My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: James Taylor

Album Review: Midland — ‘Midland’

NOTE: Occasional Hope reviewed this upon release. Paul’s view of the album appears below: 

I know I’m a little late to the party in discovering this late 2017 release but I rarely listen to over-the-air country stations these days.

Other than my brother Sean, who knows my tastes in folk, jazz & pop standards (but knows little about country or bluegrass music), none of my family or friends give me music as a birthday or Christmas present. So much to my surprise, I received this CD at Christmas from a nephew of mine who claimed this to be “old style” country music. Of course, my nephew is only 18 so his idea of “old style” country might have been Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban, and Jason Aldean, whereas my definition differs considerably.

Well, it has been a really busy last few weeks for me so it wasn’t until a few days ago that I got around to popping On The Rocks into my CD player (prompted by the fact that I would see my nephew again in two weeks). Much to my surprise, I found myself listening to a real country record, one actually coming out of Nashville.

No, this is not a country record of the sort that could have been played in the classic country period (1944-1978), but it would definitely have fit into the country playlists of the period 1979 – 2005. Instead of a band whose influences were the likes of Eagles, Marshall Tucker and, James Taylor, I was hearing a band that was influenced by Alabama, Diamond Rio, Bellamy Brothers, Clint Black and perhaps John Anderson or Keith Whitley.

I do not know much about this act and perhaps they would tell you of other influences but I can definitely hear traces of the acts cited above. Moreover, this album has the sound of a country album, with prominent steel guitar, audible lyrics and, strong melodies.

Three singles were released to radio. The first single “Drinkin’ Problem” went to #3 on the US Country Airplay chart and went to #1 on Canadian Country chart. The song is an excellent low-key ballad with a good melody and nice steel guitar.

One more night, one more down

One more, one more round

First one in, last one out

Giving this town lots to talk about

They don’t know what they don’t know

 

People say I’ve got a drinkin’ problem

That ain’t no reason to stop

People sayin’ that I’ve hit rock bottom

Just ’cause I’m living on the rocks

It’s a broken hearted thinkin’ problem

So pull that bottle off the wall

People say I got a drinkin’ problem

But I got no problem drinkin’ at all

The second single was “Make A Little” which reached #15 and #12 respectively on the charts referenced above. The song is a mid-tempo rocker that would make a good dance floor number:

 It’s a hard living, tail kicking

Trip that we’re all on, but I’m betting

We can find a little sunshine in the night

It’s a back breaking, soul taking

Road we walk, so what are we waiting for

Baby let’s turn off the lights

‘Cause girl, there’s just not enough love in the world

 

So we should make a little

Generate a little

Maybe even make the world a better place a little

We could turtle dove, Dixie land delight

You know it can’t be wrong when it feels so right

It all comes down to you and me, girl

There’s just not enough love in the world

So we should make a little

Then make a little more tonight

The final single was “Burn Out” which reached #11 on The US Country Airplay chart but inexplicably just barely cracked the forty in Canada. This is probably my favorite song on the album

Watchin’ cigarettes burn out

‘Til all the neon gets turned out

There’s nothing left but empty glasses now

It’s all flashes now

Smokin’ memory that ain’t nothin’ but ashes

In the low lights

These done-me-wrong songs hit me so right

I was so on fire for you it hurts how

Fast a cigarette can burn out

I think that the following two songs would have made good singles: “Electric Rodeo:”

 It’s a lonely road

Two for the pain and three for the show

You put your life on hold chasin’ layaway dreams

That ain’t all they seem

With a hotel heart just tryin’ to find a spark

 

Electric rodeo

We’re paintin’ on our suits

We’re pluggin’ in our boots

We’re ridin’ high tonight

On Acapulco gold

And the rhinestones shine

Just as bright as diamonds

Underneath the lights

Electric rodeo

and “Out of Sight:”

Clothes ain’t in the closet, shoes ain’t under the bed

I should’ve believed her when she said what she said

“You’ll never change I know you never will”

I just sat there watching tailights rollin’ over the hill

I called her mama and I called her best friend

They said “She called it quits, so boy don’t call here again”

Up and down these streets lookin’ for her car

Tried to make it back home, but ended up at the bar

 

She’s gone (she’s gone, so long) never coming back

So gone (so gone, so gone) the train went off the track

And all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put me and my baby back together again

So long (she’s gone, so long) that’s the way it goes

She’s gone (so long, so long) and everybody knows

That I’m going crazy one night at a time

She’s out of sight and I’m out of my mind

The band consists of Jess Carson (acoustic guitar & background vocals), Cameron Duddy – (bass guitar & background vocals) and Mark Wystrach (lead vocals), with all three members being involved in the writing of eleven of the thirteen songs with Carson being involved as a co-writer on all thirteen songs, with an occasional assist from outside sources. The band is supplemented by some of Nashville’s finest studio musicians with Paul Franklin and Dan Dugmore swapping steel guitar duties, often carrying the melody line.

While I do not regard any of the tracks on the album as being timeless classics, I at least liked all of the tracks on the album since I never hit ‘skip’ on any of them. If you wonder whatever happened to that good country music of my early-to-middle adulthood youth (i.e. through the late 1970s and the 1990s), then give this CD a listen. I look forward to their next album.

Advertisements

Christmas Album Review: Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood – ‘Christmas Together’

christmas-togetherSuperstar Garth Brooks and wife Trisha Yearwood have been talking about recording a duet album together for years, especially since they came out of retirement. It was something of a surprise, though, to find they had chosen a Christmas album.

The opening ‘I’m Beginning To See The Light’ is a bit too jazzy and cutesy for me. It is a true duet. ‘Marshmallow World’ is too sweet. The pair work together best on the playful ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’, which is my favorite track by far.

Garth takes the lead on the silly novelty ‘Ugly Christmas Sweater’, and on a boring attempt at the Mexican ‘Feliz Navidad’. ‘Merry Christmas Means I Love You’ is bland and tries too hard to be inclusive. Almost the entire record is purely focussed on the secular side of Christmas, the one exception coming with the thoughtful and rather lovely ‘What I’m Thankful For’, which is a duet between Garth and singer-songwriter James Taylor.

Trisha is, quite literally, unrecognisable on the vampish ‘Santa Baby’. Infinitely better is a gorgeous reading of ‘What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve’, although it gets a tiny bit self-indulgent towards the end. ‘Hard Candy Christmas’, from the Dolly Parton movie ‘Best Little Whorehouse In Texas’ does have a musical theater vibe about it, but is beautifully sung. ‘Her version of ‘The Man With the Bag’ is also very well done, and I enjoyed it a lot despite its lack of any country elements.

I was very disappointed by this album as a whole, but there are a few bright spots.

Grade: C

Retro Album Review: Alison Krauss – ‘A Hundred Miles Or More: A Collection’

Back 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.

A Hundred Miles Or More is Alison’s second solo effort, but her first since 1995’s Now That I’ve Found You. The album is similar to the 1995 release in that it is a hodge-podge of soundtrack recordings, recordings from tribute albums, songs from other artists’ albums and some previously unreleased tracks. The biggest difference is that this new collection seldom features her Union Station band mates in any meaningful role.

As an aside, Alison Krauss reminds me of Emmylou Harris in that she has a very pretty, shimmering voice that is rather thin (although not as thin as Emmylou’s voice) meaning that Ms Krauss is at her best when she either is playing off another voice or has background harmony singers such as Dan Tyminski and Ron Block behind her. As a solo artist Ms. Krauss loses me after a while.

Tracks 1-4 and 16 are previously unreleased material. Tracks 1-4 have Alison going it alone vocally. Track by Track:

1) “You’re Just A Country Boy” – this is the worst track on the album, a misguided cover of the Don Williams classic from 1977. The lyric does not survive the translation to the feminine perspective any more than singing “Your Squaw Is on The Warpath” would work from the masculine perspective – F

2) “Simple Love” C-

3) “Jacob’s Dream” C-

4) “Away Down on The River” C

These three are modern day Adult Contemporary.

