My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Jesse Winchester

Album Review: Kathy Mattea — ‘Pretty Bird’

Kathy Mattea had a decent run as a mainstream country artist, enjoying a string of top twenty records that ran from 1986 through 1995. This run included four number one records with “Eighteen Wheels and A Dozen Roses” being the 1988 CMA Single of the Year. Kathy was the CMA’s Female Vocalist of the Year for 1989 and 1990.

Kathy Mattea has always been difficult to pigeonhole as a performer. Never a truly traditional country singer, she was able to come close enough to gain acceptance from country radio for over a decade, although by 1990 her sound was drifting into Americana territory as “Where Have You Been” and “Time Marches On” would demonstrate. After a while, she gave up on getting radio airplay and started focusing on making interesting music. Her most noteworthy album of the last decade was 2008’s Coal, a fine bluegrass collection of songs depicting the trials and tribulations of the men (and women) whose lives depend on coal.

Pretty Bird is only Kathy’s second album in the last decade and her first in six years. The album was produced by Tim O’Brien (Hot Rize, Earls of Leicester) for the Thirty Tigers label (essentially an independently produced album with Kickstarter helping to fund the effort) but while Tim is intimately associated with bluegrass, this album would barely qualify as newgrass. It is, however, a fine album that finds the fifty-nine-year-old Mattea in fine voice.

The album opens up with “Chocolate On My Tongue” a whimsical tune by Oliver Wood about life’s small pleasures. I would describe the song as folk music.

Sittin’ on the front porch, ice cream in my hand

Meltin’ in the sun, all that chocolate on my tongue

That’s a pretty good reason to live

Pretty good reason to live

Sittin’ in the bathtub, hi-fi playin’ low

Diggin’ that Al Green, well you must know what I mean

That’s a pretty good reason to live

Pretty good reason to live

Next up is the only song that was ever a huge hit for anyone, Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe”. Anyone who was listening to AM radio in 1967 knows just how ubiquitous was this song, charting high on the pop, country, easy listening and R&B charts in the US and reaching the top fifteen or better throughout the English speaking world.

“Mercy Now” comes from the pen of Mary Gauthier. Other than the presence of steel guitar, this slow ballad sounds like folk-(quasi) gospel. I like the song a lot and will need to check more into Gauthier since I am not that familiar with her.

 My father could use a little mercy now

The fruits of his labor fall and rot slowly on the ground

His work is almost over, it won’t be long, he won’t be around

I love my father, he could use some mercy now

My brother could use a little mercy now

He’s a stranger to freedom, shackled to his fear and his doubt

The pain that he lives in is almost more than living will allow

I love my brother, he could use some mercy now

Jesse Winchester penned “Little Glass of Wine” a slow introspective ballad given an acoustic treatment on this album. I wouldn’t want to hear an entire album of similar material but the sing fits well within the context of this album

Little glass of wine, you’re oil on my flame

Shy of the sunlight, hiding your shame

And many, many tears, the number is sublime

Shall stain a woman’s bosom, for a little glass of wine

As soon as you learn that you don’t live forever

You grow fond of the fruit of the vine

So here is to you and here is to me

And here is to the ones we’ve left behind

“He Moves Through The Fair” is an acoustic folk ballad performed by Kathy with only an acoustic guitar as accompaniment. The song is about a wedding that never took place, although what happened to the betrothed is unclear.

“Saint Teresa”, a Joan Osborne composition is a grittier song, open to interpretation.

“This Love Will Carry”, a Dougie MacLean composition, is a nice endeavor that perfectly suits Mattea’s voice. The songwriter sings harmony vocals on the track. I really like the song although I cannot imagine a time in which it would be considered worthy of release as a single:

 It’s a thin line that leads us and keeps us all from shame

Dark clouds quickly gather along the way we came

There’s fear out on the mountain and death out on the plain

There’s heartbreak and heartache in the shadow of the flame

 

This love will carry

This love will carry me

I know this love will carry me

The strongest web will tangle, the sweetest bloom will fall

And somewhere in the distance we try and catch it all

Success lasts for a moment and failure’s always near

You look down at your blistered hands as turns another year

“October Song” was written by Kathy’s husband Jon Vezner. Jon has never done Kathy wrong with his songs and this dreamy but regretful reverie about a lost love is right up her alley:

And when at last I drift asleep, those dreams of you

Come back to keep me

Wishing I were lying in your arms

Those memories of when we made love

Are just so hard to let go of

Who am I supposed to be

When there’s so much of you in me

Vezner also penned “Tell Me What You Ache For”, a penetrating look at life and love. Vezner is definitely a poet at heart:

It doesn’t interest me what kind of job you got

Where you eat or where you shop

The kind of car you drive

It doesn’t interest me how big a house you own

What I really want to know

Is what makes you come alive

I don’t want to talk about

How your future’s all planned out

That isn’t what it’s all about to me

 

