My Kind of Country

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Album Review: Dailey & Vincent — ‘The Sounds of Christmas’

Those who have access to the RFD network have undoubtedly seen Dailey & Vincent’s weekly half-hour show. Those who have not seen the show nor seen the dynamic duo in person probably think of the duo as a bluegrass act but they are far more than that.

Yes, both Jamie Dailey & Darrin Vincent “D & V”) have bona fide bluegrass credentials. Dailey spent a decade as y the lead vocalist and guitarist for Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver from 1999-2008. Darrin Vincent was a musician with Ricky Skaggs’ legendary band Kentucky Thunder and was also part of the famous bluegrass family group The Sally Mountain Show with his sister Rhonda Vincent. Rhonda, of course, is the Queen of Bluegrass having won numerous IBMA and SPBMA awards including seven Entertainer of the Year awards between the two organizations.

Bluegrass they may be, but Gale Mayes, Angie Primm, Aaron McCune, and Josh Cobb are far more than that, having absorbed many other forms of music into their collective souls. They have assembled a cast of excellent musicians and can field several variants of a vocal quartet, including a group that can easily replicate the sound of the legendary Statler Brothers.

The album opens with “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” which features some excellent saxophone and honors the rocking spirit of Brenda Lee’s original recording from 1958. Johnny Marks wrote the song. Jamie Dailey takes the lead on this number.

“Mary Did You Know”, written by Christian humorist Mark Lowry has become a Christmas classic since its first appearance in 1991. This may be the best version I have heard of the song. I think that Darrin takes the lead on this song.

“Road To Bethlehem” features Dolly Parton singing harmony and taking the lead on the second verse. Jimmy Fortunate and Jeff Bates wrote this mid-tempo ballad.

“Go Thee Down” is a nice ballad about the first persons to see the Christ child

“Let It Snow” is an old warhorse from the pens of Frank Sinatra’s favorite tunesmiths Sammy Kahn & Jule Styne. Although not specifically a Christmas song, this fan favorite, first recorded by Vaughn Monroe in 1945 reached #1 in January 1946 and has been associated with the holidays since then. Dailey and Vincent give the song an upbeat jazzy interpretation with brass and full orchestration.

“The Spirit of Christmas is typically associated with Ray Charles. Dailey & Vincent give it a straight-ahead treatment (there is no point trying to be more soulful than Ray Charles) and succeed nicely

Christmas is the time of year
For being with the one’s we love
Sharing so much joy and cheer
What a wonderful feeling
Watching the one’s we love
Having so much fun

I was sitting by the fire side
Taking a walk through the snow
Listening to a children’s choir
Singing songs about Jesus
The blessed way that he came to us
Why can’t it remain

“The Carol of the Bells” is usually cast as an instrumental so it is interesting to hear it performed as a vocal ensemble. “It’s a Very Merry Christmas: is a rather bland generic song that serves as a placeholder for the humorous and jazzy “Mr. Grinch”

“Mr. Grinch” was featured in the television special How The Grinch Stole Christmas that originally aired in 1966 and featured the legendary Boris Karloff as the voice of the Grinch. Thurl Ravenscroft was the actual singer (best known as the voice of Tony The Tiger in the Kelloggs commercials) on the soundtrack. I’m not sure that anyone could actually equal Ravenscroft, but it is fun to hear the song again.

“Frosty The Snowman” is another upbeat Christmas classic. Written by Walter “Jack” Rollins and Steve Nelson, the song was first performed by Gene Autry in 1950. I prefer Autry’s version, but D & V do a nice job with the song.

Next up is a medley of traditional Christmas carols consisting of “Hark The Herald Angels Sing”, “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” and “Joy To The World” This medley is performed as a vocal quartet and sounds much the way I recall the Statler Brothers performing such tunes – very nice indeed.

It is hard to mess up “Jingle Bells” and D&V do a nice job with the song giving a Statler-esque spin to the number.

“Little Town of Bethlehem” is a standard carol that D&V treat respectfully. Piano is the dominant instrument on the track.

The album closes with a rocking Southern gospel rendition of “Go Tell It On The Mountain with bass singer Aaron McCune leading the way.

The additional vocalists on this album include Gale Mayes, Angie Primm, Aaron McCune, and Josh Cobb.

While there are some acoustic instruments on this album, dobro, mandolin, and banjo are not among them, so this album truly cannot be classified as bluegrass. I am a bit annoyed that nowhere on the disc or the packaging is the songwriters listed. If I have left the songwriter unidentified, it is because I could not find the information elsewhere

The review for this album is in accordance with how most will hear this album. Those lucky enough to purchase this at Cracker Barrel Restaurants will find two bonus tracks mixed within the album. “Silver Bells” is a fairly standard quartette treatment of an old Christmas favorite. “Tonight It’s Christmas” features Ricky Skaggs originally surfaced on Alabama’s album Christmas. It is a very nice track that should be more widely known:

The factories are all shut down and the shopping malls are all closed

And the busy streets are all empty except for the falling snow

And in the small towns, in the cities families gather as one

‘Cause the night of love and sharing they look forward to has come

 

’cause tonight is Christmas, tonight is love

Tonight we celebrate god’s one and only son

Tonight there’s hope for peace on earth eternally

Tonight is Christmas and the world’s in harmony

But across the seas two armies stare down at each other’s guns

Each believing in their cause enough to die or kill the other one

But tonight there’ll be no shooting, not a drop of blood will spill

They will cease their fire this silent night in the name of peace and goodwill

Sounds of Christmas defies categorization by genre – it is simply a great Christmas album, There is nothing new or revolutionary about the album, but it is excellent and I I like this album a lot. While it is not bluegrass and not necessarily country on every track, my tastes in Christmas music tend toward the very traditional and toward the religious meaning of the holiday. This album fits the bill completely.

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Album/EP Review: Jeff Bates – ‘Troublemaker’

I’m a fan of Jeff Bates’ deep voice and strong songwriting, so I was pleased to see he had released a new 7 track recrd, halfway between an album and an EP.

‘If I Get Drunk Tonight’ is an emotional ballad well suited to Bates’ vocal abilities. It is an excellent lost love song in which the protagonist wonders if he can drink away his pain:

If I get drink tonight
Will I find relief?
Will I close my eyes
And finally get sleep?
Will I stop hurtin’,
Or does the whiskey just lie?
I’ll know tomorrow
If I get drunk tonight

This is great, and my favorite track.

Another excellent song, ‘Leaving Town’ is a closely observed look at a dying small town where there are no jobs or futures left.

They built a bypass and it passed us by
All our hopes and dreams dried up and slowly died
We boarded up our memories one window at a time
Now nobody ever comes
Even the river runs from this leaving town

Also very good with a great vocal is the regretful ‘Ain’t Goodbye Good Enough’, about an ex who seems annoyed he isn’t begging her to come back:

You don’t want me, I know
But you won’t let me let you go
You cut me deep and you keep cutting more
You already took your love
Ain’t goodbye good enough?

