My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: John Leventhal

Album Review: Many Barnett – ‘Mandy Barnett’

When Asylum Records released Mandy Barnett’s eponymous album Mandy Barnett in 1996, I hoped I was hearing the first in a long string of albums for this excellent vocalist. Mandy was not unknown to me, having made television appearances in conjunction with her role in the play Always … Patsy Cline, starting around 1994 or 1995. Unfortunately, the market shifted away from anything resembling real country music so while Mandy remains active, her solo recordings remain few and far between.

Mandy Barnett would prove to be Mandy’s only successful chart album in terms of singles, but the contents were strong, the voice is terrific and her artistic integrity has been maintained through the years. The album would reach #60 on the country charts (it reached #28 on the Canadian country charts)

The album opens with “Planet of Love”, a song written by the much underappreciated Jim Lauderdale. The song was never a big hit for anyone, but it has been recorded quite a few times. Mandy’s bluesy take reveals a song that Patsy Cline could have done as well as, but not better than, Mandy herself.

 I’ve found a new planet that only I can see

Just came back to get you let’s leave this misery

Nothing can reach us so far from harm’s way

Only sunshine and rainbows every day

We’ve got to get back there hurry up and get your things

The countdown has started go ahead try on these wings

Don’t need no spaceship for what I’m thinking of

Didn’t I tell you that I’d take you to the planet of love

I should mention that this album was produced by Bill Schnee and Kyle Lehing, but clearly,  both understood what Owen Bradley accomplished with Patsy Cline and at times have created an updated version of that sound.

Next up is “Maybe”, a then-contemporary song aimed at getting Mandy some radio airplay. The son was the second single and peaked at #65. Written by Lauderdale, Rodney Crowell, and John Leventhal, the song should have been a hit but perhaps it was too similar to some other songs currently floating about at the time (I could mentally hear Patty Loveless doing this song)

I know how the story ends where everything works out

I get the feelin’ once again that I can’t shake your doubt

Instead of hidin’ from romance

You’re gonna have to take a chance

 

Baby, don’t say Maybe

There’ll be no comin’ back tomorrow, Baby

“Rainy Days” is a gentle ballad sung to perfection. The song, written by Kostas and Pamela Brown Hayes,   is filler but of a high grade.

“Three Days”, from the pen of Willie Nelson, is also filler. The song was a top ten hit for the great Faron Young back in 1962, and k.d. lang took it to #9 on the Canadian country charts in 1990. This is one of my favorite Willie compositions, and while Mandy does an excellent job with the song, the song seems a little more believable from the male perspective. I love the endless time loop perspective of the song – if this isn’t the definition of depression, I don’t know what would qualify

Three days I dread to see arrive

Three days I hate to be alive

Three days filled with tears and sorrow

Yesterday today and tomorrow

 

There are three days I know that I’ll be blue

Three days that I’ll always dream of you

And it does no good to wish these days would end

‘Cause the same three days start over again

“Baby Don’t You Know” was written by Jamie O’Hara has that traditional vibe, accentuated by the walking bass line and I think that I would have tried this as a single as this is just an excellent track. The song has a great sing-along chorus

Baby don’t you know I still love you

Baby don’t you know I still miss you

Baby don’t you know you’re breaking my heart

Oh, oh, oh

Baby don’t you know I still want you

Baby don’t you know I still need you

Baby don’t you know you’re tearing me apart

Kostas and Tony Perez penned “Now That’s All Right with Me”, the first and most successful single released on from the album. This is a very then-contemporary sounding song with late 90s-early 00s country instrumentation including some steel guitar in the background. The song peaked at #43. I don’t recall the song getting much of a promotional push but perhaps my memory is wrong. I only heard the song a few times on the radio.

Karen Brooks and Randy Sharp wrote “A Simple I Love You”, the last and least successful single released from the album. Mandy sings it well, but the song itself is a rather bland string-laden ballad, the only track on the album to heavily feature strings. The song died at #72.

Two more Kostas songs follow, “I’ll Just Pretend” and “What’s Good For You” (with Kelly Willis as co-writer). The former is a gentle and wistful medium slow ballad; the latter is a bit more up-tempo and a bit more of a downer. Both are excellent songs and well sung.

“Wayfaring Stranger” is one of the great folk/gospel classics, that first appeared in the early to mid-1800s. I’ve heard many versions of the song with many and varied verses. Below is a “standard” version of the lyrics (insofar as any version can be called standard) that is pretty similar to Mandy’s version. This song features very sparse instrumentation

I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger

Traveling through a world of woe

But there’s no sickness, toil or danger

In that fair land to which I go

 

I’m going there to see my father

I’m going there no more to roam

I am just going over Jordan

I am just going over home

 

I know dark clouds will gather round me

I know my way is rough and steep

But beautiful fields lie just before me

Where God’s redeemed their vigils keep

 

I’m going home to see my mother

She said she’d meet me when I come

I’m only going over Jordan

I’m only going over home

I’m just a going over home

It is clear that the producers of this album were trying for radio success with this album. The singles are all good – worth about a B+ but the tracks where the producers let Mandy follow her own inclinations are excellent – an easy A+. I would give this album an A and I still pull it out occasionally and listen to it.

The album is available as a digital download. If you want an actual CD, a later Warner Brothers release titled Many Barnett: The Platinum Collection contains nine of the ten songs on this album and eleven of the twelve songs on her second album I’ve Got A Right To Cry.

