My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Guy Clark

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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Album Review: Rodney Crowell – ‘Let The Picture Paint Itself’

Not long after his exit from Columbia, Rodney found a new major label home in MCA, where his old friend and longterm producer Tony Brown was now in charge. Rodney’s debut album for the label was released in 1994. The songs were all self-written, although they vary in quality. It seems that Rodney’s music was out of step with the prevailing mood on country radio with the rise of the hat acts, but he was still trying to maintain the mainstream stardom he had achieved a few years earlier. The result was an album which often falls between two stools.

The jangling Beatles-styled sound of the cheerfully philosophical title track was the lead single, but it did not do well. The astonishingly bland ‘Big Heart’ is too obviously tailored for radio and fails to convince on any level.

Rodney’s fine and subtle song ‘I Don’t Fall In Love So Easy’ had been recorded by Trisha Yearwood on the previous year’s The Song Remembers When, with Rodney singing harmony. Yearwood returned the favor by harmonising when Rodney recorded his own version of the song, and the result is very good (if not as beautiful as Yearwood’s version), with a contemporary sound and emotionally convincing vocal. But it was too little too late, and radio ignored it completely when the track became the album’s third and last single, even though it was far superior to its two predecessors.

‘That Ol’ Door’ is a fine song looking back affectionately to a happy home “in a world we understood”, back in the early days of his marriage to Rosanne Cash before it all fell apart. ‘Once In A While’ has a pretty melody, pensive lyric about the surviving spark of love. Curiously, Rodney wrote the song with John Leventhal, who was to marry Rosanne, presumably the song’s inspiration, the following year.

Rodney wrote two songs this time with Guy Clark. The relaxed ‘Stuff That Works’ about what matters most in life is very appealing both in its down to earth lyric and the pretty arrangement. ‘The Rose Of Memphis’ is an appropriately bluesy story song, but not all that interesting.

‘Loving You Makes Me Strong’ is quite a nice, straightforward love song with an attractive melody and arrangement. ‘The Best Years Of Our Lives’ is pleasant rather than outstanding, but benefits from a beautiful harmony from Patty Loveless. ‘Give My Heart A Rest’ has a bright poppy feel and preaches the benefits of positive thinking.

Sales were disappointing, with the album failing to chart. Used copies are now available very cheaply, and it was also reissued last year as a 2on1 CD with its successor, Jewel Of The South.

Grade: B

Album Review: Rodney Crowell – ‘Keys To The Highway’

Diamonds & Dirt was always going to be a hard act to follow. The resulting album, released in 1989, is certainly more uneven than its predecessor, but there are some very fine songs here. All the material was written by Rodney, and much of it feels very personal. Rodney produced once more with boss and friend Tony Brown, and his own road band, the Dixie Pearls, provided the nucleus of the backings with guests including another old friend, Vince Gill, on backing vocals.

The first single, the folky ‘Many A Long And Lonesome Highway’ broke his streak of #1s, peaking at a still-respectable #3. It has a gentle melody and introspective lyric about a troubadour-type songwriter’s rambling life, written with Will Jennings, and is an excellent song:

I heard a wild world calling,
I saw a lone star falling
I caught a song and set it free
And many a long and lonesome highway
Lies before us as we go
And in the end I’ll do it my way
Look for me where the four winds blow

The album’s second top 10 hit came with a more contemporary sound. ‘If Looks Could Kill’ incisively depicts a troubled relationship which it is all too tempting to read as a portrait of Rodney’s crumbling marriage to Rosanne Cash, which was to culminate in divorce a couple of years later. It is notable that this record, unlike its predecessor, did not see a duet between the pair.

The insistent ‘My Past Is Present’ (written with Steuart Smith) is a bit lacking in melody but has a bluesy groove that won’t let you go as Rodney is afflicted by the presence of an ex in an “hourglass dress” with her new man. However, it was not received particularly well at radio and missed the top 20.

‘Now That We’re Alone’ did a little better, peaking at #17. The song is melodic and introspective and is another that sounds as though it could have been written about Rosanne with its offer of a sympathetic hearing when:

Too many smiling faces
Try to turn your head around
Too many times and places
When those uptown dreams
Just drag you down

Final single ‘Things I Wish I’d Said was barely played on radio, but is an outstanding song. A delicately tender reflection inspired by his father’s deathbed and their reconciliation, it is the most nakedly honest and personal song on the record, and has a beautiful melody.

The album bogs down a bit in the middle, with a trio of songs which while not bad fail to match the standard of the remainder. The funky bluesy rock of ‘We Gotta Go On Meeting Like This’ written with Larry Willoughby is quite sexy with its story of repeat encounters with a woman “they call … trash”, but there is not much of a tune. ‘The Faith Is Mine’ is an interestingly written song, but repetitive, while the insistently bluesy rock’n roll of ‘Tell Me The Truth’ is definitely too repetitive and feels self-indulgent musically.

In general, the slower songs are the most effective. The song which provides the album title ‘Don’t Let Your Feet Slow You Down’ is truly excellent, a downbeat ballad about a relationship about to come to an end, with a lovely melody as a resigned Rodney generously offers his loved one a graceful exit:

Now you feel like going and you know I’m knowing
The keys to the highway hang right on the wall
If you’ve gotta go, hell, you oughta know
Your blue eyes said goodbye a long time ago

I know you’re hearing sounds of those bright lights downtown
I know how you sparkle when I ain’t around
Your heart is young and my time has come
So don’t let your feet slow you down

‘I Guess We’ve Been Together For Too Long’ is another breakup song, but one with a relatively cheerful mood. Once more, Rodney accepts “something’s wrong” in a relationship which has simply run its course, but here he sounds more than ready to move on himself. Written with Guy Clark, it is quite catchy and might have made a successful single.

Also potentially radio friendly is the wistful and melodic mid-tempo ‘Soul Searchin’, which tells of a past lover, Jessie, and the effect on the protagonist of her enduring memory. The reflective ‘You Been On My Mind’ ends the album on a pensive note as the protagonist thinks once more about an ex he can’t forget. A pretty melody and sensitive vocal make this one another winner.

The singles’ uneven performance was matched by sales which failed to meet those of Diamonds & Dirt (the only gold album of Rodney’s career). It has been overshadowed both because it came in the wake of Diamonds & Dirt, and because his mainstream career slowed down after this, but while it may be a mixed bag, the best songs are great and worth catching up with. Used copies are available cheaply.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Rodney Crowell – ‘Diamonds & Dirt’

A full decade into his career as a recording artist, Rodney Crowell finally achieved some long overdue recognition with his fifth studio release, Diamonds & Dirt, which was the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful album of his career. Now signed to Columbia Records, Crowell enlisted the aid of fellow Hot Band alumnus Tony Brown to share production duties. In addition, Rodney wrote or co-wrote nine of the album’s ten songs. In lieu of the country rock sound that had dominated his previous albums, Diamonds & Dirt sought to capitalize on the popularity of the New Traditionalist movement. Marketing the album to a more mainstream country audience paid off in spades.

Released in March 1988, the album was preceded two months earlier by the single “It’s Such A Small World”, a duet with Rosanne Cash, who was on a hot streak at the time. It quickly rose to #1, becoming the highest charting single of Crowell’s career at that point, but in many people’s minds, it was Cash’s star power that propelled the record to the top of the chart. However, Crowell quickly dispelled the misconception that he couldn’t deliver the commercial goods on his own when the album’s subsequent four singles also reached the #1 spot, making Diamonds & Dirt the first album in country music history to produce five #1 hits. Following “It’s Such A Small World” to the top of the chart was the uptempo “I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried”, the whimsical “She’s Crazy For Leaving” (a co-write with Guy Clark), the beautiful ballad “After All This Time”, and “Above and Beyond”, which was the one song in which Crowell did not have a hand in writing. Written by the great Harlan Howard and originally released by Buck Owens in 1960, the uptempo steel-drenched toe-tapper is my favorite song on the album — but just barely. The quality of the album’s songs is consistently excellent from start to finish, making it difficult to choose favorites, and all of them had hit single potential.

More often than not, it is the ballads that stand the test of time, and thus, “After All This Time” is the cut that received the most recurrent airplay. It was my least favorite of the album’s singles at the time of its release, but over the years I’ve come to appreciate its simple, stripped down beauty.

In many respects, Diamonds & Dirt is a one-man show, with Crowell singing lead vocals, co-producing and writing the majority of the album’s songs. However, he received a good deal of help from some of Nashville’s finest studio musicians — Glen Duncan (fiddle), Mark O’Connor (fiddle and mandolin), Paul Franklin (pedal steel), Vince Gill and Rosanne Cash, who both provided background vocals. The album was nominated for a Grammy. Rodney Crowell was on a very hot streak, which unfortunately ended almost as quickly as it began when he was unable to match Diamonds & Dirt’s success with subsequent releases.