Tell me what you ache for

Tell me what you wait for

Tell me what you long for

What you’re holding on for

Tell me what you’re dreaming

What would give your life real meaning

You’ve been afraid to pray for

Tell me what you ache for

“Holy Now” is a mid-tempo song with some observations on the state of religion. This is followed by “I Can’t Stand Up Alone” written by Martha Carson, who was a huge gospel music star during the 1950’s, best known for “Satisfied.” Martha was the favorite gospel singer for many country singers including Connie Smith, Kitty Wells, Sonny James and many others. Kathy’s voice does not have the power that Carson had, but she does a very nice job with the song

 One of these days I’m gonna take a vacation

To a quiet and a peaceful shore

And I’ll cool my feet in those crystal waters

Where I won’t have to work anymore

 

‘Cause my burden has got a little heavy

Till I can’t stand up all alone

I must lay my head down on one strong shoulder

‘Cause I can’t stand up all alone

No, you can’t stand up all by yourself

You can’t stand up alone

You need the touch of a mighty hand

You can’t stand up alone

The album closes with “Pretty Bird”, written by Hazel Dickens, a folk singer who wrote of the lives of coal miners and their families. This song is not about coal miners per se but you can read much into the lyrics, which urge the pretty bird to fly away to freedom. The song is performed a cappella.

This is not my favorite Kathy Mattea album although I would consider it to be very good with thoughtful lyrics about serious topics. A few more up-tempo songs would have helped but I suspect that I will revisit this album often, a few songs at a time.

Grade: B+

Complete song lyrics can be found here

Album Review: Wynonna – ‘Tell Me Why’

tell me whyWynonna’s second solo album was released in May 1993,produced as before by Tony Brown. It did not sell as well as its predecessor, but was still certified platinum, and produced five top 10 hits.

The first single, the title track, was a mid-tempo Karla Bonoff song with a glossy contemporary country-rock feel, and reached #3 on Billboard. This performance was matched by its successor, the more delicate and sophisticated ‘Only Love. Written by Roger Murrah and Marcus Hummon, it doesn’t sound particularly country now, but it featured a strong vocal performance.

My favorite track by far, ‘Is It Over Yet’, is a solemn piano-led ballad with a sensitive string arrangement which allows Wynonna’s emotion-filled voice to shine on a song about the pain of a breakup. It peaked at #7.

The most successful single, ‘Rock Bottom’, only just missed the top of the charts. It was written by the songwriters behind Southern Rockers the Atlanta Rhythm Section, and has a bluesy rock groove which suits Wynonna’s confident growl, although it’s not really my favorite style. The final single, Mary Chapin Carpenter’s ‘Girls With Guitars’, is a strong country rock number celebrating female musicians by telling the story of one young woman’s progress from high school to adult success, defeating the expectations of sexist listeners along the way. Naomi Judd and Lyle Lovett contribute backing vocals on the song.

Jesse Winchester’s ‘Let’s Make A Baby King’ is a Christmas song which New Grass Revival had recorded a few years earlier in more bluegrassy style, and which Wynonna gave a black gospel makeover. While Wynonna’s version was not formally released as a single, it gained some airplay at Christmas. ‘Just Like New’ is another memorable Winchester song, a bluesy story about a car once owned by Elvis. Naomi Judd’s ‘That Was Yesterday’ is performed as a slowed down blues number.

‘Father Sun’ was written by Sheryl Crow, about to make her own breakthrough as a rock singer-songwriter, and has a rather elusive lyric. The production funnels Wynonna’s vocal through an echoey effect which wastes her greatest asset, her powerful voice, and more gospel style backing vocals swamp her at the end.

She does show her more subtle interpretative side with a cover of ‘I Just Drove By’, written and originally recorded by Kimmie Rhodes. This charming song is about sweet memories of childhood innocence, and Wynonna sings it beautifully.

While it is a long way from traditional, and a purist might challenge its country credentials on any level, Wynonna was able to take her place in the diverse sounds of 1990s country music. It’s an accomplished record in its own right, genre considerations aside, but that does make it tough to assign a grade to on a country blog.

Grade: B

Album Review: Buddy Miller – ‘Midnight and Lonesome’

51BcEdcn+IL2002’s Midnight and Lonesome was Buddy Miller’s most successful solo album to date. It was the first to chart (reaching a modest #50), in no small part due to the success of the previous year’s duets project with wife Julie. He produced the album himself. He and Julie wrote some of the album’s songs, but separately and together but there are also a fair number of songs, including covers, provided by outside songwriters. Though mostly a country effort, it does find him delving into rock and blues, with somewhat mixed results. I was a bit worried after hearing the opening track, “The Price of Love”, a rock-leaning Everly Brothers tune with which I was previously unfamiliar. Fortunately, things get back on track with the second track “Wild Card”, which he and Julie wrote, which finds him turning up the twang. It sounds very much like a number Hank Williams might have recorded in the early 50s.

