My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: John Hiatt

Album Review: Mandy Barnett — ‘Strange Conversation’

The last time we heard from Mandy Barnett was 2013, when she released I Can’t Stop Loving You: The Songs of Don Gibson. It’s taken five years for her to follow it up and she does so with an album that finds her exploring uncharted territory in her 22-year career.

As Barnett puts it frankly, Strange Conversation isn’t a country album. She recorded it in Muscle Shoals, and through inspiration from the area’s classic sound, she plays instead under the umbrella and within the sonic textures of modern-day Americana and she’s enlisted drummer Marco Giovino and guitarist Doug Lancio to serve as her producers. The former has worked with Robert Plant and Buddy Miller while the latter has collaborated with John Hiatt and Patty Griffin.

Strange Conversation opens with “More Lovin,’” an excellent cover of the song originally recorded by Mabel John. The groove, created by a nice mixture of upright bass and crashing percussion, gives the song an appealing jazzy groove. She travels back to the 1960s for her R&B and soul-infused version of “It’s All Right (You’re Just In Love),” which originates with the Alabama-based band The Tams.

“Dream Too Real To Hold” jumps ahead to 1997 and came to Barnett via Greg Garing, who among his many contributions, worked with Kenny Vaughn to revitalize Lower Broadway in Nashville some time ago. It’s another excellent song, with nice jazzy undertones. The title track is a pleasant ballad which finds Barnett turning in a sultry vocal performance.

The album continues with “A Cowboy’s Work Is Never Done,” originally recorded and released by Sonny & Cher in 1972. Barnett mostly keeps the song within the same vein as the original, retaining Hiatt to sing on it with her. They work fine together and the lyric is good, but I hate the fuzzy and cluttered arrangement, which unnecessarily drowns them out. I know it’s in keeping with how the song was intended when written, but it’s very unappealing to my ears.

Tom Waits originally released “Puttin’ On The Dog” in 2000. The lyric, a sexual innuendo, is slinky and the song is downright obscure. Like the Sonny & Cher cover that preceded it, it’s also not to my taste. “All Night” is pure lounge and torch, as though it comes straight from an old smoky jazz club. It fits perfectly within Barnett’s classic wheelhouse.

Neil Sedaka pitched “My World Keeps Slipping Away” to Barnett directly. She evokes Rosanne Cash, who I could easily hear covering this song, on the sparse ballad, which she knocks out of the park. “The Fool” is not a cover of the Lee Ann Womack classic, but rather a tune written by legendary country and pop singer Lee Hazlewood. The barroom anthem, one of the album’s best tracks, revives Barnett’s classic sound and gives the latter half of the Strange Conversation some much-needed pep and variety. She closes the ten-track album with a cover of Andre Williams’ “Put A Chain On It,” a slice of straight-up R&B that features backing from the McCrary Sisters.

Besides insisting Strange Conversation isn’t a country album, which it most certainly is not, Barnett also says it purposefully doesn’t rely on the full-power of her voice. This choice, which makes use of her sultry lower register, gives the music a different feel from her previous albums, which I like. I certainly appreciate Barnett’s artistry and feel the end result is the album she set out to make. The tracks are on YouTube and I highly recommend you go check out the album for yourself.

Grade: B+

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Album Review: Jann Browne – ‘It Only Hurts When I Laugh’

The modest success achieved by the singles from Jann’s debut album was sadly not to be repeated, with neither of the two singles from its successor charting at all. ‘Better Love Next Time’, written by Gail Davies and Paul Kennerley, is a mid-paced song addressed to a departing lover, with pain filled vocals belying the generous lyrics. It’s a pretty decent song, but wasn’t really memorable enough to have an impact. It was followed by the title track, written by hitmaker Kostas and Marty Stuart, which on paper was made for radio and combines an upbeat tune with a heartbreak theme. Coincidentally it would be covered a couple of years later by another of our current spotlight artists. This really ought to have been a hit.

Jann cowrote a pair of songs with Pat Gallagher. ‘Blue Heart In Memphis’ is a country-blues-rocker with a solid groove. The ironic ‘Who’s Gonna Be Your Next Love’ is another up-tempo tune but with a bluegrass feel.