Diamonds & Dirt reached #8 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and was certified gold. It was reissued by Columbia Legacy in 2008 with three bonus tracks. The album is easy to find and is most deserving of a spot in every country fan’s music library. If you are only going to own one Rodney Crowell album, this is the one to own.

Grade: A+

Album Review: ‘The Rodney Crowell Collection’

Warner Bros. was Rodney Crowell’s label home between 1978 and 1981. During that time he released three albums, none of which was commercially successful and they are all long out of print. Released in 1989 as a means of capitalizing the success that Crowell was enjoying at Columbia Records at that time, The Rodney Crowell Collection is the best available sampler of his Warner Bros. years.

During this time, Crowell was best known as a songwriter and as a key member of Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band. He was also steadily gaining respect for his talent as a producer, having produced the records of his then-wife Rosanne Cash. As a recording artist, Rodney only cracked the Top 40 twice during his tenure with Warner Bros., but a quick glance at this album’s tracklist will quickly reveal that the songs themselves were not at fault for his lack of commercial success. Most of the titles were significant hits for other artists, and anyone who was listening to country radio in the late 1970s and early 1980s will be familiar with them. “I Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This” was the title track of his first Warner Bros. album. That same year, Emmylou Harris recorded the song for her Quarter Moon In a Ten Cent Town album, and the following year, Waylon Jennings scored a #1 hit with the song. Emmylou had also recorded “Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight” and sings harmony on Rodney’s version. The Oak Ridge Boys would take this song to #1 in 1979. Emmylou also lends her vocals to a gorgeous rendition of “Voila, An American Dream”, which the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band also recorded. The Dirt Band’s version petered out at #58 on the country chart but reached #13 on the pop chart and was a #3 hit in Canada. The beautiful “Till I Gain Control Again” was a #1 hit for Crystal Gayle in 1982, and “Shame On The Moon”, the song for which Crowell was probably best known during this era, was recorded by numerous Nashville who released albums in 1982 and 1983. It was a huge pop hit for Bob Seger, who took it to the top of the adult contemporary chart, to #2 on the pop chart, and #15 on the country chart.

None of the previously mentioned songs was released as a single by Crowell, but there is a pair of songs on the album that were released as singles, and despite their limited chart success, went on to become hits for other artists: “Ashes By Now” (Lee Ann Womack) and “Stars On The Water” (George Strait). Rodney’s version of the latter did reach #30 on the country singles chart, making it his best chart performance up to that time. There are only three songs on the album that weren’t written or co-written by Crowell, and two of them were also hits for others; Juice Newton took Hank DeVito’s “Queen of Hearts” to #14 on the country chart and #2 on the Hot 100, while Ricky Skaggs scored a #1 country hit with Guy Clark’s “Heartbroke”.

For the most part, Crowell’s recordings are not as good as the better known hit versions by other artists. He is a good, though not truly great, vocalist, but the production on these recordings may be partly to blame for their commercial failure. Most of them have too much reverb and the arrangements are a little too rock-leaning for what country radio favored at the time. One song on which Crowell’s vocals truly shine, however, is “Victim or A Fool”, one of the few songs on the album that did not become a hit for someone else. It’s my favorite track here, possibly because there isn’t another more familiar version with which to compare it.

Though not essential listening, The Rodney Crowell Collection allows the listener an opportunity to hear a number of widely recorded songs in the songwriter’s voice and also helps to explain why he was such a respected producer and songwriter during the era before he achieved his commercial breakthrough. Inexpensive new and used copies are easy to find and are worth checking out.

Grade: B

Spotlight Artist – Rodney Crowell

Born in Houston, Texas on August 6, 1950, Rodney Crowell has made a name for himself as one of the finest songwriters in country music.  A difficult family background was also a very musical one and he was a serious musician by his teens.  He moved to Nashville in 1972 to pursue his vocation as a songwriter, and found a first mentor in Jerry Reed before becoming a friend and acolyte of another great Texan songwriter, Guy Clark.

His career took a new turn when Emmylou Harris, who had recorded some of his early songs, recruited him as a seminal member of her Hot Band.  He also had a side project with the Cherry Bombs, a band whose other members included Vince Gill and future record executive Tony Brown.  In 1978 he signed his own deal with Emmylou’s label Warner Brothers.  He was to release three albums for the label in the late 70s and early 80s, but while his blend of country and rock garnered him significant critical acclaim, mainstream success was frustratingly slow to follow.  It certainly wasn’t due to poor material – many of his songs were hits for more established artists including Emmylou and the Oak Ridge Boys and even Crystal Gayle.

Rodney married Johnny Cash’s daughter Rosanne, and in 1981, he put his solo career on hold in favour of producing her records.  That led eventually to his signing with her label Columbia in 1986.  Street Language, his debut for the label was another flop, but it was followed in 1988 by Diamonds & Dirt.  This masterpiece was both a critical and commercial success, with Rodney having mastered a radio friendly sound.  It was the first album in country music history to contain five #1 hits, and is the biggest selling record in Crowell’s career.  The song ‘After All This Time’ won him a Grammy.  However, his hot streak slowed down after that and was not reinvigorated by a move to another major label, MCA, in 1992 (the year he and Rosanne divorced).

After a break from recording in the later 90s, Rodney returned to making music in the new millennium.  He was now primarily a singer songwriter with increasingly less concern for mainstream country, with 2008’s Sex And Gasoline Grammy-nominated in the Folk/Americana category.  He has nonetheless remainded a presence in country music thanks to a number of high profile covers of both older and newer songs, such as George Strait’s revival of ‘Stars On The Water’ and Tim McGraw’s version of Rodney’s ‘Please Remember Me’. He also revived the Notorious Cherry Bombs with Vince Gill.  His latest work, out on 5 June, is a collaboration with poet and writer Mary Karr, who like Rodney had a difficult childhood in Texas.  He is also reportedly working on a duet album with Emmylou Harris.

Album Review: Foster & Lloyd ‘Foster & Lloyd’

Singer songwriter Radney Foster first teamed up with fellow writer Bill Lloyd in 1986, with the duo’s debut album being released on RCA the following year. Epitomising the diversity of late 80s country radio, Texas-born Foster’s country roots mixed with Lloyd’s pop/rock influences. Foster’s distinctive hard-edged voice generally takes the lead with Lloyd adding Beatles-esque harmonies and playing various guitars and mandolin. The duo produced, and wrote all the material, most frequently together, with a handful of solo compositions tossed in.

The cheerful rockabillyish debut single ‘Crazy Over You’, which had also just been covered by another new act, Ricky Van Shelton, got the new duo off to a great start, peaking at #4 on Billboard. The melodic mid tempo ‘Sure Thing’ also did pretty well, and was their second top 10 hit, and it is pleasant listening but a bit repetitive lyrically.

The third single, ‘Texas In 1880’ (written by Radney alone) hit the roadblocks, and stalled out in the lower reaches of the top 20. It was an interesting song which deserved to do better, giving voice to a contemporary rodeo competitor who draws inspiration from his image of the “wild and free” cowboys of a past era. John Cowan of New Grass Revival sang a guest high harmony.

My favorite song on the album, the excellent ‘What Do You Want From Me This Time?’ (featuring Vince Gill on guitar) took them back to the top 10. It is extremely catchy but withou sacrificing emotional depth. The protagonist tells his ex she is out of luck in her bid to reheat a relationship which is all over as far as he’s concerned:

What do you want from me this time?
What do you think you’re gonna find?
I’m not trying to be unkind
But what do you want from me this time?

You say things have changed but that’s pretending
Baby, love don’t always have a happy ending

Another fine song, ‘Don’t Go Out With Him’, omitted from the LP/cassette version, was to be a hit single for Tanya Tucker and T Graham Brown in 1990 with slightly re-worked lyrics. The original works very well as a picture of unrequited affection. ‘You Can Come Cryin’ To Me’(written by Radney Foster alone) feels like a sequel to this song, as that relationship has ended in literal tears and he offers a shoulder to cry on. It is a very good song and would have fitted in well on his solo album.

‘Hard To Say No’ is a fast-paced almost punkish rocker about finding it hard to resist sexual temptation which explains why Radney Foster once described the duo as a country garage band. It’s not the kind of thing I usually like but it is surprisingly entertaining and probably went down well live. Opener ‘Turn Around’ is pleasant and potentially radio-friendly but disposable mid-tempo country rock addressed to a woman leaving. ‘The Part I Know By Heart’ is not very interesting, while Bill Lloyd’s ‘Token Of Love’ is plain boring.