One of the album’s best moments is the third track “I Can’t Get Over You”, a beautiful steel-laced ballad written by Julie Miller, with delicately understated harmony vocals provided by Lee Ann Womack. It is topped only by another ballad – “A Showman’s Life”, written by Jesse Winchester. Previously recorded by Gary Allan with Willie Nelson and George Strait with Faith Hill, it describes the hardship and loneliness experienced by musicians on the road. Buddy is joined by Emmylou Harris and the result is nothing short of magic. It easily trumps both the Allan/Nelson and Strait/Hill versions (although both of those are also quite good).

The mournful lyrics and high-lonesome harmonies (provided by Julie) of the title track are at odds with its up-tempo pace but it works surprisingly well.

I wasn’t particularly impressed with “When It Comes To You”, a bluesy number written by Buddy and Julie with Jim Lauderdale. It sounds like something Conway Twitty might have scored a big hit with in the early 80s. It’s not a bad song but it is marred beyond redemption by the production. It has a decidedly low-fidelity sound; the vocals are muffled as though Buddy were singing through some sort of filter. I found it very distracting. Another bluesy number, a cover of Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone to Love”, works much better. It’s a bit of an artistic stretch for Buddy, but one that pays off nicely. I’m not familiar with the original version and my first impression was that the melody was very similar to Ray Price’s “Night Life”.

The Cajun-flavored “Oh Fait Pitie D’Amour (Lord Have Mercy on Me)” provides another interesting change of pace, although it’s not particularly memorable.

Another highlight is the closing track “Quecreek”, an acoustic folk-leaning ballad which finds Buddy accompanied only by an acoustic guitar and Julie’s harmony vocals. Slightly reminiscent of Merle Travis’ classic “Dark as a Dungeon”, it tells the true story of a coal mining accident in Pennsylvania.. The nation waited with baited breath when nine miners were trapped for 77 hours between July 24 and July 28, 2002. Miraculously, all nine were rescued and Buddy’s emotional retelling of the ordeal likens their recovery to Christ’s Resurrection.

Midnight and Lonesome was nominated for Album of the Year in 2003 by the Americana Music Association. Though it did not win, it is a stellar collection (“The Price of Love” and “When It Comes to You” nothwithstanding). It is perhaps most accurately described as a roots album but country is the predominant influence.

Grade: A –

Album Review: The Mavericks – ‘What A Crying Shame’

51C7p4ENGmL._SS2801994’s What A Crying Shame was The Mavericks’ third album overall, their second for a major label and the first to have any significant commercial impact. It paired them for the first time with Don Cook who would produce (or co-produce with Raul Malo) all of the group’s albums for MCA from this point forward.

The Mavericks made their first chart appearance in 1992 with a remake of Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Looking'”, which peaked at #74. “What A Crying Shame” did significantly better, reaching #25. There were four additional singles released from the album. two of them – “O What A Thrill” and “There Goes My Heart”, reached the Top 20. “I Should Have Been True” reached #30 and the final single “All That Heaven Will Allow” topped out at #49.

As noted in some other discussions, The Mavericks were largely considered to be a “fringe” act; however, What A Crying Shame is bonafide country with plenty of fiddle and pedal steel — albeit with glossy production and highly polished vocals from Raul Malo that are often reminiscent of Roy Orbison. It is solidly within what was considered mainstream country at the time, which makes radio’s tepid response a bit puzzling. I can only speculate that it is because there was a lot of formidable competition in the 90s. Perhaps in another era The Mavericks would have made more of an impact.

What A Crying Shame may not have received a lot of support from radio, but it did connect with fans, and generated platinum-level sales. It’s a shame that it didn’t get more airplay because it is an excellent album from start to finish. Most of the songs have a 60s feel to them. Raul Malo had a hand in writing seven of the album’s eleven tracks, teaming up on several of them — including the title track and my favorite “There Goes My Heart”, with Kostas, who was one of the hottest songwriters in Nashville at the time.

In addition to Raul Malo and Kostas, What A Crying Shame boasts some impressive songwriting credits, including Jesse Winchester who wrote “O What A Thrill”, Bruce Springsteen who wrote “All That Heaven Will Allow” and the great Harlan Howard who co-wrote “Ain’t Found Nobody” with Kostas.

Even though it sold more than a million copies in the US, the album’s limited radio airplay means that few outside of the million people that bought it have heard most of these songs, and younger fans are unlikely to have heard them at all. I strongly recommend that anyone who hasn’t heard the album pick up a copy; this is exactly the sort of country music that Nashville should be making today.

Grade: A

Album Review: Ralph Stanley & Friends – ‘Man Of Constant Sorrrow’

man of constant sorrowJust after the release of the very similarly titled tribute I reviewed recently comes another project, this one featuring the man himself, produced by Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale. Mostly the guests sing lead with Dr Ralph harmonising, but some are true duets too.

There is some overlap in personnel (of those associated personally and professionally with Dr Ralph) but almost none with songs. The smooth-voiced Nathan Stanley duets with his grandfather on ‘Rank Stranger’ to great effect. Ricky Skaggs shows up again here with Carter Stanley’s ‘Sweethearts In Heaven’ and combines plaintive emotion with a solid driving rhythm.