5) “Sawing On The Strings” – this is the best track on the album, a joyous romp through that debuted on CMT’s 2004 Flame Worthy Video Awards Show. This is the only real bluegrass number of the album. Krauss and Stuart Duncan play fiddle with Sam Bush on Mandolin and Krauss’s idol Tony Rice on guitar – A

6) “Down To The River To Pray” – a nice gospel number with nice harmony provided by the First Baptist Church Choir of White House, TN (and others). This was the standout track from O Brother, Where Art Thou? – B+

7) “Baby Mine” was from the Best of Country Sings the Best of Disney album and is a nice number with Dan Tyminski adding vocal harmony. I believe this lullaby was in the film Dumbo – B

8) “Molly Ban (Bawn)” was from the Down The Old Plank Road album the Chieftains recorded about ten years ago in Nashville. Bela Fleck plays banjo on this nice ballad – A

9) “How’s The World Treating You” – this duet with James Taylor was from a 2003 tribute to Charlie & Ira Louvin. It wasn’t the best track on the album, but it’s quite nice and was a successful video – B

10) “The Scarlet Tide” – this song appeared in a film I didn’t see Cold Mountain. It’s different, I’ll give it that – C+

11) “Whiskey Lullaby” – a recent hit duet with Brad Paisley. Alison and Brad play well off each other – this is a pairing I’d like to see again – B+

12) “You Will Be My Ain True Love” – another song from Cold Mountain. Alison sings well, Sting adds vocal (dis)harmony – D

13) “I Will Give You His Heart” from The Prince of Egypt: Nashville Soundtrack – Dan Tyminski provides vocal harmonies on this number – C+

14) “Get Me Through December” – This appeared on a Natalie MacMaster album. Alison sings, Natalie fiddles, and Alison’s brother Viktor plays bass – an enchanting track – B

15) “Missing You” appeared on one of John Waite’s albums. Waite isn’t a very good singer but the pairing works to some extent (Rock really isn’t Alison’s forte) on this song, which I think was a hit for Waite about twenty years ago – C

16) “Lay Down Beside Me”, also with John Waite, is the second Don Williams classic murdered on this album – D-

My chief criticism of this album is that it is again too ballad laden. It is a nice way for Alison’s fan to pick up tracks scattered across albums that her fans might not want to purchase.

Grade: C

Album Review: James Dupre – ‘Stoned To Death’

stoned to deathSix years ago, James Dupre parlayed some popular youtube covers into a fine Kyle Lehning and Jerry Douglas produced debut album. That record was then picked up by Warner Brothers, and it seemed as if he might make a breakthrough. Unfortunately, Warner Brothers failed to do anything with James and his music other than re-releasing his album. A stint on The Voice later, the Louisiana born singer is back with new music, mostly self-composed, whereas he only contributed two of the songs on his debut. It is an encouraging step forwards artistically, while continuing to showcase his attractive, warm vocals. The new album is produced by Jordan Lehning (son of Kyle); he doesn’t do a bad job overall but lacks his father’s light touch. Backing vocalists include former American Idol runner-up Kree Harrison, although she isn’t very audible.

James’s Louisiana roots, traditional country music and his big influences Randy Travis and folk rocker James Taylor all infuse his own country music. The upbeat ‘Green Light’, which James and Jordan wrote with Skylar Wilson and Andrew Combs, opens the album to good effect with its optimistic attitude.

James wrote four songs with Neal Coty and Brent Baxter, all reflective ballads about the aftermath of a relationship. The mellow sounding but sad ‘Forgiving Me’ is about regrets for the mistakes he made, and coming to peace with himself:

So I pack that pack
Light up some self destruction
Let it lay me back for the night that I got coming
Throwin’ rocks in a muddy river
One for each regret
And writin’ the past a goodbye letter
Sending it off with a match
Chipping away at a heavy stone that ain’t half what it used to be
Working on forgiving me

Even time takes time
That’s one more thing I’m learning
And peace of mind is what you spend a long night earning

‘Someday Today’ is about coping with the loss by returning home, and is full of New Orleans atmosphere. In ‘Lonesome Alone’ he calls on his ex, bearing alcohol as “an ice-cold olive branch if it needs to be”. ‘Whatever That Was’ reflects on a relationship which was “never quite lovers, more than friends”, and which may not be over yet. It’s a fine song with a catchy tune, marred by an arrangement which is too heavy on the electric guitar.

‘Sad Song’, a co-write with Jeremy Spillman, is a mellow song about the way music helps to heal melancholy, and is very good. In contrast, the upbeat ‘Till The Real Thing Comes’, which James wrote with Adam Wright, celebrates a bar room hookup and offers a rare up-tempo moment.

The quietly melodic ‘Perfect Time’, written by Neal Carpenter and Scooter Carusoe, fits nicely with James’ own songs, and although the production has some intrusive elements, it is restrained. The rather dull ‘Hurt Good, written by Mike Mobley, Jessi Alexander and Travis Meadows, has a contemporary arrangement which adds nothing of value.

Finally, the title track, contributed by Alexander with Jeff Hyde and Clint Daniels, is a compelling drama comparing being left to a prison sentence:

I plead guilty and I wear my regret like a number on my soul

This is an excellent song, although yet again the production does its best to overwhelm it.

James’s warm voice sounds great throughout on the set, and the song quality is high. Minor niggles with the production aside, this is a strong album worth hearing.

Grade: A-

For those interested, James also stars in a new straight-to-Netflix and video film in which he plays the son of Randy Travis.

Classic Rewind: Zac Brown Band ft James Taylor – ‘Colder Weather’

Christmas Rewind: Ricky Skaggs and James Taylor – ‘New Star Shining’

Album Review: Highway 101 – ‘Paint the Town’

51uqPseH44L1989’s Paint the Town, the third entry in Highway 101’s discography, was the band’s final full length album before Paulette Carlson’s departure as lead singer. Like its two predecessors it was produced by Paul Worley and Ed Seay. The songwriting credits boast a number of prestigious names including Kix Brooks, Matraca Berg, Pam Tillis, Bob DiPiero, Gretchen Peters, and Roger Miller. While not quite as commercially successful as their previous albums, the material is top notch and it received a warm reception from country radio.

“Who’s Lonely Now”, written by Don Cook and a pre-Brooks & Dunn Kix Brooks was the lead single, and it quickly became the last of Highway 101’s four chart toppers. It was followed by my all-time favorite Highway 101 song, “Walkin’, Talkin’, Cryin’, Barely Beatin’ Broken Heart”, which was written by Justin Tubb and the great Roger Miller, who made a memorable guest appearance in the song’s video. Despite the mournful sounding title and subject matter, it’s a bouncy uptempo tune with plenty of pedal steel. It peaked at #4 and was the band’s last excursion into the Top 10. “This Side of Goodbye” just missed the Top 10, peaking at #11.

The rest of the album is a mix of contemporary and traditional country. On the contemporary side are the opening track “I Can’t Love You Baby” and “Rough and Tumble Heart”, a Pam Tillis co-write that Tillis would cover herself a few years later. More traditional are the plaintive Gretchen Peters-penned “I’ll Paint the Town” (blue, not red — this is no party song) and a gorgeous, version of James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James”, which closes the album. Featuring acoustic guitar, harmonica, a touch of pedal steel and a stellar vocal performance by Paulette Carlson, the track is simply stunning and a good example of why it pays to dig a little deeper into any artist’s catalog to find the hidden gems that are overshadowed by the radio hits.

