My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Jon Randall

Album Review: Leslie Satcher – ‘Gypsy Boots’

Leslie Satcher is one of my favourite current songwriters, and she is also a fine singer with a velvety tone who can tackle both understated ballads and full-on attack songs with attitude. When she first came to Nashville from Texas, she did so with the aim of becoming a recording artist, before discovering her talent writing, and she has released two previous albums – the excellent Love Letters in 2001 and Creation in 2005. After a long delay, she has returned to the studio to record some of her more recent compositions, and it has proved to be worth the wait.

A couple of the songs are familiar. The title track has been recorded by Terri Clark, who co-wrote it with Leslie and Jon Randall. It’s not a favorite of mine, but Leslie’s version is funky and assertive with a strong rhythm and backing vocals effectively quoting the Motown classic ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’, which give it real impact. The unapologetic ‘Tough’ was written for Kellie Pickler and is her most recent top 30 single; the original is okay but has struggled on the charts somewhat, and Leslie’s voice has more force behind it.

The mid-tempo ‘Where I Am’ (written with Michael P Heeney) is on a similar theme to ‘Gypsy Boots’ about a restless spirit with no particular destination in mind (and “only Jesus knows where I am”). It is, however, a much better song, which could easily be a hit if recorded by a major label artist.

The gently sung and pretty sounding ‘Reasons To Hang On’ (written with Stephanie Chapman) has Leslie affirming the joys of life, possibly to someone struggling to find reasons to live:

What more do you want?
You wanna hear the voice of God?
He’d just tell you to hang on
If he could get you on the phone
Oh what’s it gonna take for you to find your faith,
To wake up before they’re gone,
Your reasons to hang on?

The unusual and charming mid-tempo ‘Sing Like Loretta Lynn’ is written with Jim Lauderdale and tells of an angel’s night time visit to a similarly despondent woman, making her forget her broken heart with a vision of the music-filled streets of Heaven. There are also a couple of good but more conventional religious songs, ‘In The Shadow Of Your Wings’ and the very pretty ballad ‘Rock Of Your Love’ (written with Al Anderson and Vince Gill, and previously recorded by Vince on his These Days set in 2006).

The enjoyable and energetic ‘And The Well Run Dry’ is a story song co-written with Jim Beavers, sung with aggressive attack. It tells the story of a moonshining woman who finds religion, something which kills the party mood in the technically dry town:

She sold beer to the just gettin’ started
Shine to the too-far-gone
Whiskey to the broken hearted and the ones just holdin’ on…

Y’all, she had the whole town out there getting high
Til she got Jesus
And the well run dry

The effervescent ‘Somethin’ ‘Bout Your Lovin’’ written with Al Anderson and Delbert McClinton has a fun rockabilly feel with lots of Jerry Lee Lewis styled piano. ‘Delta Wedding’ is a slower sultry Southern blues which offers an atmospheric and closely observed picture of a shotgun wedding on a hot summer day in Mississippi, with a melting cake and a bride whose fancy hairdo “even Jesus wouldn’t mess with”:

And she’s just about covered up what they’ve just about covered up
All for a nail biting bundle of joy

The melancholic ‘Lonely Doesn’t Know How To Leave’ (also written with Anderson) has a soothing vocal as the protagonist stays up all night dwelling on her sadness.

Leslie’s voice is shown off by the completely acappella solo delivery (and occasionally spoken) of the closing story song about her father’s journey to visit relatives, ‘Georgia Trip ‘56’, which is a tour de force. There are also impressive harmonised acappella opening to ‘If I Had Wings’, a delicate ballad with a lovely tune, and ‘Where That Train Was Going’, a gripping story song written with Jon Randall, which has a bluesy feel.

This record is a joy from start to finish, although the overall feel is a bit bluesier and less traditional than one might expect from her songs written for others.

Grade: A

It is widely available digitally. Hard copy CDs can be obtained from Leslie’s website or from CDBaby, where you can also hear brief clips of the songs:

http://www.lesliesatcher.com/
http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/lesliesatcher2

Amazon also sells the CD version, but at a higher price.

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.

Some hidden treasures of 2010

I restricted my top 10 singles list for the year to tracks which were formally released as singles, but a lot of the best music of the year was hidden away on albums. So to finish up our review of the year in country music, here are my favorite tracks from albums released this year. I’ve restricted the selection to one per artist (not counting duets), and I’ve excluded the albums which made it to my top 10 albums list to avoid too much duplication and to prevent the list being too long.