You’re so angry and I really don’t know why
You’re the one who wanted it this way

The title track, about a hot girl, is disappointing – lacking in melody with too much echo on the chorus and annoying production elements. Also suffering from intrusive production was the otherwise attractive love song ‘Rest Of My Life’.

Much better, ‘Meetin’ My Maker’ is a sweet song about a grandpa with little time for organised religion but who finds God “out in the wild wood”. The set closes with ‘Judging Judas’, a powerful mid-tempo critique of hypocrisy:

Got my religion and I pray religiously
Then I do what I want to
When I get up off my knees
I search my brother and I don’t like what I find
He sees the same thing when he looks into my eyes
And we keep judging Judas while we hang from the same tree
Your sin is greatest cause you don’t sin like me
Reap what we sow and we sow what we reap
And we keep judging Judas while we hang from the same tree

We’re all born innocent then we learn to feel the shame
And then we hide our guilt behind a wall of blame…
We teach love and peace then we take our hate to war

It’s a shame this is not a full length album, but with the exception of one or two tracks it is worth catching up with.

Grade: A-

Christmas Rewind: Jeff Bates – ‘That’s What Christmas Is’

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Constant Sorrow: Tribute To Ralph Stanley’

constant sorrowAn interesting selection of mainly country artists pay tribute to the legendary Ralph Stanley, in a project helmed by his grandson Nathan.

Stanley’s son Ralph II opens with the Celtic-sounding ‘Katy Daly’, II’s naturally melancholy tones counterpointing the upbeat tune about a 19th century moonshiner to enjoyable effect. Nathan takes on ‘A Robin Built A Nest On Daddy’s Garden’, which is also very good. Stanley’s old bandmate Ricky Skaggs sings the traditional ‘Gathering Flowers For The Master’s Bouquet’.

Jeff Bates sounds like a real bluegrass singer on ‘I Think I’ll Just Go Away’, a lovely old Stanley Brothers lost love tune. Lovely – I’d like to hear a full bluegrass album from Jeff. Rhonda Vincent is beautiful on ‘The Darkest Hour’, another highlight. My favourite track, though, is Vince Gill and Rebecca Lynn Howard duetting on an authentic and compelling murder ballad, ‘Pretty Polly’.

Insofar as Ralph Stanley has a signature song, I’d say it would be ‘O Death’, which he sang on the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou. The great Gene Watson offers a powerfully intense reading here. Marty Raybon gets the now-iconic ‘I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow’, and does a nice job, partnered by Sonya Isaacs.

Southern gospel duo (and real life husband and wife) Jeff & Sheri Easter perform ‘Going Up Home To Live In Green Pastures’, and The Lewis Tradition (a spinoff from/second generation successor to Sheri’s mother’s family band the Lewis Family) offer a pleasant traditional four part harmony on ‘Dad’s Ole Rocky Field’.

Harmonica whiz Charlie McCoy gives a70s outlaw country-meets-bluegrass twist to ‘Little Maggie’, which works surprisingly well.

‘Room At The Top Of The Stairs’ is a haunting Randall Hylton song about a lonely woman who refuses to believe the protagonist can offer the love she longs for. I remember it fondly from Kieran Kane’s 1993 solo album Find My Way Home. I hadn’t been aware of Ralph Stanley’s version, and Jimmy Fortune’s take made a nice surprise.

This is a lovely tribute album: some great singers on excellent songs, with a tasteful bluegrass production backing them. I warmly recommend it.

Grade: A+

Top 20 Albums of 2014: A Hidebound Traditionalist’s View

Rosanne CashWe didn’t get a chance to run this before the end of the year, but we figured our readers wouldn’t mind reading Paul’s year in review a little late. — Razor X

1. Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread

This album came out fairly early in the year, and yet I was fairly sure it would be the best new album I would hear in 2014. Elegant and insightful would be the terms I would think best describe this album.

2. Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard

So timeless are the songs are the songs of Merle Haggard that even marginal talents such as Jason Aldean and Jake Owen couldn’t mess up the songs. If fact I would regard Aldean’s take on “Going Where The Lonely Go” as he best recording he’s ever made. This tribute album is largely composed of modern country artists (Toby Keith, Parmalee, Dustin Lynch, Kristy Lee Cook, Randy Houser, Joe Nichols, Jake Owen, Jason Aldean and James Wesley) with Merle’s son Ben thrown in for good measure and Garth Brooks on the physical CD available at Walmart. The two tracks by Thompson Square (“You Take Me For Granted”, “Let’s Chase Each Other Around The Room”) are given a playful reading and are my favorite tracks, but every artist keeps the spirit of the Hag alive with these songs.

3. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison – Our Year

The follow-up to Cheater’s Game dishes up another nice serving of real country music with more focus on newer material but with some covers including a nice take on the Statler Brothers classic “I’ll Go To My Grave Loving You” .

4. Jerry Douglas – Earls of Leicester

An instant classic, this album is almost a theatre piece with various stellar musicians cast in the roles of the members of the classic Flatt & Scruggs lineup of the 1950s and 1960s, doing a program of classic Flatt & Scruggs material. Starring Jerry Douglas on dobro, Barry Bales on bass, Shawn Camp on acoustic guitar and vocals, Johnny Warren – fiddle, Tim O’Brien – mandolin, & Charlie Cushman – banjo and guitar. Johnny Warren is the song of longtime F&S fiddler Paul Warren.

5. Carlene Carter – Carter Girl

Carlene Carter pays tribute to her musical heritage with a classic collection of Carter Family tunes plus a pair of original compositions. These recording have a modern sound that differs from, but is true to, the spirit of the originals.

6. Ray Price – Beauty Is

I wanted to call this the best album of 2014 and if Ray had been in top vocal form I would have, but this is the swan song of a dying man who knows the end is but months away. The album is elegant and heartfelt, in many respects a valentine to his wife of many years.

7. Jeff Bates – Me and Conway

For as popular as Conway Twitty was during his heyday (think George Strait), he has been almost entirely forgotten. A tribute to Conway Twitty is long overdue and while I think a multi-artist album would be nice, if it has to be a single artist tribute album, there is no one better to do it than Jeff Bates, whose voice can sound eerily similar to that of Conway Twitty. The album is about half Conway Twitty songs and half new material including the title track. My favorite tracks are the title track, “Lost In The Feeling” and Jeff’s duet with Loretta Lynn on “After The fire Is Gone” .

8. Mandy Barnett – I Can’t Stop Loving You: The Songs of Don Gibson

Mandy is a masterful singer, if somewhat addicted to slow songs. Don Gibson was a top-drawer song writer, as well as a soulful performer. This album, initially available as a Cracker Barrel exclusive is proof that when you pair great songs with a great singer that very good things can happen. Don’s been gone for over a decade so it’s nice to see someone keep his songs in front of the American public.