The big country names all do a fine job. Josh Turner delivers a solid lead vocal on the joyful ‘We Shall Rise’. Dierks Bentley is excellent and sounds very authentic on the high lonesome ‘I Only Exist’. Lee Ann Womack is exquisite leading on ‘White Dove’.

The producers join Ralph on a three part harmony on ‘I Am The Man, Thomas’ with Stanley on lead vocal. Americana favourites Gillian Welch and David Rawlings join Dr Ralph on the traditional ‘Pig In A Pen’, which is very enjoyable.

I’m not much of a fan of Robert Plant, but his voice combines surprisingly well with Ralph’s on the ethereal ‘Two Coats’, and the effect is very haunting. Rock singer Elvis Costello has never had much of a voice, and while his duet with Ralph on ‘Red Wicked Wine’ isn’t at all bad, it is more or less saved by Stanley’s emotional heft, and the fact that Costello mostly doesn’t get to sing solo.

Fellow bluegrass veteran Del McCoury joins Ralph on the Jesse Winchester tune ‘Brand New Tennessee Waltz’. Modern jug band Old Crow Medicine Show join Ralph on ‘Short Life Of Trouble’.

‘Hills Of Home’ is a mostly-spoken eulogy to Ralph’s late brother, the troubled Carter Stanley, which is genuinely moving.

This release is currently a Cracker Barrel exclusive but hopefully it will get a wider relase at some point.

Grade: A

Album Review – Don Williams – ‘Reflections’

4096_donwilliamsreflectionsOn his second Sugar Hill Release, and his third album in a decade, 74-year-old Don Williams spends a lot of time reflecting, just as the album’s title suggests. In the forty-plus years he’s been in the music industry he’s certainly earned the right, and with ten expertly chosen songs, he also gets right to the point.

As per usual Garth Fundis is along for the introspective journey and he succeeds masterfully in placing Williams’ distinctive baritone front and center, allowing the conversational way in which he sings to anchor the album extraordinarily.

This is no more apparent than on the one-two punch that opens the project. Townes Van Zant’s folksy “I’ll Be There In The Morning” is as honest a love song as it was forty-six years ago, with Williams breathing new life into the number with a combination of acoustic and steel guitars accentuated with ribbons of glorious harmonica. “Talk Is Cheap,” a Guy Clark co-write (with Chris Stapleton & Morgane Hayes) that previously found a home on Alan Jackson’s Thirty Miles West, lays bare our tendency to dream hypothetically and brings out the song’s urgency (‘wine’s for tasting, roads for taking’) in a way Jackson’s version didn’t. Both are two of the finest moments on record all year thus far.

Jennifer Hanson, Marty Dodson, and Mark Nesler’s “Back To The Simple Things” furthers the urgency felt in “Talk Is Cheap” by lamenting on modern technology and the stronghold is has on society. On one hand Williams is calling on us to live, on the other he’s making sure we remember what’s most important along that journey – human connection. The chugging beat, which backs the song, is fabulous, too, as is the uncomplicated way Williams is gets the message across.

“Working Man’s Son” finds Williams ruminating on a life lived while perfectly capturing the male psyche. Where most singers desire to run in the opposite direction from their elderliness, Williams stairs it squarely in the face with a stunningly age-appropriate lyric by Bob Regan and Jim Collins:

 I’ve had my fun, I’ve made some friends

I’ve loved and lost and loved again

Been down that less traveled road

Just to see how far it goes

Spoke my mind to defend myself

Tried not to hurt nobody else

But if I did, I hope they’ll forgive

Williams turns negative on Doug Gill’s “Stronger Back,” an antidote to the man taking the good with the bad on “Working Man’s Son.” He may be wishing for ‘a stronger back, a bigger heart, the will to keep on walking when the way is dark” but instead of letting his problems go, he just wants to embrace them and thus take responsibility. The flourishes of steel help to extenuate the track’s beautifully steady beat, and keeps the proceedings from getting too dark and moody.

“Healing Hands” is another life-well-lived moment, this time from a grandchild lamenting on the calluses as a benchmark of life in one’s years and the relationship between healing hands and a kind heart. The sentiment is there in Steve Gillette & Rex Benson lyric, but the execution is too schmaltzy. Fundis nicely makes up for it and saves the song with a striking mandolin and guitar heavy arraignment that’s slightly addictive.

In life, you know you ‘get it’ when you realize our days on earth are a journey full of lessons that never cease to reveal themselves to us. Steve Wariner and Tony Arata wrote “The Answer” about this phenomenon and framed the tale as a boy with countless questions for his all-knowing father. Williams does an impeccable job of bringing the ballad to life as does Fundis with his gorgeous production.

Much like he did with “I’ll Be There In The Morning,” Williams breathes new light into Jesse Winchester’s “If I Were Free” not by removing the song’s simplicity, but by adding to it. He turns the folk song into a country ballad backed solely by an acoustic guitar. The track takes on new meaning, too, with Williams at the helm.

