My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: James Slater

Album Review – Lucy Hale – ‘Road Between’

Lucy-Hale-Road-Between-2014-1200x1200As predicted by Bob McDill twenty years ago, it’s not that uncommon anymore for artists to go country, especially those known for other career aspirations. It’s particularly true for television actresses, with Pretty Little Liars star Lucy Hale adding her name to the growing list that includes Jana Kramer and Julianne Hough.

Hale is no different than her contemporaries, having to fight to earn her country credentials just like Kramer and Hough before her. With ample fiddle and a cool yet catchy drumbeat, she sets off on the right foot with “You Sound Good To Me,” a sunny uptempo number written by Ashley Gorley, Luke Laird, and Hillary Lindsey. Hale brings a natural effervescence to the track that works well.

Hale brings a sinister vibe to “Goodbye Gone,” a dusty banjo-infused rocker written by J.T. Harding, Melissa Peirce and Andy Dodd. She may be caught up in the all-to-familiar tale of a woman ending things with her man, but Hale brings ferocity to the proceedings that help sell the track beautifully.

While the electric guitars may come on a little thick on “Lie A Little Better,” Hale’s confident vocal cuts through the noise just enough that isn’t as intrusive as it could be. “Kiss Me” is a lot softer and allows Hale the room to breathe and give a tender vocal that’s quite endearing. With neither of the songs overwhelm lyrically, Hale saves the day by injecting the right amounts of personality into her vocal performances. “Love Tonight” is another similar song in nature, but the handclaps in the melody are a bit addicting and make up for any weaknesses in the lyric.

“From the Backseat” is a nice mid-tempo number sonically reminiscent of Sara Evans’ Restless album written by Mike Daly, Jimmy Robbins, and Nicolle Clawson. The track had me until it went flavorless on the chorus, which employs the wall-of-sound production technique so much that it intrudes on the uniqueness of the song and Hale’s vocal.

The truest test for any singer on a debut album is the moments where the production is left sparse, where any vocal limitations will stand out like a sore thumb. Hale’s moment comes on Tom Douglas, James Slater, and Lindsey’s “Nervous Girls” and she passes with flying colors. The production may still lean country-pop, but she proves quite nicely that she can hold her own against any of her contemporaries.

Joe Nichols, back in traditional country mode vocally, joins Hale for “Red Dress,” a somewhat awkward moment that finds the two playing out the male and female aspects of a relationship. Kacey Musgraves co-wrote “That’s What I Call Crazy” and proves she’s adept at writing both artistic and commercially viable numbers. Hale’s only co-write comes in album closer “Just Another Song” and it’s one of the strongest numbers on the album thanks to a co-writing credit by Catt Gravitt, who helped write some of the best numbers on Kramer’s debut two years ago.

Listening to “Just Another Song” makes one wish Gravitt had contributed more here, as she thrives in this type of setting, writing songs for young female artists who may be looking for a voice. While there’s little revelatory about Road Between, it does showcase a budding talent that has the goods to extend her television career into one involving music. Hopefully she’ll be allowed to record a bit more substantive material going forward (really, how many numbers about kissing does one need on an eleven song album?) and further develop the strong potential she showcases on Road Between.

Grade: B+

Album Review – Heidi Feek – ‘The Only’

Heidi-Feek-The-OnlyI became a fan of Heidi Feek after her profile during a season one episode of The Joey + Rory Show. During the segment, she introduced the world to her then fiancé and spoke about her love of listening to vinyl records. She’s since become a regular fixture on her parents’ television show, providing background vocals during performances and singing Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight” and Hank Williams’ “Kaw-Lija” during Crosley Radio Vinyl Rewind pieces.

Like her parents Feek is a throwback to a simpler era making it easy to forget she’s in her mid-twenties, around my age. She’s a great vocalist, with a distinctively bluesy twang not far removed from Cline or torch singer Mandy Barnett. I’ve been anticipating a full-length album since that initial appearance, and while I didn’t buy her 2010 EP Eden I was quick to acquire a copy of The Only when the release was announced in late August.

Needless to say, I’m not disappointed. Feek’s first full-length album is a wonderful showcase for her distinct stylings and a fine introduction to who she is as an artist. The album blasts off with the rockin’ “I Like The Way,” an excellent electric guitar drenched number reminiscent of Dwight Yoakam, and the first of four tracks she penned solely with her father Rory. Reverb heavy “I Didn’t Know About You” (co-written by Feek, her father, and James Slater) continues in a similar uptempo vein, transporting Feek back to the Sun Records era of the 1950s while also updating that sound to keep the track modern and fresh. Similarly to “I Like The Way,” “I Don’t Know About You” succeeds on its electric guitar centric sound, giving Feek some muscle behind her energetic vocal.

