My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Joe Henry

Album Review: Wynonna – ‘Wynonna’

51xTAFnKBVLWynonna Judd’s solo debut was one of the most eagerly anticipated releases of 1992, as the music world waited to see what direction her post-Judds career would take. Released in March 1992 and produced by Tony Brown, Wynonna found the songstress straddling the fence between pop and country. Most of the uptempo numbers allowed her to show off her rockin’ side, but others weren’t too different from her work with The Judds. Production-wise, though, the album is more middle-of-the-road than anything she’d done prior, with very little country instrumentation. The steel guitar is noticeably absent, and nearly a quarter century after its release, it’s a little easier now to see this album for what it was: the initial step in Wynonna’s efforts to distance herself from country music.

That’s not to suggest that Wynonna is a bad album; quite the contrary. I’d have been very happy had she continued in this vein, and I expect she would have enjoyed a longer run at the top of the singles charts if she had. Nevertheless, this is a very enjoyable album and I still consider it to be the best in Wynonna’s solo discography. Wynonna’s solo career had been officially kicked off a few months earlier when she debuted the album’s lead single on the American Music Awards telecast. “She Is His Only Need” is an AC-leaning ballad penned by Dave Loggins. Sonically it’s not very country, but it does keep with country music’s tradition of telling a story. I often thought it could be construed as the further adventures of the couple from The Judds’ hit “Young Love (Strong Love)” from a few years earlier. I’m afraid I found the song rather bland and it’s my least favorite on the album. Pretty much everyone else disagreed with me, though, as it quickly became Wynonna’s first #1 solo hit.

“She Is His Only Need” was followed by two more #1s: the uptempo “I Saw The Light”, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and the rock-tinged “No One Else On Earth”, which is probably Wynonna’s most successful solo single and the one that got the most radio airplay as a recurrent. The fourth single is a beautiful ballad, “My Strongest Weakness”, which was written by Naomi Judd and Mike Reid. Had The Judds remained active, I could easily imagine this one on one of their albums, perhaps with some steel guitar to give it a more country feel. The song reached #4. I had totally forgotten that it had ever been a single; surprisingly, it didn’t have a very long shelf life once it fell off the charts.

By far, the best song on the album is “When I Reach The Place I’m Goin'”, written by Emory Gordy, Jr. and Joe Henry. This one features background vocals by Naomi, and is the most country-sounding song on the album. It’s slightly reminiscent of “Wayfaring Stranger” and is beautifully written and sung. It has a Gospel theme, as does Paul Kennerley’s “Live With Jesus”, which closes the album. The lyrics of It’s Never Easy to Say Goodbye” aren’t overtly religious, but it has a definite Gospel feel.

There aren’t any bad songs on the album, though the opening track “What It Takes” and the Kostas-Marty Stuart number “A Little Bit of Love (Goes a Long, Long Way)” are pure album filler.

Wynonna accomplished its goals of establishing Wynonna Judd as a solo artist, distinct from her prior work with her mother, and it managed to do so without alienating any existing fans. Wynonna would make some unfortunate musical choices in the future, but on her first solo project, she knocked it out of the park.

Grade: A

Album Review: Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell – ‘The Traveling Kind’

81BsXZt8UsL._SX522_Whether the medium is literature, film or music, sequels rarely live up to the reputations of the original projects they follow. For that reason and because both Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell have been known to experiment with a variety of musical styles, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I heard that they were teaming up for a second duets album. While The Traveling Kind isn’t quite as good as 2013’s Old Yellow Moon, it’s an example of a sequel done properly. It also, thankfully, finds them sticking more closely to their country roots than many of their post-commercial peak projects.

Recorded in Nashville last July and produced by Joe Henry, The Traveling Kind consists of eleven tracks. Rodney had a hand in writing nine of them, three of which include Emmylou as a co-writer. While I didn’t much care for the bluesy “Weight of the World”, their other two compositions (with co-writer Corey Chisel — the title track and the steel guitar-laden “You Can’t Say We Didn’t Try”, are excellent. I particularly enjoyed the duo’s take on “No Memories Hangin’ ‘Round”, Rodney’s 1979 composition that was originally a Top 20 hit for Rosanne Cash and Bobby Bare.

