My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: John Anderson

Album Review: Midland — ‘Midland’

NOTE: Occasional Hope reviewed this upon release. Paul’s view of the album appears below: 

I know I’m a little late to the party in discovering this late 2017 release but I rarely listen to over-the-air country stations these days.

Other than my brother Sean, who knows my tastes in folk, jazz & pop standards (but knows little about country or bluegrass music), none of my family or friends give me music as a birthday or Christmas present. So much to my surprise, I received this CD at Christmas from a nephew of mine who claimed this to be “old style” country music. Of course, my nephew is only 18 so his idea of “old style” country might have been Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban, and Jason Aldean, whereas my definition differs considerably.

Well, it has been a really busy last few weeks for me so it wasn’t until a few days ago that I got around to popping On The Rocks into my CD player (prompted by the fact that I would see my nephew again in two weeks). Much to my surprise, I found myself listening to a real country record, one actually coming out of Nashville.

No, this is not a country record of the sort that could have been played in the classic country period (1944-1978), but it would definitely have fit into the country playlists of the period 1979 – 2005. Instead of a band whose influences were the likes of Eagles, Marshall Tucker and, James Taylor, I was hearing a band that was influenced by Alabama, Diamond Rio, Bellamy Brothers, Clint Black and perhaps John Anderson or Keith Whitley.

I do not know much about this act and perhaps they would tell you of other influences but I can definitely hear traces of the acts cited above. Moreover, this album has the sound of a country album, with prominent steel guitar, audible lyrics and, strong melodies.

Three singles were released to radio. The first single “Drinkin’ Problem” went to #3 on the US Country Airplay chart and went to #1 on Canadian Country chart. The song is an excellent low-key ballad with a good melody and nice steel guitar.

One more night, one more down

One more, one more round

First one in, last one out

Giving this town lots to talk about

They don’t know what they don’t know

 

People say I’ve got a drinkin’ problem

That ain’t no reason to stop

People sayin’ that I’ve hit rock bottom

Just ’cause I’m living on the rocks

It’s a broken hearted thinkin’ problem

So pull that bottle off the wall

People say I got a drinkin’ problem

But I got no problem drinkin’ at all

The second single was “Make A Little” which reached #15 and #12 respectively on the charts referenced above. The song is a mid-tempo rocker that would make a good dance floor number:

 It’s a hard living, tail kicking

Trip that we’re all on, but I’m betting

We can find a little sunshine in the night

It’s a back breaking, soul taking

Road we walk, so what are we waiting for

Baby let’s turn off the lights

‘Cause girl, there’s just not enough love in the world

 

So we should make a little

Generate a little

Maybe even make the world a better place a little

We could turtle dove, Dixie land delight

You know it can’t be wrong when it feels so right

It all comes down to you and me, girl

There’s just not enough love in the world

So we should make a little

Then make a little more tonight

The final single was “Burn Out” which reached #11 on The US Country Airplay chart but inexplicably just barely cracked the forty in Canada. This is probably my favorite song on the album

Watchin’ cigarettes burn out

‘Til all the neon gets turned out

There’s nothing left but empty glasses now

It’s all flashes now

Smokin’ memory that ain’t nothin’ but ashes

In the low lights

These done-me-wrong songs hit me so right

I was so on fire for you it hurts how

Fast a cigarette can burn out

I think that the following two songs would have made good singles: “Electric Rodeo:”

 It’s a lonely road

Two for the pain and three for the show

You put your life on hold chasin’ layaway dreams

That ain’t all they seem

With a hotel heart just tryin’ to find a spark

 

Electric rodeo

We’re paintin’ on our suits

We’re pluggin’ in our boots

We’re ridin’ high tonight

On Acapulco gold

And the rhinestones shine

Just as bright as diamonds

Underneath the lights

Electric rodeo

and “Out of Sight:”

Clothes ain’t in the closet, shoes ain’t under the bed

I should’ve believed her when she said what she said

“You’ll never change I know you never will”

I just sat there watching tailights rollin’ over the hill

I called her mama and I called her best friend

They said “She called it quits, so boy don’t call here again”

Up and down these streets lookin’ for her car

Tried to make it back home, but ended up at the bar

 

She’s gone (she’s gone, so long) never coming back

So gone (so gone, so gone) the train went off the track

And all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put me and my baby back together again

So long (she’s gone, so long) that’s the way it goes

She’s gone (so long, so long) and everybody knows

That I’m going crazy one night at a time

She’s out of sight and I’m out of my mind

The band consists of Jess Carson (acoustic guitar & background vocals), Cameron Duddy – (bass guitar & background vocals) and Mark Wystrach (lead vocals), with all three members being involved in the writing of eleven of the thirteen songs with Carson being involved as a co-writer on all thirteen songs, with an occasional assist from outside sources. The band is supplemented by some of Nashville’s finest studio musicians with Paul Franklin and Dan Dugmore swapping steel guitar duties, often carrying the melody line.

While I do not regard any of the tracks on the album as being timeless classics, I at least liked all of the tracks on the album since I never hit ‘skip’ on any of them. If you wonder whatever happened to that good country music of my early-to-middle adulthood youth (i.e. through the late 1970s and the 1990s), then give this CD a listen. I look forward to their next album.

