My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Hank Wiliams

Razor X’s Top Albums of 2017

Another year has come and gone, and once again we lament the deplorable state of mainstream country music, while pointing out a few glimmers of hope that will never be heard on the radio. Among this year’s highlights are:

10. Dailey & Vincent – ‘Patriots and Poets’

Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent had quite a year, which included being inducted as members of the Grand Ole Opry in March, followed by the release of one of the best bluegrass albums of the year. This generous sample of bluegrass and spiritual tunes is the perfect showcase for the duo’s trademark harmonies.

9. Rhonda Vincent & Daryle Singletary – ‘American Grandstand’

Not to be outdone, Darrin’s big sister Rhonda also turned in a stellar collection, teaming up this time with her former label mate Daryle Singletary. Although heavily reliant on cover material, there are some new songs here as well. This is a real treat for those who are starved for some real country music.

8. Charley Pride – ‘Music In My Heart’

The legendary Charley Pride returned after a six-year recording hiatus, with one of the strongest offerings of his post-major label career. Sirius XM subscribers who listen to Willie’s Roadhouse will no doubt be familiar with “You’re Still In These Crazy Arms of Mine”, which was my favorite song on the album. Like the Vincent/Singletary album, this one has its share of remakes but there’s not a weak one to be found.

7. Reba McEntire – ‘Sing It Now: Songs of Faith and Hope’

Reba McEntire is my favorite female singer, but I’ve been disappointed with her offerings over the last decade more times than I care to remember. This double album which is divided evenly between traditional hymns and more contemporary inspirational songs shows that when commercial considerations are cast aside, Reba is still in a class all by herself. I’m cautiously optimistic that this album is a sign that she’s finally stopped chasing chart success and ready to release some worthwhile material again.

6. Sunny Sweeney – ‘Trophy’

While it’s regrettable that Sunny Sweeney never enjoyed the mainstream success she deserved, getting out of her major label deal was the best thing that ever happened to her from a creative standpoint. While Concrete was a bit too eclectic for my liking, Trophy gets it just right and is her best offering since Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame. “Bottle By My Bed”, which she co-wrote with Lori McKenna, would be a monster hit in a sane world.

5. Alison Krauss – ‘Windy City’

Alison Krauss is another artist with whom I’d become a bit disillusioned, but she redeemed herself nicely with this collection of cover songs, which aren’t quite classics for the most part, but deserved to be introduced to a new audience. This is the best album she’s done in years — arguably the best of her career.

4. Zephaniah OHora with the 18 Wheelers – ‘This Highway’

This collection of original material which recreates the Bakersfield and countrypolitan sounds of the 60s was a pleasant surprise. Although it could have benefited from a little more variety in tempo, this a wonderful album and I hope that it is the first of many from this native of Brooklyn.

3. & 2. Chris Stapleton: ‘From A Room: Volumes 1 & 2’

These widely anticipated follow-ups to 2015’s Traveller were presumably intended to be a double album, but Mercury Records seems to have gotten cold feet about the sales potential of a double set, so they split it into two separate releases. Both discs feature very sparse production and gorgeous harmonies from Chris’ wife Morgane Hayes-Stapleton. With a heavy blues influence, theses albums are not traditional country, but there are a perfect antidote to the overproduced pop masquerading as country music on the radio today. I liked the second volume slightly better than the first.

1. Willie Nelson and The Boys: ‘Willie’s Stash, Volume 2’

This collection finds the Red-Headed Stranger teaming up with his two sons Lukas and Micah and digging deeply into the catalog of Hank Williams. Despite their youth, the younger Nelsons show obvious enthusiasm for the material, proving that Willie raised those boys right. This was a pleasure from start to finish. My favorite track was the Hank Cochran-penned “Can I Sleep In Your Arms”, which was hit for Cochran’s then-wife Jeannie Seely in 1973 and later recorded by Willie for his Red-Headed Stranger album.

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Retro Album Review: Miranda Lambert – ‘Crazy Ex Girlfriend’ (2007)

crazy ex girlfriendBack in the days writing for the 9513 Blog, I would post occasional reviews on Amazon. We are republishing updated versions of some of those reviews here.

Miranda Lambert is a brave singer, exploring the dark crevices of life and romance. This is territory that other female singers may explore for an occasional song, but not for an entire album. Needless to say, most of the album is about romance gone wrong.

My two favorite cuts, however, are not about romance at all. “Dry Town”, written by David Rawlings and Gillian Welch, is the most traditional country sounding track, a humorous song about wanting a cool one and finding that liquor sales are banned where you are. “Famous In A Small Town” is one of those neat little ‘slices of life’ songs dealing with the realities of life in a very small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business and ‘everyone dies famous in a small town’.