One of my favorite tracks is ‘I Don’t Do Floors’, written by Don Cook and Chick Rains. This is a classic style country shuffle about being over someone and telling him so. The nights of walking the floor are over. The album closes with another outstanding track, ‘Where Nobody Knows My Name’, a ballad written by John Hiatt and Jimmy Tittle about moving on, which has a beautiful melody led by a simple acoustic guitar and a soothing vocal:

Even when the past comes calling
Looking for somebody to blame
I’ll be easing on down the road
Where nobody knows my name

When the burning sun surrenders
Will he still remember me?
I never told him I was going
Out where the wind is blowing free

If he thinks about me tonight
I know he won’t miss the pain
I’ll be taking it down the road
Where nobody knows my name

Almost as good is a lovely version of Nanci Griffith’s wistful ‘I Wish It Would Rain’, which acts as a lyrical counterpoint to the message of the Hiatt song:

Once I had a love from the Georgia pines who only cared for me
I wanna find that love at 22 here at 33
I’ve got a heart on my right and one on my left
And neither suits my needs
Oh, the one I love is a way out west and he never will need me

So I wish it would rain and wash my face clean
I wanna find some dark cloud to hide in here
Oh, love and a memory sparkle like diamonds
When the diamonds fall, they burn like tears …

I’m gonna pack up my two-step shoes and head for the Gulf Coast plains
I wanna walk the streets of my own home town where everybody knows my name
I want to ride the waves down in Galveston when the hurricanes blow in
Cause that Gulf Coast water tastes sweet as wine
When your heart’s rolling home in the wind

A folk-bluegrass arrangement with harmonies from Iris DeMent makes this a delight. Also great is ‘I Knew Enough To Fall In Love With You’, a lovely ballad written by Gary Nicholson and Hank DeVito about finding true love after a hard life, with a very pretty tune – a really sweet love song.

‘My Shoes Keep Walking Back To You’ is an old Bob Wills tune which became a country standard. Jann’s version is excellent and very traditional country, with some very nice fiddle and steel. ‘Where The Sidewalk Ends’ (later cut by George Strait) is a Jim Lauderdale/John Leventhal song on which Lauderdale provides backing vocals.

It is a shame this album did not perform better for Jann, as it is excellent. You can download it from iTunes.

Grade: A

Album Review: Asleep At The Wheel – ‘Asleep At The Wheel’

mi0001667918Asleep At The Wheel recorded their only album for MCA Nashville in 1985. The project, their second to be self-titled, didn’t have any singles released to radio. The album features an eclectic selection of material, interspersing covers and original tunes.

Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys originally recorded three of the album’s songs. The versions found here are excellent, with “Deep Water” and “Your Red Wagon” being highlights. Junior Brown provides Lap Pedal Steel on the former, his first recorded appearance. I also enjoyed “Across The Alley From the Alamo” even though I don’t have a connection to the Texas landmark.

I was disappointed in opening number “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” a traditional song that typically shreds much harder than their slightly somber interpretation. Chris O’Connell joins Benson for a duet of John Hiatt’s “This Is The Way We Make A Broken Heart,” a tune Rosanne Cash would take to #1 a few years later.

O’Connell is similarly terrific singing lead on both Paul Young’s sinister “Baby” and the rip-roaring “Switchin’ In The Kitchen.” Willie Nelson contributes harmonies to his “Write Your Own Songs,” a lyric he penned in response to the record executives who dared interfere with his artistic process. The final two numbers, “Liar’s Moon” and “Shorty” are Benson originals and both are quite good.

There exists a dated sheen to this album, which is to be expected given its age (it was released 31 years ago). But the musicianship and their tightness as a band nicely shine through the slightly warmed over tones. I don’t regard Asleep At The Wheel as an exceptional album, but it is very, very good and worth seeking out.

Grade: A

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Top 10 Singles of 2015

What does it say about me that the highest charting single on my list took eight months to peak at #9? I’ve continued to broaden my tastes as I’ve aged while continuing to closely follow the artists I’ve always admired. There was some stunning music this year and these ten selections are only the tip of the iceberg. Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

cdca72c7ec5625f0f1f483fb_440x44010. I’m With Her – ‘Crossing Muddy Waters’

I’m With Her (Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan) is one of the more unique collaborations of the year and their cover of the fifteen year old John Hiatt song is the amuse-bouche to a main course full-length album that may come within the next few years. This track is too faithful to be a doozy but it more than proves they have the potential to be an artistic force should they go down that road. I really hope they do.