20. Trace Adkins – ‘Still Love You’ (Cowboy’s Back In Town)
Moving to Toby Keith’s label seems to have encouraged the talented but often artistically misguided Trace Adkins to give in to his worst instincts, but there is still some decent material on his latest album. This ballad swearing enduring love (written by love song specialist Jeff Bates with Robert Arthur and Kirk Roth) is a little heavily orchestrated, but has a great, understated vocal from one of the best voices around. It’s a shame the rest of the album wasn’t up to the same standard.

19. Gretchen Wilson – ‘I’m Only Human’ (I Got Your Country Right Here)
Gretchen has just scored an unexpected Grammy nomination for ‘I’d Love To Be Your Last’ from her self-released I Got Your Country Right Here, prompting general bewilderment from country fans online. But while that track isn’t bad, this song is rather better, a plaintive bar-room tale of a woman trying to resist the temptation of dalliance with a married man, which Gretchen wrote with Vicky McGehee, Dave Berg and Rivers Rutherford.

18. Jon Wolfe – ‘Play Me Something I Can Drink To’ (It All Happened In A Honky Tonk)
If you think Easton Corbin sounds like George Strait, you need to check out the Strait stylings of Jon Wolfe on his strong independent debut album. I particularly liked this classic country style bar room song (written by Kevin Brandt and Bobby Terry) about a guy seeking to get his broken heart temporarily cured by whiskey and a jukebox stocked with Hank and Jones.

17. Jamie Richards – ‘Half Drunk’ (Sideways)
A great song from a Texas-based artist about trying to get over an ex by drinking, but running out of money halfway through.

16. Miss Leslie – ‘Turn Around’ (Wrong Is What I Do Best)
A lovely steel-led heartbreak ballad written by honky tonker Miss Leslie herself, but sounding as though it could be a forgotten classic from the 60s.

15. Shawn Camp – ‘Clear As A Bell’ (1994)
This lovely song was my favorite from Shawn’s “lost” album which was resurrected from the Warner Bros vaults this year.

14. Zac Brown Band – ‘Martin’ (You Get What You Give)
Jamey Johnson personified a guitar in the title track of The Guitar Song, but Zac Brown sang a love song about one on their latest release. Charming and unusual.

13. Gary Allan – ‘No Regrets’ (Get Off On The Pain)
I’ve been disappointed by Gary’s musical direction over the past couple of albums, but the heartbreaking honesty of this touching song expressing his feelings about his late wife (which he wrote with the help of Jon Randall and Jaime Hanna) was a reminder of his excellent early work.

12. Jolie Holliday – ‘I’ll Try Anything’ (Lucky Enough)
A gorgeous cover of a sad song previously recorded by its co-writer Amber Dotson about struggling to cope with lost love. I can’t find a link for you to listen to the studio version, but here she is singing it live (after a nice version of ‘San Antonio Rose’. And as a bonus, here she is singing ‘Golden Ring’ live with Randy Travis.

11. Curly Putman – ‘Green Green Grass Of Home’ (Write ‘Em Sad – Sing ‘Em Lonesome)
The songwriter’s own version of his classic prisoner’s dream is as convincing as any version I’ve herd of this celebrated song.

10. Toby Keith – ‘Sundown‘ (Bullets In The Gun, deluxe version)
Toby is always a bit hit and miss for me, but this surprisingly restrained live version of the sultry folk-country classic is a definite hit.

9. Darin & Brooke Aldridge – ‘The Last Thing On His Mind’ (Darin & Brooke Aldridge)
I loved this husband and wife team’s sweet bluegrass album and this somber Easter song (written by Dennis K Duff) was the highlight for me.

8. Teea Goans – ‘I Don’t Do Bridges Anymore’ (The Way I Remember It)
Teea Goans’ retro independent release featured this lovely classic-styled ballad, written by Jim McBride, Don Poythress and Jerry Salley. Her voice is sweet but not that distinctive, but this breakup song is definitely worth hearing.

7. Catherine Britt – ‘Sweet Emmylou’ (Catherine Britt)
The Australian singer’s latest album was a bit hit and miss for me, but there were some very strong moments, including Catherine’s lovely version of her tribute to the healing power of the music of Emmylou Harris, which she wrote some years ago with Rory Feek. It has been released as a single in Australia.

6. Bill Anderson – ‘The Songwriters’ (Songwriter)
My favorite comic song of the year is the legendary Bill Anderson’s celebration (more or less) of songwriters’ lives, complete with the protagonist’s mother’s preference for a career as drug dealer for her son. Bill isn’t much of a singer, but this song (co-written with Gordie Sampson)is irresistible.

5. Randy Kohrs – ‘Die On The Vine’ (Quicksand)
One of the first songs to grab my attention this year was this lovely song warning a son against taking refuges from trouble in alcohol, written by famed dobro player and songwriter Randy Kohrs with Dennis Goodwin.

