My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: John Paul White

Album Review: Rodney Crowell – ‘Close Ties’

The past continues to cast a looming shadow over Rodney Crowell on his latest album, produced by Jordan Lehning and Kim Buie. He has written about his difficult East Houston childhood before, and he revisits it more graphically than ever on ‘East Houston Blues’, a reflective and gripping contemplation of a very tough past which might have ended very badly. The song seems to be set in an alternative world in which he never got out of it:

I grew up hungry
And I grew up hard
Took the streets and alleys
For my own backyard
I got a breakin’-and-enter
On my list of crimes
Been before the judge
One too many times…

I’m a third-born child
My mother’s only son
Which means exactly nothing
Without a loaded gun
I don’t believe in love
This I guarantee
If there’s a God above
He’s got it in for me

This song opens the album, which is bookended with his recollections of his arrival in ‘Nashville ‘72’ and early friendship with Guy and Susanna Clark. He drops lots of names of his musician friends from that era, some of whom will be more familiar than others to the average listener. Susanna Clark’s recent death may perhaps have sparked off this nostalgic mood, and ‘Life Without Susanna’ addresses this sense of loss. While it is well written and clearly heartfelt, the rather histrionic vocals make it hard to listen to.

In another echo of times past, ex-wife Rosanne Cash joins Rodney on ‘It Ain’t Over Yet’, together with John Paul White, formerly half of Americana duo The Civil Wars. A rueful yet optimistic look at growing older partly inspired by Guy and Susanna, this is an excellent song which is being promoted as a single:

It’s like I’m sittin’ at a bus stop waitin’ for a train
Exactly how I got here is hard to explain
My heart’s in the right place,
what’s left of it I guess
My heart ain’t the problem,
It’s my mind that’s a total mess
With these rickety old legs and these watery eyes
It’s hard to believe that I could pass for anybody’s prize
And here’s what I know about
The gifts that God gave
You can’t take ’em with ya
When you go to the grave

The funky ‘I Don’t Care Anymore’ is also about growing older, and no longer bothering about appearances or what others think.

An unexpected guest is Sheryl Crow, who duets with Rodney on ‘Tied To Ya’ which he wrote with Irish musician Michael McGlynn. This is a kind of love song with a pretty melody and rather vague spiritual but not religious lyrics. I much preferred the delicately understated pensive ‘Forgive Me Annabelle’, about a former love and his own past failings, set to a beautiful string arrangement. ‘Reckless’ is a song about dreaming about cheating on a true love, with another classical style arrangement.

‘Storm Warning’, a co-write with poet Mary Karr, with whom Crowell collaborated on his album Kin a few years ago, is an intense description of a tornado, but (while entirely appropriate for the song) it is a bit loud and cluttered for me to actually enjoy. In contrast, the mellow, poetic ‘Forty Miles From Nowhere’ is lovely.

I don’t think I would call this album country, and maybe not even Americana. But it is an excellent, mature piece of work.

Grade: A

Single Review: Rodney Crowell feat. John Paul White and Rosanne Cash – ‘It Ain’t Over Yet’

maxresdefaultThe celebrity marriage is the stuff of legend in country music, where iconic pairs either come together as the loves in each other’s lives or break apart as fame and fortune stuck their formidable wedge where it shouldn’t belong. The success rate hasn’t been high, which should be expected, from pairs in such an industry.

One such union is that of Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash. The pair met when he produced three tracks on her European-Only debut album. She would venture to California to play with his band The Cherry Bombs. They married in 1979 and had their first child in 1980 and moved to Nashville the following year. Cash and Crowell would divorce in 1992.

