My Kind of Country

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Album Review: Bill Anderson – ‘Life!’

lifeVeteran songwriter Bill Anderson’s most recent venture into the recording studio showcases some of his newest songs. Whispering Bill was never known for the quality of his voice, but that means he is not apppreciably worse than in his youth, while his songwriting prowess is still great. He also recruits a few famous friends to help out with vocals on some tracks, which helps with the overall sound.

‘Rhinestone Grindstone’ is a brilliantly and sympathetically observed portrait of a struggling middle aged musician afraid he’s going to die “unfamous and broke” after all, but still doggedly carrying on for his handful of fans. Now,

He can’t write the songs and he can’t hold the notes and he can’t get the girls like before,

a duetting John Anderson (who certainly can still hold the notes and will hopefully be recording again himself soon) sings.

The most entertaining track on the record is probably his humorous collaboration with Joey + Rory, ‘Whisper’, which plays on both their real-life relationship and Bill’s famous nickname. Bill plays marriage counsellor to a squabbling couple, advising them to copy him instead of yelling at one another:

If you wanna make your point and really get through
Don’t raise your voice, just do what I do
Whisper

They all sound as thought they had a great time in the studio, and this would work well live too.

The ubiquitous Willie Nelson duets on the fun tongue in cheek ‘Bubba Garcia’s’, a co-write with Buddy Cannon and Jamey Johnson about a bar and restaurant which combines the Mexican and redneck influences of its owner’s heritage.

‘A Song Like This’ is a slightly quirky song Bill wrote with Brad Paisley, about an uptown woman who finds herself in a honky tonk bar due to a broken heart. Vince Gill inserts a soulful jazzstyle vocal cameo in the middle of the honky tonk tune to represent the woman’s sophisticated background; this is not my favorite side of Gill but he is certainly accomplished at it. Disappointingly, Dailey & Vincent are wasted and barely noticeable harmonising in the background of ‘Dreams Are Easy To Come By’, a pretty love song.

The best of Bill’s solo vocals is ‘Old Army Hat’, a very touching story song about a grandfather who embarrasses his grandson by insisting on constantly wearing his “funny looking worn out army hat” in honor of the comrades who didn’t make it back from WWII. The grandson finds his views change when they visit a war memorial at Washington DC, and he finds serving soldiers respect the old man/ Grandpa then gives his hat away to a little boy, the orphaned son of the victim of a more recent war, saying,

Son just keep it…
You’re a brave little soldier, son
And every soldier needs his very own authentic army hat
For your Daddy who gave everything the least that I can do
Is pass on this old worn out army hat

The song segues into part of ‘America The Beautiful’, with a small choir joining in, which works surprisingly well.

The other songs, good though they are, would undoubtedly sound better with someone else singing. ‘Blackberry Winter’ (written by Bill with Rob Crosby) is a very good if downbeat song comparing a thwarted romance to a cold spell in spring. ‘She Could Ruin My Life’ is quite a sweet song about falling in love, written with Jon Randall and Vicky McGehee. ‘In Another Life’, written with Walt Aldridge is a catchy and melodic but slightly silly little song about meeting someone it feels like he has known before; while the tender ‘When You Love Me’ is a straightforward love song.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Jamey Johnson and Alison Krauss – ‘Make The World Go Away’

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Divided And United: Songs Of The Civil War’

divided & unitedI love history as much as I do country music, so a project like Divided And United, and the several other recent albums which have focussed on the musical legacy of the Civil War is of strong interest to me. Of all these projects, this two-disc set is the one to involve the greatest number of straight country artists, although bluegrass and other American roots music are both well represented. Almost all the songs are all of genuine Civil War vintage or older ones which were popular at the time, and performed as far as possible in the style of the period. Movie composer Randall Poster had the idea for the project and produces. Relatively sparse arrangements are similar to the way the songs would have been sung at the time of the war.

My favourite track is Vince Gill’s beautiful, thoughtful prayer by a dying drummer boy to the ‘Dear Old Flag’ for which he is sacrificing his life, set to a simple, churchy piano accompaniment. A choir including Sharon and Cheryl White and the Isaacs, mixed quite low, joins in the final chorus. Another highlight is Jamey Johnson’s haunting lament of a ‘Rebel Soldier’ far from home, a kind of proto-blues which the former serving Marine conveys with an emotional power which renders the song completely believable. Also wonderful is Lee Ann Womack (absent for far too long from the recording studio) on ‘The Legend Of The Rebel Soldier’, a touching story song about a soldier dying far from home, beautifully sung. These three tracks are pretty much perfect.

Ashley Monroe sings ‘Pretty Saro’, another fine sad song reflecting on death, although it does not relate directly to the war (and in fact the songs which significantly predates the period), it fits in nicely musically. The pretty ‘Aura Lee’, another non-war folk song, is sung by the genre-defying musician Joe Henry (who also produces a number of tracks), and was another I enjoyed despite a limited (if emotionally expressive) vocal. I also very much enjoyed Chris Hillman’s sympathetic reading of the classic ‘Hard Times Come Again No More’.

The sad (but not directly related to the war) ‘Listen To The Mocking Bird’ is prettily sung by the brilliant fiddler Stuart Duncan with Dolly Parton harmonising. (Dolly’s star power gets her the lead billing in this pairing, but Duncan is the true lead vocalist on the track). Ricky Skaggs’s quietly measured ‘Two Soldiers’ and Chris Stapleton’s ‘Two Brothers’ relate specifically Civil War tragedies, the latter being one of the few post-war compositions.

The septuagenarian Loretta Lynn is showing her age vocally, but this lends some realistic vulnerability to her convincing portrayal of a farmer’s wife bidding her husband off to war, undertaking that she will carry on the farm until his return. Another veteran, but this time from the world of bluegrass, the legendary Del McCoury plays the part of a soldier bidding farewell to his sweetheart ‘Lorena’. This plaintive tale is mirrored by the mournful sequel at the other end of the album, ‘The Vacant Chair, meditated on by Dr Ralph Stanley, while old-time specialists Norman and Nancy Blake give us ‘The Faded Coat Of Blue’, another melancholy reflection.

Steve Earle portrays a young soldier’s fears the night before going into action, in ‘Just Before The Battle Mother / Farewell Mother’; perhaps he tries a little too hard to sound like a rough, tough soldier, and not quite enough sounding vulnerable and fearful in the face of impending death. The old soldier’s jaundiced attitude to war in ‘Down By The Riverside’ is rather yelled by blues musician Taj Mahal, but it is in keeping with the song and works quite well, while. One can imagine the soldiers singing like this.

‘Dixie’, sung during the war by both sides but associated now with the South, is pleasantly but somewhat underwhelmingly sung by Karen Elson and the Secret Sisters. It just feels a little too winsomely pretty to fit the project. Perhaps the ladies would have been more suited to ‘Wildwood Flower’, one of the few disappointments for me. ‘Wildwood Flower’ would have been better sung by a female singer than by Sam Amidon, a folk singer whose rather pedestrian vocal falls rather flat compared to many other versions I’ve heard, although the picking is nicely done. A A Bondy is a bit too breathy and experimental for me on ‘Johnny Has Gone For A Soldier’.

‘The Fall Of Charleston’, performed by folk/Americana duo Shovels & Rope is rather cluttered and messy sounding, and I could have done without this. T Bone Burnett isn’t much of a singer, but his grizzled vocal is extremely effective portraying the gloomy soldier’s wearied despair in ‘The Battle of Antietam’. Also working well with an everyman style vocal, John Doe’s wearied ‘Tenting On The Old Campground’ feels very authentic. Chris Thile and Mike Daves on the perky-sounding ‘Richmond Is A Hard Road To Travel’ also deal with army life.

‘Old Crow Medicine Show’ take on the two-paced marching song ‘Marching Through Georgia’ quite enjoyably. In a similar vein the less well known (and more anonymous sounding) The Tennessee Mafia Jug Band take on ‘Secesh’ in a raucous singalong. The Civil War had a naval aspect as well as a land one, and this represented here by a quirky sea song, ‘The Mermaid Song’, sung
by musician Jorma Kaukonen.

Angel Snow’s dreamily dejected version of ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ is quite effective at adding an unexpected poignancy.
The late Cowboy Jack Clements closes proceedings with the wistful ‘Beautiful Dreamer’.

Lest we forget the underlying cause of the war, the view of the slaves is represented in two songs (although it is not quite a first-person testimony, as both were written by the white abolitionist composer Henry Clay Ward. Pokey Lafarge tackles the anticipation of freedom in ‘Kingdom Come’ with committed enthusiasm just short of shouting, set against a martial beat. Much better, The Carolina Chocolate Drops hail the ‘Day Of Liberty’ for the country’s enslaved African Americans with a part-narrated (by Don Flemons), part-upbeat vocal (Rhiannon Giddens) song.

