My Kind of Country

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

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Album Review: Ashley Monroe – ‘Sparrow’

It’s often particularly disheartening when an artist one has seen as a bright spot in a generally dismal music scene changes his or her style significantly. In the case of Ashley Monroe’s latest album, we can’t ascribe it to selling out as I can’t really see this new style getting her any more radio interest than her more traditional country music. Dave Cobb’s production is not only not remotely traditional, I find it hard to detect anything recognisably country at all on most of the record. She admits herself that she doesn’t know what genre this album might fall into. To my ears it draws on later 1960s pop with heavy use of strings and an almost psychedelic sound, shading into 70s Glen Campbell-Jimmy Webb arrangements. That’s not to say that it’s a bad record per se, just not what I was personally hoping for.

Lead single ‘Hands On You’ (a co-write with Jon Randall), a sexy, sultry song of regret for an encounter that never happened, has a hypnotic quality which grew on me somewhat over repeat listens. Randall also co-wrote ‘I’m Trying To’ with Ashley and Kassi Ashton, a pensive low key ballad about pretending a breakup isn’t hurting. This is one of the tracks I do like quite a bit, and the production is at least fairly restrained.

The two best songs come at the end of the set. Ashley wrote ‘Daddy I Told You’ with her Pistol Annies bandmate Angaleena Presley and Josh O’Keefe. It is a poignant message to Ashley’s late father, who died when she was only 13, set to a gentle melody. ‘Keys To The Kingdom’, a co-write with Waylon Payne, has a similar reflective vibe with a dreamlike poetic lyric.

The pretty sounding but lyrically incisive ‘Mother’s Daughter’, written with Brendan Benson and Ryan Beaver, which paints a portrait of a woman who cannot sustain a relationship.

The backings tend to overwhelm otherwise strong songs like the mid-paced ‘Hard On A Heart’ which is just too busy. ‘Wild Love’ is plain dreary underneath its dramatic sweeping strings, as is ‘Paying Attention’. ‘She Wakes Me Up (Rescue Me)’, addressed to Ashley’s daughter, is also rather dull and not at all country sounding.

‘This Heaven’ (written with Miranda Lambert’s ex Anderson East and Aaron Raitiere) has a subdued churchy arrangement which is quite nice.

‘Orphan’, written with Moak and Gordie Sampson, the song which provides the album title, has a mournful underpinning and another poetic, questioning lyric. Ashley’s voice soars beautifully over the solemn cello-dominated arrangement. ‘Rita’, written with Nicole Galyon and Paul Moak, has a similar vibe.

Ashley’s songwriting is stronger than ever, and I like her sweetly vulnerable vocals here too. But the arrangements are really not to my taste, and I doubt I will revisit this album much. Gie it a try to see if it works for you.

Grade: B

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Album Review: Craig Morgan – ‘A Whole Lot More To Me’

CraigMorgan-AWholeLotMoretoMeFor his seventh album, A Whole Lot More To Me, Craig Morgan wanted to craft a record that broke down genre stereotypes and cast him in a new light. It’s his first album of original material in four years as well as his second album for Black River.

The first single, “When I’m Gone” was released back in September and peaked at #48. Written by Justin Ebach and Steven Dale Jones is an optimistic banjo-driven uptempo about wanting to be remembered as someone who lived life to the fullest.

The second single, released in May and yet to chart, is the power ballad “I’ll Be Home Soon” written by Ebach, Jones and John King. The lyric is typical of modern country love songs, but Morgan brings an emotional gravitas that elevates the song to just above generic.

Morgan had a hand in co-writing five of the album’s twelve tracks. “Living On The Memories” is a bombastic power ballad he collaborated on with Scott Stepakoff and Josh Osborne. Mike Rogers joined him for the title track, where he goes out of his way to debunk his country boy image with an interesting laundry list of illustrations emoted by a vocal that could’ve been toned down a few notches. “I’m That Country” walks everything back by devolving into Morgan’s typical style. “Remind Me Why I’m Crazy” is an excellent ballad about lost love with a cluttered treatment that intrudes on my overall enjoyment. Morgan’s final co-write, “I Can’t Wait to Stay,” is nothing more than a song about remaining in the town where your family has generational roots.

It feels as if a prerequisite of any modern day country album is having a song co-written by Shane McAnally. His contribution, a co-write with Eric Paslay and Dylan Altman is “Country Side of Heaven,” which is actually a great song. The overall track would’ve been better served with an acoustic arrangement, which would’ve brought fourth the interesting lyric a lot more.

“All Cried Out” is a bombastic power ballad ruined by atrocious wall-of-sound production that causes Morgan to over sing. “Nowhere Without You,” co-written by Michal McDonald and John Goodwin, is much better although I found the piano based production rather bland. Will Hoge and Gordie Sampson teamed with Altman on “Who Would It Be,” a name-check song about the legends you would spend time with if you could.

The final cut, “Hearts I Leave Behind,” features Christian Rock singer Mac Powell. The song was originally recorded by Pete Scobell Band Featuring Wynonna Judd, which I reviewed last year. It’s far and away the crowning achievement of A Whole Lot More To Me and a perfect song for Morgan.

