My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Julie Miller

Album Review: ‘Wynonna & The Big Noise’

8146Wru52WL._SX522_Wynonna & The Big Noise represents a change in direction for Wynonna Judd, a move away from the bland AC of most of her post-1993 albums. It is not a move back towards country, but I have long since given up hope that she will ever release another completely country album, barring another reunion of The Judds. There are more country moments on this album than we’re typically used to, however, and the entire album has more rootsy, organic feel than anything she’s done as a solo artist.

Wynonna’s husband Cactus Moser produced the album. Chris Stapleton and Julie Miller both contribute songs and Jason Isbell provides the duet vocals on “Things That I Lean On”, which I reviewed back in February. That track was one of a few that were released via iTunes in advance of the full album, but it does not appear to have been released as a single. That seems to suggest a change in strategy on the part of Curb Records, which may be forgoing promoting the album to radio and seeking alternate outlets instead. The album definitely seems to have been made without regard to the charts, with Wynonna and the band performing songs that moved them. There are plenty of songs that cater to Wynonna’s R&B/blues roc k leanings, beginning with the opening track “Ain’t No Thing”, penned by Chris Stapleton and John Scott Sherrill, and continuing on with “Cool Ya”, Julie Miller’s “You Make My Heart Beat Too Fast” and “Choose To Believe”, written by Kevin Welch and Charlie White.

She sounds like she is truly enjoying herself on all of these, but it is the quieter tracks, the ballads, that are the album’s best moments, beginning with the aforementioned “Things That I Lean On.” “Jesus and a Jukebox”, the most country-sounding song in the collection, is my favorite, with the Celtic-flavored “Keeps Me Alive” a close second. “Every Ending (Is Its Own Beginning)” is a very nice middle-of-the-road mid-tempo number that Wynonna and Moser wrote with Doug Johnson and Billy Montana.

The album’s most commercial track “Something You Can’t Live Without” is a Cactus Moser and David Lee Murphy composition that was a non-charting single in 2013, shortly after The Big Noise band was formed. It reminds me of some of Wy’s early solo efforts, although at five minutes and 33 seconds, it is way too long (presumably an edited version was sent to radio) and it begins to drag a bit after a while.

I haven’t been a huge fan of much of Wynonna’s solo work but this album was a pleasant surprise. Moser seems to have helped her find her niche. I look forward to their future projects together.

Grade: B+

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Album Review: Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale – ‘Buddy And Jim’

buddy and jimIn 2013 Buddy Miller teamed up with fellow singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale for a duo project, produced by Buddy. Both men are noted for their eclectic musical tastes, so it should be no surprise that this record does not fit neatly into any categories, but a good half of it is country, and very good. Mostly either Buddy sings lead with Jim Lauderdale harmonising, or they sing together.

My favorite track is the shuffle ‘Looking For A Heartache Like You’, a super tune which both men had previously recorded individually (Buddy on his Cruel Moon album) and which the pair perform here with energy. It’s given a solid country arrangement and works extremely well.

Delving even deeper into country music’s roots is the charming traditional country/blues/folk ‘The Train That Carried My Gal From Town’ which was first recorded in 1926. Buddy and Jim’s version is excellent, complete with train sound effects. ‘Lonely One In This Town’, of similar antiquity, has a jug-band feel, and is pretty good.

The steel-laced ‘That’s Not Even Why I Love You’ is a deeply tender love song which Buddy sings lead on, and is lovely. In the same musical vein, but more downbeat, ‘It Hurts Me’ (written by Julie Miller) is also excellent.

The bluesy ‘Lost My Job Of Loving You’ is good though not very country with guitars which swamp it; this live acoustic performance by the pair is more to my personal taste. The album version is still quite powerful. I would rather like to hear a cover of this song by Gary Allan. Allan did record the bouncy ‘Forever And A Day’ on his debut album and it was a minor single for him; Buddy and Jim’s version is quite entertaining.

There are, however, tracks that I enjoyed less. R&B cover ‘I Want To Do Everything For You’ didn’t do a lot for me, but is competently if unemotionally performed. I enjoyed the zydeco/swamp-rock of ‘South In New Orleans’ more. ‘The Wobble’ is muddy rockabilly leaning more to the rock side of that spectrum, and not very interesting. The only track I really disliked was ‘Vampire Girl’, which has a vaguely psychedelic sound and bizarre lyric.

Overall, though, this is an enjoyable collaboration and fine album.

Grade: A-

Incidentally the guys currently have a radio show on Sirius XM.

Album Review: Buddy Miller – ‘The Majestic Silver Strings’

MajesticSilverStrings-AmazonReleased in 2011, The Majestic Silver Strings finds Buddy Miller teaming up with guitarists Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot and Greg Leisz for an album combined mostly of classic country covers. The group is joined by a slew of guest vocalists along the way.

Much as I suspected, the record is a guitar-based album comprised of instrumentals with the guest artists providing the vocals. There are, however, a few such instrumentals sprinkled throughout. The album opens with a haunting take on Eddy Arnold’s “Cattle Call.” The band strips the tune of its western themes, which is a bit odd but otherwise excellent. “Freight Train” is jauntier and just as sonically appealing.

Lee Ann Womack joins the group on two tracks. “Meds” is a dark ballad about a woman in a mental institution that renders Womack, who sings in a breathy tone, almost unrecognizable. “Return To Me” features a long instrumental opening before Womack begins with an aching vocal.

Ribot takes the reins on three tracks. “Barres De La Prison,” a prodding ballad he doesn’t elevate with his dreary, but appropriate, vocal. The group turns “Why Baby Why” into 1950s rockabilly funk, which comes off slightly jarring. For his third contribution, Ribot tackles “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.” This track is also extremely slow and very difficult to get into.

Ann McCrary joins the group on “No Good Lover,” a jazzy number with Western Swing undertones. Chocolate Genius fronts “Dang Me,” which is one of the stronger tracks on the project. Although I do find it weird, they find the sinister side of the song Roger Miller didn’t even hint at with his original recording.

Patty Griffin joins the band on “I Want to Be with You Always,” a brilliant recording that finds her harmonizing with Miller6a00d8341c630a53ef014e5fa47bba970c framed in Pedal Steel. Shawn Colvin takes the lead on “That’s The Way Love Goes.” The Merle Haggard standard is turned into a sparse ballad that beautifully allows her voice to shine through.

“Why I’m Walkin’” is yet another ballad, this time fronted by Emmylou Harris. The track is very slow and isn’t helped by Harris’ far too breathy vocal. The final track, “God’s Wing’ed House” spotlights Miller’s wife Julie. It’s actually a duet between the pair and it’s lovely.