“57 Bel Air,” another father daughter co-write, is not only the best of the uptempo numbers, and the strongest track on the whole project and the one song I can’t wait to hear each time I listen to the album. It picks up on the electric guitar heavy sound that threads together the uptempo numbers, but adds a distinctive drum beat that elevates the track above the rest. “57 Bel Air,” in which Feek compares her current relationship to the classic car, does the best job of maintaining the rock sound Feek loves while also keeping the track firmly within the realms of her country roots.

As a fan of Feek I was excited to hear her trademark ballads, the side of her musical personality I was most familiar with going in. Feek’s style is best summed up when she’s inspired by Cline, as she shows on “One Night With You,” a co-write with her dad, Austin Manual, and Aaron Carnahan and “There Lives A Fool,” which her dad co-wrote with Sara Evans about sixteen years ago. Both numbers are ripe with bluesy elements that allow Feek to shine vocally, although a chaotic guitar solo suffocates the end of “One Night With You.” The gorgeously understated opening of “There Lives A Fool,” featuring Feek’s vocal backed solely by an upright bass, showcases her impressive range and is one of album’s standout moments.

I also really enjoy “Someday Somebody,” the album’s first single and a co-write between Feek and her dad. The song takes a modern approach to her bluesy side with distinctive electric guitar riffs infused with a steady drumbeat framing her straightforward vocal. Even more contemporary is the title track (which Feek penned solo), a 90s country inspired ballad about a woman telling her man he isn’t the end of the line in terms of relationships. I love how the drums and guitars work together to create a gentle ease that helps guide the song along. “Berlin,” co-written by Feek, her dad, and Slater, follows the same path although it’s far more addicting with the wonderful ‘we hold on/we let go/body and soul/still I love you’ refrain keeping it memorable.

By all accounts, The Only is a solid album, although it didn’t provide the listening experience I was hoping for despite some truly outstanding numbers. There aren’t any clunkers on the project (not even a very atypical cover of “Heartbreak Hotel” that shows off Feek’s interpretation skills) but the production is too heavy handed at times, giving the album a sense of sameness that grows tiring after hearing just a few tracks. But The Only isn’t a bad album by any means, and well worth checking out.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Jamey Johnson – ‘That Lonesome Song’

The chequered career of Jamey Johnson has been recounted many times by now. He started out with the sentimental hit single ‘The Dollar’ on BNA in 2006. The solid album of the same title (produced by the estimable Buddy Cannon) was a fine and under-rated record (with some flaws), but the label made a catastrophic choice of follow-up single, the stupid ‘Rebelicious’ (along the same lines as the worst song Jamey has ever been involved in writing, Trace Adkins’s horrible hit ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’). When this failed to chart at all, Jamey was dropped by the label, coinciding with the failure of his marriage, and he descended into a spiral of despair. The artistic legacy of this time was the body of songs which make up the magisterial That Lonesome Song and provided an unlikely comeback for Jamey.

The bad times inspired Jamey’s songwriting to take a new, devastatingly honest, turn. He was getting a number of cuts by other artists, ranging from the aforementioned ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’ to George Strait’s hit ‘Give it Away’. He recorded the bulk of That Lonesome Song on his own, with his band, the Kent Hardly Playboys, credited as producers, and released it himself digitally in 2007. Mercury Records’ Luke Lewis knew a good thing when he heard it, and signed Jamey to a new deal the following year, re-releasing That Lonesome Song with a couple of track changes.

Jamey was responsible for writing a dozen of the fourteen songs, the quality of which is consistently high. Jamey’s voice does not have the greatest range, but his rough-edged voice is capable of conveying real emotional depth, as he does to devastating effect on most of the songs here. The overall effect is of a man baring his soul to the world.