The marketing materials for A Whole Lot More To Me describe the album as ‘sexy,’ which I most certainly would not. There is hardly anything here in that vein, unlike Dierks Bentley’s Black, which makes it an odd descriptor. Morgan does sing at full power, which showcases his range but unintentionally sound like Blake Shelton circa 2008. The album is bombastic and unremarkable on the whole, but I give Morgan credit for giving into mainstream pressures without selling his soul. A Whole Lot More To Me is nowhere near the upper echelon of albums for 2016, but it is far from the scrap heap. He could’ve done better, but it’s clear he is giving his all.

Grade: B

Album Review: Ashley Monroe – ‘The Blade’

the bladeAshley Monroe’s second Warner Brothers release has been among my most-anticipated albums this year. While it lacks the immediate charm of the wonderful Like A Rose, the Vince Gill/Justin Niebank-helmed set has substance and beauty which grows on repeated exposure to reward the listener. Ashley’s delicately pretty voice is perfect for the vulnerable emotions expressed in many of the songs.

Ashley co-wrote every song but one. That outside contribution is the title track, written by Marc Beeson, Jamie Floyd and Allen Shamblin. It is a truly outstanding song about the disillusonment of finding one has always loved more than one’s partner, and is now left high and dry:

I let your love in, I have the scar
I felt the razor against my heart
I thought we were both in all the way
But you caught it by the handle
And I caught it by the blade

That’s the risk you run when you love
When you love and you give it all you’ve got to give
Knowing all along there’s a chance
There’s a chance you’ll reach and they won’t
You’ll bleed and they don’t

For you, it’s over; for me, it’s not
I kept tryin’ and you just stopped
Now I know how you can sound so brave
Cause you caught it by the handle, baby
And I caught it by the blade

Gill and Niebank’s understated production perfectly backs up Ashley’s hushed vocal. The whole thing is quite stunning.

The exquisite ballad ‘Has Anybody Ever Told You’ (written with Tyler Cain) is a charming love song supported with lovely steel guitar.

Another highlight is one of two songs written by Ashley with Chris Stapleton and Jessi Alexander, the traditional country lament ‘If The Devil Don’t Want Me’, in which a broken heart fails to find comfort anywhere:

I’ve heard stories ’bout honky tonk angels
Pickin’ up pieces of broken strangers
I’m at rock bottom with a smoke and a sin
When the party is over, then I’m lonely again

If the devil don’t want me
Where the hell do I go?
If I can’t see the light
In the neon glow
If there ain’t enough whiskey
To kill the fire in my soul

This writing partnership also produced the rapid paced bluesy rock ‘Winning Streak’, backed with wild honky tonk piano, on a similar theme, down and out with not even the devil interested. This is less to my taste musically than the other song, but well written and performed.

Alexander also co-wrote the contemporary ballad ‘If Love Was Fair’ with Ashley and with Steve Moakler. Miranda Lambert joined Ashley and Jessi to write the closing track, ‘I’m Good At Leavin’’, another excellent country tune, this time about an unapologetic rambling soul and free spirit, given a Celtic style arrangement.

Justin Davis and Sarah Zimmermann of the dup Striking Matches joined Ashley to write two songs. The gently pretty ‘From Time To Time’ has a tender lullabyish mood, while the memorable up-tempo ‘Dixie’ has a retro feel and a dramatic southern Gothic storyline:

It was the mines that killed my daddy
It was the law that killed my man
It was the Bible Belt that whipped me
When I broke the Fifth Command
I don’t hate the weather
I don’t hate the land
But if I had it my way I’d never see this place again

When I cross that line, man I’ll sing a brand new song
Instead of sitting here by the railroad tracks whistlin’ Dixie all day long
And I’m so tired of paying, praying for my sins
Lord get me out of Dixie Land
Jesus’ name, Amen

When I tread out of these parts
Look me up on the other side
Cause I’ll be damned if I go down in Dixie when I die

‘Bombshell’, written with Steve McEwan and Gordie Sampson, is about facing the guilty decision to tell a lover she is leaving, and knowing there is never going to be a good time to do it. Very good indeed.

Producer Gill co-wrote ‘Weight Of The Load’, a nice song about sharing the burdens of doubt and fear. Ashley’s friend Brendan Benson of the rock band The Raconteurs helped her with the pretty folky ballad ‘Mayflowers’. The first single, the upbeat and catchy ‘On To Something Good’ is agreeable listening if one of the lighter tracks.

The one track I didn’t much care for was the repetitive minor-keyed moody ‘I Buried Your Love Alive’ (a co-write with Matraca Berg), and even this grew on me a bit.

Overall, this is a great album which should raise Ashley Monroe’s profile.

Grade: A

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘Band of Brothers’

bandofbrothersIn era in which most artists only release new albums every two or three (or more) years, the ever-prolific Willie Nelson is back with a new collection, a mere eight months after the release of To All The Girls … Like all of Nelson’s recent releases for Legacy Recordings, Band of Brothers was produced by Buddy Cannon. It consists of fourteen tracks, eight of which were written by Willie and Cannon.

Band of Brothers is vintage Willie. He thankfully makes no attempts to chase current commercial trends, but manages to make the songs sound fresh and bold, without sounding retro. He serves notice that he’s ready to take on just about anything with the album’s opening track “Bring It On”. “Guitar on the Corner” sounds like a song you think you’ve heard before, but it’s a brand new composition. “The Wall” sounds like the aftermath of “Bring It On”, the bravado having worn off and the protagnist realizing that he’s bitten off more than he can chew. “Wives and Girlfriends” is aperhaps a semi-autobiographical, tongue-in-cheek and slightly (but only slightly) exaggerated account of an apparent glutton for punishment who has had more love affairs than most of us have had hot dinners.

