My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Guy Clark

Album Review: Adam Harvey – ‘I’m Doing Alright’

In 2007 Adam signed to Sony Australia, and released an excellent debut for the label. The style was a little more contemporary country than his most recent albums, but very well performed and produced.

He wrote the majority of the tracks, mostly with Rod McCormack, including my favorite, ‘Someone Else’s Dream’. This is an excellent ballad, set to a strong melody ideally suited to Adam’s deep voice, with a tasteful string arrangement, and an inspiring lyric about fulfilling your own path in life:

I’ve known hurt and pain
Seen things I hope we never see again
I’ve been bought and sold
I’ve learned not to believe most of what I’m told
We’re all busy making plans
But there’s just a few who can
Have a vision and the will to see it through

Truth knows when things aren’t what they seem
And words fall flat if you d- on’t feel what they mean
You can’t move forward
Till you know where you’ve been
The ones who stand alone see
It’s no life
Living someone else’s dream

‘Walls’ is an excellent song, referring to the Aboriginal population of Australia, the Berlin Wall and other artificial barriers:

When different people find a common ground
There’s no way to stop
Walls from tumbling down

Walls
We all build ‘em
When we need something to hide behind
But if we learn from those that came before us
We let ‘em fall
Walls

Every day we make ‘em like we need ‘em to survive
But what’s the use of feelings if they’re locked up inside?

The solemn ‘A Bigger Plan’ relates grandparental advice to a child, while the sultry jazzy ballad of ‘Will You Be Mine’ is the album’s sole love song. ‘Saturday Night’ is another likeable song about childhood memories of good times at family parties every week:

There ain’t nothing like a party at the Harveys on a Saturday night

The soundtrack include smashing bottles and police sirens.

The title track is a mid paced song with a contemporary feel about satisfaction with one’s life despite lacking material goods. Not bad. ‘Way Too Fast’ is a nice song advising taking time out from a busy life, warmly sung.

‘You’d Do The Same For Me’ is a thoughtful ballad about friendship with an attractive melody and some nice fiddle:

We all need a shoulder when life lets you down
One thing you can count on
I’ll always be around
Nothing’s too much trouble for a friend in need
You’d do the same for me

Most of his usual co-writers refused to work on him with ‘Genie In The Bottle’, which they thought was a stupid idea for a song, but while admittedly a bit silly it’s rather fun, about a lovelorn man who takes to the bottle:

The genie in the bottom of the Jim Bean bottle made me do what I didn’t wanna do
I made a wish with the genie but the genie was a meanie and he didn’t make my wish come true
I was hoping he would make your memory go away but I’m still thinkin’ of you

Of the outside material, ‘The Older I Get’ is a pleasant mid-paced tune about learning how to live well. It was written by Danny Gree, Rob Crosby and Liz Hengber.

‘Flowers’ was a very minor hit for its writer Billy Yates, with its perfectly constructed and emotionally devastating lyric about a man who (spoiler alert!) causes the death of his partner by drunk driving. It has also been cut by Chris Young. Adam’s version is decent but not my favorite, lacking a bit of the combined delicacy and intensity needed to carry it off. I don’t quite *believe* this version.

The best known cover is the Guy Clark song ‘Heartbroke’. Adam’s version is highly enjoyable but not as exciting as Ricky Skaggs’ bluegrass infused hit. Adam also takes on bluesman Keb Mo’’s ‘A Better Man’; the original actually has a jug band feel which might have worked better but Adam’s version is a bit dull.

There are “bonus” acoustic re-recordings of several of the songs on this album, and a few older songs, on my version of the album.

The album won an Australian CMA award, and is well worth finding.

Grade: A-

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Album Review: Adam Harvey – ‘Workin’ Overtime’

After some time finding his feet, Adam’s first Australian gold selling album was 2001’s Workin’ Overtime. It also won him a Golden Guitar award for Best Album. It thoroughly deserved both, as this is an excellent album.

He wrote or cowrote the lion’s share of the tracks himself for the first time. The title track, ‘Workin’ Overtime (On A Good Time)’ was co-written with fellow Australian Rod McCormack and American country artist David Lee Murphey. This starts out slow and then ramps it up as Adam quits his job in favour of party time.

McCormack and Jerry Salley teamed up with Adam for ‘The Shake Of A Hand’, a sweet song set to a pretty lilting melody with a wistful nostalgia for a more innocent past. The same team produced the charmingly retro western swing ‘Two Steppin’ Fool’, in which Adam offers himself as a replacement for a cheater.

Adam and Rod McCormack were joined by Sonny Tillis to write ‘What It Used To Be’, a lovely sad ballad about the aftermath of a failed relationship. Matt King co-wrote the mid-paced ‘I’ll Drink To That’, a swaggering response to a wife’s ultimatum to stop drinking to excess in which the booze looks like winning:

Hangovers hurt me in the morning
But living with a crazy woman
Sure to give a man a heart attack
So I’ll drink to that
I’ll raise my glass and
Here’s to all the good times that you said we never had
This beer ain’t half as bitter as
This trouble you’ve been causing
With these threats that you’ll be walking
If I touch another drop
I’ll drink to that

Rick Price cowrote two songs with Adam and Rod, both love songs. ‘One Of A Kind’ is a sweet ballad, earnestly delivered by Adam, while ‘Little Bitty Thing Called’ is slighter lyrically but a fun little ditty.

A few covers or outside songs were thrown in. ‘The House That Jack Built’ is a rapid paced Billy Yates/Jerry Salley story song about a young married couple whose ideal picket fence life is broken up when a richer man comes along, with a fiddle dominated arrangement. Steel guitar leads into the superlative ballad ‘One And One And One’, also recorded by Gene Watson. Adam does it full justice as he portrays a man who retires hurt but dignified when he finds his lover two timing him:

The first time I laid eyes on you it was love for me
It never crossed my mind what all I couldn’t see
Now suddenly there’s more than me you’re livin’ for
I go to you and find a stranger at your door

1 + 1 + 1 is one too many
I can’t understand your reasons why
1 + 1 + 1 is one too many
So let me be the one to say goodbye

You say God blessed you with two good men
And you can’t choose
‘Cause in different ways we both mean the world to you
And you’re wonderin’ now if somehow
I could live with that
But God above wouldn’t call this love so I want out

‘She’s Gone, Gone, Gone’ is a Harlan Howard song first recorded by the legendary Lefty Frizzell and then a top 10 country hit for Glen Campbell. It is upbeat musically, belying a sad lyric, and highly enjoyable with a delightful acoustic arrangement. There is a tasteful cover of the Guy Clark classic ‘Boats To Build’.

‘Beauty’s In The Eye (Of The Beerholder)’ is a comic drinking song which is good fun.

The album closes with a very fine version of Chris Wall’s modern classic ‘I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight’, most recently recorded by Sunny Sweeney.

Adam is in great voice on this record, and the material is all high quality. I recommend this wholeheartedly.

Grade: A

Album Review: Rodney Crowell – ‘Acoustic Classics’

Rodney Crowell has decided to revisit a number of his best known songs in acoustic format.

The poetic ‘Earthbound’ from 2003 sounds very like the original recording. ‘Anything But Tame’ comes from his 2012 collaboration with poet Mary Karr, is similar but a little more stripped down, but it is a song I admire rather than love.

