My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Iris DeMent

Album Review: Jann Browne – ‘It Only Hurts When I Laugh’

The modest success achieved by the singles from Jann’s debut album was sadly not to be repeated, with neither of the two singles from its successor charting at all. ‘Better Love Next Time’, written by Gail Davies and Paul Kennerley, is a mid-paced song addressed to a departing lover, with pain filled vocals belying the generous lyrics. It’s a pretty decent song, but wasn’t really memorable enough to have an impact. It was followed by the title track, written by hitmaker Kostas and Marty Stuart, which on paper was made for radio and combines an upbeat tune with a heartbreak theme. Coincidentally it would be covered a couple of years later by another of our current spotlight artists. This really ought to have been a hit.

Jann cowrote a pair of songs with Pat Gallagher. ‘Blue Heart In Memphis’ is a country-blues-rocker with a solid groove. The ironic ‘Who’s Gonna Be Your Next Love’ is another up-tempo tune but with a bluegrass feel.

One of my favorite tracks is ‘I Don’t Do Floors’, written by Don Cook and Chick Rains. This is a classic style country shuffle about being over someone and telling him so. The nights of walking the floor are over. The album closes with another outstanding track, ‘Where Nobody Knows My Name’, a ballad written by John Hiatt and Jimmy Tittle about moving on, which has a beautiful melody led by a simple acoustic guitar and a soothing vocal:

Even when the past comes calling
Looking for somebody to blame
I’ll be easing on down the road
Where nobody knows my name

When the burning sun surrenders
Will he still remember me?
I never told him I was going
Out where the wind is blowing free

If he thinks about me tonight
I know he won’t miss the pain
I’ll be taking it down the road
Where nobody knows my name

Almost as good is a lovely version of Nanci Griffith’s wistful ‘I Wish It Would Rain’, which acts as a lyrical counterpoint to the message of the Hiatt song:

Once I had a love from the Georgia pines who only cared for me
I wanna find that love at 22 here at 33
I’ve got a heart on my right and one on my left
And neither suits my needs
Oh, the one I love is a way out west and he never will need me

So I wish it would rain and wash my face clean
I wanna find some dark cloud to hide in here
Oh, love and a memory sparkle like diamonds
When the diamonds fall, they burn like tears …

I’m gonna pack up my two-step shoes and head for the Gulf Coast plains
I wanna walk the streets of my own home town where everybody knows my name
I want to ride the waves down in Galveston when the hurricanes blow in
Cause that Gulf Coast water tastes sweet as wine
When your heart’s rolling home in the wind

A folk-bluegrass arrangement with harmonies from Iris DeMent makes this a delight. Also great is ‘I Knew Enough To Fall In Love With You’, a lovely ballad written by Gary Nicholson and Hank DeVito about finding true love after a hard life, with a very pretty tune – a really sweet love song.

‘My Shoes Keep Walking Back To You’ is an old Bob Wills tune which became a country standard. Jann’s version is excellent and very traditional country, with some very nice fiddle and steel. ‘Where The Sidewalk Ends’ (later cut by George Strait) is a Jim Lauderdale/John Leventhal song on which Lauderdale provides backing vocals.

It is a shame this album did not perform better for Jann, as it is excellent. You can download it from iTunes.

Grade: A

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Album Review: Jann Browne – ‘Tell Me Why’

Released in February 1990, Tell Me Why was Jann’s first album as a solo artist after a decade of paying her dues working the taverns and serving a stint with Asleep At The Wheel. As it happens, Tell Me Why would prove to be Jann’s moist successful album, reaching #46 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, and producing her two most successful singles.

The title track was the second single released on the album reaching #18. The song was written by Gail Davies and “Handsome Harry” Stinson and is a song of doubt with sparkling guitar by some fellow named James Burton.

The next track “Ain’t No Train” was co-written by Jann along with Pat Gallagher. I guess you could call it an up-tempo rocker. Albert Lee plays the lead guitar on this track.

