My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: John Prine

Classic Rewind: The SteelDrivers, John Prine and Bill Murray – ‘Paradise’

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Album Review: John Prine — ‘The Tree of Forgiveness’

John Prine is back with his back with his twenty-fourth album, but only his second since 2011, Released on the Oh Boy label (a label founded by Prine), this is his first album since 2005’s Fair & Square to consist of new songs written by Prine, albeit mostly co-writes.

In terms of chart success, The Tree of Forgiveness has been Prine’s most successful album reaching #5 on Billboard’s Hot 200 albums chart and #2 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart.

For those who haven’t listened to Prine in recent years, a battle with cancer in 1998 resulted in his voice gradually deepening and becoming more gravelly, lending his vocals a gravitas previously lacking.  A battle with lung cancer in 2013 resulted in Prine losing a lung and losing some of his vocal power in the process.

John Prine has never been about hit singles, and this album contains nothing likely to become a hit single. It does contain a bunch of really good songs that tell stories

The album opens with “Knockin’ On Your Screen Door”, which was co-written with Pat McLaughlin. This song is a ballad about being alone

I ain’t got nobody
Hangin’ round my doorstep
Ain’t got no loose change
Just a hangin’ round my jeans

If you see somebody
Would you send em’ over my way
I could use some help here
With a can of pork and beans

I once had a family
But they up and left me
With nothing but an 8-track
Another side of George Jones

The next song was co-written with Roger Cook and is a real gem. “I Have Met My Love Today” is about the joy and anticipation of finding love

True love will always have its way

There ain’t no doubt about it: true love is here to stay

 

Day-by-day our love will grow

Day-by-day our love will show

We’ll go on forever and I can truly say

I have met my love today

I have met my love today

“Crazy Bone” and “Summer’s End” are collaborations with McLaughlin. “Crazy Bone” is a jog-along ballad that attempts to explain (or justify) erratic behavior. If any song on this album had potential as a single, this is the one:

If you like your apples sweet

And your streets are not concrete

You’ll be in your bed by nine every night

Take your hand spanked corn fed gal

And your best friend’s four-eyed pal

To a treat right down the street

That’s dynamite

 

Let your conscience be your guide

If you put your foot inside

You wish you left your well enough alone

 

When you got hell to pay

Put the truth on layaway

And blame it on that old

Crazy Bone

“Summer’s End” is a gentle, but somewhat generic ballad about a love that has wandered away. Dan Auerbach joins McLaughlin and Prine as co-writer on “Caravan of Fools,” a somewhat dramatic but depressing ballad that expresses emotions we all have felt at one time or another:

The dark and distant drumming
The pounding of the hooves
The silence of everything that moves
Late at night you’ll see them
Decked out in shiny jewels
The coming of the
Caravan of Fools

Like the wings of a dove
The waiter’s white glove
Seems to shimmer by the light of the pool
Some dull blinding winter
When you can’t help but lose
You’re running with the
Caravan of Fools

“Lonesome Friends of Science” is a solo effort by Prine, both in terms of the songwriting and performance (it sounds like Prine accompanying himself on guitar with little else on the track until halfway through the track). I’m not sure that sardonic describes the song, but there are some interesting turns to the song

Those bastards in their white lab coats

Who experiment with mountain goats

Should leave the universe alone

It’s not their business, not their home

I go to sleep and it never rains

My dog predicts hurricanes

She can smell a storm a mile away

That’s all the news we have today

Prine collaborated with Keith Sykes on “No Ordinary Blue”, a song that that sounds like something Paul Simon might have written had he been something other than a New Yorker.

Last night
Turned on the TV
Looked out the window
Then pulled down the shade
And I came to the conclusion
My mind cannot be made

I hear a hear a lot of empty spaces
I see a big hole in you
I feel an outline that traces
An imaginary path back to you
This ain’t no ordinary blue

Auerbach, McLaughlin & Prine team up on “Boundless Love”, a song that can only be described as folk. I really like this song and its positive message,

If by chance I should find myself at risk
A-falling from this jagged cliff
I look below, and I look above
I’m surrounded by your boundless love

Surround me with your boundless love
Confound me with your boundless love
I was drowning in the sea, lost as I could be
When you found me with your boundless love
You don’t found me with your boundless love
You surround me with your boundless love

“God Only Knows” was co-written with Phil Spector. Since Spector currently is incarcerated, I suspect that this song was written some years ago. This song features singer-songwriter Jason Isbell on guitar and Amanda Shires on fiddle, with both of them singing backup

God only knows the price that you pay
For the ones you hurt along the way
And if I should betray myself today
Then God only knows the price I pay

God only knows
God only knows

God only knows the way that I feel
Is only a part of the way I feel
If I can’t reveal the way that I feel
Then God only knows the way I feel

God only knows
God only knows

The album closes with the upbeat “When I Get To Heaven”, a song Prine wrote by himself. The song is basically a narration with a sung chorus with a honky-tonk salon piano leading the way:

When I get to Heaven
I’m gonna shake God’s hand
Thank him for more blessings
Then one man can stand
Then I’m gonna get a guitar
And start a Rock and Roll band
Check into a swell hotel
Ain’t the ‘Afterlife’ grand!

Chorus:

And then I’m gonna get a cocktail
Vodka and Ginger Ale
Yeah, I’m gonna smoke a cigarette
That’s nine miles long
I’m gonna kiss that pretty girl
On the Tilt a Whirl
‘Cause this old man is going to town

I’ve never been a big John Prine fan except on his collaborative album with Mac Wiseman and the two duet albums with various female county stars because I did not like his voice. Recently I’ve gone back and revisited his catalog focusing on the lyrics and have gained a greater appreciation of his work and his talent.

While I would consider this to be essentially a folk album, I really liked it and would give it an A-

Album Review: Robert Mizzell – ‘Mama’s Rocking Chair’

2011 was a good year for Louisiana Born Irish country singer Robert Mizzell. He was inducted into the Shreveport Walk of Stars, which recognizes achievement in the world of country music, and is the highest honor his home city could bestow upon him. He also released his eighth album, Mama’s Rocking Chair, a collection of thirteen songs, many of which were classic country covers.

Among the tracks are three George Jones songs from his years recording for Musicor. The earliest, “Things Have Gone to Pieces,” written by Leon Payne, was his first single for the label, peaking at #9. Mizzell gives an excellent reading of the ballad, which nicely stands up to Jones’ recording. The other two were culled from Jones’ 1970 album Will You Visit Me On Sunday. The title track, written by Dallas Frazier is about a prison inmate and the woman he loves on the outside. Charlie Walker’s “Rosie Bokay,” tells the story of a man falls for an enigmatic bartender. Both are also excellent and devoid of the intrusive touches on Jones’ versions.

The jaunty “Sick, Sober and Sorry” was a duet for Lefty Frizzell and Johnny Bond in 1951. Mizzell reprises it here, beautifully, as a duet with Martin Cleary. John Prine’s “Grandpa Was A Carpenter” is newer, first seeing release by him in 1973 and again in 1989 from The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. 2. Mizzell once again turns in an equally wonderful performance. Also very good is his version of Rodney Crowell’s “Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight,” which came to prominence through recordings by Emmylou Harris and The Oak Ridge Boys.

The plight of Irish immigrants in the 1950s is covered on “Paddy,” an Irish folk ballad given a traditional arrangement. Also gut wrenching is “The Orphan Train,” a brutal ballad. The title track, a mid-tempo fiddle drenched ballad, is another excellent story song. “What We Don’t Have” and “Can You Hear Me Now” are pure honky-tonk.