In addition to the aforementioned Nelson/Cannon original compositions, Willie also enlists some help of a few prominent outside songwriters, including Gordie Sampson, Bill Anderson and Billy Joe Shaver. Sampson and Anderson contribute “The Songwriters”, which compares tunesmiths to heroes, schemers, drunks, and dreamers. It’s a perfect vehicle for Willie, one that I mistakenly assumed he’d written himself the first time I heard it. Jamey Johnson joins Willie on Billy Joe Shaver and Gary Nicholson’s “The Git Go”, which although well crafted, is a little too cynical for my liking. I prefer Shaver’s other submission “Hard To Be An Outlaw”, which again is a good match for Nelson.

I’ve often said that Willie Nelson’s voice is an acquired taste and I will readily admit to not being a huge fan when I first became interested in country music in the early 80s. I remember having a conversation with someone who told me to take a moment to appreciate Willie’s skill as a guitarist. It wasn’t enough to win me over as a Willie fan at the time, but over the years I’ve come to realize that the person who told me this was right. Willie remains one of music’s most distinctive pickers and it more than compensates for the occasional moments when his 81-year-old vocal chords let him down. He sounds pretty good on most of the uptempo and midtempo numbers, but the wear and tear is apparent on the ballads, most notably his cover of Vince Gill’s “Whenever You Come Around”. This type of song needs a prettier voice than Willie’s but his guitar picking helps to salvage the track.

Band of Brothers serves notice that Willie Nelson still has plenty to offer in the way of songs that are well played, well written, well produced and mostly well sung.

Grade: A –

Album Review – Radney Foster – ‘Everything I Should’ve Said’

RF.EISHS-11To record his first album of original material since 2009, Radney Foster traveled to Dockside Studios in Lafayette, Louisiana, a converted whorehouse lacking modern amenities. Working alongside musicians he’s collaborated with during his two plus decades making music, Foster has crafted some of the most personal work of his career.

As a result, Everything I Should’ve Said radiates with rejuvenated energy from an artist roaring with passion and contemplating sizable ache. The rough edginess producer Justin Tocket brings to the proceedings displays a palpable urgency, even if the slightly dusty dirt penetrating the tracks comes off a little heavy-handed at times.

Self-penned stunner “Whose Heart You Wreck (Ode To The Muse),” which opens the album, finds Foster tipsy and ravished at the mercy of creativity, and not the hands of a woman: “You saunter in at 2 am and whisper poetry.Sensuous, whiskey-soaked and breathless next to me.You’ll sneak out before the dawn, but what should I expect? ‘Cause you don’t really give a damn whose heart you wreck.” That thematic twist is a stroke of brilliance and turns what could’ve been just an average heartbreaker into something far deeper and more impactful.

“The Man You Want” and “Holding Back” are two more numbers Foster wrote solo and both are excellent love songs. “The Man You Want” is also a glorious moment of self-reflection, with Foster laying bare his character traits only to admit his greatest life accomplishment is being the man his woman wants him to be. His girl is his kryptonite on “Holding Back,” a beautiful sentiment about the depths of affection.

My favorite of his five solely written numbers is “California,” a delicate love song about two gypsies starting over in the Golden State. The two wayward souls aren’t a couple, just like-minded people, which make the story all the more alluring. Foster also nails the simple yet oh-so-true hook: “Can’t you hear California calling your name, a siren song that once you hear it you’ll never be the same.

Foster teams up with Jay Clementi on two numbers, the jaunty “Hard Light of Day” and pulsating “Lie About Loving Me.” Both incorporate the wall-of-sound production technique that mares too much of mainstream music and gives the tunes a rockish feel that engulfs any distinctive qualities within the melodies. Fortunately the lyrical content is top-notch on both songs with “Lie About Loving Me” acting as somewhat of an addictive earworm. Another in this vein is his solely written “Unh, Unh, Unh,” an insufferable piece of dreck I skip whenever listening to the album.

The rock flavored production actually adds a dimension of anger to “Not In My House,” a generational number inspired by his a conversation with his fifth grade aged daughter about the meaning of the word ‘slut.’ Foster and co-writer Allen Shamblin broadened the song to incorporate themes of world injustice and put forth their mid-50s southern man prospective on hate and bigotry. The song is effective without being offensive and a strong lyric that needed to be said.

Two additional standout tracks find Foster co-writing with Gordie Sampson and Jim McCormick. “Noise,” may also employ the wall-of-sound recording technique but I don’t mind it as much thanks to Foster’s vocal, which cuts through nicely. “Keep Myself From Falling” is also in the same vein musically, but has a fabulous lyric that wouldn’t have been out of place on mainstream country radio (by the likes of Dierks Bentley) just five years ago and should be mainstream enough now if Bro-Country hadn’t taken over. The same goes for the title track, co-written with Darrell Brown, which has Foster laying bare his regrets in a relationship.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is “Mine Until The Morning,” a duet with Patty Griffin co-written with Darden Smith. A delicate piano-laced ballad, “Mine Until The Morning” is a gorgeous love song with Griffin’s guest vocal adding a beautiful richness to the track.