“Til A Tear Becomes A Rose” was written by the husband and wife team of Bill & Sharon Foster. I like Jann’s version, but it would become better known as a duet by Keith Whitley and Lorrie Morgan. James Burton and Byron Berlin are featured in the arrangement. This song could be described as a slight twist on the theme of Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man”

“Louisville” is a mid-tempo shuffle written by Jann along with Pat Gallagher. My understanding is that it was featured in the film Pow Wow Highway, but I’ve not seen the film. This song was the forth single released from the album, but it only reached #75.

“Mexican Wind” was the third album single released from the album. The song is yet another Browne-Gallagher collaboration. The song failed to chart, although it is a very nice ballad about heartache and unrequited love. Emmylou Harris provides some lovely harmonies on this song.

Paul Kennerley wrote the harshly pragmatic “Losing You”, a song about a woman coming to terms with a man soon to be gone.

“You Ain’t Down Home” was the first single from the album, reaching #19. Written by Jamie O’Hara, it was one of the first of his songs (perhaps even the first of his songs) to chart. Although not Jann’s biggest hit, it is the best remembered as country cover bands featured the song for over a decade after its release.

You know all the right people
You wear all the right clothes
You got a snappy little sports car all your own
You got the cool conversation on your high tech telephone
But you got one little problem, baby
You ain’t down him

You ain’t down home where the people got their feet on the ground
Down home where there’s plenty of love to go ’round
You got the cool conversation on your high tech telephone
But you got one little problem, baby
You ain’t down home
You got a brand new Jacuzzi
All your credit cards are gold
There ain’t a high class place in town where you ain’t known
You make it all look impressive, yeah you put on quite a show
But you got one little problem, baby
You ain’t down home
You make it all look so impressive, yeah when you’re showin’ all your dough
But you got one little problem, baby
You ain’t down home

Jann reaches deep into the Harlan Howard song bag for “The One You Slip Around With”, a song that Harlan wrote with his then-wife Jan Howard. This song would prove to be Jan Howard’s first major hit in 1959. Jann gives the song the western swing treatment.

The “Queen of Rockabilly”, Wanda Jackson, joins Jann on “I Forgot More (Than You’ll Ever Know) . Written by Cecil Null, the song was a #1 hit for the ill-fated Davis Sisters (a car crash took the life of Betty Jack Davis while the song was still on the charts; Skeeter Davis eventually resumed her career after recovering from her injuries.

Members of “New Grass Revival” join Jann on “Lovebird”, a gentle mid-tempo ballad in which Jann pines for the love of a man who has left her. Iris DeMent provided the high harmonies on this song.

I like Jann Browne a lot, although she is not possessed of the best voice. Her musical tastes and sensitivities make up for much of the missing power in her voice, that plus her ability to select accompanying musicians make all of her recording worthwhile.

This is not her best album (her later Buck Owens tribute deserves that honor), but it is a good album – B+

Occasional Hope’s top 10 albums of 2016

real-country-musicThere has been some excellent country music released this year, admittedly mostly away from the major labels. Just missing my cut were strong comebacks from Loretta Lynn and Lorrie Morgan; glorious Western Swing from the Time Jumpers; sizzling bluegrass from Rhonda Vincent and her band; and a pair of very promising debuts from Mo Pitney and William Michael Morgan.

10 – Bradley Walker – Call Me Old Fashioned
Traditional country meets gospel from an underrated singer.

Best tracks: ‘His Memory Walks On Water’; ‘Why Me’; ‘Sinners Only’; ‘In The Time That You Gave Me’.

big-day-in-a-small-toen9 – Brandy Clark – Big Day In A Small Town

Like Miranda Lambert’s latest, this album married outstanding storytelling and songwriting, good vocals and overbearing production. But the songs here are so strong that the end result still made it into my top 10.

Best tracks: ‘Since You’ve Gone To Heaven’; ‘Three Kids, No Husband’; ‘Homecoming Queen’.

8 – Cody Jinks – I’m Not The Devil

His deep voices tackles themes of darkness versus light, on some very strong songs.

Best tracks: ‘The Same’; ‘I’m Not The Devil’; ‘Grey’.