A few instrumental tunes are included, beautifully played by Bryan Sutton, Noah Pikelny and David Grisman. This impeccably arranged project is a remarkable piece of work, a poignant re-imagining of the Civil War through its music. It won’t appeal to everyone, but I appreciated it a great deal, and on a purely musical level, it has a lot to offer anyone who likes acoustic music.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Eric Strickland and the B Sides – ‘I’m Bad For You’

i'm bad for youI enjoyed this North Carolina group’s debut album last year so much it made my top 10 list for the year. I am delighted to report that the follow up is of a similar quality. I was also pleased to hea a fiddle added to the lineup.

The driving Waylonesque ‘The Whiskey Seems To Always Change My Mind’ oozes retro but convincing outlaw attitude, with a wry lyric about a straight and narrow kind of who gets pulled off the straight and narrow by drinking. It makes an exciting opening to the record. The similarly paced but slightly more Southern rock title track gets a bit repetitive.

The outstanding track is the waltz ‘Angel Like You’, which reminds me of some of Jamey Johnson’s best work. The story song tells the story of a hard working couple, both working 50- hour weeks and still not making ends meet, but whose love sustains them. It’s rooted in reality with its admissions of fights and the man’s temptation to turn to crime, rejected because he knows it would make him “less of a man”. Some pretty fiddle adds the final touch. Lovely.

Also inspired by the reality of today’s harsh economic climate, ‘Crude Oil Blues’ interestingly marries its modern message (complaining about gas prices) to an authentic Jimmie Rodgers style yodelling country blues.

Another contemporary lyric combined with more retro sound is the fast paced cautionary tale of ‘Methamphetamines’. This one sounds like Jerry Reed with added harmonica, and portrays a man’s descent into addiction and prison.

On a more traditional theme, ‘Heartache Hall Of Shame’ is a honky tonk shuffle with a musician narrator lamenting his foolish jettisoning of a lover for his band and the vain hopes of fame. Another shuffle, the poignant ‘Unwanted’ tells sympathetically of a has-been country singer, a man who is a

Used to be full of shattered dreams that never quite came true
He was top of the line back in his prime a hero for me and you
Now his songs have been forgotten and his name got lost in time
And now he drowns in memories and the liquor and the wine

‘So Easy’ is more personally painful as the protagonist quizzes his loved one about her new love interest, and just where he went wrong. It is the emotional equivalent of picking at a wound, and the rawness of the emotion has an intensity which makes it hit hard.

Drinking is the remedy for a broken heart in ‘Brandy On My Mind’, written by band member Gary Braddy (Brandy is the girl who did the damage, not the drink). Another broken man narrates ‘Not Enough’, as he fights an alcohol problem:

I’m a brother to the blues and a cousin to the rain
My best friends are Jim Beam and Jack Daniels
They’ve always seemed to help me with the pain
My woman says she can believe my drinking
My drinkin’ can’t believe she’d say those things
It’s pointless for me to fight
Cause she won’t be home tonight
And I realise I’ve been talking to myself

Up to now I’ve always been half crazy
But I think that I’ve finally lost my mind

The album closes with two live cuts: an effective cover of Waylon’s ‘Lucille (You Won’t Do Your Daddy’s Will)’, and a retread ‘18 Wheels Of Hell On The Highway’ from his previous album, which is fine, although it wasn’t one of my favorite tracks from that record.

This is highly recommended to anyone who wants to hear some solid, well-written and performed honky tonk music.

Grade: A

Album Review: Joe Diffie, Sammy Kershaw and Aaron Tippin – ‘All In The Same Boat’

all in the same boatAaron Tippin, our current Spotlight Artist and two fellow 90s stars we have highlighted in the past, Joe Diffie and Sammy Kershaw, have been touring together recently, and this inspired them to team up for a new album together.

It isn’t really a trio record, with most tracks featuring a single lead singer, with the others relegated to backing vocals. Each man also produces his own tracks, with Diffie assisted by regular collaborator, drummer Lonnie Wilson, and Kershaw taking over production duties on the three tracks on which vocals are shared. The album features a fairly eclectic mix of revivals of each of the guys’ hits, new songs, and a couple of unexpected covers.

The three share the lead vocals only occasionally, with the tracks which bookend the setsetting a buddyish mood. The first is the title track, penned by Wynn Varble, Jamey Johnson and Don Poythress. The humorous song, about a group of friends escaping their wives for a fishing trip, is being promoted as a single, complete with comedic video which nicely undercuts the masculine posturing, and is one of those clips which does add something to the song it illustrates. The closing track is a tribute to ‘Old Friends’ through thick and thin, written by Ben Hayslip and Jim Beavers. Both are decent songs if not particularly memorable ones, and they work well presenting the men as friends. The three also collaborate on a new Sammy Kershaw composition, ‘The Route That I Took’. This is a serious song about experiences and life’s choices.

Of the revivals, Aaron picks ‘Kiss This’ (one of his less subtle numbers but tackled here with undeniable enthusiasm which makes it palatable) and the inspirational tribute to his dad, ‘He Believed’. Sammy’s ‘She Don’t Know She’s Beautiful’ is pleasant enough but seems redundant. Honestly, though, all three of the revivals could have been omitted as none adds anything to the original.

More adventurously, Joe Diffie chooses to cover country rocker Neil Young’s ‘Heart Of Gold’; the arrangement is nice with a prominent harmonica but Joe’s voice sounds a bit rough. Aaron Tippin is not really suited vocally to a standard like ‘The Way You look Tonight’, but it was an interesting idea if ultimately unsuccessful, and it’s nice to see artists taking the occasional risk.

Sammy Kershaw sings ‘On And On’ well but it’s rather a boring song. His best vocal of the album comes on the sincere ‘I Love To Work’, avowing his dedication to family and job, which he wrote with Bradley Gaskin and Billy Lawson.

Joe Diffie delivers a great vocal on his own ‘I’m Hangin’ On’, which is a pretty good song about a relationship falling apart, which he wrote with Steve Pippin. I also enjoyed his vocal on the playful up-tempo ‘Misery Loves Country’, written by Josh Kerr, David Fraiser and Edward Hill. These two cuts, and the three trio songs, are the pick of the bunch, and the most individually download-worthy, followed by ‘I Love To Work’.

This is not a bad album by any means, and there are quite a few tracks I like, but it’s not going to rank high on the discographies of any of its participants or to be an essential purchase for most fans.

Grade: B-

Predictions and analysis: The 55th Annual Grammy Awards

Grammy-AwardsIt’s that time of year again, to celebrate music’s biggest night. The 55th Grammy Awards are set to air this Sunday on CBS. In a rather surprising move, it’s the females who’ll be representing our genre at the show. Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift, and Miranda Lambert are all slated to perform, with Lambert teaming up with her ‘Locked and Reloaded’ tour partner Dierks Bentley for a special collaboration. The country nominees are below, and it turns out they’re much stronger than was expected. The Recording Academy seems to have found a happy medium between commercial and artistic popularity. We’ll have to see if any of the artistic nominees (Jamey Johnson, The Time Jumpers, and others) will prevail against their commercial contemporaries. Predictions are below:

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J.R. Journey’s Top Albums of 2012

Here are my favorite albums from 2012, in no order. Click the links to listen on Spotify.

nashville soundtrackNashville Cast The Music of Nashville: Season 1, Volume 1

The Tennesseean‘s Peter Cooper made a valid case about the music coming from the hit ABC drama being better than most mainstream country hits. I agree with him. While the TV show’s original songs haven’t yet shown much aptitude with traditional country sounds – leaning more toward Americana and pop-country – they’re leaps and bounds ahead of the current top 40 when it comes to content and substance.

Recommended tracks: “Wrong Song”, “If I Didn’t Know Better”, “No One Will Ever Love You”

Kellie Pickler100 Proof

A handful of barn-burning up-tempos, a few clever female-friendly medium tempos, and even more stone country tear-jerkers, served up with heaps of fiddle, pedal steel, and Kellie Pickler’s Carolina twang? Yes, please.

Recommended tracks: “Long As I Never See You Again”, “Where’s Tammy Wynette”, “The Letter (To Daddy)”

jameyjohnsonJamey Johnson – Living For a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran

Johnson’s tribute to Music Row pioneer and songwriting legend Hank Cochran features an all-star cast taking on some of Cochran’s big hits and a few well-chosen and lesser known gems.

Recommended tracks: “Make The World Go Away” (with Alison Krauss), “A-11” (with Ronnie Dunn), “A Way To Survive” (with Leon Russell and Vince Gill)

Zac Brown BandUncaged

On their third album, the Zac Brown Band again combines country with bluegrass and the sounds of the islands and the songs this time out are again smart and to the point.