Trisha-Yearwood-I-remember-You9. Trisha Yearwood – ‘I Remember You’

Every Trisha Yearwood album has its own personality and PrizeFighter: Hit After Hit lies on the more Adult Contemporary side of the country spectrum. “I Remember You,” a tribute to her mom, is far from the most dynamic ballad she’s ever recorded. But it shows off a tender side of her voice we’ve never heard before. Yearwood is a vocal chameleon able to adapt to any style and work within any parameters. She’s still a master after twenty-five years. I cannot wait to see what she has in store for us next.

Traveller8. Chris Stapleton – ‘Traveller’

“Tennessee Whiskey,” the early 1980s George Jones hit he sang on the CMA Awards, is the standout showcase for his gifts as a vocalist. “Traveller,” showcases his talents as a songwriter. This autobiographical mid-tempo ballad casts Stapleton as a vagabond who knows his path but cannot see his destination. Like any great artist he’s spent his time paying his dues and working the system until he could shine in his own light. He may always be a “Traveller,” but I bet he has a much clearer picture of where he’s headed now that the world finally knows his name.

Screen-Shot-2015-05-05-at-10.39.03-AM7. Jason Isbell – ’24 Frames’

“24 Frames” is a 1990s inspired gem that owes more to R.E.M. than Alan Jackson, bringing the same addictive quality (minus the mandolins) that made “Losing My Religion” so intoxicating. “24 Frames” is a fantastic meditation on relationships, cumulating with a chorus that compares God to an architect and declares, “he’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow.”

Thile & PB6. Punch Brothers – ‘I Blew It Off’

The coolest track from The Phosphorescent Blues is this plucky slice of bluegrass-pop, a style Chris Thile and the boys have perfected over the course of their four albums. They returned after a three-year hiatus to find Thile with a ‘bad case of twenty-first century stress,’ which is about the only thing he can’t shrug off. He’s furious yet knows he isn’t alone, declaring by the end that modern technology is having an effect on everyone, not just him. “I Blew It Off” is as simple as any song could be saying a lot in a very tiny space. That’s often where the most valuable riches can be found.

Fly5. Maddie & Tae – ‘Fly’

Not since “Cowboy Take Me Away” has a fiddle driven pop-country ballad reached these artistic heights. At a moment when Maddie & Tae had to show the world what else they could do, they blew away the competition with their exquisite harmonies and pitch perfect lyric. They aren’t the Dixie Chicks by any means, but they’re pretty darn close.


Dierks-Bentley-Riser-Album-Art-CountryMusicIsLove4. Dierks Bentley – ‘Riser’

Even in the face of commercial pressures, Dierks Bentley sticks to his convictions. “Riser” is a sweeping tale of overcoming odds and one of his finest singles. I have no clue why he hasn’t risen (no pun intended) to the upper echelon of country greats at a time when he’s bucking trends and releasing worthy songs to country radio. He’s one of the best we have and deserves to be compensated as such.

2647969113. Jana Kramer – ‘I Got The Boy’

Leave it to Jamie Lynn Spears, of all people, to write the strongest hook of the year: ‘I got the boy, you got the man.’ Leave it to Jana Kramer to sell the pain and conviction felt by the scorned ex who is seeing the boy she loved transformed into the man she always wanted him to be.

Eric-Church-Like-a-Wrecking-Ball2. Eric Church – ‘Like A Wrecking Ball’

When Eric Church brought the idea for this song to co-writer Casey Beathard he balked. At the time, Miley Cyrus was hitting big with her similarly titled smash. Church, who cannot be under estimated, knew exactly what he was doing. This tour de force is the most original song about making love to hit any radio format in recent memory. It’s also the coolest one-off artistic statement since Dwight Yoakam hit with “Nothing” twenty years ago. Eric Church is the strongest male country singer in the mainstream right now.

lee-ann-womack_9601. Lee Ann Womack – ‘Chances Are’

What needs to be said about Lee Ann Womack wrapping her exquisite voice around a pure country weeper? She came into her own on The Way I’m Livin’ and finally found the space to create the music in her soul. The album’s third single is a shining example of the perfect song matched with the only artist who has enough nuance to drive it home. Lee Ann Womack is simply one of the greatest female country singers ever to walk the earth.

 

Classic Rewind: Levon Helm, John Hiatt, Radney Foster and Mark Collie – ‘The Weight’

Single Review: I’m With Her – ‘Crossing Muddy Waters’

cdca72c7ec5625f0f1f483fb_440x440“Crossing Muddy Waters” debuts I’m With Her, an impromptu collaboration between Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan. The trio, which formed serendipitously during the 2014 Telluride Bluegrass Festival, has graced us with a delicate reading of title track from John Hiatt’s fifteen-year-old acoustic record.

