My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Hot Rize

Album Review: Kathy Mattea — ‘Pretty Bird’

Kathy Mattea had a decent run as a mainstream country artist, enjoying a string of top twenty records that ran from 1986 through 1995. This run included four number one records with “Eighteen Wheels and A Dozen Roses” being the 1988 CMA Single of the Year. Kathy was the CMA’s Female Vocalist of the Year for 1989 and 1990.

Kathy Mattea has always been difficult to pigeonhole as a performer. Never a truly traditional country singer, she was able to come close enough to gain acceptance from country radio for over a decade, although by 1990 her sound was drifting into Americana territory as “Where Have You Been” and “Time Marches On” would demonstrate. After a while, she gave up on getting radio airplay and started focusing on making interesting music. Her most noteworthy album of the last decade was 2008’s Coal, a fine bluegrass collection of songs depicting the trials and tribulations of the men (and women) whose lives depend on coal.

Pretty Bird is only Kathy’s second album in the last decade and her first in six years. The album was produced by Tim O’Brien (Hot Rize, Earls of Leicester) for the Thirty Tigers label (essentially an independently produced album with Kickstarter helping to fund the effort) but while Tim is intimately associated with bluegrass, this album would barely qualify as newgrass. It is, however, a fine album that finds the fifty-nine-year-old Mattea in fine voice.

The album opens up with “Chocolate On My Tongue” a whimsical tune by Oliver Wood about life’s small pleasures. I would describe the song as folk music.

Sittin’ on the front porch, ice cream in my hand

Meltin’ in the sun, all that chocolate on my tongue

That’s a pretty good reason to live

Pretty good reason to live

Sittin’ in the bathtub, hi-fi playin’ low

Diggin’ that Al Green, well you must know what I mean

That’s a pretty good reason to live

Pretty good reason to live

Next up is the only song that was ever a huge hit for anyone, Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe”. Anyone who was listening to AM radio in 1967 knows just how ubiquitous was this song, charting high on the pop, country, easy listening and R&B charts in the US and reaching the top fifteen or better throughout the English speaking world.

“Mercy Now” comes from the pen of Mary Gauthier. Other than the presence of steel guitar, this slow ballad sounds like folk-(quasi) gospel. I like the song a lot and will need to check more into Gauthier since I am not that familiar with her.

 My father could use a little mercy now

The fruits of his labor fall and rot slowly on the ground

His work is almost over, it won’t be long, he won’t be around

I love my father, he could use some mercy now

My brother could use a little mercy now

He’s a stranger to freedom, shackled to his fear and his doubt

The pain that he lives in is almost more than living will allow

I love my brother, he could use some mercy now

Jesse Winchester penned “Little Glass of Wine” a slow introspective ballad given an acoustic treatment on this album. I wouldn’t want to hear an entire album of similar material but the sing fits well within the context of this album

Little glass of wine, you’re oil on my flame

Shy of the sunlight, hiding your shame

And many, many tears, the number is sublime

Shall stain a woman’s bosom, for a little glass of wine

As soon as you learn that you don’t live forever

You grow fond of the fruit of the vine

So here is to you and here is to me

And here is to the ones we’ve left behind

“He Moves Through The Fair” is an acoustic folk ballad performed by Kathy with only an acoustic guitar as accompaniment. The song is about a wedding that never took place, although what happened to the betrothed is unclear.

“Saint Teresa”, a Joan Osborne composition is a grittier song, open to interpretation.

“This Love Will Carry”, a Dougie MacLean composition, is a nice endeavor that perfectly suits Mattea’s voice. The songwriter sings harmony vocals on the track. I really like the song although I cannot imagine a time in which it would be considered worthy of release as a single:

 It’s a thin line that leads us and keeps us all from shame

Dark clouds quickly gather along the way we came

There’s fear out on the mountain and death out on the plain

There’s heartbreak and heartache in the shadow of the flame

 

This love will carry

This love will carry me

I know this love will carry me

The strongest web will tangle, the sweetest bloom will fall

And somewhere in the distance we try and catch it all

Success lasts for a moment and failure’s always near

You look down at your blistered hands as turns another year

“October Song” was written by Kathy’s husband Jon Vezner. Jon has never done Kathy wrong with his songs and this dreamy but regretful reverie about a lost love is right up her alley:

And when at last I drift asleep, those dreams of you

Come back to keep me

Wishing I were lying in your arms

Those memories of when we made love

Are just so hard to let go of

Who am I supposed to be

When there’s so much of you in me

Vezner also penned “Tell Me What You Ache For”, a penetrating look at life and love. Vezner is definitely a poet at heart:

It doesn’t interest me what kind of job you got

Where you eat or where you shop

The kind of car you drive

It doesn’t interest me how big a house you own

What I really want to know

Is what makes you come alive

I don’t want to talk about

How your future’s all planned out

That isn’t what it’s all about to me

 

Tell me what you ache for

Tell me what you wait for

Tell me what you long for

What you’re holding on for

Tell me what you’re dreaming

What would give your life real meaning

You’ve been afraid to pray for

Tell me what you ache for

“Holy Now” is a mid-tempo song with some observations on the state of religion. This is followed by “I Can’t Stand Up Alone” written by Martha Carson, who was a huge gospel music star during the 1950’s, best known for “Satisfied.” Martha was the favorite gospel singer for many country singers including Connie Smith, Kitty Wells, Sonny James and many others. Kathy’s voice does not have the power that Carson had, but she does a very nice job with the song

 One of these days I’m gonna take a vacation

To a quiet and a peaceful shore

And I’ll cool my feet in those crystal waters

Where I won’t have to work anymore

 

‘Cause my burden has got a little heavy

Till I can’t stand up all alone

I must lay my head down on one strong shoulder

‘Cause I can’t stand up all alone

No, you can’t stand up all by yourself

You can’t stand up alone

You need the touch of a mighty hand

You can’t stand up alone

The album closes with “Pretty Bird”, written by Hazel Dickens, a folk singer who wrote of the lives of coal miners and their families. This song is not about coal miners per se but you can read much into the lyrics, which urge the pretty bird to fly away to freedom. The song is performed a cappella.

This is not my favorite Kathy Mattea album although I would consider it to be very good with thoughtful lyrics about serious topics. A few more up-tempo songs would have helped but I suspect that I will revisit this album often, a few songs at a time.

Grade: B+

Complete song lyrics can be found here

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Album Review: Adam Harvey – ‘Both Sides Now’

Released in 2009, Both Sides Now was Adam’s eighth studio album and second release for Sony Music Australia. Unlike Adam’s previous albums, which were more oriented toward traditional country music, this album featured a wide array of pop music with very little traditional country among the songs selected. Each of the songs also featured with guests mostly from the world of Australian pop music.

Frankly,I expected not to like this album, but I was pleasantly surprised how Adam brought a country feel to the non-country material. Moreover, the strategy of aiming toward the pop market must be adjudged a success as the album was Adams’s first to crack the top twenty albums chart, a place each of Adam’s subsequent albums reached. Plus, this is a pretty good album.

The album opens up with “Stuck In The Middle (With You)” a song composed by Gerry Rafferty and a major pop hit for Gerry’s group Stealer’s Wheel in 1973, becoming a major hit throughout the English- speaking world. Guy Sebastian, an Australian pop star appears with Adam on the song. The arrangement is rather more country sounding than the original hit although it features slide guitar and harmonoica rather than steel guitar.

“Easy” was a top ten pop hit for the R&B group the Commodores and was written by lead singer Lionel Richie. Adam is joined by Wendy Matthews, a pop singer from the 1980s. The rather bland arrangement is true to the original, but Adam’s deep baritone salvages the song.

“Move It On Over” is a humorous Hank Williams classic about an errant husband literally banished to the doghouse for his wayward behavior. Adam is joined by 1990s pop star David Campbell. This song is given a solid county arrangement.

Judy Collins had the big hit in 1968 with Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”. Adam is joined by the McClymont’s, a stunningly attractive trio of Australian pop-country singers. The arrangement is fairly true to the original, although a steel guitar can be heard gently playing in the background. This is a really nice track

“Down On The Corner” was a major pop hit penned by John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Although not specifically a country song, CCR’s swamp pop sound was embraced by country radio in 1969. I’m not sure why Leo Sayer was chosen for this recording, but it works. Sayer was a major British star during the period encompassing the disco era. He moved to Australia and became an Australian citizen in 2009.