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Album Review: Dawn Sears – ‘Nothin’ But Good’

Mark Wright produced Dawn Sears’ second album, Nothin’ But Good, which arrived on Decca Records in August 1994. She was the first artist signed to the label’s newly revived country music branch.

The investment proved moderately successful from the onset. The rockin’ “Runaway Train,” which was co-written by fellow spotlight artist Kim Richey, peaked at #52. Sears’ fortunes would, unfortunately, reverse, as the mid-tempo title track, co-written by songwriter-of-the-moment Kostas, failed to chart.

“Close Up The Honky Tonks” is a clean and precise cover of the Buck Owens classic. “That’s Where I Wanna Take Our Love” is a classically styled torch song, written by Dean Dean Dillon and Harlan Howard and flawlessly executed by Sears.

“No Relief In Sight” is a contemporary ballad about the inability to move on from a past relationship. “Uh Oh (Here Comes Love)” is an excellent ditty, with an infectious melody, co-written by Carlene Carter.

“Planet of Love,” easily a standout track, is a spellbinding torch song co-written by Jim Lauderdale and John Leventhal. “It was Too Late” returned Sears to the up-tempo stylings that comprise the majority of the album.

Around this time, Sears also became known for her collaborative work with her fellow contemporaries. She teamed with Tracy Byrd for the duet “Out of Control Raging Fire” (later covered by Patty Loveless and Travis Tritt) from his debut album and provided backing vocals for Vince Gill on I Still Believe in You.

The association with Gill would prove most fruitful as she would continue to guest on many of his albums, accompany him on tour, and join his Western Swing band The Time Jumpers along which her husband Kenny. Their friendship impacted this album with the brilliant traditional ballad “If I Didn’t Have You In My World,” which Gill co-wrote with Jim Weatherly.

The album’s centerpiece closed out the album. Sears would have just one writing credit on this album, “Little Orphan Annie,” which she wrote solo. She wrote the tune in tribute to her parents, who died far too soon. It’s as perfect and effective a country song as I’ve ever had the good fortune to hear:

I saw the love

In mama’s eyes

I saw the fear she tried to hide

She knew she’d never see the morning sun

She left this world so young

 

On a windy day

In my Sunday best

I watched them lay my dad to rest

After months of pain, I tried to help him through

But there was nothing I could do

 

I feel like

Little Orphan Annie

Left here all alone

Little Orphan Annie

Trying to be strong

Every night I kneel and pray

Lord help me through another day

Help me fill this empty heart

Please don’t let me fall apart

Give me the strength to be

Little Orphan Annie

 

I miss them more

Then I can say

It’s not supposed to be this way

All grown up I should understand

But the child in me

Can’t comprehend

There are moments of sheer brilliance on Nothin’ But Good that show why Sears was one of the best and most criminally underrated female artists to fly under the radar in the 1990s. Some of the uptempo material is aimed at commercial viability and is, therefore, filler, but the vast majority of the album is beyond excellent.

Sears would sadly exit Decca shortly after the release of this album.

Grade: A

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: Shelby Lynne – ‘Soft Talk’

SoftTalkJames Stroud sat at the helm of Shelby Lynne’s third Epic album, Soft Talk. Released in 1991, the project performed anemically both at radio and retail. The album peaked at #55, while the two singles failed to chart any higher then the record.

A duet with Les Taylor, “The Very First Lasting Love” peaked at #50. The second and final single, “Don’t Cross Your Heart,” did slightly worse peaking at #54.

“I’ve Learned To Live” is an excellent mid-tempo contemporary styled number written by Dean Dillon and Frank Dycus. Lynne powerfully expresses the tale of a woman coming back from unimaginable loss, vowing to continue living.

Max D. Barnes, Skip Ewing, and Troy Seals co-wrote “A Lighter Shade of Blue,” a dobro soaked ballad. A story about lost love, she’s having trouble moving on yet is not as affected by the turn of events as she thought she would be.

“You Can’t Break A Broken Heart” is an excellent uptempo bluesy number accentuated with harmonica and a prominent drumbeat. Chuck Jones and Chris Waters’ biting lyric coupled with Stroud’s understated production gives Lynne the ideal space from which to vocally soar.

The title track is another affecting ballad, one that starts off slow before Lynne takes it to the next level. While not the most memorable lyric, she brilliantly tackles what she has to work with.

Jim Lauderdale and John Leventhal co-wrote, “Stop Me,” another contemporary styled ballad in which Lynne delivers vocally. Her throaty voice saves what would otherwise be a bland affair, which is unmistakably pop-country, down to the twangy guitars and ribbons of steel guitar. It also just might be her best vocal on the whole project.

“It Might Be Me” is a piano and guitar based ballad that gives way to a meatier production as the track progresses. Since it’s another ballad it easily gets lost in the shuffle and offers only more of the same found on the other tracks.

In the twenty-four years since being released, Soft Talk has gone out of print and only a handful of its ten tracks have resurfaced on her Epic Recordings compilation project released at the turn of the century. It’s a shame because the album is very good even if it isn’t very radio friendly. I was taken aback that the production contained a lot of contemporary 80s country spillovers, but it was pleasant to listen to none the same.

Lynne, like Kelly Willis, may’ve been on a major label, but their music just wasn’t that appealing to the masses and thus they never caught on in that way. That doesn’t mean they aren’t extremely talented and should be overlooked. Soft Talk may be heavy on ballads but it finds Lynne saving the day with her powerful voice. It’s worth tracking down a cheap used copy if you’ve never heard it.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Kelly Willis – ‘Easy’

KellyWillisEasyMy first exposure to Kelly Willis came around 2002 when the video for “I Left You” was featured on CMT’s fantastic TRL inspired Most Wanted Live video countdown program. The single led Easy, Willis’ second album for Rykodisc Records and first batch of new material in three years. Gary Paczosa, who’s gone on to produce Joey + Rory and Kathy Mattea among others, co-produced with Willis.