Since “Crossing Muddy Waters” is already a folksy bluegrass song, the trio’s arrangement isn’t a revelatory reinterpretation but rather a faithful take on Hiatt’s track. The production (Watkins on fiddle, Jarosz on banjo, and O’Donovan on guitar) is still gorgeous, beaming with an unexpectedly full sound considering the use of just three instruments.

The record is anchored by two distinctly different altos – O’Donovan gives the verses a delicate whisper while Watkins infuses the chorus with her distinctive smokiness. The effect gives the record a lighter than air quality, perfectly matching the delicateness they bring when plucking away on their instruments.

While the recording itself isn’t spellbinding, the addition of Watkins gives the tune an extra spice, uniqueness unmatched by O’Donovan and Jarosz. Watkins, who has found her voice experimenting through two vastly different solo albums, has grown increasingly more confident the more comfortable she becomes within the space she’s carved out for herself as an artist and performer. Her fascinating artistic development has informed her most recent work with Nickel Creek and now I’m With Her.

There’s nothing but potential here, which is the most exciting takeaway from this recording. I’m With Her has a solid foundation both sonically and vocally. They also have the opportunity to reap great rewards should they continue to develop and take risks. “Crossing Muddy Waters” is merely an amuse-bouche, a tiny bite of a full-length album they haven’t yet committed to make (they’re all working on solo records at the moment). If they do, it’ll hopefully contain original music that’ll allow the trio to find their collective voice as a band.

Grade A-

Note: “Crossing Muddy Waters” is part of a 7” currently available for pre-order at their online store. They pair the song with their version of “Be My Husband,” which was written by Andy Stroud and recorded by his wife Nina Simone in the mid-1960s.

Album Review: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘The Rest Of The Dream’

the rest of the dreamThe follow up to Will The Circle Be Unbroken Vol 2 was always going to be a challenge. The band kept Randy Scruggs, who had overseen the Circle II sessions on hand as their producer for 1990’s The Rest Of The Dream, but did not attempt to copy that album at all. Instead it is a solid return to the country-rock which had done so well for them in the 1980s. Unfortunately they may have lost momentum with their focus on the less overtly commercial Circle II, while country radio was being engulfed with fresh new faces and the move to a more traditional sound. Sadly, they were never again to enjoy a top 40 country hit.

The lead single was a cover of rock star Bruce Springsteen’s ‘From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)’. A dramatic story song about a young girl who elopes with first one man and then another, then shoots her second lover, while the abandoned husband awaits her release from prison, it is delivered in upbeat fashion. It sounds very radio friendly (and convinces as a country-sock song), but peaked at a very disappointing #65. The pleasant but forgettable ballad ‘You Made Life Good Again’ didn’t do much better.

The sunny mid-paced title track, released as the last single with a supporting video, failed to chart at all. It was one of a brace of songs contributed by singer-songwriter John Hiatt, who had appeared on Circle II. It’s enjoyable enough, but I prefer the other one, ‘Just Enough Ashland City’, a charming up-tempo story song in which the narrator finds true love and learns not to judge by outward appearances:

I was Mr Sophisticated and she was “just a country girl”
She wound up showing me everything
I’d ever been dreaming of
I may have known the way to San Jose
But I didn’t know a thing about love

This might have been a more successful single, as might aacouple of other tracks. The gentle ballad ‘Waitin’ On A Dark Eyed Gal’, written by Ron Davies (brother of Gail), is an excellent tune, about holding on to forlorn hope and defying the reality that the narrator has been stood up.

Also great is ‘Blow Out The Stars, Turn Off the Moon’, an excellent song about the end of a relationship written by the brilliant Bobby Braddock, filled with images of their romantic nights under the stars:

When our love was new as the first evening star
We both said “I worship you just as you are”
Then I tried to change you, girl, and I don’t know why
You tried to change me, hey, might as well try
To blow out the stars, turn off the moon
Fade out the crickets and the nightingales too
Take down the magnolias that ride the soft wind
Another love story has come to an end

It is sensitively sung by Jeff Hanna, and beautifully played by the band. This lovely song is my favourite track.