First recorded by Rodney in 1978, and made famous by near-contemporary covers by Emmylou Harris, and the Oak Ridge Boys (for whom it was a #1 hit in 1979), the new version is ‘Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight’ is taken at a more relaxed pace than any of the previous versions I have heard. The dominant accordion makes it feel full of Cajun atmosphere, and I enjoyed this take. The remake of the same era’s ‘Ain’t Living Long Like This’ feels less essential.

Less familiar to country fans, ‘Shame On The Moon’ was recorded by Rodney in 1981, and was a pop hit for Bob Seger the following year. Rodney has revised the actual song for this project, but it remains one of the more pop-styed tunes in Crowell’s repertoire.

The up-tempo ‘Lovin’ All Night’, a top 10 hit for Rodney in 1992, and later covered by Patty Loveless, is a country rocker which gets a vibrant acoustic reworking.

There is a lovely reading of the tender ballad ‘Making Memories Of Us’, a big hit for Keith Urban. A solemn string arrangement is the perfect accompaniment. The same treatment is afforded to ‘Please Remember Me’, a hit for Tim McGraw.

At the heart of the album are three songs from my favorite of Rodney’s albums, and his most commercially successful, 1988’s Diamonds And Dirt. In fact they are three of that album’s record breaking run of five straight #1 hits. The upbeat ‘I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried’ was the first of the three, followed by the tongue-in-cheek Guy Clark co-write ‘She’s Crazy For Leavin’’. My favorite is the lovely ballad ‘After All This Time’.

‘Tennessee Wedding’ is a new song which Rodney wrote for his daughter’s wedding, from the point of view of his new son in law.

Tis is a very pleasing album showcasing Rodney Crowell as a songwriter. It may not be an essential purchase if you already have all his recorded work, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Grade: A

Album Review: John Conlee – ‘Classics 3’

Star of the late 70s and early 80s and current Opry favorite John Conlee has released two previous versions of ‘Classics’, mixing new versions of his hits with new material. Most of the hits were covered on the first two sets, so the bulk jof material here is new, with only a few of his later hit singles.

‘Working Man’, originally a top 10 hit in 1985, is a mellow sounding song about ordinary blue-collar lives struggling to make ends meet. The biggest hit was ‘Got My Heart Set On You’, a mid-tempo pop-country tune which reached #1 in 1986, and which was co-written by Dobie Gray, best known for his song ‘Drift Away’. It is a pleasant love song, but not really worthy of reviving, and has a dated sounding brassy arrangement. Guy Clark’s ‘The Carpenter’ is a much better song, and was a top 10 hit for John in January 1987.

‘Living Like There’s No Tomorrow’ was John’s final single for Columbia, but failed to dent the charts, as it had done when Keith Whitley recorded it a few years earlier. That was a shame in both cases, as it is a great classic country heartbreak ballad about regretting walking out (written by Jim McBride and Roger Murrah). The brass on this version is a bit overblown but the vocal is great: I admit to still preferring the Whitley version. ‘Could You Love Me (One More Time)’ was also both a cover (a Stanley Brothers classic) and a less successful single for John, but from earlier in his career (top 30 in 1981). John sings it beautifully here with a nicely understated production.

Other songs will be familiar from other versions. Joey + Rory’s ‘Bible And A Belt’ works really well for John Conlee’s emotional vocal. I also enjoyed a committed cover of Haggard’s ‘Jesus Take A Hold’, but was less enthralled by ‘The Rock’, which was on one of George Jones’s last records, and which has a more bluesy arrangement here.

There are two songs written by Hugh Prestwood. ‘Learning How To Love’ is a graceful piano ballad with a tasteful string arrangement about the long shadow of a difficult childhood and its impact on adult relationship. More controversial is ‘Unborn Voice’, an uncompromising song from the point of view of the unborn child whose mother is evidently contemplating abortion. It’s not subtle, and the production is fiddly, but it moved me.

Sometime I hear music drifting through these walls
And sometimes I hear voices echo down these halls
Sometimes I hear what sounds like hope all twisted up with fear
And sometimes I hear laughter all tangled up with tears…

I sometimes have this dream of love
And sometimes I could swear
That I hear God whisper to me
There’s a place for me out there

I wonder who this judge is
Who is making up her mind
I wonder if her justice
Is maybe just too blind

She has no idea how much we’re just the same
Maybe she will have mercy
Maybe not
I hear it’s beautiful out there and I’d like a shot

‘Lonely Don’t Know When To Leave’ is an excellent sad ballad written by Leslie Satcher. The mid-tempo ‘The Shade’ fondly recalls childhood memories.

It’s always hard to grade albums involving extensive re-workings of older songs, but I mostly enjoyed this set although some cherrypickimg might be advised.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Bobby Bare – ‘Things Change’

After not issuing any albums of new material for over twenty years (1985-2005), Bobby Bare has now issued his third album in the last dozen years. Things Change has a sound more in line with the modern sounds of country music, while offering the sort of story songs that made country music from the period 1940 – 2005 stand apart from most other forms of popular music.

Things Change finds Bobby Bare the songwriter being spotlighted more than was normally the case in the past. Bare has always been a good songwriter, but his focus has always been to find the best songs and focus attention on the writers of those songs. For this album Bare has co-writer credits on five of the songs and was entirely responsible for two other songs.

No doubt radio won’t play this album so there won’t be any hit singles, even though this is an album full of great songs. That said, the album opens up with a song that was an enormous success in Norway in 2012, winning the third Regional Semi-Final stage of Norway’s Melodi Grand Prix 2012 and just missing being selected as Norway’s entrant (out of 800+ entrants) in the Eurovision Song Contest. The version that was so successful in Europe was a duet with Norwegian singer Petter Øien. It is a firm indicator of Bobby’s sustained vocal excellence and popularity in Europe that the Norwegians selected Bare’s song even though it was sung entirely in English. Bobby is a long-time favorite of Norwegian audiences, having toured there frequently since 1964.

The version on the album is not the version that stormed Europe but a recent studio recording. Bare is now 82 years old and brings a mature perspective to the song that perhaps cannot be as effectively told by younger performers:

Cowboy hats will blow off in the wind
Women rule the world, not the men
And things change but then
You turn around and they change again

Things change, don’t blink your eye
‘Cause if you do, they’ll pass you by
About the time you think you’ve locked it in
Things change, then change again

That winter bummed you out, just wait for spring
In the middle of a drought just wait for rain
If you think your life’s run out and you can’t win
There’s no doubt things gonna change again

Things change, don’t blink your eye
‘Cause if you do, they’ll pass you by
About the time you think you’ve locked it in
Things change, then change again

Son, that’s just life, that’s the world we’re living in
That’s the way it’s gonna be ’cause that’s the way it’s always been

Next up is “The End”, a wistful mid-tempo ballad about a love that came unwound.

Bobby teamed up with legendary songwriters Rafe Van Hoy and Billy Burnette to write “Aint No Sure Thing”. As Bobby notes the “the only sure thing is there ain’t no sure things”. This is a mid-tempo semi-rocker.

Bobby co-wrote “The Trouble With Angels” with Robert Deitch. This is a mid-tempo ballad that laments that the trouble with angels is “they never stay, they all fly away“.