The album is a mere ten tracks, which was standard for the day, and plays for just over 33 minutes. Though lean and mean it may be, the songs are all winners, with just one dud. “Midnight Angel” had been a Top 20 hit for Barbara Mandrell in 1976. I’ve always liked the song very much and at first it seemed like a number that Carlson could easily nail, but the Highway 101 version is surprisingly lackluster. It’s probably my least favorite track on any of the band’s first three albums. That one misstep aside, however, Paint the Town is top-notch affair that sounds as fresh today as it did when it was first released 26 years ago.

Grade: A

Favorite Country Songs Of The 80s: Part 7

It seems to me that I never did finish off this series, the last installment being posted on February 11, 2014 (and the installment before that appeared April 9,2013). Here are some more songs from the 1980s that I liked. This is an expanded and revised version of the February 11, 2014 article which was a rush job :

Shame On The Moon” – Bob Seger
Bob’s 1982 recording of a Rodney Crowell song charted on the country charts in early 1983, reaching #15 in the process. The song was a bigger hit on the pop charts, reaching #2 for four weeks.

Finally” – T. G. Sheppard
He worked for Elvis, sang background for Travis Wammack, and eventually emerged with a solo career worth noting, racking up 42 chart singles from 1974-1991. This 1982 single was one of fourteen #1 record racked up by Sheppard, eleven of them reaching #1 during the 1980s.

Doesn’t Anybody Get High On Love Anymore” – The Shoppe
The Shoppe was a Dallas based band that hung around for years after their 1968 formation. In the early 1980s they had eight chart records, but this was the only one to crack the top forty, reaching #33. They had a record deal with MTM Records in 1985, but that label vanished, taking the Shoppe with them.

Crying My Heart Out Over You” – Ricky Skaggs
Ricky Skaggs was one of the dominant artists of the first half of the 1980s with his bluegrass/country hybrid. Starting with 1981’s “You May See Me Walking” and ending with 1986’s “Love’s Gonna Get You Some Day“, Skaggs ran off sixteen consecutive top ten singles with ten of them reaching number one, This 1982 classic was the first chart topper. Eventually Ricky returned to straight bluegrass, but I like the hybrid recordings better. In my original article I spotlighted “Honey (Open That Door)“, a straight forward country Mel Tillis song recorded by Webb Pierce.

Don’t Stay If You Don’t Love Me” – Patsy Sledd
Stardom never really happened for Patsy, who was a good singer marooned early in her career on a bad label. She was part of the George Jones-Tammy Wynette show in the early 1970s. This song reached #79 in 1987.

“Nice To Be With You” – Slewfoot
This band replaced Alabama as the feature band at the Bowery Club in Myrtle Beach. This was their only chart single, a cover of Gallery’s #4 pop hit from 1972 that reached #85 in 1986.

King Lear” – Cal Smith
The last chart hit for the former Texas Troubadour. This song reached #75 in 1986.

“A Far Cry From You” – Connie Smith
After a six year recording hiatus, the greatest female country recording artist of all time returned with this one-shot single on the Epic label. It’s a great song but received no promotional push at all from the label landing at #71 in 1985. Unfortunately, this single has never appeared on an album.

“The Shuffle Song” – Margo Smith
Exactly as described – a shuffle song that reached #13 for Margo in early 1980. Margo had a brief run of top ten hits in the middle and late 1970s but the string was about over. In my prior article I featured “He Gives Me Diamonds, You Give Me Chills” but The Shuffle song is actually my favorite 80s hit from Margo. She lives in The Villages in Florida and still performs occasionally.

Cheatin’s A Two Way Street” – Sammi Smith
Her last top twenty song from 1981. Sammi only had three top ten hits but made many fine records. This was one of them.

Hasn’t It Been good Together” – Hank Snow and Kelly Foxton
The last chart record for the ‘Singing Ranger’. The record only got to #78 for the 65 year old Snow in 1980 but I couldn’t let pass the opportunity to acknowledge the great career of the most successful Canadian country artist. By any legitimate means of chart tracking, his 1950 hit “I’m Moving On” is still the number one country hit of all time. Hank had perfect diction and was a great guitar player.

Tear-Stained Letter” – Jo-El Sonnier
A late bloomer, this was the forty-two year old Jo-El’s second of two top ten records and my favorite. It reached #8 in 1988. There were brief periods in the past when Cajun music could break through for a hit or two. Eddy Raven was the most successful Cajun artist but most of his material was straight-ahead country.

Sometimes You Just Can’t Win” – J.D. Souther and Linda Ronstadt
George Jones charted this record twice, but it’s such a good song it was worth covering. This version went to #27 in 1982. J.D had a big pop hit in 1980 with “You’re Only Lonely” which reached #7.

Honey I Dare You” – Southern Pacific
Southern Pacific was a bunch of guys who previously played with other bands such as Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Doobie Brothers and Pablo Cruise, making some real good country music in the process. This was one of their four top ten hits of the 1980s. “A Girl Like Emmylou” from 1986 only reached #17 but the song tells you where this band’s heart was located.

Lonely But Only For You” – Sissy Spacek
Loretta Lynn wanted to Spacek to portray her in the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter, and it turns out that Sissy can really can sing. This song reached #15 in 1983.

Standing Tall” – Billie Jo Spears
Billie Jo Spears, from Beaumont, Texas, was incredibly popular in England and Ireland, where “Blanket On The Ground” and “What I’ve Got In Mind” were top five pop hits in the mid 1970s and she had many more lesser successes. Many of her later albums were not released in the US but she had a substantial US career with thirty-four charted records, including two #1 hits. “Standing Tall” reached #15 in 1980.

Chain Gang” – Bobby Lee Springfield
More successful as a songwriter than as a performer, Springfield had two chart sings in 1987 with “Hank Drank” (#75) and “Chain Gang” (#66) which was NOT the Sam Cooke hit. Bobby Lee was both too country and too rockabilly for what was charting at the time. I really liked All Fired Up, the one album Epic released on him.

Read more of this post

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘Ropin’ The Wind’

ropin the windGarth’s third album was released in September 1991, with the artist at the peak of his commercial success. The first single, Larry Bastian’s ‘Rodeo’ was a portrait of a rodeo rider’s obsession with his pursuit of excitement over love. Delivered with an intensity and drama hovering on the edge of too much, it is pretty good, and peaked at #3.

A cover of Billy Joel’s pop hit ‘Shameless’ was to become one of Garth’s biggest hits. Despite not sounding remotely like a country song, Garth’s passionate vocal (backed by Trisha Yearwood’s harmony) and star status pushed it to #1.

Much, much better is ‘What She’s Doing Now’ (one of seven Garth co-writes on the album, but the first of them to be sent to radio. A gently sad reflection on a failed relationship and its continuing hold on the protagonist, with a string arrangement which sweetens it, this is a very good song. It had been previously recorded by Crystal Gayle with a gender twist in 1989, when she was well past her peak, but Garth’s own version hit the top of the charts. The similarly paced ‘Burning Bridges’ is another understated ballad (written by Garth with Stephanie Brown) which might serve as a prequel to it. This is the confession of a serial leaver, and shows Garth can be subtle. The style is perhaps more James Taylor than honky tonk, but it’s very palatable.

Next to radio was the punchy drama of ‘Papa Loved Mama’, written by Garth with Kim Williams. Telling the story of a trucker who kills his faithless wife and her lover by driving his rig into the motel she is staying at, it peaked at #3.

Papa loved Mama
Mama loved men
Now Mama’s in the graveyard
Papa’s in the pen

The same songwriting partnership, with the addition of Kent Blazy, produced the best song on the album in ‘Cold Shoulder’, the story of a lonely trucker missing his wife while on the road. A tasteful production helps make this a standout:

I wish I could hold her
Instead of hugging this old cold shoulder

The fifth and last single was #1 hit ‘The River’. Written by Garth with Victoria Shaw, it is one of his well meaning but slightly preachy earnest declarations of the importance of taking risks and living life to the full. It is quite pleasant and likeable, with an attractive arrangement.

