My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Jenee Fleenor

Album Review: Kristy Cox – ‘Part Of Me’

part of meI loved Australian bluegrass singer Kristy Cox’s previous album, so I was keen to hear her latest work, produced, like its predecessor, by songwriter Jerry Salley. She is in great form vocally; last time around I felt she was better on the ballads than the up-tempo material, but now she sparkles on the faster songs too, and is reminiscent at times of Rhonda Vincent.

‘Another Weary Mile’ opens the album briskly in typical bluegrass style. Written by Michael Rogers, Joshua D Trivett, and Jason Barie, it is one of only two completely outside song, with the remainder coming from the pens of Salley and/or Cox. A vibrant vocal brings the tale of life on the road and the lure of home alive.

Kristy co-wrote four songs. Allen Caswell helped her with ‘William Henry Johnson’, a mournful murder ballad about ‘a hero and a villain’ who breaks the protagonist’s heart and ends up dead as a result. Caswell collaborated with Kristy and Jerry Salley on ‘You Walked In’, an upbeat song about the joy of new-found love. Equally sweet is ‘Young Love Never Gets Old’, a romantic tale of a lifelong love story against all the odds, written by Kristy and Jerry. Kristy and Jerry wrote one more song, the pacy but regretful ‘I’m No Stranger To This Lonesome Road’.

‘The Part Of Me (That’s Still In Love With You)’ is a wistful ballad about the emotional power of a memory overshadowing a current relationship, which Salley wrote with Pam Tillis, with a lovely melody.

‘Little White Whiskey Lies’, written by Salley with Tammy Rogers, picks up the tempo with a bluesy edge. ‘Baby, You Ain’t Baby Anymore’ is a bluegrass burner, written by Salley with Jenee Fleenor, which has Kristy bemoaning a faltering relationship. The brisk ‘Your Train Don’t Stop Here anymore’, written with Dani Flowers, is also solid, while the set closes with an optimistic gospel tune penned by Salley with Sally Barris, ‘That’s Where The Faith Comes In’.

Finally, there is a lovely cover of Chris Stapleton’s moving ‘Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore’. Kristy’s vocal style is about as different from Stapleton’s rough hewn soul as one can imagine, and her version adds sweetness and a gentle regret. Beautiful.

The sparkling playing and immaculate arrangements make the perfect backdrop for Kristy’s clear, pure voice. This is an excellent album which I recommend strongly.

Grade: A

Album Review: Darin and Brooke Aldridge – ‘Flying’

flyingHusband and wife bluegrass duo Darin and Brooke Aldridge have been steadily rising through the ranks of bluegrass over the past few years, and they show here how deserving they are of the accolades they have been receiving. The sweet, confident voice of Brooke takes the lead on the majority of songs, and female songwriters (notably Lisa Shaffer and Becky Buller) dominate, with at least one woman contributing to every song included. As one might expect from a happily married couple, the material leans to positive love songs with spiritual undertones, but any lack of variety in themes is made up for by an excellent ear for melodies in whoever was responsible for choosing the songs (none of them composed by the duo) and Brooke’s compelling vocals.

Lisa Shaffer wrote a couple of songs with Bill Whyte, the brightly upbeat ‘Trying To Make Clocks Slow Down’ and the melodic and winsome ‘I Gotta Have Butterflies’, about the need for that special spark when falling for someone. ‘To The Moon And Back’ (written by Shaffer with Wil Nance and Steve Dean) is another charming love song with a pretty tune, this one about anticipating growing old together. It is my favorite of Shaffer’s songs here. Shaffer and Buller together wrote ‘Higher Than My Heart’, which has very nice closely harmonised vocals by Darin and Brooke, and a driving banjo underpinning an idealistic lyric.

Becky Buller (the couple’s fiddle player) also wrote ‘Love Speak To Me’ (with Jimmy Fortune and Jeff Hyde), the only track which has Darin on lead. He has quite a pleasant, if not very distinctive, voice, and it’s a nice song. Buller teamed up with Bethany Dicker-Olds to write the soaring traditional bluegrass of ‘Laurie Stevens’, a dramatic story song involving a young woman tragically drowned in a raging creek on her way to see her sweetheart; Brooke’s vibrant vocal grabs the listener’s attention from start to finish, and the change of mood from the overall positive vibe of the record is also welcome.