The band’s Jimmie Fadden co-wrote (with Kim Tribble and Bob Garshelis) the charmingly quirky ‘Snowballs’, fantasising about winter walks with a sweetheart, throwing snowballs at the moon:

And after every throw we’d share a little kiss
Make sweet love together every time we’d miss

Hillbilly Hollywood (covered by John Anderson a year or so later on his comeback Seminole Wind album) is about the draw of Nashville for a young musician, which was written by Vince Melamed and Jim Photoglo. I prefer Anderson’s version, but this one is decent.

Jimmy Ibbotson co-wrote ‘Junior’s Grill, a tribute to a favorite diner which would be a great commercial jingle but is a little dull as a song. All four current band members (Hanna, Ibbotson, Fadden and Bob Carpenter) cowrote ‘Wishing Well’, but the song is disappointingly bland.

Overall, though, this is worth picking up –especially as used copies can be found cheaply.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Kelly Willis – ‘Well Travelled Love’

welltravelledloveDuring the second half of the 1980s, MCA Records signed a handful of roots-based artists that were considered to be outside of the mainstream, in the hopes of expanding the definition of country music. Artists such as Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, and Nanci Griffith were all signed to the label during that time. Kelly Willis, who joined the label in 1989 with the aid of Lovett and Griffith, somewhat falls into this fringe category, although her music was always much closer to the mainstream than the others mentioned. To further put things into context: Hat Acts were the popular trend in country music at the time, and most of the female artists who came to dominate the era — Shania Twain, Faith Hill, Martina McBride, and Trisha Yearwood — had not yet been signed to record deals. Reba McEntire, who was the marquee name female artist at MCA had yet to enjoy her first million-seller.

Willis’ debut disc, Well Travelled Love, if released today, would be relegated to the Americana category, but in 1990 it was considered a somewhat left-of-center country effort, perhaps in part due to Kelly’s slightly quirky vocal style, but also due to songs written by the likes of John Hiatt, Steve Earle and Kevin Welch, although more mainstream songwriters such as Paul Kennerley and Emory Gordy, Jr. are also represented. Willis’ then-husband Mas Palermo wrote about half the album’s songs. Paul Kennerley’s excellent and retro-sounding “I Don’t Want To Love You (But I Do)” was the album’s first single, that sadly failed to chart. A similar fate befell “River of Love”, which may have been too rockabilly for country radio’s taste at the time and “Looking For Someone Like You” likewise failed to gain any traction at radio.

Although I like all of these songs, I believe that some of the album’s other songs would have been better choices for singles. First and foremost is the Monte Warden and Emory Gordy, Jr. tune “One More Time”, a beautiful and steel-guitar drenched ballad that should have been considered very radio friendly at the time. Not releasing John Hiatt’s “Drive South” as a single seems like a missed opportunity; Suzy Bogguss took it all the way to #2 just two years later.
The title track, another Mas Palermo number, reminds me of “I’m In Love All Over”, the opening track to Reba McEntire’s Have I Got A Deal For You album. It’s an upbeat number with some excellent guitar picking and a strong vocal peformance from Kelly — the type of song that would perhaps work better in concert than on radio. “I’m Just Lonely”, Willis’ only songwriting contribution to the album (a co-write with Palermo) is also one of my favorites.

That an unsuccessful album by a largely unknown artist is available at all nearly a quarter century after its release is something of a minor miracle. Don’t expect to find any cheap used copies; Well Travelled Love can still be purchased on CD but at prices that will put a dent in your wallet. It is, however, available for download at much more reasonable prices and it is well worth seeking out.

Grade: A

Album Review: The Desert Rose Band – ‘Running’

desertrosebandLike The Desert Rose Band’s eponymous debut album, 1988’s Running is heavily-influenced by the Bakersfield sound. Paul Worley was back on board as producer, this time joined by Ed Seay. Chris Hillman was involved in writing most of the ablum’s songs, joined by his songwriting partner Steve Hill for seven of the album’s ten tracks. The previous album’s final single “He’s Back and I’m Blue” had become the band’s first chart-topper. Their chart success continued with the new album. The first single, the mid-tempo “Summer Wind”, just missed the top spot, peaking at #2. It was followed by another Hill-Hillman collaboration, “I Still Believe In You”, which did reach #1. Although it is a very good song, it hasn’t aged as well as the rest of the album. The heavy emphasis on the drum machine gives it a somewhat dated feel.