To say the least, I didn’t enjoy this album. I adore the concept and found a couple of the tracks appealing, but it just didn’t do much for me overall. The jazzy overtones that complete the sonic makeup of the record just aren’t to my taste at all. I still think you should seek out your own opinion as it could differ greatly from mine. This isn’t a terrible album in the least and I can see the quality within it. But it just wasn’t for me.

Grade: B-

 

Album Review: Buddy & Julie Miller – ‘Written In Chalk’

71NDevMXJnL._SX522_The first time I heard of Buddy Miller was when this 2009 collaboration with Julie was released. It wasn’t the best introduction; I didn’t particularly enjoy it and spent the next few years avoiding any more of Buddy’s music. Listening to it again for the first time in several years, I can report that I do appreciate it better now than I did back then, although I still consider it to be flawed in some respects.

Like the first Buddy & Julie collaboration, Written In Chalk is not a country album. It is eclectic in style, which probably appeals to Americana fans, but leaves a lot of gaps for those of us who want something more country-sounding. That being said, the more country-leaning songs are, for the most part, very well done.

Julie wrote eight of the album’s twelve songs, including the wonderful album opener “Ellis County”, which finds Buddy looking back nostalgically at a simpler, by-gone era. Julie provides harmony vocals. She also wrote the rockabilly “Gasoline and Matches”, which is catchy but light on lyrics.

“Don’t Say Goodbye” is a pretty, piano-led ballad on which Julie takes over the lead vocals – and herein lies the problem with this album: while Julie’s wonderful harmony does much to enhance Buddy’s performances, she is not my idea of a good lead singer. She fails to enunciate her words clearly and I find her voice grating at times. Though a bit dull, this is a song I might enjoy more if it were sung by someone else. The same problem plagues “LongTime” and “Everytime We Say Goodbye”.

“What You Gonna Do, Leroy” is one of four songs provided by outside songwriters. This is a Mel Tillis song, which was previously unfamiliar to me, performed as a duet with guest artist Robert Plant. It’s been given a bluesy treatment, along with plenty of fiddle. The percussion is a bit heavy-handed; this is a problem on several of the album’s tracks.

Not surprisingly, the album’s best moments are when the production is scaled back. Among the highlights are “Hush, Sorrow”, written by Julie and “One Part, Two Part” written by Dee Ervin. My absolute favorite is the closing cut “The Selfishness In Man”, featuring harmony vocals from Emmylou Harris. “Memphis Jane” is the album’s most annoying track.

Mixed bag though it might be, the good on Written In Chalk generally outweighs the bad – and the good moments are definitely worth listening to.

Grade: B –

Album Review: Buddy Miller – ‘Universal United House of Prayer’

410LpFPxXNLI’ve listened to this albums several times through, and in some respects I am still not quite sure what to make of it. It isn’t really a country album, although there are tracks that sound decidedly country, and it isn’t R&B, although some songs have an R&B feel.

Universal United House of Prayer is an album of religiously themed music, although certainly not in the same sense as the music of the Blackwood Brothers, Chuck Wagon Gang or the Swan Silvertones. It seems an odd choice for Buddy’s first release on the New West label yet it is completely appropriate in that it has always been difficult pigeonhole Buddy’s secular music, so why should his religious music be any different?

Most of the songs are good and most of the performances are solid, yet this album really didn’t square with my idea of religious music. I regard the whole as being less than the sum of the parts.

Buddy had a hand in writing seven of the eleven songs on the album, four of them co-writes with wife Julie, plus co-writes with Victoria Williams and Jim Lauderdale. Julie Miller wrote one song by herself.

The album opens with “Worry Too Much” was penned by the late Mark Heard. Heard was essentially a rock songwriter and Buddy sings this as a rock song. I would like this song better in different surroundings

It’s the demolition derby
It’s the sport of the hunt
Proud tribe in full war-dance
It’s the slow smile that the bully gives the runt

It’s the force of inertia
It’s the lack of constraint
It’s the children out playing in the rock garden
All dolled up in black hats and war paint

Fiddle and drum dominate the sound of the Louvin Brothers’ country gospel classic “There’s A Higher Power”. It’s not bad but it is not the Louvins; however, the Louvin Brothers lyrics are always worthwhile:

When burdens seem to overcome
(There’s a higher power)
Who’s faithful and refuses none
(There’s a higher power)

Then why ask men to help you through?
(There’s a higher power)
They’re helpless pilgrims just like you
(There’s a higher power)

Let’s sing it, shout it, walk it, talk it
(There’s a higher power)
Lay down your soul ’cause Jesus bought it
(There’s a higher power)

Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen
(There’s a higher power)
Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen
(There’s a higher power)

Buddy and Julie collaborated on “Shelter Me” with uplifting strong backing vocals by Regina and Ann McCrary. I regard this as the best of Buddy Miller’s songwriting contributions to this album

The earth can shake, the sky come down
The mountains all fall to the ground
But I will fear none of these things
Shelter me Lord, underneath your wings

Dark waters rise and thunders pound
The wheels of war are going round
And all the walls are crumbling
Shelter me Lord, underneath Your wings

Shelter me Lord)
(Shelter me Lord)
Hide me underneath Your wings
(Shelter me Lord)
Hide me deep inside Your heart

(Shelter me Lord)
In your refuge, cover me
The world can shake
But Lord, I’m making You my hiding place

Miller’s take on Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” runs nine minutes. Buddy’s vocals are strong and believable but a nine minute song is simply too long

The rest of the album plods along. All of the songs are good but nothing especially stands out for me. I am probably being unfair but the album wasn’t country enough for my tastes, Buddy’s guitar work was excellent throughout and the aforementioned McCrary Sisters (featured on nine of the tracks) are a real highlight with their almost ephemeral harmonies.

I would give this album a “B”. Folks more inclined to like rock or alt-country will probably rate it higher.

Classic Rewind: Julie and Buddy Miller – ‘Broken Things’

Album Review: Buddy Miller – ‘Midnight and Lonesome’

51BcEdcn+IL2002’s Midnight and Lonesome was Buddy Miller’s most successful solo album to date. It was the first to chart (reaching a modest #50), in no small part due to the success of the previous year’s duets project with wife Julie. He produced the album himself. He and Julie wrote some of the album’s songs, but separately and together but there are also a fair number of songs, including covers, provided by outside songwriters. Though mostly a country effort, it does find him delving into rock and blues, with somewhat mixed results. I was a bit worried after hearing the opening track, “The Price of Love”, a rock-leaning Everly Brothers tune with which I was previously unfamiliar. Fortunately, things get back on track with the second track “Wild Card”, which he and Julie wrote, which finds him turning up the twang. It sounds very much like a number Hank Williams might have recorded in the early 50s.