The charming mid-tempo ‘Maybe Just A Little’, written by Haley Dykes Johnson, is another of my favourite tracks, with Brooke questioning whether a romantic interest is out of her league. ‘Love Does’, written by Jamie and Susanne Johnson with Jenee Fleenor, is a duet between Brooke and Darin, and is a semi-religious song with a light and airy feel. ‘Little Bit Of Wonderful’ allows Darin to contribute some solo lines, and it is a positive and catchy love song with a charming delivery by the pair.

An unusual choice is a cover of the Nanci Griffith/Tom Russell song ‘Outbound Plane’, with phrasing very similar to that of Suzy Bogguss’s hit version.

This is a very attractive sounding record which feels full of joy. It should appeal not only to bluegrass fans but to those who enjoy top-notch female vocalists on good, generally upbeat material with strong melodies, in an acoustic setting. There are a lot of fine female vocalists in bluegrass, but Brooke Aldridge is rapidly becoming one of my favourites.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Erin Enderlin – ‘I Let Her Talk’

i let her talkSinger-songwriter Erin Enderlin is responsible as a writer for two of the best songs to hit mainstream country music in the past decade: Alan Jackson’s hit ‘Monday Morning Church’ and Lee Ann Womack’s last chart record, the top 15 ‘Last Call’. Enderlin is also a fine vocalist in her own right, and has just released her second almost full length album (nine tracks). Producer Alex Kline (a multi-instrumentalist and former member of all-girl group the Lunabelles who BNA were promoting a couple of years ago) has orchestrated a traditionally-based sound with a contemporary edge. Dan Dugmore’s steel and Jenee Fleenor’s fiddle are prominent, although it is occasionally just a little too busy-sounding.

New versions of her two big successes are understandably included, and it’s always interesting to hear the writer’s take. An intimate version of the exquisitely sad ‘Monday Morning Church’ with a delicate piano backing is exceptional and tear-provoking. ‘Last Call’ is inevitably not quite as superlative as the hit versions (Erin has an excellent voice but she can’t quite match up to Lee Ann Womack), but it is still very good, and the very tasteful production supports Erin’s vocal perfectly.

Erin clearly has a gift for story songs, and there are some great examples on this record, brought alive in vivid color. The excellent title track is cowritten with the wonderful Leslie Satcher, and is a real highlight. It is written from the viewpoint of an initially sympathetic listener who, while taking refuge from her own troubles in a bar, listens to another woman tell her story of a sordid affair, with a devastating twist:

She was pouring out her heart and soul
So loud I couldn’t even think

I let her talk about the hotel room
Where she spent last night
I let her talk about the married man
And his soft green eyes
A careless drunk will show you pictures too
So baby, I let her talk about you

Another excellent story song with a bar room and cheating theme, but one more sympathetic to the woman, the very closely observed ‘Get That At Home’ is a about a desperately lonely wife fending off feelings of guilt over her pending first-time adultery. She wouldn’t be out looking for love elsewhere,

If she felt that he still loved her.

The dark-tinged exploration of a conversation with a man whose drink problem has wrecked his life, ‘You Don’t Know Jack’ is another highlight; it has been recorded by hit maker Luke Bryan, and was one of the few redeeming factors on his 2011 album Tailgates and Tanlines, and has also been cut by independent artist Jamie Richards. Erin’s version has an appropriately stark and lonesome feel.

The optimistic ‘Finding My Voice’ is about a woman leaving a bad relationship and finding herself, and is a very good mid-tempo number. The assertive ‘Unbroken’ triumphs over a lying cheating ex, and might have commercial potential.

The vibrant up-tempo ‘Countryside’ offers a gender twist on the hackneyed theme of country boy and city girl; it’s quite enjoyable and refreshingly actually sounds country, if a little bit busy production-wise. It’s very well-played, but there are just a few too many instruments to allow the song to breathe. ‘Good Kind Of Pain’ is a mid-tempo ballad about an obsessive love, and is yet another well-written song with a committed vocal, but the production feels a little cluttered.