Up to this point Bobby had a hand in writing all the songs; however, as noted before, Bobby has a strong appreciation for talented songwriters and he turns to Mary Gauthier for the next two songs.

“I Drink” is a slow ballad that has played itself out many times in many places. Gauthier has described the song as semi-autobiographical:

He’d get home at 5:30
Fix his drink, sit down in his chair
Pick a fight with mama
Complain about us kids getting in his hair

At night he’d sit ‘lone and smoke
I’d see his frown behind his lighter’s flame
Now that same frown’s in my mirror
I got my daddy’s blood inside my veins

Fish swim, birds fly
Daddies yell, mamas cry
Old men sit and think
I drink

“Mercy Now” is a very sad song albeit somewhat uplifting and perhaps even spiritual. It certainly speaks accurately to the human condition:

My father could use a little mercy now
The fruits of his labor fall and rot slowly on the ground
His work is almost over, it won’t be long, he won’t be around
I love my father, he could use some mercy now

My brother could use a little mercy now
He’s a stranger to freedom, he’s shackled to his fear and his doubt
The pain that he lives in it’s almost more than living will allow
I love my brother, he could use some mercy now

My church and my country could use a little mercy now
As they sink into a poisoned pit it’s going to take forever to climb out
They carry the weight of the faithful who follow them down
I love my church and country, they could use some mercy now

I really was not familiar with Mary Gauthier, but after listening these songs, I’ve made myself a mental note to check out more of her music.

Guy Clark was one of the great songwriters and he teamed with Bobby to write “Trophy Girl”. Apparently this was the last song that Clark wrote. The morale of the story is “trophy girls don’t hang around forever.”

The next two songs “Where Did It Go” and “You Got The Light” were both solo efforts by Bobby, the former a slow ballad and the latter a mid-tempo blues rocker. Both are good songs.

The album closes with one of Bare’s signature songs, the ubiquitous “Detroit City”. Written by Mel Tillis and Danny Dill and twice a hit in 1963, the song perhaps catches the despair of homesickness as well as any song ever written. Bobby is joined by Chris Stapleton on this new recording of his classic hit. The major difference between this track and his 1963 version is a more pronounced rhythm track.

I wanna go home, I wanna go home
Oh, how I wanna go home.

Last night I went to sleep in Detroit City
And I dreamed about those cottonfields and home
I dreamed about my mother dear, old papa, sister and brother
I dreamed about that girl who’s been waiting for so long
I wanna go home, I wanna go home, oh, how I wanna go home.

Homefolks think I’m big in Detroit City
From the letters that I write they think I’m fine
But by day I make the cars, by night I make the bars
If only they could read between the lines.

Bobby Bare remains what he has always been, a relaxed but expressive singer, with a wry sense of humor and the ability to make you believe the stories he tells. The voice is a little weathered but fits perfectly with the material. Bare was never about pretense and putting the songs across is all that he really cares about – and as always, he succeeds magnificently.

This album is a solid “A” if ever I heard one.

Credits

01 Things Change (Bobby Bare/Jeff Hyde/ Roger Springer)
02 The End (Bobby Bare / John Pennell)
03 Ain’t No Sure Thing (Bobby Bare/ Rafe Van Hoy / Billy Burnette)
04 The Trouble With Angels (Bobby Bare / Robert Deitch)
05 I Drink (Mary Gauthier / Crit Harmon)
06 Mercy Now (Mary Gauthier)
07 Trophy Girl (Bobby Bare / Guy Clark)
08 Where Did It Go (Bobby Bare)
09 You Got The Light (Bobby Bare)
10 Detroit City (Danny Dill / Mel Tillis) – w/ Chris Stapleton

Produced by Max T Barnes & Jimmy Ritchey
Executive Producer: Shannon Bare
Acoustic Guitars: B James Lowrey, Darrell Scott, Max T Barnes
Drums: Eddie Bayer Jr., Shannon Forrest, Gary Kubal
Electric Guitar: Brent Mason, Max T Barnes
Bass: Jimmie Johnson, David Smith , Glenn Worf
Keys: Tim Atwood, Gary Prim, Mike Rojas, Max T Barnes
Background Vocals: Harry Stinson, Stevie Ray Anderson, Robin Barnes,
Wes Hightower, Coleen Gallagher, Bobby Bare Jr., Max T Barnes,
Danny Sheerin

Official video

2012 Performance Video

Interview, etc

Album Review: Angaleena Presley – ‘Wrangled’

These past couple of years have seen Pistol Annies go their separate ways, as Ashley Monroe tried to gain traction with The Blade and Miranda Lambert continued to rack up Female Vocalist of the Year trophies, publicity split from Blake Shelton and poured her soul into The Weight of These Wings, released last November. Their bandmate Angaleena Presley is the group’s true outlier, the musical anomaly that doesn’t quite fit any particular mode.

Pistol Annies have reunited this year on Gentle Giants: The Songs of Don Williams, in which they contribute their take on his classic “Tulsa Time.” They’ve also come together for the opening track of Presley’s sophomore record Wrangled, which was produced by Oran Thornton. The track, “Dreams Don’t Come True” is a steel-laced ballad concerning the dark side of stardom:

I thought

There’d be a man in a suit and a ten-gallon hat

He’d give me a deal and a red Cadillac

And I’d make hit records and get hooked on drugs

But I wound up pregnant and strung out on love

 

Dreams don’t come true

They’ll make a mess out of you

They’ll hang around the darkest corners of your mind

They’ll beat your heart black and blue

Don’t let anyone tell you they do

Dreams don’t come true

 

I thought

I’d change the world with three chords and the truth

I’d be like Elvis but with lipstick and boobs

My bra would be floatin’ in a guitar-shaped pool

And I’d flip the bird to them whores in high school

The lyric is brilliant and it’s nice to hear the band’s harmonies again, but the track is so cluttered and weighted down, I’m finding it difficult to extract the enjoyment from it I so desperately want to. Wrangled continues in that tradition throughout its twelve tracks, presenting a sonic landscape I honestly found challenging to take a liking to. But the significance of these songs makes Wrangled hard to ignore.

Presley uses Wrangled as a vehicle for venting the frustrations and anger she feels towards society and an industry she feels unjustly spit her out. At 40, she’s dictating her own rules and refusing to play nice.

