My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: John Pennell

Album Review: Alison Krauss & Union Station – ‘Every Time You Say Goodbye’

everytimeAlthough Alison Krauss had received her fair share of critical acclaim almost from the very beginning of her career, it wasn’t until the release of 1991’s I’ve Got That Old Feeling that she began to slowly build some commercial steam as well. That album peaked at #61 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. The following year’s Every Time You Say Goodbye was her first collaboration with Union Station to chart. It only reached a modest #75, but it was still a notable achievement for a bluegrass act at that time. It won the Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album in 1993, becoming the group’s first, and Alison’s second overall.

At this particular point in time Union Station consisted of Ron Block (banjo), Barry Bales (bass), Tim Stafford (guitar), Adam Steffey (mandolin), and of course, Alison on fiddle. She shares lead vocal duties with the other band members, as she had done on the group’s previous effort Two Highways. Alison has always been at her best when singing ballads, so she allows the other band members to take the lead with some of the more uptempo numbers such as “Another Night”, “It Won’t Work This Time”, and “Another Day, Another Dollar”, one of the alubm’s highlights which was written by future Union Station member Dan Tyminiski.

Although Every Time You Say Goodbye finds Alison assuming production duties for the very first time, the album’s content doesn’t differ much from her earlier works. The pop flourishes which characterize her later work are largely absent here. The album’s best tracks are the ballad “Heartsrings”, “New Fool” and the title track, which is the sole contribution by John Pennell, who had provided much of the material for the group’s previous album as well as Alison’s solo efforts. All three of these tracks were released as singles, though none of them charted. Rounder had begun releasing singles to country radio beginning with 1991’s “I’ve Got That Old Feeling” but only “Steel Rails” had charted and it peaked at an underwhelming #73. It would be another three years before Alison enjoyed her mainstream breakthrough with her cover of Keith Whitley’s “When You Say Nothing At All”, after which she became a much sought-after guest vocalist in Nashville. At this stage, however, her success and that of Union Station, were still confined to the bluegrass world. Every Time You Say Goodbye is a solid effort that will appeal to Alison’s fans, but will probably do little to win over bluegrass skeptics.

Grade: A

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Album Review: Alison Krauss – ‘I’ve Got That Old Feeling’

i've got that old feelingAlthough she was still in her teens, by the time of her third album for Rounder (and second solo-billed effort) in 1990, Alison had matured as an artist, and does justice to the excellent songs. produced by Bil VornDick and Jerry Douglas, the album ventures a little away from straight bluegrass incorporating country and other influences, while remaining predominantly bluegrass. Alison’s crystal-clear vocals interpret the material well, with almost every song sad in tone and most on the slower side. The quality is very high, with an emphasis on both melody and well-constructed lyrics.

Alison’s first single to country radio was the title track, a gently wistful tune about anticipating a lover’s departure. It is one of four on the album written by Sidney Cox. My favourite of these is the enchanting ‘Wish I Still Had You’, which takes up a similar story further down the line. Also very good are the closing ‘Longest Highway’ and the beautiful ‘Tonight I’ll Be Lonely Too’.

Old mentor John Pennell contributed a further trio. ‘Dark Skies’ is a confidently delivered love song. Alison shows some attitude with the fast-paced demand of ‘Will You Be Leaving’, backed by some virtuoso musicianship. In ‘One Good Reason’ she gives an ultimatum to her lover to save their relationship.

Nelson Mandrell wrote two fine songs for the record, the melancholic ‘Winter Of A Broken Heart’ and the sweet sorrow of ‘It’s Over’, which has a beautiful melody and angelic vocal.

The bright-toned ‘Endless Highway’, written by Roger Rasnake, has a more optimistic mood than much of the album, with the protagonist returning home to her loved one after a period away.

Louisa Branscomb’s train song ‘Steel Rails’ picks up the tempo and allows Alison’s fiddle and the other musician the chance to stretch out. It was the album’s second single, and managed to garner some modest airplay on country radio.

My favorite track, though, is ‘That Makes One Of Us’, a lovely sad country song about a breakup, written by Rick Bowles and Barbara Wyrick.

The album won Alison the first of her 27 Grammy Awards. It is an excellent record with no weak spots, and well worth adding to your collection.