“King of The Road” was Roger Miller’s signature song, performed her in somewhat doo-wop arrangement with really minimal instrumentation. Adam is accompanied by John Williamson, an Australian bush balladeer.

“It’s All Over Now” was written by R&B artists Bobby & Shirley Womack. Bobby’s version barely cracked the top hundred for his group the Valentinos, but when the Rolling Stones recorded the song, it soared to #1 in the UK with significant chart placements elsewhere. Adam is joined by Australian pop singer Shannon Noll. This would be a hard song to mess up and Adam & Shannon do a fine job with the song.

Adam is joined by Troy Cassar-Daley, a major Australian country star on the Willie Nelson-RayCharles duet of “Seven Spanish Angels”. The arrangement is true to the original and Adam & Troy handle the vocals with aplomb.

Webb Pierce had a major US county hit with “In The Jailhouse Now” holding down the #1 slot for twenty-one weeks in 1955. The song is far older than that with authorship claimed by the ‘Father of Country Music’ Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933). It is a fun song with many variations in the lyrics. The arrangement reminds me of the one used by Red Knuckles & The Trailblazers (the alter-ego of the bluegrass band Hot Rize). Cool song with Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson joining in on the fun.

“Have I Told You Lately” is a Van Morrison blues -rocker with Adam joined by Renee Geyer, an Australian R&B/Jazz singer. Ms Geyer takes harmony on this recording, which has some steel guitar on it but is not otherwise very country.

Billy Edd Wheeler has written many fine songs with ”Jackson” being among the most famous. Adam is joined by Beccy Cole, a major Australian county star on this cover of the Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood (or Johnny Cash & June Carter if you prefer) duet.

If you don’t know of Tommy Emmanuel, here is your chance to hear him as he is the man playing guitar on this exquisite recording of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles”. This may be the nicest track on the album – Adam sings it well, and if there is a better guitar player in the world than Tommy Emmanuel, I have yet to hear him (or her).

Grade: B+ / A-

Album Review: O’Brien Party Of Seven – ‘Reincarnation – The Songs Of Roger Miller’

reincarnationRoger Miller passed away on October 25, 1992. In the twenty years since his death performers and songwriters have come and gone, but none who had the imagination or wit of Roger Miller. Most of the readers of this blog likely are too young to remember when Miller burst on the scene in the 1964 with his off-the-wall repartee’ in songs such as “King of The Road”, “Dang Me”, “Chug A Lug” and “England Swings” although they may well remember having heard the songs. Miller was also a master at finding songs excellent songs from other writers – he was the first to record Bobby Russell’s “Little Green Apples” and he had the first (and best) recording of Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobbie McGee”.

Fads and fashions change, and Miller’s run as a huge chart artist ended after 1973. After a long hiatus, Miller was talked out of retirement during the early 1980s to provide the music for the successful Broadway musical Big River, which was nominated for ten Tony Awards, winning seven (including Best Original Score for Miller). Big River was based on the exploits of Huckleberry Finn from Mark Twain’s novels.

Miller’s songs continue to be performed to this day, Alan Jackson (“Tall, Tall Trees”) and Brooks & Dunn (“Husbands and Wives”) each reaching the number one spot on country charts in during the middle to late 1990s.

Tim and Mollie O’Brien are excellent performers who work in the folk and bluegrass idioms. Tim O’Brien was a member of the highly acclaimed group Hot Rize, plays virtually any instrument with strings and is an accomplished songwriter having written songs recorded by many artists in the country and bluegrass realms. Mollie O’Brien, more folk than bluegrass, is an accomplished singer who has recorded many albums as a solo artist as well as albums with brother Tim and husband Rich Moore.

Tim, Mollie and Rich are from my generation and remember the depth and breadth of the Roger Miller catalog. They felt Miller’s songs would provide a fine unifying theme for a family recording project for their talented offspring. Rather than dictate the agenda, the parents turned their sons and daughters loose to select songs that appealed to them. The end result is a fascinating selection of songs, which includes several selections from Big River, but only one of Roger’s big hits, the ubiquitous “King of The Road”. Trust me, the lack of the big hits does nothing to diminish the quality of the material.

