My Kind of Country

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

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Album Review: The Earls of Leicester — ‘Live at the CMA Theater’

I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been able to see almost all of my radio heroes in live performance with three notable exceptions. One of those, Ernest Tubb, I simply was unable to see. Another, Sammi Smith, I had purchased the tickets to see her perform but the show was canceled and she died before the show was scheduled to take place.

The third exception involved Flatt & Scruggs. My father had been transferred to the UK in January 1969 and Flatt & Scruggs were slated to be the headliners at the First International Festival of Country Music to be held at the Empire Pool (Wembly Stadium) on April 5, 1969. Dad purchased the tickets for us to go; however, by the time the festival took place, Flatt & Scruggs had split up and we had to content ourselves with a six-hour show that included Bill Anderson & The Po Boys, Phil Brady & The Ranchers, Wes Buchanan, Larry Cunningham & The Mighty Avons, George Hamilton IV, The Hillsiders, Jan Howard, Loretta Lynn & her stage show, Merrill Moore, Orange Blossom Sound, John Wesley Ryles, Conway Twitty & The Lonely Blue Boys and Charlie Walker.

While I never did get to see Flatt & Scruggs, in November 2017, I got to see the Earls of Leicester perform at the Rodeheaver Boys Ranch / Bluegrass Festival in Palatka Florida. For ninety mesmerizing minutes Jerry Douglas (dobro) and his crew of Charlie Cushman (banjo & guitar), Shawn Camp (lead vocals & guitar), Johnny Warren (fiddle), Barry Bales (bass) and Jeff White (mandolin) transported the listener and breathed life into the truly classic repertoire of Flatt & Scruggs.

The Earls of Leicester perform only the music of Flatt & Scruggs circa 1954-1965, but they are far from being either a cover band or tribute band as they have updated the Flatt & Scruggs sound (mostly due to improved recording technology) while breathing new life into the music and remaining true to the spirit of the original recordings. Most importantly, they are having fun and their infectious joy at performing the music permeates every rack. None of the members of this ensemble can be said to be imitating members of Flatt & Scruggs Foggy Mountain Boys, but they are absorbed into the music.

Live At The CM Theater was recorded in February 2018, only I few months after I saw them in Palatka and features essentially the same program I saw a few months earlier. The recording opens with “Salty Dog Blues”, the very track that Flatt & Scruggs used to open their famous Carnegie Hall concert. From that point forward the band goes through a solid program of Flatt & Scruggs favorites. While each member of the band takes the role of one of the Foggy Mountain Boys at no point are any of them referred to on stage any name but their own.

Basically Shaw Camp takes Lester Flatt’s spot in the band, Charlie Cushman, a marvelous music musician who spent years in Mike Snider’s comic group takes Earl Scruggs role. Jerry Douglas handles the Josh Graves role, Jeff Whites takes Curley Seckler’s role, Barry Bales steps in for Cousin Jake Tulloch and Johnny Warren takes his father Paul Warren’s place in the pantheon.

This is a wonderful album that I have listened to continuously for about two weeks now. I am not sure when I will take it out of my player – perhaps never.

Grade: A+

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Album Review: Lari White – ‘Lead Me Not’

lari-whiteLead Me Not was Lari White’s debut album, released in 1993 on the RCA label. This was Lari’s second stab at major label stardom as her prize for winning the television talent show Star Search in 1988 was a recording contract with Capitol Records.

Unfortunately the single released on Capitol (“Flying Above the Rain”) went nowhere and she was released by Capital . A person of many talents, including songwriting, Lari marked time by joining Ronnie Milsap’s publishing house, took acting lessons and performed in local theatre productions. In 1991 after attending an ASCAP showcase Rodney Crowell invited her to perform in his band. White signed to RCA, which brings us to this album, which Rodney Crowell produced.

Lead Me Not spotlights Lari’s vocal prowess and her talents as a songwriter as Lari wrote or co-wrote eight of the ten tracks on the album. The album only reached #36 on Billboard’s Heat Chart and missed charting on the Country Albums chart; however, all three of the singles released charted country (none cracked the top forty).

The album opens up with “Itty Bitty Single Solitary Piece of My Heart’, a co-write with John Rotch. The title sounds as if it would be a novelty number, but the song is actually a bluesy ballad warning off a would-be suitor. Jerry Douglas on dobro is featured prominently in the arrangement.

Chorus:

So you won’t get a taste of this, not even a kiss
The fact that your middle name is heartache is no coincidence
You made a livin’ out of lovin’ and leavin’ ‘em to fall apart
So now you better understand youi’ll never lay one hand on one
Itty bitty little single solitary piece o’ my heart

Next up is “Just Thinking” a romantic piece of cocktail jazz, written by Lari, and one that perhaps would have made a good single is pushed to another genre such as Lite Jazz or Adult Contemporary. Bergan White (no relation) arranged the string accompaniment as provided by the Nashville String Machine.

“Lay Around and Love On You” was written by Bobby David and David Gillon. Released as the third single, the song reached #68 on the country charts. The song isn’t remotely country having a strong New Orleans R&B vibe. It’s a great song, and if released during the mid 1970s or early 1980s, likely would have been a hit.

Time for me to go to work again
But all I want to do is
Lay around and love on you
Seven thirty, but I don’t care
What you’re doing is gonna keep me here
‘Cause all I want to do is
Lay around and love on you

Lay around and love
Lay around and love on you
You’ve got me so turned on
Honey, I can’t turn you loose
Hope nobody calls
Got the phone off the hook
We’re gonna try everything in the book
All I want to do is
Lay around and love on you

“Lead Me Not” was the second single from the album. Written by Lari, the song has a strong gospel feel to the arrangement, not surprisingly since the title is a play on a familiar religious theme. Nice saxophone work by the appropriately named Jim Horn is the highlight of the arrangement.

Well, I should have been home hours ago
I always lose track of the time
I’ll just hold up this wall while I try to recall
A thought from the back of my mind
Oh yeah I remember, it began with a wink
When you caught me looking at you

So don’t ask me if you can buy me a drink
I know what you’re trying to do
Lead me not into temptation
I already know the road all too well
Lead me not into temptation
I can find it all by myself

This is followed by another Lari White solo composition “Made To Be Broken” a lovely, well performed easy-listening ballad.

“What A Woman Wants” was the first single and biggest hit on the album reaching #44. Lari co-wrote this with soon-to-be husband Chuck Cannon (they married in 1994 and are still married, with two daughters). This song deals with the changing roles in society and the effort to try to explain to men what women today want. The song is taken at a quick tempo, and frankly I am surprised that the song wasn’t a bigger hit.

Come here darlin’, let me whisper in your ear
A precious little secret that I think you need to hear
With the way the women’s movement’s always making the news
I can see how a man might get confused
Now a woman doesn’t mind a man holding the door
But slaving in some kitchen ain’t what God made a woman for
We’ve come a long way baby, but way down deep we’re still the same
What a woman wants will never change

What a woman wants is to be treated like a queen
By a man who deserves to be treated like a king
What a woman wants, what keeps her holding on
Is a loving man who understands what a woman wants

The seventh track features a Suzi Ragsdale and Verlon Thompson composition “Anything Goes”. The song has a definite Mexican flair. Verlon’s career as a recording artist never took off, but he remains a prominent songwriter and instrumentalist.

