My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Jeff Hanna

Album Review: Nathan Carter – ‘Time of My Life’

Nathan Carter was all of 21 when he released his third album, Time of My Life, in 2011. The album opens with the title track, a surprisingly effective cover of Green Day’s 1997 pop classic, with lovely Irish touches. His version of “Take Another Little Piece of My Heart” is a solid yet jarring interpretation of Faith Hill’s much-disparaged rendition of the song. The lyric, when taken from a man’s perspective, sounds oddly juvenile.

Carter transforms Don Williams’ “Lay Down Beside Me” into a mid-1990s power ballad. His take, which I like, is so convincing I would’ve expected to hear it grace country radio circa 1995-1996. I’m not so keen on his reading of “Delta Dawn,” which he transforms into a bright country shuffle. He treats “Fishin’ In The Dark” well, but he’s no match for Jeff Hanna or Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

“Where Do You Go To My Lovely” was composed and originally released by British singer-songwriter Peter Sarstdet in 1969. The song is perfect for Carter, who wraps his vibrato around it gorgeously. The beautiful “My Forever Friend” is presented here as a duet with Charlie Landsborough, from who the song originates. “One For The Road” is an excellent and bright sing-a-long brimming with fiddle. “The Dancer,” a mid-tempo waltz, is just as wonderful.

“The Rainbow in Glenfarne” is a moderately paced Irish folk tune that fits nicely with the other bright fiddle tunes on the album. The medley of “Spanish Dancer / Holy Ground / Westmeath Bachelor” might be more of the same sonically, but it’s the fastest track on the record and just a delight.

I wholly recommend the album, even if I found the cover songs to be a bit subpar. As Paul pointed out, these songs are likely new to Carter’s audience, but to my ears they aren’t very good. But Carter possesses a lot of charm and has a strong voice, which carries the album over the finish line.

Grade: B+ 

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Paul W. Dennis’s favorite albums of 2016

real-country-musicBeing the old man of the blog, I suppose it is inevitable that my favorite albums would differ from those of Razor X and Occasional Hope. There is some overlap, however, and where overlap exists I will not comment on the album

(#) on Razor X’s list / ($) on Occasional Hope’s list

15) Tracy Byrd – All American Texan (#)

14) Mark Chesnutt – Tradition Lives (#) ($)

13) Rhonda Vincent – All The Rage, Volume One

Alison Krauss fans notwithstanding, Rhonda is the Queen of Bluegrass music and is also adept at country and western swing numbers. Rhonda has a great band and all of the members are featured. Her guitar player, Josh Williams, is on a par with any acoustic player currently going.

12) Balsam Range – Mountain Voodoo

Balsam Range has been around for about a decade, winning the 2014 IBPA “Entertainer of The Year” and Vocal Group of The Year” awards. Their newest album was nominated for several awards. This band is renowned for their vocal harmonies. Their current single “Blue Collar Dreams” is being played on Bluegrass Junction on XM Radio – it’s a goodie and indicative of their material.

11) John Prine – For Better Or Worse ($)

the-life-and-songs-of-emmylou-harris10) Various Artists – Life and Songs of Emmylou Harris
I suspect that Emmylou Harris is the most highly revered female country singer, particularly for younger country fans and pop music fans. The epitome of elegance and grace, Emmylou has also been a champion of traditional country music. This album contains nineteen tracks with a vast array of admirers who gathered at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington DC on January 10, 2015 to pay tribute. Emmy sings on a few of the tracks but mostly the guests sing songs at least loosely associated with Emmylou. Guests include Sheryl Crow, Alison Krauss, Buddy Miller, Rodney Crowell and others.

09) Karl Shiflett & Big Country Show – Sho Nuff Country

Although focusing on bluegrass, this veteran outfit has a strong propensity to record country music of the period before 1980, and they perform it well. For me the highlights are “Six Pack To Go” and “Why Baby Why”, but I really enjoyed the whole album.

08) Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (& guests) – Circling Back: Celebrating 50 Years
Knowing that this ban has been around for fifty years is making me feel old, since I purchased several of their early albums when they originally came out. This album was recorded live at the Ryman on September 14, 2015 and features the current membership (Jeff Hanna, Jimmie Fadden, Bob Carpenter and John McEuen) augmented by friends Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Byron House. The guest vocalists include former band members Jimmy Ibbotson and Jackson Browne with John Prine, Alison Krauss, Rodney Crowell and Jerry Jeff Walker also making appearances. Highlights include Alison Krauss singing “Catfish John” , Vince Gill singing “Tennessee Stud” and Sam Bush and Vince Gill teaming up on “Nine Pound Hammer”.

07) Willie Nelson – For The Good Times: A Tribute To Ray Price (#) ($)

06) Time Jumpers – Kid Sister (#)

05) Dallas Wayne – Songs The Jukebox Taught Me ($)

things-we-do-for-dreams04) Trinity River Band – Things I Do For Dreams
I find it odd that Callahan, Florida, a town of about 2000 people, has produced two of my favorite new bluegrass bands in Trinity River Band and Flatt Lonesome. Trinity River Band was nominated for the Emerging Artist award at the recent International Bluegrass Music Association award a few months ago. They play well, sing well and present an effective stage show.

