album was released in May 2010.

Although the album was awaited with great interest, the album received little attention from country radio and in fact the album did not chart country at all, reaching #7 on Billboard’s all genres chart. Although several singles were released to radio, only “The Coast” charted at all, reaching #26 on the AAA charts. The other two singles, “It Didn’t Make a Sound” and “See You In The Spring” did not chart anywhere.

The album seems much more folk than country, although there are tracks that have a strong country feel, particularly on those tracks where Lloyd Maines’ steel guitar is prominently featured. Emily Robison takes the lead vocals, except as noted below. Emily is also the primary songwriter on the album, with Martin Strayer as co-writer on most of the songs and sister Martie Maguire as the songwriter and lead vocalist on “Gracefully”. Both Emily (banjo) and Martie (fiddle, viola) are fine instrumentalists and are featured prominently.

The album opens up with “Skyline”, a folk number that sounds like something Simon & Garfunkel might have recorded as an album track. The song is a laid back with lyrics that tell of the area between hope and desolation.

I just look at the skyline
A million lights are lookin’ back at me
And when they shine
I see a place I know I’ll find some peace
I just look at the skyline

I look at the skyline
A million lights are lookin’ back at me
And when they shine
I see a place I know I’ll find some peace
I just look at the skyline

What am I doin’ here
In such a lonely place?

Next up is “The Coast” is an upbeat tale of the calming effects of the coast in relieving the stresses of daily life. This is followed by “Delight (Something New Under The Sun)” about a pending relationship. There is use of rock-style guitars in this song, although it also has a bit of island vibe to the melody.

I’m gonna head down to the coast
Where nothin’ ever seems to matter
You know I love it there the most
When every piece of my world gets scattered

Blue skies, green water
White birds in the air
Brown skin, blue collar
And the wind blowin’ in my hair

Jakob Dylan joins Emily on “See You In The Spring”, another folk-style ballad. This song bespeaks of an up and down relationship.

‘Cause baby, your Summer is nothing but prison
It drives me away
And maybe, come Winter, we can’t be together
But love will come again
‘Til then I’ll see you in the Spring
Ah, so don’t throw it all away
Throw it all away

“Ain’t No Son” is a rock number and a fairly mediocre one at that. On the other hand “Fairy Tales” is an interesting song about the contradictions between what one wants and what ultimately needs to do.

Every girl wants the fairytale
I guess I do too
We’re restless, we’re young
With so much to prove

You ask me to wait
But wait I won’t do
‘Cause the time I’ve been wasting
I could be spending with you

Take me… we’ll run away
Out of this town ’til it fades
And they’ll say we’re wrong
But with you I’m alright either way

“I Miss You” sounds country (or perhaps country rock) with prominent steel by Lloyd Maines. This is a fairly typical song about longing, nicely sung with effective fiddle and steel accompaniment.

“Gracefully” is a slow downer of a song about a relationship that she wishes would end, but her lover would like to continue onward.

“April’s Love” also sounds like a Simon & Garfunkel album track, again about a relationship that is fading away. Since Emily had divorced husband Charlie Robison during the year before this album was recorded, I wonder about how much the end of that relationship colored this album

“Then Again” has a fuller sound than most of the songs on the album with a blues/rock feel to it, this time about introspection and coming to grips with one’s self-awareness (or lack thereof).

“It Didn’t Make A Sound” features the banjo prominently in a rock arrangement, but the lyric doesn’t really go anywhere although the piano of Mike Finnegan has a bit of a Professor Longhair feel to it, making the song greater than the sum of its parts.

The album closes up with “Fear of Wasted Time”, a quiet ballad of desperation.

I hold my babies tight
Sneak into their beds at night
I’ll just stay and watch them breathing
Next thing I know the alarm clock’s ringing

I watch every frame
Of this life I’ve made
Take a picture but I miss the moment now
Looking in their eyes

And you ask why I do it that way

It’s just the fear of wasted time
The fear of wasted time
That’s why

The feeling’s very strange
I’m waiting for the pain
And happiness can terrify me now
It could be goodbye

The album is a pleasant enough to listen to, but the songs are not especially strong and, unlike the Dixie Chicks albums, with minimal storytelling involved. Listening to this album reminded me of why the sisters needed Robin Lynn Macy, Laura Lynch and later Natalie Maines. Emily Robison is an acceptable vocalist, but nothing more and this album lacks the spark of any of the Dixie Chicks albums, whether the early independent label albums or the later major label successes.

I would give this album a “B”.

Album Review: Dixie Chicks — ‘Home’

It is difficult to assess the merits of this album, partially because of the changes in the reference points by which albums are evaluated and partially because of the firestorm that the Dixie Chicks generated by their future comments while playing a small venue in England.

