My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Kathy Mattea

Album Review: Don Williams – ‘Currents’

Before we get underway with our Johnny Paycheck spotlight, we have some unfinished business concerning last month’s spotlight artist Don Williams.  Through an oversight, this review was not published on Monday, May 29th as originally intended, so we are bringing it to you now — a little late but worth the wait.

The year 1992 was an interesting year in country music as the ‘New Traditionalist’ movement reached its zenith following the first flowering in 1986 (Randy Travis, Travis Tritt,  Dwight Yoakam) and the vaunted class of 1989 led by Alan Jackson, Clint Black and Garth Brooks. By 1992 so-called hat acts proliferated and even when the music was not strictly traditionalist, fiddle and steel guitar were prominently featured in the music.

In 1987 Hank Williams Jr.  and a cadre of younger artists presaged the 1992 music scene with the video “Young Country”, but with one exception: while the listeners may have been listening to both the new acts and the older acts in concert (and through their cassette and CD collections), radio had completely discarded Haggard and Jones and almost discarded the 48 year old Hank Williams Jr.

Currents, which was released in April 1992, was the third (and final) Don Williams album to be released on the RCA label.  Don had enjoyed three top ten hits off the previous album True Love, but those would prove to be the last top forty chart hits of Don’s career.  Make no mistake about it, Currents, like every album Don released before it (or even after it, for that matter) is a very good album. The problem with the album was the ‘Young Country’ movement was in full swing and the fifty-three year old Williams looked like ‘Old Country’ even if his music was not exactly of the Ernest Tubb/Hank Sr. old school vintage. In fact with his rapidly graying beard, Don looked even a bit older than his age. Radio simply quit playing him.

The album opens up with a Hugh Prestwood song, “Only Water (Shining In The Air)”, mid-tempo ballad with a little different sound than previous efforts:

Not that long ago, I was on the run
People telling me I should be someone
And the things I’d learnt were forgotten in my haste
Till I reached the end of the rainbow I had chased
It was only water shining in thin air
I put out my hand and there was nothing there
After all the promise, after all the prayer
It was only water shining in the air
Now I’ve got a wife and she sees me through
And I’ve got a friend I can talk straight to
And I’ve got some dreams just a bit more down to earth
And I don’t forget what a rainbow’s really worth

“Too Much Love” has a sing-a-long quality to it and, again, a little more of a contemporary sound to it. Written by Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway, the song has rather bouncy lyrics of not much substance. The song was released as the second single; it deserved a better fate than dying at #72.

Too much coffee, too much tea, too much sugar isn’t good for me.
Too much money and too much fame, too much liqueur drives a man insane.
But too much love, too much love, there’s no such thing as too much love.
Too much fighting and misery, there’s too much trouble in this world for me.
There’s too much of this and too much of that and too much of anything will make you fat.
But too much love, too much love, there’s no such thing as too much love.

I really liked “That Song About The Water”, in fact it is my favorite song on the album. I think it would have made a good single but I doubt radio would have played it either. Penned by Charles John Quarto and Steve Gillette, the song is a slow ballad that sounds like a typical late 60s – early 70s production with steel guitar and (to a lesser degree) harmonica very prominent in the arrangement. I can hear this as a track on a Charley Pride album from that period.

I have seen the paddle wheelers
Rolling south on a summers day
I’ve seen the lovers at the guardrails
With stars in their lemonade
And I’ve heard the hobos gather
Heard their banjos brace the blade
Heard them sing about the river
Called it the lazy mans parade
Sing me that song about the river
Green going away
You know I always did feel like a drifter
At this time of day

Alex Harvey wrote “Catfish Bates” the third single from the album and the first Don Williams single not to chart after fifty-three consecutive solo chart singles. This mid-tempo ballad also features mid-70s country production. If released as a single 15-18 years earlier, I think it would have been a substantial hit. Of course, I may be prejudiced since fried catfish is my favorite form of seafood:

They call me Catfish Bates
‘Cause I can catch a catfish anytime I want to
Even when the moon man tells me they won’t bite
They call me Catfish Bates
‘Cause I know where that big ole flathead’s a hidin’.
I’m a gonna take him home with me tonight
I am the king of the Loosahatchie
My home is on the river
And them catfish they all know me by my sigh

I keep my nose on the westwind
My eye on the water
And my mind on my business all the time

Don turns to Dobie Gray for the next two songs. Gray was essentially an R&B singer who had two huge pop hits, “The In Crowd” (1965) and “Drift Away” (1972). Country fans may remember “Drift Away from Narvel Felts top ten record in 1973.