4. James Dupre – ‘Ring On The Bar’ (It’s All Happening)
I loved this sensitively sung low-key mid-tempo Byron Hill/Brent Baxter song about a man trying to figure out what happened to his marriage from youtube discovery James’s independent debut album, produced by Kyle Lehning.

3. Lee Ann Womack – ‘Liars Lie’ (Country Strong soundtrack)
I’m beginning to get impatient for a new album from Lee Ann, and this soundtrack cut has really whetted my appetite. This excellent song, written by Sally Barris, Morgane Hayes and Liz Rose, and the combination of Lee Ann’s beautiful vocals and the harmony from Charlie Pate, a pure country production (thanks to Lee Ann’s husband Frank Liddell and Chuck Ainlay), and a fine song make this a sheer delight.

2. Chris Young – ‘Chiseled In Stone’ (Voices EP)
Song for song, this young neotraditionalist’s three song EP of covers was the most impressive release of the year, allowing Chris to exercise his outstanding baritone voice on really top quality material – something sadly missing on his two full length albums. This Vern Gosdin song was my favorite of the three, but his takes on Keith Whitley’s ‘I’m Over You’ and John Anderson’s ‘Swingin’ were also great.

1. Alan Jackson ft Lee Ann Womack – ‘Til The End’ (Freight Train)
This particular treasure is not very well hidden, as although it hasn’t been released as a single it gained sufficient attention to get a well-deserved nomination as Musical Event of the Year at the recent CMA awards. This exquisite reading of another Vern Gosdin classic was by far the best thing on Alan’s latest (and possibly last) album for Arista.

Do you have any special favorite album tracks from this year which haven’t gained the attention they deserve?

Album Review: Brad Paisley – ‘American Saturday Night’

Brad Paisley’s 5th Gear album marked the beginning of a subtle shift to a more contemporary sound, a trend that continued with his follow-up album, 2009’s American Saturday Night, his least traditional-sounding album to date. The familiar tongue-in-cheek pick-up tunes, semi-rowdy party and fishing songs, and odes to domestic harmony are still present, but the electric guitars are amped up a little more than on previous albums. The end result is somewhat of a mixed bag; there are plenty of enjoyable moments but overall the album is the weakest in Paisley’s catalog.

Brad co-wrote all of the songs on the album, many of them with long-time collaborators Chris DuBois (who is also credited as executive producer), Ashley Gorley, Kelly Lovelace and Tim Owens. Although this group of songwriters has served Paisley well over the past decade, his continued reliance on them is the most fundamental flaw of this album. This time around, they seem to have run out of things to say, and as a result, much of American Saturday Night is a rehash of previous Paisley albums. The lead single “Then” is virtually a reincarnation of “She’s Everything” from 2005’s Time Well Wasted; “Water” seems to be a slightly less crass version of “Ticks”, and “Anything Like Me” is strikingly similar to “Letter To Me.” This play-it-safe approach worked well as far as radio was concerned; all of these tracks made it to either #1 or #2 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, and “Then” was certified platinum for digital sales exceeding one million downloads.

The singles “American Saturday Night” and “Welcome To The Future” are more original. The former is a celebration of the melting pot that is America and is my favorite of the cuts that were released to radio. “Welcome To The Future” received a lot of attention when it was released for its reference to the historic 2008 US presidential election. The song doesn’t quite work because it attempts to tie a breakthrough moment in race relations to the marvels of modern technology that dominate the first half of the song. Though the writers undoubtedly had good intentions, the triumph over decades of social injustice is trivialized by the comparison to smart phone apps and video conferencing.

Not only does American Saturday Night borrow heavily from the themes explored in Brad’s previous albums, it also relies on some of the same production gimmicks, namely the rowdy party chorus on the end of “Catch All The Fish”. While this may have worked well on previous records such as “Alcohol” and “I’m Gonna Miss Her”, it seems like out of place here. How many people can there possibly be on board that fishing boat anyway? But despite the production misstep, “Catch All The Fish” is one of the best tracks on the album,with some excellent steel guitar and fiddle playing by Randal Currie and Justin Williamson, respectively. Ditto for “The Pants.” Another favorite is “No”, which was co-written by Bill Anderson and Jon Randall. Although it is bound to invite some comparisons to Garth Brooks’ “Unanswered Prayers”, it at least explores some territory that is uncharted for Brad.

Despite its flaws, American Saturday Night is not a bad album, but it seems doomed to become one of Brad’s least memorable albums due to its lack of originality. Most of what he has to say here, he has said before, and more effectively. For his next project, I’d like to see him to take a few more risks instead of playing it safe, and perhaps engage the talents of some outside songwriters in order to gain a fresh perspective.