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Classic Rewind: John Anderson – ‘Seminole Wind’

Christmas Rewind: John Anderson – ‘Christmas Time’

Album Review: Earl Thomas Conley — ‘Yours Truly’

Richard Landis, who was best known at the time for his work with Lorrie Morgan, produced Earl Thomas Conley’s eighth studio album, Yours Truly, released in June 1991. It was Conley’s final album for RCA, his final to chart (it peaked at #53), and his first not to produce a #1 hit since he joined the label ten years earlier.

The album was preceded by “Shadow of a Doubt,” an excellent and engaging uptempo rocker co-written by actor and singer Tom Wopat. It peaked at #8 yet deserved to go much higher.

The second single “Brotherly Love” was a duet he had recorded with Keith Whitley back in 1987 for the intended follow-up album to L.A. To Miami Whitley had recorded with his producer at the time, Blake Mevis. He convinced RCA to shelve the project, leaving the recordings unreleased.

In 1991, the vocals Whitley and Conley had recorded for “Brotherly Love” were rescued and given a new arraignment by Whitley’s next producer, Garth Fundis. The track served as the lead single for his first official posthumous release, Kentucky Bluebird. It peaked at #2 and was nominated for the CMA Vocal Event of the Year award in 1992, where it lost to “This One’s Gonna Hurt You (For A Long, Long Time)” by Marty Stuart and Travis Tritt.

In a recently unearthed interview Whitley gave to Ralph Emory in 1987, before the album with Mevis was shelved, in fact it was even due for a September release when they spoke, Whitley said it was Joe Galante’s (The head of RCA) idea he record a duet with a male artist on the label. Galante suggested Conley. The excellent ballad, about “a bond that brother’s know” had originally been recorded by Moe Bandy in 1989 and Billy Dean in 1990. Whitley and Conley’s version was the first and only time the song had been recorded as a duet.

Conley’s commercial fortunes would greatly diminish after “Brotherly Love.” His next two singles would be his last to chart, although neither would peak very high. “Hard Days and Honky Tonk Nights,” which he co-wrote with Randy Scruggs, was a rather strong song, buried in production that was dosed in fiddle, yet just too loud. “If Only Your Eyes Could Lie” was a wonderful steel-drenched ballad in his classic style, updated for modern times. The single peaked at 36 and 74 respectively.

The ballad “You Got Me Now” opens the album as a bridge between his classic sonic textures and the updated sound Landis brought to the record. The song is unspectacular but good. “One of Those Days” is also solid, but it lacks a layer of emotion from Conley. The dobro-infused “Keep My Heart On The Line” is an infectious mid-tempo number that wouldn’t have been out of place in Whitley’s hands at all.

The cleverly titled “You’re The Perfect Picture (To Fit My Frame of Mind)” is easily the most traditional I’ve ever heard Conley, and the results are spectacular. This uptempo honky-tonker just might be the best moment he ever committed to record. “Borrowed Money” sounds like something John Anderson might have recorded at the time, and while the two artists are hardly alike, Conley does exceptionally well with this song. “I Want To Be Loved Back” is good, but the distracting, cheesy, and unnecessary backing vocalists are incredibly jarring.

Yours Truly is an excellent album, which to my ears, has aged remarkably well. I love seeing artists with a somewhat updated sound and Conley shines here. “Brotherly Love” is the standout track and well deserved big hit. Go to YouTube and stream everything else. You won’t be disappointed.

Grade: A

John Anderson is far more than an old chunk of coal at Boston’s City Winery

John Anderson may have opened his show Monday night at Boston’s City Winery with his 1981 #4 “I’m Just an Old Chunk Of Coal,” but judging from his brisk 90-minute set, the choice wasn’t self-referential. Armed with an acoustic guitar and his longtime accompanist Glenn Rieuf, he ran through hit-after-hit with merely a break to catch his breath.

Anderson traversed his whole career, jumping around so as not to put emphasis on any particular song or time period. He wasted no time getting to fan favorites like “Money In The Bank” and “Straight Tequila Night,” two of his signature tunes from his big comeback in the early 1990s. He dedicated the latter to the ladies in the crowd, which was at about half-capacity for the 300-seat venue, a respectable turnout considering the scorching heatwave and proximity to July 4th.

He didn’t talk much during the show, opting instead to give his fans their money’s worth of music. He introduced Rieuf as someone he’s known for more than 40 years and played with for more than 30. The two were perfectly in sync, with Anderson often turning to Rieuf between songs to figure out what would be sung next. Rieuf switched from acoustic guitar to dobro early on, giving the bulk of the songs some added texture Anderson couldn’t achieve with just his guitar alone.

When he did speak, Anderson made it count. He told a story about a day on his farm when he was trying to write a song. The ideas weren’t coming, and he was about to give up when his phone rang. Waylon Jennings was on the other end, requesting Anderson join him at the Ryman Auditorium to lend his talents to a live album he was making. The sessions, which took place in January 2000, would cumulate as the final album Jennings would release during his lifetime. Anderson then played “Waymore’s Blues,”  the track they collaborated on together.

