My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Jeff Pennig

Album Review: Sylvia – ‘It’s All in the Family’

sylviaSylvia Hutton (aka Sylvia) was a hot newcomer when I first became seriously interested in country music in the early 1980s.  She enjoyed a string of hits from 1979 through 1987 and then largely disappeared from public view when she was dropped from the RCA roster.  During her hit-making days she was often criticized – with some justification – for being too slickly produced, but I always felt that there was more to her and her music than her detractors gave her credit for.   She re-emerged in 1996 when she released an album on her own independent label.  She has recorded only occasionally over the past 20 years, but the music she has released during that period has had the substance that many felt was lacking in her major label days.

It’s All in the Family is her first full-length album in 14 years and the fourth for her Red Pony Records imprint.  About halfway through 2016 I had heard that she had a new album on the way and checked her website from time to time for updates.  Somehow I managed to miss its release and hence, the delay in reviewing it.  But better late than never.

Like its predecessors, It’s All in the Family is a highly introspective collection of serious songs.  There are no catchy numbers like “Nobody”, “Drifter” or “Snapshot” to be found, although it does occasionally have a less artsy and more commercial feel than her earlier independent work.  Her longtime collaborator John Mock is back on board as her co-producer. He also plays a majority of the instruments on the album, from guitar, banjo and mandolin to the bodhran, tin whistle and concertina.  On the instrumental number “Grandpa Kirby Runnin’ the Hounds”, he and Stuart Duncan play the fiddle and banjo that belonged to Sylvia’s grandfather Connie D. Kirby, who had played at local barn dancers in the early part of the 20th century.  There is also a little pedal steel here and there, and quite a few of the tracks feature an orchestral arrangement consisting of cello, violin, viola, clarinet and French horn.  The orchestra, although tastefully restrained, provides a little more oomph than the more stripped-down sound of Sylvia’s other Red Pony albums.

As the title suggests, It’s All in the Family is mostly a look back at Sylvia’s childhood and family history.  Sylvia had a hand in writing nine of the album’s twelve tracks. She recounts her memories of passing trains in “Every Time a Train Goes By” to a mother’s reminiscences and advice to a daughter on her wedding day in the title track, and the final moments of an elderly woman on her deathbed in the closing track, “Do Not Cry For Me”.  The Celtic-flavored “Immigrant Shoes” recalls the arrival of Sylvia’s ancestors at Ellis Island.  The inside album cover is decorated with photographs from Sylvia’s family album, dating as far back as 1911, through a 1984 photo of her with her musician grandfather.

Although there are no direct references to specific events, many of the songs deal with overcoming adversity, failed relationships and difficult circumstances, and one gets the distinct impression that Sylvia has faced her fair share of challenges.  She remains optimistic through it all, however, stating in “A Right Turn” that it was “worth every long hard mile”.  Although she occasionally feels discouraged as in “Hope’s Too Hard”, written by Kate Campbell, she ultimately concedes in “Here Lately” that given the chance to do things over, she wouldn’t change a thing.  One of the album’s more mainstream-sounding songs, featuring some nice pedal steel, advises to “Leave the Past in the Past”.  “Cumberland Rose”, a 2011 single written by Craig Bickhardt and Jeff Pennig, also appears on the album even though it doesn’t qite fit in with the theme.

It’s All in the Family is a collection of well-crafted songs, beautifully sung and tastefully produced, that lays to rest for once and for all the myth that Sylvia was just another pretty face.   It’s more thoughtful and cerebral than anything that gets played on the radio these days, and with its folk and Celtic influences may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but those who remember and enjoyed Sylvia’s 80s music will like this collection.

Grade: A

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Album Review: Highway 101 – ‘Big Sky’

big skyFor the last full length album by Highway 101, original members Cactus Moser and Curtis Stone were joined by new lead guitarist Justin Weaver and singer Chrislynn Lee. Chrislynn’s voice has echoes of both Paulette Carlson and Nikki Nelson, but is not as good as either. Released in 2000 on independent label Free Falls Records, the album largely disappeared without trace.