It took until track eight to reach a song that I would regard as truly being country music, that song being “When The Lights Are Low”, a song Lari co-wrote with Chris Waters (bother of Holly Dunn). This song features classic steel guitar work by Tommy Spurlock, fiddle by Jonathan Yudkin and a great vocal by Lari. The song is a prototypical country ballad with lyrics any fans of traditional country music could enjoy and should have been released as the first single. While I don’t know whether or not this would have been a big hit at radio, at least it would have pegged Lari as a legitimate country artist. As it was, if I were a DJ dealing with Lari’s first three RCA singles, I would not known how to classify her (Con Hunley had the much same problem fifteen years earlier).

In the dark I’m just part of the crowd
It’s hard to tell who it is I’m there without
In some tall stranger’s arms
Your memory’s not so clear
I can cry all night long
‘Cause no one sees the tears
Where the lights are low

Where the jukebox plays
The saddest song it knows
Through a smoky haze
Since you’ve been gone
That’s where I go
‘Cause everything looks better
Where the lights are low

Lari collaborated with her future husband again on “Don’t Leave Me Lonely”, another easy listening/adult contemporary ballad. It’s a nice song, well sung but again not especially country. As on track two, Bergan White arranged the string accompaniment as provided by the Nashville String Machine.

The album closes as it began, with a Lari White – John Rotch collaboration in “Good Good Love”. As with the opening number with is a bluesy R&B tinged ballad, with gospel overtones in the production.

If you want a good good love
Hold on when the times are bad
‘Cause if you jump ship when trouble hits
Good for nothin’ is all you’ll have
You gotta anchor down in the winds of doubt
You can’t give in and you can’t bail out
If the water’s high hold your head above
And hang on for that good good love

When love sets sail it’s always a sunny day
And when the skies are blue it’s so easy to make love stay
But when the clouds roll in and the ship begins to strain
You gotta try a little harder
Go on, test the water
‘Cause the air is so much sweeter
After a real good rain

This album features a bewildering array of instruments: bells, bongos, cowbells, dobro, fiddle – you name it, it is probably on here somewhere.

I purchased the album on the recommendation of a friend. I really liked the album but I wasn’t sure where to place it in my collection, finally settling on filing it with my pop/rock/ R&B records. Lead Me Not is a very good album that I would not hesitate to recommend as fans of varying forms of music can find things to like about this album. On this album Lari White reveals herself as a very talented songwriter and vocalist, albeit one not easily pigeonholed. Her breakthrough would occur on her next album, and wouldn’t last long but her music is worth the search.

I would give this album an A-

She still performs and maintains a website where you can purchase most of her music.

Album Review: The Whites – ‘A Lifetime in the Making’

mi0001612026In 2000 the soundtrack to the film O, Brother Where Art Thou? came from nowhere to sell eight million copies, on the strength of the Soggy Bottom Boys’ classic rendition of “Man of Constant Sorrow.” The record went on to claim the Album of the Year Grammy and kick off a mini-revival of acoustic based sounds within country music. This was the period of time in which Nickel Creek first came to prominence and Alison Krauss saw renewed acclaim for her music. The Whites weren’t necessarily a part of this although they did contribute an excellent rendition of “Keep On The Sunny Side” to the soundtrack.

They released A Lifetime in the Making, their twelfth album, in August, just before the craze hit. The record, their only for Ricky Skaggs’ Ceili Records, was lovingly produced by Jerry Douglas. The album, which retains the acoustic feel for which they’re best known, is an impeccable collection of songs from beginning to end.

The disc kicks off with “Always Comin’ Home,” a dobro and mandolin drenched uptempo Gospel number, written by Don Gillion. They continue in this vein on “Jesus is the Missing Piece,” a mid-tempo ballad in which Buck takes over the lead vocals. “Key To The Kingdom” is stunning, with Sharon’s soaring and throaty lead vocal commanding attention.

Billy Joe Foster, a Bluegrass musician who died in 2013 aged 51, is represented with two tracks. “Texas To A T” is acoustic Western Swing while “Before The Prairie Met The Plow” is a gorgeous bluegrass ballad nodding to Midwestern sensibilities. “How Many Moons,” which was co-written by Claire Lynch, wonderfully showcases their family harmonies.

Patty Loveless originally recorded “I Miss Who I Was (With You)” on The Trouble With The Truth. Both versions are excellent and I was glad to see that Loveless’ recording retained the organic elements of the song. The Whites had the first version of “Old Hands,” another tune about farming life. I’ve never heard of Adam Brand, but he nicely covered the song two years later. Emmylou Harris joins the band for a stunning rendition of Mother Maybelle Carter’s “Fair and Tender Ladies.”

Buck White solely wrote “Old Man Baker,” a strikingly good uptempo instrumental. “Apron Strings” is an appealing ballad about the stronghold our mother will always have on our lives. The album’s final track, “The Cowboy Lives Forever,” is a breakneck uptempo number about an everyman who found his home on the Western Plains.

There truly aren’t words to describe the high quality of A Lifetime in the Making. The album is superb through and through even though it hardly breaks new ground within this style. I’ve never spent any time with The Whites, despite always knowing who they were so reviewing this album was a treat. I highly recommend it for those who may have missed it the first go-around or just want to listen to it again. You won’t be disappointed.

Grade: A

Album Review: The Whites – ‘Give a Little Back’

51rbd9bcgvl-_ss500_pjstripe-robin-largetopleft00The Whites continued to record only sporadically when their stint as a major label act ended. 1996’s Give a Little Back, appeared nearly a decade after their final release for MCA/Curb. Released by the independent Nashville-based Step One Records, it has a more contemporary, less down-homey feel to it than their earlier work. Even at their commercial peak, The Whites were somewhat at odds with the mainstream. It does not seem to have been a serious attempt to reignite their recording career; no singles were released and the album received little promotion, but it is an impressive effort given the small-label constraints they had to work with.

I’m guessing that Give a Little Back was produced for a mere fraction of the cost of a typical major label release of the day, but no corners whatsoever were cut where the session musicians were concerned. Some of Nashville’s finest — Jerry Douglas (dobro), Buddy Emmons (pedal steel), and Ricky Skaggs (mandolin and fiddle) — appear in the musician credits.

The songs themselves are also quite good and are a mixture of both old and new from a cover of The Louvin Brothers’ “Steal Away and Pray” to more contemporary fare by Karen Staley, Jerry Fuller and John Hobbs, all well known composers of the day. Allmusic lists “I’d Jump the Mississippi”, a song written by George Jones, on the tracklist but it does not appear on the iTunes version of the album.

The Whites’ radio singles all featured Sharon as the lead singer, but she shares the spotlight just a little with her father – who is a surprisingly good vocalist on “Whose Heart Are You Breaking Tonight” and “Give Love an Inch” – and her sister Cheryl who sings lead on “Slow Dancin’”, “Til This Ring Turns Green” and “Try a Little Kindness”. The latter is best known as a hit for Glen Campbell, but The Whites had previously recorded it as a bluegrass song in the 70s when they were still relatively unknown. Cheryl is not the vocalist that Sharon is. The two numbers on which Buck sings lead are similar in arrangement to the uptempo material Ricky Skaggs released when he first emerged as a mainstream artist in the early 80s. I thought that Ricky might have produced the album, but Ray Pennington is the credited producer.