This debut appeared to herald a bright future for the duo, but their flame was to burn out even more quickly than it did for the Sweethearts of the Rodeo and the O’Kanes. They were to enjoy only one more top 10 single, 1988’s Guy Clark co-write ‘Fair Shake’, the leadoff for their sophomore album Faster & Llouder. The dup disbanded in 1990 after releasing a total of three albums, partly to allow Radney Foster to embark on a solo career. His album Del Rio TX, 1959 was a modern classic and met with much deserved commercial and critical success. His solo career also later faltered, but he has continued to release critically acclaimed music often some way off the mainstream, and he plans to record a live version of the songs on Del Rio TX, 1959 this year.

If you want to investigate the duo’s music, I would recommend either this album or the compilation The Essential Foster & Lloyd, which includes the best seven tracks from this release.

Grade: B+

Album Review – Sweethearts of the Rodeo – ‘Rodeo Waltz’

Much like Patty Loveless’s Sleepless Nights and LeAnn Rimes’s Lady & Gentleman, Rodeo Waltz is an album comprised mainly of classic country covers. Released in 1993, it marked the duo’s debut for Sugar Hill Records. Although it didn’t produce any singles, it offered a simple honky-tonk sound that still holds up well today.

The album opens with a spirited cover of Johnny Cash’s “Get Rhythm” that benefits from the abundance of petal steel and fiddle flourishes throughout and the distinct drum beat. While they stick moderately close to Cash’s original recording, save for updating the sound, they keep the sing-a-long nature of the song intact.

They continue to honor tradition with the rest of the covers, too. Don Robertson and Hal Blair’s “Please Help Me I’m Falling” is turned into a gorgeous mandolin soaked ballad and their sultry take on Tex Ritter and Frank Harford’s “Long Time Gone” brings a new appreciation to story of a woman anticipating their man’s reaction to their leaving.

Equally as well executed is their take on Gordon Lightfoot’s folksy “Steel Rail Blues” which benefits greatly from the use of harmonica and gently persistent drumbeat. I love how they seem to build on Lightfoot’s original recording by infusing the song with a bit more energy. I also enjoy their folksy almost mountain-y reading of Jesse Winchester’s “Brand New Tennessee Waltz.” It isn’t my favorite of the cover tunes included here but it’s enhanced by the sweet vocal and use of fiddle throughout.

They also do a fine job covering Robbie Robertson’s “Broken Arrow.” Known primarily as a pop song done by Rod Stewart, the sisters exceed in turning it into a country song complete with fiddle and harmonica. I love the melody and the use of mandolin to give the musical accompaniment some life.

Placed among the cover tunes is a crop of original songs, led by Don Shultz’s “Things Grow” which is their ode to life on a farm and small town existence. It isn’t as cringe worthy as that particular sub-genre today, but I’m not jumping up and down at the inclusion of them exploring that theme. Betty Harrison’s “Hoping That You’re Hoping” is better musically, but the song lacks any substance in the lyrics and is forgettable today.

I wasn’t aware they had their own version of “Jenny Dreamed of Trains,” which Janis’s then husband Vince Gill wrote with Guy Clark. Gill did an excellent job when he recorded the song on High Lonesome Sound and they do a stellar version here. The sweet story of the girl Jenny (presumably written about their daughter) and her love of trains over dolls is a great lyric.

“Bluegrass Boy,” written by Gill with Shultz is an engaging love song about a guy this girl once knew and while good, it comes off a tad underwhelming. There’s nothing wrong with the song at all – it just isn’t up to the material on the rest of the project. Same goes for the traditional “Deep River Blues” arranged by Gill. I enjoyed the swampy vibe and touches of harmonica but the whole thing was a tad underwhelming. But the album turns around with the great “There One Morning.”

Rodeo Waltz is a fine country album of both well-chosen covers and original material. I can easily see why there weren’t any singles despite strong material – it just doesn’t have a sound that sits right on radio playlists. But like most non-commercial country projects, it demands to be heard. This album is widely available digitally (from Amazon and iTunes) and is worth seeking out for a listen.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Vince Gill – ‘These Days’

As we’ve often noted here, it was common practice in the 1960s and 1970s for artists — inside and outside of country music –to release three or four albums a year, unlike the present day when most artists release one album every two or three years. While preparing to work on a new album in 2006, Vince Gill was inspired by The Beatles’ prolific output and decided to put a 43-track four disc collection instead of a single album. Released to tremendous critical acclaim in October 2006, These Days was an ambitious project that showcases the depth and breadth of Vince’s musical taste. It encompasses a variety of genres from rock, pop, jazz, and blues to traditional country and bluegrass. Vince wrote or co-wrote all 43 songs and produced the project himself, with some help from John Hobbs and Justin Niebank. The production team put together a impressive roster of guest artists from both within and outside country music.

The first disc, titled Workin’ On A Big Chill: The Rockin’ Record, is as the title implies, a collection of ten rock and rockabilly tunes. Though the songs are all well performed, I’m not much of a rock fan, so this is my least favorite disc in the collection. I do like the rockabilly number “Nothin’ For a Broken Heart”, on which Rodney Crowell is a guest artist, and even better is the bluegrass-tinged collaboration with the Del McCoury Band, “Son of a Ramblin’ Man”. The rest of the songs on this disc don’t interest me very much, and consequently this one has been played less than the other three.
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Album Review: Vince Gill – ‘The Way Back Home’

Vince’s third and last release for RCA (in 1987) was almost a full length album, with nine tracks. Produced by Richard Landis and recorded in LA, with West Coast country-rock musicians like Jay Dee Maness on steel, and an all-star cast of backing singers including Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, and Vince’s wife Janis and her sister Kristine Arnold (who as the Sweethearts of the Rodeo were rising stars at the time). Unfortunately, too many are used together, with an almost choir effect on some tracks which is not suited to the material, most of which Vince wrote or co-wrote.

One exception was the first single and biggest hit from the album, peaking at #5 on Billboard. The sympathetic look at a modern day ‘Cinderella’ who the protagonist might just take away from her neglectful husband, was written by Reed Nielsen. While it is catchy and likeable, it is largely forgotten today, and lacks the weight of Vince’s classics.

The perky ‘Let’s Do Something’ did rather less well at #16; it is quite enjoyable but a bit too much is going on in the production. The playfully up-tempo ‘Everybody’s Sweetheart’ just missed the top 10, peaking at #11. It complains, just a little tongue in cheek when he says he should keep her “barefoot and pregnant all the time”, in order to keep at home a wife the protagonist never sees thanks to her pursuit of stardom. It appears to have been partly inspired by Vince’s relationship with Janis.

‘The Radio’ is a classsic lonesome Vince Gill ballad with lovely soaring vocals. It only just scraped into the top 40, almost certainly because with Vince halfway out of the door, the label was disinclined to promote it. It is much better than that peak would imply. Also very good, although perhaps a little sentimental for some tastes, the beautifully sung title track reflects on the tragedy of missing children. Emmylou Harris’ distinctive harmony is haunting, although the choir effect of massed backing vocals on the chorus is a bit too much; they should have kept it stripped down with just Emmylou supporting Vince.

There is a certain amount of filler, including ‘Baby, That’s Tough’, a rather underwhelming co-write with Texas songwriting great Guy Clark. ‘Losing Your Love’ is a pleasant ballad with an attractive melody, written with Hank DeVito and Rhonda Kye Fleming, while ‘Something Missing’, written by Vince with Michael Clark, is boring. ‘It Doesn’t Matter Any More’ is a cover of an old Paul Anka pop song.

This was a step in the right direction. The next, and a defining one, was Vince’s move to MCA, where Tony Brown took over production duties. This resulted in his first masterpiece, When I Call Your Name, which I reviewed back in 2009 as part of our look back at the Class of ’89: https://mykindofcountry.wordpress.com/2009/04/05/class-of-89-album-review-vince-gill-when-i-call-your-name/

Used copies of the CD are available very cheaply.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Vince Gill – ‘Turn Me Loose’ and ‘The Things That Matter’

In the early and mid-80s RCA Records used the “mini album” or an EP consisting usually of six tracks, to introduce new acts. The mini album was usually followed by a full-length LP once the artist had his or her breakthrough hit. Vince Gill appears to be one of the rare instances in which an artist released two consecutive mini albums. Due to their brevity, both will be discussed in a single article. Both were eventually released as budget CDs in the mid-90s. I believe, but am not positive, that both albums originally consisted of six tracks; however the CD reissues consist of eight tracks each.