With reflections on a life-well-lived, laments against modern technology, and disgust for people who dream without execution, a song like Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home,” about a man watching a prison execution, is the odd one out. But the tale does work, seeing as Reflections is an album, in part, about looking back on one’s life. The album’s real weak link is “I Won’t Give Up On You.” There’s nothing wrong with the beautiful love song at all, it just isn’t as spectacular a moment for Williams when compared to the rest of the record.

Often when singers make a record they talk about the idea of ‘having something to say’ with the songs they’re releasing. It’s especially true of songwriters, which makes Reflections all the more remarkable – Williams didn’t write a single word (he did co-produce) yet he has more to say in these ten tracks than most anyone over the course of their whole careers. His gifts as a singer and song interpreter are unmatched and help to elevate Reflections above the usual faire. If you’ve been waiting for a substantive collection full of meaning, with tasteful country production and class – than this is it. I can’t recommend Reflections enough.

Grade: A 

Album Review: Dan Seals – ‘Fired Up’

One of the signs of an artist in trouble is when someone who has consistently written a fair proportion of his own material suddenly drops it in favor of (often inferior) material from outside. Another is moving to a hot new producer in search of the latest sound. It rarely works, and it didn’t work for Dan Seals in 1994. For Dan’s second and final release for Warner Brothers, he left Kyle Lehning in favor of Jerry Crutchfield and a punchier more contemporary sound which just didn’t suit Dan’s natural style.

The rocked up title track ‘All Fired Up’ was the only single to chart at all, peaking at a miserable #66. Previously recorded by rockabilly throwback Bobby Lee Springfield, who co-wrote it, on his 1987 album of the same title, it’s a bit poppy but quite entertaining with genuine energy, although his voice sounds a little thin. They were clearly trying to recapture the chart success of ‘L.O.A.’, but the very poor ‘Love Thing – boring repetitive lyric, very little melody as well as very pop-orientated production – understandably failed to make any impact at all, and with a whimper rather than a bang, Dan ended his major label career. ‘Call Me Up’ is another forgettable pop number entirely unsuited to Dan’s voice and style, while Jesse Winchester’s ‘Gentleman Of Leisure’ is a badly produced and not very interesting song about wanting to do nothing.

There are two decent ballads up to Dan’s usual standards, which are well worth downloading. ‘A Rose From Another Garden’, written by Joe Doyle and Glen Davies, has a very pretty melody which allows Dan’s voice to soar, allied to a brooding poetic lyric about a man suspicious of his wife’s interests elsewhere as their own love fades:

Is she tending to a rose from another garden
While ours slowly grows dry
Is she tending to a rose from another garden
Letting our love die on the vine

A beautifully subtle vocal is perfect for this song, by far the best on the record.

‘Still Reelin’ (From Those Rock ‘n Roll Days)’ is the only song Dan wrote (with Allen Shamblin), and it’s a fine song, a gently nostalgic look back at youth and memories of being inspired by seeing the young Elvis on television.

The up-tempo ‘Hillbilly Fever’ (written by Joe Doyle and Todd Wilkes) is actually quite good, but in the light of today’s massive overuse of the theme, feels a bit generic about being tired of city life. The quite catchy ‘When’ was written by Robert Ellis Orrall and Gilles Godard, and Ricky Skaggs recorded it the following year on his album Solid Ground.

‘Jayney’ is a pleasant pop-country ballad written by Johnny Nestor, a little more interesting than the frankly dull ‘A Good Place To Be’, a Rory Michael Bourke/Charlie Black ballad about satisfaction with one’s life, without much energy or passion.

It’s still easy to find, but I would recommend digitally cherrypicking the best tracks.

Grade: C

Album Review – Sweethearts of the Rodeo – ‘Rodeo Waltz’

Much like Patty Loveless’s Sleepless Nights and LeAnn Rimes’s Lady & Gentleman, Rodeo Waltz is an album comprised mainly of classic country covers. Released in 1993, it marked the duo’s debut for Sugar Hill Records. Although it didn’t produce any singles, it offered a simple honky-tonk sound that still holds up well today.

The album opens with a spirited cover of Johnny Cash’s “Get Rhythm” that benefits from the abundance of petal steel and fiddle flourishes throughout and the distinct drum beat. While they stick moderately close to Cash’s original recording, save for updating the sound, they keep the sing-a-long nature of the song intact.

They continue to honor tradition with the rest of the covers, too. Don Robertson and Hal Blair’s “Please Help Me I’m Falling” is turned into a gorgeous mandolin soaked ballad and their sultry take on Tex Ritter and Frank Harford’s “Long Time Gone” brings a new appreciation to story of a woman anticipating their man’s reaction to their leaving.