Like the majority of male country singers from his era, Anderson wears his patriotism on his sleeve. He turned in a poignant rendition of “1959,” the fifth single from his debut album, his first top ten, released in 1980. The song, about a solider’s heartbreak at learning his high school sweetheart, Betty, had broken her promise never to leave him while he was deployed, is as powerful today as it must’ve been 38 years ago. He followed with “An Occasional Eagle,” an ode to American Pride and a deep cut from 1983’s All The People Are Talkin’.

He stayed in the 1980s to bring the audience some real country music, “I Just Came Home to Count The Memories,” the title cut from his third album, released back in 1981. He also mined “Would You Catch A Falling Star” from the same album. Although it’s not my favorite of his songs, “Swingin’” has retained all the swagger he originally brought to his chart-topping recording in 1983.

To this day, I still become affected when I hear “I Wish I Could’ve Been There,” which he delivered beautifully Monday night. He said it was written about his life on the road, while the next song was composed about life “back home” in Apopka, Florida. “Seminole Wind,” which I’ve always adored, is probably the most unlikely song ever to hit the country airwaves and explode into a #2 hit. Released in August 1992, when Garth Brooks was decimating everything in his path, a lyric about conservation efforts in the Everglades was just a crazy enough concept to work.

“When I Get Down” was Anderson’s sole nod to his 2011 gospel album Praise For You and was accompanied by him recounting the hearing loss that kept him off the road, missing “seven months of work” in 2017. He’s thankfully recovered, which for a time, was in jeopardy. He and Rieuff left the stage for a brief moment, and when they returned, Anderson referenced his friend Merle Haggard, who he called one of the greatest country singers who ever lived. Anderson brilliantly sang the standard “Long Black Veil,” which he associates with the beginnings of his friendship with Haggard. He closed with his outlaw classic “Black Sheep,” which became his third #1 in late 1983.

Throughout his set, Anderson was ever the southern gentleman, pausing multiple times with “thank y’all so much” as the audience cheered between songs. He also felt his sound mixing was off, stopping at the top of the show a few times to tune his guitar and ask the sound people to adjust his guitar in the monitors. The sound was fine by my ears, but when he got it just right, we could enjoy the show without further tweaking.

The acoustic format, which Anderson said will be the sonic backdrop of his next album, worked well although I could’ve used a bit more instrumentation, especially on “Straight Tequila Night,” which seemed to be needing some extra ingredients, likely just a fiddle, to bring it even further to life.

At 63, Anderson still sounds fantastic, with his signature gravely rasp firmly intact. It was an unexpected treat to see someone perform whom I never even gave a second thought to seeing live. He made a point of saying he doesn’t come around “these parts that often,” meaning Boston, and he would like to come back again real soon. I for one, wouldn’t mind in the least if he did.

Classic Rewind: John Anderson – ‘Seminole Wind’

Classic Rewind: John Anderson – ‘Wish I Could Have Been There’

Classic Rewind: John Anderson ft Tracy Lawrence – ‘1959’

Classic Rewind: Tracy Lawrence ft John Anderson – ‘Hillbilly With A Heartache’

Classic Rewind: John Anderson – ‘Don’t Forget To Thank The Lord’

Album Review: Shane Owens – ‘Where I’m Comin’ From’

where-im-comin-fromCountry traditionalist Shane Owens from Alabama has seen several potential deals fail to work out in the past, but at last he has the opportunity to make his mark with his new album for independent label AmeriMonte. Part of this album was produced by James Stroud for another label which folded, while Ed Seay produced the newer cuts. He has a great, pure country voice, with echoes of Travis and Whitley in his stylings.

Lead single ‘Country Never Goes Out Of Style’, the video for which features a cameo by Randy Travis, is a nice song about passing trends and what really lasts. The title track is a fond but unsentimental tribute to growing up in a remote rural location, 8 miles from the nearest grocery store.

‘All The Beer In Alabama’ reflects on a failed marriage, where the protagonist admits his flaws, but is hurt that she wrongfully believes he cheated on her, when

All the beer in Alabama couldn’t get me drunk enough
To even think twice about someone else’s love

This track has a more modern country feel, with an electric guitar prominent.

‘Country Boy Can’ has somewhat cliche’d lyrics addressed to a potential love interest from the city, but Shane’s likable vocal and the low key arrangement save it.

In the gentle ‘Blame It On A Woman’ he has recast his life thanks to falling in love, and the tender vocal sells the song.

He turns to hard core traditional country with the punning ‘Alcohol Of Fame’, about a man who takes refuge in the bottle after losing at love, and lapses into alcoholism.

‘God And The Ground She Walked On’ is a moving story song about an elderly man who is lost without his late wife but still feels her presence . Another emotional story song, ’19’, is about a Marine who threw over a college scholarship to join up after 9/11, “trying to hold on to his American dreams”, until he pays the ultimate price to save a comrade.