By most respects, Foster has turned in another wonderfully strong album both vocally and lyrically with Everything I Should’ve Said. Highlights abound left and right and “Whose Heart You Wreck (Ode To The Muse)” and “Not In My House” are two of the most powerful songs you’ll hear all year. The only misstep comes from Justin Tocket’s far too loud rockish production, which doesn’t render most tracks unlistenable, it’s just intrusive where it doesn’t need to be. Other than that, Everything I Should’ve Said is a solid album belonging in the company of Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash’s recent releases.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Martina McBride – ‘Waking Up Laughing’

waking up laughingIf Timeless was an encouraging reminder that Martina McBride was a real country singer underneath all the pop gloss, her next studio project was a disappointing regression in form.

Lead single ‘Anyway’ was much vaunted as Martina’s first venture into writing her own material, with the help of the Warren Brothers. Unfortunately, the would-be inspirational lyrics don’t get beyond the Hallmark level, and while no doubt heartfelt, overall it sounds like something written with more of an ear for big notes Martina could excel belting out than real depth of thought or emotion. She certainly sings the hell out of it, to the extent of oversinging at some points; this is not a song or performance with any notion of subtlety. The big contemporary piano-and-strings ballad was however what radio programmers expected and wanted from Martina, and it did much better than the singles from Timeless, giving Martina her first top 5 hit since 2003’s ‘In My Daughter’s Eyes’.

Another McBride co-write with the Warrens (plus pop-country writers Chris Lindsey and Aimee Mayo), the exceptionally forgettable, bland and overproduced ‘How I Feel’ peaked ten spots lower, at #15. It makes its predecessor sound a lot better in contrast.

Martina and the Warren Brothers also wrote (with Nick Trevissick) ‘Beautiful Again’ a frankly depressing tale of an abused girl turned single mother, set to an inappropriately perky and poppy tune. I didn’t like it at all, or find the protagonist’s cheery optimism in the face of all evidence to the contrary remotely credible. ‘Cry Cry (Til The Sun Shines)’ is well meaning but lyrically vapid. Other songs fitting the bland and boring template are ‘I’ll Still Be Me’ and ‘Everybody Does’.

The last single, the socially conscious ‘For These Times’, is a well sung and thoughtfully written Leslie Satcher song but the inevitable gospel backing vocals seem unimaginative. It crept into the top 40, but failed to get higher than #35.

Of the better songs, ‘If I Had Your Name’ (written by Hillary Lindsey, Gordie Sampson and Steve McEwan) isn’t at all bad pop-country, with a vicious little stab at her soon-to-be-ex. ‘Tryin’ To Find A Reason’ has a pretty tune and touching lyric about a relationship on the rocks. Martina’s interpretation is subtle, and Keith Urban guests effectively on harmony. ‘House Of A Thousand Dreams’ is a beautifully delivered mature reflection on a dilapidated home and marriage. ‘Love Land’ is a delicate story song, written by Tom Douglas and Rachel Thibodeau, about a teenage marriage which survives the tragedy of losing a baby. These four are worth hearing.

Overall, though, this album’s principal failing is not that it is bad (she has produced worse, particularly Emotion), but rather too often it’s just plain boring. Martina seems to have been trying to playing things far too safe placating her contemporary fans after Timeless, but the end result doesn’t really deliver on either count. It looks as if fans agreed with my assessment of Martina’s downward trajectory. Timeless was her last platinum release, with this album topping out at gold, while more recent efforts have sold even more poorly.

Grade: C

Album Review: Edens Edge – ‘Edens Edge’

New Big Machine trio Edens Edge is built around the distinctive piercing twangy lead vocals of Hannah Blaylock. The production, helmed by Mark Bright and Dann Huff, is unfortunately cluttered with too much going on most of the time. The talented band members play a variety of instruments (Cherrill Green comes from a bluegrass background, and plays mandolin and banjo, while Dean Berners plays dobro and guitar), and a more natural, less processed, sound woul allow them to shine more.

The band’s debut single ‘Amen’ (a top 20 hit last year) is a pretty good song gloating over the departure of a romantic rival, and is one of the few tracks to successfully balance country radio’s demands of a glossy finish with an attractive organic yet contemporary country feel. It is one of three songs here co-written by Hannah, this one with Skip Black, Catt Gravitt and Gerald O’Brien. Danny Myrick teamed up with Blaylock and Gravitt for ‘Last Supper’, a rather intense pop country ballad about an impending breakup. It’s heavily over-produced, but is a good song underneath, with some interesting lyrical choices. I quite liked the quirky ‘Who Am I Drinking Tonight’, which was written by Hannah with Laura Veltz, comparing the guys she meets and their choice of drinks to country stars, but I would have preferred a significantly scaled-back production

‘Skinny Dippin’ (not the Whitney Duncan song but a new one written by Veltz, band member Dean Berners, and Vince Melamed) is a self-conscious attempt at playful charm which more or less comes off. Remniscent of the Pistol Annies, the first half of the song is quite catchy with a bright acoustic arrangement, but Huff and Bright can’t resist the temptation of throwing in weird processing on the backing vocals and too much sound in general, and it all derails. This trio also contributed ‘Cherry Pie’, a very cluttered sounding number looking back at a happy childhood, which would be a lot better with half the amount of instrumentation or less. Cherry Pie, incidentally, is the name of Hannah’s real life childhood pony. As it is largely unlistenable after the low-key and pretty first verse and the sweet lyrics and genuine emotion are crushed by an unnecessary wall of sound.

