My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: John F Kennedy

Album Review: Ashley McBryde – ‘Girl Goin’ Nowhere’

Arkansas-born singer-songwriter Ashley McBryde emerged last year with her impressive Warner Brothers single ‘Little Dive Bar In Dahlonega’. This well written song about finding relief from a hard life was inspired by the co-writer’s real life story of meeting his future spouse. There is an optimistic mood which is counterpointed by a detailed and realistic picture of small town America. It is a really good song, well suing by Ashley. The only complaint I have is with slightly intrusive production. Jay Joyce, best known for his work with Eric Church (who helped to bring Ashley to the fore, and to whom she is being compared), is the guilty party here, and his rock background dominates on Ashley’s new album.

The most effective tracks are the quitter, more reflective ones (like ‘Dahlonega’). The title track is a delicate acoustic song about the struggles of making it as a musician and defying those who tried to discourage her early on and now pretend they always supported her:

“Don’t waste your life behind that guitar
You may get gone, but you won’t get far
You’re not the first
You won’t be the last
And you can tell us all about it
When you come crawling back”

Then the lights come up
And I hear the band
And where they said I’d never be
Is exactly where I am
I hear the crowd
I look around
And I can’t find one empty chair
Not bad for a girl goin’ nowhere

I need to thank my daddy
For that first set of strings
And all those folks who swore I’d never be anything

To the end, this remains understated and thoughtful, as does ‘Andy (I Can’t Live Without You)’. This is a realistic love song about a man who has his fair share of imperfections and irritating behaviour, but is still the love of her life. Apparently it is actually about Ashley’s male best friend and room mate rather than a romantic interest as such, but it feels more like a marriage.

You drink my whiskey without askin’
You put your boots up on my couch
It drives me crazy to remind you
More than once to take the garbage out
You used my good towels on the dog
That’s the only thing I’ve asked you not to do
Most days I’d love to lock you out
I can’t live without you

The kitchen table ain’t for business
I wish you’d put the bills where they go
I guess you’d need an invitation to the backyard
To see that it needs mowin’
You leave your whiskers in the sink
And I’ve told you ’til I’m black and blue
You never worry what our neighbors think
I can’t live without you

‘Cause you’ve got my back
Even when I’m wrong
You’re the only one who knows me and my heart can’t get along
I got reasons to cry and can’t tell you which one
But you don’t ask no questions
You just hold me ’til I’m done
And when I’m lookin’ to fight
You flat refuse
I can’t live without you

You’re always voicin’ your opinion
You play your guitar way too loud
And God, I reckon it would kill you
To lift a finger and help me clean this house
You know your jokes ain’t all that funny
But I’ll keep on laughin’ if you want me to
Nobody understands why I love you
I can’t live without you

A very stripped down arrangement allows the song to shine.

These three tracks are all fantastic and strongly recommended by me.

Elsewhere the sound is more rock-influenced. ‘Radioland’ is a catchy country rock ode to the joys of music encountered as a child. ‘The Jacket’ is a very nice mid-paced tribute to a beloved old article of clothing symbolic of Ashley’s father’s life.

‘American Scandal’ is a sultry rock ballad comparing a relationship to an illicit one (specifically President Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe); I didn’t particularly like this lyrically, although it was well sung; and the production was heavy handed. It leads into the bluesy soulful ‘Southern Babylon’, again a good song but not to my taste, with hushed vocals and supernatural-inspired lyrics.

‘Living Next To Leroy’ is an excellent song about high school friends whose lives are destroyed by crystal meth “on the dark side of the country” – very powerful lyrics but spoiled by the heavy electric guitar – although perhaps its very dissonance is making a point.

‘El Dorado’ on the other hand is too loud and busy from the start, although there is an engaging lyric about life on the road. ‘Home Sweet Highway’, abut being on the way home is a bit more restrained and all the better for it. ‘Tired Of Being Happy’ is a pretty good song about an encounter with a recently married ex, and offering him a way out, once more rather smothered by the backings.