My favorite track is “Just Pleasing You”, a Crowell co-write with Mary Starr that sounds a lot like an old Hank Williams song with a tune that faintly resembles “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)”. Almost as good is “If You Lived Here You’d Be Home Now”. Both are sure to please fans who miss the way country music used to sound.

Only two tracks come exclusively from outside songwriters: “I Just Wanted To See You So Bad” is an uptempo and quite enjoyable Lucinda Williams song, and “Her Hair Was Red”, is a Celtic-tinged number by Amy Allison which is a perfect vehicle for Emmylou.

The entire album is tastefully and sparsely produced, with an emphasis on acoustic instruments, with very little assistance from backing vocalists. Unlike a lot of “duet” projects, Harris and Crowell actually sing with — as opposed to around — each other. It is a quiet album that never allows the production to get in the way of the songs. I highly recommend it for fans of both artists, as well as for any country fans are dissatisfied with modern country radio’s typical offerings.

Grade: A

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Divided And United: Songs Of The Civil War’

divided & unitedI love history as much as I do country music, so a project like Divided And United, and the several other recent albums which have focussed on the musical legacy of the Civil War is of strong interest to me. Of all these projects, this two-disc set is the one to involve the greatest number of straight country artists, although bluegrass and other American roots music are both well represented. Almost all the songs are all of genuine Civil War vintage or older ones which were popular at the time, and performed as far as possible in the style of the period. Movie composer Randall Poster had the idea for the project and produces. Relatively sparse arrangements are similar to the way the songs would have been sung at the time of the war.

My favourite track is Vince Gill’s beautiful, thoughtful prayer by a dying drummer boy to the ‘Dear Old Flag’ for which he is sacrificing his life, set to a simple, churchy piano accompaniment. A choir including Sharon and Cheryl White and the Isaacs, mixed quite low, joins in the final chorus. Another highlight is Jamey Johnson’s haunting lament of a ‘Rebel Soldier’ far from home, a kind of proto-blues which the former serving Marine conveys with an emotional power which renders the song completely believable. Also wonderful is Lee Ann Womack (absent for far too long from the recording studio) on ‘The Legend Of The Rebel Soldier’, a touching story song about a soldier dying far from home, beautifully sung. These three tracks are pretty much perfect.

Ashley Monroe sings ‘Pretty Saro’, another fine sad song reflecting on death, although it does not relate directly to the war (and in fact the songs which significantly predates the period), it fits in nicely musically. The pretty ‘Aura Lee’, another non-war folk song, is sung by the genre-defying musician Joe Henry (who also produces a number of tracks), and was another I enjoyed despite a limited (if emotionally expressive) vocal. I also very much enjoyed Chris Hillman’s sympathetic reading of the classic ‘Hard Times Come Again No More’.

The sad (but not directly related to the war) ‘Listen To The Mocking Bird’ is prettily sung by the brilliant fiddler Stuart Duncan with Dolly Parton harmonising. (Dolly’s star power gets her the lead billing in this pairing, but Duncan is the true lead vocalist on the track). Ricky Skaggs’s quietly measured ‘Two Soldiers’ and Chris Stapleton’s ‘Two Brothers’ relate specifically Civil War tragedies, the latter being one of the few post-war compositions.

The septuagenarian Loretta Lynn is showing her age vocally, but this lends some realistic vulnerability to her convincing portrayal of a farmer’s wife bidding her husband off to war, undertaking that she will carry on the farm until his return. Another veteran, but this time from the world of bluegrass, the legendary Del McCoury plays the part of a soldier bidding farewell to his sweetheart ‘Lorena’. This plaintive tale is mirrored by the mournful sequel at the other end of the album, ‘The Vacant Chair, meditated on by Dr Ralph Stanley, while old-time specialists Norman and Nancy Blake give us ‘The Faded Coat Of Blue’, another melancholy reflection.

Steve Earle portrays a young soldier’s fears the night before going into action, in ‘Just Before The Battle Mother / Farewell Mother’; perhaps he tries a little too hard to sound like a rough, tough soldier, and not quite enough sounding vulnerable and fearful in the face of impending death. The old soldier’s jaundiced attitude to war in ‘Down By The Riverside’ is rather yelled by blues musician Taj Mahal, but it is in keeping with the song and works quite well, while. One can imagine the soldiers singing like this.