The two singles from the album, neither of which charted, remain a couple of my favorite songs from the 2000s still today. Willis wrote “If I Left You,” an acoustic guitar soaked masterpiece about a woman running through how she’d act if she left her man, in the wake of him actually leaving her. Her gorgeous cover of UK singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl’s “Don’t Come The Cowboy With Me, Sunny Jim!” is even better; a stunning waltz about a woman’s stern warning to a man that she’s done being taken advantage of by players. Her vocal on the Spanish-flavored tune is perfection, a great example of Willis’ ability to wrap her distinct twang around a song.

Beyond “If I Left You,” Willis had a hand in writing three more tracks solo. “Not What I Had In Mind” is a mournful ballad about a woman “loving you now, though you’re no longer mine.” It’s a great lyric, but the production is lacking in steel guitar, an oversight leaving the track feeling unfinished. “Reason To Believe” is lush lullaby equating a woman’s ability to let go and live with the start of a romantic relationship. Willis’ vocal is the star here, a master class of control. The track forces her to whisper more than belt and she mostly pulls off the restraint with little difficulty. The title track, the final number Willis penned solo, is excellent, even though the melody could’ve stood for a bit more distinction.

Willis co-wrote two more tracks on Easy. “Getting to Know Me” “Getting to Me” is a mid-tempo mandolin drenched number penned alongside Gary Louris, a founding member of The Jayhawks, and a prominent co-writer on Dixie Chicks’ Taking The Long Way album. It’s a good song, but feels like a second-rate “If I Left You” sonically. “Wait Until Dark” found Willis collaborating with Rosanne Cash’s husband John Leventhal. The ballad is excellent, with Willis and Paczosa dressing it in a fabulous mandolin and acoustic guitar driven arraignment reminiscent of the work Cash would come to produce later in the decade.

Willis turned to her husband Bruce Robison for “What Did You Think,” an excellent ballad, and one of the strongest tracks on Easy thanks to its full melody and strong lyric. Paul Kelly wrote “You Can’t Take It With You,” Willis’ sole detour into bluegrass, a shift that would’ve benefited from a more energized vocal, but is great nonetheless. Blues Pianist and singer Marcia Ball wrote “Find Another Fool,” a steel and fiddle centric ballad about a woman done with a no good man that allows Willis to soar vocally.

I actually downloaded the two singles from Easy long before I went back and purchased the whole album. They remain my favorite of the tracks, likely due to their more commercial bent. The remainder of Easy is a mixed bag, more ballad driven than I was expecting with far less interesting arrangements than I thought would be here given how great the singles sounded. But Easy isn’t a bad album by any means and well worth revisiting if you’ve never heard it or haven’t given it a listen in a while.

Grade: B

Album Review: Kelly Willis – ‘What I Deserve’

whatideserveThe indie phase of Kelly Willis’ career got underway with What I Deserve, which was released in February 1999 on the Rykodisc label. Produced by Dave McNair, Norman Kerner and Daniel Presley it appeared six years after her last full-length album, although an EP had appeared in the interim during her brief stint with A&M Records. Not surprisingly, What I Deserve failed to produce any radio hits, but it did manage to become her highest entry up to that time on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart, peaking at #30.

Kelly appears to have spent much of her down time between albums writing songs; she had a hand in writing six of What I Deserve‘s thirteen songs, with somewhat mixed results. The title track and “Take Me Down”, which was the album’s first single, are both somewhat dull co-writes with Gary Louris, but “Talk Like That”, her only solo songwriting effort on the disc, is quite good. Kelly’s husband Bruce Robison contributed two efforts, “Not Forgotten You” which became the album’s second single, and “Wrapped”, a nice mid-tempo number that should have been a hit — and eventually was when George Strait covered it and took it #2 in 2007. Not surprisingly, the two Robison numbers are among the album’s best songs, along with Paul Kelly’s “Cradle of Love”, which is my favorite from this album. Also noteworthy is “Fading Fast”, one of two co-writes with John Leventhal, which was the title of her 1996 EP for A&M.

What I Deserve‘s production is tasteful — contemporary, without being overdone or overloud, never drowning out Kelly’s honey vocals. It has just enough country elements to keep country fans happy — namely some very nice steel guitar work by Lloyd Maines. It would have benefited from a few more faster-paced songs, but while not every song is particularly memorable, there enough good moments to recommend it. CD copies are hard to find, but it is available digitally and is worth downloading.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Kelly Willis – ‘Kelly Willis’

kelly willisKelly’s third and final album for MCA was released in 1993. Tony Brown produced as before, but was joined by rock producer Don Was, and the overall sound is just a little rockier, but the record served up much the same recipe of brightly delivered country-rock as its predecessors, and met a similar fate commercially.

The singles were the breezy ‘Whatever Way The Wind Blows’ and a bouncy cover of the Kendalls’ ‘Heaven’s Just A Sin Away’. They should both have done better, as they have an infectious charm which one would think was very radio friendly.

The rueful Jim Lauderdale song ‘I Know Better Now’, about learning from bitter experience, is an excellent song, sung very well. ‘Up All Night’, written by Libby Dwyer is also pretty good, about a failing relationship which is as good as over.