9. Ray Price – A New Place To Begin

I am mystified that the tracks on this album went unreleased on an album for so long. During the mid 1980s Ray Price and Snuff Garrett collaborated on a number of successful singles (some of which were used in movie soundtracks) plus some other songs. True, producer Snuff Garrett fell ill somewhere along the line and retired, but Garrett was a big name producer and you would think these would have escaped somehow. This CD features seven chart singles that were never collected on an album, and seven other songs that were never released on an album. Sixteen tracks from one of the masters most featuring more steel guitar than was common for Ray during this period .

10. George Strait – The Cowboy Rides Away (Deluxe Edition)

This album has some flaws including what sounds like auto-tune on some tracks and the standard issue of the album doesn’t warrant a top twenty listing since it has only twenty songs on it. The Deluxe Edition, however, plants you into the middle of a George Strait concert – twenty-eight songs on the two CD set plus the entire 40 song set on the concert DVD with some bonus features. George never did tour extensively and when he hit town, the tickets were expensive and sold out quickly so I never did get to see him live in concert. This set is the next best thing. While the studio recordings are better, this is still worth having.

11. Chris Thile & Edgar Meyer – Bass & Mandolin

This album is a little hard to characterize – it’s not exactly bluegrass, folk, jazz or classical music, but it is all of them and more on the ten featured tunes, all of them co-writes. Meyer plays piano on a few tunes but mostly plays bass. Thile shines on the mandolin. The listener exults in the magic.

12. Sammy Kershaw – Do You Know Me: A Tribute To George Jones

True, Sammy is a distant cousin to Cajun pioneers Rusty and Doug Kershaw, but Sammy’s musical muses were Mel Street and George Jones. Here Sammy pays tribute to George Jones and does it well. My favorite among the dozen Jones hits (plus two new songs) covered is “When The Grass Grows Over Me”.

13. Joe Mullins – Another Day From Life

Joe Mullins has been around the bluegrass scene for a while, but this album was the first of his albums I happened to pick up. It’s very good and I’ll be picking up more of his albums when I hit the bluegrass festival in Palatka, Florida on February 20.

14. Rhonda Vincent – Only Me

Half country/half grass but 100% excellent. I wish that Rhonda would do an entire album of western swing and honky-tonk classics. It was silly to split this up into two six song discs, but I guess that the ears of the bluegrass purists needed protection from the country classics. My favorite track is “When The Grass Grows Over Me” which was also my favorite George Jones song. Rhonda’s takes on “Once A Day” and “Bright Lights and Country Music” are also highlights.

15. Lee Ann Womack – The Way I’m Livin’

It is good to see new music from Lee Ann. I don’t regard this as highly as I did her first few albums, but it is a welcome return to form.

16. Willie Nelson – Band of Brothers

Death, taxes and a new Willie Nelson album are the only things you can really count on seeing every year. This one is up to the usual standards, with Willie having written nine of the fourteen songs on the album.

17. Secret Sisters – Put your Needle Down

I actually liked their debut album better, but this one will appeal more to younger listeners. At this rate they won’t be a secret much longer. Buy it at Cracker Barrel as their version has two extra songs.

18. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

A lot has been written about this album, but the truth is that words really don’t adequately describe it. This album requires repeated listening.

19. Dierks Bentley – Riser

I like this album, but I keep expecting more of DIerks Bentley. “Drunk On A Plane” and “I Hold On” were the big radio/ video singles but I don’t think they were the best songs on the album.

20. Cornell Hurd Band – Twentieth Album

In some ways the Cornell Hurd Band is like Asleep At The Wheel, a very versatile band that can handle anything. Both are terrific swing bands but AATW leans more to the jazzy side while the CHB is more honky-tonk and more prone to novelty lyrics. All of their albums are filled with many and varied treasures.

Album Review: Jeff Bates – ‘Me And Conway’

me and conwayWhen Jeff Bates was being played on country radio a few years back he was often heralded as the new Conway Twitty. This latest, self-produced, album was billed as a tribute to the artist, so I was expecting the usual collection of covers, but in fact this album mixes up covers (and not necessarily the most obvious choices) with other material, mainly written by Jeff.

The title track pays tribute to Conway by telling the story of a romance fuelled by a Twitty CD, and is quite good.

Jeff sounds great on a trio of Conway’s big hits: the overtly sexy ‘I’d Love To Lay You Down’, loving tribute to a father’s love ‘That’s My Job’, and the late hit ‘She’s Got A Single thing In Mind’, all of which are impeccably sung versions of excellent songs. My favorite of the covers, though, is the graceful waltz ‘Lost In The Feeling’, a #2 hit for Twitty in 1983. Jeff’s version is lovely.

Delightfully, he recruits Loretta Lynn to duet on ‘After The Fire Is Gone’. Less familiar at least to me was the sultry ‘Don’t Take it Away’, although it was a #1 hit (in 1979); Jeff does his very best Conway impression here and it is a pretty good song, but I admit I would have liked to hear Jeff’s take on a song like ‘Hello Darling’.

A cover of T G Sheppard’s early 80s hit ‘Slow Burn’ is less effective, with intrusive electric guitars in the mix.

Jeff’s new songs were written with Conway Twitty’s style in mind. ‘Sleepin’ In’, written by Jeff with Robert Arthur and Kirk Roth, is a nice celebration of a happy marriage which fits in nicely with the general mood. ‘Heaven Is A Hell Of A Woman’ (written by Jeff with Jason Matthews) is another good new song, with a more soulful feel, particularly in the backing vocals. The same pair’s ‘That Thing We Do’ is less memorable, and perilously close to bro-country with its girl and truck storyline, but at least it has a decent tune.

The emotional ‘If Heaven Had A Phone’ (written by Jeff with Andrew Rollings) expresses the sadness at losing a mother, and is tenderly sung with some lovely steel.

Although it wasn’t quite what I anticipated, this is a very good album which I enjoyed a great deal.

Grade: A

Album Review: Nathan Stanley – ‘Every Mile’

every mileRalph Stanley’s 21 year old grandson is the third generation of his family to have a music career. His grandfather is of course a legend, while father Ralph II is affine singer in his own right. Nathan has an attractive although not very distinctive voice, and his song choices and arrangements here are very tasteful, mostly in the hinterland of country and bluegrass. This album is a religious one, so it is appropriate that it comes to our attention in Easter week. the general mood is a warm, positive one well suited to Stanley’s vocal style.

