My Kind of Country

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

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Album Review: Jessi Colter – ‘Diamond In The Rough’

Released in July 1976, Diamond In The Rough was Jessi’s third album for Capitol, and her third album release in eighteen months. Like her first two Capitol album, it reached #4 on Billboard’s Country Albums Chart. Unlike its two predecessors, it generated no significant hits – the only single released, “I Thought I Heard You Calling My Name”, died at #29. Basically sales-wise this album coasted on the success of the first two Capitol albums.

Since the last single from the prior album had died at #50, it is pretty clear that the forward momentum her career received from “I’m Not Lisa” had already been lost. From this point forward none of her solo albums would crack the top forty and none of her singles would reach top twenty status.

Diamond In The Rough
is not a bad album but I am not sure as to the identity of the target audience since the song selection seems rather random.

The title track “Diamond in the Rough” written by Donnie Fritts (a long-time veteran of Kris Kristofferson’s band) and Spooner Oldham, is a bluesy ballad that is much closer to being piano jazz than anything resembling country music.

“Get Back” a Lennon-McCartney composition, was a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic in 1969, with Billy Preston’s energetic electric organ giving the song an energy that the Beatles had seemingly lost. Jessi’s rendition is not terrible, but is lethargic and not very interesting.

Better is Jessi’s “Would You Leave Now”, a lovely ballad, exquisitely sung by Jessi. The background features some gentle steel guitar amidst a light string accompaniment.

Although it was a massive hit, I never liked “Hey Jude”, the second Lennon- McCartney song on the album). Jessi sings it well, but at 7:16 the song is simply too long. Had she shortened it to about four minutes, I might have actually liked her gentle approach to the song, but at some point I simply lost interest – the only thing of interest in the coda is the fiddle.

Another Jessi Colter composition follows in “Oh Will (Who Made it Rain Last Night)”. This is another lovely ballad about the pain of leaving, this more of the folk variety rather than jazz. Jessi’s piano is impeccable and the song is quite lovely, just not country.

Oh Will who made it rain last night?
Who could take blue from my sky and paint it black night?
Who’s telling me to look so I’ll see the tears for years we will cry?
Talk to me Will.
You never told lies; who made it rain last night?

Lee Emerson’s “I Thought I Heard You Calling My Name” was the chart single from the album and is a country break-up song. I heard this song quite a bit upon its release and was surprised to find out later that this topped out at #29. There is an interesting story behind Lee Emerson’s death, but I won’t go into that here. Porter Wagoner and George Strait (Strait Out of The Box) both recorded the song.

I said goodbye to you this mornin’
With only these words to explain
I said I’d found someone I love better
But I still hear your voice call my name
I thought I heard you callin’ my name
Funny, I still feel this way.
Your voice seem so close, but I knew
That by now you were many miles away
I walk through the streets of the city
People passing by think it’s so strange
I’m talkin’ but there’s no one beside me
I thought I heard you call my name

“Ain’t No Way” by Tere Mansfield is a good country ballad which I think could have been a decent single. The problem for Jessi, is that she doesn’t have a really forceful voice, but on this song she gets across enough power to sell the song.

Obviously Jessi really loved Waylon, sticking with him through good times and bad times. “You Hung the Moon (Didn’t You Waylon)” is exhibit number one for this proposition. Too personal to be a single, the song leaves the listen with no doubts as to its sincerity.

You did hang the moon, didn’t you Waylon?
` You did hang that moon, didn’t you Waylon?
Weren’t you the one they called the seventh son?
You did hang the moon, didn’t you Waylon?

You take so many words and bring them all home with one
You walk into my room and it lights up like the sun
Each step you take leads a way for someone
And I know you’d never do love wrong

“Woman’s Heart is a Handy Place to Be” by Cort Casady and Marshall Chapman is a jog-along ballad with a story to tell about a charmer who can never be faithful, but whom the narrator wants anyway . Jessi does a nice job with the song, but Crystal Gayle also recorded the song to better effect.