The moving ‘In Color’ became Jamey’s most successful single, peaking at #9 in January 2009, and winning various nominations as Song or Single of the Year. Beautifully constructed by Jamey with his co-writers, James Otto and Lee Thomas Miller, it was originally pitched to Trace Adkins, who generously relinquished it when Jamey signed his new deal. The deeply affecting story frames an old man’s recollections by having him showing old black and white photographs to his grandson, showing his childhood struggles in the Depression, the terrors of war service, and finally the happy memories of a wedding day, telling the boy how much more intense each experience was in real life:

And if it looks like we were scared to death
Like a couple of kids trying to save each other
You should’ve seen it in color

The emotional force of the song is gradually built up through the three stories. Radio-only listeners may have got a somewhat misleading impression of Jamey as an artist, based on this and ‘The Dollar’.

If the album has a fault, it lies for me in the sometimes self-indulgent snippets of talk and laughter between some of the tracks. It opens with the least objectionable of these, a slightly contrived introduction which purports to reveal Jamey released from prison, leading both literally and thematically into the outstanding ‘High Cost Of Living’, which he wrote with James Slater. While it was not directly autobiographical, the emotional underpinning of the story recounted here was undoubtedly inspired by Jamey’s descent following the loss of his original record deal and the failure of his marriage. Dark and uncompromising, this frank confession of addiction, sin and loss, and the hard price the protagonist ends up paying as he comes to realize,

The high cost of living ain’t nothing like the cost of living high

is extraordinarily intense, and one of the finest songs written in the past decade. With its reference to exchanging his home and wife “for cocaine and a whore”, this was always a risky choice as a single given the increasingly family-friendly nature of country radio, and although it charted briefly, it peaked at #34.

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Album Review: Catherine Britt – ‘Catherine Britt’

Australian-born Catherine Britt is one of those artists whose careers never quite took off in the US, despite an abundance of talent. Her debut single ‘The Upside Of Being Down’ was only a very minor hit, and Too Far Gone, the excellent album she recorded in Nashville for RCA, was only released in Australia. A subsequent album Little Wildflower, also recorded in Nashville, was not quite as good.

Catherine has now returned to her homeland, and reunited with her former producer Bill Chambers, who has served as her mentor since she was a precociously talented eleven-year-old. He is assisted on this record by his son-in-law Shane Nicholson, and together they have made an album which is a little closer to Americana than straight country. Catherine is a fine songwriter and has written or co-written every track here.

Not everything here works for me. I didn’t really enjoy the opening track ‘I Want You Back’, written with producer Bill Chambers, which I thought was well-written lyrically but surprisingly rock sounding and lacking much of a melody. I liked even less the over-produced and processed ‘Under My Thumb’, written with fellow Australians Morgan Evans and Mark Wells. Happily these tracks proved to be in the minority.

Catherine’s solo composition ‘Holy River’ is a more effective stripped down traditional blues groove set to only Bill Chambers’ dobro, which I liked a lot. Also blues-based is the wailing ‘Lonely’, written with Chris Stapleton (late of the SteelDrivers), where she compares her emotions to those of a train.

Better still is the charming ‘Sleepy Town’, the most deeply rooted country of all the tracks here, which sounds as though it might be a traditional number, with its lilting melody and folk-style lyrics, with the protagonist talking wistfully of returning home to where her parents are buried. This and ‘Lonely’ are the only tracks to feature fiddle. The best song is a proper studio version of the lovely ‘Sweet Emmylou’, which Catherine wrote with Rory Lee Feek. She included a demo version as a bonus track on her last release, and the song has also been cut by Joey + Rory. Catherine’s wistful version here is beautiful and well worth hearing, although I marginally prefer the Joey + Rory version.

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Our Grammy predictions

The 52nd annual Grammy Awards show airs January 31, 2010 at 8 p.m. on CBS.

Earlier we told you who we’d each like to see winning in the country categories this year. Now it’s time to go out on a limb and say who we expect to win. We didn’t do very well last time, due to collectively underestimating the CMA voters’ enthrallment to commercial success.

Best Male Country Vocal Performance
Trace Adkins – ‘All I Ask For Anymore’: Chris
Billy Currington – ‘People Are Crazy’
Jamey Johnson – ‘High Cost Of Living’: Jordan Stacey, Occasional Hope, Razor X
George Strait – ‘Living For The Night’: J.R. Journey
Keith Urban – ‘Sweet Thing’

Jordan: The Grammys always go for this type of song: critically acclaimed, sold a lot of albums, and has been listed in best of lists all year. The Grammy’s won’t ignore Jamey Johnson.
Razor: While I like the Trace Adkins song very much, I think the award for Male Vocal Performance will – and should – go to Jamey Johnson. It received a tepid response from country radio, but the Grammy’s are somewhat less inhibited and Puritanical in their selections. This was a true highlight of 2009, and I expect that the Grammy voters will recognize that and reward the song appropriately.
OH: See my comments below on Song. I believe Jamey will win at least one of these categories, but possibly not both.
J.R.: Strait is long overdue for a string of trophies from the Grammy’s. His first-ever statuette came from the NARAS last year in the Best Country Album race, and I think he’ll add to his collection this year.