Martina McBride fans will recognize “Walk That Line”, a song that was included on Martina’s 1992 debut album. The Whites version, with Sharon singing lead, is faithful to Martina’s original version. I slightly prefer Martina’s version because it’s more familiar to me but The Whites’ version is also very good. My favorite track is the upbeat “I’ve Changed the Lock on My Heart’s Door.”
Give a Little Back shows that The Whites still had a lot to offer after their hitmaking days ended and makes one wish that they had recorded more frequently in the post-major label phase of their career.

Grade: A

Album Review: The Whites – ‘Old Familiar Feeling’

old-familiar-feelingSadly, far too little of the Whites’ music is available digitally, including most of their most commercially successful work. This album, originally released in 1983, has somehow found its way onto iTunes – it would be good if its successors were to follow it. In many respects it was their debut as The Whites, since previous music had been billed as Buck White, mostly with The Down Home Folks. Following Buck’s daughter Sharon’s 1981 marriage to rising superstar Ricky Skaggs, the band (now consisting of Buck with daughters Sharon and Cheryl) was signed to Curb/Warner Brothers, and the album (which Skaggs produced) was released in June 1983.

Half of the album’s ten tracks ended up as singles, as the label was trying to break a group whose old-time traditional roots flew in the face of the then popular Urban Cowboy sound. An initial single, a cover of the classic ‘Send Me The Pillow You Dream On’ did not do well, and was never included on an album, but the next attempt, the lovely ‘You Put The Blue In Me’ was a top 10 country hit in 1982. Sharon White’s honeyed voice is backed up by the group’s gentle harmonies on this pretty but sad song.

The more upbeat ‘Hangin’ Around’ and ‘I Wonder Who’s Holding My Baby Tonight’ (a beautiful ballad) both reached #9, also featuring Sharon’s lead vocals. Like many groups who have multiple lead singers, one of them is clearly superior to the others, and in the case of the Whites, it was Sharon, who sang lead on all the singles from this album. ‘When The New Wears Off Of Our Love’, written by Paul Craft, was less successful, peaking at only #25, but it is a pretty tune. The final single, and almost-title track, the slow and wistful ‘Give Me Back That Old Familiar Feeling’ took them back to the top 10.

Sister Cheryl took the lead on the upbeat gospel ‘Follow The Leader’ and the gentle romantic ballad ‘I’ll be Loving You’. While she lacks Sharon’s lovely natural tone, she is nonetheless a fine singer.

Buck takes over on the retro ‘Blue Letters’, with the trio harmonising together on the chorus. Son law Ricky Skaggs can also be heard in the harmonies on ‘Old River’. Buck also sings the blues authentically, on the old Moon Mullican tune ‘Pipe Liner Blues’.

Ricky Skaggs produced the set beautifully with clean, sparkling arrangements allowing the vocals to shine. The musicians include the great Jerry Douglas.

This is a charming album which I warmly recommend.

Grade: A

After this album, Curb moved the Whites to an affiliation with MCA, and regrettably none of the albums they made for that label is commercially available today apart from their Greatest Hits, which I would also recommend.

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: James Dupre – ‘Stoned To Death’

stoned to deathSix years ago, James Dupre parlayed some popular youtube covers into a fine Kyle Lehning and Jerry Douglas produced debut album. That record was then picked up by Warner Brothers, and it seemed as if he might make a breakthrough. Unfortunately, Warner Brothers failed to do anything with James and his music other than re-releasing his album. A stint on The Voice later, the Louisiana born singer is back with new music, mostly self-composed, whereas he only contributed two of the songs on his debut. It is an encouraging step forwards artistically, while continuing to showcase his attractive, warm vocals. The new album is produced by Jordan Lehning (son of Kyle); he doesn’t do a bad job overall but lacks his father’s light touch. Backing vocalists include former American Idol runner-up Kree Harrison, although she isn’t very audible.

James’s Louisiana roots, traditional country music and his big influences Randy Travis and folk rocker James Taylor all infuse his own country music. The upbeat ‘Green Light’, which James and Jordan wrote with Skylar Wilson and Andrew Combs, opens the album to good effect with its optimistic attitude.

James wrote four songs with Neal Coty and Brent Baxter, all reflective ballads about the aftermath of a relationship. The mellow sounding but sad ‘Forgiving Me’ is about regrets for the mistakes he made, and coming to peace with himself:

So I pack that pack
Light up some self destruction
Let it lay me back for the night that I got coming
Throwin’ rocks in a muddy river
One for each regret
And writin’ the past a goodbye letter
Sending it off with a match
Chipping away at a heavy stone that ain’t half what it used to be
Working on forgiving me

Even time takes time
That’s one more thing I’m learning
And peace of mind is what you spend a long night earning

‘Someday Today’ is about coping with the loss by returning home, and is full of New Orleans atmosphere. In ‘Lonesome Alone’ he calls on his ex, bearing alcohol as “an ice-cold olive branch if it needs to be”. ‘Whatever That Was’ reflects on a relationship which was “never quite lovers, more than friends”, and which may not be over yet. It’s a fine song with a catchy tune, marred by an arrangement which is too heavy on the electric guitar.

‘Sad Song’, a co-write with Jeremy Spillman, is a mellow song about the way music helps to heal melancholy, and is very good. In contrast, the upbeat ‘Till The Real Thing Comes’, which James wrote with Adam Wright, celebrates a bar room hookup and offers a rare up-tempo moment.

The quietly melodic ‘Perfect Time’, written by Neal Carpenter and Scooter Carusoe, fits nicely with James’ own songs, and although the production has some intrusive elements, it is restrained. The rather dull ‘Hurt Good, written by Mike Mobley, Jessi Alexander and Travis Meadows, has a contemporary arrangement which adds nothing of value.

Finally, the title track, contributed by Alexander with Jeff Hyde and Clint Daniels, is a compelling drama comparing being left to a prison sentence:

I plead guilty and I wear my regret like a number on my soul

This is an excellent song, although yet again the production does its best to overwhelm it.

James’s warm voice sounds great throughout on the set, and the song quality is high. Minor niggles with the production aside, this is a strong album worth hearing.

Grade: A-

For those interested, James also stars in a new straight-to-Netflix and video film in which he plays the son of Randy Travis.

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

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

1. Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread

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

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

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

3. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison – Our Year

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

4. Jerry Douglas – Earls of Leicester

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

5. Carlene Carter – Carter Girl

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

6. Ray Price – Beauty Is

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

7. Jeff Bates – Me and Conway

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

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

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

9. Ray Price – A New Place To Begin

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

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

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

11. Chris Thile & Edgar Meyer – Bass & Mandolin

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

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

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

13. Joe Mullins – Another Day From Life

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

14. Rhonda Vincent – Only Me

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

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

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

16. Willie Nelson – Band of Brothers

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

17. Secret Sisters – Put your Needle Down

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

18. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

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

19. Dierks Bentley – Riser

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

20. Cornell Hurd Band – Twentieth Album

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

Concert Review: Willie Nelson & Family and Alison Krauss and Union Station along with Kacey Musgraves

“That is the most random pairing of acts I’ve ever seen in one show together in my life”

300x_062014If not my exact words, that’s at least what I was thinking when I logged into Engine 145 Feb 10 to Ken Morton Jr’s headline – “Willie Nelson, AKUS announce co-headlining tour.” Why in the world would two seemingly completely different acts share a stage unless for a one off benefit show somewhere in Texas or Nashville? Well I didn’t get my answer June 17 at The Blue Hills Bank Pavilion on the Boston Waterfront, but I was treated to four hours worth of music across the span of three acts.