Veltz wrote the album’s best track, the pain-filled ‘Liar’, with Andy Stochansky. The narrator is hiding her pain as the man she loves, and who thinks of her as just a friend, is set to marry another girl. She pretends to be happy for him, but admits in the song she is “the biggest liar in the world”. Production here is for once restrained enough to let the song breathe. The narrator’s heartbreak is very convincingly conveyed by Blaylock’s vulnerable vocal, with the unfortunate girl even having to help choose and try on the engagement ring.

A close second is ‘Swingin’ Door’ (written by Terry Clayton, Brett James and underrated singer-songwriter Ashley Monroe), which was cut by the Australian Catherine Britt on her outstanding RCA album a few years back. Hannah’s version sounds a little less fragile, as she invests a lot of determination rejecting the lover trying to use her. It’s an excellent song, and a thoroughly enjoyable track.

‘Too Good To Be True’, written by pop-country stalwarts Hillary Lindsey, Gordie Sampson and Troy Verges, sounds just like a Carrie Underwood track, with belted-out, almost shouted, vocals, frequent nonsensical syllables, lots of attitude but not much melody, and no subtlety. Naturally it’s the current single. ‘Feels So Real’, another Lindsey song (written with Angelo and Tia Sillers), is more interesting, but very poppy sounding and oversung.

The acappella ‘For Christ Alone’ (written by the band’s mentor Steve Smith, who brought them together in their home state of Arkansas) is one of the few occasions where the vocals of Hannah Blaylock’s bandmates Dean Berner and Cherrill Green are really distinct as they don’t have to fight against the overwhelming backing, and although it sounds like a hymn with choral styled harmonies rather than a country song, it really shows how ill-served the group has been by their producers.

Edens Edge is a group with a lot of potential, but they have compromised too much to fit into country radio for this album to fulfil it for me.

Grade: B

Album Review – Miranda Lambert – ‘Four The Record’

Miranda Lambert is by and large my favorite contemporary female artist because of her intrinsic ability to blend both the artistic and commercial sensibilities of country music on her records. She appeals to country radio with singles ready for heavy rotation yet restrains from populating her albums with gutless filler like her fellow artists.

Four The Record was recorded in six days, the week following her wedding to Blake Shelton.  Sessions began at 10am and lasted until midnight each day. Lambert has said she likes getting into a vibe and hunkering down to complete a record. This technique works in her favor, making the album every bit as cohesive as diverse. Plus, she’s using it to further her individuality. It sounds like nothing else coming out of Nashville right now and the uniqueness sets her apart from her peers.

Lambert is also a prime example of the quintessential songwriter. She knows how to write a killer song yet has a knack for selecting outside material from some of the most unique and interesting songwriters. Its one reason why listening to a Lambert album is such a joy. Four The Record features many such moments from Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings gorgeous “Look at Miss Ohio” to Brandi Carlile’s folksy “Same Out You.”

I love the Welch/Rawlings ballad for it’s captivating story. Lambert has a way of making everything she sings sound interesting and she succeeds here. The air of mystery holds together the brilliant lyric – she’s running around with her ragtop down to escape the pressures of getting married. She’s fleeing her obligations to do the right thing, yet we never really know why she’s bolting to Atlanta. She’s reclaiming her independence but not without the guilt of what she’s leaving behind. It’s a story song for the ages, made even more appealing by the understated production and backing vocals by Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman of Little Big Town.

“Same Old You,” another understated winner, fell into Lambert’s lap after Carlile felt she couldn’t sell it like Lambert. I love the folksy vibe of the production here – the gentle strum of the lead guitar sets it apart from the rest of the album. But what brings the song to new heights is the Loretta Lynn-like quality of Carlile’s lyric. (Lynn is the common dominator the bonds Lambert’s friendship with Carlile). It’s refreshing when the narrator finally sees what’s in front of her – that no matter what day of the week, he’s just the same old person and he’s never going to change. When Lambert sings about how hurt his mama’s going to be when she finds out there won’t be any wedding to cap off this relationship, it shows her maturity. I like how she’s drawn to songs that bring new depths to her feistiness. She’s every bit the same woman, but doesn’t have to resort to killing off her man to prove it.

Another track to display this growth is Don Henry and Phillip Coleman’s “All Kinds of Kinds.” A sweeping ballad about diversity, it not only defines the link binding all the songs together, but spins a unique angle on acceptance. The beautiful flourishes of Dobro give the song a soft quality I find appealing and the metaphor of circus acts as a means of driving home the main point showcases the songwriters’ cleverness in crafting their story.  Read more of this post

Album Review: Randy Travis – ‘Anniversary Celebration’

Marking the quarter of a century since the release of Randy’s landmark debut album, Storms Of Life, in June 1986, his latest release harks back to his last duets album, 1990’s Heroes And Friends, in many ways. The packaging, like its predecessor, includes pictures from the recording sessions, plus some older pictures from the early days of his career. Randy’s own vocals have noticeably deteriorated from his peak, but he sounds thoroughly invested in the songs here, and his voice still has immense character. The songs include a mixture of Travis classics and new or newish material. Kyle Lehning takes his accustomed place as producer (and, incidentally, pays tribute in the liner notes to Randy’s manager and ex-wife for her contribution to his career as a whole and this particular project).