Ashley McBryde is an extremely talented artist with very strong songwriting skills. However some of the arrangements on this record don’t work for me. Those who do like more rock influences in the country should find much to love in this album, and I think it’s worth checking out even if that doesn’t apply.

Grade: B+

Spotlight Artist: Garth Brooks

garthTroyal Garth Brooks was born February 7, 1962 in Tulsa, Oklahoma as the youngest child of Troyal Raymond Brooks and Colleen Carroll. His father worked in the oil business while his mom was a country singer, signed to Capitol Records in the 1950s. Young Brooks was required to participate in his family’s weekly talent nights, where he learned to play both Guitar and Banjo.

As a teenager, Brooks turned his attention to athletics. He was on his high school’s football, baseball, and track & field teams. He was talented enough to earn a track scholarship to Oklahoma State University (in Stillwater) where he competed in Javelin and earned a degree in advertising.

Brooks would begin his professional music career shortly after graduating college in 1984. He played the club circuit around Stillwater and sang the wide range of music he was exposed to in his childhood. It wasn’t until he came across a recording of George Strait’s debut single “Unwound” that he decided to set his sights on country music.

A year later he caught the attention of Rod Phelps, an entertainment lawyer from Dallas, who urged Brooks to go to Nashville and make a go at the big time. His first trip to Nashville in 1985 was a 24-hour disaster. He returned home and married Sandy Mahl, a woman he met while working as a bouncer at a local club. The couple moved to Nashville two years later and Brooks began making headway in music city. He connected with songwriters and producers and began singing demos. With a powerful management team behind him, Brooks pursued a record deal. He was passed over by every label in town, finally getting his deal when an exec at Capitol Records, the same label his mother recorded for thirty years prior, saw him perform at a local club. This came six months after they had previously passed on him.

Brooks released his eponymous debut April 12, 1989. (J.R. Journey reviewed the album as part of our Class of 1989 coverage in 2009). Like most of the era’s neo-traditional leanings, Brooks’ debut skewed hardcore country. His debut single, “Much To Young (To Feel This Damn Old)” peaked inside the top ten while the follow-up “If Tomorrow Never Comes” became Brooks’ first #1 hit. He would top the charts again with the album’s final single “The Dance,” which featured a masterful ACM and CMA winning music video that depicted historical figures (John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr, Keith Whitley, Lane Frost, the Challenger Astronauts, and John Wayne) linked by their tragic deaths.

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Album Review: Brad Paisley – ‘Moonshine In The Trunk’

moonshine in the trunkI used to like Brad Paisley. He was a listenable rather than great vocalist, but a fine songwriter and brilliant guitarist, with a keen appreciation of country music traditions, capable of both comedy and teaching the heart. Somewhere along the way that Brad got lost. Each of his past few records has been less inspired than the last. Last year’s Wheelhouse was a confused mixture of well-meaning but hamhanded lyrics and ill-judged sonic experiments, which failed to appeal to Brad’s fans and is understandably his poorest selling record to date. Radio play has also been a little disappointing by his own standards; he hasn’t had a #1 in three years, although to be fair it’s not as if they’ve picked better material in his place.

‘Crushin’ It’ opens the album with some annoying shouted “heys”, and is a rather boring and slightly over produced song about weekend partying, but at least has some nuance by balancing it against a mundane weekday working reality. Brad’s vocals, however, are quite rudimentary, more spoken than sung, and the whole thing sounds amateurish. The lead single ‘River Bank’ (which topped out at #2) lacks melody and vocal prowess to an even greater degree and has similar annoying backing “vocals”.

The title track is loud and designed to appeal to the bro-country fans, although the guitar playing is showily impressive. ‘Limes’, another drinking song, is a fair song but shouty. Is it not possible to convey having a good time without yelling? I might suggest it’s a realistic depiction of obnoxious drunkenness, but I don’t believe the song is that self-aware.

Current single ‘Perfect Storm’ would be a pleasant little love song typical of Paisley, and his vocal is heartfelt, but the track has some irritating woo woo sound effects and an intrusive electric guitar choking it to death.

