My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Jay Knowles

Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘The Lonely, The Lonesome And The Gone’

Lee Ann Womack’s latest album is something of a departure, leaning in a bluesier direction than previously. This arose largely out of the lyrical theme of the album, adrressing hard times and lost love.

The opening ‘All The Trouble’ (written by Lee Ann with Adam Wright and Waylon Payne) is a hushed blues with a doomladen air, rising into a wail as she bemoans her life. Lee Ann’s vocals are fabulous, but the guitar work is unnecessarily muddy for my taste. It sets the tone for the album as a whole.

The same writing partnership is responsible for a further trio of songs. The sophisticated 60s pop/R&B ballad ‘Hollywood’ (apart from intrusive backing vocals) is a well written and exquisitely sung song about a troubled marriage which I would have preferred in a more traditional country arrangement. ‘Mama Lost her Smile’ is a closely observed story song reminiscing about the protagonist’s childhood and musing over the lacunae of memory. ‘Sunday’ is a pure blues tune which doesn’t do much for me.

‘Wicked’, written by Lee Ann with Adam Wright, is a dramatic southern gothic story song, about a mother who turns to murder to protect her child. It’s a compelling story, and well sung, but spoiled somewhat by the intrusive production:

You can’t blend in down in San Jacinto
With long blonde hair and an orange El Camino
But two things I never thought I’d need to get by
A 38 special and an alibi

Whatever I get I guess I’ve earned
But I never hurt anyone that didn’t deserve it

Oh, wicked is as wicked does
And if this ain’t wicked
Well, it’s close enough
I thought I was good and maybe I was
But wicked is as wicked does

Somethin’ had to happen
Somethin’ had to be done
And it turns out I’m pretty good with a gun
It doesn’t make it right but it is what it is and
Any mama in the world woulda done what I did

On his own, Adam Wright contributed the charming ‘End Of The End Of The World’, a pretty lilting waltz about getting back together. The title track is a subdued country ballad featuring steel guitar, gently regretting all that has been lost – a broken heart and changing times. It was written by Adam Wright with Jay Knowles.

Dale Dodson and the great Dean Dillon co-wrote ‘Talking Behind Your Back’, a lovely conversational song with the protagonist admitting to her lover’s ex over an awkward lunch that the man still really loves the other woman. A slightly loungy arrangement is okay but doesn’t quite do the song justice. Dodson teamed up with Lee Ann again, together with Dani Flowers, to write ‘Someone Else’s Heartache’, a nicely understated song of apparent resignation to a breakup, with the vulnerable vocal telling a different tale.

Covers of a couple of country classics are thrown in, remade in a soulful style fitting the overall mood of the album. ‘Long Black Veil’ (with no gender twist to the original lyric) is slow and soulful, with a stripped down arrangement and fragile vocal. ‘He Called Me Baby’, a Harlan Howard song once recorded by Patsy Cline, gets an intensely sultry jazzy makeover. An obscure George Jones-penned rockabilly gospel song, ‘Take The Devil Out Of Me’ is retro, vivacious and all too short.

Brent Cobb is a rising singer-songwriter, and Lee Ann is obviously a fan as she has covered two of his songs. ‘Shine On Rainy Day’ (the title track of Cobb’s own recent album) is a dreamy ballad with a messy, dirty sounding production I didn’t like at all set against Lee Ann’s pure vocals. The mid paced ‘Bottom Of The Barrel’ is a bit monotonous.

I’ve never been a big fan of Frank Liddell’s production choices, but I have little doubt that this album is exactly what Lee Ann wanted this time. My own feelings are mixed: it is a beautifully realized piece of work from a general artistic point of view, but I really miss the traditional country Lee Ann Womack.

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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Album Review: Alan Jackson – ‘Thirty Miles West’

Listening to a new Alan Jackson album is much like watching a John Wayne movie; one pretty much knows what to expect and there are very seldom any big surprises, yet when it’s over, one usually feels satisfied and fully entertained. His latest effort, Thirty Miles West, is his first release on his own imprint, through a new arrangement with EMI Nashville. Despite the label change, the album’s content is still very much in the same vein as most of his Arista albums. Longtime collaborator Keith Stegall is once again in the producer’s chair.

Radio seems to have cooled towards Jackson lately; aside from his guest appearance on the Zac Brown Band’s #1 hit “As She’s Walking Away”, he hasn’t scored a Top 10 hit in three years, and the first of Thirty Miles West’s two advance singles, the self-penned “Long Way To Go”, failed to reach the Top 20. A catchy, fun, if somewhat unoriginal Jimmy Buffett-style summertime song, it deserved to chart higher than its #24 peak. The current single “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore” currently sits at #26. It is a very nice break-up ballad written by Adam Wright and Jay Knowles, in which the male protagonist graciously offers to take the blame for the relationship’s failure.

One of my favorite tracks is the energetic bluegrass-tinged “Dixie Highway”, which features a guest appearance by Zac Brown. It’s the best of the six songs that Alan wrote for the album. At nearly seven and a half minutes, it is too long to be a single, though a heavily edited version might eventually be released to radio. I also quite “Life Keeps Bringing Me Down”, which is a real toe-tapper and not a mournful ballad as the title suggests.