I was most excited about tour opener Kacey Musgraves, the only act on the bill I hadn’t previously seen live. Her thirty-minute set was short, and we came in while she was performing a perfect rendition of her live-your-life mid-tempo ballad “Silver Lining.”

She plucked away on the banjo during “Merry Go ‘Round” and tried to get the crowd going during the chorus of “Follow Your Arrow,” which worked surprisingly well. Both were good, but Musgraves stunned with “It Is What It Is,” wrapping her voice around the lyric brilliantly. She gave her underrated steel player a gorgeous solo – and an “I love Pedal Steel” shout out – that easily trumps the recorded version.

The main concern people have with Musgraves is her burgeoning friendship with Katy Perry, a move that could transition her away from country. But the set showcased her country bonafides wonderfully, from her naturally twangy voice to her love of western themes (trademark neon cacti). As proof, Musgraves and her band closed their set with a glorious a Capella rendition of the Roy Rogers classic “Happy Trails To You” featuring the refrain “Till We Meet Again.” I know I’ll be meeting her again, hopefully as a headliner, real soon.

Alison Krauss and Union Station were next, bringing their comforting bluegrass picking to the hungry audience. From the first notes of opener “Let Me Touch You For A While,” I was home. Their 90-minute set was spectacular, with Krauss wrapping her otherworldly voice around their signature songs – “The Lucky One,” “Every Time You Say Goodbye,” “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You,” to “You Will Be My Ain True Love,” “Sawing On The Strings,” “Ghost In This House,” and “Paper Airplane.”

While their set was familiar, it was heavy on uptempo material, which I found surprising, given Krauss is known for her ballads. It worked though, as a whole night of ballads would’ve been too much. Even more startling was Dan Tyminski’s heavier-than-usual role acting like a second lead singer more than just a band member. He ripped through many of songs he fronts including “Dust Bowl Children” and got a charge out of some venue workers with “Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn.” Krauss showcased her trademark wit when talking about “Hey Brother,” his collaboration with EDM mastermind Avicii and the mainstream exposure it’s afford him, including a prime spot over the speakers at Kohl’s stores. Tyminski played that, too, along with his classic rendition of “Man of Constant Sorrow.” He’s a great singer but his prominence was likely do to Krauss’ vocal troubles over the past year.

Her master Dobro player Jerry Douglas also got a solo, plucking away on covers including one by Paul Simon. He’s incredible and the obvious master of his craft. They closed their set with an encore highlight, gathering around in a semi-circle to gift the audience short snippets of “When You Say Nothing At All,” “Down At The River To Prey,” the chorus of “Whiskey Lullaby” and a fabulous take on “The Long Journey,” which Krauss recorded with Robert Plant. The inventive encore was the highlight, a surprise moment of magic. At this point, especially since they haven’t released new music in three years, Krauss and Union Station is a well-oiled machine, albeit an exquisite one.

It’s hard to believe Willie Nelson is a man of 81, when he sings and has the energy of men thirty years his junior. After the show a friend asked me if he still had the goods and with a resounding yes, he does. But really, does he sing well? No, he doesn’t. But much like Kris Kristofferson, that’s to be expected, as Willie will always be Willie.

Like most every other show he’s played, Nelson began his set just as expected, with “Whiskey River.” He has to be the oddest entertainer I’ve ever seen as he doesn’t take breaks between songs, instead he lets song after song bleed into one another so you don’t know where one ends or the next begins. It works for him as he bled “Crazy” into “Night Life” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” into “Always On My Mind.”

He also turned in fantastic renditions of “On The Road Again” and “Good Hearted Woman,” which he dedicated to Waylon Jennings. When he launched into “Beer For My Horses,” I didn’t recognize the song at first given how he’d changed it up, but the lyric caught up to me when he got to the “Pappy told my pappy” line in the second verse. I always love hearing him sing “Me and Paul,” and especially liked the all-too-appropriate line about him singing on a package show with Charley Pride.

Nelson had his family band with him, which included his two sons and sister Bobbie, who gave a nice piano showcase. His guitarist was introduced as simply as Johnny, and revealed late last week to be the actor Johnny Depp, who’s in town playing Mobster Whitey Bulger in the biopic Black Mass.

His son Lukas had a showcase of his own, ripping through the blues on “Texas Flood,” a nine minute set highlight showcasing his masterful guitar playing and powerfully aching booming voice. He later went more restrained and joined his dad for their recent duet “Just Breathe.”

As much as for his own material, Nelson’s set was a showcase for country music. He gifted us with three Hank Williams covers – “Jambalaya,” “Hey Good Lookin,” and “I Saw The Light,” all of which were outstanding. He turned “Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” into a chant, converting the word ‘mama’ into a deep-throated wail, which worked for a sing-along but became grating.

Nelson, who transported the crowd to a 1970s Texas honky-tonk with his unique outlaw sound, closed the show (and evening) with a sing-along that brought out Krauss, Union Station, Musgraves, and her band. With everyone on stage they went through the gospel favorite “I’ll Fly Away” and country standard “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” among others. It was fabulous he included everyone in this and it was a hoot to see Musgraves’ band in their flashy suits that light up like a Christmas tree.

All and all it was a fantastic evening of live music that left this Musgraves, Krauss, and Nelson fan extremely satisfied. Given that Rounder Records began in Massachusetts, it’s wonderful that Krauss gave a shot out to the people who signed her in 1985 – who also happened to be in attendance.

Now, could Nelson have sung “Poncho and Lefty” or “City of New Orleans?” Of course. Should Musgraves have been allowed to play longer? Hell, yeah. Did I want to hear Krauss sing a bit more? Without a doubt. But that’s just nitpicking a near perfect evening of exceptional music from three of the brightest talents country music has to offer. Just a terrific show, and wonderful evening, all around.

Album Review: Chris Hillman – ‘Like A Hurricane’

likeahurricaneThis 1998 release, Hillman’s first solo effort since 1984’s Desert Rose, found him back on the Sugar Hill label and working once again with his former Desert Rose Band colleagues Herb Pedersen, who produced the album, and Jay Dee Maness, who played steel guitar. Jerry Douglas and David Crosby also appear among the musician credits. Hillman co-wrote eleven of the album’s twelve songs, ten of them with Steve Hill.

Like A Hurricane is a combination of country and rock, with a touch of folk and the occasional pop flourish thrown in. It’s not terribly different from Hillman’s work with the Desert Rose Band, although it is not as slickly produced. Had it appeared a few years earlier, it would probably have been considered a solidly mainstream release and not relegated to a roots-oriented indie label such as Sugar Hill.

In the hands of a lesser artist, an eclectic album like this would seem choppy and disjointed, but Hillman makes the transition from more acoustic and rootsy fare like “Angel’s Cry” and “Second Wind” to harder-edged rock numbers like “Run Again” and “Livin’ On The Edge”, seamlessly and effortlessly. At first glance, the Jackie DeShannon-penned “When You Walk Into The Room” seems out of place on this album. A 1964 pop hit for The Searchers and a #2 country hit for Pam Tillis in 1994, it is the only non-original song on the album, and although it appears to be an odd choice, Hillman puts his owns stamp on the song, and I enjoyed this version much more than I thought I would.