PERSONNEL: Rich Moore (vocals, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, resonator guitar); Tim O’Brien (vocals, electric guitar, banjo, bouzouki, mandolin, ukulele, fiddle, pump organ); Lucy Moore (vocals, keyboards); Joel O’Brien, Jackson O’Brien, Brigid Moore, Mollie O’Brien (vocals); John Gardner (drums).

Rich Moore is Mollie O’ Brien’s husband – Lucy & Brigid are their daughters. Joel & Jackson are Tim O’Brien’s sons. Read more of this post

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Untasted Honey’

The confidence engendered by the success of Walk The Way The Wind Blows enabled Kathy to follow the same path with its successor released in 1987. Allen Reynolds’s clean, crisp production marries tasteful rootsiness with radio appeal, and the songs are all high quality and well suited to Kathy’s voice.

Poetic lead single ‘Goin’ Gone’ headed straight to #1, becoming Kathy’s first chart topper. Reflecting Kathy’s folkier side, it was written by Pat Alger, Fred Koller and Bill Dale, and like her earlier hit ‘Love At The Five And Dime’, it had been recorded by Nanci Griffith on her The Last Of The True Believers. Kathy is a significantly better singer than Nanci, and her version of the song is quite lovely.

The second #1 from the album was ‘Eighteen Wheels And A Dozen Roses’, probably Kathy’s best remembered song and certainly one of her biggest hits. The warmhearted story song (written by Paul and Gene Nelson) has a strong mid-tempo tune and a heartwarming lyric about a trucker headed for a happy retirement travelling America with his beloved wife.

Singer-songwriters Craig Bickhardt and Beth Nielsen Chapman provide vocal harmony on both these singles, as they do on the title track, which Bickhardt wrote with Barry Alfonso. Here, a restless self-styled “free spirit” yearns for the wide open spaces,

Where a soul feels alive
And the untasted honey waits in the hive

It sounds beautiful, although the faithful lover left behind gets short shrift.

Tim O’Brien’s ‘Untold Stories’ made it to #4. An insistent beat backs up a positive lyric about looking past all the hidden hurts of the past in favour of reconciliation with an old love. O’Brien, a fellow West Virginian who was at that time the lead singer of bluegrass band Hot Rize, sings harmony and plays mandolin and acoustic guitar on the track, while The Whites’s Buck White plays piano. O’Brien also wrote ‘Late In The Day’, a highlight of the record with a downbeat lyric about late night loneliness, an acoustic arrangement and perfectly judged vocal. It’s the kind of song Trisha Yearwood would have done well with a few years later, and Kathy’s version shows just how good a singer she is, both technically and as a master of interpretation.

His contribution to the album did not end with these two songs, as he also duets with Kathy on Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet’s beautiful ‘The Battle Hymn Of Love’, a wedding song based on the vows of a marriage ceremony. It was belatedly released as a single in 1990, to promote Kathy’s A Collection Of Hits compilation, and reached the top 10. A slight folk feel is lent by both Tim’s vocal stylings and the use of hammered dulcimer in the pretty arrangement.

The album’s last official single (another to peak at #4) was the melancholy ballad ‘Life As We Knew It’. It is almost a prequel to ‘Untold Stories’ with its story of a woman packing up her things, filled with regret for the life she is leaving behind. It was written by Walter Carter and Fred Koller, and has a particularly beautiful, soaring melody. Jerry Douglas guests on dobro, and Tim O’Brien harmonizes again.

One of Kathy’s favorite writers, Pat Alger, teamed up with Mark D Sanders to write ‘Like A Hurricane’, which picks up the pace a bit. West Virginia references ad lovely instrumentation lift a well-performed but otherwise unremarkable song. The tender love song ‘As Long As I Have A Heart’, written by Dennis Wilson and Don Henry, has a pretty tune and acoustic arangement, and is very good. The delicately sung ‘Every Love’, co-written by folkie Janis Ian with country songwriter Rhonda Kye Fleming, offers an introspective overview of the nature of love, and has a stripped down acoustic backing featuring the harp.

Untasted Honey was Kathy’s best selling album to date, and her first to be certified gold. It is also a very fine record which stands up well after quarter of a century, and contains some of Kathy’s best work. It is available digitally, and can be found cheaply on CD.

Grade: A