Those emotions come to light on “Mama I Tried,” which finds Presley and Thornton revising the themes (and signature riff) of the Merle Haggard classic. The lyric is directed at the music industry, and while fantastic, the presentation (littered with cumbersome electric guitars) is far too loud for my taste:

I came so close so many times

And I’ll never get back the best years of my life

Empty proposals, all talk, no show

It’s getting too hard to keep holding on

Now you’ve got to let it go

 

Mama I tried, Mama I tried

I cheated and I lied

I painted up my face like a rodeo clown

And I choked on cheap perfume as I spread myself around

I strutted my stuff at every juke joint in town

Always the bridesmaid, never the bride

Mama, Mama, I tried

She continues with her self-written confessional “Outlaw,” in which lays bear (with help from Sheryl Crow) her true nature:

Grass looks greener, the money does too

It sure looks easier for the chosen few

Mama always said God broke the mold when he made me

And I’ve spent my whole damn life tryin’ to fit back in

 

I don’t wanna be an outlaw

I don’t wanna be a renegade

I wanna be a straight-shootin’ high-falutin’ rider on the hit parade

It’s too hard to live this way

I don’t wanna be an outlaw

I don’t wanna be a renegade

 

If you think I’m brave, you’re sadly mistaken

Every fight I’ve ever fought, every rule I’ve ever broke

Was out of desperation

I’d just as soon be

Another face in the crowd of people who are scared of me

Presley examines her life as a performer on “Groundswell,” which pairs her desires with a nice banjo riff. She spends the song feeling almost hopeful:

I gotta make it through these Alabama pines

‘Cause I’ve got a house to clean and bedtime story to tell

One more song, one more show

One more penny in the well

One whisper leads to one yell

Groundswell

Groundswell

The treatment of women by modern society is at the heart of “Good Girl Down,” which Presley co-wrote with rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson. The blistering rocker, which uses noise to drown out Presley’s vocal, is a pointed and sharp feminist anthem:

I’m not just a pretty face

not a flower in a vase

its a mans world and I’m a lady

and they’ll never appreciate me

 

They’re gonna take the time to get to know who I am

frankly boys, I don’t give a damn

I’ve got my head on straight

 

You can’t get a good girl down

You can’t get a good girl down

She’s got not secrets and she’s got no lies

She’ll burn you out with the truth in her eyes

She’s standing on solid ground

You can’t get a good girl down

Wrangled also features Guy Clark’s final song, which he and Presley co-wrote together. “Cheer Up, Little Darling,” which features an intro of Clark speaking the first verse, is sparse and a nice breath of fresh air.

She teams with Chris Stapleton on “Only Blood,” a brilliant ballad that dissects a couple’s marriage, his cheating, and their inevitable confrontation. The track, which features an assist from Stapleton’s wife Morgane, is not only one of Wrangled’s strongest tracks, but it’s one of my favorite songs so far this year.

While she had a hand in writing each of the twelve tracks on Wrangled, Presley wrote three solo. The title track revisits one of my favorite themes, quiet desperation, with the intriguing tale of a housewife who feels she “might as well be hogtied and strangled/tired of wakin’ up feelin’ like I’ve been wrangled.”

Presley follows with “Bless My Heart,” the most honest woman-to-woman song since Pam Tillis & Dean Dillon’s “Spilled Perfume.” Presley plays the role of the aggressor, tearing the other woman down at every delicious turn:

Listen here honey, I know you mean well

But that southern drawl don’t cover up the smell

Of your sweet little goody-goody

Spoiled rotten daddy’s girl act

Your two-faced trash talkin’ tongue

Might as well be an axe

 

You’d knock a girl down

So you could feel tall

You’d burn Cinderella’s dress

So you could feel like the hottest girl at the ball

You’re a beauty mark on the human race

And if you bless my heart I’ll slap your face

 

It’s evolution honey, and in case you didn’t know

The more you learn, the more you grow

When you’re livin’ in a bubble

You can bet that it’s bound to burst

You’re going to pay for every time

You didn’t put the greater good first

The most adventurous track on Wrangled is “Country,” which features hip-hop artist Yelawolf. The track is a mess, but the lyric is genius. The track was composed in parody to the trends on modern country radio. In a twist, it’s the verse rapped by Yelawolf that helps the message truly resonant:

There used to be a place downtown

Where they threw nut shells on the floor

But they cleaned up and went corporate

And now I don’t go there no more

My mama bartended that place

When it was a dive and alive

But they sold it out to retire

And chase that American Pie

Now we got no Hank and Johnny

No Waylon playin’, Dwight Yoakam on radio

Just a crazy load of these country posers

I suppose a couple are real

But they’ll never make it

So thank God for Sturgill Simpson

‘Cause Music Row can fuckin’ save it

But I’m fuckin’ gettin’ it son

Wrangled closes with the gospel rave “Motel Bible.” I’ve never said this before about a project, but this truly is a difficult album to assign a grade to. Each of the twelve tracks, including “High School,” are lyrically brilliant and demand to be heard. But puzzling production choice mare more than a few of the songs, leaving the listener wanting a more delicate approach in order to fully appreciate what they’re hearing. But if you can look past that flaw, Wrangled is this year’s Big Day In A Small Town – a record for the ages by a female artist with an unabashed adult perspective. It hasn’t yet charted and likely won’t find much of an audience, but that doesn’t distract from its high quality. I just wish the production didn’t get in the way.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Rodney Crowell – ‘Close Ties’

The past continues to cast a looming shadow over Rodney Crowell on his latest album, produced by Jordan Lehning and Kim Buie. He has written about his difficult East Houston childhood before, and he revisits it more graphically than ever on ‘East Houston Blues’, a reflective and gripping contemplation of a very tough past which might have ended very badly. The song seems to be set in an alternative world in which he never got out of it:

I grew up hungry
And I grew up hard
Took the streets and alleys
For my own backyard
I got a breakin’-and-enter
On my list of crimes
Been before the judge
One too many times…

I’m a third-born child
My mother’s only son
Which means exactly nothing
Without a loaded gun
I don’t believe in love
This I guarantee
If there’s a God above
He’s got it in for me

This song opens the album, which is bookended with his recollections of his arrival in ‘Nashville ‘72’ and early friendship with Guy and Susanna Clark. He drops lots of names of his musician friends from that era, some of whom will be more familiar than others to the average listener. Susanna Clark’s recent death may perhaps have sparked off this nostalgic mood, and ‘Life Without Susanna’ addresses this sense of loss. While it is well written and clearly heartfelt, the rather histrionic vocals make it hard to listen to.

In another echo of times past, ex-wife Rosanne Cash joins Rodney on ‘It Ain’t Over Yet’, together with John Paul White, formerly half of Americana duo The Civil Wars. A rueful yet optimistic look at growing older partly inspired by Guy and Susanna, this is an excellent song which is being promoted as a single:

It’s like I’m sittin’ at a bus stop waitin’ for a train
Exactly how I got here is hard to explain
My heart’s in the right place,
what’s left of it I guess
My heart ain’t the problem,
It’s my mind that’s a total mess
With these rickety old legs and these watery eyes
It’s hard to believe that I could pass for anybody’s prize
And here’s what I know about
The gifts that God gave
You can’t take ’em with ya
When you go to the grave

The funky ‘I Don’t Care Anymore’ is also about growing older, and no longer bothering about appearances or what others think.

An unexpected guest is Sheryl Crow, who duets with Rodney on ‘Tied To Ya’ which he wrote with Irish musician Michael McGlynn. This is a kind of love song with a pretty melody and rather vague spiritual but not religious lyrics. I much preferred the delicately understated pensive ‘Forgive Me Annabelle’, about a former love and his own past failings, set to a beautiful string arrangement. ‘Reckless’ is a song about dreaming about cheating on a true love, with another classical style arrangement.

‘Storm Warning’, a co-write with poet Mary Karr, with whom Crowell collaborated on his album Kin a few years ago, is an intense description of a tornado, but (while entirely appropriate for the song) it is a bit loud and cluttered for me to actually enjoy. In contrast, the mellow, poetic ‘Forty Miles From Nowhere’ is lovely.

I don’t think I would call this album country, and maybe not even Americana. But it is an excellent, mature piece of work.