My favourite track, however, is one of the few slower moments, the lovely ballad ‘That’ll Be Me’, a tender duet with singer-songwriter Kevin Welch, who wrote the song. The downbeat ‘World Without You’ (written by Kelly with Paul Kennerley) is also very good

‘Take It All Out On You’ is a cheerful mid-tempo love song which was somewhat ironically written by Kelly’s ex Mas Palermo and her new love interest (and now her husband) Bruce Robison. It’s fairly typical of her style at this period, with a chugging groove and a bright vocal. But you can’t help wondering about how the conversation went in the writing room.

‘One More Night’ is a chugging rocker written by Palermo with Bruce’s brother Charlie; it’s not bad but the production is a little heavy for my taste. ‘Get Real’ and ‘Shadows Of Love’ were written by Kelly with John Leventhal, but unfortunately neither is very interesting.

You can get used copies fairly cheaply, so if you enjoy a little rockier edge to your country, this is a good bet.

Grade: B+

Album Review – Rosanne Cash – ‘The River & The Thread’

river-thread-cd-coverIn the decade since Rosanne Cash returned to music following a two-and-a-half year silence caused by a vocal chord polyp, she’s gone inward, looking to her musical and personal legacy for creative inspiration. As a result, Cash has made works that display her spectacular grace and dignity in the face of crippling loss.

This inward exploration reaches a new zenith on The River & The Thread, her first self-penned record since 2006, and a love letter to the southern United States. When Arkansas State University contacted Cash about acquiring her father’s boyhood home in Dyess, she and her husband John Leventhal (who co-wrote, produced, and arranged the record) took many extended trips to the region, visiting historical landmarks, and overseeing the purchase and renovation of her dad’s childhood home.

To raise the funds needed to purchase the property, Cash held a series of concerts in which everyone from George Jones, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson performed. Marshall Grant, her father’s bass player in the Tennessee Two and her ‘surrogate dad’, was also scheduled to perform but died of a brain aneurysm following show rehearsals. His death led Cash to write the first song for the project, “Etta’s Tune.” Written for Grant’s widow Etta, the song brings Grant’s voice to life as he pays tribute to the wife he’s leaving behind – “When the phone rang in the dead of night you’d always throw my bail. No you never touched the whisky, you never took the pills. I traveled for a million miles while you were standing still.” The song is extraordinary because Cash is depicting the beautiful tale of true love though Grant’s own eyes, as a second-generation source, bringing his voice to life with stunning clarity.

Mandolin driven “The Sunken Lands” uses similar techniques to paint the difficult life of her grandmother Carrie, on the terrain where Johnny grew up. The detail Cash provides is heartbreaking – from the endless work in the cotton fields (“the mud and tears melt the cotton balls”), verbal abuse from her husband (“His words are cruel, they sting like fire”), to her crying children. More than a song “The Sunken Lands” plays like a novelette from a legendary American writer. Cash has been known for her prose in recent years, and Black Cadillac played like a musical memoir, so it’s not surprising she brings those sensibilities to The River & The Thread as well.

The album’s title comes from the opening track, “A Feather’s Not A Bird.” When Cash sings, “You have to learn to love the thread,” she referencing a remark by a dear friend who’s a master seamstress in Florence, Alabama. It’s the most austere of the album’s songs, with a chorus that relies so heavily on metaphor it comes off a tad kooky. A fascination with the famous Tallahatchie Bridge (yes, the one highlighted in Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe”) inspired the album’s closing track “Money Road,” an eerie ballad about the nearby street where Emmett Till flirted with a white woman and was murdered. “Money Road” boasts a great lyric, but the production is too slow and prodding for me to make a full investment in the song.

“The Long Way Home” details Cash’s personal journey, but rests in the spiritual realm on the idea of taking the long way home to ourselves, not necessarily a particular place. At 58 Cash has the life experience for such a sentiment, which only adds to the track’s deeper meaning. Even better is “Tell Heaven,” a meditation on longing and loneliness that frames Cash’s delicate whisper with a gorgeously folksy acoustic guitar. I love the gentle ease Leventhal brings to the arrangement coupled with the overall message – everything in life will be okay if you surrender your burdens to your higher power.

Cash gives a vocal master class on “Night School,” a striking ballad brought to life with the perfect sprinkling of fiddle and acoustic guitar. “50,000 Watts” uses the reach of radio wires to dispense a common prayer of love and devotion set to an upright bass, acoustic guitar, and drum heavy arrangement. “Modern Blue” has the album’s most modern sound, with electric guitars and drums creating a loudish sound that wakes up the listener. The chorus feels a little underdeveloped, but the whole song comes together by the end.

The centerpiece of The River & The Thread started as a composition Leventhal and Rodney Crowell were writing for Emmylou Harris, who never ended up recording it. As the story goes, Cash’s song Jake was researching The Civil War for school when she reminded him he had ancestors on both sides of the conflict. Inspired, Cash asked Crowell if she could rework the song (she always loved it) as a Civil War ballad about her relative William Cash, who fought for the North. After much obsession, and loss of sleep, the re-worked “When The Master Calls The Roll” was born.

“When The Master Calls The Roll” is a sweeping epic about William Lee, the love who would wait for him, and his eventual death in battle. Cash, Leventhal, and Crowell infuse the tune with so much detail and phrase each section with such precision the song quickly elevates to the echelon of masterworks. This track is so good the rest of the album, which meets just as high a standard, pales greatly in comparison.