Interestingly, the album’s two best tracks were written by outside songwriters. “She Don’t Love Nobody”, which peaked at #3 in early 1989 is a John Hiatt composition. The song had previously been recorded by Nick Lowe, but it was adapted for country music with very little tinkering and is much more mainstream-sounding that much of Hiatt’s work. It is one of my very favorite Desert Rose Band recordings. The fourth and final single was “Hello Trouble”, an Orville Couch and Eddie McDuff number that had originally been recorded by Couch in 1962. A cover version appeared on a 1964 Buck Owens album. The Desert Rose Band’s version just missed the Top 10, peaking at #11. It deserved to chart higher.

The rest of the album’s tracks are very much in a country-rock vein, with plenty of steel guitar to appease purists, and not enough rock to alienate anyone. The band touches on some social issues with with a few tracks, but avoids doing so in a heavy-handed way. “For The Rich Man” examines some of the ways in which life is different for the haves and have nots; “Homeless”, which examines the plight of a former rodeo queen who is abandoned by her unemployed and alcoholic husband, comes a little closer to preaching —

“In this land of milk and honey we share with all who need
Except the ones outside our door, the ones we cannot see”

— but still manages to avoid sending the listener on a gratuitous guilt trip. The album closer “Our Songs”, meanwhile, is a semi-autobiographical look at some aging baby boomers, who came of age in the turbulent 1960s, and contrasts that era with the relatively more stable (and then contemporary) 1980s.

Along with the band’s debut album, Running is representative of The Desert Rose Band’s very best work and an interesting look back at how country and rock used to be melded together — with solid, well-written songs that avoided cliches and obnoxious, overloud production. Hardcore, traditional country it is not, but it is type of music that I would really like to see Nashville embrace again.

Grade: A

Album Review – Suzy Bogguss – ‘Voices In The Wind’

220px-SuzyBoggussVoicesintheWindSuzy Bogguss had a lot riding on her Voices of the Wind album. She was following up the platinum selling Aces, which contained her first string of top ten singles, and justifying her Horizon Award victory over genre heavyweights Brooks & Dunn, Trisha Yearwood, and Pam Tillis. While the record didn’t contain as many singles as Aces it was still a big success as her second consecutive gold record. Jimmy Bowen also returned as producer.

Bogguss was still riding the wave of her single “Letting Go” when time came to release the follow-up CD. Liberty/Capitol decided to tack that single on to the end of Voices in an effort to capitalize on the song’s success. It worked, and the track hit #6. The follow-up, a cover of John Hiatt’s “Drive South” fared even better, hitting #2. The high energy number, one of my favorite singles from her, was her biggest hit to date. The only other single, “Heartache” would break Bogguss’ hot streak, managing to stall at #23. The neo-traditional number was good, but probably a bit too slow for heavy rotation status on the radio.

Also included on the album is her version of Richard Leigh’s “Cold Day In July,” which Dixie Chicks took into the top 10 from their Fly album in Spring 2000. Bogguss turns in a wonderful version of the song but it’s a bit too adult contemporary. It works better with the electric guitars and Natalie Maines’ biting vocal on the Chicks’ version. Bogguss’ is a little too sweet. “Eat At Joes,” co-written by Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison, is a fabulous bluesy number about life at an all night diner, and one of the highlights. Trisha Yearwood’s voice may’ve been better suited for the song, her bluesy side is unmatched, but Bogguss turns in a very competent performance.

“Aces” writer Cheryl Wheeler contributes “Don’t Wanna,” an emotionally stunning ballad that Bogguss takes to new heights with her angelic voice. Bogguss has a subtle way of conveying a lyric and this is one example of where the production works in her favor in helping her tell the story. “Lovin’ A Hurricane” is the second track written by Hiatt and while it’s very good, her vocal almost seems too bland for the upbeat production. It tries but fails to repeat the magic of “Drive South.”

Bogguss had a hand in co-writing two of the album’s tracks, including one with husband Doug Crider (who co-wrote “Letting Go”). “How Come You Go To Her” (co-written with Michael Garvin and Anthony Smith) is an excellent mid-tempo ballad about a woman wondering why her man just isn’t into her. The Crider co-write is “In The Day,” another contemporary sounding ballad that succeeds on Bogguss’ ability to sell a story, this time of a burgeoning romance.

Crider also co-wrote “Love Goes Without Saying,” another similar sounding ballad, but another lyrically strong number. Chuck Pyle wrote “Other Side of the Hill,” a honky-tonk highlight. I love the rousing steel guitar and western themes, as well as Bogguss’ perfectly energetic vocal. If this track were a single, it would’ve likely been a huge hit.