03) Dale Watson – Under The Influence
Had he been born in the 1930s or 1940s, Dale Watson would have been a huge mainstream country star. This album finds Dale tackling a wide array of country and rockabilly classics from bygone years. My favorites from this disc include Dale’s take on the Eddie Rabbitt classic “Pure Love” and his take on the Phil Harris song from the 1940s “That’s What I Like About The South”.

02) Flatt Lonesome – Runaway Train
Flatt Lonesome won the IBMA Vocal Group of The Year award for 2016. They are just flat[t] out good. Their take on Dwight Yoakam’s “You’re The One” has to be heard to be believed, but my favorite track is their cover of the Tommy Collins tune “Mixed Up Mess of A Heart”.

01) Gene Watson – Real. Country. Music ($)
Okay, so I lied, but I cannot let the #1 album go by without the comment that I consider Gene Watson to be the best country male vocalist alive today and that I pray that 2017 sees another new release from Gene.

Album Review: The Mavericks – ‘The Mavericks’

3148RANN18LIn September 2003, The Mavericks released an eponymous album, which was the first after leaving MCA and their last before they disbanded after their 2004 tour.

Since their inception in 1989, The Mavericks had been an eclectic band, though most of their major label work fit firmly in the mainstream country of its day. The Mavericks, however, which was released on the British-based Sanctuary Records, is in no way, shape or form a country album, nor — to its credit — does it pretend to be.

The band had enjoyed some international success a few years earlier with Trampoline. On the surface, The Mavericks, appears to be an attempt to appeal to mainstream pop fans in Europe, but I can’t find any data on how well it actually sold there. Stateside, it made very little impact, with only one of its three singles — a remake of “The Air That I Breathe”, a 1974 pop hit for The Hollies, appearing on the country charts, peaking at #59.

This is an album that has to be approached with the right frame of mind. Once the listener accepts that it is not a country album, he/she will likely conclude that it is a pretty good pop album. Some of the songs have a Latin influence, but mostly this is reminiscent of 1960s pop, before the lines between pop and rock became blurred.

There are a few names that will be familiar to country fans among the songwriting credit: Rick Trevino co-wrote “In My Dreams”. His own version appears on his 2003 album of the same name, which was produced by Raul Malo. Jaime Hanna, son of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Jeff Hanna, co-wrote several tracks with Raul Malo and Alan Miller. And surprisingly, Dale Watson, one of the most outspoken critics of “poptry” music, had a hand in writing the Latin-flavored “I’m Wondering.”

My favorite track is the catchy earworm “Would You Believe”, which sounds like something from one of my Dad’s old Herman’s Hermits albums. Willie Nelson joins the group for “Time Goes By”, which is less Roy Orbison-esque than most of the album. It wasn’t released as a single, but seems like it could have had a shot at being a hit, although country radio had pretty much abandoned The Mavericks by now.

This isn’t the type of music I usually listen to and it’s probably not for hardcore country fans, but it does remind me of the kind of pop music that could be heard on the radio when I was growing up, and it makes a nice change of pace. It’s not essential listening, but loyal Mavericks fans will enjoy it.

Grade: B

Album Review: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Speed of Life’

220px-NGDB-SpeedThe Nitty Gritty Dirt Band released their most recent project Speed of Life on their own NGDB Records distributed by Sugar Hill in 2009. George Massenburg and Jon Randall Stewart produced the album, which peaked at #59 on the Billboard Top Country Albums Chart. The album, which didn’t produce any singles, is folksy bluegrass. Given Stewart co-produced it, he helmed Dierks Bentley’s Up On The Ridge, that isn’t a surprise.

Jeff Hanna’s wife Matraca Berg contributed two songs to the project. Both are mid-tempo harmonica laced ballads. “The Resurrection,” which she co-wrote with Alice Randall, is about a lost soul in a nowhere town, while “Good To Be Alive,” (a co-write with Troy Verges) is sing-a-long folk. Both tracks are very good, although I enjoy the latter a bit more even though the cadence is a cheesy for my taste.

John McEuen also contributed two tracks while Bob Carpenter, who co-wrote one with him, supplied four. “Earthquake” is a western swing meets bluegrass fusion ballad complete with gorgeous old-time steel guitar riffs. McEuen composed “Lost In The Pines,” a slow instrumental solo, and while it’s heavy on banjo, it really isn’t my thing.

Carpenter also co-wrote “Something Dangerous” and “Amazing Love.” The former is a plucky mid-tempo number while the latter skews contemporary country. Both are very good although “Amazing Love” is more appealing both sonically and lyrically.

The remaining tracks on Speed of Life offer more of the same bluegrass meets folk mid-tempo numbers that are all expertly crafted if not terribly exciting. “Tulsa Sounds Like Trouble To Me” is an exception, opting for a more upbeat style that gives the track a bit more muscle and energy. “Going Up To The Country” and “Brand New Heartache” follow suit, but they’re more organic in style.

Overall, Speed of Life is a very good album that continues the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s legacy of strong, cleanly produced projects that sound great but aren’t a real punch in the gut. The band could stand to be a bit more adventurous, but that’s just not their style. I would recommend this album to anyone that likes their music mixing bluegrass and folk with organic sounds throughout.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind: Jeff Hanna ft Matraca Berg – ‘God Bless The Broken Road’

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Jeff Hanna and his wife Matraca Berg wrote this song, which is probably best known from Rascal Flatts’ cover.

Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume III’

will the circle 317 years passed between the original Will The Circle Be Unbroken and Volume II. 13 years after that, in 2002, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band decided it was time for a third instalment, which they released on Capitol. It did not make as much of a stir as either of the previous instalments, but is still a pretty solid collection of bluegrass and oldtime music with some guests old and new.

The opening ‘Take Me In Your Lifeboat’ is beaty bluegrass gospel performed with Del McCoury and his sons. The McCourys are back on the secular ‘Love Please Come Home’, which is well done but not memorable.

I preferred the contributions from bluegrass great Jimmy Martin (1927-2005), who had taken part in both previous versions, and who belies his age with confident upbeat performances here. He sings his own ‘Hold Whatcha Got’ (which Ricky Skaggs had made into a hit in the late 80s), and also the lively ‘Save It, Save It’.

In contrast, June Carter Cash (1929-2003) takes the lead vocal on the Carter Family’s ‘Diamonds In The Rough’, with Earl Scruggs on banjo. She does not sound at all well, and indeed died the following year. Although Johnny Cash (1932-2003) was also in poor health, he sounds much better than his wife on a self-penned tribute to the late Maybelle and Sara Carter, ‘Tears In The Holston River.

Willie Nelson, not involved in previous versions, gets two cuts here. Willie sounds good on ‘Goodnight Irene’, but the tracks is irredeemably ruined by the presence of duet partner Tom Petty. Petty is out of tune and the harmony is embarrassingly dissonant. A cheery Nelson version of ‘Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms’ is better although it does feel a bit perfunctory.

Dwight Yoakam (another newcomer to the series) is great on his two tracks. He shows his Kentucky roots on the mournful and authentic ‘Some Dark Holler’. He is outstanding on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ ‘Wheels’, which he makes sound like. Vince Gill’s ‘All Prayed Up’ is an excellent piece of up-tempo bluegrass gospel.

Emmylou Harris sings her ex-husband Paul Kennerley’s ‘I’ll Be Faithful To You’, a sweet declaration of eternal love, exquisitely. She also duets with Matraca Berg (Mrs Jeff Hanna) on Berg’s folk-styleode to the river running through Nashville, ‘Oh Cumberland’. Alison Krauss exercises her angelic tones on ‘Catfish John’.

Iris Dement sings beautifully on her own nostalgic ‘Mama’s Opry’. Ricky Skaggs and Rodney Dillard team up for the pacy folk of ‘There Is A Time’. Band members’sons Jaime Hanna and Jonathan McEuen (who were the duo Hanna-McEuen at the time) are a bit limp for me on ‘The Lowlands’, a folky Gary Scruggs song.

Sam Bush takes it high mountain lonesome on Carter Stanley’s ‘Lonesome River’. ‘Milk Cow Blues’ is taken back to its blues roots and features Josh Graves and Doc Watson. Watson also sings the traditional ‘I Am A Pilgrim’. More contemporary is ‘I Find Jesus’, penned by Jimmy Ibbotson. ‘Roll The Stone Away’ (written by Jeff Hanna with Marcus Hummon) uses religious imagery but it is a bit dull. The Nashville Bluegrass Band take on A. P. Carter’s ‘I Know What It Means To Be Lonesome which is OK.

Gravel-voiced bluesman Taj Mahal and legendary fiddler Vassar Clements guest on the good-humored ‘Fishin’ Blues, which is mildly amusing. Taj Mahal and Alison Krauss guest on this album’s take on the title song which falls rather flat with Alison sounding a bit squeaky and therest of them dull and lifeless.

This album lacks the groundbreaking nature of Volume I, and the cosy atmosphere of either previous set, making more of a standard collection of older material. There are definitely some tracks well worth hearing, and I’d still be interested if there was a Volume 4.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Acoustic’

220px-NGDB-AcousticTwenty years ago, when their string of radio singles came to end, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band returned their roots with a collection entitled Acoustic. Like other similarly titled projects through the years, this isn’t re-recordings of past hits, but rather an album of all-new material.

While the album didn’t spawn any singles, it’s most notable for introducing the world to “Bless The Broken Road,” a Jeff Hanna, Marcus Hummon, and Bobby Boyd co-write that would top the charts for Rascal Flatts ten years later. Not many know the song began as a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band tune, with a lush piano drenched arrangement not too far removed from Rascal Flatts’ hit recording.

Jimmy Ibbotson had a hand in writing a few of the album’s tunes. “Sara In The Summer” is a harmonica laced folksy country shuffle, “How Long” is a mid-tempo love song, and “One Sure Honest Line” is a song about songs. All are excellent, showcasing the band’s tight harmonies set to clean, appealing production. Ibbotson co-wrote “This Train Keeps Rolling Along,” a fantastic story song with Jim Photoglo and Vince Melamed.

Bob Carpenter was another prominent songwriter on the album. He co-wrote Harmonica ballad “Let It Go,” America-like “Badlands,” and harmony rich “Love With Find A Way.” While all of the tracks are good, “Love With Find A Way” is the highlight, sounding like The Eagles from their Desperado era in the early 1970s.