Much of the material was written by Moser and Stone with various co-writers. ‘Rhythm Of Livin’, a co-write by the pair with Gary Harrison, is a pretty good mid-tempo tune which makes a pleasant toetapping opener.

Love song ‘Bigger Than The Both Of Us’, written by Moser with Jeff Penig and Mike Noble, is quite enjoyable, but the title track, produced by the same trio, is completely forgettable. The team’s ‘Long List Of Obvious Reasons’ is much better, a very pretty song which suits Chrislynn’s vulnerable vocal. The bouncy ‘Easier Done That Said’, written by Moser with Wilson and Henderson, is also fun, although Chrislynn’s vocal limitations are in evidence.

‘True Hard Love’, written by Stone with Sam Hogin and Phil Barnhardt, plods and lacks the requisite attitude which would have been better supplied by either of the previous lead singers. ‘Best Of All Possible Worlds’ also falls very flat. Stone’s ‘Thicker Than Blood’ is a duet, not terrible but not very country either.

The album also included pedestrian covers of ‘There Goes My Love’, the Buck Owens classic the band had done previously (and better) with Paulette Carlson, and the lovely Moser-penned ballad ‘I Wonder Where the Love Goes’, previously recorded by the band with Nikki Nelson.

‘Ain’t That Just Like Love’, written by Phil Jones, Kerry Kurt Phillips, and Jerry Lassiter, is a very pretty song. The beaty ‘Only Thinking Of You’ is well performed although stylistically very reminiscent of some of the band’s work with Nikki Nelson.

This album feels like the band was trying to coast on the success they had enjoyed in earlier years, but sounding like a poor quality karaoke version. While it’s generally inoffensive, I can’t really recommend it unless you have money to burn.

After leaving the band, Chrislynn Lee became a backing singer for Tanya Tucker, and later hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons when she was arrested with Tanya’s boyfriend for allegedly absconding with some of Tanya’s property. Highway 101 has not recorded again (with the exception of a Christmas single a few years ago), but is now performing regularly with Nikki Nelson.

Grade: C-

Album Review: Highway 101 & Paulette Carlson – ‘Reunited’

51HKJyMSbOLSix years after she left for an abortive attempt at a solo career, Paulette Carlson rejoined briefly with bassist Curtis Stone and guitarist Jack Daniels, who had left in 1993.

Gone was drummer Cactus Moser. Also gone was the musical environment that had spawned Highway 101, and any sort of major label record deal as the new album was released on Intersound, a label primarily know for releases by obscure artists, and albums of remakes by over-the-hill first and second tier artists of the not too distant past. Carlson and Daniels would soon depart again and neither has been part of Highway 101 since 1997.

Reunited was released in 1996 and was comprised of twelve tracks. Four of the tracks were reprises of earlier Highway 101 singles (“The Bed You Made for Me”, “Setting Me Up”, “All the Reason Why” and “Walkin’, Talkin’, Cryin’, Barely Beatin’ Broken Heart”). Two new singles (“Where’d You Get Your Cheatin’ From” and “It Must Be Love”) were released, neither of which charted, and there were six other songs on the album.

While I looked forward to getting the album, I found that I was somewhat disappointed in the sound of the album as the overall sound was much louder than previous albums. I also found the album’s use of percussion somewhat jarring. There are points in which the drums are the predominant sound.

The album opens with “Where’d You Get Your Cheatin’ From”, written by Paulette Carlson, Tom Shapiro, and Chris Waters. Had the song been released in 1988 rather than 1996, and with slightly different production, the song would have been a hit single. Unfortunately radio in 1996 was not really friendly to honky-tonk music

“The Bed You Made for Me” was one of Highway 101’s biggest hits, reaching #4 in 1987. This version sticks pretty close to the original arrangement

“Holdin’ On”, written by Christy Seamans and Curtis Stone is a sad song about lost love and abandonment, taken at a slower tempo. It’s a nice album track, nothing more.