American Saturday Night is widely available from retailers such as Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: B-

Classic Rewind: Lorrie Morgan & Jon Randall – ‘By My Side’

Album Review: Brad Paisley – ‘ Mud On the Tires’

Brad’s third album, released in 2003, saw him cementing his status as a star whose music combined comedy and serious songs, and one who genuinely appreciated country music tradition.

Lead single ‘Celebrity’ is a hilarious and sharp sideswipe at reality TV shows and those chasing fame for the sake of it (and the perks), with Brad playing the talentless wannabe with an irony entirely missed when one of the hapless contestants on the generally woeful final season of Nashville Star covered it on the show:

You can act just like a fool
And people think you’re cool
Just ‘cause you’re on TV

Brad also picked a Chris DuBois/Chris Wallin song which approaches a similar theme from a slightly different angle with the quirky ‘Famous People’, where he plays the part of an ingenuous countryman who brings a visiting movie star down to size a little.

The straight-faced ‘The Cigar Song’ is based on an old joke about a man who successfully claims on the insurance for “losing” some fine Cuban cigars in “a series of small fires”. The insurance company gets the last laugh, though, with a prosecution for various counts of arson. The broadest comedy is reserved for the return of Bill Anderson and George Jones (who featured on ‘Too Country’ on Part II), joined this time by Little Jimmy Dickens on the silly but funny deliberately muddled narration ‘Spaghetti Western Swing’, which also serves as a showcase for guest Redd Volkaert’s electric guitar. I enjoy this track but probably wouldn’t want to listen to it too often.

Second single ‘Little Moments’ was the first in what has become a tradition of Brad Paisley odes to domesticity, reportedly directly inspired by his new wife, actress Kimberly Williams-Paisley, who also starred in the video. Written by Brad with Chris DuBois, it has some charm with its loping phrasing and heartfelt delivery, and the theme had not yet outworn its welcome. Also in the happy family life vein is ‘Ain’t Nothin’ Like’, written by Wynn Varble and Don Sampson). The latter has an engagingly bouncy production and good humored feel, but is marred by an irritating small-child chorus. The pedestrian ‘That’s Life’ appears to be meant to be amusing, but falls flat (with comedians Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi unimpressive on unrecognisable backing “yeah yeah yeahs” and occasional yelled interjections). Only Frank Rogers’ inventive production saves these songs.

The exquisitely sad duet with Alison Krauss, ‘Whiskey Lullaby’, one of the few outside songs included here, was the third single. It was a wise decision to record this Bill Anderson/Jon Randall song, which has become a modern classic and may be the song for which Brad is best remembered a generation hence. The single itself has sold a million copies, and won various awards. It tells the story of a man whose failed marriage leads him into a life destroyed by alcohol and eventual death; then the woman who left him is overwhelmed by guilt and grief and also uses whiskey as her mode of self-destruction. The acoustic instrumentation is bolstered by Krauss on viola, Jerry Douglas’s dobro, and Union Station’s Dan Tyminski on backing vocals.

The first three songs were all big hits, but none reached the top of the Billboard singles chart, all peaking at # 2 or 3. The only chart-topper from the album was to be the title track (another Chris DuBois cowrite), to my ears the least interesting of the four, but a very popular single which was certified gold.

Much better is the restrained tenderness of the love song ‘Somebody Knows You Now’, which strains Brad’s voice to the limit, only adding to the authenticity of the emotion. I also like the traditional-meets contemporary feel of of ‘Hold Me In Your Arms (And Let Me Fall)’, addressed to a girl who is reluctant to date the protagonist. Vince Gill lends harmony support.

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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.

Album Review: Bill Anderson – ‘Songwriter’

Even at the height of his stardom, it was widely acknowledged that “Whispering” Bill Anderson wasn’t much of a singer. But he was, and remains, an excellent country songwriter, who continues to get cuts by some of today’s biggest stars. He has just recorded a dozen of his latest songs on an independently released record, co-produced with multi-instrumentalist Rex Paul Schnelle, who plays electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin, banjo, piano, and keyboards and sings backing vocals – basically every instrument but drums, bass and steel.

The songs are all co-writes, and I was struck by the generosity with which Bill puts his own name last in the credits each time. His vocals are no stronger than one might expect, but on most of these songs it doesn’t matter. Half the songs are comedic, and do not demand great singing; in some of the others the limitations of his voice is put to good use.

