My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Jon Randall Stewart

Album Review: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Speed of Life’

220px-NGDB-SpeedThe Nitty Gritty Dirt Band released their most recent project Speed of Life on their own NGDB Records distributed by Sugar Hill in 2009. George Massenburg and Jon Randall Stewart produced the album, which peaked at #59 on the Billboard Top Country Albums Chart. The album, which didn’t produce any singles, is folksy bluegrass. Given Stewart co-produced it, he helmed Dierks Bentley’s Up On The Ridge, that isn’t a surprise.

Jeff Hanna’s wife Matraca Berg contributed two songs to the project. Both are mid-tempo harmonica laced ballads. “The Resurrection,” which she co-wrote with Alice Randall, is about a lost soul in a nowhere town, while “Good To Be Alive,” (a co-write with Troy Verges) is sing-a-long folk. Both tracks are very good, although I enjoy the latter a bit more even though the cadence is a cheesy for my taste.

John McEuen also contributed two tracks while Bob Carpenter, who co-wrote one with him, supplied four. “Earthquake” is a western swing meets bluegrass fusion ballad complete with gorgeous old-time steel guitar riffs. McEuen composed “Lost In The Pines,” a slow instrumental solo, and while it’s heavy on banjo, it really isn’t my thing.

Carpenter also co-wrote “Something Dangerous” and “Amazing Love.” The former is a plucky mid-tempo number while the latter skews contemporary country. Both are very good although “Amazing Love” is more appealing both sonically and lyrically.

The remaining tracks on Speed of Life offer more of the same bluegrass meets folk mid-tempo numbers that are all expertly crafted if not terribly exciting. “Tulsa Sounds Like Trouble To Me” is an exception, opting for a more upbeat style that gives the track a bit more muscle and energy. “Going Up To The Country” and “Brand New Heartache” follow suit, but they’re more organic in style.

Overall, Speed of Life is a very good album that continues the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s legacy of strong, cleanly produced projects that sound great but aren’t a real punch in the gut. The band could stand to be a bit more adventurous, but that’s just not their style. I would recommend this album to anyone that likes their music mixing bluegrass and folk with organic sounds throughout.

Grade: B+

Advertisements

Album Review: John Corbett – ‘Leaving Nothin’ Behind’

leaving nothin behindWhen a successful actor turns his hand to music, the result is often met with accusations of vanity projects. But I thought John Corbett’s first album, back in 2006, was a good record on its own merits, with the actor showing off a smoky voice with an interesting tone and although he doesn’t write he clearly has a good ear for material. His latest effort is also worthwhile. The album is produced by Gary Paczosa with Corbett’s friend Jon Randall Stewart, who wrote the best song on Corbett’s first project (‘Cash’) and also contributed most of the songs on this one – and that level of quality material helps make the album stand out. Corbett’s smoky voice is fairly distinctive, backed up by the harmonies of Randall, Sarah Buxton, Jessi Alexander and John Cowan, while the overall sound is contemporary but not over-produced.

Perhaps my favourite track is the dark-timbred Western story song ‘El Paso’ (not the Marty Robbins classic of the same name but perhaps a sequel) which Randall wrote with John Wiggins. The narrator is falsely accused of murder:

There ain’t no judge and jury
And there damn sure ain’t no proof
But the sheriff’s needing someone in that noose
Even though I told the truth

I wasn’t even in El Paso
When they gunned that cowboy down
I was in the arms of Rosa
Sleeping safe and sound
So remember when you hang me
All I’m guilty of
Drinking cheap tequila
And falling in love

The track is given a Western style production and allows Corbett to show off the lower extent of his vocal range, and is a real highlight.

Wiggins also co-wrote the reflective metaphorical ‘Me And Whiskey’ about a man’s ongoing on-and-off problems with alcohol. This is another excellent song. ‘Cocaine And Communion’, a Leslie Satcher co-write, tells the age old story of the struggle between addiction and God with a mother’s prayers eventually winning out:

I’ve hung out with the Devil
Like I never knew the Lord
But I was not raised a rebel
And I don’t wanna be a rebel any more

The tenderly sung and very touching story song ‘Dairy Queen’ tells a story about a woman who never forgets her first love (who died in Vietnam), and despite a happy marriage

There’s a part of her still belongs to him

‘Steal Your Heart’ is a likeable breezy declaration of love which opens the album to confident effect, written by Randall with Gary Nicholson and Paul Overstreet. A line from the song lends the album its title.