Recommended tracks: “Sweet Annie”, “Goodbye In Her Eyes”, “The Wind”

Alan JacksonThirty Miles West

Jackson’s first album for the EMI Nashville label follows his winning no frills neotraditional formula. Thirty Miles West is a set full of top-notch songs and performances. I can’t stop playing it.

Recommended tracks: “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore”, “Look Her In The Eye and Lie”, “She Don’t Get High”

dwight yoakam - 3 pearsDwight Yoakam  – 3 Pears

Yoakam’s first album of all new material in seven years is as eclectic as the man himself. On 3 Pears, he shares production duties with punk-rock hero Beck and songwriting credit with Robert Richie (aka Kid Rock) and Ashley Monroe on respective tracks on a set that ably combines the sound of rock and roll’s golden AM era with his own distinctive country stamp.

Recommended tracks: “It’s Never Alright”, “Heart Like Mine”, “Long Way To Go”

Razor X’s Top Albums of 2012

Finding good new country music is not as easy as it once was, and due to a number of other things that were going on in my life, I’m afraid I didn’t put much effort into seeking out new music this year but I was able to find a few gems:


10. Heroes — Willie Nelson

Willie’s return to the major labels was an eclectic collection that found him covering Coldplay and Pearl Jam, but also reunited him with Merle Haggard and Ray Price, as well as sharing the spotlight a bit with his sons Lukas and Micah.

dierks9. Home — Dierks Bentley

2010’s Up On The Ridge was successful critically but not commercially, so it’s not surprising that Dierks chose to follow it up with a much more radio-friendly collection. The strategy worked, as Home produced three # 1 singles.

8. Nashville, Volume 1: Tear The Woodpile Down — Marty Stuart

Not quite the masterpiece that 2010’s Ghost Train was, this collection was still one of my favorite listens of the year. I would have rated it higher if it hadn’t contained some recycled material (“Sundown In Nashville”, “Truck Driver’s Blues”).

kelliepickler7. 100 Proof — Kellie Pickler

I never thought that Kellie Picker’s name would ever appear on any of my best of lists, but she really blossomed with this collection of more traditional-sounding tunes. Unfortunately, just as she was finally making music that allowed her to be taken seriously as an artist, she was dropped by her record label. What the future holds for her remains to be seen. There was a time when I would have said that she wouldn’t be missed very much, but now I’m curious to see what direction she goes in next.

6. Calling Me Home — Kathy Mattea

I wasn’t a huge fan of 2008’s Coal, but I like Kathy’s second visit to her Appalachian roots much better. This is a less bleak look at her heritage.

zbb5. Uncaged — Zac Brown Band

Creepy cover art aside, this collection allowed the Zac Brown Band to further expand on their increasing eclectic but always interesting catalog.

4. Thirty Miles West — Alan Jackson

There weren’t any real surprises or stretches in Alan’s EMI Nashville debut; it’s very much in the same vein as most of the other albums he’s released over the past twenty-odd years — which is exactly what country music needs right now.

terriclark3. Classic — Terri Clark

Terri Clark and I were born just a few weeks apart, so we grew up listening to much of the same music. This collection, in which she covers tunes by Linda Ronstadt, Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Reba McEntire and Tanya Tucker, provided a wonderful trip down memory lane and is the best album of her career.

2. Restless — Sweethearts of the Rodeo

This long overdue new release was well worth the wait. It’s a shame that it won’t be as widely heard as it deserves.

jameyjohnson1. Living For A Song – A Tribute to Hank Cochran — Jamey Johnson

By the time I was three tracks into listening to this album for the first time, I knew it was my favorite of the year. It’s a beautifully crafted masterpiece with an impressive guest roster that pays homage to one of the greatest country songwriters of all time. I can’t say enough good things about this album.

Occasional Hope’s Top Albums of 2012

It’s not been a bad year for country music – as long as you ignore the charts and mainstream country radio. My #1 album of the year was released on a major label but with no singles success, and most of my other selections came from independent labels, although some of the names will be familiar. Just missing the cut were, among others, albums from Joey + Rory (some delicious moments but more hit and miss than their previous efforts), Terri Clark’s classic covers, the always reliable Alan Jackson, Kathy Mattea, and current star Dierks Bentley.

For full reviews, and purchase details, click on the links in the album title and artist name respectively.

10. Alive At Brushy Mountain PenitentiaryMark Collie

The live prison album was recorded in 2001, but only escaped the vaults of MCA this year. It was worth the wait, with an energetic set of suitably themed mainly original songs.

Best tracks: ‘I Could’ve Gone Right’, ‘Rose Covered Garden’, ‘Maybe Mexico’, ‘On The Day I Die‘.

marty raybon9. Southern Roots And Branches: Yesterday and TodayMarty Raybon

Former Shenandoah lead singer Marty Raybon released a pair of albums this year. This, the secular one of the pair, was the better, with Marty’s smoky voice sounding as good as ever on a bluegrass influenced set including the odd reworking of a few Shenandoah hits.

Best tracks: ‘Long Hard Road’, ‘Big Pain’, ‘Ghost In This House’, ‘Get Up In Jesus’ Name’.

8. Honky Tonk Till I DieEric Strickland and the B Sides

Solidly enjoyable, unpretentious honky-tonk with some great original songs written by the North Carolinian lead singer. It may be obscure, but it’s really good.

Best tracks: ‘Haggard And Hell’, ‘Freedom’, ‘Standing In The Headlights’, ‘Womankind‘.

wesley dennis7. Country EnoughWesley Dennis

An excellent return from one of the best singers who never made it. The former Mercury Records artist has a classic country voice and has written some fine songs for this independent releases.

Best tracks: ‘A Month Of Sundays’, ‘Lady’s Choice’, ‘That Dog Won’t Hunt’, ‘Sun, Surf And The Sand (And My Ties)‘.

6. The Time JumpersThe Time Jumpers

The part-time supergroup featuring Vince Gill and Dawn Sears came up with a delightful confection of country, jazz and western swing for their first studio alum together. The musicianship sparkles and this is a real celebration of the joy of making music.

Best tracks: ‘So Far Apart’, ‘Three Sides To Every Story’, ‘The Woman Of My Dreams’, ‘Someone Had To Teach You’.

gene watson5. Best Of The BestGene Watson

I wasn’t sure whether to include this album in my list but in the end the quality shone through and I had to keep it in. A veteran star who still has the vocal goods to shame most of his younger, more commercially successful rivals, Gene Watson has chosen to revisit some of his best-loved recordings for this release. I would really have preferred new material from him, but this is just a lovely listening experience.

Best tracks: ‘Farewell Party’, ‘What She Don’t Know Won’t Hurt Her’, ‘Nothing Sure Looked Good On You’, ‘Between This Time And The Next Time’.

4. Pourin’ Whiskey On PainTim Culpepper

The unknown newcomer gave me my most pleasant surprise this year with his traditional sound and some excellent songs.

Best tracks: ‘One More For The Road’, ‘When Misery Finds Company’, ‘Pourin’ Whiskey On Pain’, ‘Toss And Turn’.

jason eady3. AM Country HeavenJason Eady

I called this a “low-key delight” when I reviewed it earlier this year, and my judgment stands. This mature thoughtful record has no weak spots at all. Patty Loveless duetting on one track is an unexpected bonus.

Best tracks (though everything is worth hearing): ‘AM Country Heaven’, ‘Man On A Mountain’ (with Patty Loveless), ‘Water Into Wine’, ‘Old Guitar And Me’.

2. Too Much Ain’t EnoughClinton Gregory

Sweet voiced singer/fiddler Clinton Gregory is back after years of silence with a lovely set of mainly sad songs.

Best tracks: ‘Too Much Ain’t Enough’, ‘Too Country For Nashville’, ‘Has Love Taken Its Toll?’, ‘Chase Away The Lonely’.

jamey johnson21. Living For A Song: A Tribute To Hank CochranJamey Johnson

It was obvious as soon as I listened to this album that it was going to be this year’s highlight. Songs by one of the greatest country songwriters ever, performed by Jamey Johnson and some of his friends including legends like Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Ray Price and Emmylou Harris, and more recent stars like Lee Ann Womack, Ronnie Dunn and George Strait. From the exquisite opening notes of ‘Make The World Go Away’, with Alison Krauss’s angelically sweet counterpoint to Jamey’s gruff tenderness, every single song here is a gem, and almost every track is excellent. This really is an outstanding album.