Also featured on Mama’s Rocking Chair is Mizzell’s biggest hit to date at the time, the upbeat “I Ain’t Fallin’ for That” and “Cajun Dance,” a fiddle heavy ode to his Louisiana heritage written specifically for him by Peter McKeever. Of the two,“Cajun Dance,” which opens the album, is the stronger song, which recalls the line dance craze of the early 1990s.

Mama’s Rocking Chair, as a whole, does a great job of mixing both old and new cohesively. I thought it was a bit too clean and precise in execution, but it’s a fine album worth checking out. Individual tracks are available on YouTube and the album is also on Itunes.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Mac Wiseman and Friends – ‘I Sang The Song: Life Of The Voice With A Heart’

If you consider Bill Monroe and those who recorded with his early bands to be Generation 1A in Bluegrass, with those immediately followed in his wake to be Generation 1B (Reno & Smiley, Flatt & Scruggs (Lester & Earl personally were 1A), Carter & Ralph Stanley, Bobby & Sunny Osborne, Jim & Jesse McReynolds, Jimmy Martin), then the last surviving member of generation 1A is Mac Wiseman.

Born in 1925, Mac Wiseman is the great survivor: he survived polio, the Great Depression, Molly O’Day, Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys, Dot Records (as an executive) Rock ‘n Roll, The Hootenanny Era, The WWVA Jamboree, the WSM Grand Ole Opry and The Nashville Sound. Along the way he forged a stellar career as a solo artist recording pop, country and bluegrass music. He was friends with Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard and Gordon Lightfoot, helped organize the CMA and has been inducted into both the Country and Bluegrass Music Halls of Fame.

This album arises from a series of interviews (or perhaps visits) Peter Cooper and Thomm Jutz had with Wiseman in which they discussed his life, listened to his stories and realized that many of the stories would make good songs. All songs are credited to Wiseman, Cooper & Jutz with the exception of the last track on the album.

Mac was past ninety years old when this album was recorded, no longer is very mobile and his voice isn’t quite what it was even a few years ago. Consequently Mac does very little singing on this album, his contributions mostly limited to the beginning or the end of some of the tracks.

Instead a phalanx of his admirers and colleagues do most of the singing with Shawn Camp, Buddy Melton, Junior Sisk, and Ronnie Bowman, among the featured vocalists. Needless to say these vocal performances are terrific. From outside the field of bluegrass, several other vocalists were enlisted.

The album opens up with “The Guitar” a song about Mac’s first guitar, a mail order guitar from Sears, and his experiences in leaning the guitar. Sierra Hull and Justin Moses do the singing on this song (Mac takes a refrain at the end). Sierra (mandolin) and Justin (banjo.fiddle, dobro) team with Mark Fain (bass) and Thom Jutz (guitar) to serve as the backing band for the entire project, with Jutz and Cooper providing harmony vocals on some of the tracks.

“Somewhere Bound” is next up, a song about Mac’s childhood dreams of seeing the world, Buddy Melton, Milan Miller and Andrea Zonn provide the vocals.

“The Wheat Crop” opens and closes with Mac singing a chorus of “Bringing In the Sheaves”, followed by this song about the responsibilities and problems of managing the wheat crop. Junior Sisk, Sonya Isaacs Yeary and Becky Isaacs Bowman provide the remaining vocals.

Jim Lauderdale has always been one of my favorite singers and I firmly believe that if he had come along in the 1950s or 1960s he would have been a huge country music star. “Barefoot ‘Til After the Frost” recounts Mac’s childhood as a school boy. I can’t personally identify with the song, but my father and anyone who grew up in rural America during the Great Depression certainly could – I can remember Dad speaking of this very thing.

“Manganese Mine” is the tale of a property owner taken advantage of and conned nto selling his mineral rights too cheaply. A sad story too often repeated, especially in Kentucky and West Virginia.
The trio of Melton, Miller and Zonn return for “Three Cows and Two Horses” are Mac’s homespun story of the fortunes of many rural families.

“Simple Math,” sung by Jim Lauderdale, is one of my two favorite songs on the album. The song follows Mac’s experiences breaking in as a professional musician including his big break playing with the great Molly O’Day. Lauderdale, who can sing anything and everything is the perfect vocalist to relate the pithy truths of Mac’s observations (“You Can’t Spend The Money You Don’t Have, That’s How It Works – It’s Simple Math”.

Junior Sisk and Ronnie Bowman join up to sing the sing the religiously-themed “Crimora Church of The Brethren”. The song is about going to church during the Great Depression.

“Going Back To Bristol” is my other favorite from the album, and the song currently getting the most airplay. Sung by Shawn Camp, the song is an excellent summary or snapshot of Mac’s career. Shawn Camp was originally pushed as a country artist by Reprise around 2000, but it didn’t take (too much bluegrass in his soul) so he returned to his first love and has had great success as a bluegrass artist, In addition to his solo endeavors (song writer, Grammy winning record producer, etc.), Shawn is the vocalist for the Earls of Leicester.

I’m not really a John Prine fan, but there is no questioning that he has a great appreciation for the music of Mac Wiseman and he and Mac are friends (in 2007 they cut a terrific album together of mostly classic country songs titled Standard Songs for Average People). John was a perfect choice to sing the title cut, the gentle ballad “I Sang The Song”. Prine has the weathered voice necessary to convey the optimistic but weary lyrics.

“I Sang The Song” was originally planned as the last cut on the album, but the decision was made to reprise Mac’s first hit from 1951 (and the only song on the album written entirely by Mac himself) “”Tis Sweet To Be Remembered”. Mac is joined by Alison Krauss on the choruses, a fitting end to the album.

Although these songs fit together to tell Mac’s life story, the fact is that each of the songs works as a stand-alone song, a remarkable achievement indeed, I picked out two of the songs above as my favorites, but the truth is that I love all of these songs and all of the performances. Modern day country music fans may not be too familiar with bluegrass artists but the pickers and singers on this album are an elite group paying proper homage to a truly legendary performer.

Grade: A++

Album Review: Varous Artists: ‘Gentle Giants: The Songs Of Don Williams’

Don Williams had a very successful career in Country Music and is pretty much beloved throughout the English-speaking world. Don would have a long run of chart singles (46 as a solo artist) that would run from 1973 to 1992, and he would continue to release albums of new music through 2014.

With such a long discography, the task is twofold: (1) find artists whose styles are sympathetic to the honoree’s style without being mere imitations, and (2) find some interesting catalog songs rather than simply covering the biggest hits. Moreover, tribute albums tend to be a mixed bag with some of them being very good, and others merely star vehicles for current stars rather than genuine tributes. Gentle Giants is a genuine tribute to Don.

This project succeeds in both respects. The artists cover a broad range of styles and while the songs are mostly big hits, a few lesser known songs are covered as well.

The album opens up with the Pistol Annies’ version of “Tulsa Time” a song written by Danny Flowers, one of Don’s band members. The arrangement of this 1979 #1 record for Don is considerably funkier than Don’s arrangement.

“I Believe In You” was written by Roger Cook and Sam Hogin, hitting #1 in 1980. This was probably Don’s biggest international hit, even reaching #4 on New Zealand’s pop charts. Brandy Clark does a decent job of the song, although it probably should have been tackled by a more grizzled artist than young Brandy.

“We’ve Got A Good Fire Going” was not one of Don’s bigger hits, only reaching #3 in 1986. Written by master songsmith David Loggins, the song seems perfectly suited for a vocal trio such as Lady Antebellum. The arrangement is very gentle with a light string accompaniment.