Many commentators regard this album as the Dixie Chicks masterpiece, and while I am not among them, I do regard this as an excellent album that draws the group closer to a roots sound than their previous major label recordings.

At the time of the album’s release in 2002, the world of country music was in turmoil. Slick pop acts like Shania Twain, Martine Mc Bride and Faith Hill were still near their commercial peak, while the neo-traditionalist had lost steam, slowly being replaced by the vapid bro-country that plagued the genre until recently. Conversely, there was a brief resurgence in bluegrass and pre-bluegrass acoustic string band music fuels by the runaway success of the movie Oh, Brother Where Art Thou?

Symptomatic of the cross purposes to which the fan base and the radio stations worked, radio barely played anything from the movie Oh, Brother Where Art Thou? The Dixie Chicks chose to ignore this divide, releasing an album that in places would have fit into a roots classification, but in other places was something else entirely.

Five songs received airplay from Home:

“Long Time Gone”                                     #2 country / #7 pop

“Landslide”                                                       #2 country / #7 pop / #1 adult contemporary

“Travelin’ Soldier”                                     #1 country / #26 pop

“Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)”     #48 country

“Top of The World”                                     did not chart

“Top of The World” was too long for radio to play it, moreover, it was released after the unfortunate comments about President Bush turned many thoughtful Americans, whether or not supporters of Bush.

This album is mostly covers of material written by others. In that vein, the album opens up with “Long Time Gone”. The song, written by Darrell Scott, was originally recorded by Scott on his 2000 album Real Time and tells the story about a young man who left his family and went to Nashville to become a musician. Eventually, he treks back home and settles down to raise a family. The song’s last verse criticizes contemporary country music as being shallow, and despite the upbeat melody, the song’s lyrics are very pessimistic indeed.

Next up is a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide”. There is something terribly appropriate about this cover because the Fleetwood Mac story closely parallels that of the Dixie Chicks in that Fleetwood Mac started out as one thing (a brilliant blues-rock group), changed members and form into a basic pop-rock group, and pretended that the prior version of the group never existed. The song was written by Stevie Nicks, who was not a member of the group’s original lineup,

Bruce Robison’s “Travelin’ Soldier” is probably the best song on the album, a sad song about the correspondence between a soldier and his girlfriend, and his eventual death in combat. The song was first recorded by the writer and later, in altered form by Ty England, but the Dixie Chicks rendition is by far the best version of the song. At the time the group recorded the song Bruce Robinson was the brother-in-law of Emily Robison.

The rest of the album is a mixed bag of covers and originals a bunch of good songs well performed and thoroughly country in sound and instrumentation. Both Martie and Emily are excellent musicians and the supporting cast includes Lloyd Maines on steel guitar and bluegrass wizards Brian Sutton (guitar) Adam Steffey (mandolin), Chris Thile (mandolin solos) plus Emmylou Harris on vocal harmonies. You couldn’t ask for better.

Of the remaining tracks, my favorite is the humorous “White Trash Wedding”. Written by the three members of the group, the song depicts a scenario that has played itself out many times over the years, but does so with humor:

You can’t afford no ring

You can’t afford no ring

I shouldn’t be wearing white and you can’t afford no ring

 

You finally took my hand

You finally took my hand

It took a nip of gin

But you finally took my hand

You can’t afford no ring

You can’t afford no ring

I shouldn’t be wearing white and you can’t afford no ring

 

Mama don’t approve

Mama don’t approve

Daddy says he’s the best in town

And mama don’t approve

You can’t afford no ring

You can’t afford no ring

I shouldn’t be wearing white and you can’t afford no ring

 

Baby’s on its way

Baby’s on its way

Say I do and kiss me quick

‘Cause baby’s on its way

I shouldn’t be wearing white and you can’t afford no ring

There are a few misfires on the album (“Godspeed and “I Believe in Love” are pretty pedestrian and rather uninteresting) but even the misfires are not terrible and the net impression is of an album that contains both serious and amusing material performed with great flair.

A-

Album Review: Dixie Chicks — ‘Fly’

NOTE: This is the second time we’ve done a feature on Fly. Check out Chris’ take on the album from March 2009, which was formed as a discussion around whether or not the album deserved to be legendary, by clicking HERE. Also, his post promoted a 27 comment discussion well worth reading. 

Dixie Chicks built on the phenomenal success of Wide Open Spaces with Fly, their second album for Monument Records. It was released in late August 1999 and established them as the foremost superstars of the era, on par with Shania Twain.

The ambitious set redefined how a country album could sound both melodically and lyrically. This is when they began courting controversy, painting outside the lines, and rewriting the rules of Nashville. There wasn’t a single artist at the time or since that has perfected or improved upon the formula they perfected with Fly — a solid foundation of traditional country mixed with a pop sensibility with a collection, and this is the key, of intelligent well-written songs. Fly is an album of talent and substance absent of fluff or filler.