‘Name On A Stone’ was written with Bill Anderson, and relates a father’s funeral with no mourners beyond family, prompting the protagonist to decide he must leave something of substance behind when his own time comes.

The upbeat ‘Backside Of A Backslide’ was written with Randall’s wife Jessi Alexander and Chris Stapleton, about a husband begging his wife to let him back yet again. Its irrepressible optimism has a lot of charm, and I wouldn’t bet against it succeeding.

Jon Randall’s songs are rounded out by a few obscure but interesting covers; the Bellamy Brothers’ ‘Rainy, Windy, Sunshine’ (a rodeo rider’s letter from the road to a lover) is pretty good with a relaxed vocal. ‘Satin Sheets’ is not the Jeanne Pruett hit but a sardonic Southern rocker about the celebrity lifestyle written by Willis Alan Ramsey which Waylon Jennings recorded in the 70s; it’s probably my least favorite track here but performed with enthusiasm.

The only new outside song without Jon Randall’s hand is also good. ‘Tennessee Will’, written by Pat McLaughlin and Adam Hood, which has a relaxed feel, rootsy arrangement and atmospheric southern mood.

If Corbett was serious about pursuing a country music career, this is radio-friendly enough for commercial success. As a labor of love, it is a highly enjoyable record, and as a bonus, it is an effective showcase for the songs of one of Nashville’s finest songwriters.

Grade: A

2012 CMA Awards: our predictions

The 46th annual Country Music Association annual awards ceremony will take place on November 1, 2012 at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. The show will air live on ABC television again this year and is presented by the pairing of Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, who will take over hosting duties for the fifth consecutive year. Eric Church and his massive hit “Springsteen” lead the list of nominees, with Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton close behind him.

On awards night, look for a musical tribute to Willie Nelson and The Band Perry to debut the first taste of their Rick Rubin produced sophomore album. There’s also talk that Female Vocalist nominee Kelly Clarkson will debut “Don’t Rush” on the telecast, a duet with Vince Gill featured from her Greatest Hits, Chapter One album in stores Nov. 19. Also look forward to a duet from Tim McGraw and Faith Hill (which I’ve heard is during the Nelson tribute), and solo performances from each.

Entertainer of the Year

Jason Aldean
Kenny Chesney
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton
Taylor Swift – Jonathan Pappalardo, J.R. Journey

The usual solid yet unspectacular group. Carrie Underwood fans are likely fuming at yet another snub, while everyone else will bark at the inclusion of Swift, a two-time winner and the incumbent, for her increasing lack of country credibility. But Aldean is the nominee to watch, as his recent stadium tour announcement will likely endear him to voters in the years to come.

Jonathan Pappalardo: I’ll bet on the safest choice this time around and say Taylor Swift is going to win. Chesney may have had the biggest tour, and Aldean is on fire right now, but Swift has the lock on this category.

J.R. Journey: Taylor Swift now not only represents about one-fourth of the total United States GDP, she also hawks makeup, perfume, and shoes on the side. And she just had the #1 song in 12 countries. I say Swift is most likely to succeed on CMA night.

Female Vocalist of the Year

Kelly Clarkson
Miranda Lambert – Jonathan Pappalardo
Martina McBride
Taylor Swift – J.R. Journey
Carrie Underwood

Kelly Clarkson, really? She did score a #21 hit with the country version of “Mr. Know It All” so her nomination is somewhat, albeit very marginally, justified. She has yet to fully embrace a career in country music. McBride is a snoozer scoring her 14th consecutive nomination and 15th overall as her career takes a downward spiral. See, this is what happens when all the great female artists of late (Kimberly Perry, Jennifer Nettles, Shawna Thompson) are members of duos and groups.

Jonathan Pappalardo: While I’d love to see this award go to Clarkson (to tick off the industry if nothing else), she’s a pop singer who’s done a bang up job covering country songs in concert. That’s about it. Miranda Lambert, meanwhile, is the biggest star in country music right now that actually looks and sounds country. And her intuition to form the Pistol Annies proves she’s not afraid to take creative risks. Its her award to lose, and I don’t foresee that happening.

J.R. Journey: Taylor Swift is the likely winner here for pretty much the same reasons she’ll win Entertainer of the year. Miranda Lambert’s new solo music is way below her usual standards this year and I think Carrie Underwood’s dog already had its day in this category, so I don’t see voters leaning toward either of them. 