It opens with a rather underwhelming collaboration with Brad Paisley on the rather boring and tuneless (and too loud) ‘Everything And All’, about seizing the moment, with Paisley also playing electric guitar. Troy Jones’s song has a 2006 copyright date, and frankly I can see why no one picked it up. The tune also sounds distinctly similar to ‘Everything’s A Thing’, an obscure Joe Nichols album cut. For some reason the album also closes with a solo version, which the song really doesn’t warrant. Fortunately matters improve from there on.

The best song from Heroes & Friends, ‘A Few Ole Country Boys’, gets a reprise, and is also one of my favorite tracks this time around. Randy takes the part George Jones sang on the original, and Jamey Johnson plays the young pretender inspired by him, very effectively. Jamey is no Travis, vocally, but he is an excellent emotional interpreter, and this version feels very genuine, if not quite in the class of the shiver-inducingly good original. There is a slight rewrite to suit the new casting (“We heard you were a fast train coming out of Caroline” becomes “Comin’ down I-65”). Larry Franklin’s lovely fiddle and Paul Franklin’s steel add to the traditional feel.

Even better is a gorgeous version of ‘Promises’ with Shelby Lynne, a great singer who has too rarely found equally great material, and has for the most part moved out of country music. Here she is emotional but restrained on one of Randy’s bleakest songs, while Randy’s voice, grainier than in his youth, sounds wearied by the string of broken promises which has led only to mutual heartbreak. The song works unexpectedly well as a duet, with the pair united in their self-imposed misery, and combined with a delicate string arrangement, this sets it apart from the stripped down original and creates it anew. I would love to hear Shelby on a full album’s worth of solo material like this.

The velvety bass-voiced Josh Turner gets the best of the new songs, the cheery Tim Menzies/Roger Springer song ‘T.I.M.E.’. This is a buddyish uptempo reminder to keep a marriage healthy by remembering that “women spell love, T.I.M.E.” The pair sound very good together on an enjoyable song, and this would be good to see recreated live. John Anderson is also great as the guest on ‘Diggin’ Up Bones’, complete with a newish verse omitted from the original (songwriter Paul Overstreet has previously recorded this version).

Zac Brown is very warm and likeable on a breezy version of Randy’s monster hit ‘Forever And Ever Amen’, and the rest of the Zac Brown Band adds pleasant backing vocals. Randy has recorded with Kenny Chesney before (‘Baptism’, on Kenny’s Everywhere We Go); this time, they try out Randy’s hit ‘He Walked On Water’, which is quite nicely done.

Randy is reunited with old tour partner Alan Jackson on a medley of a brace of songs they wrote together in the early 90s: ‘Better Class Of Losers’ and ‘She’s Got The Rhythm (And I Got The Blues)’. Alan seems to be singing in an unaccustomedly low key, and is almost unrecognizable at the start of the first song, but the pair seems to be having fun in the studio.

Less successfully, Tim McGraw duets on ‘You Can’t Hurt A Man’, written by Lance Miller with Brad and Brett Warren. This is a good song about a man who has reached the point where no new hurt can take him any lower, but one of the poorer performances, with Tim sounding AutoTuned and both of them shouting. James Otto is even shoutier on the bluesy ‘Too Much’. ‘Is It Still Over?’ is lively and Randy sounds at his best, but Carrie Underwood oversings her part, and lacks the playful sense of irony essential on this particular song, taking it all at face value.

Of the more unexpected duet partners, Kristin Chenoweth isn’t bad (and Randy sounds great) on ‘Love Looks Good On You’ a well-written contemporary ballad (by Gordie Sampson and Hilary Lindsey) about meeting an ex and finding she (or he, depending on which of them is singing lead) has moved on. Admittedly the lyric is another which doesn’t quite make sense as a duet. Kristin is reportedly readying a country album of her own. Her first single for country radio is terrible, but this is much more listenable, although her voice is not nearly as impressive as I would have expected from a Broadway star. Randy’s vocals are at their current best on this track. Irish singer Eamonn McCrystal lends his pleasant tenor to ‘Someone You Never Knew’, a Kyle Jacobs/Fred Wilhem song given a light Celtic flavor.

The Eagles’ Don Henley sings harmony on the downbeat hospital-set ‘More Life’, which sounds very familiar. This reflection on the end of life and what comprises “true happiness” is very touching. Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson both duetted separately with Randy on Heroes & Friends. This time they share ‘Road To Surrender’. The three ageing but distinctive voices are individually very effective on this weary sinner’s defeated appeal to God, written by Gary Duffey, Buffy Lawson and Angela Russell, although they do not meld very well when singing together.

Finally a group of mainly older stars (Lorrie Morgan, George Jones, Ray Price, Connie Smith, Joe Stampley and Gene Watson) combine on ‘Didn’t We Shine’. Gene Watson, who is still sounding great, really deserved a full duet, although the others featured are showing signs of age.

While not his best work, this is a nice way of recognising Randy’s 25 year career, and there are some definite bright spots.