The rest of the CD is about the down side of romance (I certainly hope Ms Lambert’s real life isn’t as bleak as depicted here – she penned or helped pen eight of the songs on the album). The opening cut “Gunpowder & Lead” is unfortunate choice to open the album as it (a) isn’t country” and (b) isn’t very good, the one misfire on the album. Hopefully listeners will work through this track to get to the good stuff. If they do, they are immediately rewarded with the lighter fare of “Dry Town” and the lighter “Famous In A Small Town”.

After that it’s back to the main theme. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” didn’t get much airplay in my area but it’s an interesting number with some nice banjo work by Mike Wrucke. The self-penned “Love Letters” about letters written (I presume) on tear-drenched paper is a song with the depths of despair and desolation Hank Williams found in “Alone and Forsaken”.

“More Like Her” is a wistful song about her beau returning to his former girlfriend whom he realized was really what he wanted anyway. The remaining songs deal with loss of self-respect, recriminations and regrets.

The album closes with the classic “Easy From Now On” penned by Carlene Carter & Susanna Clark that was a hit for Emmylou Harris back in 1978 – a classic about getting oneself readjusted after the end of a romance. I hoped they would issue this track as a single.

In the hands of a less capable singer, this almost unremitting collection of “emotional downers” would be hard to stomach. Since the songs are well written and the singer so expressive, it is well worth the time spend listening to it. I originally rated the CD on amazon as 5 stars since it is a hair better than 4.5 stars, but if allowed fractional ratings I’d have given it 4.75 stars with the major deduction for the opening track. Today (2016):

Grade: B

Album Review: Loretta Lynn – ‘Your Squaw Is On The Warpath’

MI0003863545Loretta Lynn had released about a dozen albums by the time Your Squaw is on the Warpath was released in 1969. It was her first album released that year and saw her teaming up again with Owen Bradley and Decca Records.

Lynn either wrote or co-wrote four of the album’s songs. The title track, a top 5 hit she penned solo, is a classic. She also solely composed “Sneakin’ In,” a steel-drenched ballad about her cheating husband. She also co-wrote two ballads – “Let Me Go, You’re Hurting Me” and “He’s Somewhere Between You and Me” with Lorene Allen and Doyle Wilburn respectively.

The remainder of the album consists mainly of ballads. “Living My Lifetime for You” is flavorless and Teddy Wilburn’s “Taking The Place of my Man” benefits from the helping of Steel. The cover of Marty Robbins’ “I Walk Alone” has beautiful touches of piano throughout and a powerful vocal from Lynn.

The album’s other top five hit, “You Just Stepped In (From Stepping Out on Me)” has beautiful jaunty guitars and ribbons of Steel. I love the touches of piano, too, dated as they may be to today’s ears. Lynn takes the bull by the horns on “Harper Valley, P.T.A.,” although I cannot help but find her signing it a bit odd. She copes brilliantly but hardly fits the image of the wife in the lyric. The final number, Kaw-Liga, is a wonderful yet also out-of-character cover of the Hank Williams classic.

Your Squaw is on the Warpath is neither here nor there for me. I don’t hate the album but I didn’t feel the magic I felt with Don’t Come Home. This isn’t a bad album in the least just not one that blew me away. I still recommend you listen to it and come to your own conclusions.

Grade: B

Album Review: Hank Williams – ‘Living Proof’

living proofBy 1974 Hank Jr was a mature vocalist but not a consistent hitmaker, with 1972’s ‘Eleven Roses’ remaining his sole #1 hit. Produced by MGM executive Jim Vienneau, Living Proof (often billed as featuring its big hit ‘I’ll Think Of Something’) showcases Hank Williams Jr at his traditional country best, before his change in direction.

The title track, ‘I’ll Think Of Something’, became familiar to a later generation of fans when it was covered by 90s star Mark Chesnutt who took the Bill Foster/Jerry Rice tune to the top of the charts in 1992. It was not quite such a big hit for Hank Jr, whose cut peaked at #7. I must confess that I prefer Chesnutt’s version, but Hank Jr’s original, swathed in strings, is still a fine recording with an emotional vocal and Hank trying out the bottom reaches of his voice.

The self-penned follow up ‘Angels Are Hard To Find’ reached the top 20. The earnest vocal works well and it’s a decent song the artist was to revisit later in his career.