Best Female Country Vocal Performance
Miranda Lambert – ‘Dead Flowers’
Martina McBride – ‘I Just Call You Mine’
Taylor Swift – ‘White Horse’: J.R. Journey, Occasional Hope
Carrie Underwood – ‘Just A Dream’: Chris, Jordan Stacey, Razor X
Lee Ann Womack – ‘Solitary Thinkin”

Razor: ‘Just A Dream’ and ‘White Horse’ are the only two songs in this category that can legitimately be called hits. It would be a further travesty for Taylor Swift to win over Carrie in a vocal performance categeory. The Grammy’s are more prone than the CMAs or ACMs to reward artistry over commercial success. While ‘Just A Dream’ is no artistic masterpiece, Carrie is hands down the superior vocalist.
OH: The Grammy voters don’t always care if something’s a hit, but nothing here is sufficiently artistically compelling to win on that account. I agree it’s between Taylor and Carrie, and travesty or not, I think Taylor will carry it on her current awards and commercial momentum.
J.R.: Taylor is white hot right now, pardon the pun. Grammy voters have traditionally either went for tracks that make strong artistic statements or the flavor of the day. This year, with nothing really standing out from the pack as brilliant in this category, I think name-recognition will swing it for Swift.
Jordan: They seem to like Carrie, and it’s a much stronger song than ‘Last Name, so she will probably walk away with this one.

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Our Grammy picks

Yes, it’s awards time again, with the 2010 Grammy’s due to be handed out on January 31 this year.

Who do we want to win this time around?

Best Male Country Vocal Performance
Trace Adkins – ‘All I Ask For Anymore’: Chris, Jordan Stacey, J.R. Journey, Occasional Hope
Billy Currington – ‘People Are Crazy’
Jamey Johnson – ‘High Cost Of Living’: Razor X
George Strait – ‘Living For The Night’
Keith Urban – ‘Sweet Thing’

Jordan: Trace gives one of his best vocal performances on record, on an above average song. Among the nominees it fits the “Vocal Performance” part the best.
Razor: While I like the Trace Adkins song very much, I think the award for Male Vocal Performance should go to Jamey Johnson. This was a true highlight of 2009.
OH: I think Jamey’s song is better, but Trace’s vocal is outstanding. I’d be really happy with either winning though.
Chris: I’m not a fan of Jamey Johnson because of his voice, but I understand the merits of his work – but Adkins can really knock stuff out of the park when he picks the right song.
J.R.: I prefer ‘High Cost of Living’ as a song, but am definitely more into Trace Adkins’ vocal performance than Jamey’s.

Best Female Country Vocal Performance
Miranda Lambert – ‘Dead Flowers’:
Martina McBride – ‘I Just Call You Mine’
Taylor Swift – ‘White Horse’
Carrie Underwood – ‘Just A Dream’
Lee Ann Womack – ‘Solitary Thinkin”: Jordan Stacey, J.R. Journey, Razor X, Occasional Hope

Jordan: Give Lee Ann Womack one of the worst singles of the year (‘There Is A God’) and she can still somehow make it enjoyable simply ’cause of her beautiful vocal delivery. ‘Solitary Thinkin” in my opinion is a better performance and song overall than ‘Last Call’ which was robbed last year; hopefully the voters get it right this time.
Razor: I can’t recall any other year with a such a weak offering of choices for Female Vocal Performance. ‘Solitary Thinkin” is not my favorite Lee Ann Womack song, nor is it particularly vocally challenging, but I’d still like to see this one win, simply because I don’t like any of the other choices at all.
OH: I’m really uninspired by all of these. I think I’ll go with ‘Solitary Thinkin”, because although I’m not crazy about the song, Lee Ann sounds good and the vocal works with the song rather than overwhelming it (‘Just A Dream’) or being simply inadequate (‘White Horse’). Martina’s song is forgettable, and Miranda’s is far from her best work.
Chris: Underwood’s performance is great, but a little bombastic for my taste. ‘Dead Flowers’ has just always struck a chord with me and I love how she sings it – she deserves the award with Lee Ann Womack being next in line.
J.R.: Weak, yes. I’ll go with Razor’s reasoning that I ‘Solitary Thinkin’ is the only one I don’t actively dislike. Plus I think Womack is the best of this bunch presently.