Voices In The Wind is the perfect example of a catch 22. Lyrically, there isn’t a dud in the bunch. But Bogguss and Bowen spend a bit too much real estate on similar sounding ballads that bog the album down in a sea of slowness. She needs more songs like “Other Side of the Hill” to breakup the monotony, and showcase more diversity in what she can do as a singer and artist. That being said, it’s still a very strong album and although the 1992 era production is dated by today’s standards, Voices In The Wind is a worthy addition to any music collection.

Grade: B+ 

The fine print giveth

There’s a line in Thomas Rhett’s new single “Beer With Jesus” where the singer is asking “tell me how’d you turn the other cheek, to save a sorry soul like me” that didn’t even register when I first listened to the song. While it was playing in the background the other day my ears zoned in on that line and my reaction was to arch an eyebrow in admiration at the songwriters’ simple and direct way of communicating. In the setting of the song – modern-day Southern Baptist fundamentalism  – it would have been easy to reach for a hackneyed phrase straight out of the hymnal and my ear is still half-expecting “wretched soul” or something equally pretentious when I hear it. But they’ve kept it direct – even conversational – enough to effectively personify the narrator in the process, and that plainspoken bit of talk is why I want to hear the rest of what he’s got to say. So I say good on Rhett and co-writers Rick Huckaby and Lance Miller. They’re paying attention to the details.

So I got to thinking about other songs and the importance of just one word or line. Would “Sunday Morning Coming Down” be as important in the annals of country music history if Johnny Cash hadn’t bucked network television executives’ suggestion to substitute Kris Kristofferson’s lyric, and sing “home” instead of “stoned”? Likely it would have still become a hit. And as long as people still find themselves feeling hung over from a Saturday night, the song itself is strong enough to stand alone as a vivid retelling of such mornings. Still, “wishing Lord that I was stoned” reveals a grit and hair-of-the-dog pluck in the singer where wishing to be home sounds like he’s just given up. It changes the entire perspective. Kristofferson is of course a master of imagery, due in part to his attention to the details.

On John Hiatt’s superb “When We Ran”, Linda Rondstadt spends the first three minutes of the song wailing and gnashing her teeth about a lover that got away. She finally concludes “the mind is just a loose cannon and the memories are rollin’ dice“, letting the listener in on the fact that she’s acutely aware of the absurdity of her obsession with the past.  Otherwise, we’d expect to see her walking Main Street, carrying a suitcase, faded rose in her hair.  It’s also near the end of Lori McKenna’s voyeuristic “Your Next Lover” that the singer’s cool sentience is told when she sings in the bridge “I hope she reminds you nothing of me and as crazy as it sounds I hope she’s beautiful“, with no discernible amount of either sadness or bitterness. These are details that round out their song’s characters. If they were one-sided, would we care about these misfits and their lives? Would we relate their situations as easily to our own? I don’t think so. We relate to them because Hiatt and McKenna didn’t shirk their responsibility to the details.

All of these songs are favorites because they give the listener a glimpse inside the psyche of the song’s characters. I believe it’s that attention to detail that separates the good songs from the really great songs. TV Bishop Fulton Sheen’s famous quote “the big print giveth and the fine print taketh away” runs opposite to these and many other great songs in which the fine print giveth.

Album Review: Rosanne Cash – ‘King’s Record Shop’

Released in August 1987, King’s Record Shop was one of Rosanne’s most successful albums and her last collection of all-new mainstream country material before she parted ways with Nashville and began to release less commercial music in the singer-songwriter mode. Named after a record shop in Louisville, Kentucky, owned by Gene King, the younger brother of Pee Wee King (of “Tennessee Waltz” fame), it became her second gold album — her first since 1981’s Seven Year Ache, and the first time in country music history that an album by a female artist produced four #1 hits.

Like most of her previous albums, King’s Record Shop was produced by Rodney Crowell and is an eclectic mix of country, rock, and pop, drawing upon the talents of songwriters from both inside and outside the Nashville community, as well as some of Cash’s and Crowell’s original compositions, and one from Rosanne’s famous father, the Man In Black himself. The first single, “The Way We Make A Broken Heart” had been recorded a few years ago as a duet between Rosanne and the song’s writer John Hiatt. Rosanne’s solo version is pop-country perfection; something about the arrangement and Rosanne’s performance is reminiscent of Patsy Cline. It quickly became her sixth #1 hit and remains my all-time favorite Rosanne Cash recording. The second single, a cover of Johnny Cash’s 1961 hit “Tennessee Flat Top Box”, has become one of Rosanne’s best-loved recordings. She recorded it at Crowell’s suggestion, unaware that her father had written it; she had been under the impression that it was an old song that had long been in the public domain. Today it is one of her best-remembered hits, along with “Seven Year Ache”, and is one of the most traditional offerings in her catalog.