Nathan Stanley’s voice is smoother sounding than his father or grandfather, and it works particularly well on ballads. He also has a great ear for a melody, as evidenced by the songs chosen here. There are a number of beautiful ballads included. The metaphorical ‘Piece Of Clay’ about the way God remakes people is perhaps my favourite. Almost as lovely are ‘Where No One Stands Alone’ and ‘Where Will You Go’. ‘I Know Jesus Will See Me Through’ features pretty harmonies from Sonya and Becky Isaacs. The title track is a gently melodic expression of gratitude to God with lovely harmonies from Southern Gospel singer Wes Hampton, who makes another appearance on ‘Lord You’re The Best Thing’, another pretty tune.

‘Let Me In Your Heart’ picks up the pace. The harmonica led ‘Would You Be Ready’ (a duet with gospel singer Adam Crabb) is quite cheerful sounding despite its pointed lyrical criticism of those who do not live what they preach. The pensive ‘Heart That Will Never Break Again’ remembers a dying father with faith he is going to “a better place”.

There are a number of special guests familiar to country fans. 80s star T Graham Brown joins Nathan for an unexpectedly bluesy and very enjoyable version of the Tanya Tucker hit ‘Baptism Of Jesse Taylor’. Jeff Bates adds a gritty harmony/duet to the traditional ‘Green Pastures’, which is one of my favourite tracks. Vince Gill provides a sweet counterpoint on ‘Hand In Hand With Jesus’ backed by a string arrangement. Grandpa Ralph shows up on ‘You Can’t Make Old Friends’; Ralph is sounding very old, but there is a palpable warmth and familial affection in their duet which really works. I might even prefer it to the recent cut by Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers just for that eomotional connection.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this album, but have been impressed by Nathan Stanley. I look forward to hearing more from him.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Tracy Lawrence – ‘Tracy Lawrence’

tracy lawrenceAs the new millennium dawned, Tracy’s career hit another roadblock, this time one which was not self-inflicted: his label, Atlantic, closed its doors. He was transferred to sister label Warner Brothers for 2001’s self-titled release, but the move was not a longterm success. Tracy produced the album with longtime collaborator Flip Anderson, and there are no real surprises on offer.

I really like the single ‘Life Don’t Have To Be So Hard’, an encomium to a more relaxed way of life, set to a catchy melody. Unfortunately country radio was less enamored, and the song barely crept into the top 40. ‘What A Memory’, the only other single before Tracy departed Warner Bros, did even more poorly, although it is another fine song. A tearjerking ballad about a loving mother who dies far too young, it was written by Jeff Bates and Kenny Beard, and I found it moving.

The overriding theme on the album is one of maturity, learning from one’s mistakes and looking back with varying degrees of amusement and regret on the follies of youth.

‘I Won All The Battles’ is an excellent song, which Tracy wrote with Larry Boone and Paul Nelson. The protagonist realises too late that insisting to his wife he was right all the time was ultimately the cause of losing her love. It is by far the best of Tracy’s co-writes on this record. ‘Whole Lot Of Lettin’ Go’, from the same partnership, is quite a nice ballad about the lasting effects of an old flame, while love song ‘Meant To Be’ is lyrically rather bland, although it is nicely sung and played and has quite an attractive melody. ‘She Loved The Devil Out Of Me’, the last of Tracy’s co-writes, is a pleasant mid-tempo on a well-worn theme, which I enjoyed well enough despite its lack of originality. Alison Brown’s banjo works well on this and also backs up ‘God’s Green Earth’, written by Monty Criswell and Billy Yates. The latter sounds cheerful and perky, belying a heartbreak lyric.

‘It’s Hard To Be An Outlaw’ (written by Bobby Pinson, Larry Boone and Paul Nelson) takes a more jaundiced approach to the theme of a wild young man whose woman tries to “get the devil out of” him. In this case she has failed and walked away, and the protagonist has to face reality on his own:

I wouldn’t change
And now she’s gone I’m just not the same
It’s hard to be an outlaw
Outrun or outdraw
The laws of life that you once could ignore
It’s a desperate desperado
Who can’t see through his sorrow
What he was runnin’ from or runnin’ for
Oh, it’s hard to be an outlaw
When you’re not wanted anymore
There was nowhere left to turn to
But back to my old self
“I’m living like there’s no tomorrow”
Now meant somethin’ else
The trails I used to live to blaze
Are winding up dead ends
With a voice inside my head
Reminding me what could have been
I was wild as the wind
As cold as they come,
Thinkin’ I was cool
Now looking back,
Lookin’ at a fool

The up-tempo ‘Crawlin’ Again’ (written by Kenny Beard and Michael White) is a semi-ironic mumber comparing a man’s helplessness in the face of a woman’s power to reverting to infancy:

I’m back on the bottle, cryin’ out loud
I need holding and I need it now
Someone to rock me and then tug me in
It takes a mama 20 years to make a boy a man
Another woman 20 seconds to have him crawling again

It’s quite an entertaining song, which might have been a good choice for a single.

‘Getting Back Up’(written by Pinson with Marla Cannon-Goodman) is a downbeat ballad about coping with the failure of a relationship with a somewhat traditional feel. Some nice fiddle opens the otherwise rather uninteresting jazz-inflected ‘It’s Got You All Over It’.

The slightly-too sweet ‘That Was Us’ (written by Tony Lane and Craig Wiseman) looks back fondly on the narrator’s time as one of a group of wild teenagers who make mischief in their small town but whose good hearts are revealed in the final verse, when they make real amends. It was later recorded by Randy Travis on one of his religious records.

This is a serviceable and perfectly listenable record. It is currently out of print, but available digitally and as a CD-R from Amazon, and cheap used copies are also around. It’s worth picking up if you can get it at a moderate price.

Grade: B

EP Reviews: ‘Hillbilly Bone’ and ‘All About Tonight’

hillbilly bone2010 saw a departure in Blake’s career, as his label used him as the guinea pig to pioneer their new SixPak idea – EPs with six tracks. It was originally intended that Blake should release three over an 18 month period, but in the event there were just two. Unexpectedly, it was to mark a watershed in Blake’s carer, catapulting him to the very top. None of his singles since 2010 has peaked lower than #1. Generally loud and unsubtle production from Scott Hendricks proved to be exactly tailored for country radio success.

Hillbilly Bone, the first of the two SixPaks, had just one single, the chart topping title track. The duet with Trace Adkins is in many ways annoying with cliche’d lyrics but there is a good humor and charm in the delivery which makes it hard to hate as much as it deserves. It was a genuine smash, selling over half a million downloads, and won Blake CMA and ACM awards for Vocal Event of the Year as well as the coveted CMA Male Vocalist of the Year, the first major awards of his career.

‘Kiss My Country Ass’ is unredeemed crap with no mitigating factors, the epitome of the country pride song with an aggressive edge. A cover of a poorly performing Rhett Akins single written by Akins with regular partner in crime Dallas Davidson and Jon Stone), it is predictably dreadful.

‘You’ll Always Be Beautiful’ is an AC-leaning and sincerely sung romantic ballad about love for a woman even she doesn’t think she’s pretty. It was written by Lee Brice and Jerrod Niemann.