‘High Life’ is also cluttered with far too much going on, but it does have a country melody underneath. It is quite an entertaining story song, about a family who sue anyone they can on tenuous grounds, hoping to get money to go away. Carrie Underwood sings backing vocals and contributes a spoken cameo as herself (the protagonist sues her for an unfounded case of plagiarism). It’s one of the more enjoyable tracks on the album, although a more restrained production would have made this a real highlight instead of one by default. The story is made for a video, so this could well be a single at some point.

‘4WP’ is somehow surprisingly likeable despite the cliche’d bro-country lyric. Perhaps it’s because Brad is not taking his girl for granted as most songs of this ilk do, but also the production and arrangement are interesting.

‘Shattered Glass’ is one of Brad’s well-meaning attempts to be meaningful, applauding women reaching for success. On the plus side, the production is understated and tasteful, but I feel I should like this more than I do. Unfortunately the laudable message is undermined by the utterly patronising ‘You Shouldn’t Have To’; the melody of the latter is also rather dull. ‘Cover Girl’ is bearable but boring.

‘American Flag On The Moon’ is introduced with a clip of John F Kennedy announcing the space program; quite a thoughtful look at America’s history of exploration and encouraging the country to be ambitious in its outlook. The melody isn’t a very country one, and there’s the dreaded child chorus, but it’s a pretty decent song.

‘Country Nation’ is a smug complacent endorsement of country radio’s reach. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a single

Brad wrote or co-wrote almost everything here. The best songs, however, are the two brought in from outside. ‘Gone Green’, written by Kenny Lewis, is almost the best song here, with its story of a redneck making changes in his life to adopt environmentally friendly products. The arrangement is charming and pure country, with Emmylou Harris singing a pretty harmony vocal. Best of all, an acoustic cover of Tom T Hall’s gospel tune ‘Me And Jesus’ reminds me of the old Brad.

I don’t know if this album will arrest Brad’s commercial decline. It’s certainly better than his last album – but that’s not saying much.

Grade: C-

Album Review: Gretchen Peters – ‘Hello, Cruel World’

Anyone who has followed country music closely during the past twenty years is familiar with Gretchen Peters, or will at least recognize some of her songs.  Most country music fans, however — myself included — are relatively unfamiliar with Gretchen Peters the performer, despite the fact that she has released nine albums over the past fifteen years.  Her latest effort, released this past January, is far removed from the realm of country music. It is more accurately described as a vanity project with no ties to a particular genre and not intended for mass appeal; in other words, “singer/songwriter.”  Those expecting to hear her take on her compositions that became hits for other artists will be disappointed; no such examples appear here.  Nor are there any songs that are likely to become mainstream hits for others in the future.

It’s interesting to hear how very different Peters’ own recordings are from the mainstream fare that did so much for the careers of the likes of Pam Tillis, Patty Loveless, George Strait, Martina McBride, and Trisha Yearwood.   As the title suggests, this is not a particularly happy album; it is a serious, introspective and often bleak affair, that unfortunately is at times quite tedious to listen to.  Peters wrote or co-wrote all of the album’s songs and co-produced the project with Doug Lancio and Barry Walsh.  The mid-tempo title track was released as a single — Gretchen’s first in 16 years — but it failed to chart.

Not surprisingly, the album’s main strength is its well-written songs, which are quite literate and tastefully produced.  However, I found myself enjoying them more as works of poetry, reading the lyrics in the liner notes than I did actually listening to them.  There is little variety in tempo throughout the album, and like most people who fall into the “singer/songwriter” category, Gretchen is a much better at writing songs than she is at singing them.   Her limited vocal ability doesn’t make it any easier to enjoy songs that I’m not particularly drawn to in the first place.