He’s a charmer
He’s broken every heart that’s tried to hold him
It’s tearin´ me apart to know I want him
Knowin´ I can never tell him so

He’s a loner
Runnin´ from a friend to find a stranger
It makes me weak it makes me wonder
Will I ever make it on my own
Will I ever make it on my own

A woman’s heart’s a handy place to be
For a man afraid of givin’ and fightin´ to be free
Yes a woman’s heart’s a handy place to be
I just wish the heart that’s broken now was not a part of me

Ms Marshall Chapman has led an interesting existence (she is six feet tall and much more of a rock & roller than a country songsmith, but she has had considerable success in country music with Sawyer Brown having a major hit with Betty’s Being Bad”.

The album concludes with an unnecessary reprise of “Oh Will (Who Made it Rain Last Night)”. I would have much preferred an additional song.

This is a tough album to evaluate in that both of the Beatles’ covers were complete misfires and several of the songs seem to be out of context on this album.

Grade: C+

Album Review: Glen Campbell – ‘Meet Glen Campbell’

meet glen campbellMeet Glen Campbell was Glen’s first album of new secular music since 1999’s My Hits and Love Songs, which was a two disc set with one disc being a greatest hits collection and the other disc new recordings representing Glen’s takes on various pop hits and pop standards of the previous decades. Before that the last Glen Campbell album of truly new material had been Somebody Like That, which was released in 1993.

The standard release of Meet Glen Campbell contained ten tracks from a variety of sources.

The album opens up with “Sing”, a song written by Francis Healy that was a global hit for Healy’s indie rock band Travis. It is a very uplifting song that Campbell sings well

Baby, you’ve been going so crazy
Lately, nothing seems to be going right
So low, why do you have to get so low
You’re so, you’ve been waiting in the sun too long
But if you sing, sing, sing, sing, sing, sing
For the love you bring won’t mean a thing
Unless you sing, sing, sing, sing

This is followed by a pair of Tom Petty compositions in “Walls” and “Angel Dreams”. The arrangement of Walls” at times reminds me of “Galveston” with its heavy use of orchestral arrangements (the intro particularly reminds me of “Galveston”. “Angel Dreams” has a more acoustic arrangement with banjo evident in the arrangement.

“Times Like These” was a hit for a band called The Foo Fighters I’m not very familiar with the Foo Fighters but if the rest of their lyrics are this good, I will need to check them out. This is a heavily orchestrated track reminiscent of Al De Lory’s work:

I, I’m a one way motorway
I’m the one that drives away
Then follows you back home
I, I’m a street light shining
I’m a wild light blinding bright
Burning off alone
It’s times like these you learn to live again
It’s times like these you give and give again
It’s times like these you learn to love again
It’s times like these time and time again

“These Days” is an old Jackson Browne song from the late 1960s, that Browne recorded for his second solo album back in 1973. This track has less orchestration that “Times Like These”. I’ve never been a big Jackson Browne fan but I’ve always liked this song.

Well I’ve been out walking
I don’t do that much talking these days
These days,
These days I seem to think a lot
About the things that I forgot to do
For you
And all the times I had the chance to

Next up is a pretty ballad from, the pen of Paul Westerberg, “Sadly Beautiful”, I’m guessing that I hear a viola in the arrangement, but I could be wrong.

“All I Want Is You” from U2’s album Rattle and Hum. I do not like U2 at all but I do like Glen’s recording of their song. Again, this sounds like an Al De Lory arrangement.

You say you want
Diamonds on a ring of gold
You say you want
Your story to remain untold

But all the promises we make
From the cradle to the grave
When all I want is you

I don’t normally think of Lou Reed (Velvet Underground) as writing religious material, but “Jesus” is an excellent song, one that I can easily see as appealing to Campbell.

Jesus
Help me find my proper place
Jesus
Help me find my proper place

Help me in my weakness
‘Cos I’m falling out of grace
Jesus, Jesus

Jesus
Help me find my proper place
Jesus
Help me find my proper place

Help me in my weakness
‘Cos I’m falling out of grace
Jesus, Jesus

Billy Joe Armstrong wrote “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”. Glen’s version here features some nice mandolin work by George Doering.