Grade: A

Album Review: Asleep at the Wheel – ’10’

61uxgwzhcdl-_ss5001987’s 10 marks the beginning of Asleep at the Wheel’s second brief stint with Epic Records and a commercial resurgence of sort, perhaps fueled by Nashville’s renewed interest in traditional country music. 10, however, is hardly a traditional album; like the band’s other recordings, it is a fusion of country and 1940s swing music. Produced by Ray Benson, it was released following a period when the group had all but disbanded due to financial difficulties. It earned the band a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental, presumably for the track “String of Pars” which is the only instrumental number on the album. The great Johnny Gimble is once again featured as a guest artist.

The album produced four singles, beginning with the excellent Billy Joe Shaver-penned “Way Down Texas Way”, which peaked at #39, becoming the band’s first Top 40 hit in nearly a decade. It was followed by a cover of “House of Blue Lights”, which had twice been a hit in 1946: once for Freddie Slack and Ella Mae Morse and again for The Andrews Sisters. It is not even remotely country, and as such was an odd choice for a single at the height of the New Traditionalist movement. Nevertheless, it rose to #17, marking the second and final time that an AATW album would reach the Top 20. Country it is not, but it is very good. Ray Benson’s composition “Boogie Back to Texas” was the third single. It too was more swing than Western and charted at #53. The fourth single, Guy Clark’s “Blowin’ Like a Bandit” is easily the best song on the album. One has to marvel that “House of Blue Lights” reached the Top 20 while a song that was much more in line with the mainstream tastes of the day topped out at #59.

The musicians are excellent, as always, and their talent goes a long way towards compensating for the occasional weaknesses in the material: a cover of Huey Lewis and The News’ “I Want a New Drug”, which of and by itself is not a great song, and “Big Foot Stomp”, which is also not a great song but obviously not meant to be taken too seriously.

This is short album, clocking in at just over 29 minutes, and it seems to go by even quicker. It’s a wonderful listen and worth seeking out.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Guy Clark feat. Emmylou Harris – ‘Black Diamond Strings’

We remember Guy Clark. The legendary singer/songwriter died this morning at age 74.

In Memoriam: Guy Clark (1941-2016)

In another devastating blow to country music, legendary songwriter Guy Clark has passed away at age 74. Though not well known to many mainstream fans, he was highly respected within the industry.

http://www.tennessean.com/story/entertainment/music/2016/05/17/guy-clark-dead-74/80932338/

Album Review: Lee Roy Parnell – ‘Every Night’s A Saturday Night’

LeeroysaturdayLee Roy Parnell released his fifth album, Every Night’s A Saturday Night, in June 1997. Parnell co-produced the project, his second release for Arista imprint Career Records, along with his touring band The Hot Links.

The album produced three singles yet failed to generate any top ten hits. Parnell and Gary Nicholson co-wrote “Lucky Me, Lucky You,” which peaked at #35 and “All That Matters Anymore,” which stalled at #50. Sandwiched between them was “You Can’t Get There From Here,” written by Tony Arata, which reached #39. While I’m not crazy about the final single, the other two are excellent, and deserved to further Parnell’s radio career for at least another year.

George Strait covered Parnell and Cris Moore’s “One Foot In Front of the Other” on It Just Comes Natural in 2006. Parnell’s vocal on the original is far less energetic than Strait’s, but the overall track is quite good. Trisha Yearwood joins Parnell on “Better Word for Love,” a surprisingly tender ballad. Her background vocal contributions to the track are wasted as she’s barely audible, and the song wouldn’t demand a close listen if she wasn’t a part of it.

Parnell dives back into the Bob McDill songbook and pulls out “Tender Touch,” a steel and electric guitar soaked mid-tempo ballad that lacks the special touch McDill usually gives his compositions. He also revives Merle Haggard’s “Honky Tonk Night Time Man” from 1974. Parnell presents his version in Jam Band style, complete with electric guitar, but also stays true to Haggard’s original. It’s an excellent cover based on his mix alone.

Guy Clark co-wrote “Baton Rouge,” an excellent country shuffle that suffers from Parnell’s unexpectedly weak vocal. The title track is a typical workingman’s rocker and the album’s lone instrumental, the bluesy “Mama Screw Your Wig On Tight,” was nominated for a Grammy.

Judging from the co-producing credit from Parnell’s road band, I expected Every Night’s A Saturday Night to retain the live energy of a concert, thus being excessively rock in nature. That’s probably a fact of the changes within the genre in the past seventeen years. I was pleasantly taken aback by how clean this album sounds, crisp and comfortable. Not every lyrical composition is a memorable masterpiece, but the overall quality of Parnell’s fifth album is very high.

Grade: A

Album Review – Don Williams – ‘Reflections’

4096_donwilliamsreflectionsOn his second Sugar Hill Release, and his third album in a decade, 74-year-old Don Williams spends a lot of time reflecting, just as the album’s title suggests. In the forty-plus years he’s been in the music industry he’s certainly earned the right, and with ten expertly chosen songs, he also gets right to the point.

As per usual Garth Fundis is along for the introspective journey and he succeeds masterfully in placing Williams’ distinctive baritone front and center, allowing the conversational way in which he sings to anchor the album extraordinarily.

This is no more apparent than on the one-two punch that opens the project. Townes Van Zant’s folksy “I’ll Be There In The Morning” is as honest a love song as it was forty-six years ago, with Williams breathing new life into the number with a combination of acoustic and steel guitars accentuated with ribbons of glorious harmonica. “Talk Is Cheap,” a Guy Clark co-write (with Chris Stapleton & Morgane Hayes) that previously found a home on Alan Jackson’s Thirty Miles West, lays bare our tendency to dream hypothetically and brings out the song’s urgency (‘wine’s for tasting, roads for taking’) in a way Jackson’s version didn’t. Both are two of the finest moments on record all year thus far.

Jennifer Hanson, Marty Dodson, and Mark Nesler’s “Back To The Simple Things” furthers the urgency felt in “Talk Is Cheap” by lamenting on modern technology and the stronghold is has on society. On one hand Williams is calling on us to live, on the other he’s making sure we remember what’s most important along that journey – human connection. The chugging beat, which backs the song, is fabulous, too, as is the uncomplicated way Williams is gets the message across.

“Working Man’s Son” finds Williams ruminating on a life lived while perfectly capturing the male psyche. Where most singers desire to run in the opposite direction from their elderliness, Williams stairs it squarely in the face with a stunningly age-appropriate lyric by Bob Regan and Jim Collins:

 I’ve had my fun, I’ve made some friends

I’ve loved and lost and loved again

Been down that less traveled road

Just to see how far it goes

Spoke my mind to defend myself

Tried not to hurt nobody else

But if I did, I hope they’ll forgive

Williams turns negative on Doug Gill’s “Stronger Back,” an antidote to the man taking the good with the bad on “Working Man’s Son.” He may be wishing for ‘a stronger back, a bigger heart, the will to keep on walking when the way is dark” but instead of letting his problems go, he just wants to embrace them and thus take responsibility. The flourishes of steel help to extenuate the track’s beautifully steady beat, and keeps the proceedings from getting too dark and moody.

“Healing Hands” is another life-well-lived moment, this time from a grandchild lamenting on the calluses as a benchmark of life in one’s years and the relationship between healing hands and a kind heart. The sentiment is there in Steve Gillette & Rex Benson lyric, but the execution is too schmaltzy. Fundis nicely makes up for it and saves the song with a striking mandolin and guitar heavy arraignment that’s slightly addictive.