Male Vocalist of the Year

Jason Aldean
Luke Bryan
Eric Church
Blake Shelton – Jonathan Pappalardo, J.R. Journey
Keith Urban

Another somewhat standard list until you take into account Urban is here in place of red-hot Dierks Bentley. Bentley’s exclusion, which comes on the heels of three back-to-back #1 hits is shocking. Urban should be joining Brad Paisley and been made to sit this one out this year.

Jonathan Pappalardo:  There’s seemingly no stopping Blake Shelton right now despite one mediocre single after another. He’s the biggest star here next to Jason Aldean and the all around better vocalist. He’ll sail to his third straight win no problem.

J.R. Journey: Blake Shelton is coming off two consecutive wins here and his visibility remains higher than Aldean’s, the next closest competitor. Long shots for the win Luke Bryan and Eric Church are still newcomers and first time nominees leaving Keith Urban the longest shot “veteran” slot. For my money, Shelton will repeat a third time here.

Read more of this post

Album Review: Joey + Rory – ‘His And Hers’

For Joey + Rory’s third studio album, they have stayed with producer Gary Paczosa, who helmed last year’s charming Christmas album. As with that Christmas record, Paczosa does a good job, but not quite as sparking a sound as that given to their first two albums by Carl Jackson. Joey’s voice is what sets this duo apart, and it was a little disappointing that this time around she and Rory have split the lead vocals equally (hence the choice of title). I can appreciate they want to underline the point that this is an equal partnership professionally as in life, but while Rory’s voice is perfectly listenable and he shows fine interpretative skills here, Joey is one of the best female vocalists around at the moment. Another slight disappointment was that the delightful ‘Headache’, released as a single last year, didn’t make the final cut.

I have already written about the somber lead single, the stunning ‘When I’m Gone’, and this impresses me more each time I hear it. There are two other really outstanding songs here, both written by Rory with the impressive Erin Enderlin.

The title track tells the story of a couple slowly growing apart, lyrically very similar to the song of the same title recorded some years ago by John Anderson, but the sweet melody and Joey’s subtle vocal set this apart:

All a husband and wife
Have left of a life
That had such a beautiful start
Are two kids torn apart
And two broken hearts
His and hers

Also excellent, ‘Waiting For Someone’ has a woman who meets the perfect man while waiting in a bar for a blind date (perhaps). It seems in fact to be a more subtle ‘The Chair’ situation, as she winds up telling the man she has been talking to,
I was waiting for someone like you”.

A perfectly constructed lyric and delicate tune are interpreted beautifully by Joey’s sultry but vulnerable vocal.

The other songs on which Joey sings lead are pretty good if not quite up to that standard. Kent Blazy and Leslie Satcher’s ‘Let’s Pretend We Never Met’ is a swinging flirtatious number with a wife trying to jazz up her tired marriage, which is quite fun. ‘Love Your Man’ is a pacy and quite enjoyable song encouraging another married woman to persevere with loving her husband, which Joey helped Rory and his daughter Heidi to write. ‘He’s A Cowboy’ is a tribute to the titular cowboy, which doesn’t bring anything new to a wellworn theme, but is beautifully sung with Jon Randall Stewart on backing vocals.

In the compelling story song ‘Josephine’ (on of Rory’s own compositions), he voices the letters of a Civil War Confederate soldier separated from his wife, wracked by guilt over killing a young enemy soldier and anticipating his own death. This is excellent.

‘A Bible And A Belt’ was written by Rory with Philip Coleman and sounds autobiographical. I’m not a big fan of correlating religion and corporal punishment, so this one’s positive, nostalgic feel doesn’t quite work for me, but it is nicely put together with Rory’s finest vocal.

I really like ‘Teaching Me How To Love You’, which rich-voiced teenager Blaine Larsen (who was discovered by Rory) recorded back in 2005. I was disappointed and a little surprised he never broke through, but while Blaine’s version sounds better than Rory’s on a purely aural level, I couldn’t be convinced by the delivery from an 18 year old talking about all the life lessons taught by past loves, and Rory’s maturity makes it infinitely more believable.