The up-tempo ‘Chicken Truck’ is an obscure early John Anderson album track which just escapes being categorised as a novelty song. An unexpected choice of cover, Shane’s version features a guest appearance from Anderson and is highly entertaining. An even less familiar cover, Linda Hargrove’s ‘Nashville You Ain’t Hollywood’ chides the industry for abandoning its values in favour of glitz – a message even more marked today than in the 70s.

This is an excellent album from a fine singer. I warmly recommend it.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: John Anderson – ‘Your Lying Blue Eyes’

Album Review: Lorraine Jordan and Caroline Road – ‘Country Grass’

country-grass-2016If you like real country music, the kind that was played before 2005, with meaningful lyrics written by master craftsmen like Dallas Frazier, Cindy Walker, Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran, Merle Haggard and Tom T Hall, where do you go to hear it live?

Unless you live in Texas, your best choice is to visit a bluegrass festival. Today’s bluegrass acts are vitally concerned about finding good songs, regardless of the copyright dates. They are not concerned about the feeding and watering of mediocre songwriters simply because they are part of the pool of co-writers. A typical bluegrass group will include anywhere from 20% upwards of classic country songs in their repertoire.

Exhibit number one is the most recent album, Country Grass, by Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road. This album is a bit of an outlier, because all of the songs are classic country, but one listen to this album and you will plainly hear that the legacy of 60s-90s country music is in good hands.

Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road are a veteran act, having performed at the bluegrass festivals for over fifteen years. Lorraine plays mandolin and handles most of the lead vocals. She is joined by Ben Greene (banjo), Josh Goforth (fiddle), Brad Hudson (dobro) and Jason Moore (upright bass).

In putting this album together of classic country songs, Lorraine assembled a fine cast of guest stars, obtaining the services of the original artist where possible.

The album opens up with the Kentucky Headhunters’ song “Runnin’ Water”, a track from the Kentucky Headhunters’ fourth album. Doug Phelps of the Kentucky Headhunters sings lead on this entertaining track with bandmate Richard Young contributing harmony vocals. This track is straight ahead bluegrass.

Eddy Raven had a #1 record in 1984 with “I Got Mexico” and he chips in with the lead vocals on a track that is more bluegrass flavored than actual bluegrass.

“Darned If I Don’t, Danged If I Do” was a Shenandoah song. Shenandoah’s lead sing Marty Raybon has spent much of the last decade on the bluegrass circuit performing bluegrass versions of Shenandoah hits with his band Full Circle. The song is done in overdrive, but Marty remains one of the premier vocalists.

John Conlee is a long-time Opry veteran who had a decade (1978-1987) long run of top ten hits, including his 1983 #1 hit “Common Man”, taken at about the same tempo as his 1983 hit. Brad Hudson takes a verse of the lead vocal.

country-grass-2015Crystal Gayle had a #1 Country / #18 Pop hit in 1978 with “Waiting For The Times To Get Better”. Crystal and Lorraine trade verses on this one, an elegant sounding song and arrangement.

Lee Greenwood had a #1 record with “Dixie Road” in 1985. Unfortunately, Lee’s voice has eroded over the years so having Troy Pope sing a verse is welcome.

Jim Ed Brown has a top twenty recording of “You Can Have Her” back in 1967. This was probably one of Jim Ed’s last recording before his recent death, but he was in very fine voice indeed. Tommy Long takes part of a verse and harmonizes on this jazzy ballad.

“Boogie Grass Band” was a big hit for Conway Twitty in 1978, the title explaining the feel of the song completely. Unfortunately, Conway has been gone for over twenty years so Lorraine simply got everyone involved in this project to take short vocal turns, preserving the original tempo.

Randy Travis was in no shape to perform so Tommy Long handles the vocals on “Digging Up Bones”. Meanwhile T. G. Sheppard is still with us, so he and Tommy Long handle the vocals on “Do You Want To Go To Heaven”. The instrumentation here is bluegrass, but the tempo remains that of the country ballad that T.G. took to #1 in 1980.

Jesse Keith Whitley is the son of Lorrie Morgan and the late great Keith Whitley. Jesse sounds quite similar to his father and acquits himself well on “Don’t Close Your Eyes”. Jeannette Williams contributes gorgeous harmony vocals to this track which is taken at the same tempo as Keith’s original.

It would be hard to conceive of a bigger country/pop hit than Joe South’s “Rose Garden”, taken to the top of the charts in 1970-1971 by Lynn Anderson. Not only did the song top the country and pop charts in the USA, it went top four or better in nine foreign countries. Lynn Anderson and Lorraine Jordan share the lead vocals on this song, which probably sounds the least similar to the original of all the tracks on this album. Lynn passed away last summer, so this is one of the last tracks (perhaps the last track) she ever recorded.

Lorraine’s band shines on the last track of the album “Last Date”. Although there were several sets of lyrics appended to Floyd Cramer’s piano classic, I don’t really like any of the lyrics I’ve heard, so I appreciate that this was left as an instrumental.