Equally as well executed is their take on Gordon Lightfoot’s folksy “Steel Rail Blues” which benefits greatly from the use of harmonica and gently persistent drumbeat. I love how they seem to build on Lightfoot’s original recording by infusing the song with a bit more energy. I also enjoy their folksy almost mountain-y reading of Jesse Winchester’s “Brand New Tennessee Waltz.” It isn’t my favorite of the cover tunes included here but it’s enhanced by the sweet vocal and use of fiddle throughout.

They also do a fine job covering Robbie Robertson’s “Broken Arrow.” Known primarily as a pop song done by Rod Stewart, the sisters exceed in turning it into a country song complete with fiddle and harmonica. I love the melody and the use of mandolin to give the musical accompaniment some life.

Placed among the cover tunes is a crop of original songs, led by Don Shultz’s “Things Grow” which is their ode to life on a farm and small town existence. It isn’t as cringe worthy as that particular sub-genre today, but I’m not jumping up and down at the inclusion of them exploring that theme. Betty Harrison’s “Hoping That You’re Hoping” is better musically, but the song lacks any substance in the lyrics and is forgettable today.

I wasn’t aware they had their own version of “Jenny Dreamed of Trains,” which Janis’s then husband Vince Gill wrote with Guy Clark. Gill did an excellent job when he recorded the song on High Lonesome Sound and they do a stellar version here. The sweet story of the girl Jenny (presumably written about their daughter) and her love of trains over dolls is a great lyric.

“Bluegrass Boy,” written by Gill with Shultz is an engaging love song about a guy this girl once knew and while good, it comes off a tad underwhelming. There’s nothing wrong with the song at all – it just isn’t up to the material on the rest of the project. Same goes for the traditional “Deep River Blues” arranged by Gill. I enjoyed the swampy vibe and touches of harmonica but the whole thing was a tad underwhelming. But the album turns around with the great “There One Morning.”

Rodeo Waltz is a fine country album of both well-chosen covers and original material. I can easily see why there weren’t any singles despite strong material – it just doesn’t have a sound that sits right on radio playlists. But like most non-commercial country projects, it demands to be heard. This album is widely available digitally (from Amazon and iTunes) and is worth seeking out for a listen.

Grade: B+

Occasional Hope’s Top 10 Albums of 2011

2011 wasn’t the best year for country, but there was still some very good music to be found if you looked for it.  Just missing the cut for my personal top 10 were fine records by the excellent Sunny Sweeney, country chart debutant Craig Campbell, independent artist Justin Haigh, blue collar bluegrass newcomer Scott Holstein, the compelling close harmonies of the Gibson Brothers,  and an enjoyable if not groundbreaking live set from Amber Digby which flew under the radar.

So what did make my cut? Read more of this post

Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘Cowgirl’s Prayer’

Often a new record deal presents the opportunity for an artist to go off in a different direction and explore new territory, but 1993’s Cowgirl’s Prayer is more of a transitional album in Emmylou Harris’ career. Her first release for Elektra/Asylum was once again produced by Allen Reynolds and Richard Bennett, and follows the same basic template of 1990’s Brand New Dance, using mostly stripped down arrangements and understated performances. As she had done in the past, Emmylou had members of her band and some marquis name guest stars perform on the record. Nash Ramblers members Sam Bush, Al Perkins, Jon Randall Stewart and Roy Husky, Jr., all made appearances, while Alison Krauss, Suzanne Cox, and Trisha Yearwood all contributed harmony vocals and Kieran Kane lent his guitar-playing skills.

Never one to blindly follow trends, Emmylou resisted the then-current fashion of releasing beat-driven, slickly produced and often too-loud music meant to appeal to those on club line-dancing floors. Cowgirl’s Prayer is largely a quiet affair, which, along with Emmylou’s advancing age (by Nashville standards) at a time when country music had begun to become youth-obsessed made the album’s chances for success an uphill climb. It was largely met with indifference by radio, which is a shame because it contains some of the best performances of Emmylou’s career.

The rocker “High Powered Love”, which is not one of my favorites in the collection, was the first to be sent to radio. It stalled at #63. “Thanks To You” , written by Jesse Winchester fared slightly worse, peaking at #65. In between these two singles, a cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Crescent City” was released, and it failed to chart at all.

I like the album cuts in this collection much better than the radio singles. Particularly good are a tastefully produced and beautifully performed version of the old Eddy Arnold and Cindy Walker Classic “You Don’t Know Me”, and “Lovin’ You Again”, in which Emmylou portrays the long-suffering lover whose partner is gone for long stretches of time but always turns up when he has nowhere else to go. The best track on the album is “Prayer in Open D”, which Emmylou wrote herself. It begins as an expression of sorrow and despair:

There’s a valley of sorrow in my soul
Where every night I hear the thunder roll,
Like the sound of a distant gun
Over all the damage I have done.
And the shadows filling up this land
Are the ones I built with my own hand
There is no comfort from the cold
Of this valley of sorrow in my soul.