The jazzy ‘Someday When I Grow Up’, written by Rory with Tonya Lynette Stout and Dan Demay has a father refusing to mature, and is quite amusing with an interesting instrumental arrangement, but has Rory’s least impressive vocal performance. A similarly slightly flawed but lovable man is the protagonist of a charming relaxed cover of Tom T Hall’s love song ‘Your Man Loves You, Honey’ ( a #4 hit for the singer-songwriter in 1974), and this is highly enjoyable in a Don Williams/Alan Jackson style.

‘Cryin’ Smile’ is a bit of a list song (written by the team of Phil O’Donnell, Gary Hannan and Ken Johnson), but Rory’s invested vocal lifts this song about those emotional and sometimes bittersweet moments in life.

As expected, this sounds good, but although there are a number of standout tracks, overall the material falls just a little short of their first two albums. But at its best, there are some great songs, and the duo remains one of my favourite acts in country music.

Grade: A-

Single Review: Dierks Bentley – ‘Am I The Only One?’

Dierks Bentley’s bluegrass-infused and artistically adventurous Up On The Ridge having failed to score any major radio hits to match the critical acclaim, he is now moving on to a new album, due out later this year. Understandably, it appears that he is reverting to a more radio-friendly sound, at least with the lead single. Other reviews have been disappointed by this song, but I would cautiously differ from that judgment.

This song is, admittedly, clearly a calculated attempt at regaining his automatic-play status at country radio. Lyrically, it is basically a cheery Friday evening go-out-drinking song, with the protagonist abandoned by his old drinking buddies and then hooking up with a similarly lonely “country cutie”. It is not groundbreaking (which should make it fit in just right with radio playlists) but it is an enjoyable enough single and far from the worst of what’s on offer on the airwaves. Dierks wrote the neatly constructed song with producer Jon Randall Stewart and Jim Beavers.

Musically it is almost a ramped up version of the title track of Up On The Ridge, opening with punchy banjo rolls and guitar licks. Things get a bit more raucous when we hit the chorus as the electric guitars get a workout, but although it is a little louder than I would ideally like, the production is not overwhelming . In fact, this feels mroe like a progression from rather than the complete departure from Up On The Ridge I had feared it might be. That should not have been a surprise, as Dierks has kept Stewart, who helmed the last project, as producer for the new project. Dierks’ vocals sound good, with the distinctive grain in his voice strongly in evidence, particularly in the superior first half of the song.

It does come off the rails a little at the end, with the cliche’d relapse into a barroom chorus. On the whole, however, I think this should achieve the desired radio play to encourage sales of the new album, without completely selling out to commercial demands. Just a few weeks after its release, it’s already higher on the charts than the lovely ‘Draw Me A Map’ managed in its entire run last year.

Grade: B

Album Review: Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers – ‘At The Ryman’

With her singles increasingly ignored by country radio as a new generation swept in, Emmylou decided to disband the Hot Band and make a new start. She launched the replacements by recording a live album, at the Ryman Auditorium, historic home of the Grand Ole Opry, which was at the time basically disused. One of the big tests of any artist who sounds good recorded is whether the voice holds up in a live setting. Emmylou Harris’s certainly does, and over her career she has released several live recordings. However, typically of Emmylou, she has never chosen the most trodden path and released a concert of her greatest hits, performed in close imitation of the records. Her 1981 album Last Date, which produced three hit singles including the #1 title track, had consisted of all new material (or at least covers she had not done before). It was not a true live album, though, as the tracks were taken from a series of live dates with her legendary Hot Band. This album, similarly, is not a single gig, but was recorded over three days, 30 April-2 May 1991, and released early the following year. Producers Allen Reynolds and Richard Bennett, and the engineers who worked on the project, deserve special credit for making the final result a seamless whole which sounds like an authentic representation of the experience of seeing Emmylou in concert with her new band.

The material is, once more, all covers of songs she had not previously recorded, mixing up country classics, bluegrass, folk and rock, given an acoustic makeover by Emmylou’s new lineup, the Nash Ramblers. The group, easily as talented as the Hot Band at their hottest and without the assistance of electricity, comprised progressive bluegrass virtuoso Sam Bush on mandolin and fiddle; Roy Huskey Jr on upright bass; West Coast veteran Al Perkins on dobro and banjo, Canadian Larry Atamaniuk on drums and percussion, and a talented young Texan named Jon Randall Stewart on acoustic guitar, mandolin and taking the high tenor harmony, although all four contribute vocals where necessary. Their playing and singing are impeccable throughout. The audience seems to enjoy the occasion rather politely.