One of the album’s best moments is the third track “I Can’t Get Over You”, a beautiful steel-laced ballad written by Julie Miller, with delicately understated harmony vocals provided by Lee Ann Womack. It is topped only by another ballad – “A Showman’s Life”, written by Jesse Winchester. Previously recorded by Gary Allan with Willie Nelson and George Strait with Faith Hill, it describes the hardship and loneliness experienced by musicians on the road. Buddy is joined by Emmylou Harris and the result is nothing short of magic. It easily trumps both the Allan/Nelson and Strait/Hill versions (although both of those are also quite good).

The mournful lyrics and high-lonesome harmonies (provided by Julie) of the title track are at odds with its up-tempo pace but it works surprisingly well.

I wasn’t particularly impressed with “When It Comes To You”, a bluesy number written by Buddy and Julie with Jim Lauderdale. It sounds like something Conway Twitty might have scored a big hit with in the early 80s. It’s not a bad song but it is marred beyond redemption by the production. It has a decidedly low-fidelity sound; the vocals are muffled as though Buddy were singing through some sort of filter. I found it very distracting. Another bluesy number, a cover of Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone to Love”, works much better. It’s a bit of an artistic stretch for Buddy, but one that pays off nicely. I’m not familiar with the original version and my first impression was that the melody was very similar to Ray Price’s “Night Life”.

The Cajun-flavored “Oh Fait Pitie D’Amour (Lord Have Mercy on Me)” provides another interesting change of pace, although it’s not particularly memorable.

Another highlight is the closing track “Quecreek”, an acoustic folk-leaning ballad which finds Buddy accompanied only by an acoustic guitar and Julie’s harmony vocals. Slightly reminiscent of Merle Travis’ classic “Dark as a Dungeon”, it tells the true story of a coal mining accident in Pennsylvania.. The nation waited with baited breath when nine miners were trapped for 77 hours between July 24 and July 28, 2002. Miraculously, all nine were rescued and Buddy’s emotional retelling of the ordeal likens their recovery to Christ’s Resurrection.

Midnight and Lonesome was nominated for Album of the Year in 2003 by the Americana Music Association. Though it did not win, it is a stellar collection (“The Price of Love” and “When It Comes to You” nothwithstanding). It is perhaps most accurately described as a roots album but country is the predominant influence.

Grade: A –

Album Review: Buddy and Julie Miller – ‘Buddy and Julie Miller’

buddyandjulielargeIt took Buddy Miller six years and four studio albums before he made a proper duo record with his wife Julie. Released in 2001 on HighTone Records, Buddy and Julie Miller was the inaugural Album of the Year at the Americana Music Awards.

The album features cover songs composed by folk/rock legends as well as original material. They open with an excellent take on Richard Thompson’s “Keep Your Distance,” which I came to know four years later through Patty Loveless. I also enjoyed their beautiful rendition of the Utah Phillips classic “Rock, Salt, Nails,” a song I hadn’t heard before. They unfortunately misstep with Bob Dylan’s “Wallflower.” The duo turned a simple country song into a loud mess.

Julie solely composed the remainder of the album, save one song. “You Make My Heart Beat Too Fast” is pure aggressive rock & roll, with Julie’s distinctive voice leading the way. The similarly uptempo “Rachael” is much more tasteful and falls within the appealing sonic vein of “Keep Your Distance.”

“Forever Has Come to an End” is a stunning country ballad about a guy lamenting the end of his marriage. They forgo the fiddle and steel, but the aching sincerity of the lyric perfectly shines through. “That’s Just How She Cries” is a strong lyric, but the arraignment is missing the flavor necessary to give it appealing texture. The same blandness mares “Holding Up The Sky.” The track prominently features an acoustic guitar that doesn’t really do anything to elevate the song in any significant way.

My trouble with Buddy and Julie Miller lies in the simple fact it isn’t a country album at all. I certainly see the quality in the songs, but the arrangements significantly hold me back from truly enjoying the album as a whole. But I did love “Forever Has Come to an End” and their cover of “Keep Your Distance” was very, very good.

There just isn’t much else that was truly appealing to my ears. Does that make Buddy and Julie Miller a bad album? Not in the least. Although it isn’t my personal taste, I can still clearly see why it’s been so lauded. I recommend seeking it out in order for you to make your own judgments.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Buddy Miller – ‘Cruel Moon’

1999’s Cruel Moon was another excellent slice of Americana cruel moonflavored country (or possibly country-flavored Americana) from Buddy Miller. Brilliant musicianship, high quality songwriting, instinctively tasteful production and vocals which while not the smoothest are strongly emotional and sell the songs: what more could one ask for?

The outstanding ‘Does My Ring Burn Your Finger’ (written by Buddy with wife Julie) is a modern classic, also having been recorded by Lee Ann Womack and others including soul singer Solomon Burke on his Miller-produced Nashville set. The lyric calls to mind the Charley Price 1960s classic ‘Does My Ring Hurt Your Finger’, but the newer song is fiercer and edgier as he accusingly questions a restless spouse,

Does my ring burn your finger?
Did my love weigh you down?
Was a promise too much to keep around?

Julie was Buddy’s most frequent co-writer on this album, also co-ring the graceful, melodic waltz which lends the album its title. Emmylou Harris (for whom Buddy had been playing lead guitar) provides her distinctive harmony on this gorgeous pure country tune. They also wrote the sad but pretty-sounding ‘In Memory Of My Heart’, a wistful ballad on which Julie sings the harmony. ‘I’m Too Used To Lovin’ You’ is another very good song written by the couple.

The writing partnership was joined by Jim Lauderdale for a couple of songs. ‘Looking For A Heartache Like You’ is rhythmically catchy and upbeat, and was later recorded by Patty Loveless. In contrast, ‘Sometimes I Cry’ is imbued with a raw pain.

Buddy did not rely solely on his own songs for this album. The energetic and catchy ‘Love Match’ was written by Paul Kennerley; this uses boxing as a metaphor for falling in love and features a martial beat and guest vocals from Steve Earle, another of his former employers. While that song is archetypical Steve Earle in its sound, Buddy also chooses to cover one of Earle’s finest ballads, ‘I’m Not Getting Any Better At Goodbye’. Mark Chesnutt’s cut is still my favourite version of that song, but Buddy’s vulnerable take is excellent too, backed by a sparse arrangement.