Dennis Linde contributed “Hello, I Am Your Heart” a slice of filler that really doesn’t go anywhere. Jimmy Fadden had two cuts. “Cupid’s Got A Gun” is a plucky ballad while “Tryin’ Times” is heavy on mandolin yet light on social commentary, as the title suggests.

If anything, Acoustic is too polished. The album still sounds impeccable but the immaculate arrangements hinder any chance for letting loose, which a lot of these songs could benefit from. It’s still a great album, though, and well worth seeking out.

Grade: A

Album Review: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘The Rest Of The Dream’

the rest of the dreamThe follow up to Will The Circle Be Unbroken Vol 2 was always going to be a challenge. The band kept Randy Scruggs, who had overseen the Circle II sessions on hand as their producer for 1990’s The Rest Of The Dream, but did not attempt to copy that album at all. Instead it is a solid return to the country-rock which had done so well for them in the 1980s. Unfortunately they may have lost momentum with their focus on the less overtly commercial Circle II, while country radio was being engulfed with fresh new faces and the move to a more traditional sound. Sadly, they were never again to enjoy a top 40 country hit.

The lead single was a cover of rock star Bruce Springsteen’s ‘From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)’. A dramatic story song about a young girl who elopes with first one man and then another, then shoots her second lover, while the abandoned husband awaits her release from prison, it is delivered in upbeat fashion. It sounds very radio friendly (and convinces as a country-sock song), but peaked at a very disappointing #65. The pleasant but forgettable ballad ‘You Made Life Good Again’ didn’t do much better.

The sunny mid-paced title track, released as the last single with a supporting video, failed to chart at all. It was one of a brace of songs contributed by singer-songwriter John Hiatt, who had appeared on Circle II. It’s enjoyable enough, but I prefer the other one, ‘Just Enough Ashland City’, a charming up-tempo story song in which the narrator finds true love and learns not to judge by outward appearances:

I was Mr Sophisticated and she was “just a country girl”
She wound up showing me everything
I’d ever been dreaming of
I may have known the way to San Jose
But I didn’t know a thing about love

This might have been a more successful single, as might aacouple of other tracks. The gentle ballad ‘Waitin’ On A Dark Eyed Gal’, written by Ron Davies (brother of Gail), is an excellent tune, about holding on to forlorn hope and defying the reality that the narrator has been stood up.

Also great is ‘Blow Out The Stars, Turn Off the Moon’, an excellent song about the end of a relationship written by the brilliant Bobby Braddock, filled with images of their romantic nights under the stars:

When our love was new as the first evening star
We both said “I worship you just as you are”
Then I tried to change you, girl, and I don’t know why
You tried to change me, hey, might as well try
To blow out the stars, turn off the moon
Fade out the crickets and the nightingales too
Take down the magnolias that ride the soft wind
Another love story has come to an end

It is sensitively sung by Jeff Hanna, and beautifully played by the band. This lovely song is my favourite track.

The band’s Jimmie Fadden co-wrote (with Kim Tribble and Bob Garshelis) the charmingly quirky ‘Snowballs’, fantasising about winter walks with a sweetheart, throwing snowballs at the moon:

And after every throw we’d share a little kiss
Make sweet love together every time we’d miss

Hillbilly Hollywood (covered by John Anderson a year or so later on his comeback Seminole Wind album) is about the draw of Nashville for a young musician, which was written by Vince Melamed and Jim Photoglo. I prefer Anderson’s version, but this one is decent.

Jimmy Ibbotson co-wrote ‘Junior’s Grill, a tribute to a favorite diner which would be a great commercial jingle but is a little dull as a song. All four current band members (Hanna, Ibbotson, Fadden and Bob Carpenter) cowrote ‘Wishing Well’, but the song is disappointingly bland.

Overall, though, this is worth picking up –especially as used copies can be found cheaply.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Hold On’

220px-Nitty_Gritty_Hold_OnBy the late 80s, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was routinely peaking in the upper regions of the country charts and had even scored two number one hits along the way. But they’d yet to release their signature song, which would change when Hold On hit stores in July of 1987.

The album saw three singles released. Non-descript rocker “Baby’s Got A Hold On Me” came first, peaking at #2. The album’s third single “Oh What A Love” was much better, with a pleasant acoustic-based shuffle arrangement featuring prominent mandolin. The mid-tempo ballad comes off a tad cheesy today, but the arrangement and tight harmonies from the band keep it listenable.

Between those two singles, which are forgettable at best, came the aforementioned signature song. Written by Wendy Waldman and Jim Photoglo, “Fishin’ In The Dark” is an iconic single from the period, a modern masterpiece that sounds as timeless today as it did twenty-seven years ago. The combination of Jeff Hanna’s commanding vocal and Josh Leo’s flawless production is irresistible. Not since Alabama’s “Mountain Music” a full five years earlier had an opening sequence (Gentle acoustic guitar plucking building to include twangy electric guitar, ribbons of harmonica, and attention-grabbing drum beats) been so identifiable.