“So Far, So Good” is a slow ballad about a breakup that the narrator thinks is about to happen, but which hasn’t happened yet. “In The Family” features a Caribbean rhythm verging on reggae. It’s different but it works

 

Well I was raised up by the golden rule
In an old house with a patched up roof
We had a hard home but it pulled us close
We were family
Oh that summer, when the crops all died
Was the first time I saw Daddy cry
An’ I heard Momma say what goes on here stays
In the family

[Chorus]

Well our clothes weren’t new, that old car was used
We held our own
Whoa you just can’t buy, that sense of pride
We grew up on, In the family

I was stunned that “Standing Knee Deep In A River (Dying of Thirst)”, written by the crack team of Bob McDill and Dickey Lee, was not released as a Don Williams single. Instead Kathy Mattea took it to the top twenty in 1993. I like Kathy Mattea but Don’s version is better.

Friends I could count on I could count on one hand with a left over finger or two.
I took them for granted, let them all slip away, now where they are I wish I knew.
They roll by just like water & I guess we never learn,
Go through life parched and empty standing knee deep in a river, dying of thirst.

Pat Alger contributed “Lone Star State of Mind” a song which barely cracked the top forty for Nanci Griffith in 1987. Charles John  Quarto and Steve Gillette contributed “The Old Trail”, a jog-along ballad that isn’t as cowboy as the title suggests. Both songs are good album tracks.

The album closes up with “It’s Who You Love” a top twenty hit for writer Kieran Kane back in 1982. This song was released as the first single from the album. It died at # 73, the first indication that Don’s career as a chart singles act was through. I really like Don’s version – he is a more distinctive vocalist than Kieran Kane – but the song did not do great things in 1982, either.

Lying here beside her I’ve come to understand
If you want to be happy you can
It don’t take living like a king, it doesn’t cost you anything
All it takes is a woman and a man
Because its who you love and who loves you
It’s not where you are if she’s there too
It’s not who you know or what you do
It’s who you love and who loves you
This modern world we live in is a sad state of affairs
Everybody wants what isn’t theirs
While the race for money and success in search of happiness
We turn out the light and go upstairs

Kathy Mattea contributes backing vocals on “The Old Trail”, Dobie Gray does likewise on the two songs he wrote. Kieran Kane plays mandolin and Russ Pahl plays steel guitar. Something called the Bhundu Boys plays on “In The Family” providing guitars, handclaps and cowbells.

I doubt that there was a great conspiracy on radio to not play Don Williams records in 1992 (but I could be convinced otherwise). This is a fine album, with subtle and appropriate instrumentation and featuring a bunch of good songs. This album fits comfortably in the B+ to A- range where most of Don’s albums reside.

No further chart singles would occur for Don Williams, although his subsequent albums would occasionally reach the lower reaches of the Country Albums charts.

I guess Jerry Reed Hubbard was correct when he said “When You’re Hot You’re Hot, When You’re Not,You’re Not”.

 

Album Review: Don Williams: ‘Traces’

Traces was the second of a pair of albums that Don recorded for Capitol during the mid-to-late 1980s.   He co-produced the set with Garth Fundis.  Never one to follow trends, Don began his solo career singing songs with simple, stripped down production in an era when countrypolitan, with its lush string sections and vocal choruses, ruled the day.   By the mid-80s Randy Travis had brought country music back to its roots, with most other mainstream artists following suit.    Don Williams chose this time, however, to release an album that delved a little further into the pop realm.  The difference in sound is sometimes subtle, as is the case on “I Wouldn’t Be a Man”, the sultry lead single that reached a #9 peak.   At other times, it is more pronounced; a prime example is his cover of “Till I Can’t Take It Anymore”.   Originally an R&B hit for Ben E. King in 1968, it was introduced to country audiences by Dottie West and Don Gibson in 1970. In 1990, Billy Joe Royal would take it to #2 on the country charts.  While it works well for a genre-straddling artist like Royal, it is a bit of a stretch for the usually traditional Don Williams. Even more of a stretch is the trainwreck that is “Running  Out of Reasons to Run”, a filler song written by Jim Rushing and Martin Gerald Derstine with a jarring horn section.   It was better suited for Sawyer Brown, who recorded their own version a year later, but it is not a good vehicle for Williams.   “Looking Back”, a 1950s-style pop song is better.