Not surprisingly, Like A Hurricane didn’t produce any charting singles, but it contains a number of well-crafted songs, such as “Second Wind” (my favorite), the title track, and the beautiful “Heaven’s Lullaby” which closes out the album. The folk-tinged “Carry Me Home” reminds me of something that Irish singer Maura O’Connell might have recorded, in no small part due to the dobro-playing of Jerry Douglas. I was slightly bored by some of the more rock-oriented songs like “Livin’ On The Edge” and “Run Again”, which will come as no surprise to my long-time readers.

Like most non-major label releases by artists over the age of 50, Like A Hurricane received little radio airplay and was likely overlooked by a large segment of the record-buying public. If, like me, you missed this ablum when it was first released, you may want to give it a try now. There is much here to enjoy.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Johnny Cash – ‘Out Among The Stars’

johnnycashThere hasn’t been any shortage of “new” Johnny Cash music in the decade since the Man In Black’s death. But unlike most of those releases, this week’s Out Among The Stars isn’t a reissue, an alternate take, a demo or a recording made during the singer’s declining years when he was long past his vocal peak. Rather, Out Among The Stars is a full-fledged studio album that was mostly recorded in the 1980s and produced by Billy Sherrill. The nearly completed album was discovered two years ago by John Carter Cash, who was in the process of mining the Sony archives while trying to catalog his parents’ extensive discographies. He brought in some additional musicians, including Marty Stuart, Buddy Miller and Carlene Carter, to bring the project to completion. The final product was released last week.

Normally, news of this sort would be cause for great celebration but any excitement about the album had to be tempered with the knowledge that the 1980s were, as even the most die-hard Cash fans will admit , a period in which the singer released mostly less than stellar work. Add to that the fact that Billy Sherrill had been the producer behind “The Chicken In Black”, widely regarded to be one of the worst singles of Cash’s career, and no one was quite sure what to expect.

Considering that Out Among The Stars was mostly recorded in 1984, while Cash’s career was in the middle of a long dry spell and just two years before Columbia dropped him from its roster, it isn’t surprising that the album was forgotten. But those who were braced for the worst will be pleasantly surprised because it is far superior to most of his output from that era. So far the album has produced one non-charting single, “She Used To Love Me a Lot”, which David Allan Coe took to #11 in 1984. It was written by Charles Quillen with Dennis W. Morgan and Kye Fleming. Morgan and Fleming were one of Nashville’s top songwriting teams of the day, having written many hits for Ronnie Milsap, Barbara Mandrell and Sylvia.

Many other top 80s songwriters teams are also represented. Ed and Patsy Bruce contributed “After All”, a pop-tinged ballad that was a departure from Johnny’s usual fare and Paul Kennerley and Graham Lyle wrote “Rock and Roll Shoes”. Johnny himself contributed the sentimental “Call Your Mother” and the inspirational “I Came To Believe”, which was written while Johnny was struggling with addiction and completing a stint at the Betty Ford Center. Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman wrote the tongue-in-cheek “If I Told You Who It Was” about a country music fan who has a fling with a female Opry star after changing her flat tire. No names are named, but the lady’s identity is revealed (for those old enough to recognize it) by an uncredited vocal appearance near the end of the song. It’s not Dolly Parton; that’s all I’m going to say.

Although traditionalists like to claim Cash as one of their own, The Man In Black was no purist and frequently pushed the boundaries of the genre. In this collection he sticks close to his country roots, and unlike many of his records, there is plenty of steel guitar on this album. Among the most traditional tunes are two excellent duets with June Carter Cash — “Baby, Ride Easy” and a cover of Tommy Collins’ “Don’t You Think It’s Come Our Time”. Johnny sounds relaxed and refreshed on these tracks, and June is also in fine vocal form. “Baby, Come Easy” features harmony vocals by Carlene Carter and “Don’t You Think It’s Come Our Time” features some excellent picking by Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Bryan Sutton. Waylon Jennings joins Johnny for a faithful-to-the-original cover of the Hank Snow classic “I’m Movin’ On”. Jennings’ presence elevates a performance that otherwise wouldn’t be particularly memorable.

The album closes with a remixed version of “She Used To Love Me A Lot” that was produced by Elvis Costello. Not surprisingly, this version isn’t country but it is in keeping with some of Cash’s genre-pushing efforts. It doesn’t really add anything to the album, however, and I could have done without it. “I Came To Believe” would have been a more appropriate closing track, but that is the only negative thing I can say about an otherwise exceptional album.

It is unlikely that Out Among The Stars would have fared well commercially had it been released thirty years ago. It was not then and is not now what mainstream Nashville wanted. It won’t produce any big radio hits, but now there is a greater appreciation of Johnny Cash than there was in 1984. Sony is giving the release the promotional effort it deserves and I imagine it will sell quite well.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Alison Krauss & Union Station – ‘Lonely Runs Both Ways’

lonelyOver the course of their career, Alison Krauss & Union Station have been both torchbearers for traditional bluegrass and trailblazers who have stretched the genre’s boundaries. 2004’s Lonely Runs Both Ways combines elements of bluegrass with folk, gospel and traditional country, but thankfully does not venture as far into mainstream pop as their previous album New Favorite did. By now, they had fine-tuned their approach of combining different musical styles, with Alison taking the lead on the more progressive, middle-of-the-road type songs, while Dan Tyminski and Ron Block tackle the more hardcore bluegrass numbers. The list of contributing songwriters will also be familiar to most fans, with Robert Lee Castleman, Jerry Douglas, David Rawlings, Gillian Welch, and Sidney and Suzanne Cox supplying much of the material.

The commercial success of AKUS has owed little to the support it received from country radio. The group typically releases three or four singles from each album, one of which usually reaches the lower rungs of the chart, while the others fail to to chart at all. Lonely Runs Both Ways is no exception. “Restless”, “Goodbye Is All We Have” and “If I Didn’t Know Any Better” were all released to radio, with only “Restless” enjoying some limited chart success, landing at #36.

The opening track, Robert Lee Castleman’s “Gravity” is pretty but a bit dull; it is my least favorite of the four Castleman compositions. I greatly prefer “Restless”, “Crazy As Me”, and “Doesn’t Have To Be That Way”, all of which are exquisitely sung by Alison. Alison truly shines, however, on the closing track “A Living Prayer”, written by Union Station’s banjoist Ron Block.

When it’s time for Union Station to kick up its heels, the lead vocal duties are primarily turned over to Dan Tyminski, who does a first-rate job interpreting classics such as Del McCoury’s “Rain Please Go Away” and Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty”. He also sings the lead on the uptempo “Crazy As Me”, one of Alison’s rare original compositions, co-written with Alison Brown. Ron Block sings the lead on his own “I Don’t Have To Live This Way”, and “Unionhouse Branch” is the obligatory instrumental Jerry Douglas number.

Despite a lack of radio support, Lonely Runs Both Ways climbed to #6 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and earned gold certification. The album doesn’t hold any surprises; fans of Alison Krauss & Union Station will not be disappointed, while those who don’t care for bluegrass will find little here to win them over.