Turn Me Loose was Vince’s major label solo debut, released in 1984. It was produced by Emory Gordy, Jr. and contains six of Vince’s original compositions. The lead single; however, was not written by Vince; it was a cover of Delbert McClinton’s “Victim of Life’s Circumstances”. The upbeat number allowed Gill to demonstrate his considerable skills as a guitarist and seems like the perfect vehicle for introducing a new artist to radio listeners; however, it stalled at #40. The follow-up single, “Oh Carolina”, a beautiful ballad enhanced by Emmylou Harris’ exquisite harmony vocals, fared a little better, reaching #38, while the title track, one of Gill’s original compositions, reached #39. Both “Oh Carolina” and “Turn Me Loose” suffer from production (synthesizers and drum machines, respectively) that sounds somewhat dated today, a flaw that is easily forgiven because the vocal performance on “Oh Carolina” is so great, and because the title track, though lyrically light, is one of those tunes on which you just can’t help tapping your toes and singing along.

“Waitin’ For Your Love” is the album’s sole throwaway track. The upbeat “Don’t Say That You Love Me” which Vince wrote with Emory Gordy, Jr., is quite enjoyable, and the album’s three remaining tracks are all outstanding. On “Half a Chance”, “Til The Best Comes Along”, and “Livin’ The Way I Do” all showcase Vince’s more traditional side, with “Til The Best Comes Along” being the best of the three.

All in all, Turn Me Loose was a solid debut effort from a promising new artist. Despite its disappointing commercial performance, it impressed enough Academy of Country Music voters to allow Vince to take home the Best New Male Vocalist trophy in 1984.

The Things That Matter, released in 1985, hasn’t aged quite as well. Though once again produced by Emory Gordy, Jr., the album leans more towards adult-contemporary, which has always been a perilous path for Vince, as his middle-of-the-road material tends to be quite bland. Gill and Gordy appear to have made a conscious effort to move towards a more pop-oriented sound. Unfortunately, what seemed contemporary and cutting edge at the time sounds pretty out of date today. The album’s first three tracks, “She Don’t Know”, “With You” and “Savannah (Don’t You Ever Think Of Me)” — all written by Vince are all rather lackluster. Ditto for the Dave Loggins-written “Ain’t It Always That Way”.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some gems to be found on the disc. “Colder Than Winter” is arguably the finest vocal performance of his career. “If It Weren’t For Him”, a beautiful duet written and performed with Rosanne Cash, was Vince’s first bonafide hit, peaking at #10, and “Oklahoma Borderline”, which Vince wrote with Guy Clark and Rodney Crowell, reached #9. Vince’s career finally seemed to be taking off, but the third single “With You” stalled at #33. He would reach the Top 10 only one more time during his tenure with RCA, with 1987’s “Cinderella”, but would not have any consistent commercial success until he signed with MCA near the decade’s end.

Why Vince didn’t enjoy more success during his RCA years remains somewhat of a mystery. It may simply have been a matter of not yet finding the right song, or he may have been the victim of record label politics. He was signed to RCA by Tony Brown, who departed the label before any of Vince’s music was released. It’s worth noting that Vince’s career took off big time once he teamed up with Brown again, after leaving RCA. His output during the RCA years was somewhat uneven, but much of it is still worth seeking out. Both Turn Me Loose and The Things That Matter are available on CD (though the latter is not worth the $26 price tag on Amazon). The Things That Matter is also available as a digital download. Additionally, most of the tracks from both albums are available on The Essential Vince Gill, which is a good overview of the RCA years.

Grades:

Turn Me Loose: A –
The Things That Matter: B

Country Heritage Redux: Webb Pierce

An updated and expanded version of an article originally published by The 9513:

It has been twenty years since Webb Pierce passed away in February 1991, about six months short of his 70th birthday, and yet he still has his diehard legions of fans. For the second half of the twentieth century, Webb Pierce was the most successful recording artist in county music with his records topping the Billboard charts for a total of 113 weeks, with Buck Owens second with 82 weeks at #1. George Strait finally passed Buck Owens in 2007 with 83 weeks at #1, a total still growing, albeit slowly.

Like Eddy Arnold, during the late 1940s, Webb Piece dominated the 1950s, particularly from 1952 to 1957, the period in which all his Billboard #1s occurred. This dominance occurred despite Pierce not having any chart records until after he turned thirty years old.

Unlike the smooth Eddy Arnold, whose vocals (and personality) had appeal across many segments of society, Webb Pierce was a country music performer with one core style. You either liked Pierce or you hated him, but you could not ignore him. He sang in a high nasal tenor that will never come back into vogue in mainstream country music (although the style remains viable in bluegrass), but he selected great songs and could sell even the most maudlin lyric. He was one of the first stars to wear “Nudie Suits,” the colorful rhinestone-studded western wear that became de rigueur for country stars for the next 35 years. His song “Slowly” was the first country hit to feature the pedal steel guitar as played by Bud Isaacs. Then there was the famous guitar-shaped swimming pool.

Like many performers of his era, years were subtracted from his real age to make him seem younger to the fan base. Most articles written about Pierce during his heyday gave his date of birth as July 8, 1926, an error which was not corrected until the 1980s. He never penned an autobiography, and I’ve never seen a full biography of him, so biographical information remains sketchy. It is known that he had his own radio show on KMLB in 1938 and served in the Army for three years during WWII before moving to Shreveport, Louisiana in 1944, where he supported himself for some years as a shoe salesman at the local Sears store.

Pierce’s first recordings were on the Four Star label in 1949. By 1950 he was appearing at the Louisiana Hayride – a serious competitor to the Opry during the late ’40s and ’50s–where he quickly became a featured performer. Pierce and Hayride founder Horace Logan formed Pacemaker Records as a vehicle to issue his records. None of these records became national hits, but they sold well enough that Decca inked Pierce to a contract in 1951.

The third Decca single, “Wondering,” established Pierce as a major star. It reached No. 1 for four weeks and stayed on the charts for 27 weeks. The song also provided Pierce with the nickname “The Wondering Boy,” which stayed with him throughout his career. The next two singles, “That Heart Belongs to Me” and “Backstreet Affair,” also reached No. 1 for multiple weeks. This was followed by four more top ten records and the eight week No. 1 “It’s Been So Long” (the flip side “I’m Walking the Dog” reached No. 9).

For many artists, a record that reached No. 1 for eight weeks would be a career record, but Pierce was just getting started. Released on October 24, 1952, “There Stands the Glass” was one of six double-sided hits (with the “B” side reaching top ten status) to reach No. 1 for ten or more weeks. A recent CMT poll of Greatest Drinking Songs had “There Stands the Glass” at No. 11, but they are wrong – it is the ultimate drinking song, the ultimate expression of the angst that accompanies those who are trying to forget:

There stands the glass that will ease all my pain
That will settle my brain, it’s my first one today
There stands the glass that will hide all my fears
That will drown all my tears, brother I’m on my way

“There Stands the Glass” was followed by “Slowly” (No. 1 for 17 weeks), “Even Thou” (No. 1 for only 2 weeks), “More and More” (No. 1 for 10 weeks), “In the Jailhouse Now” (21 weeks at the top), “I Don’t Care” (12 weeks at No. 1) and “Love, Love, Love” (13 weeks at the top).

Pierce moved to the Grand Old Opry in 1955, but soon departed because of the requirement that members had to perform twenty-six Saturdays annually to maintain membership. For Pierce, who was commanding thousands of dollars for his personal appearances, this meant losing considerable income. Since he became a star without the Opry’s help, Pierce correctly figured that the monetary loss would not be offset by the prestige of continued Opry membership. Unfortunately, he burned many bridges when he left the Opry.

The onslaught of Rock and Roll in 1955-1956 destroyed many country music careers and put a damper on many other careers. According to Billboard, Pierce’s last No. 1 record was “Honky Tonk Song” in mid-1957, but Pierce adapted and survived. He added drums to his records and picked more up-tempo material, including songs from younger writers such as Wayne Walker and Mel Tillis. He continued to chart top ten records for another decade (other charts had three of his records reach No. 1 during the period of 1959 to 1967). His record of “Bye Bye Love,” recorded at the same time as the Everly Brothers version, was a top ten hit, and the Mel Tillis penned “I Ain’t Never” stayed at No. 2 on Billboard for nine weeks (it dis reach #1 on Cashbox). It was kept out of Billboard’s top spot by Stonewall Jackson’s “Waterloo” and The Browns “The Three Bells.”