I picked up this disc about a month ago and it has been in heavy rotation in my CD player since them. I was inspired to write this when Jonathan Pappalardo posted a video of John Anderson singing with Lorraine and Carolina Road. John is not on the original (2015) version of the album, but his performance can be purchased on Lorraine’s website http://www.carolinaroadband.com/, and is on the new re-released version.

Even if you do not particularly care for bluegrass you might really like this album, chock full of solid country gold songs, fine vocals and exquisite musicianship. I give it an A-, docking it very slightly for the eroded voices of a few of the guests.

Classic Rewind: John Anderson with Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road – ‘Seminole Wind’

Twenty-four years after its initial release, John Anderson has reimagined his 1992 #2 “Seminole Wind” as part of Lorraine Jordan’s latest project Country Grass.  According to Rolling Stone Country, “The project assembles some of country’s most famous voices for string-based versions of their hits.”

 

Retro Album Reviews: Joe Nichols – ‘Real Things’, and Tracy Lawrence – ‘For The Love’

for the loveBack in the days writing for the 9513 Blog, I would post occasional reviews on Amazon. We are republishing updated versions of some of those reviews here.

REAL THINGS – JOE NICHOLS (2007)

Other than Brad Paisley, I cannot think of another of the current Nashville acts that has as good a grasp on what is or isn’t country music than Joe Nichols. This album simply is a delight from start to finish.

The opening track “Real Things” sets a nice placemat for the current single “Another Side of You” (currently a top 25 and rising). For this album Nichols has tapped the cream of Nashville’s songwriting community for good songs. Only one old song was selected for the album and that is the late Blaze Foley’s classic “If I Could Only Fly” performed here as a duet with Lee Ann Womack and with the legendary John Hughey on steel guitar (Paul Franklin plays steel on the remaining tracks where steel is used). All of the material is top-flight and my only fear was that it may prove “too country” for today’s wimpy country radio.

The copy of the CD I purchased has a 14th track on it, a wry song titled “When I’m Hurtin'” in which a country singer apologizes to the audience that the only time he really sings well is you know when. This song is easily a 5 star effort and should have been released as a single.

Grade: A

FOR THE LOVE – TRACY LAWRENCE (2007)

Among the younger singers, Tracy Lawrence has the best pure country voice this side of John Anderson and Randy Travis. Like previous efforts, this CD has two or three cuts that are merely okay, and the rest are terrific. My favorite songs is “Til I Was a Daddy Too” , as meaningful a song as you will ever encounter. “You Can’t Hide Redneck” is a fun romp and “Rock and A Soft Place is another highlight. Such is the vocal prowess of Tracy Lawrence that his solo cut of “Find out Who Your Friends Are” is considerably better than the cut on which he is joined by Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw, both lesser vocal talents. I love this disc, an early nominee for CD of The Year honors.

Grade: A+

Retro Album Review: Daryle Singletary – ‘Straight From The Heart (2007)

straight from the heartBack in the days writing for the 9513 Blog, I would post occasional reviews on Amazon. We are republishing updated versions of some of those reviews here.

Daryle Singletary never managed to become a megastar, mostly because he has too much soul and integrity for today’s Nashville. Simply put, Daryl is “too country”.

This album picks up where Daryl’s 2002 album That’s Why I Sing This Way left off, with one original song “I Still Sing This Way”, one cover of a recent hit, the Larry Cordle-penned Rebecca Lynn Howard hit “Jesus and Bartenders”, and ten classic country covers sung with feeling.

The cover songs are as follows:

“The Bottle Let Me Down” – a Merle Haggard hit from 1966

“Black Sheep” (w/John Anderson) – a #1 for John Anderson in 1983

“Some Broken Hearts Never Mend” – a #1 for Don Williams in 1977

“Promises” – a minor Randy Travis hit which Randy co-wrote

“I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail” (w/Ricky Skaggs) – a Buck Owens classic from 1965

“These Days I Barely Get By” – a top ten George Jones record

“Miami, My Amy” – Keith Whitley’s first top twenty record from 1986

“Lovin’ On Back Streets” – a #5 record for Mel Street in 1973. Like Daryle , Mel Street was ‘too country’, and like Daryle, he was a fine, emotive singer.

“Fifteen Years Ago” – Conway Twitty’s immediate follow up to “Hello Darling”, I always thought that Conway’s performance was better than the song’s rather maudlin lyric. Daryle also handles it well, although it’s still a silly song.

“We’re Gonna Hold On” (w/Rhonda Vincent)- a George & Tammy classic from 1973 that comes off very well. No surprise, really since Rhonda is a superior singer to Tammy, and Daryle hold up his end of the bargain.

The presence of legendary pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins lends a strong sense of authenticity. Best of all no electronic keyboards or synthesizers – this is real country music played on real country instruments.

I’ve heard a bunch of good albums this year and this was my favorite album so far this year, better even, than the Nelson – Haggard – Price collaboration. This is not to say that Singletary is quite in their league as a singer, but his pipes are at least 30 years younger and in better shape.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘1996’

MI0000090327-1Merle Haggard’s tenure with Curb came to an end with the release of 1996. While on the surface, this album had the same austere packaging as 1994, the reality is that the packaging was much more elaborate including liner note and full song lyrics. Unfortunately Curb did less than nothing to promote the album.