Grade: A

Album Review – Alison Krauss – ‘Forget About It’

Forget+About+It++1After reuniting with Union Station for the back-to-basics So Long, So Wrong Alison Krauss went solo for her 1999 effort, choosing to record an eclectic pop flavored album blending choice covers with newer material. As a result, Forget About It is one of Krauss’ most vibrant albums containing some of the most exquisite vocal performances of her career.

The album’s lead single marked her first time Krauss recorded a Robert Lee Castleman song, a songwriter who would become a go-to with at least one cut on each album she (and Union Station) would cut from this point onward. This first instance was the title track, an excellent mandolin drenched number displaying an upbeat disposition rare for the usually downbeat Krauss. She proves a revelation digging her teeth into a number that has more substance then first meets the eye. It’s one of my favorite moments Krauss has ever put on record. Country radio took notice as well, helping the song peak at 67 on the Billboard country singles chart.

Larry Byrom and Allyson Taylor co-wrote album opener “Stay,” a gorgeous mandolin and dobro soaked ballad detailing two reunited lovers. “Love’s taken you far, away from my heart, and I’ve been here all alone” Krauss sings with pent up pain, while also observing “Have your eyes failed to find, what took you from mine, a vision that’s faded through time?” The pair is worlds apart, but through it all she knows there’s a way to keep him around, if only he would meet her demands (“Darlin don’t turn away, don’t doubt your heart and keep us apart, I’m right where you are”).

“Stay” is a fantastic song if not for the conviction Krauss brings to her vocal, then for Byrom and Taylor’s perfectly nuanced story. Third and final single “Maybe” serves as a sequel of sorts, with the woman finally realizing the relationship is over. This revelation has her psyche in a better place, confidently declaring, “Maybe it’s for the best, I can live alone, I guess. Maybe I can stand alone, Maybe I’m strong as stone.” Another winner, “Maybe” succeeds on Krauss’ soaring vocal, a brilliant homage to Linda Ronstadt’s “Blue Bayou” that has her delivering the verses in near whisper while displaying the fullness of her pitch-perfect range during the chorus. “Maybe” is one of Krauss’ greatest achievements as a contemporary vocalist.

As if Krauss had anything left to prove after “Maybe,” she also recorded Hugh Prestwood’s “Ghost In This House,” a #5 peaking single for Shenandoah in 1990. Krauss’ version is divine with minimal production giving her impeccably controlled vocal the space to shine. In lesser hands this could’ve been a slow sleep-inducing effort, but Krauss draws the listener in with her choice to open the track a cappella and keeps the listener hooked throughout.

Forget About It closes with another country cover; Allen Reynolds oft-recorded standard “Dreaming My Dreams With You.” The quiet nature of the song is perfect for Krauss’ voice, and the beautifully understated production helps the listener appreciate Krauss’ reading of the timeless story about a person mourning the loss of their true love, vowing never to forget what they had together.

Another of my favorite numbers is a cover of rock singer Todd Rundgren’s “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference,” which maintains the song’s steady beat but is given a somewhat classier feel that allowed me to get into the story contained in the lyrics. Like the rest of the project the track is striking, with well-placed dobro accents assisting the melody by keeping the track from coming off as sleepy.

The most overtly bluegrass leaning track is a cover of Union Station bandmate Ron Block’s “Could You Lie,” which stands in contrast from the rest of Forget About It in that it features the heaviest dose of dobro. Jerry Douglas is given a bigger showcase here, acting as a main player instead of an accent flowing through the melody. Like the singles, “Could You Lie” also features a very pronounced chorus with her Union Station bandmates turning in harmony vocals. The more polished nature of the song also helps it stand out as one of the sets most memorable. It’s another personal favorite of mine.

Aside from soul superstar Michael McDonald and Michael Johnson’s “Empty Hearts,” one of the slower ballads, I haven’t spent any time with the remaining tracks on Forget About It opting to single out my favorite numbers on repeated listenings. That doesn’t mean they’re bad, however. Danny O’Keefe’s “Never Got Off The Ground” is a wonderful mandolin and dobro ballad, just like McDonald’s “It Doesn’t Matter Now.” “That Kind of Love,” a third song co-written by McDonald is a slower ballad about the importance of love and it’s good. It was featured in an episode of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer.

Forget About It may not be a landmark album in Krauss’ discography but it’s easily one of her strongest overall recordings thanks to an expertly chosen collection of songs impeccably produced and sung by the singer herself. Krauss is smart enough to mostly stay within her comfort zone, keep the songs from sounding alike, and avoid sleep-inducing production choices. If you’ve never listened to this set, I strongly recommend you pick up a copy. You won’t be disappointed.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Alison Krauss – ‘I’ve Got That Old Feeling’

i've got that old feelingAlthough she was still in her teens, by the time of her third album for Rounder (and second solo-billed effort) in 1990, Alison had matured as an artist, and does justice to the excellent songs. produced by Bil VornDick and Jerry Douglas, the album ventures a little away from straight bluegrass incorporating country and other influences, while remaining predominantly bluegrass. Alison’s crystal-clear vocals interpret the material well, with almost every song sad in tone and most on the slower side. The quality is very high, with an emphasis on both melody and well-constructed lyrics.

Alison’s first single to country radio was the title track, a gently wistful tune about anticipating a lover’s departure. It is one of four on the album written by Sidney Cox. My favourite of these is the enchanting ‘Wish I Still Had You’, which takes up a similar story further down the line. Also very good are the closing ‘Longest Highway’ and the beautiful ‘Tonight I’ll Be Lonely Too’.

Old mentor John Pennell contributed a further trio. ‘Dark Skies’ is a confidently delivered love song. Alison shows some attitude with the fast-paced demand of ‘Will You Be Leaving’, backed by some virtuoso musicianship. In ‘One Good Reason’ she gives an ultimatum to her lover to save their relationship.

Nelson Mandrell wrote two fine songs for the record, the melancholic ‘Winter Of A Broken Heart’ and the sweet sorrow of ‘It’s Over’, which has a beautiful melody and angelic vocal.

The bright-toned ‘Endless Highway’, written by Roger Rasnake, has a more optimistic mood than much of the album, with the protagonist returning home to her loved one after a period away.

Louisa Branscomb’s train song ‘Steel Rails’ picks up the tempo and allows Alison’s fiddle and the other musician the chance to stretch out. It was the album’s second single, and managed to garner some modest airplay on country radio.

My favorite track, though, is ‘That Makes One Of Us’, a lovely sad country song about a breakup, written by Rick Bowles and Barbara Wyrick.

The album won Alison the first of her 27 Grammy Awards. It is an excellent record with no weak spots, and well worth adding to your collection.

Grade: A

Album Review: Alison Krauss & Union Station – ‘Two Highways’

twohighwaysAlison Krauss’ contract with Rounder required her to alternate her solo albums with collaborations with her band. Two Highways is the first album under that arrangement credited to Alison Krauss & Union Station. Released in 1989 at a time when bluegrass was still largely regarded as country music’s red-headed stepchild, it is by and large a traditional affair. It has little of the genre envelope-pushing for which Alison would later become known, though it is a softer and more polished sound than was typical of bluegrass up to that time. It was produced by Bill Vorndick. Guest artist Jerry Douglas plays dobro along with regular band members Jeff White, Mike Harman, and John Pennell.

Even though she shares the spotlight with her band members, Alison — who was still only 18 years old when the album was released — is the glue that holds everything together. She plays fiddle throughout the album and sings lead vocals on the majority of the tracks, sounding at times like a young Dolly Parton. The similarity to Dolly is most apparent on the Larry Cordle-penned title track and Todd Rakestraw’s “I’m Alone Again”.