Eddy Raven took his version of “Joe Knows How To Live,” written by Max D. Barnes, Lyle Graham, and Troy Seals to number one in 1988. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s version is just as good as Ravens, albeit identical except for Hanna’s smoother vocal tone and the band’s inclusion of harmonica.

Bruce Springsteen solely wrote “Angelyne,” a slick slice of synth drenched country rock that contains a good lyric but is packaged too neatly for my taste. Richard Leigh co-wrote “Blue Ridge Mountain Girl,” a brilliantly excused ballad that would’ve been even stronger had Hanna sang lead. Karen Staley wrote the album’s closing number, “Tennessee.” I love the fiddle, steel, and band harmonies on the track, but the overtones of synth drown out any real enjoyment of the neo-traditional leaning track. Wayne Holyfield co-wrote “Dancing To The Beat of a Broken Heart,” which still leans on the synth, but is better with Hanna in the lead.

Various members of the band contributed songs to the project as well. Hanna co-wrote, “Keepin’ The Road Hot,” a generic number similar to Restless Heart’s style at the time. Jimmie Fadden, meanwhile, solely wrote “Oleanna.” The production on the ballad is too synth driven, and Fadden’s vocal is bland.

Hold On is a mixed bag of an album, heavy on synth, and lacking any real identity beyond “Fishin’ In The Dark.” The harmonies are fantastic, though, but to today’s ears the album is a bit too 80s.

Grade: B

Album Review: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Partners, Brothers And Friends’

partners brothers and friendsBy 1985 the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band were confident in their mainstream country/country-rock style, and released the excellent Partners, Brothers And Friends, a fine collection of mainly up-tempo, mainly positive songs which shows the band at their best.

The lead single, ‘Modern Day Romance’ was their second country chart topper. It is an early Kix Brooks songwriting credit (alongside Dan Tyler), and is a solidly enjoyable story song about a roadside pickup which turns into a wild weekend and a broken heart when the girl leaves him stranded:

I tried to love her without any strings
But a modern day romance has left me some old fashioned pain

The wistfully nostalgic ‘Home Again in My Heart’ then hit #3, with the banjo most prominent in the mix helping to give it a rustic feel. The charming ‘Old Upright Piano’ (written by Don Schlitz and Rhonda Kye Fleming) also looks back fondly to childhood memories of the narrator’s grandparents, and allows Bob Carpenter to shine on the piano.

There is a similar mood to Jimmy Ibbotson’s song ‘Telluride’ (not the song of that name later recorded by Tim McGraw but a cover of a song Ibbotson had written in the 1970s. Its poetically folky lyrics about a 19th century gold miner and his love for his wife are counterpointed by a more contemporary arrangement.

The autobiographical title track (written by Jimmy Ibbotson and Jeff Hanna) peaked at #6, but is one of my favourites of their records as it cheerfully chronicles the ups and downs of their career.

There are a number of enjoyable upbeat numbers, any of which would have been possible singles. The exuberant ‘Redneck Riviera’ (witten by Jeff Hanna and Bob Carpenter) is an early version of the country beach song, but it’s quite entertaining and rooted in real life. Hanna, Ibbotson and Steve Goodman wrote the catchy ‘Queen Of The Road’, a joyful tribute to a tough girl biker. The breezy cowboy song ‘Other Side of The Hill’ (sometimes also known as ‘Cadillac Cowboy’ and recorded by a number of other artists) is another enjoyable cut.

Slowing things down for a moment, ‘As Long As You’re Loving Me’ is a love song with a pretty melody written by Don Schlitz, Lisa Silver and Russell Smith.

They close up with the dramatic saga of ‘Leon McDuff’, a farmer who loses his riverside farm to floods, an unhelpful bank and an unscrupulous tax official who grabs his land for his own benefit. The song is structured as the defence lawyer’s speech at his trial for murdering the sheriff sent to evict Leon and his family:

I’m asking you to be the judge of when enough is enough

The band’s instrumental playing on this track is spectacular.

This album sees the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band at their best. It is strongly recommended (and can be found as part of a 2-4-1 CD with its predecessor.

Grade: A

Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Plain Dirt Fashion’

plaindirtfashionIn 1982, The Dirt Band, as they were then known, reverted back to their former name and moved toward a more mainstream country sound. They scored their first Top 10 country hit in 1983 with “Dance Little Jean”. A year and a label change later, they solidfied their reputation as a mainstream country band with all of their singles through the end of the decade reaching the Top 10.

Plain Dirt Fashion was the band’s first album for Warner Bros., and in the summer of 1984, the song from which the album’s title was derived became the first of their three number one country hits. Written by Rodney Crowell, “Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper’s Dream)” is a nostalgic look back at an impovershed but happy childhood and my favorite Nitty Gritty Dirt Band single. With tight harmonies and plenty of fiddle, it is one of their most traditional efforts, foreshadowing the upcoming New Traditionalist movement which would take off in earnest about a year later. It was followed by the upbeat “I Love Only You”, written by Dave Loggins and Don Schlitz, which reached #3. “High Horse”, penned by Dirt Band member Jimmy Ibbotson, became the album’s third single. It peaked at #2 in early 1985. All three singles were tailor-made for country radio without any of the rock elements that had been the hallmark of much of the band’s earlier work. Two album cuts, however, are covers of old rock-and-roll hits — Bruce Springsteen’s “Cadillac Ranch and Meat Loaf’s “Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad”, neither of which is particularly memorable.