Cash has said if she never cuts another record she’ll be fine, now that she’s made The River & The Thread. It’s easy to see why, as this is an album of a different breed, sown from a rare cloth. It’s atypical, even from singer-songwriters, to see an album this full-formed, possessing so much of the artist who created it. As tired as I am of seeing Cash mine her legacy, she continues to bring new and exciting colors to her exploration of what it means to be Johnny’s daughter. And with those colors, she may have created her best album yet.

Grade A+

Album Review: Rodney Crowell – ‘Let The Picture Paint Itself’

Not long after his exit from Columbia, Rodney found a new major label home in MCA, where his old friend and longterm producer Tony Brown was now in charge. Rodney’s debut album for the label was released in 1994. The songs were all self-written, although they vary in quality. It seems that Rodney’s music was out of step with the prevailing mood on country radio with the rise of the hat acts, but he was still trying to maintain the mainstream stardom he had achieved a few years earlier. The result was an album which often falls between two stools.

The jangling Beatles-styled sound of the cheerfully philosophical title track was the lead single, but it did not do well. The astonishingly bland ‘Big Heart’ is too obviously tailored for radio and fails to convince on any level.

Rodney’s fine and subtle song ‘I Don’t Fall In Love So Easy’ had been recorded by Trisha Yearwood on the previous year’s The Song Remembers When, with Rodney singing harmony. Yearwood returned the favor by harmonising when Rodney recorded his own version of the song, and the result is very good (if not as beautiful as Yearwood’s version), with a contemporary sound and emotionally convincing vocal. But it was too little too late, and radio ignored it completely when the track became the album’s third and last single, even though it was far superior to its two predecessors.

‘That Ol’ Door’ is a fine song looking back affectionately to a happy home “in a world we understood”, back in the early days of his marriage to Rosanne Cash before it all fell apart. ‘Once In A While’ has a pretty melody, pensive lyric about the surviving spark of love. Curiously, Rodney wrote the song with John Leventhal, who was to marry Rosanne, presumably the song’s inspiration, the following year.

Rodney wrote two songs this time with Guy Clark. The relaxed ‘Stuff That Works’ about what matters most in life is very appealing both in its down to earth lyric and the pretty arrangement. ‘The Rose Of Memphis’ is an appropriately bluesy story song, but not all that interesting.

‘Loving You Makes Me Strong’ is quite a nice, straightforward love song with an attractive melody and arrangement. ‘The Best Years Of Our Lives’ is pleasant rather than outstanding, but benefits from a beautiful harmony from Patty Loveless. ‘Give My Heart A Rest’ has a bright poppy feel and preaches the benefits of positive thinking.

Sales were disappointing, with the album failing to chart. Used copies are now available very cheaply, and it was also reissued last year as a 2on1 CD with its successor, Jewel Of The South.

Grade: B

Album Review – Rodney Crowell – ‘Life Is Messy’

Life Is Messy arrived in May 1992 and served as a correction of course following the disappointing commercial success of Keys of the Highway. It marked his first recording for Columbia without Tony Brown at the helm and came as his marriage to Rosanne Cash was ending in divorce.

With his personal life in turmoil, Crowell crafted a brooding album of heartbreak ballads that found him coming to terms with the end of his marriage all the while looking into the better future that lie ahead. While not his most energetic work, the album rose to #30 and spun two top-ten singles.

One of the project’s rare up-tempo numbers, the solo penned “Lovin’ All Night” proceeded the project and peaked at #10. Led by distinctive guitar and drum work, it marked one of Crowell’s more memorable singles of the 1990s (Patty Loveless covered it on 2003’s On Your Way Home). The airy and somewhat pop flavored “What Kind of Love,” co-written by Crowell with Will Jennings and Roy Orbison (who wrote the melody shortly before he died), peaked art #11 that summer. A third single, “Let’s Make Trouble” failed to chart.

The rest of Life is Messy feels more like a personal art project than a commercial country album and showed the quickly growing divide between Crowell and mainstream country radio. But as a singer/songwriter, Crowell proves worth by creating some of his deepest and most heartfelt compositions to date.

The best of the most personal songs, “Alone but not Alone” opens with a beautiful reflection on a life peppered with confusion:

I’m stretched out like a canvas ‘neath a blue and endless sky

Staring up through cattle bones as cotton balls roll by

I swear I see a rose up there so beautiful and white

If I so much as blink an eye I could lose her in this light

Out here in this deserted land the future looks so vast

Like every little grain of sand and every blade of grass

Other memorable heartbreak tunes include the beat driven “I Hardly Know Myself,” which Crowell co-wrote with Cash, the beautifully meditative  (and my personal favorite) “Life Is Messy,” which builds with his stunning vocal, and the Orbison-like “Maybe Next Time.” Even the rockers – “It’s Not for Me To Judge,” “It Doesn’t Get Better Than This” (which Crowell co-write with John Leventhal, the man Cash would marry in 1995), and “The Answer is Yes” all come with their own brooding bitterness.

As far as heartbreak albums go, Life is Messy is one of the best and lyrically close to brilliant. The main problem lies within the production – producers Bobby Colomby, Larry Klein, and Jeffrey Vanston (along with Leventhal and Crowell) seem confused as to the album’s classification – is it country? Adult Contemporary? Or singer/songwriter? Without a focus, Life Is Messy comes off as a hodgepodge of styles without a chance of maximum success in any one genre. But as a collection of songs, it’s stellar.