Webb’s last top ten hit in 1967 with “Fool, Fool, Fool” which reached #1 on Record World, #3 on Cashbox and #7 on Billboard. Pierce continued to record for Decca from 1967 to 1972, then for Plantation for two years where he had a minor hit with “The Good Lord Giveth (and Uncle Sam Taketh Away),” a song which deserved a better fate than missing the top forty. After 1976, Pierce – having invested wisely in real estate and music publishing – retired from performing (he had been semi-retired for years already). He would record only twice more.

In 1982, Willie Nelson was able to drag Webb into the recording studio for a duet album, which puzzled some since Webb wasn’t one of Willie’s former label mates or Texas compadres, but the recordings make clear the strong influence Pierce had on Willie’s pinched vibrato and vocal phrasing. In 1985 Pierce got together with two old Louisiana buddies, Jerry Lee Lewis and Faron Young, and Florida songwriter Mel Tillis, to record an album called Four Legends. All of the songs on the collection were old Webb Pierce hits.

He died on February 24, 1991 of a heart attack, but would likely have died soon of cancer anyway. The old guard of the Nashville establishment shamefully denied him entry into the Country Music Hall of Fame until ten years after his death. He should have been inducted around 1977.

According to Billboard, Webb Pierce was the No. 1 country artist of the 1950s and the No. 7 artist of the 1960s. He charted 96 songs, 80 of which reached the Top 40, and 54 of which reached the Top Ten. His thirteen number one records stayed there for a cumulative total of 113 weeks–second all-time only to Eddy Arnold with 145 weeks (86 of Eddy’s weeks occurred during the 1940s). His 1955 recording of the old Jimmie Rodgers song “In the Jailhouse Now” is the third ranking county single of all time with 21 weeks at No. 1 and 34 weeks in the Top Ten.

Amusingly, Carl Smith, a Columbia recording artist (and 4th most popular country artist of the 1950s), recorded an album titled There Stands The Glass in 1964 in which he recorded twelve of Webb’s hits and never mentioned him on the album cover (which has several paragraphs of liner notes) or the record label (except on the songwriter credits of several songs)!

Discography
Much of Webb’s recorded output has been unavailable for years. Most of the albums on vinyl are typical Nashville product – one or two hit singles, some covers of other artists’ hits and some filler. If you like the songs listed on the album cover, you’ll probably like the album. Webb With A Beat from 1960 may be his strongest album and shows Webb transitioning his sound to a more modern approach, re-recording several of his older hits in the process. If you find the album Webb Pierce’s Greatest Hits, released on Decca in 1968, it is a really fine album (in fact, the first Webb Pierce album I ever purchased) but it is mostly re-recordings of his earlier hits as Decca had all of its major stars re-record their older hits to take advantage of modern stereo technology. If you find a copy of the Plantation album Webb Pierce and Carol Channing, please do Webb’s family a big favor – buy it and destroy it. You cannot imagine how bad Carol’s vocals are on this album!

There are now quite a few CDs available of Webb’s pre-1958 output (European copyrights expire in 50 years so in Europe those recordings can be released without paying royalties), but very few of the post 1958 recordings are available, although they are slowly beginning to appear:

1. 20th Century Masters – The Millennium Collection: The Best of Webb — a budget collection, digitally re-mastered. Only 12 songs but they are the biggies in their original versions. The Plantation recordings have been endlessly leased out to other labels – unless I know the source, I assume that the off-label recordings of Webb are leased from Plantation.
2. Webb Pierce – Greatest Hits: Finest Performances — these are re-makes recorded for Plantation during the middle 1970s. They are not bad, but they lack the sparkle of the original recordings and Pierce’s voice had dropped in the interim.
3. King of the Honky-Tonk: From the Original Master Tapes — released by the Country Music Foundation in 2000, this was the first effort to get the original Decca hits back in print. Eighteen hits, great sound and a useful booklet. Now out of print, but it can be located with a little effort.
4. A Proper Introduction to Webb Pierce: Groovie Boogie Woogie Boy — British reissue label, 28 tracks, mostly pre-Decca material, some with overdubs. Worth owning. Apparently out of print but still can be found.
5. The Wandering Boy (1951-1958) [BOX SET] — The Holy Grail for Webb Pierce fans — a deluxe Bear Family boxed set — four CDs, 114 tracks with great sound and an interesting, but somewhat disjointed booklet. Covers all of Webb’s recordings through 1958 with a few alternate takes of songs such as “Slowly” where you can see the Pierce style developing.
6. Hux Records out of the UK recently released Fallen Angel / Cross Country – a two-fer which collects a pair of early 1960s albums. This album might be considered post-peak as far as the hits were concerned but Webb was still at his vocal peak
7. Audio Fidelity had a two-fer of Sweet Memories / Sands of Gold from the mid-1960s available about fifteen years ago. Audio Fidelity remixed the two album to push Pierce’s vocals further front in the mix and suppressed the background vocals and strings, greatly improving both albums. This one is hard to find, but you might get lucky.

And don’t forget Caught in the Webb, a tribute album released in 2002, produced and organized by Gail Davies, featuring 21 of Webb’s hits performed by guests, including: Dale Watson, The Jordanaires, Mandy Barnett, Charley Pride, Rosie Flores, George Jones, Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris, Robbie Fulks, Joy Lynn White, Allison Moorer, Matt King, Crystal Gayle, Del McCoury Band, Lionel Cartwright, Guy Clark, Gail Davies, Willie Nelson, BR549, Billy Walker, Kevin Welch, Trent Summar, Pam Tillis, Deborah Pierce (Webb’s daughter) and the Carol Lee Singers. Proceeds of this album benefited the Minnie Pearl Cancer Research Center.

Emmylou & Friends: Sweet Harmonies

From the very beginning, collaborations with other artists have been an integral part of Emmylou Harris’ career. Over the span of nearly 40 years, she is perhaps as well known for supplying harmony vocals to other artists records and championing promising newcomers as for her own solo work. It would perhaps be easier to list the names of the artists with whom she has not worked; like Willie Nelson she has worked with a variety of performers from both within and outside the country genre. It isn’t possible to do justice to such a large body of work in a single article, but I’d like to touch on some of my favorites.

Emmylou was performing in small venues in the Washington, DC area when she was discovered by Chris Hillman, who was then the bandleader of The Flying Burrito Brothers. It was he who recommended her to Gram Parsons, who hired her to be his duet partner and introduced her to the world of country music. She sang prominent harmonies on Parsons’ 1973 solo debut album GP, as well as on the follow-up Grievous Angel, which was released in 1974 after Parsons’ death from a drug overdose. Both albums were re-released on a single disc by Reprise. They are also available digitally and are well worth a listen. Emmylou later covered many of the songs on these two volumes on her solo albums. One of the best is a rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Love Hurts”, which also appears on Emmylou’s Duets compilation, which was released by Reprise in 1990 and is an excellent sampler of her non-solo work.

Duets also includes such hits as “We Believe In Happy Endings” with Earl Thomas Conley, “If I Needed You” with Don Williams, and “That Lovin’ You Feeling Again” with Roy Orbison, which won a Grammy in 1980 for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group. Two new tracks were recorded for the project: “The Price I Pay” with Chris Hillman’s Desert Rose Band and a beautiful rendition of Nanci Griffith’s “Gulf Coast Highway” with Willie Nelson.

After the death of Gram Parsons and before she secured her solo deal with Reprise, Emmylou had sung backup on some of Linda Ronstadt’s records, and formed what was to become a lifelong friendship. Ronstadt eventually returned the favor, singing backup on Emmylou’s solo records, as did Dolly Parton, whose “Coat of Many Colors” Emmylou had covered on her Pieces of the Sky album. The three women formed an alliance and recorded together sporadically over the next several years. For many years, legal issues and record label politics thwarted their attempts to release an album together, but their collaborations occasionally turned up on Emmylou’s albums, notably “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” from 1979’s Blue Kentucky Girl and “Mister Sandman” from 1981’s Evangeline. Parton and Ronstadt also both contributed to 1980’s Roses In The Snow. Eventually the three women released Trio and Trio II in 1987 and 1999, respectively. Emmylou and Linda teamed up again in 1999 for Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions. Dolly wasn’t available to participate this time around; let’s just say that her presence is sorely missed as this particular album is not one of my favorites.