In general, while the singles are timeless and have managed to avoid sounding dated, the album cuts haven’t aged as well, mainly due to the somewhat heavy-handed — and typical of the era — use of the drum machine, which mars “Cadillac Ranch”, “Run With Me” and “‘Til The Fire’s Burned Out”. “Video Tape”, the album’s closing track, gives away the album’s age by its reference to a now-obsolete medium. It asks, “wouldn’t you be in good shape if your life was on video tape?” a question that would never be asked in the era of iPhones and social media when so many have regretted having their actions recorded. The one truly great non-single cut is “The Face On The Cutting Room Floor”, about a has-been (or more accurately, never-was) actress who fails to make it in Hollywood after refusing to sleep her way to the top. The tune was written by Steve Goodman with band members Jeff Hanna and Jimmy Ibbotson.

In addition to the band members themselves, the album credits list some marquee names as additonal musicians, with Steve Gibson, Mark O’Connor, and Ricky Skaggs all lending their talents to the project.

Although it occasionally shows its age, Plain Dirt Fashion is still an enjoyable album and worth a listen if you haven’t already heard it. It is available for download or on a 2-for-1 CD with the band’s next project Partners, Brothers and Friends.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Let’s Go’

0215albums247The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band returned to their country roots in 1982, around the time the band started using their full name again. They had a lineup change as well, with former member Jimmy Ibbotson joining Jeff Hanna, Jimmie McFadden, and John McEuen for the sessions taking place in Nashville. With Norbert Putnam and Richard Landis producing, Let’s Go was released on Liberty Records in 1983.

The album, which peaked at #26, had two successful singles. “Shot Full of Love,” written by Bob McDill reached #19. While not overwhelmingly country, the track worked in the Urban Cowboy era of smooth country-pop and was nicely driven by the band’s excellent harmonies.

Ibbotson wrote “Dance Little Jean,” an excellent mid-tempo acoustic guitar driven number in hopes it would convince his ex-wife they should reconcile. The plan backfired although she’s reported to say he could afford to pay child support (the Jean of the song referred to the couple’s daughter), as the track would be a hit. Her prediction was correct and the song rose to #9.

The remainder of the album was peppered with tracks penned by notable songwriters. Rodney Crowell wrote “Never Together (But Close Sometimes),” a Caribbean flavored number accentuated with steel drums and an island beat that are horribly dated today. Pop singer-songwriter Andrew Gold contributed “Heartaches In Heartaches,” an excellent mid-tempo number notable for a rocklin’ beat. Dave Loggins composed “Goodbye Eyes,” a tender soft-rock ballad that would’ve been a perfect crossover hit had it been a single. And finally, Marshall Crenshaw inscribed “Maryann,” a synth-heavy ballad with a fuller arrangement than most of the tracks, but still perfectly Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

Hanna co-wrote “Special Look,” a very good synth drenched number with Bob Carpenter. He and Fadden collaborated on the title track, a number that wouldn’t have been out of place in Alabama’s catalog at the time. “Don’t Get Sand In It,” isn’t country at all, but from a pop/rock perspective, it’s still good. “Too Many Heartaches in Paradise” leans more into country music from the era and would’ve been a good choice as a single.

As a whole, Let’s Go isn’t a country album and to categorize it as indicative of the Urban Cowboy era is a stretch. But the band is in fine form throughout, with clean arrangements and harmonies that may be dated today, but are still very listenable.

Grade: B+

Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken?’

will the circle be unbrokenEven if the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had never made another album after this one, they would have still deserved a place in country music history. This groundbreaking album teamed up the young folk-rockers with country hearts with a selection of veterans including some from the early days of recorded country music, performing music mostly from the same era. It was a triple LP, but was remastered and released as a double CD in 2002, and is also available digitally. There is a friendly living room atmosphere, with snippets of the chat in the studio between tracks.

The various instrumental tracks and backings are brilliantly played by the Nitty Gritties and their guests, often anchored by Earl Scruggs and fiddler Vassar Clements.

The album opens with bluegrass singer Jimmy Martin (1927-2005) singing Hylo Brown’s ‘Grand Ole Opry Song’, which pays affectionate tributes to the stars of the Opry past and present. The song’s subject sets the mood for the whole project. This was one of the singles released to promote the album. It is very charming, but wasn’t very commercial even in the 1970s. Martin’s former boss Bill Monroe had declined to take part in the sessions, distrusting the young men from California, and reportedly regretted that decision once he heard the end result; but Martin’s piercing tenor is a strong presence on a number of tracks. ‘Sunny Side Of The Mountain’ and ‘My Walkin’ Shoes’ are a bit more standard pacy bluegrass – brilliantly performed, but they don’t really hit the heartstrings. The plaintive ‘Losin’ You (Might Be The Best thing Yet)’ is more affecting, and ‘You Don’t Know My Mind’ is also good.