‘I’m Gonna Be Strong’ is a classy 60s pop ballad with a soothing melody, which was most successful for Gene Pitney. While Buddy isn’t a conventionally great vocalist, he invests this song with strong emotions, backed by the harmony vocals of Joy Lynn White. Buddy turns to bluesy gospel with Pop Staples’ ‘It’s Been A Change’. Julie Miller’s ‘Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go’ (later covered by Miranda Lambert) is an up-tempo relentless rock-edged number with a reverb-heavy production, which is very well done of its kind but not one of my favorites.

This is an excellent album which I strongly recommend.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Buddy Miller – ‘Poison Love’

51qFXeDUyiL._AA320_QL65_Buddy Miller and I are contemporaries, Buddy being five months younger than I am, meaning that we probably listened to a lot of the same music growing up. If this album is any indication, I am certain that we did.

Under slightly different circumstances he might have been a country star during the 1970s like Johnny Rodriguez (ten months older than Buddy) or during the 1980s like George Strait (four months older than Buddy). Instead Buddy took a while to reach solo artist status, working for years in various bands for various other stars, most notably Emmylou Harris.

Poison Love might be categorized as a country album or as an Americana album, although with steel guitar on nine of the thirteen tracks, I’m inclined to call it country. Miller actually covers three classic country tunes on the album, but I initially thought there were a couple of more since several of the songs Buddy composed used the titles of old country classics (song titles cannot be copyrighted), those being being “Draggin’ The River” and “I Can’t Help It”.

The album opens up with a song composed by Roger Miller and George Jones titled “Nothing Can Stop Me”. I don’t think George ever issued this as a single, so I think it possible that Buddy came to the song via an early 1970s recording by Patsy Sledd, who was an opening act for George and Tammy when they had their Plantation Music Park in Lakeland, Florida. Anyway, Buddy does a nice job with this up-tempo country number. Fiddle and steel guitar abound along with electric guitar the way it should be played. If you want to hear a quintessentially happy upbeat country romp, this song is it:

I gotta get up, I gotta get goin’, rain or shine, sleetin’ or snowin’
Nothing can stop me, stop me, stop my loving you
Wander through woods, climb a high mountain
Love’s in my heart like water’s in a fountain
Nothing can stop me, stop me, stop my loving you

Cross the fire, walk through the river, you’ll be the taker and I’ll be the giver
I’ll give you lovin’, lovin’, honey that’s what I’ll do
Climb a big wall, I’d tear into pieces, I gotta get to your loving kisses
Nothing can stop me, stop me, stop my loving you

 Next up is “100 Million Little Bombs”, definitely not a country song:

Three dollar bombs a 100 thousand more

Steps of a child and the ground explodes

You can’t clear one before another reloads

To ratchet up the ante again.
They’re cheap and they’re simple

They’re green and black

They’ll take you right down on a one way track

We’ve gone so far now that we can’t get back

And we still won’t stop this train


The sound of the song is pleasant enough, although the song is too political for country radio, even today. This is followed up by “Don’t Tell Me” a more conventional country song. Both of these songs were composed by Buddy and his wife Julie Miller and feature harmony vocals by Emmylou Harris.
    
 The title track is “Poison Love” a Johnnie Wright and Jack Anglin classic (Johnnie was Kitty Wells’ husband for 60+ years). Johnnie & Jack did the song with a rumba beat whereas Buddy’s instrumentation is more that of Cajun music. It’s a great recording, possibly my favorite track on the album. Steve Earle sings with Buddy on this track.

Next up is a Buddy & Julie Miller collaboration, “Baby Don’t Let Me Down”. I like the song although I think the electric organ adds nothing to the song:

Start up the engine and get back home

Hurry go tell mother

Johnny got a gun to shoot a squirrel

He put down your brother

Daddy ain’t nowhere to be found
 It’s getting way past midnight

Momma she’s left here to cry alone

While I steal a kiss in the moonlight


”Love Grows Wild” is another Buddy and Julie co-write, this one with a more bluegrassy feel thank to Tammy Rogers on fiddle and mandolin.

Jim Lauderdale joined Buddy in writing “Love In The Ruins” a very country number with plenty of fiddle and steel:

Love in the ruins

After the fall

What were we doing not thinking at all

I’ll take the chair for there’s no one to blame

Someone just called me or was that just your name

But regret is a debt that I just can’t pay

Cause it would be more than I could ever make

Turn left when we get to that place in the road

Or we’ll be on the one we shouldn’t take

“Draggin’ The River” is a pretty good song, although not as good as the Warner Mack song of the same title. A bit morose, this song can be interpreted in several ways, so I’ll let you pik your own interpretation. This song strikes me as more Americana than county:

Go down to the water and listen for a sound

Something like the moaning of a dove

That’s where I do my crying while I’m searching for a sign

Draggin’ the river of our love
Did she bear some secret sorrow I could never know
 T
hat why my heart was not enough
 Now she’s left me looking for a trace of what we had

Draggin’ the river of our love

If you think the Roosevelt Jameson composition “That’s How Strong My Love Is” seems familiar, you are probably correct, as the song was a powerful song in the hands of both the original recording artist O.V. Wright (1964), and the soulful titan who covered it in 1965, Otis Redding. It would be nearly impossible to be as soulful as either Wright or Redding, and Buddy certainly isn’t, but he gives the song a very convincing interpretation. The song has been recorded numerous times and Buddy’s version stacks up well against any of the other covers I’ve heard (Rolling Stones, Hollies, Percy Sledge, Bryan Ferry, Taj Mahal):

I’ll be the weeping willow drowning in my tears
And you can go swimming when you’re here
I’ll be the rainbow when the tears have gone
Wrap you in my colors and keep you warm

‘Cause that’s how strong my love is
That’s how strong my love is
That’s how strong my love is
That’s how strong my love is

The album closes out with a pair of Buddy and Julie collaborations in “Lonesome For You” and “I Can’t Help It” and a Buddy Miller co-write with Jim Lauderdale on “Love Snuck Up”. All three songs hew country.

Everything considered Poison Love is a solid country album, for a person who would have few actual hits but would ultimate carve a wide path in country music. The of the thirteen songs are solidly country, and the other three are close enough to country that even a diehard traditionalist such as myself found the album entirely satisfying. Great songs, great musician and some pretty good vocalists.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Buddy Miller – ‘Your Love and Other Lies’

71+O5-9t0GL._SX522_Released in 1995, Your Love and Other Lies was Buddy Miller’s first solo album, and the first of six to be released over the next decade on the HighTone label. A prior recording – Man on the Moon, also released in 1995 – was credited to Buddy Miller and the Sacred Cows on the obscure Coyote label, and is difficult to find today.