He had not yet shaken off his father’s legacy altogether, and the album includes a very nice cover of ‘I Just Don’t Like This Kind Of Living’ treated very much like the original. There’s a certain uneasy frisson hearing Hank Jr singing a song his father wrote about his rocky marriage to his mother, though perhaps not as much as with the posthumous duet of the song recorded a decade earlier, but it is an excellent performance of a great song. He draws equally effectively on another country legend of his father’s generation with Lefty Frizzell’s ‘Confused’, with Hank Jr’s vocal inflections strongly influenced by Frizzell’s. (The song was the B-side of Frizzell’s 1965 hit ‘She’s Gone, Gone, Gone’.)

The excellent ‘Getting Over You’ should have been a single, as it is an outstanding song about a man whose heart breaks so badly he ends up committing suicide:

I sold my car to buy more wine
I hocked my watch
I’ve lost all track of time
Days with you went by so fast
Now I’m tryin’ to relive the past
You don’t know what I’ve been through
Getting over you

I’ve tried to love other women
But I can’t
You’ve really made a mess
Out of what used to be a man
I thought I’d drowned the fire in others
But you’re still my only lover
You don’t know what I’ve been through
Getting over you

I got some pills from a old doctor friend
The bottle said one every 12 hours for pain
But this pain I feel ain’t small
That’s why I took them one and all
It was something I had to do
To get over you

‘She Was Just Something To Do’ is an excellent cheating song, although the excuse may not have gone down too well the protagonist’s wife.

‘How Long Will You Keep Coming Back to Me’ is a country ballad written by Lamar Morris and Ronnie Hughes, and is pretty good. ‘Before You Fell Out Of Love With Me’ adopts the Nashville Sound in its arrangement, but again is a good song underneath, sung well. ‘Where She Left Off’ is another excellent heartbreak song with a string arrangement and a powerful vocal.

‘All I Had to Do’ is an easy-listening style sophisticated ballad with a downbeat lyric about heartbreak and a highly orchestrated backing.

This album may not appeal to fans of Hank Jr’s rock influenced material, and certain elements of the production have dated, but it remains an excellent record.

Grade: A

Spotlight Artist: Hank Williams Jr.

hqdefault-3The life story of Hank Williams Jr. is a familiar one. Hank was born on May 26, 1949 in Shreveport, the son of the legendary Hank Williams. Although referred to as ‘Hank Williams, Jr.’, Hank was born as Randall Hank Williams and his father was born as Hiram King (Hank) Williams. After his father’s untimely death on January 1, 1953, he was raised by his mother, Audrey Williams, who essentially forced Hank into the life of a singer, attempting to mold him into a clone of his father. Williams made his stage debut singing his father’s songs when he was eight years old. In 1964, he made his recording debut with “Long Gone Lonesome Blues”, one of his father’s classic songs.

The idea of Hank as a clone of his father became a more awkward fit as Hank grew older. Physically much sturdier that his father, Hank also did not have his father’s thin reedy voice. Hank could yodel but it was an effort. He also had a broader musical education since his mother Audrey could count various musical titans as friends and acquaintances. Hank himself has mentioned Fats Domino and Johnny Cash as strong musical influences.

At some point Hank rebelled against his mother’s efforts to turn him into a clone of his father. While Hank has always sung his father’s songs, he started to develop into a major mainstream country artist and remained there for over a decade.

His initial record label, MGM, had been his father’s label, so for much of Hank’s tenure with MGM the label would push for Hank Sr./Hank Jr. projects. Some of them, like Father & Son and Hank Williams/Hank Williams Jr. Again are gimmicky projects with Hank Jr. grafted onto his father’s recordings (if the masters still exist for these recordings, modern recording technology could make these sound far better than they do). Others like Songs My Father Left Me (unfinished songs completed and set to music by Hank Jr.) are first class efforts. There are two soundtracks, three duet albums (Connie Francis, Lois Johnson), two Luke The Drifter Jr. albums, a live album plus hit collections. Along the way there are at least fourteen albums of Hank Williams Jr. developing into a first rate mainstream country artist.

If you are fifty years old or younger, Hank Williams Jr. probably came onto your radar in 1979 with the release of “Family Tradition”. At the time was thirty years old, emerging from a transitional period in which he had not had a top ten single in over five years. From this point forward Hank would have a dozen year run of gold and platinum albums, with his 1982 Greatest Hits reaching quintuple platinum status. During that same stretch Hank would have an endless string of top ten singles with eight Billboard #1s. After a near fatal accident in 1975, Hank set out find his own muse and get his producers off his records, finally developing his own country/rock R&B hybrid.

The January Spotlight will focus on the early efforts of Hank Williams Jr., a period which saw Hank emerge from his father’s shadow and develop into a very successful artist in his own right. It was a period in which the ‘Nashville Sound’ dominated country production so there will be records with strings and choral accompaniments, but Hank’s voice is strong enough and distinctive enough to cut through the clutter. Many of my favorite Hank Williams Jr. singles come from this period, so kick back and enjoy.