‘Can’t Afford To Love You’ is another Rhett Akins song about a working class guy in love with a high maintenance glamorous girl, which is an undistinguished but okay song buried under too much loud production.

The best track by far on this EP (and the only worthwhile download), Blake’s own song ‘Delilah’ is a rather sensitive song declaring love for a troubled woman who has been unlucky in love elsewhere; the girl’s name, incidentally, was taken from fiancee Miranda Lambert’s dog.

You can’t blame no one but you Delilah
For what you find when you never ever look around
Reach out for the one right here beside ya
And find the one that’s never gonna let you down

Clint Lagerberg and Craig Wiseman’s ‘Almost Alright’ is a well-written song about slowly getting over a relationship, spoiled by the inclusion of Caribbean steel drums which sound tinny.

all about tonightThe title track and lead single from Blake’s second SixPak, ‘All About Tonight’ is a party song written by the Peach Pickers, which, although it’s one of their better efforts, tells you all you need to know. The live ‘Got A Little Country’ which closes proceedings is just as bad and long much the same lines.

‘Who Are You When I’m Not Looking’, the second single, is much, much better, a rather charming love song written by Earl “Bud” Lee and John Wiggins, which had previously been recorded by Joe Nichols. It was another #1 hit for Blake.

‘Draggin’ The River’, written by Jim Beavers and Chris Stapleton, is a playfully performed duet with Miranda Lambert about a Southern rural romance opposed by the girl’s father, which is quite entertaining; the young lovers decide to fake their deaths while they elope. Miranda wrote ‘Suffocating’ with Lady A’s Hillary Scott (who also contributes harmonies), a ballad with rather a bland melody which does not effectively bring the downbeat lyric to life. Uninspired production doesn’t help. ‘That Thing We Do’, written by Jeff Bates and Jason Matthews, is okay but forgettable mid-tempo filler.

A bonus cover of the Dan Seals hit ‘Addicted’ was included for iTunes pre-orders; that track was later included as a bonus on Red River Blue and can be downloaded separately. It’s a shame this didn’t make the main setlist, as it’s a fine version which allows Blake’s incisive voice and sympathetic delivery to shine, and is one of his best recordings, although a stripped down production without the full orchestration which swamps the second half of the song would have made it better still.

Grade: Hillbilly Bone: D; All About Tonight C

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.

Occasional Hope’s Top Ten Singles of 2011

While it wasn’t a great year for country music, there were some definite signs of life, and some very good songs made their way across the airwaves. A few were even hits. Here are my favorite singles this year:

10. ‘Look It Up – Ashton Shepherd’
Ashton comes across like a modern Loretta Lynn in this scornful rejoinder to a cheating spouse. Forgiveness is not an option. Although it was a top 20 hit and just about her biggest to date, I expected more commercial success from this sassy number, written by Pistol Annie Angaleena Presley with Robert Ellis Orrall.

9. ‘Colder Weather’ – Zac Brown Band
The Georgia band is one of the most artistically adventurous acts in country music, and this is one of their finest records. A complex lyric depicts a couple separated by the man’s driving job; she seems keener than he does on their being together. It was inspired by co-writer Wyatt Durrette’s own thwarted romance with a girl who struggled with the travel demanded by a music career. The production neatly marries an understated piano-led first verse with rock elements as the protagonist’s emotions rise. It was another #1 hit for the band.

8. ‘In God’s Time’ – Randy Houser
Rich-voiced singer-songwriter Randy Houser released his finest effort to date this year with this gently understated expression of faith in God, whatever may happen. A gentle piano-led accompaniment provides effective support. This was intended to be the lead single for Houser’s third album for Show Dog Universal, but it did not do as well as hoped, and Houser has now left the label. He has since signed to indie label Broken Bow, so hopefully he will be able to continue releasing mauic of this caliber.

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Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Proud To Be Here’

Trace Adkins’s artistic identity may be the most fractured in country music, raging from the depths of ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’ to the artistic heights of songs like ‘Til The Last Shot’s Fired’. This album, Trace’s second for Show Dog Universal, has its share of the raucous and insubstantial, but mainly it focuses on Trace the family man, satisfied with his life. Unlike the similarly themed recent work of Brad Paisley, Josh Turner and Darius Rucker, however, the songs on this theme are all solid and worth hearing. I have already written about the heartwarming ‘Just Fishin’, the album’s first hit single and one of the best things to hit country radio this year. This track alone was produced by Michael Knox, with the remainder of the album in the hands of Kenny Beard.

The title track (written by Chris Wallin, Aaron Barker and Ira Dean, apparently specifically for Trace) is also very good, with a reflective look at the protagonist’s life, with memories of an early career playing “for tips and compliments”, while driving a truck worth substantially less than the radio. The equilibrium of the present day is convincingly portrayed, as Trace declares:

I’m just proud to be on the right side of the dirt
I’ve been loved and I’ve been lost and I’ve been hurt
I leave the hard stuff up to God
Try not to worry about a whole lot
And I have no regrets for what it’s worth
I’ve been living on borrowed time for years
And I’m just proud to be here

The production gets a bit heavier than I would like in the second half, but this is a heartfelt vocal on an excellent song which seems to reflect Trace’s true feelings about his life.

‘Million Dollar View’, written by David Lee Murphy and George Teren is a cheerful country-rocker about satisfaction with a happy domestic life which sounds tailor-made for country radio. Much better, but potentially also commercial, is the mellow take on chilling out and escaping from the world’s pressures on ‘Days Like This’, which is one of Trace’s rare writing credits, alongside producer Kenny Beard and Casey Beathard.

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EP Review: Jeff Bates – ‘One Day Closer’

When I heard the lead single and title track of this album a few weeks ago, I was really looking forward to Jeff Bates’s religious album. I was disappointed to find that it was in fact only a six-track EP. (There is also a separate DVD with the same title, which includes live versions of the songs on the EP plus a handful of others.)

Theologically, the “rapture” is posited by some Christian denominations as the bodily lifting to heaven of the righteous in the last days, based on a passing reference in one of the Epistles. This album opens with an imagined narrative of ‘The Rapture’, as previously recorded by Jason Matthews, one of its writers, on his rather good Hicotine album in 2008, but Jeff’s version is better. A simple piano accompanies the testimony of one of those who has had “no time for Jesus” until he finds he has been left behind when his wife and children (in better favor with Heaven) . The vocal is great, and it does have some emotional power, but this is one that doesn’t quite work for me personally.

Jeff co-wrote the other three new songs. I’ve already talked about the mature and lovely title track (which he wrote with Matthews), and this is still my favorite track.