In life, you know you ‘get it’ when you realize our days on earth are a journey full of lessons that never cease to reveal themselves to us. Steve Wariner and Tony Arata wrote “The Answer” about this phenomenon and framed the tale as a boy with countless questions for his all-knowing father. Williams does an impeccable job of bringing the ballad to life as does Fundis with his gorgeous production.

Much like he did with “I’ll Be There In The Morning,” Williams breathes new light into Jesse Winchester’s “If I Were Free” not by removing the song’s simplicity, but by adding to it. He turns the folk song into a country ballad backed solely by an acoustic guitar. The track takes on new meaning, too, with Williams at the helm.

With reflections on a life-well-lived, laments against modern technology, and disgust for people who dream without execution, a song like Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home,” about a man watching a prison execution, is the odd one out. But the tale does work, seeing as Reflections is an album, in part, about looking back on one’s life. The album’s real weak link is “I Won’t Give Up On You.” There’s nothing wrong with the beautiful love song at all, it just isn’t as spectacular a moment for Williams when compared to the rest of the record.

Often when singers make a record they talk about the idea of ‘having something to say’ with the songs they’re releasing. It’s especially true of songwriters, which makes Reflections all the more remarkable – Williams didn’t write a single word (he did co-produce) yet he has more to say in these ten tracks than most anyone over the course of their whole careers. His gifts as a singer and song interpreter are unmatched and help to elevate Reflections above the usual faire. If you’ve been waiting for a substantive collection full of meaning, with tasteful country production and class – than this is it. I can’t recommend Reflections enough.

Grade: A 

Classic Rewind: Vince Gill and Guy Clark – ‘Almost Home’

Country Heritage: Lacy J. Dalton

lacy j daltonWith one of the more recognizable voices in the genre, Lacy J. Dalton blazed across the skies of country music during the 1980s, producing a number of memorable songs along the way. While not an overwhelming commercial success (only nine of her songs made the Billboard country Top 10) as an artist she impressed with her heartfelt vocals and gritty song interpretations. People magazine referred to her as “Country’s Bonnie Raitt,” a description with which few would differ.

Lacy J. Dalton (born Jill Byrem on October 13, 1946 in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania), was born into a musical family. Her father, mother and sister all played musical instruments and sang. Like many of her generation, Dalton’s early influences included the classic country sounds of her youth, the sounds of the folk music revival of the early 60s known as the “Hootenanny” era (artists such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez), and the jazz/blues of artists such as Billie Holiday and Big Mama Thornton.

Following completion of high school, Dalton briefly attended Brigham Young University. But her restless spirit prevailed, and she dropped out and drifted around the country for a time, eventually arriving in Los Angeles and then Santa Cruz, where she performed as a protest-oriented folksinger. During the later ’60s, she sang with a Bay Area psychedelic rock band called Office, becoming Jill Croston when she married the group’s manager. This marriage did not last long as her husband died in a swimming pool accident.

During the late 1970s Lacy reinvented herself as a country singer adopting the stage name of Lacy J. Dalton. After an initial rock recording on the Harbor label in 1978, in 1979 she landed a recording contract with Columbia after Billy Sherrill heard a demo tape of her singing country music. Her Columbia debut, “Crazy Blue Eyes,” reached #17, followed by her recordings of “Tennessee Waltz” (#18) and “Losing Kind of Love” (#14).

The first three singles helped Lacy win the CMA’s Best New Artist Award. After that, her career kicked into high gear with a string of top ten records that took her through 1983, including “Hard Times” (#7) , “Hillbilly Girl With the Blues” (#8), “Whisper” (#10) and her biggest record “Takin’ It Easy” (#1 Cashbox/#2 Billboard). Everybody Makes Mistakes,” backed with “Wild Turkey,” was a double-sided hit with the A side reaching #5.

While not her biggest hit, 1982’s “16th Avenue” is probably her best remembered song, reaching #7. A 1983 cover of Roy Orbison’s “Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream)” concluded her visits to the top ten, although she continued to record for Columbia through 1987. The changing tastes of the country music market, away from her ‘blue-eyed soul‘ style toward a more traditional style, greased her slide down the charts. A change of record labels, to Universal in 1989 and Capitol/Liberty in 1990 failed to arrest the slide, although “The Heart” in 1989 and “Black Coffee” in 1990 both reached the top 15, the latter song being her last appearance on the Billboard charts.

Lacy J. Dalton continues to write and record music, and tours the United States and Europe.

You can keep up with Lacy J. Dalton on her website.

Discography

Vinyl
As is always the case, all vinyl is out of print. You can sometimes find her records at used record shops, thrift shops or on the internet. MusicStack seems to be the best source for vinyl on the internet as it is a clearinghouse for many dealers.

Lacy issued nine albums on Columbia. One of these albums is a greatest hits collection, but they are all good albums. Trust me – if you like Lacy’s voice, you’ll like the albums. If you find any albums on Universal, Liberty or Capitol, you may as well buy them too.

CD
The Ernest Tubb Record Shop currently has her Greatest Hits available for $9.95. A ten song CD, this one has ten of her Columbia era songs and indeed is accurately titled. ET also has Best of the Best CD on the King label – same songs but I think these are remakes.

Lacy’s most recent release of new material is a Hank Williams tribute album titled Here’s To Hank. Released in 2010, the album finds Lacy tackling a dozen Hank Sr. classics. While Lacy sticks to the obvious songs such as “Your Cheating Heart”, Hey Good Looking” and “You Win Again”, the fact remains that if (1) you take a really good and soulful singer (2) have her sing twelve of the greatest songs ever written and (3) add an appropriate crew of musicians and careful arrangements by Steven Swinford that update but do not lose the feel of the originals, then you will have a really good album. Such is the case with this album.

Highly recommended to fans of Lacy J Dalton, fans of Hank Sr., and fans of really good country music.

Lacy’s website has a newer CD (from 2004/2008) Last Wild Place which has some newer material plus five of her old hits. This album is (more or less) acoustic.

In late 2012 the Morello label released a two-fer comprised of two of Lacy’s Capitol albums from 1989 and 1990, Survivor/Lacy J. These albums found Lacy writing only three songs, but the lack of original material does not mean lack of quality as there are some imaginative covers to be found here including Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years”, Kris Kristofferson’s “The Heart” and the classic Guy Clark song “Old Friends”. Amazon and Ernest Tubb Record Shop both have this album available.

In the past other CDs have been available including a hits collection on the Capitol/Liberty material.

Amazon has most of Lacy’s material available as digital downloads, but be sure to listen to the samples as some of the tracks are re-makes.

Album Review: Ashley Monroe – ‘Like A Rose’

like a roseAlthough shes’s still in her 20s, it’s been a long haul for Ashley Monroe, who has been one of the best kept secrets in country music for far too long. Signed to Sony while still in her teens, her singles failed to make much headway, even when she duetted with Ronnie Dunn. Her album for Sony was critically acclaimed but only released digitally in 2009 in a half-hearted kissoff by the label a couple of years after they had dropped her. Teaming up with superstar Miranda Lambert and songwriter Angaleena Presley as the Pistol Annies has definitely raised her profile among country fans.