Fortunately there are also plenty of country songs on the album.  The detour into pop occurs about halfway through and is preceded by three solid country numbers and followed by three more.   One of the best is “Another Place, Another Time”, a Bob McDill-Paul  Harrison tune that was released as the album’s second single, peaking at #5.   It was followed by the excellent upbeat “Desperately”, written by Kevin Welch and Jamie O’Hara, which reached #7.  The poignant (and extremely well-written) piano and string ballad “Old Coyote Town”, about a small town that has fallen on hard economic times, was the fourth and final single, which also reached #5.   One minor quibble:  I would have made this the closing track instead of giving that designation to the pleasant but pedestrian “You Love Me Through It All”.   A rather sedate rendition of “Come From the Heart”, preceding Kathy Mattea’s hit version by two years, is a pleasant surprise.

With the benefit of hindsight, one could possibly point to Traces as the beginning of Don’s chart decline; it was his first album since 1974’s Volume Two not to produce at least one #1 hit, although the four singles all performed respectably.  According to Wikipedia, the album did not chart, which I find hard to believe considering that it produced four Top 10 hits.  It is a solid album that I enjoyed but due to a few missteps, I have to rank it a little lower than his earlier work.  It is available on a 2-for-1 CD along New Moves, Don’s other album for Capitol.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘Miss the Mississippi’

5174w-nuyal1979 saw a big shift in the direction of Crystal Gayle’s music when she switched record labels. Although she continued to work with producer Allen Reynolds, she delved even further into pop territory from the get go. Her first single for Columbia was “Half the Way”, which was her biggest hit for the label. Although it just missed the top spot on the Billboard country charts (peaking at #2), it landed at #15 on the Billboard Hot 100 (her final entry in the Top 20 of that chart) and #9 on the AC chart. The song is undeniably catchy, but does not sound even remotely country, although at least one its writers had solid country credentials. Ralph Murphy, a British born Canadian songwriter, penned the tune with Bobby Wood. The duo also wrote “He Got You” which was a hit for Ronnie Milsap the following year. Murphy had also written Jeannie C. Riley’s “Good Enough to Be Your Wife” and would go on to write hits for Randy Travis, Kathy Mattea, Don Williams and others and would eventually be inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame. “Half the Way” was Crystal’s biggest hit on the pop charts after “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” and set the tone for the sound of her music for the rest of her tenure with Columbia.

The second single from Miss the Mississippi was “It’s Like We Never Said Goodbye”, an uptempo number with a lush string arrangement. It reached #1 on the country chart and #17 on the AC chart but only reached #63 on the Hot 100 chart. Like “Half the Way”, it is barely country but irresistibly catchy. The more stripped-down ballad “The Blue Side” was the final single, charting at #8 country, #16 AC and #81 Hot 100.

Another tune that most people old enough to remember this era will recognize is the mid tempo pop number “Don’t Go My Love” written by James Valentini and Frank Saulino. Crystal never released it as a single but I definitely remember hearing it played on MOR radio stations, although I don’t know who the artist was. My research — admittedly very limited — shows that the song was recorded by a Greek singer named Nana Mouskouri who enjoyed quite a few international hits. Again, the song is a bit of an ear worm, but there’s nothing country about it.

Balancing out all this pop are a handful of songs that are more country in nature, at least by late 70s standards. Crystal does a capable job on “Dancing the Night Away” which had been a Top 20 country hit for Tanya Tucker in 1977. “Room for One More” is another one with appeal for country fans, and the concluding track is an exquisite reading of “Miss the Missippi and You”, which is far more polished than anything Jimmie Rodgers probably ever imagined.