It’s a shame one more track wasn’t included to round out the set, especially as she included versions of the two big hits on her last EP, and also that it is only available digitally, but this is still warmly recommended. It’s an indictment of the current country music industry that Erin isn’t either already a big star as an artist or on the fast track.

Grade: A-

Album Review – Blake Shelton – ‘Cheers, It’s Christmas’

220px-CheersItsChristmasOn Cheers, It’s Christmas, his foray into holiday music, Blake Shelton is offering up fourteen tracks that mix traditional fare with newly-penned tracks and collaborations with everyone from Kelly Clarkson to Reba McEntire. And like Red River Blue, Scott Hendricks produces the set along with Brett Rowan.

The traditional songs are pretty standard, and Shelton turns in gorgeous readings of “White Christmas,” “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow,” “The Christmas Song,” and “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” Each are framed in a lush string heavy melody that doesn’t bring anything new to the tracks, but keeps them simple and classy. Shelton supercharges his rendition of “Winter Wonderland” with a heavy electric guitar, and instead of working against the song, it helps to showcase the much-recorded song in a new light.

The heart of Cheers, It’s Christmas, though, are the duets. “Jingle Bell Rock,” complete with loud guitars and crashing horns, features Miranda Lambert on backing vocals and their voices blend together nicely. Unfortunately the cheesy “Blue Christmas,” which features Pistol Annies pointlessly doo-wooping throughout, is a mess. The production is too loud and all meaning feels stripped from the song.

Shelton keeps the proceedings nice and simple on “Silver Bells,” one of my favorite Christmas songs. He’s joined by Xenia, a contestant from his team on season 1 of The Voice. Surprisingly, their voices blend well despite having two completely different vocal styles. The same is true for the holiday re-working of “Home” which features the tune’s original singer (and season 3 Voice mentor) Michael Bublé, although it’s kind of odd to hear the tune with the new, slightly awkward lyrics.

Shelton turns surprisingly traditional on “Oklahoma Christmas,” a duet with fellow Okie McEntire. While very good the exaggerated twang and somewhat predictable lyrics (written by Rob Byus, Jenee Fleenor, and Trent Willmon) put a slight damper on the proceedings. He revives Keith Whitley’s “There’s A New Kid In Town,” easily the album’s strongest track lyrically, as a duet with Clarkson. An astonishingly understated and tasteful rendition, their voices gel together wonderfully.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I heard Shelton co-wrote a duet with his mom Dorothy Shackleford, but it turned out really well despite her somewhat shaky vocal. “Time For Me To Come,” in which a mother calls up his son to come home for the holidays, has a lot of old-fashioned charm and works well coming from someone who’s so busy with both his music and television careers. Shelton also co-wrote “Santa’s Got A Choo Choo Train,” a somewhat bluegrass-y number that’s a bit cheesy, nicely understated, and sounds like something Brad Paisley would’ve done about eight years ago. Shelton’s third co-write “The Very Best Time of Year” is the album’s weakest track, spilling out a mess of yuletide clichés.

Cheers, It’s Christmas is an uneven effort at best, with Shelton’s classy and rowdy sides fighting for dominance. But it’s also his best album in years, showcasing a bona fide superstar who isn’t afraid to keep it country when it counts the most. Since he’s so big right now, I have a hard time feeling the intimacy he strives for on the majority of the tracks, but he’s never sounded better and exuded so much personal confidence.

Grade: B

Album Review – Kathy Mattea – ‘Calling Me Home’

Coming off the supposed one-off side project Coal, Kathy Mattea found her purpose as a recording artist transformed from a commercial country singer to an Appalachian folk singer. The four-year journey has led to a full exploration of her West Virginian roots and the land surrounding the mountains where she’s from.

Calling Me Home finds Kathy exploring the austere realities of man’s desire for growth at the expense of preserving our natural world. The album richly chronicles the death of nature from many perspectives, and features the works of notable folk and bluegrass singer/songwriters Jean Ritchie, Laurie Lewis, Alice Garrard, and Hazel Dickens among others.