Her return to a major label, Warner Brothers, was one of the most exciting pieces of news last year, and I have been eagerly anticipating this album. Vince Gill produces with Justin Niebank, and they do a great job showcasing Ashley’s pretty voice. She co-wrote every song here.

The autobiographical title track and current single, which Ashley wrote with Guy Clark and Jon Randall, has an inspirational sweetness about overcoming the pain instilled in her family by the death of her father when she was 13. It is a charming track, but sadly does not appear to have made much headway with radio. The melancholic ‘She’s Driving Me Out Of Your Mind’, also written with Jon Randall, is another highlight, sounding like a lost-love country classic.

The ironic ‘A Dollar Short And Two Weeks Late’, a co-write with Shane McAnally, sounds sweet (especially with Rebecca Lynn Howard’s harmonies) but has a lyrical edge which would have made it a good fit for Ashley’s work with the Pistol Annies. Here Ashley portrays a young woman living in a conservative town who finds herself pregnant by her now-absent lover:

When you’re living in sin I guess
Sometimes that’s just what you get

So the man is gone
What a damn cliche
And my mama says
Looks like I gained some weight
Landlord’s at the door
And says the rent can’t wait
But I’m a dollar short
And two weeks late

The delicately folksy ‘Used’ (written with Sally Barris and previously included on Ashley’s digital release Satisfied) sings the praises of experience, comparing it to cherished old possessions.

The catchy but lyrically controversial ‘Weed Instead Of Roses’ is an enthusiastic endorsement of walking on the wild side of life with the protagonist’s love interest (and the drugs are the least of it, with Ashley calling for her lover to get out the “whips and chains”). Musically, this is great, but I can’t imagine it on the radio. The overt S&M references here are repeated more circumspectly with a reference to Fifty Shades Of Grey in the fabulous ‘You Ain’t Dolly (And You Ain’t Porter)’, a wittily tongue-in-cheek duet with Blake Shelton with an ultra-traditional feel musically. It’s the best thing Blake has done in years, and was clearly written especially for him with its allusions to The Voice TV show. It is one of two songs Ashley wrote with Vince Gill; the other is the lively tale of teenage criminal on the run, ‘Monroe Suede’, which is unexpectedly upbeat and highly enjoyable.

I was a little bored by ‘You Got Me’, an AC-sounding co-write with Karen Fairchild with a rather dreary minor-keyed melody, organ replacing steel guitar, a heavy-handed string arrangement and Little Big Town on surprisingly muddy backing vocals. Also on the more contemporary side, but making more impact, is the introspective ‘The Morning After’, written with Lori McKenna and Liz Rose about the depressing aftermath of a drunken teenage night when the protagonist “lost everything that mattered”. Jon Randall and Andrea Zonn harmonize.

The most disappointing thing about Ashley Monroe’s new album is that there are only nine tracks, which seems unnecessarily mean. This is a fine record, but I’m not sure how commercially viable it is. I really hope it does well, because Ashley is one of the most interesting young artists around, and I want to hear more from her.

Grade: A-

Country Heritage: John Conlee

john conleeDuring the 1980s there was considerable confusion among casual listeners due to the presence of three male singers with somewhat similar names: Earl Thomas Conley, Con Hunley and John Conlee. All three had distinctive voices, all three emerged during the late 1970s, and all three had chart runs that basically died out by the end of the 1980s (although Earl Thomas Conley had one last burst of success in 1991).

This article is about John Conlee, who ranks with Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins among my wife Kay’s favorite country singers.

John Conlee was born on August 11, 1946 in Versailles, Kentucky, the son of a tobacco farmer. As a child John learned to play the guitar, and by age 10 he was appearing on a local radio show. Although interested in many styles of music (he also performed with a barbershop quartet), John did not start out as a professional entertainer, instead becoming a licensed mortician, a trade he worked for six years. From there he worked as a disc jockey at local area radio stations, eventually moving to Nashville in 1971. In 1976, Conlee’s demo tape secured him a contract with ABC Records.

The first few singles failed to chart on Billboard, including the initial release of “Back Side of Thirty” (which, however, reached # 83 on Cashbox). These initial singles did well enough in some local markets to keep ABC issuing singles on him.

The big breakthrough came in the late spring of 1978 when ABC released “Rose Colored Glasses,” a song Conlee wrote. The song peaked in different markets at different times during its 20 week run resulting in it reaching only #5 on Billboard and #3 on Cashbox on its way to becoming one of John’s signature songs. The follow up “Lady Lay Down” reached #1 on both Billboard and Cashbox. Then, striking while the iron was hot, ABC re-released “Back Side of Thirty” which this time reached #1 on both Billboard and Cashbox. Subsequent singles were issued on MCA which had absorbed ABC and Dot, but Conlee’s success continued with 14 of the next 17 singles reaching Billboard’s top ten and seven of the singles reaching #1 on one or more of the Billboard, Cashbox or Record World’s country charts. Included in this list of singles were such memorable tunes as “Miss Emily’s Picture,” “I Don’t Remember Loving You” and John’s other signature songs “Common Man” and “Working Man.”

After “Blue Highway” failed to hit the top ten in 1985, Conlee rebounded with “Old School” which reached the top five and was Conlee’s swan song with MCA. “Old School” is said to have introduced the phrase “old school” into the popular vernacular.

A switch to Columbia in 1986 kicked off four more top ten tunes in “Harmony” (#10), “Got My Heart Set On Your (#1), “The Carpenter” (a fine Guy Clark tune that went to #6) and “Domestic Life” (#4). After that, there were to be no more top ten tunes for Conlee, although “Mama’s Rocking Chair” reached #11 in 1987. Subsequent singles failed to crack the top forty. By the end of 1987, John Conlee was off Columbia, by now 41 years old and not what Columbia was looking for to compete with the next generation of singers.

No singles were issued by Conlee during 1988, during which time John signed with 16th Avenue Records, a short-lived independent label. None of John’s four singles on 16th Avenue reached the top forty, although his final single “Doghouse” had ‘hit’ written all over it–had it been issued on MCA during John’s hot streak of the early eighties, it would have been a sure-fire top ten and likely #1 record. Still as Jerry Reed once put it “when you’re hot, you’re hot, when you’re not, you’re not …

When 16th Avenue went under, John Conlee’s career as a charting artist was over. The final tally for John’s career was thirty-two chart records with twenty-two reaching the top ten and eleven songs reaching #1 on either the Billboard, Cashbox and/or Record World charts.