The standard version of the album closes with a John Lennon song “Grow Old With Me”, a song intended for release on an album Lennon never got to make. Glen’s vocals are spot on, but I feel that the instrumental accompaniment should have been a little more subdued. Some things require time to fully appreciate. I am now 63 years old and my wife and I have been married for forty years. These lyrics mean much more to me today than they did when first I heard them.

Grow old along with me
The best is yet to be
When our time has come
We will be as one
God bless our love
God bless our love

Grow old along with me
Two branches of one tree
Face the setting sun
When the day is done
God bless our love
God bless our love

The Limited Edition, available only at Walmart, featured some remixes of some earlier hits, notably “Gentle On My Mind”, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman”, “Galveston”, and “Rhinestone Cowboy”. The remixes are very good and do no violence to the originals.

This album features an update version of the Al De Lory sound that propelled Campbell to stardom in the late 1960s. Although I prefer De Lory’s arranglements, producers Julian Raymond and Howard Willing did an admirable job of replicating and updating the De Lory sound. De Lory was still alive when these tracks were recorded in 2008 (he was then 78 years old) – I wonder what he thought of this album.

This album introduced (or re-introduced) me to a group of songwriters that previously I had overlooked or ignored.

I would give this album an A-

Album Review: Waylon Jennings – ‘Love of the Common People’

51wqa0MBekL._SS280In the 1960s, sales of single records were far more important to the music industry than album sales. Albums consisted of one or two hit singles, and 8 to 10 “filler” songs, which were often cover versions of the current hits of other artists or less commercially viable songs written by the artist and/or producer. Country artists typically released an average of three albums a year. Waylon Jennings’ 1967 collection Love of the Common People was his fifth album for RCA, released a year after his debut collection for the label.

Produced by Chet Atkins, Love of the Common People is a little unusual in that none of its tracks were released as singles. It consists of the usual cover songs and original artist/producer compositions as well as a few contributions from well known songwriters of the day, such as Sonny James and Harlan Howard. Despite its lack of radio hits, the album’s material is stronger and less uneven than many albums of the day, and it sold reasonably well, peaking at #3 on the Billboard country albums chart. And although this is a slightly more polished Waylon than we would hear a few years later, the album largely avoids some of the excesses of the Nashville Sound era.

My favorite track is “Young Widow Brown”, a light-hearted tune written by Waylon and Sky Corbin, concerning a fun-loving young woman who drives her husband to an early grave and doing her best to send her many suitors to a similar fate. While not as edgy as Waylon’s later work, it’s not as far removed from his Outlaw music as one might expect.

The title track is a folk-rock tune that had been a pop hit earlier in the year for The Four Preps. It sounds like something that might have fit on Waylon’s earlier effort Folk-Country. “Taos, New Mexico”, written by RCA in-house producer Bob Ferguson, is a very nice Tex-Mex tune that’s a little ahead of its time. It sounds like something that Freddy Fender or Marty Robbins would have success with a few years later. “I Tremble For You” is a little known Johnny Cash song written by the man in black and Lew DeWitt, who was part of the original Statler Brothers lineup. It’s not the usual boom-chicka-boom style usually associated with Cash, and it shows Waylon’s strength as a ballad singer. Shoulda been a single. “If The Shoe Fits” by Harlan Howard and Freddie Hart, “Destiny’s Child” by Sonny James, and “The Road” by Ted Harris are all worth a listen.

The album does contain a couple of missteps: a cover of the John Lennon/Paul McCartney tune “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”, and Mel Tillis’ “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town”. The latter about a wounded warrior suffering from physical injuries and PTSD, long before those terms were coined. His wife callously prepares to leave him on his own while she seeks her pleasures elsewhere, making no attempts to hide her intentions. The song had been a Top 10 hit earlier in the year for Johnny Darrell and two years later would become a huge pop smash for Kenny Rogers and The First Edition. It’s a good song, but Jennings’ delivery is surprisingly stiff and devoid of emotion.

Waylon Jennings, of course, had a long and distinguished career in country music and left behind a catalog so huge that it’s easy to overlook some of the entries that weren’t big hits. Love of the Common People is a gem well worth exploring.