Grade: A

Album Review: Alison Krauss & Union Station – ‘Two Highways’

twohighwaysAlison Krauss’ contract with Rounder required her to alternate her solo albums with collaborations with her band. Two Highways is the first album under that arrangement credited to Alison Krauss & Union Station. Released in 1989 at a time when bluegrass was still largely regarded as country music’s red-headed stepchild, it is by and large a traditional affair. It has little of the genre envelope-pushing for which Alison would later become known, though it is a softer and more polished sound than was typical of bluegrass up to that time. It was produced by Bill Vorndick. Guest artist Jerry Douglas plays dobro along with regular band members Jeff White, Mike Harman, and John Pennell.

Even though she shares the spotlight with her band members, Alison — who was still only 18 years old when the album was released — is the glue that holds everything together. She plays fiddle throughout the album and sings lead vocals on the majority of the tracks, sounding at times like a young Dolly Parton. The similarity to Dolly is most apparent on the Larry Cordle-penned title track and Todd Rakestraw’s “I’m Alone Again”.

Bass player John Pennell, who contributed much of the material to Alison’s solo album Too Late To Cry, supplies three tracks here: “Love You In Vain”, “Here Comes Goodbye” and “As Lovely As You”, one of the highlights of the album which features Jeff White singing lead vocals with some lovely backing vocals from Alison. Two instrumental numbers – the traditional “Beaumont Rag” and Kenny Baker’s “Windy City Rag” allow the band to shine. The album’s best track is “Teardrops Will Kiss The Morning Dew”, a cover of an old Osborne Brothers song, and the most unusual is a remake of the Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider”, which works surprisingly well with a bluegrass arrangement.

Two Highways did not produce any hit singles, nor did it make the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. It garnered little attention outside the world of bluegrass, but it did receive a Grammy nomination for Best Bluegrass Album in 1990 and it is one of the albums upon which future star Alison Krauss built her reputation.

Grade: A

Album Review: Alison Krauss – ‘Too Late To Cry’

too late to cryAlison’s debut album for Rounder records was produced by the label boss Ken Irwin. It was recorded when she was just 14 years old, and released in 1987. Understandably, she does not sound like a fully formed artist, with her voice sounding lights and insubstantial compared to her more mature work. However, the material is excellent, with almost all the songs written by her mentor John Pennell, while the musicians backing Alison include future Union Station member Jerry Douglas on dobro and Sam Bush on mandolin.

The wistful ‘If I Give My Heart’ is a pretty ballad about falling in love for the first time which I like very much and is probably my favourite track. The title track has a wistful lyric set to an attractive fiddle tune. ‘Foolish Heart’ and ‘On The Borderline’ also have attractive melodies, and ‘Don’t Follow Me’ is quite engaging.

‘Gentle River’ is also pretty and melodic, and works the best of the non-Pennell numbers, although Alison’s vocal is more piercing than gentle. ‘Sleep On’ (written by Illinois music professor Nelson Mandrell) is a little, yes, sleepy. While it is a lovely song, the key is a little higher than seems to be comfortable at times on the beautiful Rodney Crowell ballad ‘Song For The Life’ (billed here under the title ‘Song For Life’), and the lyric is too mature to be convincing from such a young (and very definitely young sounding) singer. I’d like to hear Alison rerecord this song sometime.

Alison’s voice sounds painfully thin on the rather dull ‘In Your Eyes’, but a couple of instrumentals allow Alison to show off her fiddle skills.

Overall, this record shows the real promise of a remarkably talented young artist at the dawn of her career. It’s probably only for completists, but it is quite pleasant.

Grade: B

Spotlight Artist: Alison Krauss

alison kraussFor many years bluegrass was seen as country music’s less commercial cousin, far less likely to cross over to a wider audience. Alison Krauss shattered many of these preconceptions in the course of her career. She has been met with acclaim from both critics and her peers. She has won 27 Grammy awards – more than any other female artist, across all genres; and sold millions of records, to both bluegrass fans and the general public. She was named the Country Music Association’s Female Vocalist of the year in 1995 and has been nominated on a number of occasions despite relatively little exposure on mainstream radio.

Born in Decatur, Illinois, on 23 July 1971, Alison’s musical gifts were apparent from an early age. A child prodigy bluegrass fiddler who was active in the fiddle contest world by the time she was seven, it was to be her beautiful singing voice which led her to fame as an adult. At 12 she and her bass-playing brother Viktor joined a bluegrass band then called Silver Rail, which was eventually to become Union Station. The group was then led by singer-songwriter/musician John Pennell, who became Alison’s early mentor and tutor in bluegrass history, and Alison began to sing as well as well as play fiddle.

