My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Jon Weisberger

Album Review: Ashley Lewis – ‘Captivated’

captivatedMost of the best female artists seem to come out of bluegrass these days. Singer, songwriter and mandolin player Ashley Lewis is the latest to catch my attention. Although this is her third album, it seems to be her breakthrough moment, setting a record for the number of tracks picked up simultaneously by bluegrass radio. Small wonder, as she has a lovely voice reminiscent of the young Alison Krauss, and is a talented writer who has composed almost all the songs here. The album is produced by fiddle player Jimmy Mattingly, and Jon Randall provides harmony vocals.

Opener ‘Nothing But Ashes’ is a fine song about facing the reality of a fading love affair.

‘Ghost’ is an excellent song with a beautiful melody (co-written with Jon Weisberger) about the pain of an abandoned wife’s memories of love now lost. Ashley has a vulnerable vocal which makes the song entirely believable, as she bemoans her ex’s choice:

Please don’t tell me it was worth the cost

Ashley’s angelic vocal soars on the dramatic Civil War story song ‘Blockade Runner’, backed by Mattingly’s atmospheric fiddle and Sammy Shelor’s banjo. ‘Winter In Wyoming’ is outstanding, a beautifully sung lonesome ballad about separation from a loved one who has followed his dream to Nashville. This is my favourite track.

The charming ‘You Put The Fire in Me’ has a Western Swing feel and features a cameo from Vince Gill on guitar (though sadly not vocals). ‘Blue Ridge Rain’ is delicately pretty, and the sultry ‘Fan The Flame’ and ‘Rivers Rising’ are also good. ‘Convicted’ is quite good but didn’t hold my attention as much as other tracks.

‘Another Place, Another Time’ is a wistful duet with Josh Williams which is excellent. This gentle ballad is actually included in two versions, bluegrass and country, the latter having a very slighter fuller but still tastefully understated production.

She veers into jazz in her instrumentals, which include a Django Reinhardt cover. ‘Mermaid’ also has a jazzy feel which is less to my taste than the rest of the album, although it is impeccably performed. An unexpected cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ is dreamily sung.

Overall, this is a fine addition to the ranks of female bluegrass stars, and well worth checking out.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Irene Kelley – ‘Pennsylvania Coal’

pennsylvania coalPennsylvania-born Irene Kelley is one of the finest songwriters around. A decade on from her excellent Thunderbird album she is back on record in her own right. She wrote all the songs with a variety of collaborators, and all have pretty melodies which showcase her pure, beautiful voice. Produced by Mark Fain, the music is in that overlap between acoustic country and bluegrass, and is beautifully played.

The opening ‘You Don’t Run Across My Mind’ is a thoughtful song about someone who the protagonist can never forget despite the passage of time. Darrin Vincent sings harmony on this attractive tune. It is co-written with Peter Cooper, as is the even prettier ‘Feels Like Home’. The latter has bluegrass’s Dale Ann Bradley and Steve Gulley on backing vocals and some lovely fiddle lines from Stuart Duncan (who plays throughout). A cold rainy day in Nashville brings reminders of Irene’s Pennsylvania birthplace, whose weather is remembered with less fond nostalgia than many songs about childhood:

You can take a trip but you can’t go back
Too many times I’ve heard that
It’s prettier in clouded memory
Just today a north wind came
Tapped my shoulder
Brought the grey
And a chill I know by heart came over me

Feels like home
Though I never felt at home there
And I know that the winters were too long
Like the wind against the shutters
In a town I used to know
Any time it looks like rain
Feels like home

‘Pennsylvania Coal’ (written with Thomm Jutz) is an atmospheric story of the Pennsylvania coal country where Kelley’s immigrant grandfather was a miner, and later a farmer. Its honesty and emotional insight rivals some of the great coalmining songs from Kentucky and West Virginia.

Family is an important theme running through the album, with Irene’s daughters Justyna and Sara Jean contributing both with harmonies and songwriting. The record even closes with a bonus track, ‘You Are Mine, on which Kelley’s daughter Sara Jean sings the lead over her mother and sister’s trio harmony. Written by the three of them, it has a charming old fashioned feel.

The delightful ‘My Flower’ uses the traditional ‘You Are My Flower’ (which Irene sang as a lullaby for her children as babies) as its theme. It was written with Irene’s daughter Justyna, who also sings harmonies alongside Claire Lynch. Irene then segues into a few lines of the original song, accompanied by herself on autoharp, which is charming.

Lynch also sings background on ‘Angels Around Her’, about Irene’s relationship with her late mother, using her collection of angel-themed ornaments as the focus of the song. Dale Ann Bradley sings harmony on the brooding ‘Sister’s Heart’, a heartfelt tribute to Irene’s beloved sister, which she wrote with Jon Weisberger. Bradley is also present on the idealistic ‘Garden Of Dreams’, inspired by Kelley’s daughters, which is a beautiful and poetic ballad.