‘Dixie’, sung during the war by both sides but associated now with the South, is pleasantly but somewhat underwhelmingly sung by Karen Elson and the Secret Sisters. It just feels a little too winsomely pretty to fit the project. Perhaps the ladies would have been more suited to ‘Wildwood Flower’, one of the few disappointments for me. ‘Wildwood Flower’ would have been better sung by a female singer than by Sam Amidon, a folk singer whose rather pedestrian vocal falls rather flat compared to many other versions I’ve heard, although the picking is nicely done. A A Bondy is a bit too breathy and experimental for me on ‘Johnny Has Gone For A Soldier’.

‘The Fall Of Charleston’, performed by folk/Americana duo Shovels & Rope is rather cluttered and messy sounding, and I could have done without this. T Bone Burnett isn’t much of a singer, but his grizzled vocal is extremely effective portraying the gloomy soldier’s wearied despair in ‘The Battle of Antietam’. Also working well with an everyman style vocal, John Doe’s wearied ‘Tenting On The Old Campground’ feels very authentic. Chris Thile and Mike Daves on the perky-sounding ‘Richmond Is A Hard Road To Travel’ also deal with army life.

‘Old Crow Medicine Show’ take on the two-paced marching song ‘Marching Through Georgia’ quite enjoyably. In a similar vein the less well known (and more anonymous sounding) The Tennessee Mafia Jug Band take on ‘Secesh’ in a raucous singalong. The Civil War had a naval aspect as well as a land one, and this represented here by a quirky sea song, ‘The Mermaid Song’, sung
by musician Jorma Kaukonen.

Angel Snow’s dreamily dejected version of ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ is quite effective at adding an unexpected poignancy.
The late Cowboy Jack Clements closes proceedings with the wistful ‘Beautiful Dreamer’.

Lest we forget the underlying cause of the war, the view of the slaves is represented in two songs (although it is not quite a first-person testimony, as both were written by the white abolitionist composer Henry Clay Ward. Pokey Lafarge tackles the anticipation of freedom in ‘Kingdom Come’ with committed enthusiasm just short of shouting, set against a martial beat. Much better, The Carolina Chocolate Drops hail the ‘Day Of Liberty’ for the country’s enslaved African Americans with a part-narrated (by Don Flemons), part-upbeat vocal (Rhiannon Giddens) song.

A few instrumental tunes are included, beautifully played by Bryan Sutton, Noah Pikelny and David Grisman. This impeccably arranged project is a remarkable piece of work, a poignant re-imagining of the Civil War through its music. It won’t appeal to everyone, but I appreciated it a great deal, and on a purely musical level, it has a lot to offer anyone who likes acoustic music.

Grade: A+

Album Review – Rodney Crowell – ‘Sex and Gasoline’

It’s clear, through listening to Rodney Crowell’s recordings, he doesn’t like classifications or being placed in a box. Just when you think you have him categorized, he takes a turn and makes an album bound solely by is own originality and uniqueness.

Sex and Gasoline, released in 2008 by the Work Song/Yep Roc label is one of those projects. Following on the heels of the Houston Kid/Fate’s Right Hand/Outsider trilogy, it defies expectations by going in a completely different direction that drums up bizarre results.

Artsy songs are fine, and often they make for compelling listening. But these ambiguous lyrics are as strange as any I’ve heard. Crowell, who solely wrote all the material here, is a fine songwriter but these songs will only appeal to a small niche population of his fan base.

Tracks like “Moving Work of Art,” “The Rise and Fall of Intelligent Design,” and “Truth Decay” are marred by their lyrical packaging and take so much mind strength to unravel, the average listener won’t have the patience to decode their meaning. Same goes for equally weird tracks like “Funky And The Farm Boy” and the mumble of “Who Do You Trust.”

The slow and dreary “Forty Winters” continues the trend, offering little to grab onto amidst the sparse arrangement and vocal. At least “Closer to Heaven,” the closing track, opens with some ear-catching lines and provides the most clever lyric on the whole project:

I don’t like humus, I hate long lines

Nosy neighbors and the venation blinds

Chirpy news anchors alter my mood

I’m offended by buzz words like awesome men do

Luckily the album does contain a few bright spots, namely “I’ve Done Everything I Can,” a wonderful break-up ballad that’s reminiscent of his best work. The same can be said for “The Night’s Just Right,” another relationship-centric song about not taking life so seriously. The other standout is the title track, the only tune to get the folk sensibilities Crowell was going for just right.