It really won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I was deeply moved by the tear-jerker ‘If You Could See Me Now’, which was written with Robert Arthur and Marcus Franklin Johnson. There is an understated but intensely emotional vocal as Jeff plays the part of an infant who has died and is speaking to his family from heaven:

If you could see me now
You’d see joy and laughter in my eyes
I’m swinging on a swingset in the sky
No you wouldn’t cry if you could see me now
Every single tear would be erased by the love that shines on Jesus’ face
Oh what a place

I never played with my brother and my sisters in the yard
I never was rocked to sleep in my mother’s arms
But the arms that hold me now are the same arms that made me
I know you miss me
I wish you could see your baby

If you could see me now
Even though you’re looking through a broken heart
You wouldn’t bring me back to where you are …

So don’t waste another moment
Worry about what might have been
Jesus loves me and you know I’m with him

It was inspired by the death of a band member’s newborn grandchild.

The same team (plus Kirk Roth) composed the far less memorable ‘Living Stones’ a tribute to those individuals who help in times of trouble. It drags a bit despite a gritty vocal.

There are two well-worn traditional numbers. Jeff gives a slow intense reading of ‘Wayfaring Stranger’. It’s not my favorite version of the song, but it offers a very convincing portrayal of a weary soul; where it falters a little, at least for me, is in lacking the sense of joy at finally reaching heaven’s rest. Black gospel style backing vocals come in quite effectively towards the end of the song, as they do on a rocked up and rather leaden take on ‘Life’s RailwayTo Heaven’, the record’s least successful moment.

This is a little more uneven record than I was hoping for, not to mention much shorter, but there are some great moments nonetheless.

Grade: B+

Single Review: Jeff Bates – ‘One Day Closer’

The deep-voiced Jeff Bates is best known for his sultry Conway Twitty-style love songs, and I always thought it was a shame he didn’t have more chart success than he did. Now he is turning his attention to inspirational music, with an album due next month on Black River Music Group, the independent label which released his last secular album back in 2008. The title track and lead single is a sincerely delivered spiritual-cum-philosophical song about religious questions. There is an attractive melody and production which is sympathetic with gentle piano and guitar supporting Jeff’s warm, sensitive vocal.

I like religious songs in general, but it’s particularly nice to have one that doesn’t beat you around the head and has some space for uncertainty, while ultimately having a positive emotional payoff. Jeff ponders,

Why do bad things happen to good people?

He doesn’t make any attempt to answer that well-worn question, but concentrates on his wait for enlightenment from God, concluding,

I’m one day closer to one day knowing all the answers I’ve been searching for
My time on earth is getting shorter and my list of questions keeps on growing
But I’m one day closer to one day knowing

This isn’t the kind of song where everything is wonderful (like the platitudes of the otherwise wonderful Lee Ann Womack’s ‘There Is A God’). Jeff doesn’t shy away from the fact that life is tough, and having survived a serious drug addiction among other vicissitudes in his own life, he certainly is no stranger to the troubles he talks about here:

Why is life down here such a struggle?
Trouble’s all I’ve ever known
And when I die will I go to heaven
And will it be like going home?
Will my lost loved ones be there waiting?
There’s no way to know right now

Simple but sweet, Jeff’s warm voice makes it feel comforting even though we don’t get handed any answers. This is one of the most soothing songs about the thought of death I have ever heard.

This song embodies the definition of inspirational, because from a starting point firmly grounded in reality, like the best country songs, it feels genuinely hopeful that the answers to these difficult questions will be both forthcoming and satisfactory. But there is no preaching to that end: the personal testimonial style with elements of doubt make this work. It is, perhaps, not the most original record around, but it is very well executed. It also really makes me want to hear the new album, which is a single’s essential function.

Grade: A

Listen here.

Some hidden treasures of 2010

I restricted my top 10 singles list for the year to tracks which were formally released as singles, but a lot of the best music of the year was hidden away on albums. So to finish up our review of the year in country music, here are my favorite tracks from albums released this year. I’ve restricted the selection to one per artist (not counting duets), and I’ve excluded the albums which made it to my top 10 albums list to avoid too much duplication and to prevent the list being too long.

20. Trace Adkins – ‘Still Love You’ (Cowboy’s Back In Town)
Moving to Toby Keith’s label seems to have encouraged the talented but often artistically misguided Trace Adkins to give in to his worst instincts, but there is still some decent material on his latest album. This ballad swearing enduring love (written by love song specialist Jeff Bates with Robert Arthur and Kirk Roth) is a little heavily orchestrated, but has a great, understated vocal from one of the best voices around. It’s a shame the rest of the album wasn’t up to the same standard.

19. Gretchen Wilson – ‘I’m Only Human’ (I Got Your Country Right Here)
Gretchen has just scored an unexpected Grammy nomination for ‘I’d Love To Be Your Last’ from her self-released I Got Your Country Right Here, prompting general bewilderment from country fans online. But while that track isn’t bad, this song is rather better, a plaintive bar-room tale of a woman trying to resist the temptation of dalliance with a married man, which Gretchen wrote with Vicky McGehee, Dave Berg and Rivers Rutherford.

18. Jon Wolfe – ‘Play Me Something I Can Drink To’ (It All Happened In A Honky Tonk)
If you think Easton Corbin sounds like George Strait, you need to check out the Strait stylings of Jon Wolfe on his strong independent debut album. I particularly liked this classic country style bar room song (written by Kevin Brandt and Bobby Terry) about a guy seeking to get his broken heart temporarily cured by whiskey and a jukebox stocked with Hank and Jones.

17. Jamie Richards – ‘Half Drunk’ (Sideways)
A great song from a Texas-based artist about trying to get over an ex by drinking, but running out of money halfway through.

16. Miss Leslie – ‘Turn Around’ (Wrong Is What I Do Best)
A lovely steel-led heartbreak ballad written by honky tonker Miss Leslie herself, but sounding as though it could be a forgotten classic from the 60s.

15. Shawn Camp – ‘Clear As A Bell’ (1994)
This lovely song was my favorite from Shawn’s “lost” album which was resurrected from the Warner Bros vaults this year.

14. Zac Brown Band – ‘Martin’ (You Get What You Give)
Jamey Johnson personified a guitar in the title track of The Guitar Song, but Zac Brown sang a love song about one on their latest release. Charming and unusual.

13. Gary Allan – ‘No Regrets’ (Get Off On The Pain)
I’ve been disappointed by Gary’s musical direction over the past couple of albums, but the heartbreaking honesty of this touching song expressing his feelings about his late wife (which he wrote with the help of Jon Randall and Jaime Hanna) was a reminder of his excellent early work.

12. Jolie Holliday – ‘I’ll Try Anything’ (Lucky Enough)
A gorgeous cover of a sad song previously recorded by its co-writer Amber Dotson about struggling to cope with lost love. I can’t find a link for you to listen to the studio version, but here she is singing it live (after a nice version of ‘San Antonio Rose’. And as a bonus, here she is singing ‘Golden Ring’ live with Randy Travis.