Miller has enjoyed great success in the Americana realm but is largely unknown to mainstream audiences, despite being highly regarded by some of the most prominent names in Nashville. I always find it interesting to speculate why artists like this didn’t enjoy mainstream success. He is a decent, though somewhat limited vocalist, and although the rootsy Your Love and Other Lies was less polished than what country radio wanted, even twenty years ago, it was not as far outside the mainstream at that time as it is today. His age – 43 at the time of this album’s release –may have been an obstacle, but the main reason Buddy Miller never made it as a mainstream major label act is that he doesn’t seem to have ever made any attempt to do so. For those of us who enjoy roots music made with little or no concessions to commercial tastes, this is a very good thing.

Miller had a hand in writing about half of the album’s 13 songs, some of them with his wife Julie, who also contributed two solo compositions and provided harmony vocals on some of the tracks. His good friend Jim Lauderdale also made two contributions (one co-write and one solo composition).

The two songs most likely to be familiar to mainstream country fans – or at least those of a certain age – are very nice covers of the Louvin Brothers’ “You’re Running Wild” and Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got to Memphis”. Julie’s harmony vocals on the former are spectacular. The latter was recorded by the songwriter himself in 1969, and was a #3 hit for Bobby Bare the following year. It has been covered numerous times since then. I’m tempted to say that it’s my favorite cut on the album, but it’s a tough call. I’m likely partial to it because it’s more familiar to me. Additionally, there are quite a few other contenders , beginning with the opening track “You Wrecked Up My Heart”, a Buddy/Julie co-write that sounds like something that Patty Loveless might have included on one of her 90s albums. To my knowledge, none of these songs were covered by the mainstream artists of the day, which is somewhat surprising.

Julie’s solo composition “Don’t Listen to the Wind” with its fiddle-intro has a Celtic feel to it. Jim Lauderdale’s “Hold On My Love” , featuring harmony vocals by Emmylou Harris, is reminiscent of The Everly Brothers, and Buddy’s solo effort “Watching Amy Dance” is a tear-jerker about an abandoned husband who doesn’t miss his ex but is pining away for the daughter with whom he has lost contact.

I’m less impressed with the album’s two most contemporary numbers: the rock-tinged “I Can’t Slow Down” and “Hole In My Head”. The latter is catchy and sounds like a summertime single for a mainstream artist but the lyrics are on the shallow side.

Although considered by many to be an Americana album, Your Love and Other Lies has plenty of fiddle and pedal steel and is exactly what many of us wish we could hear on country radio. I highly recommend it.
Grade: A

Spotlight Artist: Buddy Miller

buddy millerAnyone whose resume’ includes a spell leading Emmylou Harris’s backing band is going to be a great musician (just think of alumni like Rodney Crowell and Ricky Skaggs), and this month’s spotlight artist is no exception. Born in Ohio in 1952, where his father was serving in the Air Force, Steven “Buddy” Miller was raised in New Jersey, where he started out playing stand-up bass in his high school bluegrass band. He is now best known for his brilliant guitar playing – and, of course, for his songwriting and production, as well as being an artist in his own right.

He met future wife and musical partner Julie Griffin (born in 1956) in Austin, Texas, in 1975 when he joined Rick Stein & the Alleycats, a band of which she was a member (she was a dissenting voice). They subsequently moved together to New York and formed the Buddy Miller Band. Julie’s personal journey led her to leave the band (in which she was replaced by singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin), and she returned to Texas. Buddy followed her, and he and Julie married in 1981, and lived for periods in Texas, Seattle and California before eventually settling in Nashville in 1993.

streetlightJulie was now set on a career in Christian music. The band Streetlight, which featured Buddy, Julie and one other man, released a six-track Christian contemporary EP in 1983 for the Sparrow label. Julie, a distinctive vocalist and excellent songwriter, began making solo records in 1990, still as a Christian artist. Her solo career slowed after she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, with no new solo recordings since 1999, but she has continued to work with Buddy, and they have recorded several duet albums.

Buddy and Julie found congenial musical company in Nashville, and their songs have been covered by many country, Americana and other artists. Buddy found work playing on sessions, and discovered a gift for producing. He has built a recording studio in his Nashville home, and has been acclaimed for his production work on records by Allison Moorer, Patty Griffin, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, soul singer Solomon Burke, and Ralph Stanley. He served as music director for the second and third seasons of the TV drama Nashville.

In c.1995 Buddy became the guitar player for Spyboy, the trio Emmylou formed to support her tour promoting her Wrecking Ball album, and he stayed with her for eight years. He has also toured in the bands of Steve Earle, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. In 2008-9 he took front stage alongside Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin and Shawn Colvin on the Three Girls And Their Buddy tour, interrupted by a heart attack from his fortunately made a full recovery.

Alongside his sidesman and studio duties, Buddy began recording his own music in 1995 with Your Love And Other Lies. He has interspersed solo records with duet projects with wife Julie, and one with old friend Jim Lauderdale. Buddy’s latest project, Cayamo Sessions At Sea, was released last Friday, with a host of guest stars, and we are delighted to be spending February focussing on his music here.

Album Review: Suzy Bogguss – ‘Nobody Love, Nobody Gets Hurt’

nobody love nobody gets hurtSuzy’s swansong for Capitol was released in 1998. She produced the record with her husband, and unfortunately it was a bit of a damp squib commercially, with no real hits.

She and husband Doug Crider wrote the mid-tempo AC ‘Somebody To Love’, her last top 40 single, with Matraca Berg. It opens with an arresting picture of a woman weeping in her kitchen all dolled up after a disastrous date, but the remainder of the lyric is bland and the melody is rather limited.

The title track performed less well, peaking in the 60s. Written by singer-songwriter Bobbie Cryner, it is a memorable and slightly quirky story about a dyslexic and emotionally damaged bank robber which is a little heavy handed in pressing home its point, but a stripped down arrangement and sensitive vocal sell it.

The final single, the Kim Richey/Tia Sillers-penned ‘From Where I Stand’ was another flop. Although (like ‘Somebody To Love’) it has quite a commercial late 90s sound reminiscent of Trisha Yearwood’s more AC material, it’s not very interesting.

The insistently bluesy pop-country ‘Just Enough Rope’ sounds like an attempt to compete with the likes of Shania Twain. It is a departure from Suzy’s strengths as an artist but is quite catchy, although someone like Yearwood would probably have been more suited to it. It is one of only two tracks to feature fiddle.

A more traditional country fiddle leads into Julie Miller’s ‘Take Me Back’. This is the most traditional country track on the record (with the only steel guitar to make an appearance as well as the fiddle) and a real highlight; an excellent song with a close harmony from Garth Brooks on the chorus.