Roy Acuff (1903-1992) was also dubious about the project, but having agreed to take part was quickly won over by the long haired youngsters’ genuine love of country music and their musicianly skills. Known as the King of Country Music, Acuff was the biggest star in country in the 1940s, and one of the influences on artists like George Jones. Even after his commercial star had faded, he remained a very visible presence in the genre, as a stalwart of the Opry and as co-owner of the music publishing company Acuff Rose. He sings some of his signature gospel-infused tunes ‘The Precious Jewel’, the gloomy ‘Wreck On The Highway’, plus the lonesome love song ‘Pins And Needles In My Heart’. He also takes the lead on Hank William’s joyful country gospel classic ‘I Saw The Light’, enthusiastically backed by the NGDB and Jimmy Martin on the chorus.

Mother Maybelle Carter (1909-1978) represents the earliest country recordings and the crystallization of country as a genre from Appalachian folk and the popular music of the day. She sings the lead on the optimistic ‘Keep On The Sunny Side’, a turn of the century religious tune which was one of the Carter Family’s first recordings in the 1920s. Her vocals are thickened with age (and she was never the lead voice in the original Carter Family, taking second place vocally to sister in law Sara), but backed by a chorus of other participants there is a warm familial atmosphere which is quite endearing, and the playing is impeccable. ‘I’m Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes’, another Carter Family classic, and ‘Wildwood Flower’ are also charming.

Flatpicking guitarist Merle Travis sings ‘I Am A Pilgrim’, the coalmining ‘Dark As A Dungeon’ and ‘Nine Pound Hammer’; these are delightful and among my favorite tracks, particularly ‘Dark As A Dungeon’. Another guitar legend, Doc Watson, who surprisingly only met Travis for the first time at these sessions, takes on vocal duties for Jimmie Driftwood’s always enjoyable story song ‘Tennessee Stud’ as well as the traditional ‘Way Downtown’.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band harmonise nicely on a tasteful version of A P Carter’s delicately pretty ‘You Are My Flower’. Their vocal style betrays their folk-rock roots, but the instrumentation is perfectly authentic. They also picked out some Hank Williams classics to spotlight their own vocals. Jimmie Fadden leads on ‘Honky Tonking’, and Jeff Hanna gives ‘Honky Tonk Blues’ a Jimmie Rodgers style edge with his voice sounding as though at any moment he’s going to break into a fully fledged yodel. Jimmy Ibbotson takes on ‘Lost Highway’ (penned by Leon Payne but most associated with Hank)..Their vocals sound a little tentative compared with their more confident later work, but the songs are beautifully played. That is actually a reasonable assessment of the whole album – there is nothing to criticise musically, but the vocals, while honest and authentic, are not up to the standard of, say, today’s best bluegrass.

Pretty much the entire lineup participates in the title song, an inspired choice. The song’s own message is a spiritual one but in the context of this project it has a metaphorical second meaning. The messages of unity and tradition are underpinned by the cover art with its use of US and Confederate flags, and the legend “Music forms a new circle”.

This album is a towering achievement and one of the most significant in country music history. It united two generations, linking the up and coming country rockers with the men and women who had in effect created country music as a unique and definable genre. If you have any interest in music history, it’s a must-have.

Grade: A+

Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy’

ngdb uncle charlieThe Nitty Gritty Dirt Band began in the 1960s as a southern California folk rock band. They limited success before temporarily disbanding in 1969. After renegotiating their contract with Liberty Records, they were given more artistic freedom, and the changes were immediately apparent in 1970’s Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy, which saw the band moving in a more country direction.

Country rock bands originating from California were nothing new, but the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band took things a step further by incorporating into their music instruments that were closely associated with bluegrass and country music, and featuring them prominently. While blending of genres is commonplace today, it was quite revolutionary in 1970. The eclectic Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy is equal parts country, bluegrass, folk, and rock. It features both original music and cover versions of other artists’ work, as well as reinterpretations of old folk songs that had long been in the public domain. At times, particularly when the band starts to harmonize, the sound is something akin to the Beach Boys with banjos.

The Uncle Charlie referenced in the album’s title was a relative of producer Bill McEuen’s wife. He was born in Texas in 1886 and performs a brief folk song “Jesse James”, recorded in 1963, on which he plays harmonica and gets his dog Teddy to howl along. He also gives two brief interviews, which are mildly interesting on the first listen.

A number of well known names appear among the songwriting credits: Michael Nesmith of The Monkees wrote the bluegrass-flavored opening number “Some of Shelly’s Blues”, which became a minor pop hit, peaking at #64, and “Propiniquity”, which is one of my favorites on the disc. Kenny Loggins wrote another the album’s singles, the more rock-oriented “House at Pooh’s Corner” which name-drops several of the characters from A.A. Milne’s well loved children’s stories. It reached #53 pop. The album’s biggest hit and the band’s best known song to this day is their cover of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr Bojangles”, which reached #9 on the Hot 100. It didn’t garner enough attention from mainstream country outlets to make the country charts but that may have been due to the way the record and the band in general, were marketed. It certainly sounded country enough, even by 1971 standards, to have fit into the country radio format.

NGDB member Jeff Hanna wrote “Cure”, which is another one of my favorites and songwriter Randy Newman supplied the very nice “Livin’ Without You”. The NGDB members show themselves to be very adept bluegrass musicians, which is somewhat surprising given their West Coast origins. The 2003 reissue of the album includes a grassed-up version of John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s “What Goes On”, which Beatles aficinados probably hate but I quite liked. I don’t like the rock-oriented numbers quite as much but they didn’t really detract from my overall enjoyment of the album.