The stall is set out with the opening track ‘It Ain’t My Job To Tote Your Monkey’, co written with the album’s producer Rex Schnelle and Rivers Rutherford. It’s a very witty riposte to someone who’s never satisfied whether it’s because:

So the government’s crazy and the weather’s all wrong
The radio ain’t playing country songs
Grits won’t cook in the microwave
And you’re mad about the price of gas these days
You can’t get a signal on your mobile phone
Your dog ran off and your wife came home

Also laugh-out-loud funny is the episodic ‘That’s When The Fight Broke Out’ which recounts a hapless husband’s many ill-judged remarks in a series of one-liners. A sense of humor is not necessarily conducive to a happy marriage.

‘Good Time Gettin’ Here’ is a good-natured recital from the kind of guy who wastes most of his time having fun, declaring from high school graduation to his arrival at the gates of heaven:

I’m not sure where I’ve been or where I am or where I’m going
But I sure had a good time gettin’ here

Written with Jamey Johnson and Buddy Cannon, this entertaining song could easily be a hit single for someone like Brad Paisley.

Speaking of Brad, he co-wrote and plays electric guitar on the rather vulgar ‘If You Can’t Make Money’ with Jon Randall also co-writing. The advice for economic hard times is to make love instead of money:
We can’t get a break, can’t get a job
We need to get the opposite of laid off

This is one of the songs where the vocal limitations are a problem, making the song sound sleazy.

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Single Review: Dierks Bentley – ‘Up On The Ridge’

Dierks Bentley has a longstanding interest in bluegrass, and has included a bluegrass track on each of his four major label albums to date. Last year it was announced that he planned to record two albums this year – a bluegrass side project and a mainstream album. As he started the process he and producer Jon Randall (the songwriter and one-time major label artist now billed by his full name Jon Randall Stewart) found the two projects came together, and the end result, due next month, was a single record which melded country, bluegrass and other influences. The title track has been released as the lead single and gives us our first glimpse into what will be on offer.

I’ve always liked Dierks’ voice and he sounds committed here. The tune doesn’t have much range, but the strong driving rhythm grabs hold of the listener from the start and never let’s go. I really like the instrumentation (slightly beefed up bluegrass) on this, but I really didn’t care for the minor keyed chorus and particularly the backing vocals (allegedly courtesy of Alison Krauss but she is almost unrecognizable, stripped of all her sweetness). I was a little disappointed that the production of a bluegrass-inspired project did not sound quite as acoustic and natural as I had hoped it would, with some incongruous and artificial echoey effects in the chorus, at the very start of the song and in the last verse. They do not destroy the song for me, but they did seem unnecessary and a counter to the joys of the musicianship. This would probably work better live, where studio intrusion would be discarded.

Written by Dierks with Angelo Petraglia, the lyric is about the joys of the countryside, but it differs from the standard country living songs. For a start it is a refreshing change to have a song about the countryside actually sounding country (or bluegrass), and that alone would make this stand out. However it isn’t really a ‘country pride’ song at all – the narrator clearly lives in the city and is only heading out to the hills for the night:

Let’s blow out these city lights
Let’s just leave it all behind
Get up where the air is still
You can hear the whippoorwill
Start a fire, pass the shine
Won’t be home till mornin’ time

I might quibble about the categorization of air on the ridge being still; every hilltop I’ve ever been on has been very windy with the stiller air on more protected lower ground. After the first verse’s attractive picture of sharing music and drink around a bonfire, the main part of the song is an appeal for the protagonist’s girl to join him, although, to be picky again, there doesn’t seem to be much hope for privacy. This aspect of the song is underlined in the video with its good-humored depiction of smiling pickers playing in a field overnight to a crowd of young people dancing strikes an inclusive note, with several romantic couples forming. This has great charm, does perhaps mean the focus of the original song changes to the more inclusive approach of the first verse.

Dierks’ dog Jake, who gets a cameo in the video, is well-known to his fans as he has appeared in several of his master’s previous videos and been photographed in album liner notes, making the front cover of his self-titled debut. One of my favorite things about this song was the name-check for Jake, which sounds as though it may be based on actual experience:

Hear old Jake start to howl
When he hears that ol’ hoot owl

I loved his first two albums, but felt he had lost his way a little artistically in more recent years, although he is still massively successful on country radio. Based on the evidence of this single, he has found an adventurous new path by incorporating bluegrass into his sound and making an album based on artistic concerns rather than commercial ones and I am extremely interested to hear the new album. This is a potentially risky move; Dierks has been very popular with radio programmers in recent years, but as a group they have been reluctant to embrace anything far from mainstream pop-country. If country radio makes this the hit it deserves to be, it will bring a welcome freshness to the airwaves.

Grade: B

Buy ‘Up On The Ridge’ from amazon mp3.