They’re back together twenty-five years later for “It Ain’t Over Yet,” which finds Crowell tracing their love story in song, from his perspective:

For fools like me who were built for the chase

It takes a right kind of woman to help you put it all in place

It only happened one in my life but man, you should have seen

Her hair two shades of foxtail red

Her eyes some far-out sea blue-green

With stark honesty, he goes on to blame himself for their demise:

I got caught up making a name for myself

You know what that’s about

One day your ship comes rolling in

The next day it rolls right back out

And you can’t take for granted

None of this shit

The higher up you fly boys

The harder it is you’re gonna get hit

Cash takes the reins on the final verse:

I’ve known you forever and ever and ever it’s true

If you came by it easy you wouldn’t be you

You make me laugh

You make me cry

You make me forget myself

I do love the message that in love as in life, we’re only human:

It ain’t over yet

Ask someone who oughta know

Not so very long ago

We were both hung out to dry

It ain’t over yet

You can mark my word

I don’t care what you think you heard

We’re still learning how to fly

It ain’t over yet

There’s so much about this song to admire. “It Ain’t Over Yet” is devoid of animosity, which is remarkable, and paints time as an almighty healer. Crowell, as a songsmith, has never been sharper with his imagery or conviction.

The record itself, though, suffers from overcrowding. As much as I admire John Paul White’s contributions, and his buttery vocal is gorgeous, what is he doing here? He plays an intermediary in an intimate moment that would’ve ultimately shone brighter if it were left to Crowell and Cash alone. That version would’ve been transcendent. This one is a hair slightly below, although still very much worthy.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Southern Family’

southern familyMixed artist compilations can often be hit and miss. This concept album based on life in the American South, produced by Dave Cobb, is no exception. The concept itself hangs together a little vaguely, and the artists come from country and Americana with a side of (white) soul and rock. However, if it is intended to represent the South as a whole, it is rather lacking in the ethnic diversity of participants.

Jason Isbell is normally more Americana than country, but ‘God Is A Working Man’ is definitely a country song, and an excellent one to boot. The lyric pays tribute to a working class family with lots of colourful details about a Pentecostal preacher and his son. The melody and rustic vibe remind me of ‘Grandpa Was A Carpenter’, as recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and John Prine on Will the Circle Be Unbroken Part II. I like it better than any of Isbell’s past recordings.

Brent Cobb is producer Dave’s cousin (actually, first cousin twice removed). His track, ‘Down Home’, is quite pleasant without being very memorable. I also quite enjoyed Holly Williams’ ‘Settle Down’, about starting a new family.

I tend to prefer Miranda Lambert when she isn’t rocking it up, so I enjoyed her song, ‘Sweet By And By’ – not the gospel classic but a reflective depiction of rural life and family philosophy which sounds as though it was written for the prompt of the album concept. The old fashioned folky lyric and vocal are charming, although a more stripped down arrangement would have been even better.

‘Learning’, by Miranda’s new boyfriend, Anderson East, an Americana/R&B artist based in Nashville, is not my style of music, but is pretty good of its kind. Shooter Jennings’ ‘Can You Come Over’ is in similar vein, but more listenable. Rich Robinson of the rock band the Black Crowes offers a loud and boring number.

John Paul White’s former duo the Civil Wars were much admired by many critics, but they were never quite my thing, and I’m afraid I strongly disliked White’s whispery tune here, ‘Simple Song’.

Not all the songs here are new. Zac Brown (who appears to have lost the plot on his last album) is back on form here with a nice cover of Skip Ewing’s ‘Grandma’s Garden’. Lee Ann Womack adds a sweet harmony. Jamey Johnson wrote the tender ‘Mama’s Table’ for the Oak Ridge Boys a few years ago, and revives it here himself. The song remembers childhood happiness. Brandy Clark has recorded the affecting ‘I Cried’, about a family funeral, before, but it fits neatly in the theme for this collection, and she sings it beautifully.

Morgane Stapleton, wife of Chris, once had her own record deal, although nothing was ever released. She has a very pretty voice in the vein of Lee Ann Womack or Dolly Parton, so I was disappointed that her contribution (backed by Chris) was not really to my taste. It is a dramatically slowed down blues/rock take on the oldie ‘You Are My Sunshine’ which sounds suicidally depressed.

This is a bit too varied for me as a whole, but there are several worthwhile tracks.

Grade: B