There’s a storm rollin’ over the hill
And the willow trees are blowin’
I’m standin’ here starin’ out the window
Safe and warm
I feel her put her arms around me
And it’s a good feelin’ that I’m knowin’
Oh, I’ve got a good woman and we’ve got a good fire goin’

“Some Broken Hearts Never Mend” comes from the pen of Wayland Holyfield. The song reached #1 in 1977, Dierks Bentley gives the song an acoustic, nearly bluegrass arrangement. I love the song and I love Dierks’ performance of the song.

While there are no complete misfires on the album, “Amanda” seems ill suited for the duo of Chris Stapleton and Morgane Stapleton. I really like Chris but his voice is just wrong for this song. His version is acceptable but both Don and ol’ Waylon did far better versions of the song.

Similarly Alison Krauss makes the mistake of slowing the tempo in “Till The Rivers All Run Dry”. Since all of Don’s songs are taken at slow to medium slow tempos, reducing the tempo on any of Don’s songs is a mistake. Alison provides a gorgeous vocal, but the song just seems to drag. Don co-wrote this song with Wayland Holyfield, his fourth #1 from back in 1976.

I regard John Prine as a talented songwriter but a poor vocalist with his vocal efforts ranging from mediocre to terrible. Somehow “Love Is On A Roll” works. It was a good idea to pair him with Roger Cook, especially since Prine and Cook were the writers on the song. Don took this song to #1 in 1983.

Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You”, as sung by Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, was a bit of a disappointment, mostly because Amanda Shires is no Emmylou Harris as a harmony singer. I think the song originally was an Emmylou Harris single featuring Don Williams since it was released on Warner Brothers, which was Emmylou’s label. The song only reached #3 but I thought it was an outstanding effort by Don and Emmylou.

“Maggie’s Dream” missed the top ten when released in 1984 but by then Don was staring to lose momentum as a singles artist. Also the album from which the song came, Cafe Carolina, was Don’s least successful album in a decade. Written by David Loggins and Lisa Silver, Trisha Yearwood does a masterful job with the song. I think it has one of the more interesting lyrics that Don ever tackled:

Maggie’s up each morning at four am
By five at the counter at the diner
Her trucker friends out on the road will soon be stopping in
As the lights go on at Cafe Carolina

Maggie’s been a waitress here most all her life
Thirty years of coffee cups and sore feet
The mountains around Ashevill,e she’s never seen the other side
Closer now to fifty than to forty

Maggie’s never had a love
She said she’s never had enough time
To let a man into her life
Aw but Maggie has a dream
She’s had since she was seventeen
To find a husband and be a wife

I am not that familiar with Keb Mo’ but he nailed “Lord I Hope This Day Is Good”, adding a very sincere vocal to an arrangement that is nearly a clone of Don’s original. The song was written by Dave Hanner, best known for his role in the Corbin/Hanner Band. The song reached #1 in 1981.

“Good Ole Boys Like Me”, written by Bob McDill is probably my favorite Don Williams song and Garth Brooks version tells me that Garth definitely grew up on and was inspired by Don’s songs. Billboard had this song dying at #2 but Cashbox and Record World both had it reaching #1.

All said, this is a pretty nice album. Don Williams was a pretty laid back artist and I wish someone had selected some of the more up-tempo songs (admittedly, there were not that many from which to choose). Other than Leon Redbone and Bobby Bare, no one was as good at laid-back as Don Williams.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Zac Brown Band – ‘Welcome Home’

The Zac Brown Band, always eclectic, took that spirit rather too far in their last, terrible, album. Evidently chastened by fans’ lack of enthusiasm for their new direction, they have returned to more organic (though not necessarily paticularly country) sounds on their latest release, their first for Elektra. They have turned to Dave Cobb to produce the album.

The overarching theme is one of home, and family, a mood set by the charming lead single, ‘My Old Man’. A touching tribute to Zac’s late father set to a gentle melody, this is a true delight. The piano-led ‘Real Thing’ is also very good, with a nostalgic look back to a father or grandfather who teaches Zac you can’t substitute for the best, a lesson which he applies to other things in life. (Coca cola, most associated with the title phrase, is not mentioned by name, but the band’s Atlanta background makes it an inescapable point of reference – if Zac’s lucky he might get this picked up for a commercial; if he’s unlucky he could get sued.)

‘Family Table’ is a fond ode to a welcoming home, which I liked. ‘2 Places At 1 Time’ is about the competing lures of home and away, and is a nicely delivered wistful ballad. ‘Long Haul’ is quite pleasant but a little forgettable, with a 70s country-rock-AC ballad feel.

All but one of the songs were composed by the writing team of Brown, Niko Moon and Ben Simonetti, with occasional outside help, not necessarily for the better. Indeed, it is with the co-writes that the album gets off course. Band member Coy Bowles co-wrote the opening tune, ‘Roots’. This is a good but ironically slightly over produced big ballad about the lure of music and a musician’s life. ‘Start Over’, co-written with rapper/producer Pharrell, is one of the band’s signature Caribbean styled tunes, which (although not really my cup of tea) is quite well suited to the lyric (about getting away to the beach as a way of reconnecting with an ex). Some introductory yelping, however, should definitely have been dispensed with – it sets my teeth on edge every time I hear it.

‘Your Majesty’ is a pretty love song, written by the guys with Kenny Habul (an Australian race car driver and solar power entrepreneur, who was mixed up in Zac Brown’s 2016 drugs bust), marred by slightly annoying production, particularly annoying ah-oh interjections. Aslyn, a female pop singer-songwriter from Atlanta with a powerful voice, co-wrote and duets on rock ballad ‘Trying To Drive’. The song is nothing special and not country at all), and the production too heavy, but the vocals are strong in their own style.

The album closes with a fine cover of John Prine’s ‘All The Best’, a pained and subtly bitter farewell to a former love:

Well I guess love
Is like a Christmas card
Decorate a tree
And throw it in the yard
It decays and dies
And the snowman melts
Well I knew love
I knew how love felt

I knew love
Oh, love knew me
When I walked around
Love walked with me
But I got no hate
And I got no pride
Well I got
So much love
That I cannot hide

This is a definite highlight.

This is less of a return to form than I had hoped, and there are few standout moments other than ‘My Old Man’ and ‘All The Best’. Those two tunes are definitely worth downloading, and the whole thing is probably worth checking out if you’re a fan. There is also not much variation in tempo. One cannot help wondering if the band’s hearts are really elsewhere.

Grade: B-

Paul W. Dennis’s favorite albums of 2016

real-country-musicBeing the old man of the blog, I suppose it is inevitable that my favorite albums would differ from those of Razor X and Occasional Hope. There is some overlap, however, and where overlap exists I will not comment on the album

(#) on Razor X’s list / ($) on Occasional Hope’s list

15) Tracy Byrd – All American Texan (#)

14) Mark Chesnutt – Tradition Lives (#) ($)

13) Rhonda Vincent – All The Rage, Volume One

Alison Krauss fans notwithstanding, Rhonda is the Queen of Bluegrass music and is also adept at country and western swing numbers. Rhonda has a great band and all of the members are featured. Her guitar player, Josh Williams, is on a par with any acoustic player currently going.

12) Balsam Range – Mountain Voodoo

Balsam Range has been around for about a decade, winning the 2014 IBPA “Entertainer of The Year” and Vocal Group of The Year” awards. Their newest album was nominated for several awards. This band is renowned for their vocal harmonies. Their current single “Blue Collar Dreams” is being played on Bluegrass Junction on XM Radio – it’s a goodie and indicative of their material.