11. Curly Putman – ‘Green Green Grass Of Home’ (Write ‘Em Sad – Sing ‘Em Lonesome)
The songwriter’s own version of his classic prisoner’s dream is as convincing as any version I’ve herd of this celebrated song.

10. Toby Keith – ‘Sundown‘ (Bullets In The Gun, deluxe version)
Toby is always a bit hit and miss for me, but this surprisingly restrained live version of the sultry folk-country classic is a definite hit.

9. Darin & Brooke Aldridge – ‘The Last Thing On His Mind’ (Darin & Brooke Aldridge)
I loved this husband and wife team’s sweet bluegrass album and this somber Easter song (written by Dennis K Duff) was the highlight for me.

8. Teea Goans – ‘I Don’t Do Bridges Anymore’ (The Way I Remember It)
Teea Goans’ retro independent release featured this lovely classic-styled ballad, written by Jim McBride, Don Poythress and Jerry Salley. Her voice is sweet but not that distinctive, but this breakup song is definitely worth hearing.

7. Catherine Britt – ‘Sweet Emmylou’ (Catherine Britt)
The Australian singer’s latest album was a bit hit and miss for me, but there were some very strong moments, including Catherine’s lovely version of her tribute to the healing power of the music of Emmylou Harris, which she wrote some years ago with Rory Feek. It has been released as a single in Australia.

6. Bill Anderson – ‘The Songwriters’ (Songwriter)
My favorite comic song of the year is the legendary Bill Anderson’s celebration (more or less) of songwriters’ lives, complete with the protagonist’s mother’s preference for a career as drug dealer for her son. Bill isn’t much of a singer, but this song (co-written with Gordie Sampson)is irresistible.

5. Randy Kohrs – ‘Die On The Vine’ (Quicksand)
One of the first songs to grab my attention this year was this lovely song warning a son against taking refuges from trouble in alcohol, written by famed dobro player and songwriter Randy Kohrs with Dennis Goodwin.

4. James Dupre – ‘Ring On The Bar’ (It’s All Happening)
I loved this sensitively sung low-key mid-tempo Byron Hill/Brent Baxter song about a man trying to figure out what happened to his marriage from youtube discovery James’s independent debut album, produced by Kyle Lehning.

3. Lee Ann Womack – ‘Liars Lie’ (Country Strong soundtrack)
I’m beginning to get impatient for a new album from Lee Ann, and this soundtrack cut has really whetted my appetite. This excellent song, written by Sally Barris, Morgane Hayes and Liz Rose, and the combination of Lee Ann’s beautiful vocals and the harmony from Charlie Pate, a pure country production (thanks to Lee Ann’s husband Frank Liddell and Chuck Ainlay), and a fine song make this a sheer delight.

2. Chris Young – ‘Chiseled In Stone’ (Voices EP)
Song for song, this young neotraditionalist’s three song EP of covers was the most impressive release of the year, allowing Chris to exercise his outstanding baritone voice on really top quality material – something sadly missing on his two full length albums. This Vern Gosdin song was my favorite of the three, but his takes on Keith Whitley’s ‘I’m Over You’ and John Anderson’s ‘Swingin’ were also great.

1. Alan Jackson ft Lee Ann Womack – ‘Til The End’ (Freight Train)
This particular treasure is not very well hidden, as although it hasn’t been released as a single it gained sufficient attention to get a well-deserved nomination as Musical Event of the Year at the recent CMA awards. This exquisite reading of another Vern Gosdin classic was by far the best thing on Alan’s latest (and possibly last) album for Arista.

Do you have any special favorite album tracks from this year which haven’t gained the attention they deserve?

Album Review: Jamey Johnson – ‘That Lonesome Song’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Cowboy’s Back In Town’

Trace Adkins is one of the most frustrating artists in country music. He has a genuinely great voice, real interpretative ability and (when he chooses to exercise it), a sense of subtlety. When that natural talent is allied to great, or even good, songs, the result is close to sublime. Sadly, his musical taste is questionable, and he has recorded some of the worst songs released in the last ten years. His 2008 release, X, went a long way to restoring my faith in him as an artist, but regrettably, country radio was less enthused than it was for his worst efforts, like ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’, an execrable song which managed to top the charts.

Everything I heard in advance of this project’s release led me to expect Trace would be back to his worst. Radio’s lack of support for the singles from X, the move from Capitol to Toby Keith’s label. It says a lot for my admiration of Trace at his best that I was prepared to buy this, despite my concerns about the project. The first single, the truly horrible shoutfest ‘Ala-Freakin-Bama’, was a particularly disturbing sign. When Trace announced his departure from Capitol soon after the release of that single, I had hoped it would never re-surface. Unfortunately, Trace secured the rights to the last recordings he made for Capitol, and chose to include it on his debut for Show Dog Universal. Luckily, there is only one other song as bad, aggressively tuneless closing track ‘Whoop A Man’s Ass’, whose title says it all.

The grunt in the preamble to opening track ‘Brown Chicken, Brown Cow’, which is the first we hear from Trace, was not a good start either, although the song itself is not that bad – mediocre rather than awful, albeit too loud, one-note, and repetitive as it tells ths story of a farm couple who abandon their duties for a literal roll in the hay. Mostly, this record leans to the average rather than the overtly bad, with some pretty good songs.

Current single ‘This Ain’t No Love Song’ is quite a nice ballad (if a little repetitive) which was one of the few promising signs before the record’s release. Another alarm signal was raised when I originally saw the tracklisting and saw Trailer Choir were guesting on one song, ‘Don’t Mind If I Don’t’, but this was unfair as the end result is only mildly irritating, with Trailer Choir themselves barely noticeable. The song is boring, but inoffensive.

There are a couple of attempts at humor. Much of ‘Hold My Beer’ is shouted rather than sung but the lyrics (about a drunken wedding party, courtesy of Casey Beathard, Monty Criswell and Ed Hill) are mildly amusing, although I think they will pall with repetition. I can see this as a single complete with over-the-top video. The ironic backseat driver ode ‘Hell I Can Do That’ is rather better in the lighthearted vein, written by Jim Collins, Tony Martin and Lee Miller, with an engaging everyman feel and playful use of instrumentation.

The title track is quite a pleasant midpaced story song about a city woman whose life improves whenever her cowboy boyfriend comes to visit. It is one of Trace’s rare compositions, alongside Jeff Bates and Kenny Beard. Also pretty good is the love song ‘A Little Bit Of Missing You’, written by Mickey Jack Cones (who co-produces this track), Jim McCormick and Tim Johnson. Although it feels a bit over produced, it provides one of the few really melodic moments on the album, and one of the few times Trace’s gravelly bass notes are used to good effect. Most of the songs here could literally be sung by anyone, and Trace’s great voice is simply under utilised.