Grade: A

Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy’

ngdb uncle charlieThe Nitty Gritty Dirt Band began in the 1960s as a southern California folk rock band. They limited success before temporarily disbanding in 1969. After renegotiating their contract with Liberty Records, they were given more artistic freedom, and the changes were immediately apparent in 1970’s Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy, which saw the band moving in a more country direction.

Country rock bands originating from California were nothing new, but the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band took things a step further by incorporating into their music instruments that were closely associated with bluegrass and country music, and featuring them prominently. While blending of genres is commonplace today, it was quite revolutionary in 1970. The eclectic Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy is equal parts country, bluegrass, folk, and rock. It features both original music and cover versions of other artists’ work, as well as reinterpretations of old folk songs that had long been in the public domain. At times, particularly when the band starts to harmonize, the sound is something akin to the Beach Boys with banjos.

The Uncle Charlie referenced in the album’s title was a relative of producer Bill McEuen’s wife. He was born in Texas in 1886 and performs a brief folk song “Jesse James”, recorded in 1963, on which he plays harmonica and gets his dog Teddy to howl along. He also gives two brief interviews, which are mildly interesting on the first listen.

A number of well known names appear among the songwriting credits: Michael Nesmith of The Monkees wrote the bluegrass-flavored opening number “Some of Shelly’s Blues”, which became a minor pop hit, peaking at #64, and “Propiniquity”, which is one of my favorites on the disc. Kenny Loggins wrote another the album’s singles, the more rock-oriented “House at Pooh’s Corner” which name-drops several of the characters from A.A. Milne’s well loved children’s stories. It reached #53 pop. The album’s biggest hit and the band’s best known song to this day is their cover of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr Bojangles”, which reached #9 on the Hot 100. It didn’t garner enough attention from mainstream country outlets to make the country charts but that may have been due to the way the record and the band in general, were marketed. It certainly sounded country enough, even by 1971 standards, to have fit into the country radio format.

NGDB member Jeff Hanna wrote “Cure”, which is another one of my favorites and songwriter Randy Newman supplied the very nice “Livin’ Without You”. The NGDB members show themselves to be very adept bluegrass musicians, which is somewhat surprising given their West Coast origins. The 2003 reissue of the album includes a grassed-up version of John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s “What Goes On”, which Beatles aficinados probably hate but I quite liked. I don’t like the rock-oriented numbers quite as much but they didn’t really detract from my overall enjoyment of the album.

In between the country and rock numbers are a number of traditional folk and bluegrass numbers, usually performed instrumentally, which help give the album a “sitting around the living room” feel, and providing the template for the future and better remembered Will The Circle Be Unbroken trilogy, the first volume of which would appear two years later.

Aside from “Mr. Bojangles”, there isn’t a whole lot among the album’s 23 tracks that will be familiar to most modern listeners, but the album is well worth a listen.

Grade: A

Country Heritage: Gail Davies

Gail DaviesDuring the late winter & early spring of 1979, listeners of country radio were treated to the unusual strains of “Someone Is Looking For Someone Like You”. Amidst the clutter of the last vestiges of the Outlaw Movement, the dying gasps of the Nashville Sound and the nascent Urban Cowboy movement, this lilting and beautiful melody was unlike anything else being played. Released on the independent Lifesong label, the song suffered from spotty distribution (which turned into no distribution at all when Lifesong’s distribution deal fell apart) yet made it to #11 on Billboard’s Country Chart. For Gail Davies, this song turned out to be her career breakthrough, leading to a record deal with Warner Brothers.

Gail Davies (originally Patricia Gail Dickerson) was born into a musical family in Broken Bow, Oklahoma, on June 5, 1948. Her father, Tex Dickerson, was a country singer who occasionally appeared on the Louisiana Hayride. When Davies was five, her parents divorced and her mother took her and her two brothers to the Seattle area. At some point, her mother remarried and she and her brothers were adopted by their stepfather, Darby Davies, and took his surname. One of her brothers was Ron Davies, a renown songwriter and performer, who wrote songs that were recorded by such luminaries as David Bowie, Three Dog Night, Joe Cocker, Dave Edmunds, Jerry Jeff Walker and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

After graduating from high school in 1966, Davies moved to Los Angeles where she was briefly married to a jazz musician. After her divorce, she found work as a session singer at A&M studios. While at A&M she was befriended by songwriter Joni Mitchell and A&M recording engineer Henry Lewy who introduced her to the production end of the business, where she was able to sit in on a number of noteworthy recording sessions, including a John Lennon session that was being produced by Phil Spector.