11) John Prine – For Better Or Worse ($)

the-life-and-songs-of-emmylou-harris10) Various Artists – Life and Songs of Emmylou Harris
I suspect that Emmylou Harris is the most highly revered female country singer, particularly for younger country fans and pop music fans. The epitome of elegance and grace, Emmylou has also been a champion of traditional country music. This album contains nineteen tracks with a vast array of admirers who gathered at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington DC on January 10, 2015 to pay tribute. Emmy sings on a few of the tracks but mostly the guests sing songs at least loosely associated with Emmylou. Guests include Sheryl Crow, Alison Krauss, Buddy Miller, Rodney Crowell and others.

09) Karl Shiflett & Big Country Show – Sho Nuff Country

Although focusing on bluegrass, this veteran outfit has a strong propensity to record country music of the period before 1980, and they perform it well. For me the highlights are “Six Pack To Go” and “Why Baby Why”, but I really enjoyed the whole album.

08) Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (& guests) – Circling Back: Celebrating 50 Years
Knowing that this ban has been around for fifty years is making me feel old, since I purchased several of their early albums when they originally came out. This album was recorded live at the Ryman on September 14, 2015 and features the current membership (Jeff Hanna, Jimmie Fadden, Bob Carpenter and John McEuen) augmented by friends Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Byron House. The guest vocalists include former band members Jimmy Ibbotson and Jackson Browne with John Prine, Alison Krauss, Rodney Crowell and Jerry Jeff Walker also making appearances. Highlights include Alison Krauss singing “Catfish John” , Vince Gill singing “Tennessee Stud” and Sam Bush and Vince Gill teaming up on “Nine Pound Hammer”.

07) Willie Nelson – For The Good Times: A Tribute To Ray Price (#) ($)

06) Time Jumpers – Kid Sister (#)

05) Dallas Wayne – Songs The Jukebox Taught Me ($)

things-we-do-for-dreams04) Trinity River Band – Things I Do For Dreams
I find it odd that Callahan, Florida, a town of about 2000 people, has produced two of my favorite new bluegrass bands in Trinity River Band and Flatt Lonesome. Trinity River Band was nominated for the Emerging Artist award at the recent International Bluegrass Music Association award a few months ago. They play well, sing well and present an effective stage show.

03) Dale Watson – Under The Influence
Had he been born in the 1930s or 1940s, Dale Watson would have been a huge mainstream country star. This album finds Dale tackling a wide array of country and rockabilly classics from bygone years. My favorites from this disc include Dale’s take on the Eddie Rabbitt classic “Pure Love” and his take on the Phil Harris song from the 1940s “That’s What I Like About The South”.

02) Flatt Lonesome – Runaway Train
Flatt Lonesome won the IBMA Vocal Group of The Year award for 2016. They are just flat[t] out good. Their take on Dwight Yoakam’s “You’re The One” has to be heard to be believed, but my favorite track is their cover of the Tommy Collins tune “Mixed Up Mess of A Heart”.

01) Gene Watson – Real. Country. Music ($)
Okay, so I lied, but I cannot let the #1 album go by without the comment that I consider Gene Watson to be the best country male vocalist alive today and that I pray that 2017 sees another new release from Gene.

Occasional Hope’s top 10 albums of 2016

real-country-musicThere has been some excellent country music released this year, admittedly mostly away from the major labels. Just missing my cut were strong comebacks from Loretta Lynn and Lorrie Morgan; glorious Western Swing from the Time Jumpers; sizzling bluegrass from Rhonda Vincent and her band; and a pair of very promising debuts from Mo Pitney and William Michael Morgan.

10 – Bradley Walker – Call Me Old Fashioned
Traditional country meets gospel from an underrated singer.

Best tracks: ‘His Memory Walks On Water’; ‘Why Me’; ‘Sinners Only’; ‘In The Time That You Gave Me’.

big-day-in-a-small-toen9 – Brandy Clark – Big Day In A Small Town

Like Miranda Lambert’s latest, this album married outstanding storytelling and songwriting, good vocals and overbearing production. But the songs here are so strong that the end result still made it into my top 10.

Best tracks: ‘Since You’ve Gone To Heaven’; ‘Three Kids, No Husband’; ‘Homecoming Queen’.

8 – Cody Jinks – I’m Not The Devil

His deep voices tackles themes of darkness versus light, on some very strong songs.

Best tracks: ‘The Same’; ‘I’m Not The Devil’; ‘Grey’.

7 – Jamie Richards – Latest And Greatest

Warm, inviting vocals and excellent songs with a real gift for melody.
Best tracks: ‘I’ll Have Another’; ‘I’m Not Drinkin’; ‘Last Call’; ‘Easier By Now’.

for-the-good-times

6 –Willie Nelson – For The Good Times: A Tribute To Ray Price

As the veterans of country music continue to pass away, it’s a comfort to see that at 83, Willie Nelson is still going strong. His tribute to the late Ray Price, with the help on several tracks of The Time Jumpers, was a delightful reminder of some of the best country songs ever written.

Best tracks: ‘Heartaches By The Number’; ‘Crazy Arms’; ‘Invitation To The Blues’.

5 – Dallas Wayne – Songs The Jukebox Taught Me

The deep voiced singer’s Heart of Texas debut is a honky tonk joy.
Best tracks: ‘No Relief In Sight’; ‘Eleven Roses’; ‘She Always Got What She Wanted’.

4 – Mark Chesnutt – Tradition Lives

A solid return from the 90s star with some excellent songs. It feels as if the last 20 years never happened.

Best tracks: ‘Is It Still Cheating’; ‘So You Can’t Hurt Me Anymore’; ‘Neither Did I’.

hymns3 – Joey + Rory – Hymns That Are Important To Us

A final heartbreaking labor of love for the duo recorded during the last stages of Joey’s illness. Joey’s beautiful voice and inspirational spirit are showcased for the last time.
Best tracks: ‘Softly And Tenderly’; ‘When I’m Gone’; ‘I Surrender All’.

2 – John Prine – For Better, Or Worse

I adored John Prine’s collection of classic country duets on the topic of marriage, and said when I reviewed it that it was set to be my favourite of the year. I was almost right. It really is a delightful record – great songs, lovely arrangements, and outstanding vocals from the ladies counterpointing Prine’s gruff emotion.

Best tracks: ‘Fifteen Years Ago’ (with Lee Ann Womack); ‘Look At Us’ (with Morgane Stapleton); ‘Color Of The Blues’ (with Susan Tedeschi); ‘Cold Cold Heart’ (with Miranda Lambert); ‘Dreaming My Dreams With You’ (with Kathy Mattea); ‘Mr And Mrs Used To Be’ (with Iris De Ment).

1 – Gene Watson – ‘Real. Country. Music

While Willie Nelson is still great, his voice is showing signs of age. The wonderful Gene Watson is still at the peak of his powers in his 70s, and his skill at picking excellent material hasn’t faltered either. His latest album reminds younger performers what real country music is all about.

Best tracks: ‘Couldn’t Love Have Picked A Better Place To Die’; ‘Bitter They Are, Harder They Fall’; ‘When A Man Can’t Get A Woman Off His Mind’; ‘A Bridge That Just Won’t Burn’; ‘Ashes To Ashes’; ‘She Never Got Me Over You’.

Album boxed set review: The Mac Wiseman Story

the-mac-wiseman-storyBorn in 1925, Malcolm “Mac” Wiseman is the renaissance man of county and bluegrass music – singer, songwriter, musician, A&R man, record producer, disc jockey, co-founder of the Country Music Association. Mac was an early pioneer of country music, performing with Molly O’Day, and was a very early member of Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys, and later performed with Bill Monroe.