In between the country and rock numbers are a number of traditional folk and bluegrass numbers, usually performed instrumentally, which help give the album a “sitting around the living room” feel, and providing the template for the future and better remembered Will The Circle Be Unbroken trilogy, the first volume of which would appear two years later.

Aside from “Mr. Bojangles”, there isn’t a whole lot among the album’s 23 tracks that will be familiar to most modern listeners, but the album is well worth a listen.

Grade: A

Spotlight Artist: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

ngdb 1980s

Is it folk or rock or country?
Seems like everybody cares but us

Lots of people have had that question about the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The answer, of course, is all of the above, with the band’s origins lying in the roots scene of 1960s California, but their greatest strength has been as a country rock band in the 1980s, and in the role bringing together country heritage with younger performers and listeners in the Will The Circle Be Unbroken trilogy.

The band was founded in the 1960s in Long Beach, California, by Jeff Hanna, as a folk-rock jug band. The first members included Jimmie Fadden and singer-songwriter Jackson Browne (soon replaced by John McEuen). Hanna, Fadden and McEuen are still members today, although the lineup has seen a long list of changes. They soon signed to Liberty Records and from 1967 released a series of folk-rock albums.

Jimmy Ibbotson joined the group in 1970, and the four plus Les Thompson recorded their most country influenced effort to date, Uncle Charlie And His Dog Teddy. They really made their mark on country music, and a place in country music history, with the ground-breaking and legendary Will The Circle Be Unbroken in 1972. The genre has always balanced change with reverence for its heritage, but by the early 1970s the oldest artists were no longer at the forefront. The triple album – a rarity at the time – revived many classic and oldtime country songs, and collaborated with veteran artists including Mother Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, and Earl Scruggs among others.

They were still not a straight country group, playing for rock audiences much of the time. In 1975 Ibbotson left the band, and they changed their name to the simpler The Dirt Band, adopting a more rock and pop direction, although they continued to record some country songs like Rodney Crowell’s ‘Voila An American Dream’, which was a pop hit for the band in 1980.

Reverting to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band name in 1982, the core group of Hanna, McEuen, Ibbotson and McFadden made a concerted bid for the country mainstream. They enjoyed immediate success with the single ‘Dance, Little Jean’ becoming their first top 10 country hit. After their first mainstream country record they transferred to Warner Brothers Records. They were rejoined in 1983 by Bob Carpenter, who had been with them for a while in the late 70s, and for a few years Bernie Leadon of the Eagles took the place of McEuen.

At the height of their success, the neotraditional sound was sweeping country airwaves. it was the ideal moment to revisit the legendary Will The Circle Be Unbroken. Recruiting some more recent stars alongside survivors from the original, Will The Circle Be Unbroken Volume II was a tour de force, winning two Grammy Awards and the CMA Album of the Year. A third instalment would following 2002.

Their commercial appeal faded a little in the 1990s, and they wandered between labels, issuing material on MCA, Capitol, Liberty, DreamWorks and independent labels. They are still active touring – appearing at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in California on 5 October, and in Canada the rest of the month. They released their last album to date in 2009.

We’re happy to announce they will be our Spotlight Artists for this month. We will be focussing on their mainstream country period.

Spotlight Artists: Female Singer-songwriters

For our March spotlight, we’re taking a look at four distinct country songwriters who all, at one point or another, found themselves on the cusp of stardom when they scored major label deals. None would be superstars in their own right, but their songs would be turned into some of the greatest country records of the last thirty years by some of the best female (and sometimes male) voices the genre has to offer.

In celebration of the release of Gretchen Peters Hello Cruel World and Matraca Berg’s The Dreaming Fields we’re taking a look at:


Nanci Griffith

Nanci Griffith’s life hasn’t been without its struggles. Born Nanci Caroline Griffith on July 6, 1953 in Seguin, Texas, she suffered a tragic loss when her boyfriend was killed in a motorcycle accident the night of their senior prom. His loss forever altered her life and became a big inspiration to her songwriting. Griffith has since survived both breast (1996) and Thyroid (1999) cancer.

As an artist, she released her debut album There’s A Light Beyond These Woods in 1978.  She would release four albums (none of which charted) before Kathy Mattea brought her fame after her version of Griffith’s “Love At The Five and Dime” peaked at #3 in 1986.

This success led to a deal with MCA Records. Lone Star State Of Mind was released in 1987. The title track would peak at #36 and the album would peak at #23. Tony Brown would also produce the follow-up, Little Love Affairs, released in 1988. It would also chart, although not as successfully. Griffith’s deal with MCA would span just three more albums, two (One Fair Summer Evening and Storms) of which charted quite low.

The 1990s would bring further success. Suzy Bogguss had a #9 peaking hit in 1992 with “Outbound Plane,” a song Griffith co-wrote with Tom Russell. In 1994, Griffith won her first (and only) Grammy award, Best Contemporary Folk Album for Other Voices, Other Rooms; a collection of songs that inspired her.

Griffiths has a new album, her first since 2009’s The Loving Kind. Although not yet released in the United States, Intersection is available in the UK.

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