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Album Review: Reba McEntire – ‘Keep On Loving You’

reba keep on loving you cover
She revisits many of the same themes and ideas she has sung to us about before, at times saying it better than before.  But more
often than not, these recycled themes fall short of the songs of their predecessors.  Reba is in fine voice throughout the entire
album.  Her vocal is the one thing I can’t find any complaints about, it’s sassy when it needs to be, tender when the music calls
for it, and it aches and burns at just the right moment.  Reba has long been a master at interpreting a lyric, and her years of
experience are certainly on display here, even when the songs fail her.
Nothing to Lose – Trisha Yearwood’s GH … changed ‘my last cigarette’ to ‘this old paperback’ and Reba gives a more
ferocious vocal, attacking the lyric with a spitfire in her voice.
I’ll Have What She’s Having – western swing, another smoking vocal …
A remixed ‘I Want a Cowboy’ dance mix sent to clubs all over America, busy music, young lyrics it should suit that crowd just
fine, even if it’s not really my style.
Consider Me Gone – second single, 90s pop-country feel, classic Reba ‘strong-woman’ theme.
Ballads: – ‘But Why’ … more of the classic Reba sound –
‘Over You’ is the sort of tried and true heartbreak ballad Reba fans eat up, but these
The album’s stand-out track is the swampy ‘Maggie Creek Road’.  In this tale of a mother’s love and how she avenges her own
situation and saves her daugher at the same time, Reba rolls out the lines like a folklore missionary.  This is the kind story song
Reba excels best at – stories of sex and violence and revenge and family love in the vein of southern Gothic classics like ‘Fancy’
and ‘The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia’, this Karyn Rochelle and James Slater fits neatly into that category.

For her Valory Music Co. debut, Reba revisits many of the same themes she has sung to us about in the past, at times saying it better than before.  But more often than not, these recycled themes fall short of the songs of their predecessors.  Reba is in fine voice for the entire album.  Her vocal is the one thing I can’t find any complaints about. It’s sassy when it needs to be, tender when the music calls for it, and it aches and burns at just the right moments.  Reba has long been a master at interpreting a lyric, and her years of experience are certainly on display here, even when the songs fail her.

You don’t get to be country music’s biggest female hit-maker without following some sort of formula, and this album showcases Reba’s formula of a couple show-stopping ballads, some up-tempo numbers, and the occasional achingly sad number. Splitting production credits with long-time collaborator Tony Brown and Mark Bright gives the album a fresh sound for sure, but it also tends to create a lack of focus.  The one core element running through nearly every song on Keep On Loving You is that of the strong woman, which Reba has been singing the praises of for the better part of two decades now.  But these strong women are all over the place, from being allegedly heartbroken in the lead single, the rocking ‘Strange’, to being genuinely blue in ‘Over You’ and then on a manhunt in ‘I’ll Have What She’s Having’.  There’s certainly no consistency to the instrumentation either, as Reba goes from pop-country to western swing – all ably I might add.

Reba really steps out of the box with the up-tempo numbers on the album more than anything, and these are also the most traditional of the cuts.  Trisha Yearwood recorded ‘Nothing to Lose’ for her Greatest Hits album.  There’s not much difference to the backing tracks each lady used, but here Reba has changed ‘my last cigarette’ to ‘this old paperback’ and she gives a more ferocious vocal, attacking the lyric with a spitfire in her voice.  ‘I’ll Have What She’s Having’ is a fun western swing number and another smoking vocal that finds the narrator admiring the man out on the dance floor and inquiring where she can find one of her own.

A remixed ‘I Want a Cowboy’ was sent to dance clubs all over America, and with the original’s busy music and young lyrics it should suit that crowd just fine, even if it’s not really my style.  Katrina Elam co-wrote the song, and first recorded it on her 2004 debut.  She also provides harmony vocals here.  A couple of other throw-away tracks pop up with the rousing ‘Pink Guitar’ and its prerequisite Johnny Cash reference. Likewise, ‘Over You’ is the sort of tried and true heartbreak ballad Reba fans eat up, but these are lyrics from the recycling bin again, and the performance is a bit much as she overstates the lyrics as if she had something new to say.

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