‘In Lonesome Dove’, which Garth wrote with Cynthia Limbaugh, is a Western story song which is back to the drama but with a relatively low key reading which makes it all the more effective. It may have been inspired by the Western novel and TV drama of the same name, but the plot doesn’t seem to be the same.

‘We Bury The Hatchet’, written with Wade Kimes about a tumultous relationship, is playful western swing and quite entertaining. The lively up-tempo rebellious attitude of ‘Against The Grain’ came from bluegrass singer-songwriters Larry Cordle and Carl Jackson with Bruce Bouton, but doesn’t quite convince.

Not on the original record, but added to subsequent re-releases is ‘Which One Of Them’, a pretty good song about a heartbroken man pretending his one night stands are his lost love, as he muses wearily,

I’ve forgotten what’s wrong
Given up on what’s right

Ropin’ The Wind has sold over 14 million copies in the US alone, and a further 3 million worldwide, making it his biggest ever seller. Is it his best work? Not quite, but it’s not at all bad.

Grade: A-

Album Review – Garth Brooks – ‘Blame It All On My Roots: Five Decades of Influence’

758_1386719351When the message came down a few months ago that “the sevens have aligned” on Garth Brooks’ website, I was over the moon excited for his return to country music, in any form. He’s the precursor to the country-rock of today and the main reason country artists in his wake have been so lucrative on the road. But he’s also the only one who got it right. At his core, Brooks is a song man. If you stripped away his mesmerizing stage show, put aside his never-before-seen album sales, and listened to the music, you’ll find a legacy of incredible songs. I cannot say that about any genre superstar (Kenny Chesney, mostly) who’s risen to similar levels since he retired.

But even more then his ear for great songs, I was far more interested in seeing how the new generation (those born after 1997/1998) would respond to Brooks’ return. Without the ability to digitally download or stream his music and no memory of a live Brooks’ special on TV (let alone seeing him in person with his full band), would they care? Time will be the ultimate judge, but the ‘Garth Brooks magic’ remains as strong as ever. His Black Friday concert special was watched by an estimated 10 million people and the accompanying boxed set has just surpassed One Direction as the #1 album in the country, all-genre.

Blame It All On My Roots – Five Decades of Influence is more then just an 8-disc set; it’s a celebration of Brooks’ residency in Las Vegas. For the past four years, he’s been performing weekends in the Encore Theatre at Steve Wynn’s Hotel & Casino. But instead of bringing his legendary live act, Brooks performs a one-man show where he tells his life story though the music that built him – just his voice, a guitar, and a hooded sweatshirt. The boxed set extends that idea to four CDs, 11 songs each, with Brooks covering a handful of these songs in full broken down as Country Classics, Classic Rock, Blue-Eyed Soul, and Melting Pot.

The most obvious disc is Country Classics, where Brooks covers everyone from Conway & Loretta to George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Keith Whitley. He’s trying to fill some big shoes here and the results are far more underwhelming then they should be. Opener “Great Balls of Fire” and closer “Jambalaya” comes off as cheesy karaoke while he isn’t quite convincing as a hillbilly on “White Lightnin’.” I really wanted to love “After The Fire Is Gone,” his sole duet with Trisha Yearwood, but the pair didn’t bring any ache to their vocals, merely turning in gorgeous performances that fail to convey the sense they’re a couple on the outs. He’s better on the more traditional numbers like “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “Act Naturally,” and I really enjoyed his take on “Unwound.” But my favorite track by a mile is “Good ‘Ol Boys Like Me.” I’ve always thought Brooks’ does a wonderful job on more tender songs (like “She’s Every Woman”) and this selection from Don Williams’ catalog fits him like a glove.

Classic Rock is a bit better, with Brooks turning in three of the set’s best tracks. It’s not surprising he does a fantastic job on “Against The Wind,” seeing that Bob Seger is one of his major influences and the inspiration behind “That Summer.” Brooks’ is equally wonderful on Elton John’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” on which he gives one of the most passionate vocals of any song on any disc. Listening to it, I felt like I was back in the Fresh Horses era. But the highlight is one I wasn’t familiar with going in, Billy Joel’s stunning rock opera “Goodnight Saigon.” The song is an ode to the Vietnam War that Brooks tares into with vengeance. The rest of the disc is mostly bad karaoke, with songs like  “Addicted To Love,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” and “Somebody To Love” that fail to translate when anyone but the original artist is singing them. But I do have to give Brooks credit for doing the Eagles justice and turning in an above average “Life In The Fast Lane.”

Blue-Eyed Soul is by far my least favorite disc, mostly because soul music just isn’t my taste. But he does cover songs I actually like. “Midnight Train to Georgia” is my favorite, as Brooks puts his own stamp on the song. Other favorites are “Lean On Me” and “Drift Away,” but they become disjointed in Brooks’ hands, loosing the flow of the original versions. He’s in top form on “Ain’t No Sunshine,” but even Brooks cannot get me to enjoy “Stand By Me,” no matter how great his vocal may be. The rest of the record is just ok, with “Shout” being the only real clunker.

Melting Pot is where Brooks covers a bunch of tracks that didn’t fit categorically on the other discs. It’s hands down the best of four, and the one I enjoy most, because of the song selection. He does a wonderful job on rock standards “Mrs. Robinson” and “Maggie May” while turning in another of the box sets’ best performances with “Amie,” one of Pure Prairie League’s best known hits. “Operator (That’s Not The Way It Feels)” and “Wild World” are just as good, as is “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” although I would’ve chosen a different James Taylor song, like “Sweet Baby James” instead. I just happen to like some of Taylor’s other songs better.

In addition to the four discs of covers, Blame It All On My Roots also has The Ultimate Hits two disc set and DVD and a DVD of his Las Vegas show. Repackaging his 2007 collection is pointless, but Brooks’ has made a career out of repackaging his albums, so this is hardly a surprise. The four albums of covers are the real draw and while they’re good, they fail to be anything exceptional because Brooks stays too faithful to the originals (especially on “Don’t Close Your Eyes”). I would’ve liked to see him put his own stamp on the tracks, opposed to just covering them faithfully. That being said, Blame It All On My Roots is still worth checking out, especially for those like me who’ve been Garth fans since they can remember.

Grade: B

Willie Nelson: The early years

country favoritesWillie Nelson, alone among his contemporaries, continues to be an active and prolific recording artist. Not only is he releasing albums at a pace that would leave today’s stars thoroughly exhausted, but Willie continues to make guest appearances on the albums of other artists, famous and unknown alike.

The eighty year old Nelson continues to tour relentlessly, something he has been doing in one form or another for over fifty years.

Prior to “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain”, most knew Willie Nelson (if they knew of him at all) as the man who wrote “Hello Walls” for Faron Young and “Crazy” for Patsy Cline, and some songs that other singers had success recording.

Outside of his home state of Texas, the public consciousness of Willie Nelson as a performer basically dates back to the two albums Willie recorded for Atlantic in the early 1970s after which time he moved to Columbia for his recording heyday. This article will discuss the major label albums issued before then.

The first album out of the box was … And Then I Wrote which was released on the Liberty label in September 1962. This album featured “Touch Me” as the single (it reached #7 on Billboard’s country chart) and featured some songs that other artists had recorded with some success such as “Hello Walls” and “Three Days” (Faron Young), “Crazy” (Patsy Cline), “Funny How Time Slips Away” (Joe Hinton, Billy Walker). Although not released as a singles, “Mr. Record Man” and “Darkness On The Face of The Earth” would become songs associated with Willie, and “Undo The Right” would be a top ten hit for long-time friend Johnny Bush in 1968 (Johnny Bush and Willie Nelson were both in Ray Price’s band the Cherokee Cowboys during the early 1960s, and played in each others bands at various points in time). “The Part Where I Cry” was the other single release from this album.

… And Then I Wrote was not a terribly successful album but it was the first opportunity most had to hear Willie’s quirky phrasing. Although marred by Liberty’s version of the ‘Nashville Sound’, it is certainly an interesting album.