Overall Sex and Gasoline adds up to less than the sum of its parts. Nothing seems to be working in the album’s favor, from the slow and prodding production work of Joe Henry to Crowell’s lazy vocal style that transforms him from country singer to Dylan wannabe.

But it’s still worth checking out, and will easily appeal to a very niche sector of Crowell’s audience. I’m just not among them.

Grade: B-

Album Review – Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell – ‘Kin: Songs by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell’

The relationship between Mary Karr, a New York Times bestselling author, and Rodney Crowell began in 2003 when Crowell mentioned the author in “Earthbound” a track from Fate’s Right Hand. He’d just finished her book The Liar’s Club and had suspicions, based on her background in poetry, she could write songs.

Flash forward nine years and they’ve acted on that premonition with Kin: Songs by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell, an album for wordsmiths and musical connoisseurs alike. With an all-star cast of heavyweights (Vince Gill, Lee Ann Womack, Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson) and fringe artists (Norah Jones and Lucinda Williams) lending their talents, the appreciation is only deepened by results worthy of their talents.

Kin shows its brilliance by presenting each artist in a new light, by giving the listener an unexpected treat with each composition. Producer Joe Henry pushes everyone out of their musical comfort zones with delightful arrangements that deepen their artistic integrity while allowing for substantial growth. Without the need to tread in the stagnant waters of mainstream Nashville, the artists have a chance to explore each song without fear of displeasing younger listeners, a constituency who wouldn’t be drawn to Kin in the first place.

Sonically, Kin is a slice of ear candy, an observation enhanced by the mix of steel, fiddle, upright bass, and acoustic guitar that drench each song. Womack exemplifies this perfectly, turning in her best song in over half a decade with “Mama’s On A Roll.” Soaked in dobro and acoustic guitar, she infuses the song with the slow-burn felt after downing a sift drink at a bar. Equally appealing is Jones, who infuses her trademark smoky warmth into the ear-catching “If The Law Don’t Want You.” By interjecting her performance with her Little Willies playfulness, she proves how compelling she is at singing country music and seduces the listener into hoping she’ll dabble in it with more frequency.

Another standout is the impressive Gill, who turns up the twang with “Just Pleasing You,” a steel and fiddle led number proving him correct in thinking his best days musically lie ahead. “Sister oh Sister,” sung by Cash, is like a visit from an old friend and fits her like a glove. While I would’ve liked to hear Cash sing something a little more energetic, you can’t fault her expressive tone on the somber tune about the relationship between close siblings.

Along the same lines is the sleepy “Long Time Girl Gone By” which finds a wispy Harris running the gamut from soft to strikingly compelling. More folk than country, it needed just a slight pick me up to hold my attention, but there isn’t any denying her artistry. Same goes for Williams who infuses “God I’m Missing You” with her usual tipsy delivery.

Crowell, not to be out done by the guest vocalists, turns in four songs of his own, his first since 2008’s Sex and Gasoline. The Dylan-like “Anything But Tame” rolls along with an acoustic guitar led arrangement, “I’m A Mess” recalls a Steve Earle-like sensibility, and “Hungry For Home” is straight-up folk. But the most appealing is “My Father’s Advice,” a duel role duet with Crowell as the son and Kristofferson as the advice-lending dad. The most country of Crowell’s vocal contributions to Kin, it offers flourishes of fiddle and harmonica that helps move the story along at a nice even pace.

As a whole, Kin is a patchwork quilt infusing distinct individual moments, led by Karr and Crowell’s simple yet evocative lyrics and brought to life by the stellar cast who gathered to record them. It’s a not-to-be-missed collaboration and one of the most original country albums of 2012.

Grade: A 

Album Review: Steve Wariner – ‘I Got Dreams’

Steve came more to the fore as a writer on this album, released in 1989. He wrote or co-wrote nine of the ten songs on a pleasantly melodic record which showcases his sweet tenor and leans to the AC side of country. As with its predecessor, I Should Be With You, he produced the set with Jimmy Bowen. The record has a more consistent sound than its predecessor, but it lacks a real standout song.

While sales were not spectacular, the album’s singles continued Steve’s hot streak at radio, kicking off with two straight #1 hits. ‘Where Did I Go Wrong’ (the only solo Wariner composition included) is a sweetly sung ballad about losing love with an attractive melody, which is (though hardly groundbreaking) one of my favorite tracks. He wrote the optimistic mid-tempo ‘I Got Dreams’ with Bill LaBounty about hoping for his ex’s return. This was radio-friendly but while pleasant enough has not stood the test of time very well.