Best tracks: hard to pin down, but if I must then ‘Would These Arms Be In Your Way’ solo; ‘Make The World Go Away’ with Alison Krauss; ‘You Wouldn’t Know Love’ with Ray Price; and ‘Don’t Touch Me’ with Emmylou Harris.

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Top Albums of 2012

Adventurism. Turning convention on its head. Those are just two of the themes threading each of the albums on my list. I’ve noticed my tastes venturing further and further from the mainstream, as radio playlists are marginalized and top 40 acts are less and less interesting. To get an even fuller picture of my picks, check out the albums I ranked 19-11 here.

gretchenpeters10. Gretchen Peters – Hello Cruel World

Thinking people’s music from a lyrical master. It’s easy to overlook the beauty of Hello Cruel World and cast it off as slow, depressing, and moody. But to do that is to completely miss the point of an emotional woman bearing her soul for all who will listen.

9. Various Artists – Kin: Songs by Rodney Crowell and Mary Karr

A patchwork quilt infusing distinct individual moments with simple yet evocative lyrics brought to life by a stellar cast, Kin is a concept project done right. But the marriage of the poet and song master is its greatest achievement, two people from different fields of work, aiming at the same goal – affecting emotion. Look no further than “My Father’s Advice” or even “Mama’s On A Roll” to know they’ve succeeded in spades.

living for a song8. Jamey Johnson and Friends – Livin’ For A Song – A Tribute to Hank Cochran

 One of country’s greatest songwriters gets a tribute from one of its fiercest advocates for tradition. Johnson could’ve done the work solo and still come through with a masterwork, but instead he’s paired with some of the finest vocalists of our generation, elevating simple lyrics into works of art.

7. The Time Jumpers – The Time Jumpers

Time and again I’ve said it but I really miss the days when Vince Gill brought his class and sophistication to mainstream country. Now its a prime example of you don’t know what you had until it was gone. Like last year’s stellar Guitar Slinger, he’s back working his magic, this time with his stellar string band. A not to be missed delight The Time Jumpers is the convergence of expertly talented musicians and singers coming together to spread their considerable awesomeness onto the world.

100 Proof6. Kellie Pickler – 100 Proof

Often regulated to singing kiss off songs about men that have done her wrong (“Things That Never Cross A Man’s Mind,” “Best Days of Your Life,” “Red High Heels”) and empowerment anthems (“Don’t You Know you’re Beautiful”), Kellie Pickler became a singer who never quite rose above mediocrity.

Enter 100 Proof, a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am/take-no-prisoners/unapologetic classic country tour de force that finally matches the music to the talent, For the first time since America first met Pickler on American Idol, she makes a statement. And it’s a giant leap forward.

5. Jana Kramer – Jana Kramer 

Haven’t we seen this before? An actress from a television show detours through Nashville to have their fifteen minutes of fame as a country singer. They claim their allegiances to the music, try to sing and look the part, but end up only as a parody of the real thing, a jokester trying in vain to pull off a charade so fake you wonder how on earth this could’ve transpired in the first place.

Luckily they’re not all built from the same tattered cloth. Jana Kramer is the exception, turning the most satisfying and promising debut album in years. I found myself continually mesmerized by her voice and spellbound by her ability to fish through the dreck and find quality music. So this isn’t Storms of Life Part II. But she’s obviously trying and cares to sound country. And not generically pop-country, either. She might not be a revolution, but she’s the most promising step in the right direction a commercially viable mainstream country singer has gone in years. And I couldn’t be happier about it.

marty-stuart-nashville-cover4. Marty Stuart – Tear The Woodpile Down: Nashville, Volume 1 

Stuart’s latest foray into traditional country refines the formula set by Ghost Train by pairing originals with well-chosen covers. He fearlessly wears his love for country music on his sleeve and proves he’s the best teacher any contemporary country singer can learn from, if only they would take his class. A cover of Luke The Drifter’s “Pictures From Life’s Other Side,” a duet with his grandson Hank III, is easily among the best album cuts 2012 had to offer.

3. Punch Brothers – Ahoy! – EP

A creative risk like none you’ll hear all year, Punch Brothers fill their Who’s Feeling Young Now companion with brazen eccentricity, wild abandon, and more than enough musical gambles to make anyone dizzy.

They stand out because they’re fierce and bold, charting a course all their own. No one else looks or sounds like them and their underground following is a testament to their originality. Where they’ll venture from here is anyone’s guess.

2. Punch Brothers – Who’s Feeling Young Now?

Now this is acoustic music I can fully endorse. Where acts like Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers blend too much rock into their sound for my liking, The Punch Brothers take their cues directly from the foundations of bluegrass and build their sound from there. But like their rock counterparts, this isn’t strictly acoustic – odes to pop (“This Girl”) and funk (“Patchwork Girlfriend”) mix in effortlessly and are guided by Chris Thile’s measured vocals and brilliant mandolin playing. For lovers of an adventurous out of the box take on the traditional album format, look no further than Who’s Feeling Young Now, one of the finest albums of 2012.

Calling Me Home1. Kathy Mattea – Calling Me Home

In the increasingly marginalized landscape of current popular music, realism is as rare a virtue as honesty, with singers churning out products aimed at returning maximum profit at radio and retail without effort towards impact or intention. Music as a means to influence emotion and affect thought is nearly non-existent. Not everyone sees it that way, thankfully, as Calling Me Home is the infrequent exception to the current model, a masterwork forcing us human Beings to venture inward and examine our complacency towards place and the havoc our irreversible actions have had on mankind.

Although the chronicled subjects rise from the Appalachian Mountains, and the day-to-day realities revolve around the “scoundrel and saint” that is coal, the overarching messages in these songs are universal to anyone with a conscious. But even more important is the conveyor, and Mattea brings each track to life with the power of her voice, a ribbon weaving through the complexities of each lyric, driving home every declaration.

At 53, Mattea is singing from the sharpened eye of experience, pondering the meaning of life and death with the vibrancy and vigor of wisdom that surfaces through a life lived with spiritual connectedness to ones own body and mind. And for that reason, Calling Me Home is one of the most important records to come along in a long, long time, a masterpiece of the soul and the earth from which all of us are born.

Razor X’s Top Singles of 2012

Every year it seems that it becomes more difficult to compile a list of the year’s top singles. I seldom listen to country radio anymore and as such I’ve become much more album oriented and barely aware of which songs on my favorite albums were actually released as singles. However, I have managed to identify a few bright spots in a genre that is still sadly headed in the wrong direction. Here are my favorite choices of 2012:

dierks10. 5-1-5-0 — Dierks Bentley

Though not as good as his previous single “Home”, which made my list of 2011’s top singles, the title of this catchy number refers to the section of the California Welfare and Institutions Code which allows law enforcement officers to involuntarily confine individuals with mental disorders. In the case of the narrator of this story, it is his love interest who is making him crazy.

9. Neon — Chris Young

Songs paying homage to one’s favorite watering hole have long been a staple in country music, but this tune by the best of country music’s current crop of male vocalists does it in a fresh and interesting way, comparing the colors of the bar’s neon signs to the blue of a Wyoming sky, the red of a Santa Fe sunset, and the yellow of Texas sunflowers. It underperformed on the charts, peaking at a disappointing #23.

martina8. Marry Me — Martina Bride featuring Pat Monahan

It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to get excited about anything Martina McBride has done, but I was pleasantly surprised by this cover version of a hit for the group Train. Given country radio’s current pop leanings I expected this one to perform well on the charts, but it stalled at #45.

7. Diamonds Make Babies — Bradley Gaskin

I prefer Dierk Bentley’s version of this tune that delves into the six degrees of separation between engagement and parenthood, but it’s a fun song no matter who sings it.

terri6. Love Is A Rose — Terri Clark
If I were compiling a list of this sort a decade ago, it would have been inconceivable that the vast majority of my selections would be by male vocalists. Terri Clark is one of the few females who has released anything that I found remotely interesting this year. Sixteen years after she topped the charts with “Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me”, Clark shows that she can still wrap her vocal cords around a Linda Ronstadt tune. Unfortunately, Terri’s record is unlikely to get any chart action in the U.S., but hopefully it will gain some traction in Canada.

5. Living For A Song– Jamey Johnson featuring Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson and Hank Cochran

The capstone of Johnson’s magnficient tribute album to one of country music’s greatest songwriters finds him joining forces with legends Nelson, Haggard and Kristofferson, and the late Hank Cochran himself. Predictably, it was ignored by country radio.

Zac Brown Band in Concert on NBC's "Today Show" at Rockefeller Center in New York City on July 13, 20124. No Hurry — Zac Brown Band

I really liked everything that the Zac Brown Band released this year and was tempted to include all three of their single releases but that seemed like taking the lazy way out. “No Hurry”, which peaked at #2 early this year, is my favorite of the bunch.