Willie’s second and final album for Liberty was Here’s Willie Nelson. This album featured five songs that Willie wrote (“Half A Man”, “Lonely Little Mansion”, “Take My Word”, “The Way You See Me” and “Home Motel”). The originals compositions were nothing special – only “Half A Man” attracted much attention from other artists – but among the covers are the Fred Rose composition “Roly Poly” (a successful recording for Bob Wills and for Jim Reeves) and Rex Griffin’s “The Last Letter”.

There were no Country Album charts until 1964. Neither of the two Liberty albums made the pop charts.

From Liberty, Willie very briefly moved to Monument Records, with no success (I’m not sure if any tracks actually were released at the time). Some of these songs were released in 1980 on a two album set titled The Winning Hand featuring Brenda Lee, Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson and released to cash in on the popularity of Dolly and Willie. All four artists had recorded for Monument in the past, and Kristofferson and Lee recorded additional vocals to create duets (and some existing tracks were edited together to create duets). Twelve of the twenty tracks were duets, and despite the contrived origins of the project, it was critically well received and well worth owning.

Willie’s immense songwriting talents attracted the attention of Chester Burton (“Chet”) Atkins”, the head honcho of RCA’s Nashville operations, and he was signed to RCA.

There is the misconception that Willie Nelson’s RCA albums found Willie buried by syrupy string arrangements and soulless background choruses. While it is true that RCA was never really sure what to do with Willie, the reality is that only the occasional track suffered from over production. Unlike Decca where Owen Bradley buried his more traditional artist such as Webb Pierce and Ernest Tubb with unnecessary choral arrangements, Chet and his other producers went much lighter on the embellishments. Although what we would deem the classic ‘Willie and Family’ sound never completely emerged on the RCA recordings, many of Willie’s albums had relatively sparse production. In fact, when Mickey Raphael produced and released the 17 track Naked Willie album in 2009, an album in which he removed excess production off Willie’s RCA tracks, he probably corralled about 80% of the tracks on which the production could be deemed excessive. Whether or not RCA could turn Willie into a star, his records always featured some of the best musicians and arrangers on the planet.

Country Willie – His Own Songs features twelve songs Willie wrote or co-wrote. Some of the songs were also on his major label debut, but I prefer the RCA take on the ‘Nashville Sound’ to that of Liberty. The songs are great and Willie is in good voice.. Songs included are “One Day at a Time” (not the Marilyn Sellars/Cristy Lane gospel hit of the 1970s), “My Own Peculiar Way”, “Night Life”, “Funny How Time Slips Away”, “Healing Hands of Time”, “Darkness on the Face of the Earth”, “Hello Walls”, .”Are You Sure”, “Mr. Record Man”, “It Should Be Easier Now”, “So Much to Do” and “Within Your Crowd”. Pickers include Jerry Kennedy and Jerry Reed, and steel guitar is featured on some of the tracks. This could be considered a ‘best of’ compilation of Willie’s songs (not recordings) up to this point in time. This album reached #14 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Country Favorites – Willie Nelson Style is one of my two favorite RCA albums. This 1966 album was recorded with members of Ernest Tubb’s legendary Texas Troubadours, augmented by fiddler Wade Ray and pianist Hargus Robbins. Willie and Wade, of course were regulars on ET’s syndicated television show and the use of the Troubadours and the lack of the ‘Nashville Sound’ trappings made for a swinging set of western swing and honky-tonk classics. This version of the Texas Troubadours included Buddy Charleton (steel), Jack Drake (bass), Jack Greene (drums) , Leon Rhodes (lead guitar) and Cal Smith (rhythm guitar) augmented by Wade Ray and pianist Hargus Robbins. This album reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart .

Standout tracks on this album include “My Window Faces The South”, “Columbus Stockade Blues” and “San Antonio Rose” but the entire album is good. Willie sounds comfortable and relaxed on this entire set and his vocals, while sometimes an awkward fit , reflect the fun he was having performing with this collection of musicians , who were not credited on the initial release. A truncated version of this album was released on RCA Camden in 1970 as Columbus Stockade Blues.

Country Music Concert was recorded live in 1966 at Panther Hall in Dallas Texas, one of two live albums RCA would record there (the other was 1968’s Charley Pride Live at Panther Hall). This live performance featured Willie on guitar and vocals backed by his band members, Johnny Bush on drums and Wade Ray playing bass guitar. This album is my other favorite RCA album, again featuring Willie uncluttered by strings and choruses, singing mostly his own songs, but with a few covers. The album opens with Willie introducing the band and then starts with the music with a pair of long medleys in “Mr. Record Man”/”Hello Walls”/ “One Day At A Time” and “The Last Letter”/ “Half A Man”. To me the highlights of the album are Willie’s take on Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” and his own “I Never Cared For You” and “Night Life”. This album reached #32 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Make Way For Willie Nelson is a mixed bag of original compositions and covers. Released in 1967, some of the recordings are a bit overproduced and the album produced no real hits. The quasi-title track “Make Way For A Better Man” is one of those songs only Willie Nelson would write:

Hear me talkin’ now you tried to make her happy you couldn’t make her happy
Make way for a better man than you
You tried your brand of lovin’ she couldn’t stand your lovin’

Make way for a better man than you
I held back cause you and I were friends
But old buddy this is where our friendship ends
I’m takin’ over now those signals she keeps sendin’ means your romance is endin’
Make way for a better man than you

Willie’s own composition “One In A Row” reached #19 two years before this album was released. Notable covers on the album include “Born To Lose” and “Mansion On The Hill”. This album reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

“The Party’s Over” and Other Great Willie Nelson Songs featured the title song, which while never a big hit, was made famous by the late Don Meredith, one of the original trio of announcers for ABC Monday Night Football. When the result of the games was already determined (regardless of the time left in the game) Don would sing this song. “The Party’s Over” reached #24 for Willie, in a somewhat overproduced version. The rest of the album could be described as moody and downbeat. This album also reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Good Ol’ Country Singin’ was released on RCA’s budget Camden label in January 1968. RCA sometimes used the Camden label to release truncated versions of older albums, but RCA also used it to release material that would not be released on the main label. This album is the latter but RCA actually issued a single from the album, “Blackjack County Chain”, which reached #21. My favorite track on the album is a classic weeper “You Ought To Hear Me Cry”. Billboard did not chart budget albums.

Texas In My Soul was Willie’s 1968 tribute to his home state of Texas. Three of the songs, “Waltz Across Texas”, “There’s A Little Bit of Everything In Texas” and “Texas In My Soul” were songs performed by and associated with Ernest Tubb. “Who Put All My Ex’s In Texas” was one of the first songs written by Eddie Rabbitt to be recorded. This album reached #9 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

Good Times is a little different and finds Willie breaking away from ‘The Nashville Sound’ mold to some extent. Other than Mickey Newbury’s “Sweet Memories” and the Jan Crutchfield-Wayne Moss composition “Down To Our Last Goodbye”, all of the songs were written or co-written by Willie. The title track has very minimal production. This album reached #29 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

My Own Peculiar Way, released in 1969, features eight Willie Nelson compositions (one, “Any Old Arms Won’t Do”, co-written with Hank Cochran) plus an exceptional cover John Hartford’s “Natural To Be Gone”. The title track wasn’t a hit, but it is quintessential Willie. This album reached #39 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart (are you seeing a pattern?).

Both Sides Now was released in 1970 and is basically a covers album with Willie penning only three of the eleven tracks. This album included two songs from the Roy Acuff catalogue (“Wabash Cannonball”, “Pins and Needles In My Heart”), a song from the Ray Price hit list (“Crazy Arms”) plus covers of pop songs “Both Sides Now” (penned by Joni Mitchell but a hit for Judy Collins) and and “Everybody’s Talking” (penned by Fred Neil but a hit for Nilsson). The single from this album was penned by soon-to be-ex-wife Shirley Nelson and reached #42. The now familiar “Bloody Mary Morning” makes its debut here – it would be re-recorded and released as a single after Willie moved to Atlantic.