All about the image?

The latest episode of CMT’s current reality competition, CMT’s Next Superstar, which you can catch up with on the CMT website if you havent been watching the show live, focussed on image. Viewers saw the five surviving competitors each getting a makeover and doing a photo shoot for an album, as well as recording a classic song, before selling themselves to staff at Warner Music, whose votes counted towards that week’s elimination. Image seems to be increasingly important in marketing country music today, and has been ever since music videos became a major way of selling artists.

While an artist’s looks and fashion choices have nothing to do with the quality of their music, they do help to form the general public’s expectations, particularly for a new artist. If New Singer X is pictured wearing jeans and a cowboy hat, I do expect to hear something different from what I expect to hear from New Singer Y, whose outfit is indistinguishable from his/her pop star counterparts.

Modern traditionalists like Alan Jackson and George Strait may seem to pay little attention to image matters, but their style is as (or more) effective in it its way by signalling to the audience that here is an unquestionably country singer. The neo-traditional wave of the early 90s fizzled out in a sea of “Hat Acts”, many of them fine artists in their own right, but they tended to merge into one to many listeners when they shared a similar look and musical style. Chris Young, one of the brightest young traditionalists, often wears that cowboy hat, although Strait-style Easton Corbin does not. Compare him to, say, Jimmy Wayne or the men in Lady Antebellum, who have a much more “fashionable” appearance – and a much less country sound. Of course, it can be misleading; other cowboy hat wearers include rocker Jason Aldean. Sometimes the cowboy hat is a visual equivalent of singing lyrics about how country you are, without necessarily being supported by the music. In the 90s, Marty Stuart was making energetic country rock, but was keenly carrying on country traditions by wearing Nudie style outfits reminiscent of veterans like Porter Wagoner. It was only later that he returned to more traditional musical styles.

Nudie’s elaborate bejewelled and embroidered outfits were almost a uniform for the biggest country stars of the 1950s and 60s, even though they were a world removed from their poverty-stricken rural roots. Porter Wagoner is perhaps the most famous wearer, but even Hank Williams, whose heart wrenching music might seem far removed from image considerations, famously wore a Nudie suit adorned with musical notations. When Gram Parsons encouraged the Byrds to venture into country music with the seminal country-rock album Sweetheart Of the Rodeo, he wore a custom-made Nudie suit with designs of marijuana leaves – combining an appeal to rebellious 60s teenagers with the “country star” outfit. But for most of their wearers, the outfits symbolized showmanship and stardom, just as Loretta Lynn always wore evening gowns on stage and most of her album covers. Using an identifiable image as shorthand to signal an artist as country is thus nothing new. The young Patsy Cline wore western-style dresses, and had to be persuaded to dress in a more sophisticated way when her music began to adopt more pop influences. Dolly Parton’s highly artificial image helped to make her an international superstar in the 70s and 80s, and is still instantly recognised today across the world, even among those who have heard little of her music. In contrast, when last month’s Spotlight Artist Emmylou Harris started her solo career after Gram Parsons’ death, she looked more like the folk singer she had been as a girl, with her long hair hanging down unadorned, whereas most of her contemporaries had big hair – often wigs.

Record labels invest money in artwork for CDs, in order to attract attention on store shelves. It’s never made much of a difference to me, and I would assume not to most passionate fans who spend a lot of time listening to the music, but it may help bring in more casual purchasers. I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but my own brother once asked for a record for Christmas, purely because he liked the picture on the cover and was intrigued to see how the music reflected it. Going back to CMT’s Next Superstar, one young female contestant was quite rightly criticized for picking a picture of herself smiling for the title ‘Cold Cold Heart’, just because she thought it made her look prettier than other pictures from the photo-shoot. Songwriter Wynn Varble, who is 50 years old and not exactly competing for heart-throb of the year, went for a simple honest look which would tell any potential purchaser that this was a country record.

Changing musical styles can also be flagged by a changing image. When Lee Ann Womack moved in a poppier direction in the early 200s, she took on a more overtly sexy look (left); then when she defiantly reverted to a retro style in 2005 with There’s More Where That Came From, she went for an equally retro 70s country album cover style (right). The music is, of course, what really matters, but the image helps signal the direction. Similarly, Reba progressed from traditional country and a semi-cowgirl look in the 1980s to a much more sophisticated style, both aurally and visually, in the 90s.

How much does an artist’s image affect what you expect to hear? Have you ever been surprised – pleasantly or otherwise – by a disconnect between the album cover and the music inside?