“The Wood Thrush’s Song,” written by Lewis, leads the charge with an effective thesis on the drawbacks of advancement within the human race:

Man is the inventor, the builder, the sage


The writer and seeker of truth by the page


But all of his knowledge can never explain


The deep mystery of the Wood Thrush refrain 

The thesis makes a bold yet true statement, and I connected with the way Lewis used the plight of the Wood Thrush to hone in her main point about man’s relentlessness to grow, seemingly without consequence.

Kathy explores that sentiment on a more human level with Ritchie’s masterfully heartbreaking “Black Waters,” a crying out over the state of Kentucky’s decision to allow the building of a strip mine in her backyard. I was taken aback by the brilliance in Ritchie’s storytelling; how she layered the vivid imagery to devastating effect. The climax of the track comes towards the end, when Kathy sings about Richie’s lack of sympathy from those causing the destruction:

In the summer come a nice man, says everything’s fine


My employer just requires a way to his mine

Then they blew down the timber and covered my corn


And the grave on the hillside’s a mile deeper down


And the man stands and talks with his hat in his hand


As the poison black waters rise over my land

“Black Waters” comes off a bit too sing-song-y, a bit too commercial in feel. But the lyrical content speaks for itself as does the haunting combination of Patty Loveless and Emmylou Harris on backing vocals, which adds an additional texture to the proceedings.

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Album Review: Larry Cordle – ‘Pud Marcum’s Hanging’

Larry Cordle’s new album was supposedly released a few months back, but, perhaps because it is on the artist’s own label, distribution had been limited, and it has taken some time for me to track down. I’m glad I took the trouble to do so, because this is an excellent album full of memorable songs.

A brilliant songwriter and an emotive singer, Cordle wrote all the songs with a small band of collaborators, most frequently Larry Shell (with whom he wrote ‘Murder On Music Row’) and Connie Leigh. This record contains elements of bluegrass, country and acoustic Americana, in roughly that order. Cordle also produced the record, in dobro player Randy Kohrs’ studio.

Almost all the material consist of absorbing story songs rooted in Kentucky, three of them dealing with murders. The pure bluegrass title song tells us of a young man hanged for murdering a hated relative despite having found God in jail, bolstered by strong harmonies from bluegrass legend Del McCoury. It is based on a true story, which took place in Kentucky in 1886-1887; the unfortunate Pud was the last man ever hanged in eastern Kentucky and the very public occasion seems to have made a lasting impression on locals.

‘Justice For Willy’ tells the very modern story of a man murdered by his wife, planning to spend the insurance payout on Botox and lipo and a trip to Europe with the grocery boy – but satisfyingly, she is arrested at the funeral. As she poisoned him I’m not quite sure how she was trapped by DNA evidence as the song states, but I’m prepared to accept the resolution.

A third murder tale comes with ‘The Death Of Bad Burch Wilson’, in which the killer (most likely the narrator, whose wife was having an affair with the deceased) gets away with it:

I don’t believe he slipped and fell
I don’t believe he drowned
Nobody mourned his passing when they laid him in the ground
Things happen in the mountains that the mountains only know
Some secrets are as dark and deep as any seam of coal

The delightfully effervescent ‘Uncle Bob Got Religion’ has an appropriate old-time gospel feel with a wailing Pentecostal chorus. Fat, lazy uncle Bob is a counterfeiter and general bad lot but eventually comes to regret his sins and gets baptised in the river. The Oak Ridge Boys Richard Sterban sings bass, while Carl Jackson adds tenor and Jerry Salley baritone harmonies.

The religious ‘Gone On Before’ is pretty and soulful, and features harrnonies from its co-writer Ronnie Bowman and his wife Garnet. Ronnie and Garnet also contribute suitably angelic harmonies to ‘Angel On His Shoulder’, which portrays the internal battle faced by one man with a restrained passion:

There’s an angel on his shoulder and the devil by his side
One’s trying hard to save him
One wants to take his life
And there’s a war that’s raging down in his soul tonight
Between the angel on his shoulder and the devil by his side

Steel guitar adds a touch of melancholy.