‘When I Run’ is a nice Skip Ewing ballad with a pretty tune and insightful lyric about someone finding love scary. Suzy’s subtle vocal is beautiful, and makes this commitmentphobe sympathetic and convincing, when she says,

It’s not you
It’s not fun
I know tryin’ to hide is crazy
Walking out won’t save me
My demons only chase me when I run

Kathy Mattea sings backing vocals but is so low in the mix she is inaudible.

The delicate ballad ‘Moonlight And Roses’, written by Cheryl Wheeler, is an understated gem about not missing an opportunuity to find love, with another excellent, subtle vocal. Alison Krauss plays viola.

Tony Arata’s ‘I Wish Hearts Would Break’ is a moving tribute to a dying mineworker whose spirit has been broken by the death of his beloved wife, which again Suzy sings beautifully, supported by Darrell Scott’s backing vocals. Childhood memories are fondly recalled in the gently folky ‘Family Tree’, written by Doug Crider and Matt Rollings.

Suzy and Doug’s ‘I Surrender’ is a pleasant love song, with Patty Loveless providing a gentle harmony. I preferred the closing ‘Train Of Thought’, written by Cathy Majeski, Sunny Russ and Stephony Smith, an attractively laid back number with backing vocals from Trisha Yearwood and Alison Krauss.

Overall while this is not one of Suzy’s best albums, it is a pleasant listening experience, but the attempts at maintaining commercial viability are the least successful tracks. It marked the end of her time on a major label, but is worth picking up if you like Suzy’s music.

Grade: B-

Album Review: LeAnn Rimes – ‘Spitfire’

spitfireLeAnn Rimes’ chart fortunes have been wildly inconsistent since she emerged on the country scene as a 13-year old. Her turbulent private life has also exposed her to a great deal of public criticism in recent years with her romance with new husband Eddie Cibrian breaking up two existing marriages and the home of two small children. Her excellent Vince Gill-produced covers album reignited my interest in her as an artist, and now she returns with her first records of all-new material in some years. She wrote many of the songs with her co-producer and frequent collaborator Darrell Brown, and it is the most personal and honest material she has ever recorded. She acknowledges that on the album cover, giving it the subtitle “the truth, in no particular order”. In other words, it is effectively a concept album about her affair, divorce and remarriage – meaty reality-based material which makes it a rare example of its kind in today’s market. Musically it’s not as traditional as Lady And Gentlemen but it is recognizably country music, with breathing space for LeAnn’s vocals.

The best songs are the more reflective ones where she shows some self-awareness. Candid cheating songs used to be a staple of country music but have fallen out of favor in recent years. ‘Borrowed’ is a guilt-ridden cheating song set during the affair, this one addressed to her new lover and dealing with her jealousy of his wife.

The remorseful ballad ‘What Have I Done’ (perhaps the outstanding song on the album) addresses the wrong she has done to her first love, who is “not her last”. It is an excellent song with a beautiful melody, with Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski adding harmonies and subtle steel and fiddle.

What have I done?
I broke the sweetest heart
Of the only man that’s ever loved me

I don’t know what I’ve become
I need to get back to where I’m from
Gotta smash every mirror in this empty house
Cause like you I don’t want to see myself
Oh, what have I done?

Both of these songs were released as singles late last year, but have failed to chart.

The haunting ‘Where I Stood’ (written by Australian AC singer-songwriter Missy Higgins) tackles the same theme, opening with the words “I don’t know what I’ve done” as she faces the loss of her husband and contemplates his finding someone new.

A heavy drumbeat leads into the less subtle ‘I Do Now’, which again addresses her cheating, but with less evident remorse, with LeAnn taking comfort in listening to Hank Williams and Merle Haggard but unfortunately not borrowing from them stylistically, instead going for a rock-influenced mid-tempo sound without much melody.

‘A Waste Is A Terrible Thing To Mind’ is another fine song written by LeAnn, as she ponders over her choices. It is one of the most traditional sounding songs on the album. Her diction is a bit muddy on this one (a problem she has sometimes suffered from in the past) so it takes some concentration to decipher the story, but it recounts the protagonist’s regret at separating from husband or lover:

I threw him out like the trash one night
The dumbest thing I’ve ever done
He was the best thing that I’ll ever find
Yeah, a waste is a terrible thing to mind

Darrell Brown contributed ‘Who We Really Are’ (a co-write with Sarah Buxton), a pretty ballad on which Leann’s vocals sound nice but again the words (about discovering oneself through the vicissitudes of love) are hard to make out.

The aggressive ‘Spitfire’ lets loose against a rival in love, and is a little spiteful, calling her rival not only a “dirty little liar” but a brainless one. It’s a brave choice as the album opener and title track as it doesn’t paint LeAnn in the best light and the obviously autobiographical nature of the material elsewhere makes this open to interpretation as a personal attack on her husband’s former wife, so making it the entry into the album could antagonize some listeners (but perhaps those most offended won’t be listening anyway, on principle?). Divorced from its likely context, it’s not a bad song in assertive vein.

She definitely addresses her husband’s ex-wife elsewhere, claiming to be ‘Just A Girl Like You’, acknowledging “he may break my heart too”, but I didn’t like this one much – it feels a bit disingenuous, there is far too much vocal noodling and the instrumentation has a slightly tinny feel. ‘You’ve Ruined Me’ also sounds a bit over-produced and over-wrought vocally.

Buddy and Julie Miller’s frenetic ‘Gasoline And Matches’ is done as a duet with rock singer Rob Thomas, and is quite entertaining, although it definitely leans more in the rock direction than country; rock guitarist Jeff Beck also guests. In the context of this album, it presumably reflects the passion wrought by her relationship with her new husband.

The equally fast-paced ‘You Ain’t Right’ written by Liz Rose with another husband-and-wife team, Chris Stapleton and Morgane Hayes, has a hardworking woman complaining about her layabout man’s lack of effort. It’s a good song, but lacks melody and feels out of place thematically.

I assume the judgmental ‘God Tales Care Of Your Kind’ is an older song as it was written with Leann’s ex-husband Dean Sheremet; it too seems a curious choice for this record unless she is addressing it to herself. Finally ‘Bottle’ is surprisingly bland for a Gary Burr tune.

It seems fairly clear that LeAnn’s personal life has caused a backlash against her music, and this album (apparently her last for Curb) will probably not get the radio play it needs to do well commercially. However, it is a serious artistic work rooted in real life. Perhaps a little too much so at times.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Rodney Crowell – ‘The Outsider’

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘I Hope You Dance’

Lee Ann Womack’s most commercially successful album features crystalline vocals, an ambitious selection of material ranging from the traditional sounds closest to her heart to Americana to adult contemporary influences which barely escape being bland.