Mac survived polio, changing musical trends, changes in the structure of the recording industry, yet through it all, he has remained “the voice with a heart”, possessor of a slick Irish tenor with just enough “down home” in his voice to enable him to sing any form of music convincingly. Mac Wiseman is my absolute all-time favorite bluegrass vocalist.

Mac was elected into the International Bluegrass Hall of Honor in 1993 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2014, one of only three bluegrass acts (the others are Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs) to be inducted.

Mac Wiseman has recorded for a wide variety of record labels with performers as diverse as John Prine, Lester Flatt, Merle Haggard and Doc Watson. It would be presumptuous of any box set comprised of only six CDs and 153 songs to claim to tell the Mac Wiseman story, but this set gives it an awfully good try.

The Mac Wiseman Story is comprised of all of the albums that Mac recorded for the CMH (originally County Music Heritage) label from 1976 to 1982, plus some recordings Mac obtained from minor labels.

Disc One is comprised of The Mac Wiseman Story, a collection of twenty songs recorded with the Shenandoah Cutups, the band which accompanied the late great Red Smiley after his split from Don Reno. These are amiable straight-ahead bluegrass recordings of Mac’s most famous songs such as “Love Letters In The Sand”, “I Wonder How The Old Folks Are At Home” and “Tis Sweet To Be Remembered”. I think these are Vetco recordings from 1976-1977, but whatever the source, these are fine recordings.

I should note that in order to ensure that each disc is chock full of music, that tracks from the 1979 CMH double album The Essential Bluegrass Album (with the Osborne Brothers ) are scattered at the end of CDs 1,2,4,5 & 6.

Disc Two is comprised of Country Music Memories and Mac Wiseman Sings Gordon Lightfoot. The former is a 1976 set of classic, mostly 1950s, country music songs ably backed by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith and Clay Smith as well as some other acoustic instruments. The latter, released in 1977, contains Mac’s renditions of some of Canadian folk Singer Gordon Lightfoot’s classic songs as well as some lesser known songs. In addition to Arthur & Clay Smith on guitars, Eddie Adcock appears playing five string banjo.

The entirety of Disc Three is given to one of my favorite albums, The Clayton McMichen Story. Clayton McMichen (January 26, 1900 – January 4, 1970) was an American fiddler and country musician, whose band, the Georgia Wildcats, played a mix of country, pop, jazz and swing tunes. Clayton was regarded as one of the hottest fiddlers of his time. This album, in reality a tribute to Clayton and his band, finds Red Herron taking the role of Clayton McMichen, with Mac taking the role of vocalist Jack Dunnagan, Joe Maphis as tenor banjo player Jerry Wallace and Merle Travis as guitarist Slim Bryant. This album is a cohesive representation of what Clayton and his band sounded like, with an assortment of the reels, rags, blues and thirties pop tunes played.

Disc Four contains the excellent 1982 album Grassroots To Bluegrass. Some of the songs come from the early days of country music before bluegrass split off from country music. Included in this group would be “Kentucky”, “Short Life of Trouble”, and “Don’t Give Your Heart To A Rambler” and the rest are early bluegrass songs such as “I’m Using My Bible For A Roadmap”. Mac is accompanied by a stellar band that includes Eddie Adcock (banjo, guitar), Kenny Baker and Jim Campbell (fiddle), Martha Adcock (rhythm guitar), Josh Graves (dobro), Jesse McReynolds (mandolin) and Missy Raines (bass)

Disc Five finds Mac in the role of hard country/western swing artist on the 1980 album Songs That Make The Jukebox Play. The musicians with Mac on this album include a bunch of guys that played with Bob Wills or with Merle Haggard during his big band days – Johnny Gimble (fiddle & co-producer) , Jim Belken (fiddle), Dick Gimble (bass), Will Briggs (sax), Curley Hollingsworth (piano) , Herb Remington (steel guitar), Eldon Shamblin (lead guitar) and Bill Stone (trumpet). If you ever wondered how Mac does with western swing, wonder no more. Other than Hank Thompson and Tommy Duncan, I can’t think of any better swing vocalists than Mac Wiseman. I bought the vinyl version of this when it came out and kept hoping that Mac would revisit the genre. Among the classics covered are “Bubbles In My Beer”, “Time Changes Everything” , “Driving Nails In My Coffin” and “Wild Side of Life”.

Disc Six is a so-called bonus disc titled Mac Wiseman – Most Requested. This album contains a few songs not found earlier in the box set, plus it contains the remaining track from the Wiseman – Osborne Brothers collaboration.

This box set is released under the Wise Records label which is Mac’s own label. Mac has apparently obtained the rights for many of his recordings from the past. This set retails for $49.98 but you can obtain it for about five bucks less online.

Maybe this isn’t quite a comprehensive account of Mac’s career, but it is a really fine collection and an excellent place to start if you would like to explore Mac’s music. One thing is for sure – after listening to this collection, you will have no doubts as to why he is known as “the voice with a heart”.

Grade: A+

Album Review: John Prine and Friends – ‘For Better, Or Worse’

for-better-or-worseBack in 1999 singer-songwriter John Prine released a charming collaboration with a group of country and folk female singers, singing classic country duets. 17 years later here comes a sequel, which is just as delightful. Prine’s gruff vocals are set off by his duettist’s much better voices, and the combinations work very well.

Most of the collaborators are different, with the exception of Fiona Prine (John’s wife) and Iris De Ment. The latter featured on no less than four tracks on the first album, and two here, both originally recorded by Loretta Lynn and Ernest Tubb. The tongue in cheek opener ‘Who’s Gonna Take Your Garbage Out’ has Iris throwing out her good-for-nothing husband. He complains of being henpecked, while she declares,

Calling a man like you a husband’s like calling an ol’ wildcat a pet

They take a broken marriage more seriously in the sad ‘Mr And Mrs Used To Be’.

The wonderful Lee Ann Womack is ethereally sweet on ‘Storms Never Last’. She is even better on ‘Fifteen Years Ago’, a pained tale of long lasting heartbreak, which was a hit for Conway Twitty. Turning it into a duet transforms the song from one of solo heartache (a la ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’, but with no end in sight) to one of mutual regret, which is almost more poignant. This is my favourite track.

‘Cold, Cold Heart’ doesn’t work as well as a duet lyrically, but the cut shows duet partner Miranda Lambert can do traditional country with a lovely sounding and emotional vocal. Kacey Musgraves hams it up a bit on the ultra-retro ‘Mental Cruelty’, but the track is fun. Holly Williams is good on the sassy back-and-forth of ‘I’m Telling You’, although the song is very short (less than two minutes).

The pure voice of Kathy Mattea makes two appearances. ‘Dreaming My Dreams With You’ is gorgeously tender and romantic, while ‘Remember Me’ is pretty with a little melancholy undertone. Alison Krauss guests on the gently pretty ‘Falling In Love Again’. Probably the least known singer to a general audience is Morgane Stapleton (wife of Chris), but I’ve loved her voice since she was briefly signed to a major label a decade ago. Her performance on Vince Gill’s ‘Look At Us’ is lovely, and very reminiscent of Lee Ann Womack.

A very pleasant surprise for me was Susan Tedeschi, a blues/rock singer who does an excellent job on ‘Color Of The Blues’. Although she’s not the greatest vocalist, Americana artist Amanda Shires is also decent on ‘Dim Lights, Thick Smoke’ (one of my favourite songs), and adds a bit of quirky personality.

It’s fair to say that Fiona Prine is not in the same class as the other ladies vocally, but her duet, ‘My Happiness’, is quite pleasant. There is one solo track, the closing ‘Just Waitin’’, a surprisingly entertaining narration.

This is an excellent album which is vying to be my favorite of 2016.