Trisha Yearwood sings harmony on the graceful waltz ‘Better With Time’, a mature love song (written with Peter Cooper and Justyna) about the way love matures and grows, with a delicate stripped down arrangement.

Another outstanding song, ‘Breakin’ Even’ (written with Mark Irwin) takes a bleakly moving look at the pain of a breakup. ‘Things We Never Did’ is full of tender regret at lost chances, with its wistful look at what was “nearly a dream come true”. Carl Jackson’s harmony and Jeff Taylor’s tasteful accordion add the perfect finishing touches to the arrangement.

Rhonda Vincent sings a close harmony on the quirky upbeat ‘Rattlesnake Rattler’, in which part of a dead snake is incorporated into a guitar.

This is a lovely sounding record, and one filled with moving songs, beautifully sung.

Grade: A

Album Review: The Gibson Brothers – ‘Help My Brother’

On what I believe is their tenth album, the bluegrass-singing brothers from rural New York state (Leigh and Eric) offer compelling tenor vocals with an edge and the kind of close harmonies only siblings can produce, fine songwriters with an ear for melody and the willingness to put the song at the center, and serve it sensitively with the right vocals and instrumentation for that particular song.

This album (their second for Compass Records) is produced by the brothers with their bass player Mike Barber. The excellent, and never overpowering, solid bluegrass backing comes mainly from the brothers’ band. Eric plays banjo and Leigh guitar, and the band is rounded out by Clayton Campbell’s fiddle (whose playing sings beautifully over the rhythmic instruments) and Joe Walsh’s mandolin, with Mike Witcher guesting on dobro on a couple of tracks. There is an interesting selection of material, just over half of it written by one or both of the brothers.

Leigh sings lead most frequently, but Eric sings lead on and wrote my favorite song, the wistful ‘Dixie’, asking Vegas era Elvis if he would go back to the innocent happiness of youth, “back before your hair was black, before they called you King”, and to the arms of his first sweetheart. It is immediately followed by the other song he wrote alone, the faintly Byrdsish ‘Frozen In Time’, which is less memorable musically, but has quite a quirky lyric about a quietly lonely man “living in the past”:

My clothes don’t fit the fashion of the day
That’s all right, nobody’s watching anyway

The vibrant title track, written by Leigh, is an idealistic declaration of changing one’s life to help others:

Call it compassion, call it charity
I call it living like living should be

Leigh duets with Claire Lynch on his own ‘Talk To Me’, a soothing song about a marriage in a little trouble due to lack of communication, but not beyond salvation, while Alison Brown takes over the banjo strings. My favorite of Leigh’s solo compositions is the closing track, the historical ‘Safe Passage’, about his ancestors, a Scots family who emigrate to Canada, whose son or grandson then fights in the American Civil War and settles on a farm in upstate New York. The story ends with the brothers themselves, having left the family farm for another kind of journey, for a life in music.

Leigh and Eric teamed up with Tim O’Brien to write the thoughtful and mature confessional of ‘Want vs Need’:

I want an encore, a standing ovation
A crowd that laughs at everything I say
I want a hit song that everybody’s singing
I just walk out to the mail to get my pay

But I just need my own song
One that I love singing
A simple song that takes me down the road

This reflection is inspired by a woman the protagonist has taken for granted, leaving, but overall the mood on this album is a fairly happy one. Even the extremely bleak lyric of ‘One Car Funeral’, which the pair wrote with Jon Weisberger about a man who has touched other’s lives so little he has no one to mourn his death, is married to a surprisingly cheery tune which keeps the mood upbeat. Perhaps this is the point: that this man has touched life so little that even the singer and musicians don’t care.

Alongside the new songs, there are several relatively obscure covers, my favorite of which is the O’Kanes’ country hit ‘Just Lovin’ You’ (#5 in 1987). There are also an enjoyable, slightly raucous take on Jim and Jesse’s ‘I’ll Love Nobody But You’, and a beautifully sung low key version of the religious song, ‘He Can Be Found’ (recorded by the Louvin Brothers on their classic Satan Is Real album).

Ricky Skaggs shares lead vocals and harmonies with the brothers on the new but very traditional sounding trio, ‘Working As We Rise’, which recalls the melody of ‘I’ll Fly Away’. I also really liked Chris Henry’s cheerful rambling song about ‘Walking West To Memphis’ to be reunited with a more sedate loved one, the kind who drinks lemonade rather than her lover’s choice of whiskey, but has a powerful enough attraction to drag him from his gambling ways, even if he has to walk all the way from Nashville.

This is a very good collection of material, sung and played beautifully, which grows with every listen.

Grade: A

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