The title track was a massive crossover hit, thanks to the combination of the song’s message, very AC sounding, sophisticated production, and the lovely and obviously heartfelt vocal which Lee Ann directed to her two young daughters. The counterpoint of the Sons of the Desert (singing a different set of lyrics) is unusually set against the sweetness of Lee Ann’s optimistic vocal. The song’s ubiquity has led to some backlash, but I think it still stands up for what it is: a genuinely inspiring wish for a child to live life to the full and not regret any missed opportunities. And its message is worth hearing:

Loving might be a mistake but it’s worth making

Lee Ann’s only #1 hit, ‘I Hope You Dance’ registered platinum, won a stack of awards for both Lee Ann and its writers Mark D Sanders and Tia Sillers, crossed over to hit the top of the AC chart, and even got some pop and international airplay. It may not be her best record, but it is undoubtedly her best-known, particularly among non-country listeners.

The next single was a contrast in style and mood, a gutsy version of Rodney Crowell’s onetime minor pop hit ‘Ashes By Now’, which peaked for Lee Ann at #14. It’s one of her less country recordings, but undoubtedly technically an impressive achievement with Lee Ann successfully navigating the song’s awkward jerky rhythms, jaded mood and shifting intensity.

It was back to the ballads with ‘Why They Call It Falling’, another excellent song, written by Don Schlitz and Roxie Dean. It contrasts the thrill of falling in love with the devastation of subsequent heartbreak, and Lee Ann’s vocal is masterly, although the strings are a bit overwhelming in places. It peformed similarly to its immediate predecessor, and reached #13.

The last and best single, however, failed to make it into the top 20. The intense ‘Does My Ring Burn Your Finger?’ is a superb Buddy and Julie Miller song with a stinging lyric. Production on this track (one of three from the hands of Lee Ann’s husband Frank Liddell) is edgy but organic, with Lee Ann’s high lonesome wail just right for the starkness of the lyric addressed to the faithless spouse, with the Millers on harmony vocals.

Liddell’s other tracks are another Julie Miller song, the ponderous ‘I Know Why The River Runs’, which I could live without, and the infinitely better ‘Lonely Too’, written by Texas singer-songwriter Bruce Robison. This is my favorite on the record, a beautiful downbeat song, given a quietly impassioned delivery. The melody is quite lovely, with some strong fiddle from Aubrey Haynie and Larry Franklin and harmony vocals from Jon Randall making this a great sounding track. Lee Ann gently rebukes the careless lover who cannot understand why she is coping so badly:

You tell me you wondered if I was okay
Well, that’s a damn fool thing to say…

And you seem so surprised that I’m feeling this way
How am I so lonely today?
If you’d ever loved me the way I loved you
You would be lonely too

There are several other gems here.

The gorgeous ‘The Healing Kind’ opens the album with a subtle portrayal of disconsolate heartbreak which just won’t go away. This is a great song written by bluegrass singer/songwriter Ronnie Bowman and Greg Luck. Lee Ann’s exquisite vocal is backed by tasteful acoustic instrumentation and Ricky Skaggs’ harmonies, as she reveals a broken heart that hurts more every day, concluding bleakly as she meets yet another cold December alone,

Guess I’m just not the healing kind

Equally fine is the delicate Tammy Wynette styled ‘Stronger than I Am’ written by former singer Bobbie Cryner. A beautiful melody and tasteful strings sweeten a heartbreakingly incisive lyric about an abandoned wife who contrasts her failure to cope with live without her man, to her little girl’s innocence,

She finally learned to say goodbye
She’s sleeping through the night
She don’t wake up crying
And she’s walking on her own
She don’t need no one holding to her hand
And I hate to admit she’s stronger than I am

She’s just like her old man
Stronger than I am

Perhaps the most traditional country number included, the vivacious ‘I Feel Like I’m Forgetting Something’ is a co-write by Lee Ann with Wynn Varble and Jason Sellers. The copyright date is 1997, so one suspects it was left over from one of her previous albums. A chirpy mid-tempo number with a lot of personality about getting over an ex, it isn’t the best song here, but it was well worth reviving. Less successful is ‘After I Fall’, written by producer Mark Wright with Ronnie Rogers and Bill Kenner, which is the blander side of adult contemporary and falls completely flat.

‘Thinkin’ With My Heart Again’ is a pretty but melancholy sounding song written by Dean Dillon, Donny Kees and Sanger D Shafer with another delicate vocal conveying the complex emotions brought out when encountering a former love. An airy acoustic cover of ‘Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good’ (a chart topper for Don Williams back in 1982) ends the album on a high, with Ronnie Bowman and Dan Tyminski singing harmony.

Thanks to the juggernaut of the title song, this remains Lee Ann’s best selling album, earning triple platinum status. The singing is outstanding throughout, and although the material is mixed, there is a lot of good stuff here, making it worth finding a cheap copy.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘Some Things I Know’

Like her contemporary Sara Evans, Lee Ann Womack followed up a neotraditional debut with a sophomore effort which was a little more in tune with contemporary tastes, but still recognizably country. The song quality is high, mainly down-tempo and focussing on failed relationships. Mark Wright produced again, but his work is less sympathetic this time around, leaning a little more contemporary than the neotraditionalism of her debut and too often smothered with string arrangements to sweeten the pill for radio.

‘A Little Past Little Rock’ is a great song about a woman who has left a desperate relationship in Dallas. Struggling to cope as she gets “A little past Little Rock, but a long way from over you”, Lee Ann delivers a fine vocal, but the track is somewhat weighed down by the swelling strings. Lee Ann’s ex-husband Jason Sellers is among the backing singers. Written by Tony Lane, Jess Brown and Brett Jones, it was the album’s first single and peaked at #2.

This performance was matched by a rare venture by the artist into comedy material which is one of my favourite LAW singles, written by Tony Martin and Tim Nichols. With tongue-in-cheek malice the protagonist vents her hatred of her successful romantic rival with the words ‘I’ll Think Of A Reason Later’ as

It may be my family’s redneck nature
Bringing out unladylike behavior
It sure ain’t Christian to judge a stranger
But I don’t like her

She maybe an angel who spends all winter
Bringing the homeless blankets and dinner
A regular Nobel Peace Prize winner
But I really hate her
I’ll think of a reason later

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Album Review: Dierks Bentley – ‘Dierks Bentley’

Dierks Bentley was the singer’s major label debut, which appeared in 2003, two years following the independently released Don’t Leave Me In Love. The major label phase of Bentley’s career received a jump-start with his first single, the infectious ‘What Was I Thinkin’, which quickly shot to #1 and became Bentley’s first gold single. Irresistibly catchy, it was one of the very few — perhaps the only — #1 hit that year to feature the dobro as a prominent instrument. Capitol hoped to duplicate this success with the follow-up single, the slightly syrupy and sentimental ‘My Last Name’, a tune about family pride and honor, which stalled at #17. Bentley recovered with the album’s final single, the upbeat “How Am I Doin'”, which climbed to #4. Like its two predecessors, ‘How Am I Doin’ was co-written by Bentley, as were eight more of the album’s thirteen tracks.