She signed her first record deal with the well-respected acoustic label Rounder in 1984, when she was only 13, and released her first album in 1987. Her early work was rooted in traditional bluegrass, but from the first her records were notable for their inclusion of high-quality new songs – many of them written by Pennell. Throughout her career she has interspersed solo albums with band records featuring Union Station. Over the years Union Station has featured a shifting lineup of some of the finest living bluegrass musicians, including, at various times, banjo players Alison Brown and Ron Block, guitarist/mandolin player Dan Tyminski, and celebrated dobro player Jerry Douglas (the only one to get his own featured billing). The records Alison has made with her band are very much band records, with the guys taking their share of lead vocals.

In 1993 she became the first pure bluegrass performer in almost 30 years to be invited to join the Opry. Her undoubted abilities a fiddle player were soon to become almost secondary to her exquisite voice, and she became a frequent guest on country records when a particularly notable harmony was required. Her contribution to Shenandoah’s ‘Somewhere in The Vicinity Of The Heart’ in 1994 made it a top 10 hit. In the same year, she was invited to participate in a multi-artist tribute to Keith Whitley, and Alison’s enchantingly beautiful cover of his hit ‘When You Say Nothing At All’ began to receive unsolicited radio airplay, both alone and mixed in with Whitley’s original to create a duet. This unexpected success led to the single being officially released in 1995, and it reached the #3 spot on the country chart.

This breakthrough to the commercial mainstream was cemented by the repackaging of samples of her early work with some new tracks further removed from straight bluegrass, as Now That I Found You, also released in 1995. It sold two million copies – unprecedented for a bluegrass album, and Alison found herself welcomed within country music, winning four CMA awards that year: the Horizon Award for rising stars, Single of the Year for ‘When You Say Nothing At All’, ‘Vocal Event’ for the duet with Shenandoah, and, most surprisingly for an artist new to country radio, Female Vocalist of the Year.

Her music began to branch away from the more traditional styles she had recorded earlier. Her marriage to jazz guitarist Pat Bergeron (1997-2001) may also have encouraged her to widen her musical horizons. A further appeal to a broader public came when she was involved in the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou, the 2000 George Clooney movie which is credited with sparking new interest in bluegrass and acoustic music. Union Station’s Dan Tyminski sang Clooney’s part on the project’s ‘Man Of Lonesome Sorrow’. Alison’s music has been included on many other films and television programs, making her the most visible of today’s bluegrass artists to the wider public.

Her collaboration with Brad Paisley on ‘Whiskey Lullaby’ was another remarkable duet which gave Alison exposure on country radio in 2004. In 2007 her career took another surprising turn with her award-winning duet album and tour with rock musician Robert Plant. She has also produced albums for several artists, including Alan Jackson’s Like Red On A Rose.

We will be taking a look back at her career this month.

Album Review: Alan Jackson – ‘Like Red On A Rose’

Reliable, consistent, neo-traditionalist, new traditionalist, self-penned tunes – that’s so often how Alan Jackson’s music is described. Like Red On A Rose stands out from the pack of Jackson albums then as a unique and beautiful album of ballads and love songs with a wonderful mix of thoughtful, tender and reflective interpretations of songs by several  writers.

After working with Keith Stegall as the producer on all of his previous albums, Jackson opted to try something different.  He approached Alison Krauss about possibly making a bluegrass album. Instead, Krauss’s song selection and production resulted in an album that lets Jackson’s vocal talent and skill come to the fore in a more acoustic style. This album truly features Alan’s warm, intimate, subtle and honest voice – arguably one of the best in country music. One phrase from ‘The Firefly’s Song’ sums up the overall production well: Sometimes less is more.

Like Red On A Rose was released in September of 2006, following Jackson’s Gospel album, Precious Memories.  Both albums were a departure from his reliable and a bit predictable style, though not a departure from Jackson’s personal history.  He grew up singing Gospel in church, and Jackson’s interpretation of the introspective songs on Rose give you the sense that he’s lived their stories in one way or another personally.

The overall mood of the album calls for a glass of your favorite full-bodied beverage and a quiet evening of reflecting on the richness of deep love, both kept and lost, and the blessings of life in general from the maturity of having lived a good portion of it already — thus, the album cover. But though the mood is fairly consistent throughout the album, the musical styles are somewhat varied.

‘Anywhere On Earth You Are’ sets the tone with a smokey road-weary ballad followed by the aptly titled and bluesy ‘Good Imitation Of The Blues’. Jimmy Holiday’s ‘Don’t Change On Me’ is a gospel-flavored number complete with choir-sounding back-up and gospel organ in the mix. John Pennell’s country waltz ballad ‘As Lovely As You’ has some lovely acoustic guitar.

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