3. Loving You Is Fun — Easton Corbin
This laid back tune, which I reviewed back in February, reminds me of the type of song Clint Black used to do in the 90s. Country music needs more artists like Easton Corbin.

2. So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore — Alan Jackson
Alan’s second single under a new deal with EMI Nashville is well written and impeccably performed but unfortunately, it did nothing to reverse his chart decline. The production and his vocal performance are nicely understated.

george1. Drinkin’ Man — George Strait
After phoning it in for the past couple of years, George Strait came back in a big way with this tune about a lifelong struggle with alcoholism. He tackles the topic in a straightforward and effective manner, never becoming maudlin or preachy. He co-wrote the song with his son Bubba and Dean Dillon. It stands in stark contrast with most of the fluff on country radio — or at least it would have had it received more airplay. It stalled at #37, which is nothing short of tragic because it likely means that the major labels will not be inclined to release material like this in the future. But even though it is the lowest charting single of Strait’s long and illustrious career, it is an artistic triumph.

2012 CMA Awards: our predictions

The 46th annual Country Music Association annual awards ceremony will take place on November 1, 2012 at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. The show will air live on ABC television again this year and is presented by the pairing of Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, who will take over hosting duties for the fifth consecutive year. Eric Church and his massive hit “Springsteen” lead the list of nominees, with Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton close behind him.

On awards night, look for a musical tribute to Willie Nelson and The Band Perry to debut the first taste of their Rick Rubin produced sophomore album. There’s also talk that Female Vocalist nominee Kelly Clarkson will debut “Don’t Rush” on the telecast, a duet with Vince Gill featured from her Greatest Hits, Chapter One album in stores Nov. 19. Also look forward to a duet from Tim McGraw and Faith Hill (which I’ve heard is during the Nelson tribute), and solo performances from each.

Entertainer of the Year

Jason Aldean
Kenny Chesney
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton
Taylor Swift – Jonathan Pappalardo, J.R. Journey

The usual solid yet unspectacular group. Carrie Underwood fans are likely fuming at yet another snub, while everyone else will bark at the inclusion of Swift, a two-time winner and the incumbent, for her increasing lack of country credibility. But Aldean is the nominee to watch, as his recent stadium tour announcement will likely endear him to voters in the years to come.

Jonathan Pappalardo: I’ll bet on the safest choice this time around and say Taylor Swift is going to win. Chesney may have had the biggest tour, and Aldean is on fire right now, but Swift has the lock on this category.

J.R. Journey: Taylor Swift now not only represents about one-fourth of the total United States GDP, she also hawks makeup, perfume, and shoes on the side. And she just had the #1 song in 12 countries. I say Swift is most likely to succeed on CMA night.

Female Vocalist of the Year

Kelly Clarkson
Miranda Lambert – Jonathan Pappalardo
Martina McBride
Taylor Swift – J.R. Journey
Carrie Underwood

Kelly Clarkson, really? She did score a #21 hit with the country version of “Mr. Know It All” so her nomination is somewhat, albeit very marginally, justified. She has yet to fully embrace a career in country music. McBride is a snoozer scoring her 14th consecutive nomination and 15th overall as her career takes a downward spiral. See, this is what happens when all the great female artists of late (Kimberly Perry, Jennifer Nettles, Shawna Thompson) are members of duos and groups.

Jonathan Pappalardo: While I’d love to see this award go to Clarkson (to tick off the industry if nothing else), she’s a pop singer who’s done a bang up job covering country songs in concert. That’s about it. Miranda Lambert, meanwhile, is the biggest star in country music right now that actually looks and sounds country. And her intuition to form the Pistol Annies proves she’s not afraid to take creative risks. Its her award to lose, and I don’t foresee that happening.

J.R. Journey: Taylor Swift is the likely winner here for pretty much the same reasons she’ll win Entertainer of the year. Miranda Lambert’s new solo music is way below her usual standards this year and I think Carrie Underwood’s dog already had its day in this category, so I don’t see voters leaning toward either of them. 

Male Vocalist of the Year

Jason Aldean
Luke Bryan
Eric Church
Blake Shelton – Jonathan Pappalardo, J.R. Journey
Keith Urban

Another somewhat standard list until you take into account Urban is here in place of red-hot Dierks Bentley. Bentley’s exclusion, which comes on the heels of three back-to-back #1 hits is shocking. Urban should be joining Brad Paisley and been made to sit this one out this year.

Jonathan Pappalardo:  There’s seemingly no stopping Blake Shelton right now despite one mediocre single after another. He’s the biggest star here next to Jason Aldean and the all around better vocalist. He’ll sail to his third straight win no problem.

J.R. Journey: Blake Shelton is coming off two consecutive wins here and his visibility remains higher than Aldean’s, the next closest competitor. Long shots for the win Luke Bryan and Eric Church are still newcomers and first time nominees leaving Keith Urban the longest shot “veteran” slot. For my money, Shelton will repeat a third time here.

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Album Review: Jamey Johnson – ‘Living For A Song: A Tribute To Hank Cochran’

One of today’s greatest singer-songwriters salutes one of the great country songwriters of all time by recruiting an all-star cast to revive some of Cochran’s greatest songs. Every song here is a timeless classic, and Johnson and his friends do them justice in what is for me unquestionably the album of the year so far. Fellow songwriters Buddy Cannon and Dale Dodson produce with taste. Jamey was close to Hank in his later years, and was one of those who visited the hitmaker the night before he died to sing with him. Furthermore, while his reputation is based on his writing, he is also a fine singer, who shows his interpretative skills throughout this album. It came out on vinyl for collectors on September 25, and gets its mass market release digitally and on CD this week.

Alison Krauss’s angelic tones contrast exquisitely with Jamey’s gruffer but intensely emotional vocal on a beautiful version of the Cochran-penned standard ‘Make The World Go Away’, where they seek comfort from their troubles by reviving the love in a longstanding relationship. Tasteful steel is prominent in the sympathetic arrangement, while Krauss’s soothing voice provides the sweetness given by string arrangements in the hit versions, which epitomized the Nashville Sound. First recorded by Ray Price in 1963, it was the era’s superstar Eddy Arnold who had the biggest hit with the ballad, but many others have covered the song, both within and beyond country music – even Elvis Presley. The lovely Johnson/Krauss version stands up well against previous takes, and is one of the finest tracks on this album.

‘I Fall To Pieces’, which Cochran wrote with the equally great Harlan Howard, is one of the finest country songs of all time. Jamey sings this with Merle Haggard, and this is another superlative recording with the emotion and pain of lost love stripped down to its core, and completely believable performances from both men. Read more of this post

You didn’t have a good time: songs about struggling with alcohol

The recent unfortunate news of Randy Travis’s apparently alcohol-fuelled decline has prompted me to bring together these songs about people struggling to give up alcohol.

Randy’s own recording of ‘You Didn’t Have A Good Time’ from his last studio album, 2008’s Around The Bend, now seems heartbreakingly prescient – or an early warning to himself of a problem that he was, one assumes, aware of. The song starts from the standpoint that the first step in tackling the problem is acknowledging its existence:

I bet you don’t remember
Kneeling in that bathroom stall
Praying for salvation
And cursing alcohol
Then went right back to drinking
Like everything was fine
Let’s be honest with each other
You didn’t have a good time

So take a good hard look in the mirror
And drink that image down
I’m truth that you can’t run from
I’m the conscience you can’t drown
And the happiness you want so bad
You ain’t gonna find
Until you start believing
You didn’t have a good time

When you woke up this morning
I guess you just assumed
That you got something out of
The empty bottles in this room
There ain’t an angel that can save you
When you’re listening to the wine
And the demons they won’t tell you
You didn’t have a good time

Trace Adkins ‘Sometimes A Man Takes A Drink’ offers an equally somber warning of the gradual fall from casual social drinking into the prison of addiction, with its melancholy warning, “sometimes a drink takes the man”. (Co-writer Larry Cordle has also recorded a superb version of the song, but Trace’s magnificent vocal edges his cut ahead.)

The same theme appears in George Jones’s bitingly honest ‘A Drunk Can’t Be A Man’, from his 1976 album Alone Again, when he was still drinking heavily himself. In this third person story, George sings of a man whose life is utterly miserable thanks to his drinking but “seems proud to have the devil for his guide”.

Sometimes it seems like a miracle that Jones is still alive in his 80s, given his chequered history with alcohol. This history has been frequently acknowledged in his choice of songs like ‘Wine (You’ve Used Me Long Enough)’, the agonized ‘Wean Me’, ‘If Drinking Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)‘, I’ve Aged Twenty Years In Five’,  ‘Ol’ George Stopped Drinking Today’, and the rueful admission of ‘Wine Colored Roses’. In 1999 it was also the subject of his last solo top 30 hit ‘Choices’, a bleak Billy Yates song about the lifelong effect of bad decisions and putting drinking above those who loved him.