Grade: A-

The album is streaming at Randy’s website. Buy it at amazon.

Single Review: David Bradley featuring Rodney Crowell – ‘Hard Time Movin’ On’

In David Bradley’s debut single, the protagonist makes one of those late night calls -the kind that usually take the form of a sophisticated, modern mating call in country music.  Recent hits along these lines – ‘I May Hate Myself In The Morning’, ‘Need You Now’ – have proved the subject is still a meaty one.  But in Bradley’s case, it is neither fueled by alcohol, nor bred by sexual desire. His reasons for calling are even more unfortunate. Awakened by a dream, he dials up his former lover to ask the devastating question ‘Is there something you can say, to make your memory go away?’

Amid a light production, led mostly by a plucking dobro that adds to the melancholy mood, and a desolate melody, we follow the man’s ‘blistering’ heartbreak through his broken conversation.  Bradley’s urgent, edgy vocal is balanced nicely by Rodney Crowell’s high harmonies, which sound a bit in the distance.

An English-born former engineer for global oil companies, Bradley’s music has taken him from London to Siberia, before he finally settled in Nashville, where he’s been keeping heady company – Crowell certainly not the least among them.  This song comes from the pens of Music Row heavyweights Rivers Rutherford and Gordie Sampson.  If ‘Hard Time Movin’ On’ is any indication, like the company he’s keeping, Bradley seems poised to crank out many a great song himself.

Grade: A

Listen here.

Some hidden treasures of 2010

I restricted my top 10 singles list for the year to tracks which were formally released as singles, but a lot of the best music of the year was hidden away on albums. So to finish up our review of the year in country music, here are my favorite tracks from albums released this year. I’ve restricted the selection to one per artist (not counting duets), and I’ve excluded the albums which made it to my top 10 albums list to avoid too much duplication and to prevent the list being too long.

20. Trace Adkins – ‘Still Love You’ (Cowboy’s Back In Town)
Moving to Toby Keith’s label seems to have encouraged the talented but often artistically misguided Trace Adkins to give in to his worst instincts, but there is still some decent material on his latest album. This ballad swearing enduring love (written by love song specialist Jeff Bates with Robert Arthur and Kirk Roth) is a little heavily orchestrated, but has a great, understated vocal from one of the best voices around. It’s a shame the rest of the album wasn’t up to the same standard.

19. Gretchen Wilson – ‘I’m Only Human’ (I Got Your Country Right Here)
Gretchen has just scored an unexpected Grammy nomination for ‘I’d Love To Be Your Last’ from her self-released I Got Your Country Right Here, prompting general bewilderment from country fans online. But while that track isn’t bad, this song is rather better, a plaintive bar-room tale of a woman trying to resist the temptation of dalliance with a married man, which Gretchen wrote with Vicky McGehee, Dave Berg and Rivers Rutherford.

18. Jon Wolfe – ‘Play Me Something I Can Drink To’ (It All Happened In A Honky Tonk)
If you think Easton Corbin sounds like George Strait, you need to check out the Strait stylings of Jon Wolfe on his strong independent debut album. I particularly liked this classic country style bar room song (written by Kevin Brandt and Bobby Terry) about a guy seeking to get his broken heart temporarily cured by whiskey and a jukebox stocked with Hank and Jones.

17. Jamie Richards – ‘Half Drunk’ (Sideways)
A great song from a Texas-based artist about trying to get over an ex by drinking, but running out of money halfway through.

16. Miss Leslie – ‘Turn Around’ (Wrong Is What I Do Best)
A lovely steel-led heartbreak ballad written by honky tonker Miss Leslie herself, but sounding as though it could be a forgotten classic from the 60s.

15. Shawn Camp – ‘Clear As A Bell’ (1994)
This lovely song was my favorite from Shawn’s “lost” album which was resurrected from the Warner Bros vaults this year.

14. Zac Brown Band – ‘Martin’ (You Get What You Give)
Jamey Johnson personified a guitar in the title track of The Guitar Song, but Zac Brown sang a love song about one on their latest release. Charming and unusual.

13. Gary Allan – ‘No Regrets’ (Get Off On The Pain)
I’ve been disappointed by Gary’s musical direction over the past couple of albums, but the heartbreaking honesty of this touching song expressing his feelings about his late wife (which he wrote with the help of Jon Randall and Jaime Hanna) was a reminder of his excellent early work.

12. Jolie Holliday – ‘I’ll Try Anything’ (Lucky Enough)
A gorgeous cover of a sad song previously recorded by its co-writer Amber Dotson about struggling to cope with lost love. I can’t find a link for you to listen to the studio version, but here she is singing it live (after a nice version of ‘San Antonio Rose’. And as a bonus, here she is singing ‘Golden Ring’ live with Randy Travis.

11. Curly Putman – ‘Green Green Grass Of Home’ (Write ‘Em Sad – Sing ‘Em Lonesome)
The songwriter’s own version of his classic prisoner’s dream is as convincing as any version I’ve herd of this celebrated song.

10. Toby Keith – ‘Sundown‘ (Bullets In The Gun, deluxe version)
Toby is always a bit hit and miss for me, but this surprisingly restrained live version of the sultry folk-country classic is a definite hit.