On a similar note, Larry also gives us his own version of his song ‘Sometimes A Man Takes A Drink’, with Randy Kohrs on harmony. This was an instant classic when it was recorded a couple of years ago by Trace Adkins. I think Trace’s version is just a little better, but this is still very well done, and the song packs a massive emotional punch as it unsparingly shows up the power alcohol can gain over its victims.

The sole love song included has a dark undercurrent as the protagonist makes advances to ‘Molly’, whose husband is off somewhere cheating on her.

On a more light-hearted note, ‘Shade Tree Mechanic’ paints a fond portrait of the kind of guy who is a natural with machinery and whose home looks like his own junkyard. The sardonic ‘Brown Check’ is the story of “sorry sot” Delbert Meeks/Biggs, “too dang lazy to hold down a job”, who decide to become a welfare fraudster claiming to be too sick to work (unless he gets paid cash under the table, of course).

Coal has been a mixed blessing for the people of Kentucky and West Virginia, providing work for generations but also bringing death. The atmospheric ‘Hello My Name Is Coal’, sung as a duet with co-writer Jenee Fleenor (who has a strong voice and also plays fiddle on the track) anthropomorphises the substance and illustrates some of the things it means to the people of the Appalachians.

The only mis-step (and one which will still appeal to many listeners) is the clumsy closing track, which has Larry plaintively wondering ‘America Where Have You Gone’. It sounds good aurally, but the (conservative) sentiments are expressed surprisingly unimaginatively – not a criticism I would give to anything else on offer here.

Overall, this is an excellent record which I highly recommend.

Grade: A

You can listen on Larry Cordle’s website. The CD can be purchased there or from CDBaby, while Amazon has it as a digital download only.

Album Review: The Grascals & Friends – ‘Country Classics With A Bluegrass Spin’

The Grascals are one of the most talented current bluegrass lineups, and their four albums to date have been gaining them increasing amounts of attention. The band’s singers are not among my favorite bluegrass vocalists, but their instrumental prowess is exceptional. They have already worked extensively with discerning country artists like Dierks Bentley and Dolly Parton. This side project, recorded exclusively for Cracker Barrel, consists, as the title promises, of the Grascals’ selection of classic mainstream country songs given a light bluegrass flavor, with a number of guest stars helping out on vocals. Fiddler Jeremy Abshire and banjoist Kristin Scott Benson stand out most for me, but all the musicianship is flawless, with not a note sounding out of place or misjudged – the perfect combination of virtuosity and taste.

Most of the songs are duets with the guest vocalist generally opening and one of the Grascals’ lead singers taking over halfway through. Guests range from some of the more traditionally rooted of today’s stars to veteran acts on their own classics.

Brad Paisley is entertaining on a committed version of the Buck Owens classic ‘Tiger By The Tail’ which opens the set brightly and is one of my favorite tracks. I also really enjoyed Dierks Bentley guesting on ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, although I would have preferred him to sing lead throughout rather than sharing the role, which seems to make the lyric less convincing by not being a single man’s story. The least successful cameo comes from Joe Nichols, whose music I usually like, but who sounds rather limp on ‘Mr Bojangles’ (not one of my personal favorite songs anyway, which may color my appreciation of this version).

Darryl Worley appears on the second verse of a fast-paced and playful ‘White Lightning’ which sounds as though the band had great fun recording it, and it is equally enjoyable to listen to. Country and bluegrass get some added Cajun spice with a lively take on ‘Louisiana Saturday Night’ (a Bob McDill song about down-home partying on the bayou and was a hit for Mel McDaniel in 1981), which is perfectly fine without any star guest. However, a Hank Jr medley of ‘Born To Boogie’ and All My Rowdy Friends Are Comin’ Over Tonight’ could have done with a guest to add some passion, as the treatment is just far too mild – neither boogieing nor rowdy in even the slightest degree. The instrumental backing is as attention-grabbing as ever, though.