In 2007 Rhino Records released the four-disc boxed set Songbird: Rare Tracks and Forgotten Gems, which includes a generous sampling of Emmylou’s lesser-known solo and non-solo efforts. Some of the highlights include “Spanish Johnny” with Waylon Jennings, “One Paper Kid” with Willie Nelson and “Here We Are” with George Jones. It also contains some of the outtakes from the Trio sessions with Ronstadt and Parton, as well as some of their earlier recordings that had not previously seen the light of day, including 1978’s “Palms of Victory” and an exquisite reading of “Softly and Tenderly” from the second Trio sessions. Also of note are some of Emmylou’s contributions to tribute albums, such as the title track to the 1994 Merle Haggard tribute Mama’s Hungry Eyes, which she sings with Rodney Crowell, and “Golden Ring” from 1998’s Tammy Wynette Remembered, on which she is joined by Linda Ronstadt and Kate and Anna McGarrigle. “Mary Danced With Soldiers” from The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Volume 2 also makes an appearance, as does “I Don’t Love You Much, Do I” with Guy Clark and “Sonny”, sung with Ireland’s Mary Black and Dolores Keane. The third and fourth discs of Songbird rely heavily on duet material, including collaborations with artists such as Sheryl Crow, Patty Griffin, Mark Knopfler, Carl Jackson, Randy Scruggs, Iris Dement, The Pretenders, and The Seldom Scene. Songbird is a somewhat pricy collection, but it is one of the best music purchases I ever made.

In addition to the artists previously mentioned, Emmylou has lent her voice to recordings by Terri Clark, The Judds, Vince Gill, Trisha Yearwood, and countless others. As someone who became interested in country music during the Urban Cowboy’s heyday in the early 80s, Emmylou’s music was something of an acquired taste for me. It took a few years for me to fully appreciate her artistry, and it was primarily through her work with others that I became a huge fan.

Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town’

Emmylou’s fourth album was released in January 1978 on Warner Brothers, which had taken over her contract from the subsidiary Reprise. A personal favorite of mine, it contains a number of her classic recordings. The lineup marks the replacement of Rodney Crowell in the Hot Band by Ricky Skaggs, with both men playing on the record. The arrangements and musicians are, as usual, impeccable. There was a change of emphasis with the selection of material, with no classic revivals this time (although a number of the tracks have become classics in their own right since), but a concentration on new songs.  The quality of material is as high as Emmylou’s fans had come to expect. Emmylou was now married to producer Brian Ahern, and their personal and professional partnership showed them in perfect tune. Ironically, given her newlywed status, the overarching theme is one of leaving, whether that means a lover or spouse, a parent, or life itself.

One of the classics born on this record was the first single. ‘To Daddy’ was written by Dolly Parton, who generously relinquished the opportunity to sing the song to her friend, not recording it herself for many years. Emmylou’s subtle version was a big hit, reaching #3. The devastating lyric tells the story of a downtrodden wife and mother who suffers silently for years with her neglectful and uncaring husband, and then leaves with as little fuss as she made during the marriage:

She never meant to come back home
If she did, she never did say so to Daddy

Told from the viewpoint of one of the children, Emmylou delivers one of her purest vocals, allowing the lyrics to speak for themselves. This is still one of my favorite Emmylou Harris recordings. It was followed on the charts by the #1 hit ‘Two More Bottles Of Wine’, an up-tempo rocking-blues Delbert McClinton song which offers a defiant response to loneliness and a lover’s departure:

It’s alright cause it’s midnight and I got two more bottles of wine

Another song now widely (and rightly) regarded as a classic, the poetic ‘Easy From Now On’, written by Guy Clark’s wife Susanna and a young Carlene Carter (billed by her first married name of Routh), peaked at #12. Emmylou sounds a little sad as she plans to drink the night away following the end of a relationship. The lyrics provide the album’s title, and Susanna Clark also painted the picture used for the cover art.

Rodney Crowell, about to leave the Hot Band to launch his own solo career, contributed a couple of songs as a parting gift. There are Cajun touches to the story song ‘Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight , which was later a hit for the Oak Ridge Boys. Rick Danko of The Band sings harmony and his bandmate Garth Hudson plays sax and accordion. The driving ‘I Ain’t Living Long Like This’ is a hard-boiled country rocker addressed to a low-life individual headed for life in jail, and Rodney’s own version was to be the title track of his debut album later the same year, also on Warner Brothers.

Willie Nelson sings a prominent harmony on the folky ‘One Paper Kid’, a downbeat story about another of life’s failures, set to an attractive tune and a very simple acoustic backing consisting of Mickey Raphael’s harmonica and Emmylou herself on guitar. The pair had toured together, and their voices blend beautifully on another highlight.

The tribute to the ‘Green Rolling Hills’ of West Virginia, written by folk singer Utah Phillips, is sung as a duet with Emmylou’s longtime harmony singer Fayssoux Starling, which sounds just lovely. Ricky Skaggs, Rodney Crowell’s replacement in the Hot Band, plays fiddle and viola on this track, foreshadowing the changes his influence was to bring in Emmylou’s music.

Singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester contributed two songs, the beautiful and perhaps metaphorical ballad ‘My Songbird’ and the swooping and allusive ‘Defying Gravity’, with Nicolette Larson on harmony. The album closes with the slowed down bluesy rockabilly of ‘Burn That Candle’, which is the only track I don’t much like, with some very odd emphases in the pronunciation.

The 2004 CD reissue included two previously unreleased live cuts from the early 80s with a Cajun flavor – Guy Clark’s ‘New Cut Road’ and ‘Lacassine Special’ (sung in French). They are well performed, but feel a little out of place here.

Grade: A

Album Review: Brad Paisley – ‘Time Well Wasted’

Following a successful tour with Terri Clark and Reba McEntire in 2005, Brad Paisley released his fourth album, Time Well Wasted, which in addition to producing three more #1 hit singles, was named Album of the Year by both the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music in 2006. It follows the same winning formula of combining traditional country music and comedy that made Mud On The Tires a commercial success. It also features some marquis name guest artists such as Alan Jackson, Dolly Parton, George Jones, Bill Anderson and Little Jimmy Dickens. Like its predecessors, Time Well Wasted was produced by Fred Rogers, with Chris DuBois acting as executive producer.

The advance single was Brad’s own composition “Alcohol”. Once a staple at country radio, drinking songs have more or less fallen victim to the political correctness movement, and there was indeed a backlash against this party anthem for what critics claimed glamorized alcohol abuse. Most people, however, just viewed the song for what it was: a tongue-in-cheek party tune. The minor controversy did little to impede the record’s success on the charts. It reached #4 and also earned gold certification for digital sales exceeding 500,000 downloads.

Brad’s 2003 marriage to Kimberly Williams has been the apparent inspiration for a number of his songs that revolve around the theme of domestic bliss. There a few such offerings here, both humorous — “The World” — and serious — “Waitin’ On A Woman”, “She’s Everything”, and “Rainin’ You”. Both “The World” and “She’s Everything” reached #1, as did a re-recorded version of “Waitin’ On A Woman” when it was eventually released as part of Brad’s next two albums 5th Gear and the mostly instrumental Play. Brad’s vocal limitations are apparent on the album cut “Rainin’ You”, and to a lesser extent on “She’s Everything”, one of Paisley’s least traditional sounding singles to date. It was, however, the most successful single from the album, earning platinum certification for more than one million digital sales.

Even the happiest relationships have their rough patches, as we see in the tracks “I’ll Take You Back”, which is sort of an opposite-sex point of view version of Sara Evans’ “Cheatin'”, and the cleverly written “Flowers” in which Brad is an erring husband or boyfriend trying to make amends by repeatedly sending his wife or girlfriend roses, which are immediately trashed upon receipt, prompting the question:

” … How many flowers have to die
Before you give this love another try?
I’ve asked you to forgive me at least nine dozen times,
Tell me, how many flowers have to die?”

Paisley is joined by labelmate Alan Jackson for a rendition of Guy Clark and Darrell Scott’s “Out In The Parking Lot”, which finds the protagonists avoiding a cover charge at a club by drinking “Old Crow Whiskey and hot 7-Up” in their truck. The lyrics are a bit lightweight, but it’s a fun song and the two sound good together.

Dolly Parton joins Brad for the masterpiece “When I Get Where I’m Goin'”, the highlight of the album. The spiritually-themed song was released as the album’s second single. Perhaps they were seeking redemption following the release of “Alcohol”, but whatever the reason, the result was the finest single release of Brad’s career. It’s often labeled a duet, but technically it is not; Parton serves strictly in a secondary role proving harmony vocals, but because it was a credited performance, she gained some bragging rights when the record hit #1 in March 2006, making her the oldest female performer (at age 60) to ever top the Billboard country singles chart. Like its predecessor “Alcohol”, “When I Get Where I’m Going” earned gold certification.