Moving backstage

Former Wrecker Jessica Harp surprised many by her recent announcement that she was leaving her record label and abandoning hopes of a solo career in favour of becoming a full time songwriter. While retaining rather more dignity than Jason Michael Carroll’s unforgettable but rather sad “Arista and I are going our seperate [sic] ways! They called and said they would be moving forward without me!” this may be a case of jumping before she was pushed, as Jessica’s solo singles had failed to set the charts alight, although her now ex-label has chosen to release her album digitally as a parting gift for her fans.

Time will tell whether she will be successful in her new course. She would hardly be the first Nashville songwriter to start out wanting to be an artist in her own right, or indeed the first to enjoy a short chart career.

Dean Dillon’s distinctive turn of phrase has made him one of the most sought-after writers in the past 20 years. With a voice as quirky and distinctive as his writing, he started out as a singer. A string of singles on RCA were minor hits in the late 70s and early 80s, including the first versions of his own songs ‘Nobody in His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her’ and ‘Famous Last Words Of A Fool’. The former was a top 30 hit, the latter failed to make the top 50, but neither had the chart impact they deserved – or that they had when George Strait covered them. The label also teamed Dean up with honky tonker Gary Stewart as a duo, releasing one full length album and a six track EP. Those early RCA recordings (both solo and duet) are virtually all now available on one CD. A successful run as a songwriter followed, but he had not given up his dreams of solo stardom, and in 1988 he signed to Capitol. Two albums for that label, and two more for Atlantic, failed to quite take off. The critical moment arrived when he planned to release ‘Easy Come Easy Go’ as a single – and found Strait wanted to record the song. He relinquished the song, and settled down to life as a writer for others.

I’ve never really understood why Larry Boone’s solo career never took off. He was signed to Mercury in the late 80s, and later Columbia; he was good looking, had a great voice, and was an excellent songwriter. But only a few of his singles charted, the most successful being his #10 ‘Don’t Give Candy To A Stranger’ which was our Classic Rewind a week ago. Luckily, he had that songwriting talent to fall back on.

Skip Ewing was another recording artist to enjoy a handful of hit singles in the late 80s, then turn to writing them for others when his own chart career wound down. He had much more success in the latter capacity, writing multiple #1s. He made a return to the airwaves in his own right as Reba’s duet partner on the radio version of ‘Every Other Weekend’.

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Some hidden treasures of the decade

At the end of last year, I shared a list of my favorite 50 singles of the decade. Some of them were big hits, others more obscure, but at least in theory they got some attention at the time. Now that the decade is well and truly over, I thought I would mention some hidden treasures – album tracks that you probably only heard if you’re a fan of the artist, and purchased the full album. Some of them are from albums and artists that were more successful than others. I’ve omitted anything that made it to radio (even if it wasn’t a hit) as I considered those for my last list, and I have also left out anything from an album which made our collective Albums of The Decade list, although I have included tracks from other albums by artists who appeared on both of those lists. I have restricted my list to one track per artist named.

40. ‘Cold All The Time’ – Irene Kelley (from Thunderbird, 2004)
Songwriter Irene Kelley has released a couple of very good independent albums, showcasing her own very beautiful voice as well as her songs. This is a gently resolute song about a woman stuck in a bad relationship, summoning up the courage to make a move.

39. ‘All I Want’ – Darius Rucker (from Learn To Live, 2008)
There is still a chance that this might make it to the airwaves, as Darius’s platinum country debut is his current release. As a whole, the material was a little disappointing, but this great song is definitely worth hearing, and not only because it’s the mos country song on the album. It’s a jaundiced kiss-off to an ex, offering her everything as “all I want you to leave me is alone”.

38. ‘I Met Jesus In A Bar’ – Jim Lauderdale (from Country Super Hits Volume 1, 2006)
Songwriter Jim Lauderdale has released a number of albums of his own, in more than one country sub-genre, and in 2006 he issued two CDs on one day: one country, the other bluegrass. This great co-write with Leslie Satcher, a melancholy-tinged song about God and booze, also recorded by Aaron Watson, comes from the country one.

37. ‘A Train Not Running’ – Chris Knight (from The Jealous Kind, 2003)
Singer-songwriter Chris Knight co-wrote this downbeat first-person tale of love and a mining town’s economic failure with Stacy Dean Campbell, who also recorded a version of the song.

36. ‘Same Old Song’ – Blake Shelton (from Blake Shelton, 2001)
These days, Blake seems to attract more attention for his girlfriend Miranda Lambert and his Tweeting than for his own music. This song, written by Blake’s producer Bobby Braddock back in 1989, is an appeal for country songs to cover new ground and real stories.