The album does contain a few missteps; Alan’s compositions “Everything But The Wings” and “Look Her In The Eyes and Lie” aren’t quite up to his usual standard. Likewise, “She Don’t Get High” — which despite its title isn’t about a recovering addict — is a bit pedestrian; however, it is just middle-of-the-road enough that it might have a shot at being well received at radio.

There are no great artistic stretches here; Jackson remains fully within his comfort zone for the entire album. However, it is a solid and entertaining album that holds its own against Alan’s impressive back catalog. Sometimes that’s all that the listener wants, especially in an era in which country music is increasingly overwhelmed by over-the-top pop and rock. It remains to be seen if Thirty Miles West can revive Alan’s radio career, but even if it does not, it is one of this year’s better efforts and is worth buying.

Grade: B+

Single Review: Alan Jackson – ‘So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore’

Alan Jackson’s debut single for his new label Capitol was a bit of a disappointment to longterm fans, and it also failed to satisfy radio programmers. ‘Long Way To Go’ peaked at #24, and was a forgettable attempt to emulate Kenny Chesney, which while not unlistenable, was well below Alan’s best work. It’s a great pleasure to report that the sequel is infinitely better, and is the finest Alan Jackson single for years, raising hopes for his forthcoming album.

Written by Alan’s very talented nephew Adam Wright with Jay Knowles, the song offers a response to the failure of a relationship in which the one who refuses to cast blame comes out as a better person. The protagonist sounds defeated from the get-go as he tacitly agrees to take the blame for everything that has gone amiss in their relationship – and by that very attitude reveals to the listener that he still loves her, whatever her feelings may be.

The underlying bitterness surfaces occasionally as with the barbed comment,

I will keep all those memories of the good times
Yeah there were some good times
So when you think of you and me
They won’t even cross your mind

Mostly, however, he gives in to her need to make herself look good in the eyes of others, so she can leave him guilt-free:

I’ll be the bad guy
I’ll take the black eye
And I’ll walk out
You can slam the door
I’ll be the SOB
If that’s what you need from me
So you don’t have to love me anymore

When you and our friends talk
Make it all my fault
Tell ‘em I’m rotten to the core
I’ll let it all slide
Get ‘em all on your side
So you don’t have to love me anymore

This is a song which makes it clear that both parties are complicated human beings with their own emotions, even as one naturally sympathizes with the protagonist. A remarkably mature insightful lyric presents a psychologically complex and very realistic situation. Listening to the regretful but weary tone, you’re torn between hoping the girl sees sense and rekindles her old love – or that she makes a clean break so he can find someone who deserves him.

A gentle melody and quiet, tasteful production with sympathetic fiddle and steel allows Alan’s understated vocal to take center stage and convey the complicated emotions of the song without needing to fight the backing.

By far Alan’s best single since 2004’s superlative ‘Monday Morning Church’, I don’t know if it will revive his declining fortunes at radio, but I certainly hope it does. And while it’s far too soon to be talking of songs of the year for 2012, this sets the bar really high.

Grade: A+

Listen for yourself.

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: Alan Jackson – ‘Freight Train’

I was distinctly underwhelmed by Alan’s last album, Good Time, and as a result I was concerned about what to expect this time around, especially as I wasn’t impressed by the lead single. Thankfully the album is a considerable improvement. Alan has written most of the songs again, but he seems to have regained his muse, which was noticably lacking last time around. Keith Stegall is in the producer’s chair as usual; always reliable, he does one of his best jobs here, making every song sound good.

After that initial sense of apprehension, then, it was with a great sense of relief that I heard this album kicking off with some fiddle as ‘Hard Hat And A Hammer’ (one of the tracks which was pre-released on iTunes) opens the album with one of the best of Alan’s trademark tributes to the working man, described here as the “kind of glue that sticks this world together”. In the outro, he even remembers to include a nod to the working woman.

In contrast, there is a paean to the joys of escaping from it all for a life at sea in ‘That’s Where I Belong’.

That lead single and current top 20 hit ‘It’s Just That Way’ is one of the few songs not written by Alan himself; it comes from producer Keith Stegall, Vicky McGehee and Kylie Sackley, and is one of the record’s dullest moments. Alan sings it beautifully, but the song is just plain dull. I cannot imagine why it was thought a suitable first single. The only other song as lackluster on this set is Alan’s own ‘Big Green Eyes’.

A more enjoyable love song is the beauty and cheerful ‘I Could Get Used To This Lovin’ Thing’; it breaks no new ground lyrically but is enjoyable to listen to. The closing ‘The Best Keeps Getting Better’ is a more mature appreciation of a love which has grown stronger and deeper over time despite ups and downs, which is clearly addressed to Alan’s wife of 30 years – the perfect anniversary song:

We thought the best would be behind us
But the best keeps getting better all the time

We learned how to love
And how to make up
And found what it takes to be enough
Like a 30 year old wine
Hearts intertwined
The best keeps getting better all the time

I love you now more than ever

Alan draws more inspiration from his family with ‘After 17’, a tender portrait of his daughter as a young woman growing up, and “suddenly a child no more” as she tries to “find her place in this crazy world”.

The other love song here is the charming ‘True Love Is A Golden Ring’, which Alan wrote with Roger Murrah a few years ago and gave his nephew Adam and his wife and singing partner Shannon (the Wrights) to record on their excellent self-titled eight-track EP. Alan’s own version, which should bring this lovely song to a wider audience, features Rhonda Vincent on backing vocals, way back in the mix.

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