Things moved rapidly for Davies, and by 1974 she was touring with the legendary Roger Miller and made her national television debut as his duet partner in 1974 singing on the Merv Griffin Show. During this period, she began writing songs and signed with EMI Publishing in 1975. Her first major success as a songwriter came when Ava Barber, a regular cast member of television’s Lawrence Welk Show, had a hit single with “Bucket to the South,” which reached #14 in 1978 on the Billboard Country Chart. This led to a contract with CBS/Lifesong Records in 1978 and the release of her first album simply entitled Gail Davies. Read more of this post

Album Review: Mary Chapin Carpenter – ‘Time*Sex*Love’

After 1996’s A Place In The World, Mary Chapin Carpenter went on a 5-year hiatus from recording, only touring sporadically during that period.  During her off-time from studio albums, Carpenter found time to record a track for the John Lennon tribute album Working Class Hero, and her version of ‘Grow Old With Me’ became a top 20 hit on the Adult Contemporary charts.  Meanwhile, her own ‘10,000 Miles’ was featured as the title track to the movie Fly Away Home. In 1998, she began work on Shane, a Broadway adaption of the 1953 film starring Alan Ladd.  Creative differences with the producers caused Carpenter to pull out of the project in 2000.  When she returned to the recording studio in 2001, the album she created was a stretch from her country albums in the 90s.

Perhaps buoyed by her adult contemporary successes, or her 5 years off the country charts, Carpenter’s new style was coffeehouse folk meets mainstream pop, with all the sensibilities of a hard-core folkie. She’s still singing about the plight of the middle-aged woman, but age and maturity was certainly starting to show, and the themes behind the relationships and emotions became wrapped in darker and more complicated emotions with this album.

Naturally, the singles didn’t find much favor at radio, even though they’re just as good as some of her past hits.  Leading off was ‘Simple Life’, a very slick, pop-sounding tune produced to full effect with echoes and a wall of sound in the chorus.  The basis is of a middle age woman whose life is ‘getting complicated’ and overwhelming her.  The chorus offers that she should ‘just enjoy the view and be glad she made it’.  It’s a smart song that didn’t find an audience, stalling at #53 on the country charts, and not being released elsewhere.

Second to radio, and failing to chart, was ‘This Is Me Leaving You’.  Similar to her most famous songs, the driving force behind it is the melody, plucking along throughout.  As the title suggests, it’s a portrait of a woman leaving a man, guided by the voice of conscience.

‘Slave to the Beauty’ follows in the highly produced fashion with a small orchestra of brass behind the singer.  ‘Maybe World’ is also beefed up musically.  The flute is a nice touch.  ‘The Long Way Home’ is a neat song.  It tells the stories of two very career-successful individuals and how that doesn’t add up to happiness for them.  It’s the one who ‘takes the long way home’ and just stops to enjoy his existence that’s the most content.

My favorite on the album is ‘What Was It Like’, a soft ballad where the narrator is asking her former lover for the details to the demise of their relationship.  She simply can’t remember because time has managed to shield her from the most painful of the memories. ‘King of Love’ is another soft ballad, with a Celtic influence.  A woman is a slave to her desire for a man who will ‘never make her queen’.  It’s a strange song lyrically. Many of the songs fall into a category best defined on The Simpsons as ‘too smart for the corn dog crowd, too dumb for the bagel crowd’.

Time*Sex*Love didn’t sell as well as her past works.  Moving just over 300,000 copies, it was her first not to be certified gold since her 1987 debut, thought it did chart at #6 on the Country Albums chart.  Fans of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s country records may want to avoid it.  Likewise, those who regularly spin Norah Jones, Lucinda Williams, and Sheryl Crow will want to give it a listen.  Time*Sex*Love marked Carpenter’s shift from country radio renegade to Americana mainstay.  Changing styles allowed her to deliver another smart and cohesive set of songs, all written or co-written by Carpenter, and even though it’s not my taste as much as her past work, I can appreciate it for what it is.