9. Darin & Brooke Aldridge – ‘The Last Thing On His Mind’ (Darin & Brooke Aldridge)
I loved this husband and wife team’s sweet bluegrass album and this somber Easter song (written by Dennis K Duff) was the highlight for me.

8. Teea Goans – ‘I Don’t Do Bridges Anymore’ (The Way I Remember It)
Teea Goans’ retro independent release featured this lovely classic-styled ballad, written by Jim McBride, Don Poythress and Jerry Salley. Her voice is sweet but not that distinctive, but this breakup song is definitely worth hearing.

7. Catherine Britt – ‘Sweet Emmylou’ (Catherine Britt)
The Australian singer’s latest album was a bit hit and miss for me, but there were some very strong moments, including Catherine’s lovely version of her tribute to the healing power of the music of Emmylou Harris, which she wrote some years ago with Rory Feek. It has been released as a single in Australia.

6. Bill Anderson – ‘The Songwriters’ (Songwriter)
My favorite comic song of the year is the legendary Bill Anderson’s celebration (more or less) of songwriters’ lives, complete with the protagonist’s mother’s preference for a career as drug dealer for her son. Bill isn’t much of a singer, but this song (co-written with Gordie Sampson)is irresistible.

5. Randy Kohrs – ‘Die On The Vine’ (Quicksand)
One of the first songs to grab my attention this year was this lovely song warning a son against taking refuges from trouble in alcohol, written by famed dobro player and songwriter Randy Kohrs with Dennis Goodwin.

4. James Dupre – ‘Ring On The Bar’ (It’s All Happening)
I loved this sensitively sung low-key mid-tempo Byron Hill/Brent Baxter song about a man trying to figure out what happened to his marriage from youtube discovery James’s independent debut album, produced by Kyle Lehning.

3. Lee Ann Womack – ‘Liars Lie’ (Country Strong soundtrack)
I’m beginning to get impatient for a new album from Lee Ann, and this soundtrack cut has really whetted my appetite. This excellent song, written by Sally Barris, Morgane Hayes and Liz Rose, and the combination of Lee Ann’s beautiful vocals and the harmony from Charlie Pate, a pure country production (thanks to Lee Ann’s husband Frank Liddell and Chuck Ainlay), and a fine song make this a sheer delight.

2. Chris Young – ‘Chiseled In Stone’ (Voices EP)
Song for song, this young neotraditionalist’s three song EP of covers was the most impressive release of the year, allowing Chris to exercise his outstanding baritone voice on really top quality material – something sadly missing on his two full length albums. This Vern Gosdin song was my favorite of the three, but his takes on Keith Whitley’s ‘I’m Over You’ and John Anderson’s ‘Swingin’ were also great.

1. Alan Jackson ft Lee Ann Womack – ‘Til The End’ (Freight Train)
This particular treasure is not very well hidden, as although it hasn’t been released as a single it gained sufficient attention to get a well-deserved nomination as Musical Event of the Year at the recent CMA awards. This exquisite reading of another Vern Gosdin classic was by far the best thing on Alan’s latest (and possibly last) album for Arista.

Do you have any special favorite album tracks from this year which haven’t gained the attention they deserve?

Album Review: Bill Anderson – ‘Songwriter’

Even at the height of his stardom, it was widely acknowledged that “Whispering” Bill Anderson wasn’t much of a singer. But he was, and remains, an excellent country songwriter, who continues to get cuts by some of today’s biggest stars. He has just recorded a dozen of his latest songs on an independently released record, co-produced with multi-instrumentalist Rex Paul Schnelle, who plays electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin, banjo, piano, and keyboards and sings backing vocals – basically every instrument but drums, bass and steel.

The songs are all co-writes, and I was struck by the generosity with which Bill puts his own name last in the credits each time. His vocals are no stronger than one might expect, but on most of these songs it doesn’t matter. Half the songs are comedic, and do not demand great singing; in some of the others the limitations of his voice is put to good use.

The stall is set out with the opening track ‘It Ain’t My Job To Tote Your Monkey’, co written with the album’s producer Rex Schnelle and Rivers Rutherford. It’s a very witty riposte to someone who’s never satisfied whether it’s because:

So the government’s crazy and the weather’s all wrong
The radio ain’t playing country songs
Grits won’t cook in the microwave
And you’re mad about the price of gas these days
You can’t get a signal on your mobile phone
Your dog ran off and your wife came home

Also laugh-out-loud funny is the episodic ‘That’s When The Fight Broke Out’ which recounts a hapless husband’s many ill-judged remarks in a series of one-liners. A sense of humor is not necessarily conducive to a happy marriage.

‘Good Time Gettin’ Here’ is a good-natured recital from the kind of guy who wastes most of his time having fun, declaring from high school graduation to his arrival at the gates of heaven:

I’m not sure where I’ve been or where I am or where I’m going
But I sure had a good time gettin’ here

Written with Jamey Johnson and Buddy Cannon, this entertaining song could easily be a hit single for someone like Brad Paisley.

Speaking of Brad, he co-wrote and plays electric guitar on the rather vulgar ‘If You Can’t Make Money’ with Jon Randall also co-writing. The advice for economic hard times is to make love instead of money:
We can’t get a break, can’t get a job
We need to get the opposite of laid off

This is one of the songs where the vocal limitations are a problem, making the song sound sleazy.

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