The final musical track on the album is the title track, on which Brad once again sings about another one his passions — fishing. This is followed by the comedy sketch “Cornography” featuring Dolly Parton and The Kung Pao Buckeroos (Bill Anderson, George Jones, and Little Jimmy Dickens), in a follow-up to a similar sketch from Mud On The Tires. The sketch is followed by a number of hidden outtake tracks. These routines are mildly amusing but they do tend to wear thin with repeated listenings. Luckily they are placed at the end of the album where they can be easily skipped.

Brad is credited as a writer or co-writer on nine of the album’s fifteen music tracks. The wise decision to include some submissions from outside songwriters, makes Time Well Wasted a stronger collection than some of Brad’s other albums. It reached #1 on the Billboard Country Albums chart and sold in excess of two million copies. It remains my favorite album in the Paisley catalog.

Grade: A


Time Well Wasted
is readily available from online merchants such as Amazon and iTunes.

Album Review: Shawn Camp – ‘1994’

Singer-songwriter Shawn Camp originally recorded this album back in the year of its title as the follow-up to his self-titled debut for Reprise Records (which I must confess I never heard, although I enjoyed his independent 2001 release Lucky Silver Dollar). Produced impeccably by Emory Gordy Jr and loaded with fiddle and steel, it proved too traditional in its stylings for the label, who reportedly dropped Shawn after he declined to remake it with more pop-country trappings. It has re-emerged after the boss of parent label Warner Bros Nashville ran into Shawn, now a successful songwriter, at an industry event, discovered he had this unreleased record sitting in the company vaults, and decided to give it a rather belated release. The original debut, Shawn Camp, is also getting a re-release.

To be brutally frank, enjoyable though I’m finding this record, I can see why Shawn’s career didn’t take off. His songs are good, and the production pleasing, but his voice, while pleasantly quirky and distinctive, does not compare well with some of the fine male vocalists signed to Nashville labels in the early 90s, particularly on ballads.

Shawn co-wrote almost all the material, with the exceptions all well-chosen. The sparkling opening track ‘Near Mrs’, for instance, penned by Steve Hood and Karl Hasten (both unfamiliar names to me) is a charmingly playful set of romantic misadventures explaining why the protagonist never quite got to the altar with any of the ladies in his life, which is highly entertaining and one can imagine this as a lost hit single. Even better is ‘In Harm’s Way’ which is one of the highlights here, a plaintive fiddle-and-steel-laced lament with Patty Loveless on harmonies, about being blindsided by heartbreak. This song was recorded by Jim Lauderdale (who wrote it with Frank Dycus) on his excellent 1998 release Whisper (possibly my favorite of his very varied catalog), and I do prefer the vocals on that version.

Also lovely, and perhaps better suited to Shawn’s voice, is the rueful admission of ‘Clear as A Bell’ (written by Shawn with Will Smith), as the protagonist gets a reminder that his childhood sweetheart’s wedding to another is underway:

In that far off chapel, church bells ring for someone else
And though I hate to say it I can only blame myself

Sometimes things happen way too fast
When you try to reach for love
It’s out of your grasp
Oh, sometimes it’s over and you can’t even tell
But sometimes it’s clear as a bell

This has a very pretty melody and is my favorite track.

The dejected ‘My Frame Of Mind’, written with John Scott Sherrill, also has a pretty tune and some haunting fiddle which underlines the melancholy feel, with the protagonist in even more despairing mood:

And I don’t know or care
Just what tomorrow brings
Cause if she’s not here
Tell me what good is anything?

John Scott Sherrill also cowrote the plaintive and catchy mid-tempo ‘Worn Through Stone’, another of the highlights, as Shawn broods over what went wrong in his relationship with his ex, with none other than Bill Monroe (in what may have been his last ever recording session) among the call-and-response backing vocals, although his contribution is not very prominent.

The quirky ‘Stop, Look And Listen (Cow Catcher Blues)’ is co-written with Guy Clark, and features train rhythms and Shawn on both fiddle and mandolin, as he plays the drifter who can’t outrun heartache. This is uncommercial but highly entertaining, and would be great live.

‘Since You Ain’t Home’ is a lovely traditional George Jones-styled heartbreak ballad about living in a house without the loved one who made it home, which Shawn wrote with Dale Dodson and Ken Mellons, and which would have been ideal for Mellons himself who was just embarking on his own major label career at the time. Patty Loveless guests on harmony.

The joyfully ironic uptempo ‘Movin’ On Up To A Double Wide’ is written with Gary Harrison. The protagonist has apparently been fired but is making his own silver lining:

Honey all our dreams are finally coming true
We’re gonna start living like the rich folks do
We’re movin’ on up to a double wide
Parkin our pickup every day with pride
Think we’ve got it made for the rest of our lives

Some of Shawn’s compositions included here did eventually find an audience. The best of these, ‘The Grandpa That I Know’, written with Tim Mensy (who had already recorded it himself), was subsequently recorded by both Joe Diffie and Patty Loveless. Shawn’s version has a hushed personal quality to it which lends an authenticity which makes up for the more limited vocal prowess compared to the rival versions. There is one interesting lyrical variation, with Shawn singing “my fiddle” rather than “a fiddle” as the music his grandfather would have liked, although he does not in fact play on this track. Shawn does play fiddle on ‘Little Bitty Crack In Her Heart’, which he wrote with Jim Rushing. This song suffers more from its delayed emergence, as it has been cut by both Sammy Kershaw and Randy Travis, both of whom are better singers than Shawn, but this version is still fun.

I strongly commend Warner Brothers for finally getting round to releasing this – and not only digitally. I hope it sells well enough for the experiment to be repeated and encourages other good music to be made available.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Mark Chesnutt – ‘Outlaw’

His fourteenth studio release finds Mark Chesnutt joining the ranks of many other artists who have released a covers album in the past two years or so. As the title suggests, Mark’s offering is a tribute to the Outlaw movement, paying tribute to the likes of Hank Williams Jr., David Allan Coe, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and borrowing heavily from the catalog of Waylon Jennings, in particular. Covering classic songs is an endeavor fraught with peril; comparisons with the original versions is inevitable. Deviating from the original version too much can alienate longtime fans, while sticking too close to the original leads to charges of not making the song one’s own. Though there are a few missteps along the way, Chesnutt largely succeeds in bringing these vintage songs back to life.

Hank Williams Jr. is a difficult artist to cover, since much of his material is autobiographical in nature. Two Bocephus songs — “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound” and “Country State of Mind” — appear here, and Chesnutt sings both of them with gusto, sounding as though he is thoroughly enjoying himself. He tackles David Allan Coe’s “A Little Time Off For Good Behavior” with equal relish, and Willie Nelson’s “Bloody Mary Morning” is also an enjoyable listen.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is Mark’s take on the Kris Kristofferson classic “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”. Johnny Cash’s definitive recording of one of the very best country songs ever written, simply cannot be topped. Chesnutt seems to realize this and unfortunately at times this seems like a phoned-in performance. His delivery lacks emotion and does not convincingly convey the feeling of loneliness and angst that the lyrics are trying to express. In additon, Pete Anderson’s production tends to get in the way. The accordian, presumably played by Flaco Jiminez, seems a bit out of place as does the organ that is meant to underscore the lyrics in the third verse about the hymns coming from a Sunday school. The overall result is a song that just plods along for nearly five minutes and made me wish I’d just listened to Cash’s version instead.

Also disappointing is Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting For A Train.” A minor hit for The Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings) in 1985, it was also recorded by Jerry Jeff Walker and David Allan Coe. It tells the story of a relationship between a relatively young man and a much older one. It starts out well enough, but about halfway through the production begins to drown out the vocals.

Half of the songs on the album are remakes of Waylon Jennings hits, so at times, Outlaw seems more of a Jennings tribute album than a salute to the Outlaw movement in general. Since Chesnutt is a huge Jennings fan, and even named his eldest son Waylon, this is not entirely unexpected. At times it’s hard to take Mark seriously as an outlaw, unlike Waylon who actually lived through much of what he sang about, but for the most part the Jennings covers work well. He wisely avoids some of Waylon’s better known material such as “Luchenbach, Texas” and “Just To Satisfy You” opting instead to cover some lesser-known gems such as “Black Rose” and “Freedom To Stay”.

“A Couple More Years”, written by Dennis Locorriere and Shel Silverstein, and previously recorded by both Jennings and Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show, is by far the best song on the album. Chesnutt is joined by Amber Digby on this one, and though lyrically it makes for a somewhat awkward duet — they each sing to each other, “I’ve got a couple more years on you babe, and that’s all” — the vocal peformances by Chesnutt and Digby more than compensate for this lack of logic. Another highlight of the album is “Lovin’ Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again)”. This seems like the type of song that might have been a hit if it had been released during Mark’s MCA years, though the chances that radio will play this song now are slim. It is however, an example of Mark Chesnutt at his best; on this track he truly shines.