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

Album Review: Tom T. Hall – ‘The Magnificent Music Machine’

magnificent music machineAfter a string of successful albums and singles between 1971 and 1976 in which seven of his nine albums reached the Billboard Country Top Ten, and twelve of his singles reached the Billboard Top Ten Country Singles chart (six reached number one on Billboard), Tom T Hall decided that it was time to give proper airing to his bluegrass roots. The end result, The Magnificent Music Machine would prove to be both an artistic success and a chart success, with the album reaching number eleven and the only single released, “Fox On The Run” reaching number nine.

For this project, Tom called on a number of his bluegrass friends plus some other leading lights of the genre: Kenny Baker, Johnny Gimble and Buddy Spicher on fiddle; Gene Bush on slide dobro; Bobby Thompson and J.D. Crowe on banjo; Donna Stoneman (of the legendary Stoneman Family) and Jodi Drumright on mandolin; and Trish Williams, J.T. Gray, Art Malin, and Jimmy Martin (!) on harmony vocals To try to give the album some commercial appear, Nashville session stalwarts Buddy Harmon (drums), Henry Strezelecki and Bob Moore (bass) were added to the mix.

Up to this point in his career, Hall’s albums had been almost exclusively his own compositions. While Tom T would write five of the eleven songs on this album, six of the songs came from outside sources.

The album opens up with “Fox On The Run”, a song which was added to the bluegrass repertoire by the Bill Emerson of the Country Gentlemen, but which started life as a rock song for British group Manfred Mann. The song was written by Tony Hazzard, an English songwriter who wrote hits for The Hollies, Herman’s Hermits, The Yardbirds, The Tremeloes and Lulu. The song reached #5 on the UK pop charts in late 1968 (at least one of the UK charts had it reaching #1). Tom T’s version was a hard driving affair and after the wide radio exposure and sales of the album, the song would be forevermore bluegrass

S

he walks through the corn leading down to the river
Her hair shone like gold in the hot morning sun
She took all the love that a poor boy could give her
And left him to die like a fox on the run

John Prine’s “Paradise” (sometimes titled “Muhlenburg County”) follows, a nostalgic yet bitter mid-tempo song that decries the damage that the coal industry has done to the environment

Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man

And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg county
Down by the green river where paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away

“Mama’s Got The Catfish Blues” is a Tom T Hall composition, written, he says, in the spirit of something Carter Stanley would have written. I’m not sure I’m hearing Carter Stanley in this particular song, but it’s a good song, one that also might have made a good single

There’s a turtle on the stump and the toadfrog jump
And I guess, I could gig me a few
In settlin’ fog I caught a big water dog
Mama’s got the catfish blues

I don’t like to see her unhappy
She treats me like a water tree
I hate to see mama with the catfish blues
And the catfish are layin’ in the river asleep

“Bluegrass Break-up” is a Charlie Williams composition, about the sadness of a bluegrass band that is disbanding:

Well, we’re finally breakin’ up our bluegrass band
And the thought of it is more than I can stand
But if parting is our one chance to survive
You’ll take the dobro and I’ll take the five.

Once our music tore the world apart
When we used to pick and sing it from the heart
But then dissension came into our lives
So you’ll take the dobro and I’ll take the five.

Once our world was harmony and fun
Wildwood Flower and ten-one mighty run
We can’t patch it up, we made too many tries
So you’ll take the dobro and I’ll take the five.

“I Don’t Want My Golden Slippers” is a religious song with the sound and feel of a church choir and a mostly acoustic guitar accompaniment. Although Tom T wrote this song, it truly sounds as if it could have been written a century before.

“Molly and Tenbrooks” is derived from an old folk tale about a horserace and was made famous and fashioned into a viable song by the ‘Father of Bluegrass’ Mr. Bill Monroe. On this recording Bill Monroe guests playing the mandolin to Tom’s vocals. Interestingly, Tom T reports that Monroe had to refresh himself on the mandolin part in order to play the song – he normally played guitar or just sang when performing this song!

“The Fastest Rabbit Dog In Carter County Today” is another Tom T Hall composition, this one an up-tempo romp about a rabbit hunt.

“I’ll Never Do Better Than You” also comes from T’s pen. One of the slower songs on the album, it expresses a depth of feeling that sometimes gets overlooked among the pyrotechnics of the genre

Tom’s late brother Hillman Hall, was an accomplished songwriter, although not in Tom T’s class, of course. “The Magnificent Music Machine” is Hillman’s contribution to this album, a terrific song that I would have released as a single. For that matter, it would have made a great Jimmy Martin single.

He’s got nothing but talent and time on his hands
He loves his music, hangs out with his band
He’s got big-hit ambitions and number one dreams
He’s a high-rollin’, a magnificent music machine

He hit town with nothing but his old guitar
With visions of grandeur and being a star
He writes them and sings them like you’ve never seen
He’s a high-rollin’, a magnificent music machine

“Rank Stranger”, of course is a classic Stanley Brothers song, perhaps my favorite song from the entire Stanley canon, from which there are many classics. This song still gives me chills and Tom sings it well.

I wandered again to my home in the mountains
Where in youth’s early dawn I was happy and free
I looked for my friends but I never could find them
I found they were all rank strangers to me

Everybody I met seemed to be a rank stranger
No mother or dad, not a friend could I see
They knew not my name and I knew not their faces
I found they were all rank strangers to me.

The album closes, fittingly enough, with another Tom T Hall composition “Bluegrass Festival In The Sky”.

In the sweet by and by at that Bluegrass Festival in the sky.

There’ll be Monroe Flatt Scruggs and the Stanleys
The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers and the whole McGranner’s Family
Molly and the Stonemans and Martin and Crow
Dillard and Thompson and Smiley and Reno.

(And we will sing)
In the sweet by and by at that Bluegrass Festival in the sky.

There’ll be old Tige and Baker and Clements and Warren
Richmond and Harold Carl Story and Dorrin
Acker McMagaha Wiseman and Gray
The Osbornes Bill Clifton Sprung and Uncle Dave.

(And we will sing)
In the sweet by and by at that Bluegrass Festival in the sky…

It would be many years before Tom T Hall would return to his bluegrass roots when recording a solo album, but return he would. It just didn’t happen as soon as I would have liked.

Album Review: Rodney Crowell – ‘The Outsider’

In 2005, Rodney Crowell once again found himself on the roster of Columbia Nashville, but The Outsider is a far cry from the earlier work he released for the label during his commercial heyday. This time around he was clearly not targeting the mainstream country audience; there’s very little fiddle or pedal steel guitar to be found. Instead the album leans more towards rock, with electric guitars dominating the arrangement of most of tracks. More importantly, it differs from the mainstream fare with the substance of the songs’ lyrics. Crowell wrote ten of the album’s eleven songs, which delve more into social and political commentary than his previous efforts. Although the songs are often critical of contemporary culture and the political system, Rodney manages to make his points in an even-handed manner that is not overtly partisan, which makes the album less polarizing than much of what was being played on country radio at the time.

Peter Coleman acts as co-producer, as he had done for Crowell’s previous two efforts, 2001’s The Houston Kid and 2003’s Fate’s Right Hand. The album opens with “Say You Love Me”, a re-recording of a song that had originally appeared on Jewel of the South a decade earlier. The lyrics aren’t as heavy as most of the album’s songs, but beginning with the second track, the album takes a sharp turn into the realm of political and social discourse. “The Obscenity Prayer” takes a swipe at a culture that is often greedy, superficial and demands instant gratification, with the line “give it to me” constantly repeated throughout the song. “Don’t Get Me Started” is even more critical. This song deals with a variety of topics from corporate greed and crooked Washington politicians, to the wars in the Middle East, to the ever-growing US national debt. “Ignorance Is The Enemy” starts out as a prayer sung by a chorus, including Buddy and Julie Miller, that sounds like a church choir, with special guests Emmylou Harris and John Prine joining Rodney on the verses’ spoken lyrics. Though well done, this tune comes off as a bit preachy, which makes it a little less effective than the other political/social commentary tunes. These songs all have weighty topics, which can leave the listener with a feeling of great despair, but the closing track “We Can’t Turn Back Now” — a plea for people to get involved — offers some hope that all is not lost.