All three of the album’s singles were enjoyable, but the album cuts are where the truly interesting material can be found. Bentley and producer Brett Beavers seem to have deliberately followed a strategy of building the album around some hit singles, and using the rest of the album as an opportunity to branch out a little more with some more traditional material that was considered less radio-friendly. Overall, the approach works well and the end result is an album that has more depth and breadth than most debut efforts.

Among the more traditional cuts on the album is ‘Bartenders, Etc.’, which Bentley wrote, and had previously recorded for his independent album. Not a drinking song per se, it pays homage to the barroom. This type of song has long been a staple of country music. As an uptempo number, it initially seems like a good choice for a single, but the barroom theme may have been a little to politically incorrect for country radio in 2003. “Distant Shore” was also strong enough to warrant release as a single, but Capitol may have been reluctant to send another ballad to radio after ‘My Last Name’ failed to reach the Top 10.

‘My Love Will Follow You’ was written by Buddy and Julie Miller. One of only two songs on the album not written or co-written by Dierks, it had previously appeared on Buddy’s 1995 album Your Love and Other Lies. The other tune in which Dierks did not have a hand in writing is ‘I Bought The Shoes’, a honky-tonker which is my favorite song on the album:

I bought her fancy clothes, for all occasions
And that new car so she could go just any ole where she pleased
I bought the golden band she wore, on the hand that closed the door
And I bought the shoes that just walked out on me

In what would become a tradition for Dierks’ albums, the set closes with a bluegrass number, ‘Train Travelin’, on which Dierks is joined by the Del McCoury Band. It stands out in stark contrast in an era in which country stars often claimed to have a deep appreciation of country music’s traditions but rarely demonstrated that appreciation in their own music. Dierks was the sole writer of ‘Train Travelin’, which adds to its authenticity; this song wasn’t the product of a “songwriter’s committee” where the artist got a songwriting credit merely for being present in the room while professional writers did all the heavy lifting. It also serves to underscore that there is a lot more to Dierks Bentley than what we hear from him on the radio. I’ve been underwhelmed by some of his single releases over the years, but hearing his debut effort has made me realize that listening to some of his later albums in their entirety may be a worthwhile exercise.

Grade: A-

Dierks Bentley is widely available from major retailers, including Amazon and iTunes.

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

I’ll confess that I’ve had my reservations about this long-awaited fifth studio album from Dierks Bentley. Originally Dierks and Capitol had planned to release two albums this year — a bluegrass album and a “regular” country album. When it was announced that the plans had been changed, that only one album would be released and that it would be bluegrass-influenced but not exactly “pure” bluegrass, I feared that the label was back-pedaling due to a lack of confidence that bluegrass would sell in today’s market. My fears were not allayed with the single release of the somewhat disappointing title track. My main gripe was the overly-processed harmony vocals. I’m not a bluegrass purist; I’m not bothered at all by the inclusion of electric and percussion instruments, but Alison Krauss’ usually distinctive voice was unrecognizable and it just sounded out of place on a bluegrass(ish) recording.

It was, therefore, a tremendous relief to hear the remainder of the album, which is a lot closer to what I’d had in mind all along. Dierks is joined by an impressive guest roster of musicians from both the bluegrass and mainstream country communities; Alison Krauss, Ronnie and Del McCoury, The Punch Brothers, Sam Bush, Jamey Johnson, Miranda Lambert, and Kris Kristofferson are among the artists lending their talents to the project, which was produced by Jon Randall Stewart, an accomplished musician in his own right.

The album is an interesting mixture of of traditional songs such as “Fiddlin’ Around” and “You’re Dead To Me” and more progressive fare such as “Fallin’ For You” and “Pride (In The Name Of Love)”. There are also touches of folk and rock on a reworked version of Bob Dylan’s “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)” on which Dierks is joined by progressive bluegrass band The Punch Brothers. The Punch Brothers also contributed to the more traditional “Rovin’ Gambler” as well as the aforementioned “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” which also features Del McCoury and sounds like something from a SteelDrivers album. There are even some modern classical elements, a Punch Brothers trademark, included on “Pride”. The Punch Brothers are a band that I’m going to have to check out more thoroughly in the future.

Bentley shares co-writing credit on five of the album’s twelve tracks, four of them with producer Stewart. The remaining songs come mainly from the catalogs of some of Nashville’s finest songwriters: Shawn Kemp, Paul Kennerley, Verlon Thompson, Tim O’Brien, Kris Kristofferson and Buddy and Julie Miller. Thompson wrote “Bad Angel” along with Suzi Ragsdale. On this track, Dierks is joined by Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson, who both provide fine vocal performances on one of the best tracks on the album. Kristofferson contributes a characteristically rough duet vocal on his 1969 composition “Bottle To The Bottom”. Closing out the album is “Down In The Mine”, one of the songs Bentley and Stewart wrote together. It’s reminsicent of the often-recorded Merle Travis classic “Dark As A Dungeon.” Stewart and Sonya Isaacs provide beautiful harmony vocals. As the song and the album wind down, it just left me wanting more.

The title track is currently at #25 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart. Whether it will gain enough momentum to reach the Top 10 remains to be seen, as does whether or not subsequent singles will chart well. It would be nice to hear some of these songs on the radio; they provide a much-needed antidote to the ubiquitous pop-country currently rulilng the airwaves. In the end, though, I suspect that this may be one of those albums that manages to sell well without a lot of radio support. But regardless of its fate at radio and retail, Up On The Ridge is an excellent example of artistry and an essential purchase for any serious country music fan.

Up On The Ridge is available at retail stores, as well as at Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: A

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

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

10. EP – Caitlin & Will (Sony)

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

9. Live On The Inside – Sugarland (Mercury)

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

8. Twang – George Strait (MCA)

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

7. Beautiful Day – Charlie Robison (Dualtone)

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

6. Sing: Chapter 1 -Wynonna (Curb)

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

5. My Turn – Tanya Tucker (Saguaro Road)

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

4. Keep On Loving You – Reba (Valory)

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

3. The List – Rosanne Cash (Manhattan)

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

2. Revolution – Miranda Lambert (Sony)

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

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

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