I’m not sure that there’s much on Outlaw to appeal to casual fans, but longtime Mark Chesnutt fans will want to seek it out. It will be released on June 22 on the Saguaro Road label. It is currently available for pre-order at Amazon.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Patty Loveless – ‘Patty Loveless’

patty loveless - debutA teenager of 14, Patty Loveless first came to Nashville with her brother Roger in 1971. Roger had a job on one of the most popular shows of the day, the nationally syndicated Porter Wagoner Show.  Brother Roger arranged a meeting with Wagoner one day, and after hearing her sing ‘Sounds of Loneliness’, Porter offered his help to the teen and invited her to tour with his road show, which included Dolly Parton, on weekends and during the Summer, encouraging her to finish school while she pursued her dream of a singing career.

Then, one fateful night at the Grand Ole Opry in 1973, Jean Shepard was caught in a flood and couldn’t make it to the Ryman, so promoter Danny King called the Rameys, Patty and Roger, who appeared on the Opry that night and caught the attention of Doyle Wilburn.  This meeting would lead to her first publishing deal with Sure-Fire Music, and she went on tour with The Wilburn Brothers from 1973 to 1975, while Doyle was grooming her to replace their former leading female singer, Patty’s distant cousin Loretta Lynn.  When she graduated in 1975, she did just that, becoming a full-time member of the show.  In the meantime, she met and fell in with the group’s drummer, Terry Lovelace.  Doyle Wilburn told them to end the relationship, not wanting the band members to date one another, but instead, Terry and Patty quit the band, got married, and moved back to his hometown in North Carolina, where she played the rock club circuit for a while.  It was from the name Patty Lovelace that she adapted her stage name of Patty Loveless.

Patty Loveless came back to Nashville for the second time in 1985 to try her hand at country music.  This time again with brother Roger in tow to help his little sister work her way into the music business.  As the story goes, Roger Ramey pretended to be someone else who was late for an appointment with MCA executive Tony Brown in order to get in the office to meet the A&R head.  Once he got in there, Brown gave him 30 seconds to sell him on what Roger called “best girl singer to ever come to Nashville”.  Ramey played him Patty’s recording of ‘I Did’, and Brown was impressed, but told Roger he’d get back to him.  Still bluffing – the man must have a great poker face – Roger told Tony Brown he needed an answer that day because they had another label wanting to sign Patty.  Tony had a quick meeting with label head Jimmy Bowen while Roger waited in his office.  When Brown came back it was with a short-term, singles deal.

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Album Review: George Strait – ‘Strait From The Heart’

straitfromtheheartGeorge Strait’s sophomore effort finds him repeating the same winning formula of his debut, from teaming up once again with producer Blake Mevis, to working a pun based on his last name into the album title. Released in June 1982, Strait From The Heart attempts to strike a balance between Strait’s traditional country roots and the Urban Cowboy sound that was prevalent in the early 80s.

“Fool Hearted Memory”, written by Byron Hill and Blake Mevis was the album’s first single. Released a month in advance of the album, this mid-tempo number holds the distinction of being the first in what was to become a very long string of #1 hits for George Strait. It was his fourth single release in total, and the third to peak inside the Top 10. By this time, Strait was beginning to develop a solid reputation as a traditionalist singer, so the next single release, took some by surprise. “Marina Del Rey” was written by Dean Dillon and Frank Dycus, and no one was more surprised than they when Strait fell in love with the song. They’d figured he wouldn’t be interested in this contemporary-sounding romantic ballad. A big departure from Strait’s previous work, “Marina Del Rey” employed a full string section, while the fiddle and steel that had figured so prominently on his earlier singles took a back seat. Despite being more in line with what radio was playing at the time, “Marina Del Rey” didn’t perform quite as well on the charts as Strait’s previous two singles, missing the Top 5, but still peaking at a very respectable #6. Though it was a pivotal record in Strait’s career at the time, “Marina Del Rey” hasn’t aged as well as most of his other hits; the production sounds dated to modern ears, particularly the singing seagull sound effect employed at the end, which is something that Strait objected to at the time. “Blake promised me that he would take the singing bird out at the end of it, which he didn’t do,” Strait said. ” And I’ve always hated that.”
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Class of ’89 Album Review: Vince Gill – ‘When I Call Your Name’

whenicallyournameVince Gill was not a new artist in 1989, but it was the year that saw him make his big breakthrough and really established him as the major star he was to be through the 1990s.  He had spent several years signed to RCA, and had released three truncated albums of varying lengths, plus a number of singles which had received varying amounts of radio play, three becoming top 10 hits.  Much of Vince’s RCA output is still worth seeking out; I particularly like ‘The Way Back Home’, ‘Oh Carolina’, ‘Living The Way I  Do’, and ‘If It Weren’t For Him’, a duet with Rosanne Cash.  The production was not always quite right, though, in my opinion, and sometimes making his voice sound a little thin, especially on up-tempo material.  Sales however were not encouraging, and RCA’s lack of faith in Vince is reflected by the fact that none of his album releases were full-length. 

Everything changed when Vince changed labels, and moved to MCA.  When I Call Your Name, his first album for the label, released in November 1989,  was a modern classic which definitely still stands up today.  It was eventually certified double platinum.

Like many of the ‘Class of 89’, Vince Gill was a singer-songwriter, and he contributed seven of the ten tracks on this album.  They vary from good to great, and are allied to sympathetic production from Tony Brown, with whom Vince had played in Rodney Crowell’s band the Cherry Bombs in the early 80s.  Vince’s instrumental abilities are well-known, and he played acoustic and electric guitars and mandolin alongside a team of session musicians.  The music is never allowed to overwhelm the songs, but rather supports them to best effect.

The break with the past was not complete; opening track and leadoff single ‘Never Alone’, had been written by Vince with Rosanne Cash back in 1984, and one suspects it had previously been recorded for RCA but never released.  It certainly sounds very similar to his material from that period, and was only a modest success, reaching #22 on Billboard.  It is a good enough song, but probably my least favorite track on this album.  The move to MCA then began to pay off as Vince was teamed with labelmate Reba McEntire on an engaging western swing tribute to their fellow home state, ‘Oklahoma Swing’, which was released as a single.  It may come as a slight surprise that it only reached #13.

Vince’s real breakthrough came when the album’s title track was released as a single.  The devastating sadness of Vince’s delivery of ‘When I Call Your Name’, supported by Patty Loveless’ harmonies, makes this still one of his finest recordings, perfectly epitomising loneliness and loss.  It was a worthy winner of the CMA’s Single of the Year award in 1990, and Song of the Year in 1991.  Vince’s status as a genuine new star was cemented by the final single released from the album, the almost equally exquisite sadness of ‘Never Knew Lonely’.  This was another song which Vince had cut on RCA, but which they had foolishly overlooked.  Vince would still need to wait a few years for his first #1, as these singles made #2 and 3 respectively, but the former in particular has stood the test of time and is one of the best-remembered songs of its era. It was also a genuine star-making record.

Not all the tracks maintain the same standard, but there are no poor tracks either, with even lesser (comparitively) material like ‘Oh Girl (You Know Where To Find Me)’ and ‘We Won’t Dance’ being very listenable, and possible standouts had they appeared on other artist’s albums.  Of the more up-tempo material, Vince’s cover of Guy Clark’s ‘Rita Ballou’, an ode to a sexy female rodeo rider, is notable for backing vocals from the great Emmylou Harris, and ‘Ridin’ The Rodeo’ features the Desert Rose Band’s Herb Pedersen, and was later covered by 90s group Perfect Stranger.  Given the quality of Vince’s songwriting, it seems surprising that more of his songs have not been covered by other artists – one can only assume that singers feel intimidated by the thought of competing with Vince’s own sublime versions.

Vince’s beautiful soaring tenor is best suited to emotion-infused ballads with melodies allowing him to stretch out both vocally and interpretatively.  My favorite tracks here, after ‘When I Call Your Name’ and ‘Never Knew Lonely’, fall into that category.  ‘We Could Have Been’, one of the few outside songs on the record (written by Don Cook and John Jarvis) is a wistful reflection on an ex-lover and what might have been, which might have been tailor-made for Vince to deliver, and Vince himself wrote the sweet love song, ‘Sight For Sore Eyes’ with Guy Clark. 

When I Call Your Name is still commercially available, and is essential listening for country fans.

A