For my money. the concert seems to take a while to get going, opening with an enjoyable but fairly sedate version of Steve Earle’s ‘Guitar Town’, followed by a plaintive ‘Half As Much’. ‘Cattle Call’ is prettily and tastefully performed, with delicate yodeling. The chugging ‘Guess Things Happen That Way’ (a Cowboy Jack Clement song made famous by Johnny Cash) is enjoyable, but sounds a little too cheery for the resigned stoicism of the lyric.

It really picks up with a subtly impassioned ‘Hard Times’, dating from the 1850s, which Emmylou opens with a crystalline accapella phrase, and which is one of my favourite tracks. There is more contemporary folk music on a socio-political theme with Nanci Griffith’s idealistic but frankly depressing ‘It’s A Hard Life Wherever You Go’, battling racism and sectarian hatred, segueing into the low key Civil Rights theme of ‘Abraham, Martin and John’, a 60s tribute to Messrs Lincoln, King and Kennedy, all of course victims of assassination. Emmylou also covers rock star Bruce Springsteen’s downbeat and down-tempo memories of a working class child remembering the ‘Mansion On The Hill’ overlooking the town and factories. I must admit would have rather have heard the Hank Williams gospel song of the title, as this is beautifully done, but feels a little lifeless. Southern rock gets a nod with an enjoyable take on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Lodi’, although perhaps it feels a little too good humored for the stagnated frustration expressed in the lyrics.

The bluegrass songs have a lot more life, with lovely, sparkling playing as Bill Monroe’s suitably Celtic sounding instrumental ‘Scotland’ allows the band to stretch out while Emmylou buck-danced with the Father of Bluegrass himself (this is where the video version, which I haven’t seen, would come in handy). The mood carries over into the charming western themed ‘Montana Cowgirl’. There is more Monroe with the driving ‘Walls Of Time’ which he wrote with onetime Bluegrass Boy Peter Rowan, which is okay. Better is a committed performance of ‘Get Up John’, with lyrics written by Marty Stuart and Jerry Sullivan for a Bill Monroe tune, with the Nash Ramblers singing call and response vocals.

Emmylou recalls her 70s peak with a really beautiful version of the wistful ‘Like Strangers’ (one of many Boudleaux Bryant songs made into classic Everly Brothers records, and my favorite track on the album). The spiritual ‘Calling My Children Home’ (co-written by another great bluegrass musician Doyle Lawson) is sung exquisitely acappella with the band members on harmony. I also love Emmylou’s version of the O’Kanes’ ‘If I Could Be There’, with Jon Randall Stewart’s ethereal high harmony; it sounds gentler and more wistful than the original (also great).

There is a nice finish with ‘Smoke Along The Track’ with effective train sounds and appropriate lyrics about moving on.

Sales of this fine record and the accompanying video were disappointing and airplay nonexistent, but the album won Emmylou a Grammy. It also helped to inspire interest in the neglected historic Ryman Auditorium itself, which was restored and reopened as a concert venue in 1994.The CD is easy to find inexpensively. The video was never released on DVD but unused copies of the VHS tape seem to be around.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Emmylou Harris – ‘Cowgirl’s Prayer’

Often a new record deal presents the opportunity for an artist to go off in a different direction and explore new territory, but 1993’s Cowgirl’s Prayer is more of a transitional album in Emmylou Harris’ career. Her first release for Elektra/Asylum was once again produced by Allen Reynolds and Richard Bennett, and follows the same basic template of 1990’s Brand New Dance, using mostly stripped down arrangements and understated performances. As she had done in the past, Emmylou had members of her band and some marquis name guest stars perform on the record. Nash Ramblers members Sam Bush, Al Perkins, Jon Randall Stewart and Roy Husky, Jr., all made appearances, while Alison Krauss, Suzanne Cox, and Trisha Yearwood all contributed harmony vocals and Kieran Kane lent his guitar-playing skills.

Never one to blindly follow trends, Emmylou resisted the then-current fashion of releasing beat-driven, slickly produced and often too-loud music meant to appeal to those on club line-dancing floors. Cowgirl’s Prayer is largely a quiet affair, which, along with Emmylou’s advancing age (by Nashville standards) at a time when country music had begun to become youth-obsessed made the album’s chances for success an uphill climb. It was largely met with indifference by radio, which is a shame because it contains some of the best performances of Emmylou’s career.