Singer-songwriter Tom T Hall has been working in bluegrass for some years, and here he sings his ‘The Year That Clayton Delaney Died’. His voice has audibly aged, but it works well in the context of this warmly reminiscent tribute to a childhood influence, and the cut is absolutely charming. Charlie Daniels sounds even more grizzled on ‘The Devil Went Down To Georgia’, but the band sound a little too polite vocally backing him up, although the playing definitely has the requisite fire. The Oak Ridge Boys contribute vocals on their Rodney Crowell-penned hit ‘Leavin’ Louisiana In the Broad Daylight’ (one of the more unexpected song choices), and while this works well in its new incarnation, it isn’t one of my favorite tracks.

Dolly Parton harmonizes beautifully on her own (and Porter Wagoner’s) ‘Pain Of Lovin’ You’, which works perfectly as a bluegrass song. Dolly also guests on the single which has been released to publicize the project, ‘I Am Strong’, the only original song included (apart from a nice rhythmic instrumental, ‘Cracker Barrel Swing’). Written by the Grascals’ Jamie Johnson with his wife Susanne Mumpower-Johnson and Jenee Fleenor (currently Terri Clark’s fiddle player), it has a very pretty melody, and heartfelt lyric, sung with great soulfulness and emotion. I have to admit that if I were diagnosed with a serious or fatal illness, my own first impulse would not be to talk about how strong I felt, and I don’t think I would even want to be, so the song’s message doesn’t quite speak to me personally. Having said that, it is an attitude which does help many people, and it appealed to the Grascals enough that they recorded the song twice here, once with Dolly, then reprised at the end of the album with an all-star cast including most of their other guests, Terri Clark, Randy Owen and (bizarrely) action star Steven Seagal. (It would, incidentally, have been nice to have had a full duet with Terri on the record, as the choice of guests is rather male-dominated.) I actually found this version with everyone swapping lines more effective and moving than the earlier version, with more of a sense of universality.

Both versions are emotive in the right way, with a real sense of hope. Both end with a few lines delivered by a three-year-old patient at St Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis, which inspired the song’s composition. Fittingly, a share of the profits of the album go to the hospital.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Anita Cochran – ‘Serenity’

SerenityFormer Warner Brothers artist Anita Cochran achieved one #1 hit, ‘What If I Said’, in a duet with Steve Wariner, in 1997. None of her solo singles came anywhere near the top of the charts, and it’s not as if her label didn’t persevere – they released two albums and nine singles over a seven year period. She is a talented musician and multi-instrumentalist, and has been touring as part of Terri Clark’s road band. She also produced an album for the unrelated Tammy Cochran in 2007. After several years’ silence on her own account, Anita re-emerges with a new album on her own Straybranch Records.

Her distinctive swooping voice sounds as good as ever, and this is an example of contemporary country which is not over-produced (an example her current boss might have profited from). Anita wrote every song and plays a long list of instruments on the album, including electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin, banjo and harmonica. She also arranged the strings (which feature talented Terri Clark bandmate Jenee Fleenor) which are used on several tracks, and produced the set with co-label-owner Mark Thompson.

The controversial former single ‘I Wanna Hear A Cheatin’ Song’ (the last time we heard from Anita) is included here (at least on the physical CD), although no doubt due to licensing issues, it is not available on the digital version on the album. It is actually an excellent song with a lyric about longing for more sad songs which is easy to relate to, as a heartbroken caller to a radio show appeals:

All I hear in this day and time
Are fairy tales and pretty words that rhyme
Everybody’s lovers, everybody’s friends
Same old thing over and over again

I wanna hear a cheatin’ song
About somebody done somebody wrong
A story that’s about my life
With a simple melody

Forget about the I love yous
They weren’t for the heartbroke fools
I wanna hear a cheatin’ song
Dedicated to me

The DJ agrees, and so does a listening Anita. So far, so good, but 2:50 into the song some tacked together segments from old Conway Twitty recordings are incorporated. I appreciate that it was done out of respect for Conway and his musical legacy, but this musical necrophilia makes me cringe. This could have been a standout track if Anita had only decided to rerecord the song solo (as she does with her hit ‘What If I Said’, which sounds great here, with a lovely emotion-infused vocal and some tasteful strings), or using a living partner. If no one was available, she could have used Ty Herndon, who helps out on a couple of the other tracks here, but who seems underused.

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