While I like this album, it is a disjointed affair and Willie’s unusual phrasing on some of the songs won’t be to everybody’s taste. “Crazy Arms” features steel guitar and a walking base line whereas “Both Sides Now” features little more than a guitar. This album did not chart.

Laying My Burdens Down also was released in 1970 but by this time RCA had given up on having Willie score any hit singles. The title track reached #68 and the over-produced “I’m A Memory” would reach #28 and would be Willie’s last top fifty chart appearance while signed to RCA. This album is mostly composed of Willie originals but isn’t his best work. This album did not chart.

Willie Nelson and Family is a collection of songs released in 1971 as performed by Willie and the beginnings of his family band. Paul English was on board playing drums as was his sister Bobbie Nelson playing the piano. This album would set the template for future albums. Songs include the Willie Nelson-Hank Cochran collaboration “What Can You Do To Me Now” along with Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, Hank Sr.’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”, Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again”, plus some Nelson originals. This album reached #43 on Billboard Country albums chart.

Released with no fanfare in September 1971, Yesterday’s Wine contains some of Willie’s finest songs, and is Willie’s first concept album. The album contains the full complement of RCA’s finest session players but sounds surprisingly spare at times. The album has a deeply philosophical and religious feel to it without being too preachy (the premise is the life of an ‘Imperfect Man’ from birth to the day of his death). The single released from the album “Yesterday’s Wine” b/w “Me and Paul” barely dented the charts, but both are still loved and remembered today:

Miracles appear in the strangest of places
Fancy me finding you here
The last time I saw you was just out of Houston
Let me sit down, let me buy you a beer

Your presence is welcome with me and my friend here
This is a hangout of mine
We come here quite often and listen to music
And to taste yesterday’s wine

Yesterday’s wine, yesterday’s wine
Aging with time, like yesterday’s wine
Yesterday’s wine, yesterday’s wine
We’re aging with time, like yesterday’s wine

“Family Bible”, a song Willie wrote but sold in order to keep eating, makes an appearance here. This album did not chart.

There would be a couple more RCA albums, and RCA would re-release various permutations and combinations of old material after Willie hit it big in the middle 1970s (including an album an which Danny Davis and The Nashville Brass were overdubbed onto ten of Willie’s songs, but by the end of 1971 it was clear that Willie would need to look elsewhere if he was to achieve success as a recording artist.

It should be noted that RCA issued several singles on Willie that either never made it onto an album, or made it onto an album years later. Two notable examples were “Johnny One Time” which hit #36 for Willie in 1968 and was a minor pop hit for Brenda Lee in 1969, and “Bring Me Sunshine” which reached #13 in 1968 but wasn’t on an album until the 1974 RCA Camden release Spotlight On Willie.

In the digital age, there are plenty of good collections covering Willie’s earlier years, both anthologies and reissues of individual albums. For the obsessive Willie Nelson fan, Bear Family has issued an eight CD set with 219 recordings. That’s overkill for all but diehard fans, but there are numerous good anthologies available. There is also Naked Willie for those who would like to have multiple versions of some of Willie’s RCA recordings.

Country Heritage: George Hamilton IV

george hamilton iv

I’ve been travelin’ down the highways with my guitar for so long
Shakin’ hands and meetin’ lots of folks
Living my life my way with a handshake and a song
Caring little if I was rich or broke
Cause there’s country music in my soul
People music for the young and the old
I’ll keep on singing my song keep on keeping on
Cause there’s country music in my soul

From “County Music In My Soul” written by Bobby Bond

Many musicians who have met Freddie Hart have commented to me that he is the one of the nicest people that they have ever encountered. I‘ve never had the pleasure of meeting Freddie Hart, but if he is nicer person than George Hamilton IV, he must qualify for sainthood. I’ve met George IV on a number of occasions over the last 39 years, and a finer gentleman can’t be found.

George Hamilton IV has always had country music in his soul, although his recording career, like that of a number of country stars, started off in pop. Unlike other country boys such as Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash, Narvel Felts and Billy Craddock, who started off as rockabilly stars, George’s early endeavors were straightforward pop rather than rockabilly or rock and roll.

Hamilton was born on July 19, 1937 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He was raised on the country music loved by his grandfather, George Hamilton II, and he learned to play the guitar at the age of 12. While in high school he formed a country band, and while still a freshman at the University of North Carolina, he met John D. Loudermilk, first cousin of Ira and Charlie Louvin (formerly Loudermilk), at the time a struggling songwriter. Landing a contract with the Colonial label, Hamilton recorded “A Rose and a Baby Ruth,” Loudermilk’s first attempt at teen pop. The single did very well regionally during 1956 and was picked up by ABC-Paramount later that same year. Since the song hit #6 on the pop charts and sold over a million copies in the process, ABC-Paramount signed Hamilton to a regular contract. During this time he transferred to American University in Washington DC to continue his studies.

Since Hamilton was never really comfortable recording pop music, subsequent efforts failed to achieve the heights of “A Rose and a Baby Ruth,” although the next four singles made the pop top 40, with “Why Don’t They Understand” reaching #10 in early 1958. After an appearance on The Jimmy Dean Show 1957-58, Hamilton was given his own short-lived show by ABC-TV in 1959.

Even while signed to ABC-Paramount, Hamilton was recording country songs such as “Why I’m Walking,” “Even Tho’” and at least seven songs associated with Hank Williams. His first entry on the country charts (“Before This Day Ends”) rose to #4 in late 1960.

In 1961 George switched labels, moving to RCA Victor, where Chet Atkins promised that he could record as a country artist. After top ten entries in 1961 (“Three Steps to the Phone,” “Millions of Miles”) and 1962 (“If You Don’t Know I Ain’t Gonna Tell You”), Hamilton finally hit the top of the country charts in 1963 with “Abilene,” a song penned by his old friend John D. Loudermilk. The single topped the country charts for four weeks in June and crossed over to #15 on the pop charts. During 1964, Hamilton charted three singles and returned to the top ten with “Fort Worth, Dallas or Houston.”

Deeply influenced by the folk music artists of the “Hootenanny Era,” George became a major conduit for introducing such future folk deities as Gordon Lightfoot, Ian Tyson, and Joni Mitchell to American audiences. Indeed, Hamilton probably recorded more Gordon Lightfoot songs during the mid 1960s to early 1970s than any other artist including such classics as “Steel Rail Blues” and “Early Morning Rain,” both hits in 1966. George’s version of “Urge for Going” (written by Joni Mitchell) hit #7 in 1967; “Break My Mind,” another John D. Loudermilk song, hit #6 later in the year. During this period Hamilton recorded songs by the likes of Leonard Cohen, James Taylor, Buffy St. Marie and countless other singer-songwriters. Not ignoring his country favorites, in 1965 he recorded an album in tribute to Ernest Tubb, enjoying a hit with “Walking The Floor Over You.”

George continued to record for RCA until 1974, but major chart success largely eluded him except for the #3 hit “She’s a Little Bit Country” in 1970. This is not to say that he quit making great records, as some of my personal favorite Hamilton tracks such as “Ten Degrees (and Getting Colder)”, “West Texas Highway” and “Country Music In My Soul” came after 1970.

While his stature as a singles star waned, George took on a greater prominence as the “International Ambassador of Country Music” thanks to his several world tours, 10 visits to Great Britain, numerous visits to Europe, and his BBC television programs (seven seasons). He became the first country artist to perform behind the Iron Curtain, and also toured Africa, Asia, New Zealand, Australia, and even the Middle East.