Jones following a 1978 DUI arrest.

One of my uncles was (and I would say he still is) an alcoholic, and while struggling with his problem in his 20s he spent some time living with his older married half-brother (my parents, before I was born). I’ve left out a whole range of songs about the impact of an alcoholic relative on his or her spouse and family, but the role of a loved one in supporting someone through the hard times is also important, and dealt with in a number of country songs. One of my favorites is ‘I’m Trying’, recorded both by Diamond Rio in duet with Chely Wright, and more recently solo by Martina McBride, which movingly shows the middle of the struggle, with a loved one trying to support the drinker.

Someone who can’t admit their problem to their loved ones is clearly not in good shape to turn the corner. Now-disbanded trio Trick Pony were best known for main lead singer Heidi Newfield, but one of their best songs (‘The Devil And Me’), sung by one of her male bandmates, dealt with the struggles of an alcoholic, shamefacedly hiding his used bottles from his wife and children, and confessing,

I’ve battled with the bottle all alone for years

Bleak though the basic situation is, he still hopes things can turn around, affirming in the last verse and chorus:

I’m hoping for a miracle
I know that I can change
No, I’m not giving up
I know there’ll come a day

When I’m not too tired to fight it
Or too ashamed to pray
And I know the Lord won’t be bored
With the promises I’ve made
I won’t live here with my secret
Where no one else can see
No, I won’t keep it
Between the devil and me

Sometimes it takes a catastrophic incident to prompt a change of heart. 80s star T. Graham Brown has recorded a moving plea to God from a man who has reached rock bottom for help to turn the ‘Wine Into Water’. In the brilliant Leslie Satcher song ‘From Your Knees’ (recorded by Matt King  (with Patty Loveless on harmony), later by John Conlee, and ironically, also by Randy Travis on Around The Bend), a wife tired of her man’s “cheating and drinking” finally leaves after 17 years, forcing him to face the truth:

Right then and there in an old sinner’s prayer
He told things he’d kept in the dark
There was no use in lying
Cause the man who was listening
Could see every room in his heart

Sometimes a man can change on his own
But sometimes I tell you it takes

Empty closets and empty drawers
And a tearful confession on the kitchen floor
And burning memories in the fireplace
He had waited too late to say he was wrong

Brother, you would not believe
What you can see from your knees

Another song from his own repertoire Travis might be advised to pay attention to, now he seems to have reached his own rock bottom point.

Before he discovered the beach, Kenny Chesney recorded some strong material, and one of the best was the earnest ‘That’s Why I’m Here’, a #2 hit in 1998. A mature reflection on the damage done to a life “when you lose control”, this seems to have a happy ending as the protagonist has learned his lesson and started attending AA meetings.

However, some damage cannot be undone, as we see from a couple of songs dealing with the effects of addiction to drugs rather than alchol. The video for Jeff Bates’ emotional ‘One Second Chance’ ties it in with his own former drug problem, while Jamey Johnson’s stunning ‘High Cost Of Living’ is one of the finest songs of its kind as it portrays someone whose addiction led to throwing away everything good in his life. Billy Yates’ minor hit ‘Flowers’ (subsequently covered by Chris Young) deals with the literally sobering aftermath of a drunk driving incident in which the protagonist killed his wife or girlfriend; change comes too late. Gravel-voiced singer-songwriter Bobby Pinson included several compelling songs referring to the drunk-driving death of a high school friend on his underrated album Man Like Me ( ‘Don’t Ask Me How I Know’, ‘A Man Like Me’ and ‘I Thought That’s Who I Was’), the culminating effect of which sounds autobiographical. In ‘One More Believer’ on the same album he looks back to a sordid past passing out drunk before finding salvation through the love of a good woman.

Joe Nichols, another star who has struggled with substance abuse in real life, chose to record ‘An Old Friend of Mine’, a moving low key confessional of the day a man gives up drinking:

I never thought I’d be strong enough to leave it all behind
But today I said goodbye to an old friend of mine…
And I heard freedom ring when that bottle hit the floor
And I just walked away not needing anymore

Yet it’s still a struggle to maintain sobriety after making that commitment. My uncle stopped drinking over 40 years ago, but still attends AA meetings regularly and can’t touch a single drop of alcohol in case it sets off the cravings again. George Jones has had the odd lapse in recent years, and it’s well documented that Randy Travis had issues with drinking among other wild behaviour as a teenager before straightening up, so his current woes may be a resurgence of a longstanding underlying problem.

Collin Raye’s hit ‘Little Rock’ shows an alcoholic trying hard to make a fresh start and making a good beginning, but only 19 days into his sobriety there’s clearly a long way to go (although his record is 10 days and counting ahead of the protagonist of George Strait’s recent single ‘Drinkin’ Man’. Co-written with Dean Dillon who has had his own issues with alcohol in the past, this searing portrait of a man whose problems go back to his early teens unfortunately proved to be a bit too close to reality for today’s country radio and became the lowest charting single of Strait’s career.  It remains one of the best singles of 2012.

Texan Jason Boland’s ‘Bottle By My Bed’, looking back on the time when “my life was as empty as the bottle by my bed,” also talks about all the false starts, when “each time was the last time, that’s what I always said”, but has the protagonist now on safer ground.

Finally, if anyone reading this thinks they have a problem: please get help. For information and resources, visit the AA.org and Al Anon websites for help for you and/or your loved ones.

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘Heroes’

Nearly two decades after he departed Columbia Records, Willie Nelson has rejoined the Sony Music family with Heroes, which was produced by Buddy Cannon and released last week on the Legacy Recordings imprint. He is joined by a number of guest artists, including Merle Haggard, Ray Price, Kris Kristofferson, Jamey Johnson, Sheryl Crow, Billy Joe Shaver, and Snoop Dogg. Also participating are Nelson’s sons Micah and Lukas. Sounding very much like a younger version of his 79-year-old father, Lukas performs on most of the album’s tracks and does the heavy lifting much of the time.

As is usually the case with a Willie Nelson album, the selection of songs is eclectic. A cover of Coldplay’s “The Scientist” was released as a single late last year. Three more singles were released almost simultaneously last month. “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die”, a lighthearted number that makes pokes fun at Willie’s well-known marijuana habit, was released on April 20th, or “420 Day”, which apparently is significant in the cannabis subculture. “Just Breathe”, a Pearl Jam cover and “Come On Back Jesus” were released the following day in celebration of Record Store Day. I particularly like the latter, which calls for the second coming of Christ and asks him to “pick up John Wayne on the way.” I’m cool with that. Rounding out the track list are some covers of some western swing classics: Bob Wills’ “My Window Faces The South” and Fred Rose’s “Home In San Antone”, as well as the Ray Price classic “This Cold War With You”, on which Price makes a guest appearance. Also included are some original tunes written by Willie, Lukas, and Buddy Cannon.

Some of the guest appearances are my favorite moments on the album. While I wasn’t too excited to see Snoop Dogg’s name on the guest roster, his contribution to “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me While I Die” wasn’t bad. Sheryl Crow, the lone female guest artist, chimes in on “Come On Up To The House”. But the album’s true highlights are “A Horse Called Music”, which reunites Willie with Merle Haggard and “Cold War With You” featuring Ray Price. Although the presence of Lukas Nelson on most the album’s tracks is clearly to compensate for the elder Nelson’s fading vocal prowess, both Willie and Merle Haggard are in surprisingly good vocal form. Ray Price’s voice, on the other hand, is showing signs of wear and tear, and Kris Kristofferson was never much of a vocalist anyway.

Although I’m biased towards some of the album’s older songs, the contemporary fare is almost as good. I quite enjoyed “That’s All There Is To This Song” and “The Sound Of Your Memory”, which was written by Lukas Nelson with Elizabeth Rainey. Despite the inclusion of the Coldplay and Pearl Jam numbers, this is very much a country album, and one that does not pander to current commercial trends. There is much here for the country fan to enjoy, and Heroes is almost certain to end up on many this year’s best albums lists.

Grade: A

Album Review: Neal McCoy – ‘XII’

One way for a minor 90s star to get some attention for his independent comeback is to recruit two of today’s biggest names to assist with production. Neal McCoy called on Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert to produce his twelfth album, helped by the experienced Brent Rowan. Together they do a good and unexpectedly restrained job on the sound of the album, and although some of the material is pleasant but forgettable, there is a good humored mood which makes the record thoroughly engaging.