Grade: C+

Time*Sex*Love is available in digital and CD format at amazon.

Slaid Cleaves live at the Lantern Theatre, Romsey, 9 October 2009

Slaid CleavesLiving in England, I don’t often get the opportunity to see acts live. Although some artists who have had airplay here do tour (usually small) venues, it’s not often both someone I’m interested in is appearing at a venue that’s very convenient for me to get to. So it was exciting for me when the excellent singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves included the fairly small town where my parents live on his current European tour. It turns out that he’s actually been there before, a couple of years ago, but I missed out on it that time. I’m glad I caught him this time, on the first English stage of his tour.

The venue was not all that prepossessing – a theater attached to a school, with no formal stage, and seating for a couple of hundred. It even offered a bar during the interval. But the acoustics seemed fine, and the intimate atmosphere was ideal for this kind of show. Slaid is very much the travelling troubadour, who best fits under the Americana umbrella, with probably more folk influences than conventional country ones, but his songs are beautifully crafted and his voice is a little rough-edged but distinctive and compelling.

Slaid Cleaves and supporting guitarist/occasional harmony singer Michael O’Connor played great songs, mostly from Slaid’s records, to a raptly attentive audience for roughly a hour and a quarter, interspersing the music with conversation. Everything was as effective live as on record. Highlights included the excellent ‘Drinkin’ Days’, ‘Broke Down’, ‘One Good Year’, ‘Everette’, Karen Poston’s ‘Lydia’, and several songs from Slaid’s latest album, Everything You Have Will Be Taken Away, including ‘Cry’, the song which provides the title, ‘Hard To Believe’, and ‘Black T Shirt’.Everything You Love

A Beatles cover offered in part as a tribute to John Lennon, whose 69th birthday it would have been that day, was slotted in between two of the songs Slaid has written with childhood friend Rod Picott, and introduced with reminiscences of bonding with Rod as self-confessed ‘nerdy’ eight year olds on the school bus up in their home state of Maine.

The request spot was filled by the choice of a couple who had driven three hours to get there, the audience participation eight-minute Canadian folk of ‘Breakfast In Hell’, a tragic and very convincing story song about a lumberjack’s fatal struggle breaking a log jam. Slaid told us he had been trying to drop it from his regular set, but it was obviously requested the previous night in Wales, so he may have to think again as it’s obviously one of his most popular numbers.

It was followed by one of my favorites, the cheerful ‘Horses’, which Slaid explained was written about a 60 year old neighbor of his parents in Maine, reduced to penury thanks to “horses and divorces”. It’s one of the more conventionally country-sounding of his songs, featuring a very effective yodel, and he then moved away from the microphone to accommodate the yodeling cover of mentor Don Walser’s 1960s hit ‘I’m A Rolling Stone From Texas’, introduced with more reminiscences. After that Slaid needed some time to recuperate so handed over center stage to Michael to sing his own song ‘Getaway Car’ which Slaid Cleaves has recorded. He too has a fine voice, and a recovered Slaid joined him on harmonies midway through the song.

He seemed a little unsure as to what to offer for the obligatory encore, saying he didn’t want to end on a downbeat note, but had already played his one cheerful song. Eventually, he took the advice of an audience member, and played ‘Flowered Dresses’, another Karen Poston song from Slaid’s album of covers of songs mainly by his peers, Unsung.

The show was a great experience. Slaid is well worth catching if he comes your way: tour dates are available on his myspace.

The show started with a five-song set from Dan Raza, a skinny English boy with an engaging presence and Americana-infused folk material, who accompanied himself on guitar and occasionally harmonica. The best of his songs were his first number, ‘Bad Luck’, about a woman about to be hanged with a memorable hook (“It’s glory, glory, and maybe Hallelujah”). I enjoyed his segment, although his songs lacked variety in tempo, and the strong Americana/Texas singer-songwriter influence, admirable enough, had encouraged him to write using some Americanized language, which didn’t sound like his natural songwriting voice and definitely jarred on the more personal material like ‘40 Miles From Home’ which was written about living in London,. He definitely shows promise, though.