A sign that the Dixie Chicks were heading places came in June 1999 when the album’s lead single “Ready To Run” was subsequently featured as a single from the soundtrack to the Julia Roberts/Richard Gere RomCom Runaway Bride. The Celtic flavored tune, co-written by Martie Seidel and Marcus Hummon, hit #2.

They shot back to the top of the charts with the album’s instantly iconic second single “Cowboy Take Me Away,” also co-written by the pair. The title was inspired by the slogan used in commercials for Calgon and the lyric was in tribute to Emily’s marriage to Charlie Robison. It’s a brilliant record from start to finish, with Sediel’s gorgeous fiddle riffs and Robison’s banjo licks proving the perfect backdrop for Natalie Maines’ passionate vocal. It’s one of the band’s signature songs and rightfully so.

What followed was a black comedy detailing the saga of Marianne and Wanda, the latter of who met and married a man named Earl, who physically abused her. The song, written by Dennis Linde, brings the women’s fight for justice to the forefront as they murder Earl and bury him in a shallow grave. The subject matter of “Goodbye Earl” proved a tough pill for country radio to swallow and the track stalled at #13.

They rebounded with their version of Richard Leigh’s “Cold Day In July,” which was originally recorded (separately) by Suzy Bogguss and Joy Lynne White in 1992. Commenters on country blogs have favored the other women’s versions more, but since I’m only intimately familiar with the trio’s take on the song, which hit #4, and it’s the version I heard first, it’s the one I’ll always prefer.

“Without You,” the album’s second #1, is purely pop with country instrumentation. Maines co-wrote it about the demise of her first marriage, and while it isn’t as sharp as “You Were Mine,” it still soars with heartache. Maines’ vocal, which allows her stretch and use her lower register, is a revelation.

You’re forgiven if you’ve forgotten any of the remaining singles released from the album. Although it hit #3, their take on Matraca Berg’s “If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me” isn’t terribly memorable. The album’s eighth and final single, “Some Days You Gotta Dance,” has a nice groove and works well live, but falls into the same territory. It hit #7.

Sandwiched between them is arguably one of the strongest songs they ever sent to country radio. “Heartbreak Town” is Darrell Scott’s take on making it in music city and tells the story of a couple and their baby heading to Nashville and getting rejected by the industry. The record, which hit #23, is a masterpiece:

Hugged your friends

Kissed your mama goodbye

Baby in your arms and a tear in your eye

Twelve hundred miles and you never asked why

From me

 

Me and the baby and you side by side

We all knew we was in for a long hard ride

Nowhere to run and nowhere to hide it seemed

We honked the horn when we crossed the

State line

Woke up the baby and she started to cry

She must’ve known

What we were going to find

 

This ain’t nothin’ but a heartbreak town

Square people in a world that’s round

And they watch you dancin’ without the sound

It ain’t nothin’ no nothin’

You take your number and you stand in line

And they watch to see how high you’re gonna climb

Pat on the back and better luck next time

It ain’t nothin’ no it ain’t nothin’ but a heartbreak town

 

Stardust well it’s a funny thing

It can make you cuss

It can make you sing

And the need to touch it gets hard to explain some days

 

I’ve seen ’em rise

I’ve seen ’em fall

Some get nothin’

And lord some get it all

Some just run

While others crawled away

 

Hold my hand baby don’t let go

I’ve got some front money

And I’ve got a next show

And I’m, I’m gonna need you

Down this yellow brick road

The album tracks are almost as iconic as the singles, especially “Sin Wagon,” which got its origins from the movie Grease. The film is one of Maines’ favorites, and she co-wrote the bluegrass barnburner with Emily Erwin and Stephony Smith. The lyric caught the attention of the trio’s record label, who objected their use of the term ‘mattress dacin’ in the second verse. Maines doubled down and repeated the line for emphasis, a sign that as far back as 1999 she wasn’t going to make nice with anyone.

“Hello Mr. Heartache” is the album’s most traditional number and another masterful record. “Let Him Fly” is their first association with Patty Griffin, Maines’ favorite singer-songwriter of all time. “Hole In My Head” was written by Jim Lauderdale and Buddy Miller and showed off their Americana leanings.

Fly is simply one of the greatest contemporary commercial country records ever made. It rightfully won them both the Grammy for Best Country Album and the CMA for Album of the Year. It’s gone on to sell more than ten million copies and inspired their first headlining trek in 2000, the year they were crowned CMA Entertainer of the Year. They richly deserved every accolade that came their way.

Grade: A+ 

 

Spotlight Artist: Dixie Chicks

It is hard to believe but 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the Dixie Chicks. Originally comprised of Laura Lynch, Robin Lynn Macy and sisters Martie Erwin and Emily Erwin, the Chicks (named after a Little Feat song) started off as a more roots-oriented band than is currently the case (similarly Fleetwood Mac started off as a blues-rock band and devolved into a pop act after personnel changes).