Much the same can be said of “Hearts on the Run”, a Larry Butler, Jeff Sauls & Susan Sauls composition. The percussion of is much more subdued on this track, and frankly it sounds more like a Paulette Carlson single than a Highway 101 track.

Mark Knopfler’s “Setting Me Up” is next, a cover that reached #7 in 1989. The arrangement is fairly faithful to the original version, but the track runs about thirty seconds longer than the original version.

Paulette Carlson wrote “She Don’t Have the Heart to Love You” a nice ballad and better than average album track.

In my opinion “Texas Girl” penned by Paulette Carlson, Gene Nelson and Jeff Pennig is the best song on the album, a song that would have been a hit if released anytime between 1950 and 1990. The song is a excellent two-step with one of Paulette’s better vocals. Even in 1996 it might have made a successful single

Another of Highway 101’s hits follows in “All the Reasons Why” by Paulette Carlson and Beth Nielsen Chapman. The song reached #5 in 1988.

“Walkin’, Talkin’, Cryin’, Barely Beatin’ Broken Heart” from the tandem of Roger Miller and Justin Tubb was a surprise hit in 1989, a cover of a Johnnie Wright hit from 1964. This version is true to their #4 hit from a few years earlier. I think Roger Miller had the best version of the song on one of his albums, but this version is very close. In my opinion (humble or otherwise) this is classic country songwriting

If you see me in some corner looking like all hope is gone
If you see me sit for hours and you wonder what is wrong
Well, it hurts to talk about it but my world just fell apart
I’m a walkin’, talkin’, cryin’, barely beatin’ broken heart

Did you see the teardrops fallin’ and the tremble in my hands
Then you’ll know that there’s a story and nobody understands
It’s a sad and lonely story but I’ll try to make it short
I’m a walkin’, talkin’, cryin’, barely beatin’ broken heart

Tony Haselden and Harold Shedd were responsible for “I’ve Got Your Number”, a rather sardonic song that might have made a decent single in another time and place (and perhaps in another genre)

Now word’s around you’re back in town and headed for my heart
I’m not the same I’m one old flame that you ain’t gonna start
There ain’t no doubt the fire went out when you broke this heart in two
So honey, don’t call me til I call you You know
I’ve got your number But your phone ain’t gonna ring off the wall
Because I’ve got your number and honey, that’s the reason I won’t call.

Another decent album track as is the Curtis Stone – Debi Cochran composition “It Must Be Love”.

The final track “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman” comes from the pens of Bryan Adams, Michael Kamen and Robert John “Mutt” Lange). At the time this album was released, Lange was a few years prior to the mega-success he would experience with his then wife Shania Twain. This song is essentially a Paulette Carlson solo effort. It’s not a bad song but at 5:43 the song is just too long.

This isn’t a bad album, initial reservations notwithstanding. I will say that I was surprised at how integral a part of the Highway 101 sound was Cactus Moser. While John Wesley Ryles is an outstanding background singer (and probably should have been a star in his own right), the vocal blend of Curtis Stone, Jack Daniels and John Wesley Ryles is not the same as that of Curtis Stone, Jack Daniels and Cactus Moser, and the album suffers for it. The CD is an enhanced CD which contains some extra videos and text when played on a CD-ROM drive

I’d give this album a solid B .

Album Review: Martina McBride – ‘Wild Angels’

wild angelsMartina McBride is one of the most technically gifted vocalists in country music, and her style was ideally suited to the 90s with its mix of contemporary shine and more traditional elements (although the latter tended to reduce over time), good songs, and great vocals. Her third album, 1995’s Wild Angels, would seal her star status. Martina took a co-production credit this time alongside Paul Worley and Ed Seay, who had helmed her earlier work. Her vocals are superb throughout this album, and almost every song sounds as though it could have been a successful single. Bookending the set by opening with a baby’s cry and ending with studio chatter, however, is pretentious, self-indulgent and pointless.