The rocker “High Powered Love”, which is not one of my favorites in the collection, was the first to be sent to radio. It stalled at #63. “Thanks To You” , written by Jesse Winchester fared slightly worse, peaking at #65. In between these two singles, a cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Crescent City” was released, and it failed to chart at all.

I like the album cuts in this collection much better than the radio singles. Particularly good are a tastefully produced and beautifully performed version of the old Eddy Arnold and Cindy Walker Classic “You Don’t Know Me”, and “Lovin’ You Again”, in which Emmylou portrays the long-suffering lover whose partner is gone for long stretches of time but always turns up when he has nowhere else to go. The best track on the album is “Prayer in Open D”, which Emmylou wrote herself. It begins as an expression of sorrow and despair:

There’s a valley of sorrow in my soul
Where every night I hear the thunder roll,
Like the sound of a distant gun
Over all the damage I have done.
And the shadows filling up this land
Are the ones I built with my own hand
There is no comfort from the cold
Of this valley of sorrow in my soul.

But by the end of the song, the bleakness gives way to hope:

There’s a highway risin’ from my dreams,
Deep in the heart I know it gleams
For I have seen it stretching wide,
Clear across to the other side
Beyond the river and the flood,
And the valley where for so long I have stood.
With the rock of ages in my bones
Someday I know it will lead me home.

The track is mostly acoustic-guitar led, along with a tasteful string section arranged by former Hot Band Member Emory Gordy, Jr..

There is a spiritual theme throughout the album, from the title and “Prayer in Open D”, to “The Light” and “I Hear A Call” to the Southern-spiritual flavored “Thanks To You”, on which Trisha Yearwood sings harmony, to “Jerusalem Tomorrow”, which is the most unusual track in the collection. It tells the story of a faith healer in Biblical times, who is essentially put of out business by, and eventually becomes a follower of, Jesus Christ. It’s an interesting tale, but I’m not a big fan of songs that are spoken rather than sung, so this is the one track I tend to skip over.

Cowgirl’s Prayer charted higher on the albums chart than Brand New Dance (#34 for Cowgirl’s Prayer vs #45 for Brand New Dance), but it was largely regarded as a commercial disaster. It is primarily remembered as the catalyst that caused Emmylou to make an unfortunate, in my view, change in musical direction; her next release was 1995’s controversial and more rock-oriented Wrecking Ball, which began a 13-year era in which Emmylou’s music drifted further away from the traditional country for which she had become famous. Although 2008’s All I Intended To Be, was in some ways a return to form, Cowgirl’s Prayer remains the last of the old-style Emmylou Harris albums. It’s still easy to find at Amazon and iTunes and well worth purchasing if you missed it the first time around.

Grade: A –

Spotlight Artist: Emmylou Harris

Emmylou Harris was not born to be a country singer. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1947, daughter of an Air Force officer, she grew up in North Carolina and Virginia. She dropped out of college to pursue a career as a folk singer, inspired by the 60s revival of traditional folk music in America. After releasing one album, Gliding Bird (suppressed for years) and following the failure of her first marriage, her life took a defining turn when she met Gram Parsons in 1971 (recommended by Chris Hillman who had been impressed by Emmylou when he saw her in concert). Parsons, an alumnus of the seminal country-rock bands The Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, introduced Emmylou to country music. Emmylou’s haunting harmonies added a touch of magic to Gram’s more shambolic vocals, and her vocal contributions to the two albums on which they collaborated, GP and Grievous Angel, were so significant to their sound that (although billed as solo Parsons records) they were really a duo act. Parsons, a self-destructive soul addicted to drugs and alcohol, died of an overdose in 1973, and, traumatic though this loss was, Emmylou was freed to pursue her own star.

She signed to the Warner Brothers imprint Reprise Records (a contract which was passed to Warner when the smaller label was closed), and began working with producer Brian Ahern, who she was to marry in 1977. Starting with 1975’s Pieces Of The Sky, Emmylou Harris released a sequence of now-classic albums through the 70s, notable for their selection of material: country and bluegrass classics, rock covers, and new songs; for the extraordinary singing and harmony work; and for the superb musicianship mostly from her own Hot Band. Her work was critically acclaimed and also well received on country radio, with a string of hits including five #1s. She won her first Grammy in 1976 for her second album, Elite Hotel.