Not all of the album’s songs deal with political and social issues, and the ones that do not are the ones to which I am most drawn. My favorites are “Glasgow Girl”, a song about a Texan who finds romance while traveling in Scotland and “Shelter From The Storm”, a cover of a Bob Dylan tune, which is performed as a duet with Emmylou Harris. As one of the few songs on the album to feature the steel guitar, “Shelter From The Storm” has a more country feel than the rest of the album, and in a more sane radio environment would have had hit single potential. However, only two singles were released — “The Obscenity Prayer” and “Say You Love Me”, neither of which charted.

Though The Outsider peaked at a modest #37 on the Billboard country albums chart, it received a great deal of critical acclaim. Though not everything on the album will appeal to hardcore country fans, the songs are all well written and tastefully produced. Inexpensive copies are easy to find and are worth seeking out.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: John Prine – ‘Paradise’

Singer-songwriter Prine is joined by Marty Stuart and Vince Gill on a 1982 performance of his best known song.

25 Greatest Live Country Albums

All readers of this website are fans of recorded music. I would assume that most also enjoy seeing and hearing music performed live. After all, there is electricity which permeates a live performance, the interaction of performer and audience coupled with the ambiance of the venue. Tempos are usually faster, there is banter between the performer and the band and/or audience, and often songs are performed that never are recorded by the artist.

That said, it can be very difficult to capture that electricity and the landscape is littered with poor live recordings, victims of either poor recording technology, poor venue acoustics or sub-par backing bands (I had a cassette copy – probably a bootleg – of a live Chuck Berry performance in France where he was backed by what was essentially a polka band, complete with tuba and accordion). Below is my  listing of the greatest live country albums.  My list is solid country, without too many fellow travelers such as Americana or alt-country artists. I may admire John Prine and Townes Van Zandt as songwriters but I cannot stand to listen to either of them sing. The less said about the Eagles and Gram Parsons, the better.  In putting my list together, I’ve limited any given artist to one album, although I may comment on other live albums issued by the artist.

Yes, I know that bluegrass and western swing are underrepresented in my list as are modern era artists, although if I expanded to a top forty list, I’d have albums by Alabama, Tracy Lawrence, Tom T. Hall, Brad Paisley, The Osborne Brothers, Glen Campbell, Bob Wills, Hank Thompson, Rhonda Vincent and Hank Williams to include. Moreover, over time there have been improvements in recording technology and the sound of live recordings has improved, so sonically, some of the albums I’ve left off will sound better than some I’ve included.

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Classic Rewind: Bonnie Raitt & John Prine – ‘Angel From Montgomery’

Album Review: Loretta Lynn – ‘Still Country’

Loretta’s first solo album in a decade was recorded in 1998 and released two years later released on the independent Audium label. Her voice was, sadly, not quite what it had been, but the songs are stronger than they had been on her last MCA album and the production from Randy Scruggs is exemplary throughout.

The heart-wrenching piano-led opening track ‘On My Own Again’ sounds as though it must be autobiographical addressing Loretta’ own experience of widowhood following Doolittle’s death in 1996, but it was actually written by Randy Scruggs, who produced the album. The woman in this song, unlike Loretta, is childless, but in other respects this must have felt very close to home. It is definitely a highlight, filled with intense emotion.

She did write one personal expression of her loss in ‘I Can’t Hear The Music’ credited as a co-write with Cody Jones and Kendal Franceschi, who finished it off when the weight of emotion overwhelmed Loretta herself from doing so. Tears audibly fill her voice as she talks about her feelings for Doolittle, and the effect is genuinely moving:

He showed me there was more to me
When I thought I had nothing else to give
God knows he wasn’t perfect
Ah but then again nobody is
He always told me the truth
No matter how hard it was to hear
When he’d say “I believe in you”
That was music to my ears

Oh each word’s like a note,
Like a beautiful tune
The kind that inspires
And helps you get through
Oh if I said “I can’t” he’d say “you can”
He was my toughest critic
Oh, and my biggest fan
Now he’s gone to a distant shore
And I can’t hear the music any more

By all accounts, including Loretta’s own in her two unflinchingly honest autobiographies, he was a bad husband in many respects – constantly unfaithful and an alcoholic, but her love for him is undeniable.

Her other composition here is the bouncy gospel-cum-tribute to Kentucky (“the closest place to Heaven that I know” of ‘God’s Country’, with hoe-down style fiddle and Earl Scruggs on banjo. The decline in her vocal powers is all too obvious, but her personality comes through engagingly, as it does on ‘Country In My Genes’, written by Larry Cordle, Larry Shell and Betty Key, and the other track featuring Earl Scruggs. This was the single released to support the album, but perhaps unsurprisingly it failed to chart. Here Loretta defies attempts to change her image; it’s a bit shouty at times but still enjoyable:

I got country in my genes
Country in my blood
It goes back generations
It’s something I’m proud of
It’s something I was born with
Whatcha get is what you see
I’m just an old hillbilly with a country song to sing
Lord I’ve got country in my genes

Yeah country’s hit the big time
Me, I’m still the same
I ain’t above my raising
And I ain’t about to change

Max D Barnes and Vince Gill wrote the pretty but mournful look at lost-love, ‘Table For Two’ which has the best vocal and is one of my favorite tracks. I’m surprised that Vince never recorded this beautiful song himself. Another favorite track is the poignant ‘Hold Her’, the third-person tale of a woman planning to leave the husband she wrongly thinks doesn’t love her, and the man who could keep her if he only showed her he did, written by Don Wayne and Irene Kelley:

All he’d have do to hold her is to hold her
Tell her how he feels down deep inside
All he’d have to do to hold her is to hold her
There’s no way she would ever leave his side

I enjoyed the sprightly cover of John Prine’s charmingly optimistic ‘Somewhere Someone’s Falling In Love’, with its almost-Caribbean rhythms, and the closing track, a version of ‘The Blues Ain’t Workin’ On Me’, previously recorded by Rhonda Vincent on her underrated 1996 release Trouble Free. ‘Don’t Open That Door’, written by Jerry Salley, Coley McCabe and Robin Lee Bruce, is a great song about struggling to resist the temptation to get involved again with a bad-news ex, but Loretta’s voice sounds strained on the sustained notes in the chorus.

The least successful track is ‘Working Girl’, a Matraca Berg/Randy Scruggs song with Matraca and Carolyn Dawn Johnson on backing vocals, a disastrous attempt at sounding contemporary. It just doesn’t work, with Loretta sounding very strained vocally, and is actually painful to listen to. It was covered more successfully a few years later by Terri Clark.

Loretta had been out of the limelight for some years, due in part to Doolittle’s illness, and this record was largely ignored. Unfortunately, despite the high quality of the material, it is a little disappointing, revealing Loretta had passed her best vocally.