In recent years Hamilton has focused on gospel music, although he still plays dates in which he performs secular music. I saw George five years ago at the Florida Sunshine Opry in Eustis, Florida; he still put an an excellent show, and hung around as long as anyone wished to speak with him. Two years later I saw him at the Rolling Hills Moravian Church in Longwood, Florida where he performed an excellent show that was about 2/3 religious material – just GH4 and his guitar. Hamilton once mentioned to me that he’d like to live long enough to meet George Hamilton VII. It seems that GH1 (his great grandfather) was alive long enough for George to remember him, and son George Hege Hamilton V has a son George Hege Hamilton VI who should soon be of age to start a family.

Imagine that – getting to know seven generations of George Hege Hamiltons. I hope he makes it.

Read more of this post

Classic Rewind: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Fire And Rain’

Album Review – Sammy Kershaw – ‘Covers The Hits’

Compilation albums have long been the ploy of record companies looking to squeeze that last dollar out of artists who’ve moved on to other pursuits. In 2000 Mercury Nashville wasn’t any different, releasing Covers The Hits a collection of cover tunes Sammy Kershaw recorded throughout his tenure on the label.

Not surprisingly, the album came and went with little notice and there weren’t any singles to push its existence at radio and retail. It also didn’t help matters much that most of these covers weren’t that inspired to begin with and often rank among the worst music in Kershaw’s catalog (namely “Chevy Van” and “Memphis, Tennessee” from Politics, Religion, and Her, although the latter is listenable).

Kershaw’s cover of the Leo Sayer pop hit “More Than I Can Say,” taken from his Maybe Not Tonight is adequate, but really nothing more than a note for note sound-alike performance to the original. He pulls off his Beatles cover (from the 1995 tribute album Come Together: America Salutes The Beatles) vocally, but the muffled arrangement dampens my overall enjoyment of the song.

There are tracks here I actually really like, however. Kershaw is surprisingly in top form on his cover of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” (from Red Hot + Country) and he turns in a version as good as the original. I also adore his fabulously restrained version of The Rolling Stones’ “Angie,” which comes from the equally magnificent Stone Country: Country Artists Perform the Songs of the Rolling Stones from 1998. Kershaw’s contribution is a standout cut from that project, one of my all-time favorite tribute albums. The other favorite cut of mine is the opener, and only radio hit amongst these tracks, his 1994 #2 “Third Rate Romance.”

Kershaw also pulls off a strong version of Dr. Hook’s “Little Bit More,” the only previously unreleased track on the project. I love the traditional production and his strong vocal on the track. Overall, Covers The Hits scores more than it fails, although its slightly below any of Kershaw’s strongest original work. Extremely cheap used copies are available online and individual tracks can be found on YouTube.

Grade: C+

Album Review: Ricky Skaggs – ‘Love’s Gonna Get Ya!’

Ricky Skaggs’ career can be said to have reached its peak in 1985, when he was named the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year. The following year, Randy Travis scored his big breakthrough and the New Traditionalist movement exploded. Ironically, that same year, Ricky Skaggs’ career began to show the first signs of decline. Although it reached #3 on the Billboard Top Country chart, Love’s Gonna Get Ya! failed to produce any #1 hits and became his first release for Epic not to earn gold certification.

Like its predecessors, Love’s Gonna Get Ya! was produced by Ricky himself, but it doesn’t contain the bluegrass flourishes that hallmarked most of his earlier work, with the exception of the spiritual tune “Walking In Jerusalem”. “Love’s Gonna Get You Someday”, written by Carl Chambers, was the album’s first single. The Western-swing flavored tune was a bit of a departure for Ricky, but it was well received by radio and made it to #4 on the Billboard country singles chart. The Don Everly-penned “I Wonder If Care As Much”, which had been a #2 pop hit for the Everly Brothers in 1958, didn’t fare as well. Reaching #30, it was the lowest-charting single of Skaggs’ major label career up to that point. With its double-track harmony, it’s instantly recognizable as an Everly Brothers tune, and though it may have been an artistic stretch for Ricky, it was a decent effort. He rebounded with the next single, a Cajun-flavored duet with his wife Sharon White called “Love Can’t Ever Get Better Than This”, which reached the Top 10, albeit barely. It’s my favorite track on the album.

There are some fine cuts among the album tracks, many of them written by some of Nashville’s finest songwriters, such as Larry Cordle, Jim Rushing, and Gary Burr. The production is occasionally dated, particularly the use of the synthesizer on “I Won’t Let You Down” and the James Taylor duet “New Star Shining” — not atypical of the era but unusual on a Ricky Skaggs album — but it didn’t diminish my overall enjoyment of the album. Rushing’s “Hard Row To Hoe”, one of many country songs dealing with the plight of the American farmer, was perhaps inspired by the first Farm Aid concert which had been held a few months before this album’s release. “Artificial Heart”, written by Johanna Hall and John Hall, suffers from some contrived lyrics but its excellent steel guitar solo more than compensates.

It’s a bit ironic that having been a key player in bringing country music back to its roots, Skagg became a victim of the success of the New Traditionalist movement. Having to compete with a new crop of talent for sales and airplay may partially account for this album’s relative lack of success compared to his earlier work. However, it’s a fine album that deserves a second listen — or a first one if you missed it the first time around. The original Epic version is out of print but it was re-released on a 2-for-1 CD along with Comin’ Home To Stay. This is probably the most economical way to acquire both albums.

Grade: B+

I bet you’re in a bar, listening to a country song …

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved country music. I’ll admit that I wandered into the genre in the 1990s, like most, a fairweather fan of hugely popular acts, and didn’t know anything about its past. It wasn’t long before country music, with its charm, simplicity, and oh-so-relatable themes had won me over completely. I’ve since spent a great amount of my time listening to and learning the makings of and history of country music. Likewise, I’ve began to love every cliche’ image commonly found in the country song, and I’ve made it a point to familiarize myself, at least to some degree, with everything from the neon signs of the smoke-filled barrooms to the wide open fields and even the prison cells.

Luckily, I’ve had no experience with prison cells (except what I see on Lockdown), and though I have enjoyed the view, I’ve not spent any great amount of time in corn fields either. No, my time under the country music atmosphere has mostly been spent at any number of watering holes on the east side of the Mississippi River. I can honestly say I know just how great it feels to plant your tired ass on a bar stool and order up a remedy for your broken heart. As any of my friends will tell you, the first thing I like to do upon arrival in a new city is to go visit their various restaurants and pubs. And then, after some sight-seeing or event-going, I’m usually the first one ready to sample the liquor at a different establishment the next night. I enjoy people, I enjoy socializing, and without sounding too god-awful pretentious, the modern-day bar scene is really the last bastion of the kind of face-to-face networking and general person to person contact that has all but vanished from society. How much of your contact with other people is limited to your time behind a screen, be it computer or cell phone?

For that reason alone, the occasion of listening to a great song with a room full of friends and strangers is a satisfying feeling. At least it is to me. But I’ve also found that atmosphere affects your listening experience, sometimes to the point that it can color your like or dislike for certain sounds and lyric combinations. Some songs just sounds better in different places. This is why I always stay put in those clubs that have elected to provide one of those dandy TouchTunes jukeboxes, instead of the now-standard karaoke deejay. Lately I’ve noticed there’s usually only a handful of us brave enough to risk alienating themselves to the entire room by taking the long walk over to that screen and choosing a handful of songs. I could categorize us, but I won’t. Depending on where we’ve stumbled into, I’m still likely to find another protege of Alan Jackson’s instructions to not rock the jukebox.