The relaxed lead single ‘A-OK’ is quite catchy with its whistled opening and would be radio friendly if cut by a current star. Blake and Miranda sing recognisable backing vocals, contributing to the feelgood mood. On similar lines is the slightly jerky and bluesy ‘Real Good Feel Good’.

Much better is the soul-laced ‘Judge A Man By The Woman’, which is very well done with excellent phrasing and emotional interpretation. It was previously done by Heartland, best known for their one and only hit ‘I Loved Her First’ a few years back, and has also been cut by actor John Corbett, but Neal’s version, dedicated to his wife of over 30 years, is the best.

The most entertaining track is the frivolous but amusing western swing ‘Mouth’, written by Jamey Johnson and Barry Tolliver. It is about putting one’s foot in it. There is more wry humor in ‘That’s Just How She Gets’, a plaintive complaint from a drinking man, previously cut by Australian Adam Harvey:

All that liquor made her different
And I knew I couldn’t win
She wasn’t the girl that I knew when I met her
She was makin’ a fool of herself and I let her
Kept cussin’ and a-screaming ’till I couldn’t even think
That’s just how she gets when I drink

The bright up-tempo ‘Shotgun Rider’ is one of the Peach Pickers’ standard efforts lyrically (but better than most of their work), but some nice production choices and Neal’s warm vocal make it an attractive listening experience. ‘Borderline Crazy’ is a Mexican styled tale of dreams of Mexican vacations, “countin’ Margaritas instead of sheep”. ‘Crazy Women’, written by George Teren and Rivers Rutherford, is mellow and frankly a bit unexciting for a song with that title.

Neal co-wrote a couple of the songs. ‘That’s You’ (written with Clint Daniels and Jeff Hyde, is quite a nice love song with a sincere vocal bringing it to life. ‘Lucky Enough’ is more generic and over- produced, and is a co-write with Hyde and Ryan Tyndell.

The melodic ‘Every Fire’ was written by John Scott Sherrill and Cathy Majeski, and although I don’t think it’s ever been a single, it has been recorded by a number of artists in the past, starting with Shenandoah on their 1994 effort In The Vicinity Of The Heart. It’s a pretty tune with a faintly melancholic undertow, which is well worthy of a revival, with Miranda Lambert’s harmony adding sweetness to Neal’s convincing lead.

Finally, Allen Shamblin and Tom Douglas wrote the introspective ‘Van Gogh’ a rare down tempo moment, offering reflective thoughts on the nature of artistry:

You pour your heart out on the page
You bare your soul up on stage
You’ve got the power to make us feel
You’ve got the power to help us heal

You’re not crazy when it hurts and makes you cry
You draw the beauty from your pain
Life is just too beautiful to put it in a frame
Maybe that’s the reason why
Van Gogh went insane

You offer up your best and it don’t sell
It cuts you to the bone and hurts like hell
Promise me you’ll still give your fragile heart
Cause you and I both know, baby
That it’s still a work of art

This is definitely not the kind of song I expected from Neal, and is the best song included.

Overall, this is a surprisingly attractive record with even the lesser material sounding good. The worst thing about it is the dreadfully unimaginative cover art, but if it was a budget issue I’d rather they spent the money on the music.

Grade: B+

Occasional Hope’s Top 10 Albums of 2011

2011 wasn’t the best year for country, but there was still some very good music to be found if you looked for it.  Just missing the cut for my personal top 10 were fine records by the excellent Sunny Sweeney, country chart debutant Craig Campbell, independent artist Justin Haigh, blue collar bluegrass newcomer Scott Holstein, the compelling close harmonies of the Gibson Brothers,  and an enjoyable if not groundbreaking live set from Amber Digby which flew under the radar.

So what did make my cut? Read more of this post

Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘X’

By 2008 I had lost a lot of faith in Trace Adkins as an artist. But then he released the mistitled X (it is the Roman number 10, and was supposedly to mark this as his 10th release – but they only reached that number if you count greatest hits compilations).

The first single, the gospel-inflected ‘Muddy Water’ presents a troubled sinner seeking renewal in baptism. It’s a bit more heavily produced than necessary, but largely enjoyable although it peaked just outside the top 20. There is room for some sheer frivolity when a jaundiced Trace, just divorced, decides next time he might as well ‘Marry For Money’, in a humorous song written by Dave Turnbull and Jimmy Melton. This did a little better on the charts, reaching #14, the same peak as the rather more serious ‘All I Ask For Anymore’. ‘All I Ask For Anymore’ (written by Casey Beathard and Tim James) is a mature reflection on the changing desires that come with growing up, from shallow youthful selfishness to a grown man’s concerns for his wife and children. Trace delivers perhaps the finest pure vocal performance of his career supported by a swelling string arrangement. The similarly themed ‘Happy To Be Here’ (written by Jason Matthews, Jim McCormick and Mike Mobley) is a bit too heavily produced but not bad.

Two of the songs are outright modern classics. ‘Til The Last Shot’s Fired’ was not a single, but gained some attention when Trace sang it live at the ACM award show. A superb song by Rob Crosby and Doug Johnson, this explores the sacrifice of soldiers who have died, mostly in vain, starting with a Confederate soldier falling outside Nashville in the Civil War, and taking us through Omaha Beach on D-Day, Vietnam and Afghanistan:

Say a prayer for peace
For every fallen son
Set my spirit free
Let me lay down my gun
Sweet mother Mary, I’m so tired
But I can’t come home
Til the last shot’s fired

Trace’s vocal is perfectly understated and conveys the sense of defeat which imbues the song’s longing for an end to conflict. The West Point choir joins the chorus at the end, embodying the unresting souls of their predecessors, but they sound perhaps just a little too rehearsed and polite for the part they are playing.

If anything, the bleak look at alcoholism and denial penned by Larry Cordle and Amanda Martin, ‘Sometimes A Man Takes A Drink’, is even better as it remorselessly catalogs a man’s battle with alcohol, with the alcohol winning:

Sometimes a man takes a drink
So he can just throw his head back and laugh
At the things he can’t change
Like the bills he can’t pay
And all of those ghosts from the past
It’s the crutch he leans on
When things have gone wrong
Life didn’t turn out like he planned
Sometimes a man takes a drink
Oh but sometimes a drink takes the man

This is a masterpiece, with a superb vocal from Trace (who has had his own issues with drinking in the past).

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Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Songs About Me’

By 2005, the quality of Trace Adkins’s music had dwindled to new lows. He had finally reached instant-add status with country radio, but like Blake Shelton today, had compromised his music, especially his radio singles, to reach the top. That trend continued with Songs About Me. It may have earned double platinum certification, but it’s easily the most controversial album of his career.

At the time the second single, “Arlington” was climbing the charts (it peaked at #16), Adkins’s record label decided to pull the plug on the military ballad and rush-release “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” to country radio. There was much talk that “Arlington,” a first person story of a soldier buried in the national cemetery, offended military families due to the first person account. But on the flip side, the country music world considered the song a surefire #1 hit. While I understand where the controversy stems from, I personally don’t think it was warranted. It’s easily one of Adkins’s best performances and deserved its due.

Of course, when “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” came into the picture, all was forgotten about the debacle with “Arlington.” It stirred up an even bigger ruckus and caused even greater debate about sexism and the boundaries of country music. It didn’t help that the almost R-rated music video made Shania baring her midriff, Reba wearing her red dress, or Lorrie Morgan strutting around her bedroom in “Something In Red” all seem like a non-issue. That he scored a monster hit with this song (it peaked at #2) only proves that country music (and its fan base) has veered away from its ideals.

There is nothing about this song I care for whether it be the subject matter or the disastrous production values. That a dance version was created only sank this one lower in my book. In his defense of the song, Adkins said he would’ve recorded it for his debut Dreamin’ Out Loud had it been available at the time. I would’ve liked to see him get away with that in 1996.

But the most alarming thing of all was who wrote “Badonkadonk” – Jamey Johnson, Randy Houser, and Dallas Davidson. I can see where the Davidson influence comes in, he did co-write “Country Girl (Shake It For Me)” with Luke Bryan, but the Johnson and Houser connection always throws me. Why would two of the best traditional voices recording country music today write something so offensive to the traditions of country music? It just doesn’t seem characteristic of them to me. To be fair, I understand “Badonkadonk” is all in good fun, but I take the ideals of country music very seriously, and in no way does this song fit with someone who’s a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Even Dixie Chick Natalie Maines saw the writing on the wall at the time – she openly wondered where the Chicks music would fit on country radio between “Badonkadonk” and Joe Nichols “Tequlia Makes Her Clothes Fall Off.”

Apart from the disastrous third single, which actually doesn’t fit in context with the rest of the album, Songs About Me gets more right than wrong. While there are a couple of filler power ballads, most of the tunes are understated and showcase the path I want Adkins to travel down with his music.