Grade: B-

Year In Review: J.R. Journey’s Top 10 Albums of 2009

As with my favorite singles of the year list, finding ten albums from 2009 that I really loved wasn’t as big a task as I first expected it to be, but narrowing it down and placing them was the real chore.  I’ve certainly been more influenced by the various blogs and sites I read this year than I ever have before – the influence of sites like The 9513, Country Universe, The Gobbler’s Knob, etc. are definitely showing here.  Not to mention, I’ve picked up lots of great music from the suggestions of my fellow writers here at My Kind of Country.  In case you missed any of them, they’re all worth adding to your collection, and here my ten favorite albums from the past twelve months.

10. EP – Caitlin & Will (Sony)

The debut release from the winners of CMT’s Can You Duet turned out to be a six-song digital EP instead of a full album in CD form.  A varied collection of songs that, in my opinion, is very focused, especially for two singers who were thrown together on a reality show.  Caitlin’s crystal clear vocals provide the perfect balance to Will Snyder’s husky delivery.  There were several great songs on here, and no throwaways.  Check out ‘Even Now’, ‘Leaves of September’, and ‘Dark Horse’.

9. Live On The Inside – Sugarland (Mercury)

Sugarland’s recent live set follows the CD/DVD combo form.  I was a little disappointed that the full show with all their hits wasn’t also the audio CD.  The DVD serves the live album’s purpose – to capture their hits in concert, and the result is a full-blown Sugarland show, complete with all their hits, hamster balls and all.  Rather than being an audio form of that show, the CD features several tracks not found on the DVD, mostly all covers of pop and rock songs from the past 20-something years.  Some I could do without, but the real gems like ‘Circle’ and ‘Better Man’, where Nettles puts her own distinctive vocal stamp on these rock hits, are a real treat.  Their country spin on Beyonce’s ‘Irreplaceable’ is more enjoyable than it probably should be and Kristian does a fine job when he takes a turn at lead on ‘The One I Love’.

8. Twang – George Strait (MCA)

The latest offering from King George finds him stepping outside his comfort zone with off-beat tracks like ‘Arkansas Dave’ and the all-Spanish ‘El Rey’.  Showing up as a co-writer on 3 of the album’s tracks is also a fairly new development for Strait, but judging from the quality of the material he wrote with Dean Dillon and his son, Bubba Strait, I’m hoping George picks up his pen more often, and also takes more chances musically, with his next album.  For now, I’m still enjoying spinning this one.

7. Beautiful Day – Charlie Robison (Dualtone)

When Charlie Robison and Dixie Chicks banjo-playing, multi-instrumentalist Emily Irwin Robison divorced in 2008, the Texas singer/songwriter poured his misery into this collection of songs.  Robison sings here of regrets, heartache, and moving on, all with a tinge of sadness and even a touch of reluctance.  Favorite tracks include ‘Down Again’ and ‘Reconsider’.

6. Sing: Chapter 1 -Wynonna (Curb)

Since leaving The Judds and going solo, Wynonna’s sound has changed a lot over the years.  We’ve heard her incorporating sounds from R&B, pop, rock, jazz, and everything in between.  A collection of classic songs from several genres, with one new song in the way of the title track written by Rodney Crowell, Sing is an interesting and at times inspired collection. Wynonna’s ferocious delivery is front and center the entire time, always reminding us that Wynonna Judd is the owner of one of the finest voices of our time.

5. My Turn – Tanya Tucker (Saguaro Road)

I rightly called 2009 ‘the year of the tribute’ earlier in the year, and looking over my top albums of the year list, I think I made a justifiable generalization since so many of my favorite artists released albums looking back and paying tribute to the classic songs that country music was built on.  Tanya’s covers album was just a step above Wynonna’s mostly for the arrangements behind the songs.  While Wynonna took the songs, changed them up, and made them something different, Tanya took a straightforward approach, and simply infused her patented vocals into these tried and true songs, injecting her personality into them at the same time.  I find myself playing this one more than I expected to, especially ‘Love’s Gonna Live Here’ and ‘You Don’t Know Me’.

4. Keep On Loving You – Reba (Valory)

I admit this is an album that took time to grow on me before I really loved it.  After the first couple listens to Reba’s first album for her new record label, I was a bit disappointed.   I expected more in the way of going back to the classic Reba sound.  But Reba has never been an artist to look back, but instead forges ahead with the trends of the day.  She reminded us why she’s one of the most successful and respected singers in country music’s history with this release, and tracks like ‘Over You’, ‘Maggie Creek Road’, and the chart-topping second single, ‘Consider Me Gone’, are throwbacks to the time when Reba music was golden, and her vocal performances throughout the album are engaging.  This is certainly an album with lasting power in my own library.

3. The List – Rosanne Cash (Manhattan)

The idea behind this album is fascinating in itself.  An eighteen year-old Rosanne, whose father was a bonafide superstar in country music, didn’t seem to know much about its history.  Being a good father, Johnny Cash set out to correct this, making his daughter a list of 100 essential country songs.  The entire list still hasn’t been made available for the public to see, but Rosanne did record twelve of them for her latest offering, simply titled The List.  Cash weaves through these country classics with ease and gives a contemporary interpretation to them, with the help from some of her superstar New Yorker friends like Elvis Costello, Rufus Wainwright, and Bruce Springsteen.  Choice tracks include ‘Sea of Heartbreak’ (with Springsteen), ‘Long Black Veil’, and ‘Girl From The North Country’.

2. Revolution – Miranda Lambert (Sony)

On her third studio album, Lambert has finally come into her own as an artist, and in my opinion, has reached a peak in her evolution as an artist.  Note that I said ‘a peak’ and not ‘the peak’.  While it doesn’t pack the power punch her last album, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend did, and doesn’t seem to have as clear a vision, Lambert has never been stronger as a writer or a vocalist than on Revolution.  She wrote most of the album, but she also had the good sense to draw from the wealth of material coming out of Music City and other places, and a quick glance of the liner notes shows names like Ashley Monroe, John Prine, and Julie Miller, among Lambert’s own many writes and co-writes, a couple with boyfriend Blake Shelton.  Of particular note are ‘The House That Built Me’, ‘Heart Like Mine, and ‘That’s The Way The World Goes ‘Round’.

1. The Long Way Home – Terri Clark (Bare Tracks)

Taking the top spot on my list is Terri Clark’s first independent release after freeing herself from big-label politics.  Terri had taken a sabbatical to her native Canada to care for her mother and write songs when she headed to Nashville earlier this year and recorded this set in three takes.  The result is one of the most focused albums I’ve ever heard.  Whether it was intentional, or just a facet of her state of mind at the time, Clark has taken on a more mature aura to her music and herself, imparting the sort of wisdom that only comes from experience.  ‘A Million Ways To Run’ is a beautiful and telling narrative about running from your problems.  ‘Merry Go Round’ talks of slowing down, enjoying life, and taking stock, while ‘If You Want Fire’ warns and coaches you on the ups and downs of a red-hot love affair.  Clark has never sounded better, nor has her writing been as sharp than on this introverted collection of songs.

Album Review: Tanya Tucker – ‘TNT’

TNTfrontIn her 1997 autobiography Nickel Dreams , Tanya Tucker referred to TNT as her first million-selling album and the one that nearly killed her career. In 1977, in need of professional management, she was referred to a Los Angeles firm called Far Out Management, who had managed a number of pop and rock acts and had expressed an interest in helping a country act cross over. They managed to convince the 19-year-old Tucker that they could make her a platinum-selling act, unlike the “hicks” back in Nashville. TNT was the first project that resulted from this collaboration.

Released in 1978, the album created waves partly because it was a rock album. To their credit, neither Far Out nor MCA made any pretense about this being a country album. The sole exception was the closing track “Texas (When I Die)”, one of the most solidly country songs that Tucker has ever recorded, and the only single from the album to crack the Top 10 on the country charts.

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

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

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

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