Grade: B+

Album Review – Rosanne Cash – ‘Rules of Travel’

The years following Ten Song Demo were the most trying of Cash’s career. She began work on Rules of Travel in 1998, but the recording was delayed due to her pregnancy and a polyp forming on her vocal chords rendering her unable to sing for 2 and a half years. In March 2003, Travel, her first full studio album for Capitol Records, finally saw the light of day.

Travel not only marked Cash’s return to recording but it also ushered in a new period of her career, one where she would blend the sensibilities of both country and folk while embracing her ancestry in full-force.  While not quite a return to the sound that garnered her fame, Travel is firmly within the Americana genre, a place where artistry shines over commercialism.

All and all Rules of Travel is a solid if somewhat unspectacular effort. While the songs are easy on the ears and feature varying tempo, there aren’t many that stick out as truly outstanding. The only genuine masterpiece is the much-heralded “September When It Comes,” a duet with her father Johnny, made all the more eerie by his death in September of that year. Written by Cash and her husband John Leventhal,  “September” is arguably the most important track she’s recorded in recent years.

The rest of the album may not eclipse that level of importance, but it still manages to shine, despite the occasional missteps. Opening track “Beautiful Pain” benefits greatly from Sheryl Crow’s harmony vocal while any magic in “I’ll Change For You” is lost in the marriage of Steve Earle’s mumble and the repetitious lyrics. When I first bought the album eight years ago, I remember questioning the overuse of the line “I’ll Change For You” in the song. The imagination Cash may have been going for was lost for me.

The sentiment in “Rules of Travel,” however, never was, which is why it’s my favorite song on the album. A beautifully sung ballad, Cash’s vocal on the chorus always reminded me of Mary Chapin Carpenter. I love the effortless elegance of the production, how it keeps the song from being too soft yet too loud, and the guitars and drums infuse some much-needed life into the track.

Like “September,” “Travel” stands out by being different, a fact lost by the majority of tracks on the album. “Western Wall,” doesn’t sound much different here than on Ten Song Demo and the quiet slowness hinders my enjoyment, while “Three Steps Dow,” “Closer Than I Appear,” and “Last Stop Before Home” are so similar in sound and tempo, I find it hard to tell them apart.

While those tracks bleed together, adding up to less than the sum of their parts, there are those that rise above mediocrity. “44 Stories” is elevated by the haunting production track while “Will You Remember Me” is the rare gem that conveys the pain of two lovers split apart. She wants nothing more than to be remembered no matter where on earth he may be. And “Hope Against Hope” wins due to the driving drumbeat, which accomplishes bringing life to the track like it did for “Travel.”

All and all Rules of Travel is a very good Rosanne Cash album and a worthy addition to any fan’s collection, for “September When It Comes” alone, the shining moment for country music and Cash’s status as a legend in her own right. But the quiet production becomes a bit weighty leaving the listener in need of something rocking in the vein of “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me” or “Tennessee Flat Top Box.” But that being said, she proves why she was greatly missed as both a songwriter and performer.

Rules of Travel is available in both hard and digital copy from both Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: B

Album Review: Rosanne Cash – ’10 Song Demo’

Rosanne’s debut for Capitol in 1996 was a new start for her in more ways than one. She was no longer concerned artistically with dissecting the failure of her marriage to Rodney Crowell, and no longer interested in making anything that might be regarded as conventional country music. Rosanne wrote all the songs (there are actually eleven rather than ten), all but one by herself, and this is really a showcase of Rosanne as a songwriter not tied to any genre. She was also pursuing prose writing at this time, publishing her first (and so far last) collection of short stories, Bodies Of Water, the same year. Recorded in New York and produced by Rosanne with her new husband John Leventhal as a demo for the record label, the executives liked the results enough to release it as it stood. This decision dictated the marketing of the record, with the title and artwork rather deliberately positioning this as the work of a serious artist rather than the hitmaker Rosanne had been a decade before.

The tastefully understated production and Rosanne’s vocals do sound very good, but as background listening (when not paying close attention to the lyrics), these songs have a real tendency to blend into one another without much variation in pace or mood.

‘The Summer I Read Collette’ harks back effectively to a clever girl’s teenage exploration of life and sensuality sparked by her reading; the title (embarrassingly mis-spelt on the liner notes and album cover) relates to Colette, the French novelist obsessed with youthful sexuality the anniversary of whose birth occurred when Rosanne was 18. It is melodic and passionate, and feels as autobiographical as anything else Cash has written. It is not a country song in concept or style, but the subject and theme convince, and this is perhaps the most memorable songs on the album, as the imagery is intense and the tune more distinctive than the remainder of the material.

The closing track, ‘Take My Body’ is also memorable, a strong defiance of cultural demands for modern American women as Rosanne admits to growing older

‘If I Were A Man’ beat Beyonce and Reba to the titular idea, and is a more thoughtful, low key and personal if decidedly less catchy take on the subject matter, and in fact it forms just one option in a sprawlingly discursive reflection.

The thoughtful piano-led ‘Price Of Temptation’ is good, with an intense lyric, although it gets a bit repetitive. It has a nice feel and beautifully judged vocal. ‘Bells & Roses’ is a hushed, velvety ballad about the depression following a breakup, which sounds decent, but is one-paced and repetitive, and frankly boring.

The Jerusalem-set and agnostic ‘Western Wall’ has a very dull melody, but must have been one of Rosanne’s favorites, as she chose to re-cut it for her next studio album, Rules Of Travel, and was also covered by the stellar pairing of Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. ‘List Of Burdens’ picks up the pace a little, the tenderly sung ‘Child Of Steel’, and the laid-back ‘I Just Don’t Talk About It’, the only cowrite (with Leventhal), and the closing ‘Mid-Air’ are all pleasant enough background listening, but tend to blur together.