The highlight is the string laden ‘Still Love You’, a tender ballad co-written by Jeff Bates, where again Trace shows us he really is a fine vocalist with sensitive interpretative ability. The song itself is still only average compared to some of the outstanding ballads Trace has given us in the past.

I also liked ‘Break Her Fall’, a story of a teenage romance between a “long haired country boy” and a rich man’s daughter, written by Monty Criswell and Tim Mensy, with a little too much electric guitar for my taste. It’s a familiar, even clichéd, story, but nicely done with some specific color which makes it convincing and a few memorable lines:

She used me like a razor blade
To cut the ties that bind
Freed herself from Daddy’s world
Got tangled up in mine

This isn’t quite as bad as I was fearing, or Trace’s worst album (a title I would award to Dangerous Man), but it is still a real waste of his talent.

Grade: C

Decade in Review: Occasional Hope’s Top 50 Singles

Inevitably, anyone’s list of their favorite singles of the decade is going to be more mainstream-oriented than one of the best albums over the same period, just because independent artists are less likely to get their singles played on radio, and they tend to release fewer. My list doesn’t consist solely of hits, but a good proportion did get the success they deserved.

50. I Still Miss Someone – Martina McBride featuring Dolly Parton.
Martina recruited Dolly Parton to sing harmonies on her cover of this Johnny Cash classic on her Timeless album in 2006. It didn’t appeal to country radio, but it is a lovely recording.

49. How Do You Like Me Now?! – Toby Keith
The only song where Toby Keith managed to exercise his giant ego yet seem appealing at the same time. This #1 hit from 2000 is meanspirited but somehow irresistible. The video’s a bit heavy-handed, though.

48. I Hope You Dance – Lee Ann Womack
The enormous crossover success of Lee Ann’s signature song in 2000 set her on the wrong path musically for a while, but that doesn’t detract from the song itself, a lovely touching offering to LeeAnn’s daughter, featuring additional vocals from the Sons of the Desert.

47. You Shouldn’t Kiss Me Like This – Toby Keith
Toby is a very hit-and-miss artist for me, but he makes his second apearance in this list with my favorite of his singles, the tender realization on the dancefloor that a friend might be turning into a romantic interest. It was another #1 hit, this time in 2001. It has another terribly conceived video, though.

46. The Truth About Men – Tracy Byrd
Tracy Byrd recruited Blake Shelton, Andy Griggs and Montgomery Gentry to sing on this comic song about gender differences. Of course it’s not universally true – but it’s quite true enough to be funny. The single was a #13 hit in 2003, and is one of the few singles of recent years to inspire an answer song – Terri Clark’s ‘Girls Lie Too’, which was an even bigger hit the following year but has worn less well.

45. I Wish – Jo Dee Messina
Jo Dee Messina’s glossy pop-country was very accomplished but not always to my taste. But I did love this relatively subdued ballad which appeared only on her Greatest Hits album in 2003, and reached #15 on Billboard, with its neat twist as the protagonist bravely wishes her ex best, before admitting, “I wish you still loved me”.

44. Does My Ring Burn Your Finger – Lee Ann Womack
This biting reproach to a cheating spouse, written by Buddy and Julie Miller, was the best moment on Lee Ann’s bigselling I Hope You Dance. It was the least successful single from it, however, only reaching #23 in 2001.

43. Long Black Train – Josh Turner
Josh is one of the few traditionally oriented artists currently on a major label, although he has often recorded material which is not quite worthy of his resonant deep voice. His debut single was a heavily allusive religious song about sin which, although it only got to #13 in 2003, really established him as a star.

42. One More Day – Diamond Rio
A #1 hit from 2001 about bereavement and longing for more time with the loved one who has been lost, this touching song has heartfelt vocals and lovely harmonies from one of the best groups in country music over the past 20 years.

41. Another Try – Josh Turner and Trisha Yearwood
A classy ballad about hoping for better luck in love from two of the best mainstream singers around, this reached #15 in 2008, but should have been a #1.

40. I Still Sing This Way – Daryle Singletary
In 2002 Daryle had a single out called ‘That’s Why I Sing This Way’ (written by Max D Barnes) declaring himself a real country singer (“Mama whupped me with a George Jones record, that’s why I sing this way”). Five years later Daryle himself co-wrote this sequel, which I like even more, as he looks wryly at the music industry’s demands for glitz and glamor. He tells his manager he’s fine with a change of image – but he can’t change the way he sings.

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Songs about adoption

Lisa as babyI was adopted as a baby, and because of that the subject has always drawn me in fiction. In fact I’ve read some really bad books and watched some bad TV purely because of the topic. One of the things I appreciate most in country music is the range of topics it covers, and I feel inspired to bring together some of the best songs I’ve heard over the years on the subject of adoption.

Actually, one area that seems a bit lacking is songs about the experience of the adopted child. One of the few that does start from that point is Jeff Bates’ autobiographical ‘Rainbow Man’, title track of his 2003 debut album. Although the song goes on to talk about race and the American melting pot, I definitely identify with Jeff’s questioning of his identity.

Moving on to adulthood, I love the story song ‘Cactus In A Coffee Can’, a delicately realized third-person tale of a plane encounter with a young woman who has been reunited with a drug-addict birth mother just before the mother’s death. I first heard it ten years ago from Jerry Kilgore on his Love Trip album on the short-lived Virgin country imprint, and it was beautifully revived by the excellent Melonie Cannon on her most recent album, And The Wheels Turn. You can check both versions out on last.fm. There’s also a version available by Steve Seskin, who co-wrote the song with Allen Shamblin, where his more fragile vocals add a certain vulnerability.

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The bottle that pours the wine: Songs about songwriting

Stephanie DavisIt’s always about the song in country music. Whether the writer sings the song or not, a topic Razor X raised last week, the song itself is what everything else ultimately depends on. One of the things I love about country music is the range of subjects it tackles, but the thing most songwriters know the most about is, of course, writing songs.  So it should come as no surprise that some writers have chosen to reflect on that process within their work: the nature of inspiration; the way lives and pain are transmuted into art; and complaining about or celebrating the state of the music industry. Self-referential, perhaps – but also a fascinating insight into songwriters’ thoughts about the songs they write. So here are some of my favorite songs on the theme.

‘Sixteenth Avenue’, the ultimate tribute to the professional songwriters of Music Row, written by one of their own, Thom Schuyler, and made famous by Lacy J Dalton, speaks briefly of the magical moment of inspiration when some struggling writer finds the perfect words:
One night in some empty room where no curtains ever hung
Like a miracle some golden words rolled off someone’s tongue

Another nod to the idea that the music comes from some place beyond is expressed in David Ball’s lovely ‘The Bottle That Pours The Wine’, which he wrote with Allen Shamblin for his 1996 album Starlite Lounge, as he answers a young fan asking where the songs come from:
“I’m just a bottle that pours the wine
A fragile vessel for melody and rhyme

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