7 – Jamie Richards – Latest And Greatest

Warm, inviting vocals and excellent songs with a real gift for melody.
Best tracks: ‘I’ll Have Another’; ‘I’m Not Drinkin’; ‘Last Call’; ‘Easier By Now’.

for-the-good-times

6 –Willie Nelson – For The Good Times: A Tribute To Ray Price

As the veterans of country music continue to pass away, it’s a comfort to see that at 83, Willie Nelson is still going strong. His tribute to the late Ray Price, with the help on several tracks of The Time Jumpers, was a delightful reminder of some of the best country songs ever written.

Best tracks: ‘Heartaches By The Number’; ‘Crazy Arms’; ‘Invitation To The Blues’.

5 – Dallas Wayne – Songs The Jukebox Taught Me

The deep voiced singer’s Heart of Texas debut is a honky tonk joy.
Best tracks: ‘No Relief In Sight’; ‘Eleven Roses’; ‘She Always Got What She Wanted’.

4 – Mark Chesnutt – Tradition Lives

A solid return from the 90s star with some excellent songs. It feels as if the last 20 years never happened.

Best tracks: ‘Is It Still Cheating’; ‘So You Can’t Hurt Me Anymore’; ‘Neither Did I’.

hymns3 – Joey + Rory – Hymns That Are Important To Us

A final heartbreaking labor of love for the duo recorded during the last stages of Joey’s illness. Joey’s beautiful voice and inspirational spirit are showcased for the last time.
Best tracks: ‘Softly And Tenderly’; ‘When I’m Gone’; ‘I Surrender All’.

2 – John Prine – For Better, Or Worse

I adored John Prine’s collection of classic country duets on the topic of marriage, and said when I reviewed it that it was set to be my favourite of the year. I was almost right. It really is a delightful record – great songs, lovely arrangements, and outstanding vocals from the ladies counterpointing Prine’s gruff emotion.

Best tracks: ‘Fifteen Years Ago’ (with Lee Ann Womack); ‘Look At Us’ (with Morgane Stapleton); ‘Color Of The Blues’ (with Susan Tedeschi); ‘Cold Cold Heart’ (with Miranda Lambert); ‘Dreaming My Dreams With You’ (with Kathy Mattea); ‘Mr And Mrs Used To Be’ (with Iris De Ment).

1 – Gene Watson – ‘Real. Country. Music

While Willie Nelson is still great, his voice is showing signs of age. The wonderful Gene Watson is still at the peak of his powers in his 70s, and his skill at picking excellent material hasn’t faltered either. His latest album reminds younger performers what real country music is all about.

Best tracks: ‘Couldn’t Love Have Picked A Better Place To Die’; ‘Bitter They Are, Harder They Fall’; ‘When A Man Can’t Get A Woman Off His Mind’; ‘A Bridge That Just Won’t Burn’; ‘Ashes To Ashes’; ‘She Never Got Me Over You’.

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘1996’

MI0000090327-1Merle Haggard’s tenure with Curb came to an end with the release of 1996. While on the surface, this album had the same austere packaging as 1994, the reality is that the packaging was much more elaborate including liner note and full song lyrics. Unfortunately Curb did less than nothing to promote the album.

As for the music inside, 1996 contained many fine songs although proved to be the first Merle Haggard album not to chart. Haggard’s sound becomes a little more jazz-oriented than the earlier Curb albums and there are some guests to liven up the proceedings.

The album opens with “Sin City Blues” written by Merle, Joe Manuel and Merle’s last wife Theresa. The track has a boisterous honky-tonk blues arrangement somewhat reminiscent of “Living With The Shades Pulled Down’).

Next up is the Iris Dement composition “No Time To Cry” a stoic look at some of the problems associated with growing older. Iris plays piano on this track.

My father died a year ago today.

The rooster started crowing when they carried Dad away.

There beside my mother, in the living room, I stood,

With my brothers and my sisters, knowing Dad was gone for good.
Well, I stayed at home just long enough,

To lay him in the ground and then I,

Caught a plane to do a show up north in Detroit town.

Because I’m older now and I’ve got no time to cry.

Next up is “Beer Can Hill”, a Haggard & Abe Manuel collaboration about growing up and honky-tonkin’ in Bakersfield. Merle is joined by Dwight Yoakam, Buck Owens and Bob Teague on this track, with Dawn Sears adding harmony vocals.