As for the music inside, 1996 contained many fine songs although proved to be the first Merle Haggard album not to chart. Haggard’s sound becomes a little more jazz-oriented than the earlier Curb albums and there are some guests to liven up the proceedings.

The album opens with “Sin City Blues” written by Merle, Joe Manuel and Merle’s last wife Theresa. The track has a boisterous honky-tonk blues arrangement somewhat reminiscent of “Living With The Shades Pulled Down’).

Next up is the Iris Dement composition “No Time To Cry” a stoic look at some of the problems associated with growing older. Iris plays piano on this track.

My father died a year ago today.

The rooster started crowing when they carried Dad away.

There beside my mother, in the living room, I stood,

With my brothers and my sisters, knowing Dad was gone for good.
Well, I stayed at home just long enough,

To lay him in the ground and then I,

Caught a plane to do a show up north in Detroit town.

Because I’m older now and I’ve got no time to cry.

Next up is “Beer Can Hill”, a Haggard & Abe Manuel collaboration about growing up and honky-tonkin’ in Bakersfield. Merle is joined by Dwight Yoakam, Buck Owens and Bob Teague on this track, with Dawn Sears adding harmony vocals.

Well, I learned how to walk and I learned how to run in Bakersfield

Should’ve done time over things I’d done in Bakersfield

I tasted my first taste of romance in Bakersfield

I learned how to fight and I learned how to dance in Bakersfield
Dancin’ on Beer Can Hill

Overlookin’ Bakersfield

Remembering my first thrill
Dancin’ on Beer Can Hill

Merle’s “Truck Drivers’ Blues” is a pretty standard county blues about the men who drive trucks for a living whereas Merle’s “Too Many Highways” deals with the choices a trucker and his family make – his choice of career and his wife’s choice to stick with him

Too many highways
Too many byways
Too many canyons
And too many turns
Too many bright lights
Too many long nights
And she’s one bridge I don’t want to burn.

“Five Days a Week” is Merle retelling the story he told in an earlier song “Working Man Blues”. It is a good song, but hardly essential.

“Kids Get Lonesome Too” sounds like it’s a song about kids but Haggard and co-writer Lou Bradley have something additional in mind, with the song’s narrator actually directing the song at his girlfriend or wife.

Merle and ex-wife Bonnie Owens collaborated on “If Anyone Ought to Know”, an older song from 1976 revived on this album. I cannot recall if Merle recorded this earlier, but I do regard this as good album filler.

“Untanglin’ My Mind” is a Merle Haggard song that Clint Black partially rewrote before recording it and taking it to #4. Clint’s lyric changes really neither added nor subtracted from the song’s merits. It’s a very good song. Haggard assisted Johnny Paycheck on his classic album Mr. Hag Told My Story. Here, Mr. Paycheck returns the favor:

And I’m sure no one will wonder where I’ve gone to,
But if anyone should ask from time to time
Tell ’em that you finally drove me crazy,
And I’m somewhere untanglin’ my mind.

And for what it’s worth I prefer Haggard’s recording to that of Clint Black .

The album ends with the very philosophical “Winds of Change”, Haggard’s most environmentally conscious song. Merle is assisted by John (“Seminole Wind”) Anderson on this song.

With my ears I have heard the eagle call my name
He flew in from the night to talk to me
We talked about his freedom and he spoke with great concern
He said, “Mother earth is aging rapidly”

He said, “The winds of change are blowing
And the land is disappearing more each day
Farewell my son, I must be going”
He turned and then forever flew away

With my eyes I have seen pretty mountain streams
Change from crystal clear to factory brown
The old bear shook his herd and through his eyes
He said, “I guess there’s no more salmon to be found”

He said, “The winds of change are blowing”
Telling me that I can’t stay
Farewell my friend, I must be going
He turned and then forever walked away

I’ve lived in the land where the wolf mistrusted me
He taught me that the stronger shall survive
Even in our world today, the weaker are the prey
And if we don’t fight for our planet she will die

And the winds of change keep blowing
Yet we turn the other way
If we don’t stop the wrong we’re doing
Then mother earth will surely pass away

This wouldn’t qualify as one of Merle’s fifteen or twenty best albums, but it is a very good album, with perceptive lyrics, excellent guest artists and solid instrumentation. I can’t decide whether or not this is a A- or a B+, but in memory of Merle’s recent passing I’ll go with the A-.

Retro Album Review: John Anderson – ‘Easy Money’ (2007)

easy moneyBack in the days writing for the 9513 Blog, I would post occasional reviews on Amazon. We are republishing updated versions of some of those reviews here.

John Anderson and George Strait are about the only two with a high profile left from the generation of male singers that came to prominence in the early 1980s. Obviously Strait has been the more successful but John Anderson is the superior balladeer.

Here, John Anderson returns with his first CD of new recordings in several years, this time with John Rich of Big & Rich serving as producer. Fortunately. Rich stays largely out of the way and lets Anderson focus on that which he does best, as seven of the CD’s eleven songs are ballads.