“If You Change Your Mind”, written by Rosanne with Hank DeVito, was the album’s third single. It hasn’t aged as well  as some of the other songs on the album, primarily due to the somewhat intrusive drum machine that is present throughout the track, but it is nonetheless a very well-written and well-performed song. I recall being initially somewhat less enthusiastic about the fourth and final single, “Runaway Train”, but over the years I have come to appreciate it for the well-written masterpiece that it is. Though less rooted in country music than the other singles, its lyrics are rich with imagery, using a runaway train as a metaphor for a relationship spiraling out of control. It was written by John Stewart (not the guy from The Daily Show on Comedy Central), who had become well-known as a member of The Kingston Trio in the 60s, and as the writer of the 1967 Monkees hit “Daydream Believer”.

The success of King’s Record Shop is impressive, partly because it does not fit the neotraditionalist template that had a firm grasp on Nashville at the time. It’s a carefully assembled collection of pop, rock, and a handful of songs that were just country enough to be accepted by country radio. Columbia made wise decisions in choosing the singles — as evidenced by the fact that all four were chart-toppers — in stark contrast to today, when an album’s worst and least-interesting tracks are commonly sent to radio. The album cuts of King’s Record Shop are more experimental in nature (though “Rosie Strikes Back” had the potential to be a hit single), reflecting Rosanne’s tastes which often fell outside the realm of country music. Among the more interesting cuts are her own composition, the introspective “The Real Me” and Rodney Crowell’s “I Don’t Have To Crawl”, which had previously been recorded by Emmylou Harris. Also enjoyable is “Rosie Strikes Back” in which the narrator urges a battered woman to flee from an abusive relationship. Less interesting are “Somewhere, Sometime”, which was written by Rosanne, the rocker “Green, Yellow and Red” and Benmont Tench’s “Why Don’t You Quit Leaving Me Alone”, which closed out the original version of the album.

The album’s 2005 re-release includes three bonus tracks: “707”, which had been the B-side of “The Way We Make A Broken Heart”, and live versions of “Runaway Train” and “Green, Yellow and Red”. None of these tracks is worth buying the album over again if you already have the 10-track original version.

Prior to 1987, I’d enjoyed listening to Rosanne’s radio hits, but it was King’s Record Shop, or more specifically “The Way We Make A Broken Heart”, that finally compelled me to buy one of her albums. It remains the best album in her catalog, and I’ve always thought it was a pity that she didn’t do more music in this vein before changing direction.

Grade: A-

It is easy to find, if you don’t already have it, from vendors such as Amazon and iTunes, and worth adding to your collection.

1989 Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken Volume Two’

200px-circle_ii_album_coverAlongside our reviews of albums produced by the ‘Class of ’89’, we’ve been taking the opportunity to look in depth at some of the other great albums released that year. Perhaps the most ambitious of those was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s second Will The Circle Be Unbroken project, which harks back to the early days of country music and shows how that heritage was still influential.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band started out in the California folk-rock movement of the 1960s. They revealed their country leanings in 1972 when they produced a legendary triple LP entitled Will The Circle Be Unbroken in collaboration with some of the seminal figures of bluegrass and old-time country music, including Roy Acuff, Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family, bluegrass great Earl Scruggs and many others — mostly artists who were past their commercial peaks. If the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had never again ventured into country music, this album alone would have sealed their place in the music’s history.

In the 1980s, however, after a period using the name the Dirt Band, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band rebranded themselves and forged a very successful career in contemporary country music. In 1988, they decided the time had come to produce a follow-up to their classic. Many of the original collaborators had died, and this time the guests included some contemporary acts and some artists from outside country music altogether, or who were from related genres. The album liner notes say, “This time they drew the circle bigger”, and talk about “the many hyphenated hybrid styles writers have used to describe all sorts of American music that comes from the heart. Big enough to embrace gospel, blues, honky tonk, Cajun and traditional folksong”. In other words, the term might not have been invented yet — but in many ways this was perhaps one of the the first self-consciously Americana albums. The result was a little more commercial-sounding than the original, but it strikes a fine balance between showcasing musical history and showing that that heritage was a living thing. Read more of this post