Bass player John Pennell, who contributed much of the material to Alison’s solo album Too Late To Cry, supplies three tracks here: “Love You In Vain”, “Here Comes Goodbye” and “As Lovely As You”, one of the highlights of the album which features Jeff White singing lead vocals with some lovely backing vocals from Alison. Two instrumental numbers – the traditional “Beaumont Rag” and Kenny Baker’s “Windy City Rag” allow the band to shine. The album’s best track is “Teardrops Will Kiss The Morning Dew”, a cover of an old Osborne Brothers song, and the most unusual is a remake of the Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider”, which works surprisingly well with a bluegrass arrangement.

Two Highways did not produce any hit singles, nor did it make the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. It garnered little attention outside the world of bluegrass, but it did receive a Grammy nomination for Best Bluegrass Album in 1990 and it is one of the albums upon which future star Alison Krauss built her reputation.

Grade: A

Album Review: Alison Krauss – ‘Too Late To Cry’

too late to cryAlison’s debut album for Rounder records was produced by the label boss Ken Irwin. It was recorded when she was just 14 years old, and released in 1987. Understandably, she does not sound like a fully formed artist, with her voice sounding lights and insubstantial compared to her more mature work. However, the material is excellent, with almost all the songs written by her mentor John Pennell, while the musicians backing Alison include future Union Station member Jerry Douglas on dobro and Sam Bush on mandolin.

The wistful ‘If I Give My Heart’ is a pretty ballad about falling in love for the first time which I like very much and is probably my favourite track. The title track has a wistful lyric set to an attractive fiddle tune. ‘Foolish Heart’ and ‘On The Borderline’ also have attractive melodies, and ‘Don’t Follow Me’ is quite engaging.

‘Gentle River’ is also pretty and melodic, and works the best of the non-Pennell numbers, although Alison’s vocal is more piercing than gentle. ‘Sleep On’ (written by Illinois music professor Nelson Mandrell) is a little, yes, sleepy. While it is a lovely song, the key is a little higher than seems to be comfortable at times on the beautiful Rodney Crowell ballad ‘Song For The Life’ (billed here under the title ‘Song For Life’), and the lyric is too mature to be convincing from such a young (and very definitely young sounding) singer. I’d like to hear Alison rerecord this song sometime.

Alison’s voice sounds painfully thin on the rather dull ‘In Your Eyes’, but a couple of instrumentals allow Alison to show off her fiddle skills.

Overall, this record shows the real promise of a remarkably talented young artist at the dawn of her career. It’s probably only for completists, but it is quite pleasant.

Grade: B

Spotlight Artist: Alison Krauss

alison kraussFor many years bluegrass was seen as country music’s less commercial cousin, far less likely to cross over to a wider audience. Alison Krauss shattered many of these preconceptions in the course of her career. She has been met with acclaim from both critics and her peers. She has won 27 Grammy awards – more than any other female artist, across all genres; and sold millions of records, to both bluegrass fans and the general public. She was named the Country Music Association’s Female Vocalist of the year in 1995 and has been nominated on a number of occasions despite relatively little exposure on mainstream radio.

Born in Decatur, Illinois, on 23 July 1971, Alison’s musical gifts were apparent from an early age. A child prodigy bluegrass fiddler who was active in the fiddle contest world by the time she was seven, it was to be her beautiful singing voice which led her to fame as an adult. At 12 she and her bass-playing brother Viktor joined a bluegrass band then called Silver Rail, which was eventually to become Union Station. The group was then led by singer-songwriter/musician John Pennell, who became Alison’s early mentor and tutor in bluegrass history, and Alison began to sing as well as well as play fiddle.

She signed her first record deal with the well-respected acoustic label Rounder in 1984, when she was only 13, and released her first album in 1987. Her early work was rooted in traditional bluegrass, but from the first her records were notable for their inclusion of high-quality new songs – many of them written by Pennell. Throughout her career she has interspersed solo albums with band records featuring Union Station. Over the years Union Station has featured a shifting lineup of some of the finest living bluegrass musicians, including, at various times, banjo players Alison Brown and Ron Block, guitarist/mandolin player Dan Tyminski, and celebrated dobro player Jerry Douglas (the only one to get his own featured billing). The records Alison has made with her band are very much band records, with the guys taking their share of lead vocals.

In 1993 she became the first pure bluegrass performer in almost 30 years to be invited to join the Opry. Her undoubted abilities a fiddle player were soon to become almost secondary to her exquisite voice, and she became a frequent guest on country records when a particularly notable harmony was required. Her contribution to Shenandoah’s ‘Somewhere in The Vicinity Of The Heart’ in 1994 made it a top 10 hit. In the same year, she was invited to participate in a multi-artist tribute to Keith Whitley, and Alison’s enchantingly beautiful cover of his hit ‘When You Say Nothing At All’ began to receive unsolicited radio airplay, both alone and mixed in with Whitley’s original to create a duet. This unexpected success led to the single being officially released in 1995, and it reached the #3 spot on the country chart.

This breakthrough to the commercial mainstream was cemented by the repackaging of samples of her early work with some new tracks further removed from straight bluegrass, as Now That I Found You, also released in 1995. It sold two million copies – unprecedented for a bluegrass album, and Alison found herself welcomed within country music, winning four CMA awards that year: the Horizon Award for rising stars, Single of the Year for ‘When You Say Nothing At All’, ‘Vocal Event’ for the duet with Shenandoah, and, most surprisingly for an artist new to country radio, Female Vocalist of the Year.

Her music began to branch away from the more traditional styles she had recorded earlier. Her marriage to jazz guitarist Pat Bergeron (1997-2001) may also have encouraged her to widen her musical horizons. A further appeal to a broader public came when she was involved in the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou, the 2000 George Clooney movie which is credited with sparking new interest in bluegrass and acoustic music. Union Station’s Dan Tyminski sang Clooney’s part on the project’s ‘Man Of Lonesome Sorrow’. Alison’s music has been included on many other films and television programs, making her the most visible of today’s bluegrass artists to the wider public.

Her collaboration with Brad Paisley on ‘Whiskey Lullaby’ was another remarkable duet which gave Alison exposure on country radio in 2004. In 2007 her career took another surprising turn with her award-winning duet album and tour with rock musician Robert Plant. She has also produced albums for several artists, including Alan Jackson’s Like Red On A Rose.

We will be taking a look back at her career this month.

Country Heritage: Merle Travis

merle travisIt troubles me no end that the artistry of Merle Travis has been lost in the sands of time. It troubles me, but does not surprise me, as Travis–the victim of changing tastes and a lifelong battle with John Barleycorn–had largely disappeared from the airwaves by the time I started really following country music in the mid-60s. Although the general public lost sight of Merle’s genius, he has fared better in the esteem of Nashville’s pickers and singers and has been cited as a primary influence by many of the world’s best pickers, including Chet Atkins, Doc Watson, Earl Hooker, Scotty Moore and Marcel Dadi.

Chet Atkins admired and initially tried to emulate the Travis style, once commenting that it was fortunate that he did not have as much opportunity to hear Travis growing up as he would have liked or his own style might have become a clone. The great Arthel “Doc” Watson thought so much of Travis that he named his son Merle after him. Glen Campbell’s parents were such big fans that they reportedly gave their son the middle name “Travis.” The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had him as a featured performer on their classic Will the Circle Be Unbroken album issued in 1972.