The group initially came together in 1989 when Martie Erwin and Robin Lynn Macy both performed at the Walnut Valley Music Festival, a long-running bluegrass event in Winfield, Kansas. From there the group coalesced with western singer Laura Lynch and Emily Erwin joining the group. The group played bluegrass festivals and busked for tips around the Dallas area. The group adopted the name Dixie Chicks from the song “Dixie Chicken” by the much-revered band Little Feat.

The group created enough of a stir to land a recording contract with the independent label Crystal Clear Sound and issued their debut disc Thank Heavens For Dale Evans in December of 1990. The album, named for legendary western actress Dale Evans, was essentially a straight-ahead bluegrass album, with western themes to some of the numbers. The album sold reasonably well for an independent label album and was available wherever the Texas-based Sound Warehouse chain had locations.

In an attempt to expand their commercial viability the group gravitated to a more commercially viable sound with their second album Little Ol’ Cowgirl released in 1992. While retaining basic bluegrass instrumentation, the album tended more toward ‘Newgrass’ than traditional bluegrass with covers of recent pop-country hits such as “Pat The Point of Rescue” and “Two of A Kind”. At this point, Robin Lynn Macy left the group, preferring to remain with her more roots-oriented bluegrass sounds.

The third album Shouldn’t A Told You That, released in 1993, found the group drifting further toward pop country. The album is competently performed but without Robin Lynn Macy, the group lacked an outstanding lead vocalist.

The group continued performing but without a record deal, although during the period after Macy’s departure the group considered its options. Steel guitar virtuoso Lloyd Maines (who had played on the first two albums) introduced the remaining Chicks to a demo recording from his daughter, Natalie.

Maines thought his daughter would be a good match to replace the departed Macy, and the Erwin sisters agreed, adding Natalie and discarding Laura Lynch (there are varying stories on how friendly a move this was) and changed the style and focus of the group’s sound. Eventually, the new sound of the Chicks came to the attention of Sony Music Entertainment.

The rest is history as the trio found an unprecedented level of success which sustained until an unwise (and unnecessary) public relations error led to a decade of near-exile.

We won’t get into that, but will concentrate on their music for that, after all, should be the focus for our April Spotlight artists

Album Review: Sunny Sweeney – ‘Heartbreaker’s Hall Of Fame’

Sunny Sweeney began her performing career as a student of improv comedy in New York City.  Fortunately for country music fans, her fellow classmates encouraged her to first pursue a career in music.  After that, Sunny retreated to her Texas hometown, before she made the move to Austin and began playing the local honky tonk circuit.  She was soon writing her own songs and landed a spot on an international tour with Dwight Yoakam.  In 2007, Big Machine Records signed Sweeney to the label and issued her first album, Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame.  Three singles were released, all of which failed to chart.

Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame was recorded at Cherry Ridge Studio in Floresville, Texas, far from Music Row.  It’s no wonder the set failed to generate any radio hits given the album’s overall sound and running themes.  That she really honed her chops playing the honky tonks is evident in both the aesthetic and the themes present in the lyrics here as Texas roadhouse country seems to the most common recurring musical theme among a littering of influences of honky-tonk, traditional country, and embracing Nashville renegades.

‘Refresh My Memory’ is a straight-up country, drown-in-your-sorrows number where the narrator is returning to one of her ex-boyfriends because she knows he’ll at least light a spark in her, even if she knows he’s wrong for her.  It’s been an awful long time since she felt the spark this guy brings to her, or perhaps since she’s felt any sparks at all, and here she implores him to jog her memory a bit

There are plenty of two-steps and genuine barroom honky-tonk with tracks like ‘East Texas Pines’, a rocking lament to days gone by and your current location.  The album’s title track was perhaps its best shot at a mainstream country radio hit, but even it was a long shot. Sunny’s charming drawl, coupled with layers of steel guitar, walking bass lines, and some saucy harmonica playing, keep it firmly rooted in traditional country; radical, you know.  ‘If I Could’ moves at breakneck speed – and shows Sunny to be capable as an auctioneer if nothing else – in a knee-slapping good time of a song.

Proving Sweeney to be a singer’s singer – a characteristic that almost always means quality but also means no commercial appeal for some reason – this album has more than its share of insider songs about the music industry, and even more that just plain espouse the virtues and importance of music to the mind and soul.  ‘Next Big Nothing’ tells of a singer’s struggles and frustrations with the slow pace of success while ‘Slow Swinging Western Tunes’ sings both the praises and the curses of sweet dance hall numbers – ‘play them in reverse and you get yourself a broken heart’.

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