First, some consumer advice. Upon inserting the CD into your player, troll over to track 11, “Willie’s Guitar” and give it a few listens as John, Merle Haggard (vocal) and Willie Nelson (vocal & a guitar solo) work their magic on this wistful tale which, curiously enough, wasn’t written by either John, Merle or Willie. No matter, as writers John Phillips and Ray Stephenson certainly caught the quintessential sense of heartbreak and resignation.

First the “bad”: the uptempo songs “Easy Money” , “Funky Country” and “If Her Lovin’ Don’t Kill Me” are merely okay – worth 3 or 3.5 stars each. These three songs are the ones on which the John Rich “Muzik Mafia” sound is the most in evidence.

Now the really good: The fourth uptempo number, however, “Brown Liquor” is really excellent, on a par with John’s best uptempo numbers like “Black Sheep”, “Chicken Truck” or “Swingin'”.

Aside from the John & Merle & Willie offering, John has six really, really good solo ballads; in fact, I don’t think John Anderson has ever done wrong by a ballad in his life. For me the highlights are “A Woman Knows”, a sensitive John Rich-Julie Roberts penned ballad along the lines of Johnny Darrell’s 1969 hit “A Woman Without Love” and John Anderson’s song about about a woman’s threat to her wayward husband that she’ll give him “Something To Drink About”. “Weeds” penned by Anderson and his late friend Lionel Delmore, might prove to be the favorite ballad from the CD for many listeners.

All in all, a very pleasant surprise as I was having nightmares about how a John Rich-produced CD might sound. Fortunately, it sounds like John Anderson being John Anderson, and it doesn’t get much better than that.

Grade: A

Occasional Hope’s top 10 albums of 2015

so this is lifeIt’s been a solid year rather than an outstanding one, with a number of interesting albums released but few really exciting ones. But any of my top 10 is well worth hearing.

angels and alcohol10. Alan Jackson – ‘Angels And Alcohol

The veteran star is reliable as ever with his latest release. It may break no new ground, but it’s good country music, and that’s something we always need more of.
Highlights: ‘Angels and Alcohol’, ‘The One You’re Waiting On’, ‘You Can Always Come Home

pageant material9. Kacey Musgraves – ‘Pageant Material
Unlike many, I actually preferred this to Kacey’s lauded debut because I found the production choices more sympathetic to her voice.
Highlights: ‘Pageant Material’, ‘Biscuits’, ‘Late To The Party

cold beer conversation8. George Strait – ‘Cold Beer Conversation
He may have retired from touring, and have lost his golden touch with country radio – but like Alan Jackson, George Strait is still making fine music. A solid classy album.
Highlights: ‘Something Going Down’, ‘Everything I See’, ‘Even When I Can’t Feel It’.

brennen leigh sings lefty frizzell7. Brennen Leigh – ‘Sings Lefty Frizzell
Only just released, this lovely tribute to one of the cornerstones of country music made a late charge up my best of the year list. A true delight. Brennen also teamed up this year with bluegrass singer Brandon Rickman and singer/fiddler Jenee Fleenor in a trio project called Antique Persuasion, which released a delightful acoustic tribute to the Carter Family in August which almost made this list, and a recent Christmas EP.

Highlights: ‘I Love You A Thousand Ways’, ‘Mom And Dad’s Waltz’, ‘How Far Down Can I Go’, ‘You Gotta Be Putting Me On

throwback6. Kevin Moon – ‘Throwback
A fabulous traditional country album from an unknown singer with a great voice. It’s a wonderful reminder of what country music used to be, with guest turns from artists including John Anderson, Rhonda Vincent and Ken Mellons. If there had only been a few more original tunes of the same quality, this would have been even higher in my year-end list.

Highlights: ‘The Storms Of Life’ (with Daryle Singletary), ‘Tennessee Courage’ (with Kevin Denney, Wesley Dennis and Billy Droze), ‘I’d Be Better Off (In A Pine Box)’ (with Doug Stone).

pocket full of keys5. Dale Ann Bradley – ‘Pocket Full Of Keys
Dale Ann has a pure, beautiful voice, and is one of my favorite bluegrass vocalists. This gorgeous effort shows her at her very best.

Highlights: ‘I’m So Afraid Of Losing You Again’, ‘The Stranger’, ‘Pocket Full Of Keys’.

traveller4. Chris Stapleton – ‘Traveler
Chris Stapleton’s triple triumph at the recent CMA awards, and subsequent sales spike, was one of the most unexpected in country music history. Although he was formerly lead singer of the SteelDrivers, and has been a very successful songwriter for years, he had rather flown under the radar as far as mainstream acknowledgement went. His solo debut album is a very strong piece of work, showcasing his bluesy, soulful vocals. I don’t love every track – occasionally his more esoteric leanings to blues and rock wander too far from country music for me – but when he’s at his best, he is magnificent.