The American Legion’s Post 471 in Portsmouth, OH has an excellent club right downstairs from their meeting house. Now, most weekends, you’ll find the locals belting out the hits themselves, but if you go in on a weekday, you’re likely to find a nice little lady playing country sounds on that digital jukebox. And you’re just as likely to see me standing in line, dollar bills in hand, behind her waiting my turn to fill the room with my own favorite country songs, and even a few that aren’t so country. But they fit my mood at the time, so they work just as well as my country standards. On my most recent outing, I decided to jot down the songs I was playing on the old jukebox and wondered if everybody has pet songs to play on the jukebox, or just to a room full of people in general. I know I like to show off what I consider my own good taste in music, and I’ll bet you do too. Here’s what I played this week:

Read more of this post

Album Review: George Jones – ‘Step Right Up 1970-1979: A Critical Anthology’

George had become disillusioned with Pappy Daily’s business practices. His marriage to Tammy Wynette in 1969 encouraged him to make the momentous decision to move to her label Epic, and to co-opt her producer Billy Sherrill. George was forced to buy himself out of his Musicor contract, but it was money well spent, even though his chart record remained somewhat inconsistent. George’s move to Epic saw him at the peak of his vocal prowess, married to Billy Sherrill’s smooth, Nashville Sound production.

This superb compilation contains six of George’s last tracks for Musicor, and over 20 of the finest tracks he recorded in his first eight years on Epic. These were the years of his troubled marriage to and divorce from Tammy Wynette, and the years his intensifying battles with drugs and alcohol earned him the inglorious nickname ‘No Show Jones’ and saw his health break down, but in the studio George Jones was creating magic and leading up to what many will call his finest moment on record. Step Right Up mixes classic hits with some well-chosen lesser known album cuts. The material is almost uniformly great here, concentrating on the sad songs at which George Jones has always excelled. Vocally George does not put a foot wrong, although some aspects of the production, mainly the backing vocals, now sound a little dated. The only reason to debate whether this album is worth buying is whether you might not try to get hold of the constituent albums, at least some of which are available on CD reissues.

George’s first single of the 70s, as he approached the end of his time with Musicor, was ‘Where Grass Won’t Grow’, a bleak, echoey tale of rural poverty in Tennessee,

Trying to grow corn and cotton on ground so poor that grass won’t grow

culminating in the death of the protagonist’s wife, buried in that same soil. The song, written by George’s old friend and drinking partner Earl Montgomery, was perhaps too downbeat to chart higher than the lower reaches of the top 30, but its quality led it to become regarded as a classic Jones record.

The exquisite expression of emotional devastation in ‘A Good Year For The Roses’ (written by Jerry Chestnut) is one of George’s most masterly vocal performances, reaching #2 on Billboard.

A handful of less well-known late Musicor cuts are also included. The tender steel-laced ballad of love for the protagonist’s motherless child, ‘She’s Mine’, co-written by George with Jack Ripley, was a top 10 hit. Slightly less successful, peaking at #13, was a great Dallas Frazier/Sanger D Shafer composition ‘Tell Me My Lying Eyes Are Wrong’, in which George manfully tries to pretend everything’s alright and his wife isn’t cheating on him, unusually featuring the Jones Boys’ backing. Another Dallas Frazier song (this time with A L Owens), ‘She’s As Close As I Can Get To Loving You’, has another great lead vocal, but is marred by excessive Nashville Sound backing vocals. Wayne Kemp’s ballad ‘Image Of Me’ has the protagonist confessing his shame that he has “dragged down” a simple old-fashioned country girl and made her into a honky-tonk angel, with another very fine vocal performance. Earl Montgomery’s ‘Right Won’t Touch A Hand’, a passionate confession of regret for jealousy which destroyed a relationship, was yet another top 10 hit in 1971.

Read more of this post

Album Review: Amber Digby and Justin Trevino – ‘Keeping Up Appearances’

Only a few months after the release of her last solo album, Amber Digby is back with a collection of duets with her longterm producer Justin Trevino, a recording artist in his own right with a vibrato-laden tenor reminiscent of the country music of the 1960s. Their voices blend together very well, bearing comparison with the classic duos of the past, and the result is a delightful record which sounds as though it could have been made 40 years ago yet has a timeless feel. The production (credited jointly to Amber and Justin) is exemplary, with the musicians including Amber’s husband Randy Lindley on various guitars and stepfather Dickie Overbey on steel.

As has become customary for an Amber Digby record, everything here is a cover (mostly from the 1960s or early 1970s), but the pair have mixed in some obscure cuts in with the better known songs, and the quality of the 14 songs selected is uniformly high. The subject matter is exclusively relationships: love songs, cheating songs, and tales of marital unhappiness.

My favorite track on the album is the pair’s version of ‘Lead Me On’, a smash hit in 1971 for Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn. This has a couple on the verge of an illicit relationship and wanting some encouragement. The vocals are particularly outstanding here from both Justin and Amber.

The fiddle-led ‘Which One is To Blame’ is another delightful cheating song mixing regret and desire, with Amber and Justin swapping lines through the song, as they share the anguish of forbidden love:

Amber: Somehow I can’t blame myself
Although I guess I should
Justin: And I can’t put the blame on you
I wouldn’t if I could
Amber: We’ve made ourselves the gossip of the town
Justin: The things we’ve done can only bring us shame
Together: We’ve let our passion drag our honor down
I wonder which one of us is to blame

There is less penitence in the defiant passion of ‘After The Fire Is Gone’, where the couple blame their infidelity on a moribund marriage. This is a great song which has been recorded so many times I sighed inwardly when I initially saw it on the track listing, but this is a very fine version which is well worth hearing.

Read more of this post

Album Review: Matt Jenkins – Quarter of a Century: The Acoustic Sessions

Matt Jenkins

Matt Jenkins

Matt Jenkins is a singer/songwriter from Texas. He came to Nashville a few years ago and was signed to Universal South by Tony Brown and Tim DuBois. He released a few singles that failed to catch on at radio, and was eventually dropped from the Universal South roster after Brown and DuBois departed the label. He then spent some time concentrating on his songwriting. Eight of his compositions appear on last year’s Quarter of A Century, a self-released EP.

All eight songs are simply arranged, recorded live in the studio, consisting of Jenkins and Mark Selby, who produced the EP, playing acoustic guitar. Jenkins, of course, is the lead vocalist, while Selby provides background vocals, as does Tia Sillers on the title track. This type of stripped-down arrangement works very well because it allows the listener to concentrate on the lyrics without the distractions of heavy-handed production and other studio bells and whistles.

“Want You Back”, the opening track, is not, as the title suggests, a song about a man begging his departing lover to return. Rather, the lyrics say:

I want you back in that Cadillac Eldorado backing out of the drive,
Leaving like there’s no tomorrow,
Back on that interstate, racing like the night you left me,
Eyes on the road, hands on the wheel, foot on the gas,
That’s the way I want you back.

The first time I listened to this song, I was immediately reminded of Skip Ewing. Jenkins has a similar voice, and Ewing’s influence can be heard in his songwriting, particularly on songs like “Heaven (Back By Tonight)” (my favorite track on the disc) and “I’ll Remember For You”, a touching story about a man who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and his grandson’s pledge to remember all the stories his grandpa had told him over the years. Other tracks, such as “Going Nowhere” and “Some Kind of Sexy” are reminiscent of James Taylor. I later found out when I checked Jenkins’ MySpace page, that both Ewing and Taylor are among the artists listed as his influences.

I’ve made no secret of my dislike for the vast majority of the music coming out of Nashville these days. Listening to this EP gives me hope that all is not yet lost. Jenkins’ singing and songwriting are both stellar. My only criticism of this set is that it is a bit ballad-heavy. It does contain some mid-tempo numbers — “Want You Back”, “Back To You” and the title track — but it could benefit from the addition of a few uptempo numbers. Jenkins is reportedly currently working on a new project with Garth Fundis, who has produced such great acts as Keith Whitley, Don Williams, Trisha Yearwood, and Sugarland. Hopefully a new record deal will soon follow. Matt Jenkins is too good to languish in obscurity.

Quarter of a Century can be purchased at Jenkins’ MySpace page. Some of his other songs can be streamed there as well.

Grade: A –