35. ‘If I Hadn’t Reached For The Stars’ – Bradley Walker (from Highway Of Dreams, 2006)
It’s probably a sign of the times that Bradley Walker, who I would classify as a classic traditional country singer in the Haggard/Travis style, had to release his excellent debut album on a bluegrass label. This love song (written by Carl Jackson and previously recorded by Jon Randall) is all about finding happiness through not achieving stardom.

34. ‘Between The River And Me’ – Tim McGraw (from Let It Go, 2007)
Tim McGraw is not one of my favorite singers, but he does often have a knack for picking interesting material. It was a travesty that the best track on his 2007 album was never released as a single, especially when far less deserving material took its place. It’s a brooding story song narrated by the teenage son of a woman whose knack seems to be picking the wrong kind of man, in this case one who beats her. The son turns to murder, down by the river.

33. ‘Three Sheets In The Wind’ – Randy Archer (from Shots In The Dark, 2005)
In the early 9s, Randy Archer was one half of the duo Archer Park,who tried and failed to challenge Brooks & Dunn. His partner in that enterprise is now part of The Parks. Meanwhile, Randy released a very good independent album which has been overlooked. My favorite track is this sad tale of a wife tearing up a husband’s penitent note of apology and leaving regardless.

32. ‘It Looked Good On Paper’ – Randy Kohrs featuring Dolly Paton (from I’m Torn, 2007)
A forlorn lost-love ballad from dobro player Kohrs featuring exquisite high harmonies from Dolly. the ret o the record is very good, too – and you can listen to it all on last.fm.

31. ‘Mental Revenge’ – Pam Tillis (from It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis, 2002)
After her mainstream stardom wound down, 90s star Pam Tillis took the opportunity to record a real labor of love: a tribute album to her father Mel. This bitter diatribe to an ex is my favorite track.

30. ‘You Don’t Love God If You Don’t Love Your Neighbour’ – Rhonda Vincent (from The Storm Still Rages, 2001)
A traditional country-bluegrass-gospel quartet take on a classic rebuke to religious hypocrites, written by Carl Story. The track isn’t the best showcase of Rhonda’s lovely voice, but it’s a great recording of a fine song with a pointed message.

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Decade in Review: Occasional Hope’s Top 50 Singles

Inevitably, anyone’s list of their favorite singles of the decade is going to be more mainstream-oriented than one of the best albums over the same period, just because independent artists are less likely to get their singles played on radio, and they tend to release fewer. My list doesn’t consist solely of hits, but a good proportion did get the success they deserved.

50. I Still Miss Someone – Martina McBride featuring Dolly Parton.
Martina recruited Dolly Parton to sing harmonies on her cover of this Johnny Cash classic on her Timeless album in 2006. It didn’t appeal to country radio, but it is a lovely recording.

49. How Do You Like Me Now?! – Toby Keith
The only song where Toby Keith managed to exercise his giant ego yet seem appealing at the same time. This #1 hit from 2000 is meanspirited but somehow irresistible. The video’s a bit heavy-handed, though.

48. I Hope You Dance – Lee Ann Womack
The enormous crossover success of Lee Ann’s signature song in 2000 set her on the wrong path musically for a while, but that doesn’t detract from the song itself, a lovely touching offering to LeeAnn’s daughter, featuring additional vocals from the Sons of the Desert.

47. You Shouldn’t Kiss Me Like This – Toby Keith
Toby is a very hit-and-miss artist for me, but he makes his second apearance in this list with my favorite of his singles, the tender realization on the dancefloor that a friend might be turning into a romantic interest. It was another #1 hit, this time in 2001. It has another terribly conceived video, though.

46. The Truth About Men – Tracy Byrd
Tracy Byrd recruited Blake Shelton, Andy Griggs and Montgomery Gentry to sing on this comic song about gender differences. Of course it’s not universally true – but it’s quite true enough to be funny. The single was a #13 hit in 2003, and is one of the few singles of recent years to inspire an answer song – Terri Clark’s ‘Girls Lie Too’, which was an even bigger hit the following year but has worn less well.

45. I Wish – Jo Dee Messina
Jo Dee Messina’s glossy pop-country was very accomplished but not always to my taste. But I did love this relatively subdued ballad which appeared only on her Greatest Hits album in 2003, and reached #15 on Billboard, with its neat twist as the protagonist bravely wishes her ex best, before admitting, “I wish you still loved me”.

44. Does My Ring Burn Your Finger – Lee Ann Womack
This biting reproach to a cheating spouse, written by Buddy and Julie Miller, was the best moment on Lee Ann’s bigselling I Hope You Dance. It was the least successful single from it, however, only reaching #23 in 2001.