One song that I did enjoy very much is “Five Minutes”, told from the point of view of a downtrodden waitress taking a cigarette break and reflecting on a life that hasn’t quite turned out the way she planned.  While I felt little empathy for the characters in most of the album’s songs, the story in “Five Minutes” is told quite skillfully, and the listener is immediately drawn in.  It’s a song that I couldn’t help but tune into and pay close attention.  Other songs, though far removed from the mindless fluff dominating the mainstream airways, are confusing and are sometimes borderline pretentious.   “St. Francis”, co-written with Tom Russell, talks about the saint walking on water, playing the role of a beggar, a shepherd and a guest taking a cup of tea at a stranger’s table — all themes that have been used in songs countless times before,  but why St. Francis was chosen to fulfill a role that has almost always been used to refer to God or Jesus, is unclear.   Even more confusing is the bizarre “Idlewild”, told from the point of view of a child riding in the backseat of a car that is en route to the airport on the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.  The song’s gratuitous use of a racial epithet earned the album an “explicit” warning from both iTunes and Amazon, and quite possibly other vendors as well.

It’s quite likely that some crisis in Peters’ personal life inspired these songs, and perhaps knowing the backstory would make them easier to relate to.  But one shouldn’t have to have all the inside baseball knowledge in order to enjoy an album.  There is very little here to appeal to most country fans, unless they are also die-hard Gretchen Peters fans or enjoy spending 52 minutes listening to tales of unabated misery, in which case Hello, Cruel World may be just the ticket.

Grade:  C

Album Review: Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers – ‘At The Ryman’

With her singles increasingly ignored by country radio as a new generation swept in, Emmylou decided to disband the Hot Band and make a new start. She launched the replacements by recording a live album, at the Ryman Auditorium, historic home of the Grand Ole Opry, which was at the time basically disused. One of the big tests of any artist who sounds good recorded is whether the voice holds up in a live setting. Emmylou Harris’s certainly does, and over her career she has released several live recordings. However, typically of Emmylou, she has never chosen the most trodden path and released a concert of her greatest hits, performed in close imitation of the records. Her 1981 album Last Date, which produced three hit singles including the #1 title track, had consisted of all new material (or at least covers she had not done before). It was not a true live album, though, as the tracks were taken from a series of live dates with her legendary Hot Band. This album, similarly, is not a single gig, but was recorded over three days, 30 April-2 May 1991, and released early the following year. Producers Allen Reynolds and Richard Bennett, and the engineers who worked on the project, deserve special credit for making the final result a seamless whole which sounds like an authentic representation of the experience of seeing Emmylou in concert with her new band.

The material is, once more, all covers of songs she had not previously recorded, mixing up country classics, bluegrass, folk and rock, given an acoustic makeover by Emmylou’s new lineup, the Nash Ramblers. The group, easily as talented as the Hot Band at their hottest and without the assistance of electricity, comprised progressive bluegrass virtuoso Sam Bush on mandolin and fiddle; Roy Huskey Jr on upright bass; West Coast veteran Al Perkins on dobro and banjo, Canadian Larry Atamaniuk on drums and percussion, and a talented young Texan named Jon Randall Stewart on acoustic guitar, mandolin and taking the high tenor harmony, although all four contribute vocals where necessary. Their playing and singing are impeccable throughout. The audience seems to enjoy the occasion rather politely.

For my money. the concert seems to take a while to get going, opening with an enjoyable but fairly sedate version of Steve Earle’s ‘Guitar Town’, followed by a plaintive ‘Half As Much’. ‘Cattle Call’ is prettily and tastefully performed, with delicate yodeling. The chugging ‘Guess Things Happen That Way’ (a Cowboy Jack Clement song made famous by Johnny Cash) is enjoyable, but sounds a little too cheery for the resigned stoicism of the lyric.

It really picks up with a subtly impassioned ‘Hard Times’, dating from the 1850s, which Emmylou opens with a crystalline accapella phrase, and which is one of my favourite tracks. There is more contemporary folk music on a socio-political theme with Nanci Griffith’s idealistic but frankly depressing ‘It’s A Hard Life Wherever You Go’, battling racism and sectarian hatred, segueing into the low key Civil Rights theme of ‘Abraham, Martin and John’, a 60s tribute to Messrs Lincoln, King and Kennedy, all of course victims of assassination. Emmylou also covers rock star Bruce Springsteen’s downbeat and down-tempo memories of a working class child remembering the ‘Mansion On The Hill’ overlooking the town and factories. I must admit would have rather have heard the Hank Williams gospel song of the title, as this is beautifully done, but feels a little lifeless. Southern rock gets a nod with an enjoyable take on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Lodi’, although perhaps it feels a little too good humored for the stagnated frustration expressed in the lyrics.