Well, I learned how to walk and I learned how to run in Bakersfield

Should’ve done time over things I’d done in Bakersfield

I tasted my first taste of romance in Bakersfield

I learned how to fight and I learned how to dance in Bakersfield
Dancin’ on Beer Can Hill

Overlookin’ Bakersfield

Remembering my first thrill
Dancin’ on Beer Can Hill

Merle’s “Truck Drivers’ Blues” is a pretty standard county blues about the men who drive trucks for a living whereas Merle’s “Too Many Highways” deals with the choices a trucker and his family make – his choice of career and his wife’s choice to stick with him

Too many highways
Too many byways
Too many canyons
And too many turns
Too many bright lights
Too many long nights
And she’s one bridge I don’t want to burn.

“Five Days a Week” is Merle retelling the story he told in an earlier song “Working Man Blues”. It is a good song, but hardly essential.

“Kids Get Lonesome Too” sounds like it’s a song about kids but Haggard and co-writer Lou Bradley have something additional in mind, with the song’s narrator actually directing the song at his girlfriend or wife.

Merle and ex-wife Bonnie Owens collaborated on “If Anyone Ought to Know”, an older song from 1976 revived on this album. I cannot recall if Merle recorded this earlier, but I do regard this as good album filler.

“Untanglin’ My Mind” is a Merle Haggard song that Clint Black partially rewrote before recording it and taking it to #4. Clint’s lyric changes really neither added nor subtracted from the song’s merits. It’s a very good song. Haggard assisted Johnny Paycheck on his classic album Mr. Hag Told My Story. Here, Mr. Paycheck returns the favor:

And I’m sure no one will wonder where I’ve gone to,
But if anyone should ask from time to time
Tell ’em that you finally drove me crazy,
And I’m somewhere untanglin’ my mind.

And for what it’s worth I prefer Haggard’s recording to that of Clint Black .

The album ends with the very philosophical “Winds of Change”, Haggard’s most environmentally conscious song. Merle is assisted by John (“Seminole Wind”) Anderson on this song.

With my ears I have heard the eagle call my name
He flew in from the night to talk to me
We talked about his freedom and he spoke with great concern
He said, “Mother earth is aging rapidly”

He said, “The winds of change are blowing
And the land is disappearing more each day
Farewell my son, I must be going”
He turned and then forever flew away

With my eyes I have seen pretty mountain streams
Change from crystal clear to factory brown
The old bear shook his herd and through his eyes
He said, “I guess there’s no more salmon to be found”

He said, “The winds of change are blowing”
Telling me that I can’t stay
Farewell my friend, I must be going
He turned and then forever walked away

I’ve lived in the land where the wolf mistrusted me
He taught me that the stronger shall survive
Even in our world today, the weaker are the prey
And if we don’t fight for our planet she will die

And the winds of change keep blowing
Yet we turn the other way
If we don’t stop the wrong we’re doing
Then mother earth will surely pass away

This wouldn’t qualify as one of Merle’s fifteen or twenty best albums, but it is a very good album, with perceptive lyrics, excellent guest artists and solid instrumentation. I can’t decide whether or not this is a A- or a B+, but in memory of Merle’s recent passing I’ll go with the A-.

Classic Rewind: Iris DeMent – ‘My Life’

Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume III’

will the circle 317 years passed between the original Will The Circle Be Unbroken and Volume II. 13 years after that, in 2002, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band decided it was time for a third instalment, which they released on Capitol. It did not make as much of a stir as either of the previous instalments, but is still a pretty solid collection of bluegrass and oldtime music with some guests old and new.

The opening ‘Take Me In Your Lifeboat’ is beaty bluegrass gospel performed with Del McCoury and his sons. The McCourys are back on the secular ‘Love Please Come Home’, which is well done but not memorable.

I preferred the contributions from bluegrass great Jimmy Martin (1927-2005), who had taken part in both previous versions, and who belies his age with confident upbeat performances here. He sings his own ‘Hold Whatcha Got’ (which Ricky Skaggs had made into a hit in the late 80s), and also the lively ‘Save It, Save It’.