Travis was born and raised in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, a coal mining center that would prove to be the source of inspiration for many of his finest musical compositions. In the hard and bleak life of a coal mining town, he found escape in the guitar–an instrument played by his brother Jim, who was also believed to have made Merle’s first guitar.

Music was one of the few recreations available in the area of western Kentucky, particularly during the heights of the Great Depression. There were many guitar players in the vicinity of Muhlenberg, and Travis freely acknowledged his debt to such earlier players as black country blues guitarist Arnold Shultz, and more directly to guitarists Mose Rager, a part-time barber and coal miner, and Ike Everly, the father of Don and Phil Everly. The Travis style eventually evolved into the ‘Travis Pickin’’ style of playing a steady bass pattern with the thumb and filling out some syncopated rhythms with the fingers of the right hand. Meanwhile, he developed a “talking bluesman” style of singing that was instantly recognizable by the perpetual smile in his voice. Read more of this post

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Untasted Honey’

The confidence engendered by the success of Walk The Way The Wind Blows enabled Kathy to follow the same path with its successor released in 1987. Allen Reynolds’s clean, crisp production marries tasteful rootsiness with radio appeal, and the songs are all high quality and well suited to Kathy’s voice.

Poetic lead single ‘Goin’ Gone’ headed straight to #1, becoming Kathy’s first chart topper. Reflecting Kathy’s folkier side, it was written by Pat Alger, Fred Koller and Bill Dale, and like her earlier hit ‘Love At The Five And Dime’, it had been recorded by Nanci Griffith on her The Last Of The True Believers. Kathy is a significantly better singer than Nanci, and her version of the song is quite lovely.

The second #1 from the album was ‘Eighteen Wheels And A Dozen Roses’, probably Kathy’s best remembered song and certainly one of her biggest hits. The warmhearted story song (written by Paul and Gene Nelson) has a strong mid-tempo tune and a heartwarming lyric about a trucker headed for a happy retirement travelling America with his beloved wife.

Singer-songwriters Craig Bickhardt and Beth Nielsen Chapman provide vocal harmony on both these singles, as they do on the title track, which Bickhardt wrote with Barry Alfonso. Here, a restless self-styled “free spirit” yearns for the wide open spaces,

Where a soul feels alive
And the untasted honey waits in the hive

It sounds beautiful, although the faithful lover left behind gets short shrift.

Tim O’Brien’s ‘Untold Stories’ made it to #4. An insistent beat backs up a positive lyric about looking past all the hidden hurts of the past in favour of reconciliation with an old love. O’Brien, a fellow West Virginian who was at that time the lead singer of bluegrass band Hot Rize, sings harmony and plays mandolin and acoustic guitar on the track, while The Whites’s Buck White plays piano. O’Brien also wrote ‘Late In The Day’, a highlight of the record with a downbeat lyric about late night loneliness, an acoustic arrangement and perfectly judged vocal. It’s the kind of song Trisha Yearwood would have done well with a few years later, and Kathy’s version shows just how good a singer she is, both technically and as a master of interpretation.

His contribution to the album did not end with these two songs, as he also duets with Kathy on Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet’s beautiful ‘The Battle Hymn Of Love’, a wedding song based on the vows of a marriage ceremony. It was belatedly released as a single in 1990, to promote Kathy’s A Collection Of Hits compilation, and reached the top 10. A slight folk feel is lent by both Tim’s vocal stylings and the use of hammered dulcimer in the pretty arrangement.

The album’s last official single (another to peak at #4) was the melancholy ballad ‘Life As We Knew It’. It is almost a prequel to ‘Untold Stories’ with its story of a woman packing up her things, filled with regret for the life she is leaving behind. It was written by Walter Carter and Fred Koller, and has a particularly beautiful, soaring melody. Jerry Douglas guests on dobro, and Tim O’Brien harmonizes again.

One of Kathy’s favorite writers, Pat Alger, teamed up with Mark D Sanders to write ‘Like A Hurricane’, which picks up the pace a bit. West Virginia references ad lovely instrumentation lift a well-performed but otherwise unremarkable song. The tender love song ‘As Long As I Have A Heart’, written by Dennis Wilson and Don Henry, has a pretty tune and acoustic arangement, and is very good. The delicately sung ‘Every Love’, co-written by folkie Janis Ian with country songwriter Rhonda Kye Fleming, offers an introspective overview of the nature of love, and has a stripped down acoustic backing featuring the harp.

Untasted Honey was Kathy’s best selling album to date, and her first to be certified gold. It is also a very fine record which stands up well after quarter of a century, and contains some of Kathy’s best work. It is available digitally, and can be found cheaply on CD.

Grade: A

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Back Home Again’

Although Rhonda Vincent’s pursuit of a mainstream career resulted in only two albums, it took her away from the bluegrass scene for nearly a decade. With the major label phase of her career now over, Rhonda returned to the indies and began a decade-long association with the roots-based Rounder Records. The aptly named Back Home Again, released in January 2000 was her first project for the label. It was an exciting time in bluegrass, as the genre was enjoying somewhat of a commercial resurgence. Dolly Parton had released the first album of her bluegrass trilogy a few months earlier, and the following year the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack would be named Album of the Year by the CMA.

Back Home Again was produced by Rhonda with Ronnie Light. In addition to singing lead vocals, Rhonda also played guitar and mandolin on several tracks and was also joined by her brother Darrin who sang harmony. Many of Nashville’s finest musicians, including Jerry Douglas on dobro and Glen Duncan on fiddle, also participated in the project.

Rhonda and Darrin’s vocals soar on the opening, banjo-led track “Lonesome Wind Blues”, a cover of a Bill Monroe classic. Equally good are their take on Jimmy Martin’s “Pretending I Don’t Care”, and “Out of Hand”, a cover of a Louvin Brothers song on which Rhonda and Darrin are joined by their father Johnny Vincent. “Passing of the Train” is an updated version of a song that Rhonda had included on her first mainstream album, Written In The Stars.

Like most of Rhonda’s albums, not everything on Back Home Again is strictly bluegrass; three contemporary country songs are given bluegrass arrangements, with stunning results. “When I Close My Eyes”, my favorite track on the album, is far superior to Kenny Chesney’s 1996 original and Rhonda’s take on “You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are” is equal to Patty Loveless’ 1993 recording. And after hearing Rhonda sing Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”, it’s somewhat surprising that Dolly herself never did a bluegrass version of the song. I’d never thought of it as a bluegrass tune, but it works extremely well with an acoustic arrangement and soaring harmonies on the song’s chorus.

The album’s only misstep is “Little Angels”, a song sung from the point of view of a child sexual abuse survivor. The tune is pretty and it is well sung and played, but it all sounds a little too pleasant for a song about such a weighty and uncomfortable topic, and as such, it doesn’t quite work.

While it’s regrettable that Rhonda didn’t enjoy the commercial success she deserved in mainstream country, after listening to Back Home Again, one can’t help but think that perhaps things worked out for the best, as bluegrass is where she truly belongs. Some mainstream country fans are resistant to bluegrass, but there is much to like in this collection, so it’s well worth keeping an open mind and giving it a try.

Grade: A