43. Long Black Train – Josh Turner
Josh is one of the few traditionally oriented artists currently on a major label, although he has often recorded material which is not quite worthy of his resonant deep voice. His debut single was a heavily allusive religious song about sin which, although it only got to #13 in 2003, really established him as a star.

42. One More Day – Diamond Rio
A #1 hit from 2001 about bereavement and longing for more time with the loved one who has been lost, this touching song has heartfelt vocals and lovely harmonies from one of the best groups in country music over the past 20 years.

41. Another Try – Josh Turner and Trisha Yearwood
A classy ballad about hoping for better luck in love from two of the best mainstream singers around, this reached #15 in 2008, but should have been a #1.

40. I Still Sing This Way – Daryle Singletary
In 2002 Daryle had a single out called ‘That’s Why I Sing This Way’ (written by Max D Barnes) declaring himself a real country singer (“Mama whupped me with a George Jones record, that’s why I sing this way”). Five years later Daryle himself co-wrote this sequel, which I like even more, as he looks wryly at the music industry’s demands for glitz and glamor. He tells his manager he’s fine with a change of image – but he can’t change the way he sings.

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Album Review: Patty Loveless – ‘Mountain Soul II’

mountainsoul2Country radio’s love affair with Patty Loveless began winding down around 1997, with the release of the single “You Don’t Seem To Miss Me”. The record met with resistance by some radio program directors, who requested the release of an alternate version, without the harmony vocals provided by George Jones. Loveless refused to remix the record; it stalled at #14 and she never again had another Top 10 hit. Her commercial appeal may have waned, but freed from the constraints and pressures imposed by radio, Loveless has blossomed as an artist and released some of the best music of her career. In 2001, she released a critically acclaimed bluegrass album, and this week, Mountain Soul II, the long awaited sequel, finally hits store shelves.

Though mostly acoustic, the subtle use of some non-bluegrass instrumentation — electric guitar, pump organ, and pedal steel guitar — prevent Mountain Soul II from qualifying as a true bluegrass album, and Loveless and her label, Saguaro Road Records, have been careful not to refer to it as such. In press releases, they describe it as Appalachian, bluegrass, and country combined. Regardless of the label, it is a worthy successor to Mountain Soul, and unlike many sequels, it holds its own against the original.

Many of the players from the original Mountain Soul — Jon Randall, Rebecca Lynn Howard, and of course, Loveless’ producer and husband Emory Gordy, Jr. — are back on board this time around. Loveless is also joined by special guests Del and Ronnie McCoury, Vince Gill, and Emmylou Harris.

The opening track and lead single for the album is a cover of the Harlan Howard classic “Busted”. Recorded many times in the past by artists such as Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, and John Conlee, Loveless’ version restores Howard’s original lyrics, which contain references to coal mining, rather than cotton farming, referred to in the other recorded versions. The lyrics were originally changed at the request of Johnny Cash, but coal mining is a better fit with the acoustic arrangement and bluegrass harmonies provided by the McCourys. Even better are the vocal performances that the McCourys contribute to the old standby “Working On A Building”, which is the most purely bluegrass song on the album.

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Songs for a recession

recessionMy brother was laid off last week, for the second time in a year.  That’s the kind of thing that brings the state of the global economy really close to home, even though he’s been fortunate enough to find something else to move on to.

One of the great things about country music has always been that it’s rooted in real life. You can pretty much find a song for every occasion somewhere in the genre, even if in recent years mainstream releases have largely focused on the feel-good at the expense of deeper material.  I had been wondering when the first songs about the current situation were going to emerge, and whether radio would be prepared to adapt.  

John Rich’s new single, ‘Shuttin’ Detroit Down’, seems to be being received well on radio.  I’m not much of a fan of the self-regarding, self-aggrandizing John Rich, but I am impressed with this song, which really captures what I think many people feel.  My problem with the single is, unfortunately, Rich’s vocal performance, which to my ears signally lacks the anger of the lyric.  It ends up feeling unconvincing.  I rather wish he had passed it to someone else to sing, rather than using it to springboard his solo career.

So I was looking around my record collection for older songs where the song and performance combine better on the same theme.  It is arguably the case that period provided the crucible which produced country music as a distinct genre – after the first flowering of recordings of hillbilly, blues, gospel and folk music in the 1920s.  Songs from that period and subsequent periods still strike a chord today.

After thinking about this for a while, I’ve come up with the following short list of less familiar songs on the subject.  I’ve tried to avoid picking the obvious songs, with a couple of exceptions, and also songs about longterm rural poverty, which although an  important part of country music’s heritage, weren’t quite what I was looking for this time.

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