In contrast, June Carter Cash (1929-2003) takes the lead vocal on the Carter Family’s ‘Diamonds In The Rough’, with Earl Scruggs on banjo. She does not sound at all well, and indeed died the following year. Although Johnny Cash (1932-2003) was also in poor health, he sounds much better than his wife on a self-penned tribute to the late Maybelle and Sara Carter, ‘Tears In The Holston River.

Willie Nelson, not involved in previous versions, gets two cuts here. Willie sounds good on ‘Goodnight Irene’, but the tracks is irredeemably ruined by the presence of duet partner Tom Petty. Petty is out of tune and the harmony is embarrassingly dissonant. A cheery Nelson version of ‘Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms’ is better although it does feel a bit perfunctory.

Dwight Yoakam (another newcomer to the series) is great on his two tracks. He shows his Kentucky roots on the mournful and authentic ‘Some Dark Holler’. He is outstanding on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ ‘Wheels’, which he makes sound like. Vince Gill’s ‘All Prayed Up’ is an excellent piece of up-tempo bluegrass gospel.

Emmylou Harris sings her ex-husband Paul Kennerley’s ‘I’ll Be Faithful To You’, a sweet declaration of eternal love, exquisitely. She also duets with Matraca Berg (Mrs Jeff Hanna) on Berg’s folk-styleode to the river running through Nashville, ‘Oh Cumberland’. Alison Krauss exercises her angelic tones on ‘Catfish John’.

Iris Dement sings beautifully on her own nostalgic ‘Mama’s Opry’. Ricky Skaggs and Rodney Dillard team up for the pacy folk of ‘There Is A Time’. Band members’sons Jaime Hanna and Jonathan McEuen (who were the duo Hanna-McEuen at the time) are a bit limp for me on ‘The Lowlands’, a folky Gary Scruggs song.

Sam Bush takes it high mountain lonesome on Carter Stanley’s ‘Lonesome River’. ‘Milk Cow Blues’ is taken back to its blues roots and features Josh Graves and Doc Watson. Watson also sings the traditional ‘I Am A Pilgrim’. More contemporary is ‘I Find Jesus’, penned by Jimmy Ibbotson. ‘Roll The Stone Away’ (written by Jeff Hanna with Marcus Hummon) uses religious imagery but it is a bit dull. The Nashville Bluegrass Band take on A. P. Carter’s ‘I Know What It Means To Be Lonesome which is OK.

Gravel-voiced bluesman Taj Mahal and legendary fiddler Vassar Clements guest on the good-humored ‘Fishin’ Blues, which is mildly amusing. Taj Mahal and Alison Krauss guest on this album’s take on the title song which falls rather flat with Alison sounding a bit squeaky and therest of them dull and lifeless.

This album lacks the groundbreaking nature of Volume I, and the cosy atmosphere of either previous set, making more of a standard collection of older material. There are definitely some tracks well worth hearing, and I’d still be interested if there was a Volume 4.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Josh Turner – ‘Punching Bag’

Josh Turner’s deep burnished baritone is one of the most distinctive on today’s country radio, but his choice of songs has sometimes let him down.  Happily, this time he has found a better selection of material than on his last effort, the disappointingly pedestrian Haywire, much of it written or co-written by the artist.  Frank Rogers’ attractive production puts the vocals at the heart of the record, in a restrained but firmly country setting.

A silly novelty spoken introduction on a boxing match theme by real-life ring announcer Michael Buffer leads into the title track, written by Josh with Pat McLaughlin.  The song itself is thankfully much better, a well-written driving up-tempo number which uses boxing effectively as a metaphor about dealing with difficulties in life, specifically heartbreak:

She broke her promise and now she’s gonna leave me
She floated like a butterfly, it stung me like a bee
She took off the gloves and took a cheap shot
And she left me hanging in a pretty tough spot
I’m a punching bag

This is great fun and it could be a good single choice with obvious video possibilities.  It is certainly more interesting than Josh’s current top 20 hit, the unexciting ‘Time Is Love’, which is pleasant listening but nothing more.

Josh teamed up with Mark Narmore to write two songs.  The better of these is the very good ‘Cold Shoulder’, the plaint of a bewildered man struggling to understand why his wife is freezing him out when he has done nothing wrong.  Some lovely steel guitar from Steve Hinson dominates the backing, while the vocal is excellent.  ‘Good Problem’ is less memorable but still a pretty good song about a man getting ready to settle down to married life and give up his freedom with no regret, with an interesting arrangement.