Love song ‘I Want To Know’ has some good lines but is very repetitive and has the least attractive production choices.

I like the overall feel of this record better than some of her early 80s work where she seems to be striving too hard to be creating a new direction for country music. Here she abandons that struggle and lets the songs breathe in a way which doesn’t date, but too many of the songs fail to make an individual or lasting impact.

The album failed to chart and was understandably ignored by radio despite critical acclaim, leading to a hiatus in Rosanne’s recording career. It is available digitally, and cheap used copies of the CD are easy to find. It should appeal to Rosanne’s diehard fans, and to those who like literate female singer-songwriters of the ilk of post-major label Mary Chapin Carpenter, without any particular genre ties.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Rosanne Cash – ‘The Wheel’

The 1990s ushered in an era of change for Rosanne Cash, both professionally and personally. Her marriage to Rodney Crowell was beginning to unravel, and as a result her music became more introspective and detached from mainstream country. Her first project of the decade was the (almost) career-killing Interiors, an album of dark and deeply depressing songs that she wrote and produced herself. Aware that the album would be a hard sell to country radio, Columbia Records turned promotional responsibilities for it over to its pop division, and shortly thereafter Rosanne’s contract was transferred from Nashville to New York. Though critically acclaimed, Interiors was a commercial failure, after which Rosanne took a sabbatical from recording for nearly three years.

Her follow-up disc The Wheel examines a lot of the same territory as Interiors, but by this time her outlook is much less bleak. Now divorced from Crowell, Rosanne co-produced The Wheel with John Leventhal, whom she would eventually marry. She wrote all eleven songs on the album, with Leventhal serving as a co-writer on four. Throughout the album she continues to put her failed marriage to Crowell under the microscope, although many of the songs also deal with moving on to a new relationship. What little marketing the album received was handled by Columbia’s New York division. Two singles were released. Neither reached the country chart in the US, though the title track did reach #45 on the adult contemporary chart and the follow-up single “Seventh Avenue” reached #63 on the country chart in Canada. Like Interiors, The Wheel was a commercial disappointment and it marked the end of Rosanne’s tenure with Columbia Records.

Both albums appear to have been created more for the benefit of the artist’s need to examine the changes in her personal life, rather than for the pleasure of the listener. While music is a perfectly legitimate means of self-expression, releasing two such albums consecutively comes across as rather self-indulgent. The Wheel is a much easier album to listen to than its predecessor. It is a quiet album, similar in style to some released by Mary Chapin Carpenter and Nanci Griffith; in fact, Carpenter contributed background vocals to some tracks. The songs are all tastefully produced and well sung. Unfortunately, they are also for the most part, quite dull. While I enjoyed a few tracks — namely, the title track, “You Won’t Let Me In”, and the excellent “Roses In the Fire” in which Rosanne burns the peace-offering of a cheating spouse — the remainder of the songs suffer from a lack of variety in tempo. Many of them are also too long, clocking in at about five minutes in length. They have a tendency to bleed together and by the fourth track I found myself wondering if the album was almost over yet.

While clearly not to my personal taste, The Wheel did receive considerable critical acclaim. It is essential listening only for diehard Rosanne Cash fans, but since cheap copies are widely available, more casual fans may be willing to add it to their collections.

Grade: C

Spotlight Artist: Rosanne Cash

As the first child born to Johnny Cash and his first wife Vivian Liberto-Cash, Rosanne Cash saw first-hand all her father’s stardom and the ups and downs that came with it. Born in Memphis, the Cash clan moved to L.A. when Rosanne was still a toddler and following her parents’ divorce when she was a teenager, she joined her father Johnny’s road show just out of high school. By the age of 20, she was a featured singer in the show and was soon scouting a record deal of her own. It would have been easy for Rosanne to call on her father’s considerable Music City connections to get her foot in the door, but in true Cash fashion, the eldest daughter took the long way around to her own stardom. She had found a kindred spirit in Rodney Crowell, who was then a member of Emmylou Harris’s famed Hot Band, and the pair set out writing and recording a demo album, which caught the attention of German-based label Ariola. Her first self-titled album was recorded mostly in Munich, and was never released in the U.S. It did, however, lead to a deal with Columbia, which was coincidentally, her father’s label at the time. Following the album’s release, she moved briefly back to L.A. to study at the renowned Lee Strasberg Theater Institute, but soon relocated again to Nashville with her new husband Crowell in tow.

Her second album – and first for Columbia – produced 3 top 40 hits and was a critical success, but failed to launch the young Cash’s career in any big way. It would take Seven Year Ache, her third release in 1981, to light the fire under her career when the title track soared to the top of country singles chart and landed inside the pop top 40. The song’s instantly recognizable melody and stream-of-consciousness lyrics set the template for one of the most commercially successful careers of the 1980s. Two more singles from the album found their way to the top of the country charts and the album was soon certified gold. After this initial burst of mainstream recognition, it seemed Rosanne was doomed to follow the path already trod by Johnny as she fell into a period of substance abuse, and her musical output suffered as a result. 1982’s Somewhere In The Stars fell short of its commercial and critical expectations and had many already dismissing the young singer as a flash in the pan. In 1984, after a stint in rehab, Cash again went into the studio to record the dance pop-flavored Rhythm and Romance. This time writing or co-writing all but 2 of the album’s songs, Rhythm restored Cash’s place at the top of the country charts with 2 chart-toppers and another pair of top 5 singles. With the lead single from this set, “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me”, she also picked up her first Grammy award for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.