Emmylou’s live bands have been a large part of her success over the years. The legendary Hot Band in the 70s and 80s had a changing but always stellar lineup, starting with Elvis Presley’s guitarist James Burton(succeeded by the British born virtuoso Albert Lee, writer of ‘Country Boy’), pianist Glen D Hardin, steel player Hank De Vito, and bassist Emory Gordy Jr. One significant member was singer songwriter Rodney Crowell on rhythm guitar for three years. When Crowell moved on to start his own solo career, he was replaced by the multiple instrumentalist Ricky Skaggs, who brought a bluegrass influence to the band before launching his own spectacular career in country music.

From 1979 onwards, Emmylou, always eclectic, began to experiment further, with the pure country Blue Kentucky Girl, the bluegrass Roses In The Snow, an acoustic Christmas album (Light Of The Stable), live recordings (Last Date), even the odd disco song on 1983’s more rock-influenced White Shoes. Her marriage to Ahern broke down, and in 1985 she released the underrated concept album The Ballad Of Sally Rose, with a storyline very loosely inspired by her early career with Gram Parsons, all of which she wrote with English-born songwriter Paul Kennerley, who also took over as her producer, and soon became husband #3 (the couple divorced in 1992). The record was a commercial failure, although one song, ‘Woman Walk The Line’, was later picked up by other artists (Highway 101 and Trisha Yearwood have both recorded it).

She had collaborated frequently on other artists’ records throughout her career (and brought them in to sing on her own), but in 1987 she combined with her friends Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt to record the acclaimed, and platinum selling, Trio, and she also recorded a solo country gospel record, Angel Band, produced by longtime Hot Band member Emory Gordy Jr, with Vince Gill singing harmony.

Notwithstanding the success of Trio, her solo star was waning by this point, and in 1991 Emmylou made another major change, replacing the Hot Band with a new acoustic group called the Nash Ramblers. Their musicianship was just as high quality, including Sam Bush on fiddle and mandolin, and a young singer/guitarist then billed as Randy Stewart who was later to pursue a solo career as singer and songwriter Jon Randall, and is currently known by his full name, Jon Randall Stewart. This lineup gave Emmylou’s music a new impetus, and they recorded a Grammy winning live album at the Ryman (her last release on Warner Brothers). However, commercial success was still diminishing, and after the relative failure of 1993’s Cowgirl’s Prayer on Warners subsidiary Elektra, Emmylou made the most radical change yet in her music.

In 1995 she turned to rock producer Daniel Lanois to create the controversial Wrecking Ball. This album’s connections with country music are limited, but it brought Emmylou acclaim from outside the genre, and earned her a Contemporary Folk Grammy. Another new band, Spyboy, featured guitarist Buddy Miller. A live album, Live In Germany 2000, has just been released (I think in Germany) and showcases this period. She was to continue in the vein for the next few years, investing more in her own songwriting than she had done earlier in her career. 2008’s All I Intended To Be, her most recent album, reunited Emmylou with Brian Ahern, and combined elements of her more recent style with aspects of her classic work of the 70s. A new album (Hard Bargain) is due later this month on Nonesuch Records, another Warner Brothers subsidiary which has released Emmylou’s solo work since 2003. She will appear on the Letterman Show to promote it on April 27. Also hot off the presses, a new imported budget box set brings together five of her classic albums, all of which we plan to feature as part of our coverage.

Emmylou Harris was inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 2008. She was the CMA Female Vocalist of the Year in 1980, and has won numerous Grammy’s. At her peak she was able to appeal to both country and non-country audiences without compromising her music, and she introduced new generations to artists like the Louvin Brothers. Even when I haven’t cared for some of her changes in direction, they were clearly rooted in her artistic vision rather than in the hunt for sales figures. During April we hope to share with you some of the highlights of the career of one of the most adventurous and significant artists in country music in the past 40 years.

CMA award nominees, 2010: setting the stage

It’s awards time again, with this year’s CMA awards being announced next week. We’ll share our predictions on Monday, but meanwhile here’s a reminder of who is nominated and why. The nominations this year have a few new faces showing up in unexpected places. The big questions of this year’s show will be whether Miranda Lambert will dominate the night as she has the nominations list. Whatever happens, outraged fans are likely to complain that their favorite has been “snubbed”, or someone else has won undeservedly.