‘Find Me A Baby’, written by Josh with Frank Rogers, is another good-sounding take on finding true love, but this time clearly autobiographical drawing its details from Josh’s real life and featuring his wife Jennifer and their small children on faintly embarrassing “na-na-na”s, something I normally hate, but the good humor of the song as a whole just about carries it off.

Ben Hayslip is not a bad writer when separated from his Peach Picker friends, and he helped Josh with ‘Left Hand Man’ (yet another take on committing to getting married but one which benefits from a playfully charming arrangement) and the lyrically slight but catchily melodic ‘Whatcha Reckon’.

Josh alone wrote the album’s standout track, the mournful ‘Pallbearer’.  Iris DeMent adds a harmony vocal and Marty Stuart plays mandolin on this take on love lost for good:

She don’t call and she don’t try to
And my prayin’ can’t bring her back
My eyes are wide open watchin’ my future
My eyes are wide open watching my future fade to black
I’m like a lonesome pallbearer
Walkin’ down the aisle
Travelin’ to the graveyard counting down the miles
With every earth filled shovel they dig that eternal bed
I’m like a lonesome pallbearer carrying the dead

I’ve pondered trading places with the man layin’ in that hearse
I try to hold my head up but her leavin’ is like a curse

Josh’s deep bass-baritone has a natural gravitas showcased at its best on serious songs like this with emotional weight rather than the more frivolous fare radio prefers.

Ricky Skaggs guests on the religious ‘For The Love Of God’, contributing mandolin, an instrument described as a cello banjo and harmonies to the bright acoustic treatment of a heartfelt if slightly moralistic song about living the right way and for the right reasons.  This was another solo composition by Josh.

Also very well done is the album’s other religious song, ‘I Was There’, written by Tim Menzies and Monty Criswell, where Josh reverently portrays the voice of God.

‘Deeper Than My Love’ is a nice love song written by Chris Stapleton and Lee Thomas Miller with some great growly bass vocals from Josh and cool banked backing vocals which give the track a life and individuality perhaps missing in the relatively obvious lyrics.

The redundant deluxe version  just adds live versions of ‘Punching Bag’ and ‘Time Is Love’ and some of Josh’s bigger past hits, which add little to the recorded versions.

Overall this is an enjoyable album which is a definite step back in the right direction after Haywire.  Some of the material is still lacking in lyrical depth, with the melodies generally stronger, but the whole package is solid.

Grade: B+

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: Sunny Sweeney – ‘Heartbreaker’s Hall Of Fame’

Sunny Sweeney began her performing career as a student of improv comedy in New York City.  Fortunately for country music fans, her fellow classmates encouraged her to first pursue a career in music.  After that, Sunny retreated to her Texas hometown, before she made the move to Austin and began playing the local honky tonk circuit.  She was soon writing her own songs and landed a spot on an international tour with Dwight Yoakam.  In 2007, Big Machine Records signed Sweeney to the label and issued her first album, Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame.  Three singles were released, all of which failed to chart.

Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame was recorded at Cherry Ridge Studio in Floresville, Texas, far from Music Row.  It’s no wonder the set failed to generate any radio hits given the album’s overall sound and running themes.  That she really honed her chops playing the honky tonks is evident in both the aesthetic and the themes present in the lyrics here as Texas roadhouse country seems to the most common recurring musical theme among a littering of influences of honky-tonk, traditional country, and embracing Nashville renegades.

‘Refresh My Memory’ is a straight-up country, drown-in-your-sorrows number where the narrator is returning to one of her ex-boyfriends because she knows he’ll at least light a spark in her, even if she knows he’s wrong for her.  It’s been an awful long time since she felt the spark this guy brings to her, or perhaps since she’s felt any sparks at all, and here she implores him to jog her memory a bit

There are plenty of two-steps and genuine barroom honky-tonk with tracks like ‘East Texas Pines’, a rocking lament to days gone by and your current location.  The album’s title track was perhaps its best shot at a mainstream country radio hit, but even it was a long shot. Sunny’s charming drawl, coupled with layers of steel guitar, walking bass lines, and some saucy harmonica playing, keep it firmly rooted in traditional country; radical, you know.  ‘If I Could’ moves at breakneck speed – and shows Sunny to be capable as an auctioneer if nothing else – in a knee-slapping good time of a song.