From 1985 to ’89, all of Cash’s singles would hit the top 10 of the country singles chart, with all but 2 hitting the top. She would end the 1980s with a total of 11 chart-toppers. (As many career #1’s as her father, and second only to Reba McEntire among country females in the ’80s.) 1987’s King’s Record Shop was an embarrassment of riches, housing 4 consecutive #1’s – a first for a female album at the time – and is a start-to-finish classic. King’s Record Shop was also Cash’s final album of “country” material, barring her next Hits collection with 2 new songs. As the 1990’s dawned, Cash began to take her music in a more introspective singer-songwriter direction that didn’t play well on country radio at the time, and probably wouldn’t have in any era of the genre’s history. It’s interesting that an artist at their apex would make a bold maneuver and risk career suicide, but that’s exactly what Cash did. Interiors was not only introspective, but very autobiographical as the material stemmed from her personal problems and fighting with Crowell.

As the 1990s rolled around, Cash was out of favor with radio – having charted only 1 top 40 single from Interiors – and none of her subsequent singles from her final Columbia release, 1993’s The Wheel, even made a dent on the country charts.  No singles were released from Ten Song Demo in 1996 and Cash ended the decade not a hit maker, but as an Americana mainstay and elder stateswoman of sorts in the newly minted fringe format.  She divorced Rodney Crowell in 1992, while recording The Wheel, an album ripe with themes of despair, regret, and divorce overtones.  She married the album’s co-producer John Leventhal in 1995 after settling in Manhattan.

Coinciding with the release of 10 Song Demo on Capitol Records was the Hyperion release of her first novella, Bodies of Water, a collection of short stories with mostly southern gothic leanings.  A pregnancy and vocal chord problems in the late ’90s kept Cash out of the recording studio. She instead published a children’s storybook and was the editor of a collection of prose by noted songwriters. 2003’s Rules of Travel was her first studio album in nearly a decade and also earned her yet another Grammy nomination, this time in the Best Contemporary Folk Album category. Though the album produced no charting singles, a poignant duet with her father on “September When It Comes” received scattered airplay, and the album was a year-end critic’s favorite.  Inspired by the successive deaths of her father, mother, and stepmother, Cash’s next album, Black Cadillac, directly addressed those losses and the beautifully dark affair was again heralded and earned her another Grammy nod.

Following brain surgery in 2007, which caused her to cancel many tour dates in support of Black Cadillac, the singer continued writing for major publications such as The New York Times.  In 2009, she issued another studio album, The List. Culled from the now-famous list of 100 Essential Country Songs compiled by Johnny Cash for his teenage daughter, the album features sparse retellings of a dozen of those songs, and was another critical favorite.

Recent years have seen Rosanne Cash continuing to build on, and protect, her father’s legacy. Most recently, during the 2008 presidential election season, she issued a scathing public statement rebuffing remarks made by singer-songwriter John Rich saying it was “dangerous” in the case of the elder Cash to “presume to say publicly what I ‘know’ he thought or felt”.  Rosanne continues to tour and record with other notable artists, and is especially witty and interesting with her tweets. Keep reading this month as we feature the musical output of this bright, talented, and enduring woman.

Album Review: George Strait – ‘Easy Come, Easy Go’

easycomeIn 1992, George Strait teamed up with a new producer, ending an eight-year professional relationship with Jimmy Bowen, who had moved on to assume the presidency of rival label Capitol Nashville. The association with Tony Brown would prove to be even more enduring, lasting until the present day. A change in producers almost always results in a different musical direction. The first Brown-Strait collaboration, the soundtrack album to Pure Country, was certainly a departure for Strait, but due to its nature, a film soundtrack album isn’t always a good representation of an artist’s work. Our first glimpse at the direction in which Strait’s career would go can be seen with the 1993 album Easy Come, Easy Go.

At first glance, Easy Come, Easy Go seems to be a throwback to the Bowen years, perhaps as a reassurance to fans that Strait had no intention of continuing in the pop-country vein that had prevailed on the Pure Country soundtrack. The album opens with the Texas dance hall number, “Stay Out of My Arms”, the first of two songs contributed by Jim Lauderdale. The second Lauderdale-penned track, “I Wasn’t Fooling Around”, co-written with John Leventhal, continues in a similar vein. Also among the songwriting credits for the album are Curtis Wayne and Wayne Kemp, both of whom had contributed to Strait’s earlier projects. Between them, the duo contributed a total of three tracks to this album. “Lovebug” is a cover of the 1966 hit that Wayne and Kemp had written for George Jones. The pair teamed up with the legendary Faron Young to write the song “That’s Where My Baby Feels At Home”, and Wayne wrote “Just Look At Me” with Gerald Smith.

Despite these nods to Strait’s traditional roots, Easy Come, Easy Go does mark a shift in musical direction, seen most evidently on the title track, an Aaron Barker-Dean Dillon composition. “Easy Come, Easy Go”, the first single and the only one from this collection to go all the way to #1, marks the beginning of the modern George Strait. As the title suggests, this is a laid-back tune, not a hardcore honky-tonker. By 1993, the neotraditionalist movement was definitely winding down. This move to a more mainstream sound is likely a recognition of this, as well as an acknowledgment that most artists at the stage in their careers which Strait’s now was, usually began to experience declining commercial fortunes. Someone at MCA or in the Strait camp was obviously savvy enough to stay ahead of the curve and tweak their formula just enough to keep King George in the game.

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