The bluegrass songs have a lot more life, with lovely, sparkling playing as Bill Monroe’s suitably Celtic sounding instrumental ‘Scotland’ allows the band to stretch out while Emmylou buck-danced with the Father of Bluegrass himself (this is where the video version, which I haven’t seen, would come in handy). The mood carries over into the charming western themed ‘Montana Cowgirl’. There is more Monroe with the driving ‘Walls Of Time’ which he wrote with onetime Bluegrass Boy Peter Rowan, which is okay. Better is a committed performance of ‘Get Up John’, with lyrics written by Marty Stuart and Jerry Sullivan for a Bill Monroe tune, with the Nash Ramblers singing call and response vocals.

Emmylou recalls her 70s peak with a really beautiful version of the wistful ‘Like Strangers’ (one of many Boudleaux Bryant songs made into classic Everly Brothers records, and my favorite track on the album). The spiritual ‘Calling My Children Home’ (co-written by another great bluegrass musician Doyle Lawson) is sung exquisitely acappella with the band members on harmony. I also love Emmylou’s version of the O’Kanes’ ‘If I Could Be There’, with Jon Randall Stewart’s ethereal high harmony; it sounds gentler and more wistful than the original (also great).

There is a nice finish with ‘Smoke Along The Track’ with effective train sounds and appropriate lyrics about moving on.

Sales of this fine record and the accompanying video were disappointing and airplay nonexistent, but the album won Emmylou a Grammy. It also helped to inspire interest in the neglected historic Ryman Auditorium itself, which was restored and reopened as a concert venue in 1994.The CD is easy to find inexpensively. The video was never released on DVD but unused copies of the VHS tape seem to be around.

Grade: B+

Album Review: James Dupre – ‘It’s All Happening’

Louisiana paramedic James Dupre has become something of a youtube phenomenon with his covers of country classics.  He has now managed to use that exposure to record an album in Nashville, produced by Kyle Lehning and Jerry Douglas (who also contributes dobro and lap steel), with a fine set of musicians and some well-chosen songs, mostly from Nashville songwriters.  Most are set to a broadly similar slowish-mid-tempo, with a laid back feel.  James has a warm voice with a pleasing tone and relaxed style with phrasing which is often reminiscent of Alan Jackson or Don Williams.

The outstanding song is the melancholy ‘Ring On The Bar’, written by Byron Hill and Brent Baxter, a beautifully constructed lyric set to a beautiful, gentle melody, about the aftermath of a failed marriage which opens the set.  The title hook refers in the opening verse to the watermark left by the protagonist’s beer as he thinks over his situation, and later to the wedding ring he abandons there:

There’s a ring on the bar
One that’s shiny and gold
The symbol of a promise
And the heart that he broke

It’s the one thing she left
When she packed up the car
It was light on her finger
Now it’s heavy on his heart

And the ring shines bright in the colored light
Of a lonesome neon star
When its closing time he’ll leave the hurt behind
With a tip in the jar and the ring on the bar

That bartender’s gonna think someone forgot it
And he’ll wonder who could be that big a fool

Another fine song on the theme of a man struggling with the aftermath of a failed relationship is ‘Alright Tonight’, written by Tom Douglas and Casey Beathard:

I can’t stand to think of you with anybody else
There ain’t a bottle or a bar so far that seems to help
Today was not a good day to convince myself that I’m alright
Hey but I’m alright tonight

I guess I really should have called before
I showed up drunk at your front door
I had to see with my own eyes
That you’re alright tonight

Perfectly understated in its conflicting emotions, we really don’t believe him when he says that he’s “alright”, tonight or at any other time.

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