Highlights: ‘Whiskey And You’, ‘Nobody To Blame’, ‘Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore’.

the underdog3. Aaron Watson – ‘The Underdog
Texan Watson has been steadily plugging on for a decade or so, and his latest album is as good as anything he’s done, with a powerful depiction of Johnny Cash at his turning point and a reflection on the state of country music. Solid Texas country music which deserves a mainstream hearing.
Highlights: ‘The Prayer’, ‘Fence Post’, ‘Bluebonnets (Julia’s Song)’.

the blade2. Ashley Monroe – ‘The Blade
A fine album by one of the best artists currently on a major label – even if that label isn’t bothering to push her work at radio. The title track in particular is exquisite.
Highlights: ‘The Blade’, ‘If The Devil Don’t Want Me’, ‘Dixie’, ‘I’m Good At Leaving’.

so this is life1. Courtney Patton – ‘So This Is Life
A lovely mature piece of work from a fine singer-songwriter, loaded with gorgeous country waltzes. For my money this is the most consistently great album of the year.
Highlights: ‘Little Black Dress’, ‘Need For Wanting’, ‘Killing Time

Album Review: Highway 101 – ‘Bing Bang Boom’

bing bang boomAlthough one tends to think of Paulette Carlson as the female voice of Highway 101, the fact is that Nikki Nelson has been the face of Highway 101 for far longer than Paulette Carlson. In fact Nelson has been with the group for as a long as Paulette Carlson and Chrislyn Lee combined.

Bing Bang Boom marked the debut of Nikki Nelson as the lead singer of Highway 101. While her predecessor had a more distinctive (and at times quite annoying) voice, I think Nikki’s voice is better and that she had more potential to make it as a solo act than did Carlson. Unfortunately the material on this album is not quite as strong as on the first three albums so this album did not have the impact of the first three albums

The first single for Nikki Nelson was Hugh Prestwood’s “Bing Bang Boom” an up-tempo romp that charted at #14, exactly the same spot that Carlson’s last single had attained. I think that under different circumstances that this single would have done better, but I think that the market had already turned away from Highway 101’s sound as the last two Carlson singles both failed to reach the top ten

Gather around me and lend an ear
‘Cause I got somethin’ you ought to hear
I’m tellin’ you that you ought to fear
A certain kind of love
Now it can strike in the day or night
And just as quick as a rattler’s bite
You’ve got a case of love at first sight
And it’s what you’re dyin’ of

It’s just bing bang boom, one two three
You’re feelin’ normal as you can be
And then bing bang boom, lickety split
It doesn’t come on bit by bit
It gets instantly in full swing
And it’s bing bang boom

Unfortunately, “Bing Bang Boom” would prove to be the last to twenty single for Highway 101.

The next track comes from the pen of Michael Henderson, “Wherever You Are”, a bluesy ballad of a love gone astray. Nikki really nails the vocals – the song might have made a good single. Then again, the third track, “The Blame” (from Cactus Moser, Paul Nelson, and Gene Nelson) was the second single selected, it was an excellent ballad and it died at #31. This is actually my favorite Highway 101 song, one on which Nikki proves to be the absolute master of the slow ballad

Guess I could say you never held me close,
Those certain nights I needed you the most.
But you could say that I gave up before the love was gone,
and whose to say who was right or wrong.
You’ve got your side and I’ve got mine –
the truth lies in between,
No matter how the story’s told the end is still the same.
It’s a game that’s played by fools,
and it only has one rule.
It’s not whether you win or lose,
It’s how you lay the blame.

The next track is from the pens of Cactus Moser, Gary Chapman and Michael James, anther up-tempo romp titled “Storm of Live”. I think this would have made a good single.

This is followed up by a cover of a Tammy Wynette classic, “Til I Get It Right”. Nikki gives the song a nice reading, but she doesn’t have the essential tear in the voice that unique to Tammy Wynette.

Michael Henderson wrote the next two numbers “Restless Kind” and “Honky Tonk Baby”, both decent album tracks but nothing more. “Honky Tonk Baby” has a bit of a retro or rockabilly feel to it and was actually issued as the fourth single, dying at #54.

“River of Tears” , written by Cactus Moser and Eric Silver, would have been a hit if released during the late 1960s or early 1970s. In my mind, I can hear Rhonda Vincent doing this song as a bluegrass ballad.

“Baby, I’m Missing You” was the third single off the album, reaching #22. The song was written by Steve Seskin and Nancy Montgomery. It is a nice song that would have gone top ten a few years earlier.

The album closes with “Desperate” (co-written by Cactus Moser), and Joy White’s “Big City Bound”, both good album tracks. “Big City Bound” has an arrangement that reminds me strongly of John Anderson’s 1981 hit “I’m Just An Old Chunk of Coal”.

I would rate this album as a B+. I don’t really think the band lost anything with the change of female vocalist. If anything, Nikki Nelson’s presence probably enabled the band to tackle a greater variety of material in live performance. I think the real issue here is shelf life. Highway 101 had a four year shelf life as hitmakers, and had already experienced significant falloff even before Carlson left the band, with each album charting a little lower than the previous album (#7, #8, #22 and then #29 for the Greatest Hits album. This pattern is eerily similar to the pattern for acts such as SKO/SKB, Desert Rose, Exile and Restless Heart.

Highway 101 still tours occasionally – look for them if they hit your town.