Entertainer of the Year
Lady Antebellum
Miranda Lambert
Brad Paisley
Keith Urban
Zac Brown Band

Last year’s controversial winner Taylor Swift was snubbed altogether in this category this year – perhaps partly because of the backlash after her clean sweep last time, but also because she released little during the nomination period. Instead, the category sees no less than three first-time nominees: critical flavor of the month Miranda Lambert (who leads nominations overall), and the two hottest bands of recent years, Lady Antebellum and the Zac Brown Band, who are among the few current artists to be selling in the millions. They join Keith Urban (the only former winner to be in the running this time) and our own current Spotlight Artist Brad Paisley, who has been nominated every year since 2005 but is so far without the trophy.

Male Vocalist
Dierks Bentley
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton
George Strait
Keith Urban

Brad Paisley has won this award for the past three years, and Keith Urban took it home for the three years prior to that. Both men are still scoring regular #1 hit singles and selling well, but is it time for another change at the top? There are two first-time nominees, Dierks Bentley, rewarded by the CMA for his artistic ambition even though country radio has been reluctant to embrace the singles from his bluegrass-inspired Up On The Ridge, and Blake Shelton, who is becoming a regular fixture at the top of the charts. The evergreen George Strait, meanwhile, seems to be nominated virtually every year, but hasn’t won since 1998 (his third year in a row – he also has a couple of trophies from the 80s).

Female Vocalist
Miranda Lambert
Martina McBride
Reba McEntire
Taylor Swift
Carrie Underwood

Last year’s winner Taylor Swift gets another nod, recognizing her commercial preeminence despite a series of woeful live TV performances – including at last year’s CMA awards show. She faces pop-country queen Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert, who had a massive breakthrough this year, and is the only one of these ladies to be nominated in the Entertainer category. Reba McEntire, the oldest nominee, is still contending on the charts, but the fifth nominee, Martina McBride, seems to be merely filling out the category, as she has not had a good year commercially or critically.

Read more of this post

Single Review: Dierks Bentley – ‘Draw Me A Map’

A lot of artists have been going bluegrass lately, but most of them are singers past their commercial peaks with no realistic hopes of mainstream radio play, however good the music is. Dierks Bentley is rare in diverging from the demands of radio to take an artistically rewarding detour down the backroads of bluegrass, while still a major contender, and challenging country radio to play something a little different from its usual fare. The fascinating meld of bluegrass, country and other music on his Up On The Ridge album has just been rewarded with Dierks’ first CMA nominations for Album of the Year and Male Vocalist. (He won the Horizon award back in 2005, but had been ignored ever since.)

Despite the forceful beat and familiar lyrics which made the album’s title track and lead single, ‘Up On The Ridge’ appear to be its best bet on radio, it peaked disappointingly outside the top 20. He is following it up with perhaps the album’s best track, the entirely more subdued and graceful ‘Draw Me A Map’. Dierks wrote the song with his producer Jon Randall (aka Jon Randall Stewart), and they created an extremely fine record together. All too often these days country singles have well-written lyrics but poor production, or a great melody but bland lyrics; it’s a delight to hear a song where everything works together.

The acoustic production is restrained enough to let the beautifully constructed lyrics breathe. Like its predecessor, it is not pure bluegrass, with drums and cello in the mix as well as more familiar bluegrass instrumentation, including Ronnie McCoury’s mandolin, Scott Vestal’s banjo and Randy Kohrs’ dobro, all beautifully played but never overshadowing the song.

This is a very serious sounding record, with a melancholy sense of longing and a Celtic touch to the melody, especially the fiddle line in the instrumental section at the end of the song. The protagonist has lost his way in his relationship and is floundering and he’s wondering how to find safe harbor again. We don’t know exactly what went wrong or how he is at fault; the detail of the past isn’t important compared to the sense of desolation felt in the present, and the hope that the future may bring a way back home. He dares not even ask for forgiveness for this mysterious wrong, because he isn’t sure she cares enough to give it:

If I took for granted that I held your heart
I’d beg forgiveness, but I don’t know where to start

While it is addressed to, and in the presence of, the lover he is trying to regain, is she even listening? The sadness imbuing Dierks’ vocal makes the response to his plea unknown, unknowable, but somehow there doesn’t seem to be much hope here. The pensive mood is perfectly realized. Dierks’ voice is at its best on this single, with an interesting grainy quality underpinning the heartfelt emotion of his delivery, with tasteful harmonies from Alison Krauss delicately ornamenting the track.

Let’s hope that Dierks’ CMA nominations are translated into radio play for this beautiful song. It’s certainly one of my favorite singles of the year.

Grade: A

Listen to it here.