John Conlee continues to perform to this day. He was one of the initial supporters of Farm Aid, and has been a supporter of Feed The Children–when John performs his hit “Busted”, his fans usually throw money onstage, with John collecting the money to donate to Feed the Children. At last count more than $250,000 had been collected and donated. For John’s schedule of upcoming tour dates you can check his official website http://www.johnconlee.com/index.html

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Predictions and analysis: The 55th Annual Grammy Awards

Grammy-AwardsIt’s that time of year again, to celebrate music’s biggest night. The 55th Grammy Awards are set to air this Sunday on CBS. In a rather surprising move, it’s the females who’ll be representing our genre at the show. Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift, and Miranda Lambert are all slated to perform, with Lambert teaming up with her ‘Locked and Reloaded’ tour partner Dierks Bentley for a special collaboration. The country nominees are below, and it turns out they’re much stronger than was expected. The Recording Academy seems to have found a happy medium between commercial and artistic popularity. We’ll have to see if any of the artistic nominees (Jamey Johnson, The Time Jumpers, and others) will prevail against their commercial contemporaries. Predictions are below:

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Country Heritage: Merle Travis

merle travisIt troubles me no end that the artistry of Merle Travis has been lost in the sands of time. It troubles me, but does not surprise me, as Travis–the victim of changing tastes and a lifelong battle with John Barleycorn–had largely disappeared from the airwaves by the time I started really following country music in the mid-60s. Although the general public lost sight of Merle’s genius, he has fared better in the esteem of Nashville’s pickers and singers and has been cited as a primary influence by many of the world’s best pickers, including Chet Atkins, Doc Watson, Earl Hooker, Scotty Moore and Marcel Dadi.

Chet Atkins admired and initially tried to emulate the Travis style, once commenting that it was fortunate that he did not have as much opportunity to hear Travis growing up as he would have liked or his own style might have become a clone. The great Arthel “Doc” Watson thought so much of Travis that he named his son Merle after him. Glen Campbell’s parents were such big fans that they reportedly gave their son the middle name “Travis.” The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had him as a featured performer on their classic Will the Circle Be Unbroken album issued in 1972.

Travis was born and raised in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, a coal mining center that would prove to be the source of inspiration for many of his finest musical compositions. In the hard and bleak life of a coal mining town, he found escape in the guitar–an instrument played by his brother Jim, who was also believed to have made Merle’s first guitar.

Music was one of the few recreations available in the area of western Kentucky, particularly during the heights of the Great Depression. There were many guitar players in the vicinity of Muhlenberg, and Travis freely acknowledged his debt to such earlier players as black country blues guitarist Arnold Shultz, and more directly to guitarists Mose Rager, a part-time barber and coal miner, and Ike Everly, the father of Don and Phil Everly. The Travis style eventually evolved into the ‘Travis Pickin’’ style of playing a steady bass pattern with the thumb and filling out some syncopated rhythms with the fingers of the right hand. Meanwhile, he developed a “talking bluesman” style of singing that was instantly recognizable by the perpetual smile in his voice. Read more of this post

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Walking Away a Winner’

Kathy Mattea’s early-90s experimentation with Celtic and folk sounds resulted in a predictable decline in her chart performance. By 1994 she hadn’t had a Top 10 hit in three years, so she switched producers and made a conscious effort to release an album with a decidedly more commercial sound. Her only album produced by Josh Leo, Walking Away a Winner includes more upbeat, mainstream-sounding songs than Time Passes By and Lonesome Standard Time, and the strategy to reverse her commercial fortunes was at least initially effective. The title track and lead single, written by Bob DiPiero and Tom Shapiro, peaked at #3, becoming the final Top 10 hit of Kathy’s career. It reminds me of some of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s upbeat material, as does the follow-up single “Nobody’s Gonna Rain on Our Parade”. It’s interesting that two such similar singles were released back-to-back; after the success of “Walking Away a Winner”, Mercury likely thought that “Nobody’s Gonna Rain on Our Parade” would easily sail into the Top 10, but the strategy misfired; the record stalled at #13, though it did fare slightly better in Canada, topping out at #8 there.

In the ballad “Maybe She’s Human”, Kathy takes up the cause of a put-upon wife and mother who is struggling — not always successfully — to juggle career and family responsibilities. It is rather similar in theme to Reba McEntire’s “Is There Life Out There” from a few years earlier, but it was met by a big yawn from radio and it only reached #34. The final single “Clown In Your Rodeo” is a feistier take on the same theme. I like this one a lot. It didn’t get the attention it deserved, but it does bear the distinction of being Mattea’s final Top 20 hit.

There are some excellent tracks among the album cuts; my favorite is the light-hearted “The Cape”, written by Jim Janosky, Guy Clark, and Susanna Clark. It is not, as the title might suggest, a song about Cape Cod, but rather a tune about a child who is pretending to be a superhero and believes he can fly. The more serious “Another Man” finds Mattea confronting her husband and telling him that she’s in love with someone else. The twist here is that he is not the same man she married and she still loves the man he used to be. This type of song used to be a staple at country radio and in another era it might have been a big hit. The album closes with the poignant “Who’s Gonna Know”, written by Kathy’s husband Jon Vezner. In this one, she’s looking at an old childhood photograph of herself and her now-aging parents, and contemplating the day when they are no longer with her. It’s a bit unsettling, perhaps because it’s something to which most of us can relate.

Despite a tepid reception at radio, Walking Away a Winner sold respectably; it was Kathy’s last album to earn gold certification. Its lack of radio hits may mean that some fans may have overlooked the album when it was initially released. Those fans would be well advised to give the album a listen now, because there is much here to like. Inexpensive copies are easy to find at retailers such as Amazon.

Grade: B+

Album Review – Kathy Mattea – ‘Willow In The Wind’

By 1989, Kathy Mattea was at the top of her commercial game. She was nominated three times at the CMA Awards in 1988, winning Single of the Year for “18 Wheels And A Dozen Roses” and scoring an album nomination for Untasted Honey but losing to then red-hot K.T. Oslin in her first foray in the Female Vocalist category.

Mattea followed the success with Susanna Clark and Richard Leigh’s “Come From The Heart” in early 1989. Set to an infectious mandolin centric beat; the tune quickly rose to #1 during its fourteen-week chart run. The song, previously recorded by Don Williams in 1987 and Clark’s husband Guy in 1988, features a well-known refrain:

You’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money,

Love like you’ll never get hurt.

You’ve got to dance like nobody’s watchin’

Unlike most songs from its era, let alone most music nearing 25 years old, the song is remarkable in that it doesn’t sound the least bit dated. That’s partly why it ranks high among my favorite of Mattea’s singles.

“Come From The Heart” was the lead single to Willow In The Wind, which saw Mattea once again teaming up with Allen Reynolds. This was a smart move as he kept the production clean and let Mattea’s voice shine throughout.

“Burnin’ Old Memories” came next and like its processor, peaked at #1 during a fourteen-week chart run. The song itself is excellent, but unlike “Come From The Heart,” it has aged considerably and the production, while ear catching, is indicative of its era and other sound-alike songs including Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “How Do” and Patty Loveless’ “A Little Bit of Love.” That isn’t necessarily bad, but it keeps the song from being memorable all these years later.

The third single turned the tide, however, and elevated Willow In The Wind to classic status. Although it only peaked at #10, “Where’ve You Been,” the love story of a couple (Claire and Edwin) culminating in the wife dying from Alzheimer’s, quickly became Mattea’s signature song. Written by Mattea’s husband Jon Vezner and Don Henry, the simple elegance of the tune made it a masterpiece, and the combination of Mattea’s touching vocal with the acoustic guitar backing elevated the track to one of the greatest (and one of my personal favorite) expressions of love ever recorded in the country genre (also, a must read article on the importance of the song can be found, here).

“Where’ve You Been,” one of my top two favorite of Mattea’s songs, was also her most rewarded. On the strength of the single she won her second CMA Female Vocalist trophy in 1990, as well as a richly deserved Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. Vezner and Henry took home CMA Song of the Year and Grammy Best Country Song honors as well.

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