The lead single, the charmingly hopeful ‘Safe In The Arms Of Love’, dreams about the prospects of true love some time in the future. A pretty arrangement with an almost Celtic feel and airy backing vocals from co-writers Mary Ann Kennedy and Pam Rose (the third writer was Pat Bunch) contrast nicely with Martina’s powerful lead vocal. It was a cover of a song which was originally recorded by Baillie & The Boys and had been a Canadian country hit for Michelle Wright, but Martina’s version is my favorite. Peaking at #4 on Billboard, it was her second biggest hit to date.

The sunny title track was the second single, and while the efficiently glossy surface of this well-written contemporary country song (written by Matraca Berg, Gary Harrison and Harry Stinson) somehow sounds a little soulless to me, it was very radio-friendly and became Martina’s first #1 hit.

Surprisingly, the last couple of singles failed to repeat this success, even though they are siginifiantly better songs. ‘Phones Are Ringing All Over Town’ is a dramatic ballad (written by Marc Beeson, Kim Vassy and David McKechnie) about a complacent cheating husband’s discovery that he has crossed one line too many and the marriage is over with “nothing to be said”. It was only just a top 30 hit despite the excellence of both song and vocal.

‘Swingin’ Doors’ only just crept into the top 40, but deserved much better. Written by Chapin Hartford, Bobby Boyd and Jim Foster, it is a ballsy, sardonic response to a man the protagonist realizes has been stringing her along with empty promises. The doors to her heart are about to be closed to him. Banked harmonies help to sell the song’s defiance.

The final single (and my favourite), ‘Cry On The Shoulder Of The Road’ peaked at 26. It is in fact one of my favorite Martina McBride recordings ever. It was written by Matraca Berg and Tim Krekel, and portrays a woman whose marriage has reached such a desperate state she just leaves with no destination in mind:

Rollin’ out of Bakersfield
My own private hell on wheels
But this time I’m gone for good…

It makes me feel a little low
Steel guitar on the radio
when its kind of scary teh way these truckers fly
So this is how leaving feels
Drinking coffee and making deals
With the One above to get me through the night

Cause there ain’t no telling what I’ll find
But I might as well move on down the line
There ain’t no comfort to be found in your zip code
I’d rather break down on the highway
With no one to share my load
Cry on the shoulder of the road

Levon Helm’s harmony lends a California country-rock feel to the chorus, while Martina’s full blooded vocal makes her sound vulnerable but determined to make her way, and a tasteful arrangement with steel guitar.

The contemporary sounding mid-tempo ‘A Great Disguise’ has Martina hiding her heartbreak behind “smoke and ice”, with a big emotional chorus. ‘Beyond The Blue’ is quite a pretty song about looking forward to getting past the sorrow of a breakup, and both are quite good.

‘All The Things We’ve Never Done’ (written by Craig Bickhardt and Jeff Pennig) is a gentle love song comparing possible missed opportunities in life with a supportive love. The similarly themed ‘You’ve Been Driving All The Time’ was overtly dedicated to Martina’s husband, whose support had been so instrumental in building her career; it is a sweet if slightly sentimental love song which affirms,

It takes a real man to take a back seat to a woman.

Another love song from the Bunch/Rose/Kennedy writing team, ‘Born To Give My Love To You’ is quite pretty with a string arrangement and multitrack harmonies from Rose and Martina herself.

An energetic cover of ‘Two More Bottles Of Wine’, the Delbert McClinton song best known by Emmylou Harris, is pretty good with a rocking vocal, some fabulous honky tonk piano from John Hobbs, and proves Martina wasn’t just a great balladeer.

This album exemplifies pop-country at its best – good, sometimes great songs, great vocals, and a production which while glossy, is not pretending to be a rock band. The overall mood is of female self-confidence and survival. Even the breakup songs focus on the woman moving on, and this positive image of being a strong woman may have been key to Martina’s success at a time when women in country music were doing better as a group than ever before.

Grade: A