Another ballad, the gentle piano-led ‘When I Could Come Home To You’, written with Roger Murrah, was the third single, and this peaked at #5. It has a tender vocal as the protagonist reflects wistfully on the past with a former loved one, and this song is probably the best here.

These were probably the best choices as singles, because most of the remaining material falls into the category of listenable but ultimately forgettable. Perhaps more outside material would have been better advised, because one of my favorite tracks is the one song Steve did not contribute to writing. John Jarvis and Joe Henry’s solemn piano-led AC ballad ‘The Flower That Shattered The Stone’ (later recorded by John Denver) has a beautiful melody, subtle, pure vocal, and spiritual lyric about the power of the natural world:

As the river runs freely the mountain does rise
Let me touch with my fingers and see with my eyes
In the hearts of the children your love still grows
Like a bright star in heaven that lights our way home
Like the flower that shattered the stone

It took four writers including Steve to write ‘I Could Get Lucky Tonight’, a slightly dragging mid-tempo number without much lyrical substance. The love song ‘Do You Wanna Make Something Of It’ written with Wood Newton, sounds pretty enough but a bit boring. The same goes for ‘Plano Texas Girl’ (co-written with Steve’s brother Terry), notable only for its rather feeble play on words.

The beaty ‘Nothin’ In The World (Gonna Keep Me From You)’, a co-write with Mike Reid, reverts to the pop-country of Steve’s RCA work, and has the least impressive vocal on the record. A much better up-tempo effort is the engaging ‘Language Of Love’, written by Steve with John and Johanna Hall, and the best of his songs here apart from the singles. It has a metaphorical lyric comparing romance to international travel, and some nice mandolin from Carl Jackson.

The only other song to stand out is the slightly wimpy ‘The Loser Wins’. This starts out with a ruefully fond reminiscence of a high school football team who “won 5 and lost 17”, but is really about the comfort brought in failure by a loved one. The production feels a bit dated but the subject is temporarily quite topical with the Grammy ceremony this weekend.

The vocals are beautiful throughout, but this is the sort of record that sounds very nice in the background but where the songs lack individual interest.

Grade: C+

Cheap used copies are easy to find, and the album is avilable digitally.

Album Review: Patty Loveless – ‘Dreamin’ My Dreams’

patty loveless - dreamin my dreamsDreamin’ My Dreams was the last album Patty Loveless recorded for the Epic Nashville label before they closed shop. Some of their artists went to the Columbia Records roster.  Patty instead took a two-year hiatus from touring and recording before going the indie route, signing with Suguaro Records in 2008.  She has since recorded two albums for the label.  While this would be her last album for Epic, Patty delivered nothing less than a first-class set of songs, with some contemporary flavor, well worthy of radio airplay, as well as her signature bluegrass and rootsy album staples.

Though the lead-single, ‘Keep Your Distance’ is as good a track that’s been shipped to radio this decade, it failed to chart, and Epic didn’t release any follow-up singles. The single, written by Richard Thompson is a snappy number with some great guitar licks and a sing-along melody.

She slows things down with Lee Roy Parnell and Tony Arata’s ‘Old Soul’, my favorite track on the set.  The tale of a young heart who, after being hurt and down-trodden by life, is wise beyond her years.  The haunting arrangement and the ache in the vocal combine to make for a punch to the listener.

Laugh too little and you cry too much
Way too long without that gentle touch
Weight of the world resting down in your bones
Pretty soon you’ve got an old soul

Likewise, ‘Nobody Here By That Name’ is reminiscent of her 90s hits.  Smart lyrics, flawless vocals, and a strong-woman spirit underscore the melancholy lyrics. Listening to the song, it’s evident that this is another Tony Arata cut; it’s very much in his style, and he co-wrote this with Pete Wasner.

The album gets back to the tempo with ‘Same Kinda Crazy’, a jazzy-rocking number, later recorded by George Strait.  The tale of two kindred spirits is told with a ferocious vocal from Patty.  ‘Dreamin’ My Dreams With You’, the almost-title track was written by producer-extraordinaire Allen Reynolds.  The song has also recorded by Alison Krauss and Waylon Jennings, among others.

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