Proving Sweeney to be a singer’s singer – a characteristic that almost always means quality but also means no commercial appeal for some reason – this album has more than its share of insider songs about the music industry, and even more that just plain espouse the virtues and importance of music to the mind and soul.  ‘Next Big Nothing’ tells of a singer’s struggles and frustrations with the slow pace of success while ‘Slow Swinging Western Tunes’ sings both the praises and the curses of sweet dance hall numbers – ‘play them in reverse and you get yourself a broken heart’.

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The 25 best albums of the decade

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been compiling a list of our favorite albums of the past decade. We each prepared a list of our 10 favorites, and then we attempted to trim the combined list down to 25 and rank them. There was surprisingly little overlap, and I think it’s safe to say that the final list is quite different from what any of us would have come up with individually. So, without further ado, here are the 25 best albums of the decade, as we see it:

25. Elizabeth Cook — Hey Y’all (Warner Bros, 2002)

Elizabeth Cook was too country for country even in 2002 with her engaging major-label debut. My favourite track is ‘You Move Too Fast’, followed by the charming ‘Everyday Sunshine’, the comparison of her career to that of ‘Dolly’, the sweet ‘Mama, You Wanted To Be A Singer Too’, the singalong about the ‘Stupid Things’ love will make you do, and the irrepressibly optimistic ‘God’s Got A Plan’. — Occasional Hope

24. Wynonna — Her Story: Scenes From a Lifetime (Mercury/Curb, 2005)

Wynonna took an autobiographical approach to her 2005 tour, and the show was filmed and recorded for a live DVD/CD combo set. Beginning with her musical journey as one half of The Judds, Wynonna affectionately recalls her days on the road with her Mom, before moving on to the solo side of her music career, revisiting classic Judds hits like ‘Girls Night Out’ and ‘Love Can Build a Bridge’. The banter in between the songs is reason enough to own the set, but Wynonna’s live take on her own songs like ‘That Was Yesterday’, ‘I Want To Know What love Is’, and ‘Is It Over Yet’ are flawless. — J.R.

23. Bobby Pinson — Man Like Me (RCA, 2005)

This was the richest debut album of the decade, although few record buyers agreed, and singer-songwriter Bobby soon lost his deal with RCA. His gravelly voice had genuine character and emotional depth; perhaps it was too much of an acquired taste for radio beyond one minor hit single. Great overlooked tracks include the reflective title track, showing how hard experiences made the man, the testimony of a sinner saved by a woman’s love in ‘One More Believer’, ‘Ford Fairlane’, perhaps my favorite song of all time about a car, and the wry ‘Started A Band’ about struggling to make it as a musician. — Occasional Hope

22. Brad Paisley — Time Well Wasted (Arista, 2005)

After three promising but somewhat uneven albums, things finally came together with Paisley’s fourth release. This was the first album he released that I felt compelled to buy. It opens with the obligatory novelty tune (“Alcohol”) but it also contains one of the strongest entries in his catalog to date, “When I Get Where I’m Going” which features beautiful harmony vocals by Dolly Parton. — Razor X

21. Sugarland — Love On The Inside (Mercury, 2007)

Masterpiece. That’s the best word I can find to decribe this album. But mere words cannot begin to explain how much I love this album, or how many times I’ve played it in the past 18 months. Jennifer Nettles said it was a set of songs that would play well from ‘Saturday night to Sunday morning’, but I have to disagree. I can’t think of any day of the week, or any time of day this near-perfect set doesn’t play well. With sharp songwriting set among a myriad of subjects, while Nettles wraps her distinctive pipes around the always-catchy lyrics, Love On The Inside is still the best studio album I’ve heard in my years listening to country music, with songs like ‘Genevieve’, ‘Very Last Country Song’, and ‘Fall Into Me’ all getting hundreds of spins in my library. I’ve liked all the singles sent to radio too. — J.R.

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