The title track, a song about singing about who you are, is the only “power” song he actually got right. The rock like production of heavy guitars and drums suits the passion he exudes in his vocal performance. The aforementioned “Arlighton” is a masterpiece and a lesson in using your voice to execute a powerful vocal track.

I also enjoyed “My Heaven” a song in which Adkins lists out what his idea of heaven is – a wood framed house with a porch swing with the kids playing in the yard eating watermelon and spending time with his wife. While the title might suggest more religious undertones, it’s actually a sweet tale made even stronger by the soft mandolin and understated production. I love that he sounds like he’s trying here to create a special moment and not just mailing it in for the sake of filling out an album. While not as memorable as other tunes on the subject, it’s a sweet tale that actually works. I enjoy the marriage here of his voice and the production – instead of reacting like oil and water, they work to compliment themselves nicely. He should record in this vein more often, or at least release these kinds of moments as singles.

“Metropolis,” another highlight (also recorded by its songwriter Anthony Smith in 2003 and Sammy Kershaw in 2008), finds Adkins playing the role of a man trying to make a living and juggle his career and his family. On songs like this, the way he manipulates his voice makes you believe the story he’s trying to convey. A prequal of sorts to “My Heaven,” “Metropolis” should’ve been a single and reminds me a lot of his future monster smash “You’re Gonna Miss This” but without the flash. I love the gorgeous guitar-laced production that helps opposed to hinder his vocal.

In contrast, “I Learned How To Love From You,” hits some but not all of the right notes. A good showcase of his voice, the strings and paino create a mix that overbears the lyrical content and Adkins’s emotional delivery of the song. I might’ve enjoyed it more had it been more starkly produced and a bit toned down. But it is going in the right direction of where Adkins should be as an artist.

As for the duds, “Baby I’m Home” is exactly the kind of immature song you’d expect from Adkins, especially in this period of his career. As he proves on “Arlington” and “My Heaven,” he’s above such trite lyrics as “She’s got 100 candles burning/she’s got next to nothing on,” or at least I want him to be. It’s songs like “Baby I’m Home” (and “Badonkadonk” of course) that keep my appreciation for Adkins quite low. Why is it that all men of a certain age can sing about is hot women?

“Find Me A Preacher,” recorded as “Somebody Find Me A Preacher” by Chad Hudson in 2008, is overwrought and the in your face mix of loud guitars and drums distract from Adkins’s performace. It isn’t too bad, considering how little feeling he puts into the song. As far as album cuts go, this is second-rate filler. I liked how Hudson makes his tale believable, Adkins just seems like he’s trying to fill out an album.

In the end, Songs About Me is a pretty consistent project split down the middle between questionable choices, and moments of growth. Given that this project gave the world “Badonkadonk,” I wasn’t expecting a whole lot of artristy, but was proven wrong by most of what Adkins has to offer this time around. Songs About Me still didn’t convert me into a diehard fan, but a few of the better moments came awfully close.

Grade: B 

Album Review: Randy Travis – ‘Anniversary Celebration’

Marking the quarter of a century since the release of Randy’s landmark debut album, Storms Of Life, in June 1986, his latest release harks back to his last duets album, 1990’s Heroes And Friends, in many ways. The packaging, like its predecessor, includes pictures from the recording sessions, plus some older pictures from the early days of his career. Randy’s own vocals have noticeably deteriorated from his peak, but he sounds thoroughly invested in the songs here, and his voice still has immense character. The songs include a mixture of Travis classics and new or newish material. Kyle Lehning takes his accustomed place as producer (and, incidentally, pays tribute in the liner notes to Randy’s manager and ex-wife for her contribution to his career as a whole and this particular project).

It opens with a rather underwhelming collaboration with Brad Paisley on the rather boring and tuneless (and too loud) ‘Everything And All’, about seizing the moment, with Paisley also playing electric guitar. Troy Jones’s song has a 2006 copyright date, and frankly I can see why no one picked it up. The tune also sounds distinctly similar to ‘Everything’s A Thing’, an obscure Joe Nichols album cut. For some reason the album also closes with a solo version, which the song really doesn’t warrant. Fortunately matters improve from there on.

The best song from Heroes & Friends, ‘A Few Ole Country Boys’, gets a reprise, and is also one of my favorite tracks this time around. Randy takes the part George Jones sang on the original, and Jamey Johnson plays the young pretender inspired by him, very effectively. Jamey is no Travis, vocally, but he is an excellent emotional interpreter, and this version feels very genuine, if not quite in the class of the shiver-inducingly good original. There is a slight rewrite to suit the new casting (“We heard you were a fast train coming out of Caroline” becomes “Comin’ down I-65”). Larry Franklin’s lovely fiddle and Paul Franklin’s steel add to the traditional feel.

Even better is a gorgeous version of ‘Promises’ with Shelby Lynne, a great singer who has too rarely found equally great material, and has for the most part moved out of country music. Here she is emotional but restrained on one of Randy’s bleakest songs, while Randy’s voice, grainier than in his youth, sounds wearied by the string of broken promises which has led only to mutual heartbreak. The song works unexpectedly well as a duet, with the pair united in their self-imposed misery, and combined with a delicate string arrangement, this sets it apart from the stripped down original and creates it anew. I would love to hear Shelby on a full album’s worth of solo material like this.

The velvety bass-voiced Josh Turner gets the best of the new songs, the cheery Tim Menzies/Roger Springer song ‘T.I.M.E.’. This is a buddyish uptempo reminder to keep a marriage healthy by remembering that “women spell love, T.I.M.E.” The pair sound very good together on an enjoyable song, and this would be good to see recreated live. John Anderson is also great as the guest on ‘Diggin’ Up Bones’, complete with a newish verse omitted from the original (songwriter Paul Overstreet has previously recorded this version).

Zac Brown is very warm and likeable on a breezy version of Randy’s monster hit ‘Forever And Ever Amen’, and the rest of the Zac Brown Band adds pleasant backing vocals. Randy has recorded with Kenny Chesney before (‘Baptism’, on Kenny’s Everywhere We Go); this time, they try out Randy’s hit ‘He Walked On Water’, which is quite nicely done.

Randy is reunited with old tour partner Alan Jackson on a medley of a brace of songs they wrote together in the early 90s: ‘Better Class Of Losers’ and ‘She’s Got The Rhythm (And I Got The Blues)’. Alan seems to be singing in an unaccustomedly low key, and is almost unrecognizable at the start of the first song, but the pair seems to be having fun in the studio.

Less successfully, Tim McGraw duets on ‘You Can’t Hurt A Man’, written by Lance Miller with Brad and Brett Warren. This is a good song about a man who has reached the point where no new hurt can take him any lower, but one of the poorer performances, with Tim sounding AutoTuned and both of them shouting. James Otto is even shoutier on the bluesy ‘Too Much’. ‘Is It Still Over?’ is lively and Randy sounds at his best, but Carrie Underwood oversings her part, and lacks the playful sense of irony essential on this particular song, taking it all at face value.

Of the more unexpected duet partners, Kristin Chenoweth isn’t bad (and Randy sounds great) on ‘Love Looks Good On You’ a well-written contemporary ballad (by Gordie Sampson and Hilary Lindsey) about meeting an ex and finding she (or he, depending on which of them is singing lead) has moved on. Admittedly the lyric is another which doesn’t quite make sense as a duet. Kristin is reportedly readying a country album of her own. Her first single for country radio is terrible, but this is much more listenable, although her voice is not nearly as impressive as I would have expected from a Broadway star. Randy’s vocals are at their current best on this track. Irish singer Eamonn McCrystal lends his pleasant tenor to ‘Someone You Never Knew’, a Kyle Jacobs/Fred Wilhem song given a light Celtic flavor.

The Eagles’ Don Henley sings harmony on the downbeat hospital-set ‘More Life’, which sounds very familiar. This reflection on the end of life and what comprises “true happiness” is very touching. Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson both duetted separately with Randy on Heroes & Friends. This time they share ‘Road To Surrender’. The three ageing but distinctive voices are individually very effective on this weary sinner’s defeated appeal to God, written by Gary Duffey, Buffy Lawson and Angela Russell, although they do not meld very well when singing together.

Finally a group of mainly older stars (Lorrie Morgan, George Jones, Ray Price, Connie Smith, Joe Stampley and Gene Watson) combine on ‘Didn’t We Shine’. Gene Watson, who is still sounding great, really deserved a full duet, although the others featured are showing signs of age.

While not his best work, this is a nice way of recognising Randy’s 25 year career, and there are some definite bright spots.

Grade: A-

The album is streaming at Randy’s website. Buy it at amazon.