But by the end of the song, the bleakness gives way to hope:

There’s a highway risin’ from my dreams,
Deep in the heart I know it gleams
For I have seen it stretching wide,
Clear across to the other side
Beyond the river and the flood,
And the valley where for so long I have stood.
With the rock of ages in my bones
Someday I know it will lead me home.

The track is mostly acoustic-guitar led, along with a tasteful string section arranged by former Hot Band Member Emory Gordy, Jr..

There is a spiritual theme throughout the album, from the title and “Prayer in Open D”, to “The Light” and “I Hear A Call” to the Southern-spiritual flavored “Thanks To You”, on which Trisha Yearwood sings harmony, to “Jerusalem Tomorrow”, which is the most unusual track in the collection. It tells the story of a faith healer in Biblical times, who is essentially put of out business by, and eventually becomes a follower of, Jesus Christ. It’s an interesting tale, but I’m not a big fan of songs that are spoken rather than sung, so this is the one track I tend to skip over.

Cowgirl’s Prayer charted higher on the albums chart than Brand New Dance (#34 for Cowgirl’s Prayer vs #45 for Brand New Dance), but it was largely regarded as a commercial disaster. It is primarily remembered as the catalyst that caused Emmylou to make an unfortunate, in my view, change in musical direction; her next release was 1995’s controversial and more rock-oriented Wrecking Ball, which began a 13-year era in which Emmylou’s music drifted further away from the traditional country for which she had become famous. Although 2008’s All I Intended To Be, was in some ways a return to form, Cowgirl’s Prayer remains the last of the old-style Emmylou Harris albums. It’s still easy to find at Amazon and iTunes and well worth purchasing if you missed it the first time around.

Grade: A –

Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town’

Emmylou’s fourth album was released in January 1978 on Warner Brothers, which had taken over her contract from the subsidiary Reprise. A personal favorite of mine, it contains a number of her classic recordings. The lineup marks the replacement of Rodney Crowell in the Hot Band by Ricky Skaggs, with both men playing on the record. The arrangements and musicians are, as usual, impeccable. There was a change of emphasis with the selection of material, with no classic revivals this time (although a number of the tracks have become classics in their own right since), but a concentration on new songs.  The quality of material is as high as Emmylou’s fans had come to expect. Emmylou was now married to producer Brian Ahern, and their personal and professional partnership showed them in perfect tune. Ironically, given her newlywed status, the overarching theme is one of leaving, whether that means a lover or spouse, a parent, or life itself.

One of the classics born on this record was the first single. ‘To Daddy’ was written by Dolly Parton, who generously relinquished the opportunity to sing the song to her friend, not recording it herself for many years. Emmylou’s subtle version was a big hit, reaching #3. The devastating lyric tells the story of a downtrodden wife and mother who suffers silently for years with her neglectful and uncaring husband, and then leaves with as little fuss as she made during the marriage:

She never meant to come back home
If she did, she never did say so to Daddy

Told from the viewpoint of one of the children, Emmylou delivers one of her purest vocals, allowing the lyrics to speak for themselves. This is still one of my favorite Emmylou Harris recordings. It was followed on the charts by the #1 hit ‘Two More Bottles Of Wine’, an up-tempo rocking-blues Delbert McClinton song which offers a defiant response to loneliness and a lover’s departure:

It’s alright cause it’s midnight and I got two more bottles of wine

Another song now widely (and rightly) regarded as a classic, the poetic ‘Easy From Now On’, written by Guy Clark’s wife Susanna and a young Carlene Carter (billed by her first married name of Routh), peaked at #12. Emmylou sounds a little sad as she plans to drink the night away following the end of a relationship. The lyrics provide the album’s title, and Susanna Clark also painted the picture used for the cover art.

Rodney Crowell, about to leave the Hot Band to launch his own solo career, contributed a couple of songs as a parting gift. There are Cajun touches to the story song ‘Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight , which was later a hit for the Oak Ridge Boys. Rick Danko of The Band sings harmony and his bandmate Garth Hudson plays sax and accordion. The driving ‘I Ain’t Living Long Like This’ is a hard-boiled country rocker addressed to a low-life individual headed for life in jail, and Rodney’s own version was to be the title track of his debut album later the same year, also on Warner Brothers.

Willie Nelson sings a prominent harmony on the folky ‘One Paper Kid’, a downbeat story about another of life’s failures, set to an attractive tune and a very simple acoustic backing consisting of Mickey Raphael’s harmonica and Emmylou herself on guitar. The pair had toured together, and their voices blend beautifully on another highlight.

The tribute to the ‘Green Rolling Hills’ of West Virginia, written by folk singer Utah Phillips, is sung as a duet with Emmylou’s longtime harmony singer Fayssoux Starling, which sounds just lovely. Ricky Skaggs, Rodney Crowell’s replacement in the Hot Band, plays fiddle and viola on this track, foreshadowing the changes his influence was to bring in Emmylou’s music.

Singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester contributed two songs, the beautiful and perhaps metaphorical ballad ‘My Songbird’ and the swooping and allusive ‘Defying Gravity’, with Nicolette Larson on harmony. The album closes with the slowed down bluesy rockabilly of ‘Burn That Candle’, which is the only track I don’t much like, with some very odd emphases in the pronunciation.

The 2004 CD reissue included two previously unreleased live cuts from the early 80s with a Cajun flavor – Guy Clark’s ‘New Cut Road’ and ‘Lacassine Special’ (sung in French). They are well performed, but feel a little out of place here.

Grade: A

Some hidden treasures of the decade

At the end of last year, I shared a list of my favorite 50 singles of the decade. Some of them were big hits, others more obscure, but at least in theory they got some attention at the time. Now that the decade is well and truly over, I thought I would mention some hidden treasures – album tracks that you probably only heard if you’re a fan of the artist, and purchased the full album. Some of them are from albums and artists that were more successful than others. I’ve omitted anything that made it to radio (even if it wasn’t a hit) as I considered those for my last list, and I have also left out anything from an album which made our collective Albums of The Decade list, although I have included tracks from other albums by artists who appeared on both of those lists. I have restricted my list to one track per artist named.

40. ‘Cold All The Time’ – Irene Kelley (from Thunderbird, 2004)
Songwriter Irene Kelley has released a couple of very good independent albums, showcasing her own very beautiful voice as well as her songs. This is a gently resolute song about a woman stuck in a bad relationship, summoning up the courage to make a move.

39. ‘All I Want’ – Darius Rucker (from Learn To Live, 2008)
There is still a chance that this might make it to the airwaves, as Darius’s platinum country debut is his current release. As a whole, the material was a little disappointing, but this great song is definitely worth hearing, and not only because it’s the mos country song on the album. It’s a jaundiced kiss-off to an ex, offering her everything as “all I want you to leave me is alone”.

38. ‘I Met Jesus In A Bar’ – Jim Lauderdale (from Country Super Hits Volume 1, 2006)
Songwriter Jim Lauderdale has released a number of albums of his own, in more than one country sub-genre, and in 2006 he issued two CDs on one day: one country, the other bluegrass. This great co-write with Leslie Satcher, a melancholy-tinged song about God and booze, also recorded by Aaron Watson, comes from the country one.

37. ‘A Train Not Running’ – Chris Knight (from The Jealous Kind, 2003)
Singer-songwriter Chris Knight co-wrote this downbeat first-person tale of love and a mining town’s economic failure with Stacy Dean Campbell, who also recorded a version of the song.

36. ‘Same Old Song’ – Blake Shelton (from Blake Shelton, 2001)
These days, Blake seems to attract more attention for his girlfriend Miranda Lambert and his Tweeting than for his own music. This song, written by Blake’s producer Bobby Braddock back in 1989, is an appeal for country songs to cover new ground and real stories.

35. ‘If I Hadn’t Reached For The Stars’ – Bradley Walker (from Highway Of Dreams, 2006)
It’s probably a sign of the times that Bradley Walker, who I would classify as a classic traditional country singer in the Haggard/Travis style, had to release his excellent debut album on a bluegrass label. This love song (written by Carl Jackson and previously recorded by Jon Randall) is all about finding happiness through not achieving stardom.

34. ‘Between The River And Me’ – Tim McGraw (from Let It Go, 2007)
Tim McGraw is not one of my favorite singers, but he does often have a knack for picking interesting material. It was a travesty that the best track on his 2007 album was never released as a single, especially when far less deserving material took its place. It’s a brooding story song narrated by the teenage son of a woman whose knack seems to be picking the wrong kind of man, in this case one who beats her. The son turns to murder, down by the river.

33. ‘Three Sheets In The Wind’ – Randy Archer (from Shots In The Dark, 2005)
In the early 9s, Randy Archer was one half of the duo Archer Park,who tried and failed to challenge Brooks & Dunn. His partner in that enterprise is now part of The Parks. Meanwhile, Randy released a very good independent album which has been overlooked. My favorite track is this sad tale of a wife tearing up a husband’s penitent note of apology and leaving regardless.

32. ‘It Looked Good On Paper’ – Randy Kohrs featuring Dolly Paton (from I’m Torn, 2007)
A forlorn lost-love ballad from dobro player Kohrs featuring exquisite high harmonies from Dolly. the ret o the record is very good, too – and you can listen to it all on last.fm.

31. ‘Mental Revenge’ – Pam Tillis (from It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis, 2002)
After her mainstream stardom wound down, 90s star Pam Tillis took the opportunity to record a real labor of love: a tribute album to her father Mel. This bitter diatribe to an ex is my favorite track.

30. ‘You Don’t Love God If You Don’t Love Your Neighbour’ – Rhonda Vincent (from The Storm Still Rages, 2001)
A traditional country-bluegrass-gospel quartet take on a classic rebuke to religious hypocrites, written by Carl Story. The track isn’t the best showcase of Rhonda’s lovely voice, but it’s a great recording of a fine song with a pointed message.

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