Miss the Mississippi is not an album for everyone. If you’re looking for hardcore country it’s best to give it a miss. However, it provides an interesting glimpse at the direction country music was taking in the late 70s — and why there was the eventual backlash known as the New Traditionalist movement in the 1980s. Even though it’s not very country, I enjoyed listening to it.

Grade: B+

Occasional Hope’s top 10 albums of 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

8 – Cody Jinks – I’m Not The Devil

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

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

7 – Jamie Richards – Latest And Greatest

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

for-the-good-times

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

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

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

5 – Dallas Wayne – Songs The Jukebox Taught Me

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

4 – Mark Chesnutt – Tradition Lives

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

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

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

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

2 – John Prine – For Better, Or Worse

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

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

1 – Gene Watson – ‘Real. Country. Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A+

EP Review: Shelley Skidmore – ‘Shelley Skidmore’

shelley skidmoreKentucky-born Shelley Skidmore co-wrote (with Brandy Clark and Shane MacAnally) a song I loved a few years back when Joanna Smith recorded it – ‘We Can’t Be Friends’. Now she has released her own five track EP (produced by Paul Worley), and proves to have a fine voice with a smooth tone, and a genuine country sensibility. In a recent interview she cites her favorite albums of all time as Lee Ann Womack’s There’s More Where That Comes From and Patty Loveless’s When Fallen Angels Fly – definitely an indicator of someone who loves traditional country music and knows great songs when she hears them.

The excellent ‘White Picket Fences’ was written by Shelley with Brandy Clark and Jessie Jo Dillon, and it’s a very typical Clark story song. It paints a scathing picture of the guilty secrets lying behind both a small town’s respectable surfaces, which are not so very different from the open sins of the dreaded big city:

It’s all white picket fences
It’s all pink and purple pansies
Its the face of small town grace
The perfect place to raise a family
We’re all scandal
We’re all scripture
We’re all smiling for the picture
It’s alright because it’s all white picket fences

A little bit of tasteful brass adds a jocular air.

This is the only song on the set Shelley had a hand in writing – it’s a shame she didn’t include her own version of ‘We Can’t Be Friends’.

The very best song on the album is another Brandy Clark song, this time a co-write with Troy Verges. ‘Pawn Shop’ is a modern classic of a story song, as a woman pawns her wedding ring to raise the money for a bus ticket away from her bad marriage:

It ain’t stolen
It ain’t hot
Someone told me it cost a lot
Man ain’t that the truth
I thought I’d wear it my whole life
It never even crossed my mind
Back when it was new
It’d end up in a pawn shop on Charlotte Avenue

A musician then hands over his beloved guitar, and with it gives up his dreams. And the dreams of both love and music will pass to other dreamers in their turn. This is beautifully written and sung, and deeply moving.

Shelley’s husband, Greg Bates, had a shortlived career with one hit a few years back. Greg never released an album despite a top 5 single, and seems not to have enjoyed the touring aspects of being a star. He duets with Shelley on the ballad ‘What You Need From Me’, a beautiful sad song about a failed relationship written by Jon Randall, Jessi Alexander, and Phillip White:

Woman: You need a trophy on your arm
So you don’t look so lonely
Someone to get you through the nights
Someone to start your morning coffee

Man: You need a man that you can count on
Someone who’ll finish what he started
Not a restless soul that comes and goes
And only leaves you broken hearted

Both: I’m so sorry that I’ll never be what you need from me

With regret they acknowledge their mutual failure to meet the other’s needs. Greg sounds very good here, and it’s enough to make me regret the loss of his career as a solo artist before it had really got going. The tasteful and understated arrangement is very traditional country, with some lovely steel and fiddle.

The one song that doesn’ t appeal to me is the jaunty ballad ‘Making Babies’, written by Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne, and Matt Jenkins, about pressure from the in-laws to start a family. It is neatly written but the melody is the least country sounding on the album, and doesn’t quite work for me with the song.

The album closes with the quirky ‘Back In The Saddle’, a 20 year old Matraca Berg song which Berg recorded on her 1997 album Sunday Morning To Saturday Night Shelley’s version uses the same arrangement, with backing vocals from Berg, Deana Carter, Kathy Mattea and Brandy Clark. It’s very entertaining and ends the too-short set on a high.

This is a great EP I very much enjoyed. I only wish it was a full length album.

Grade: A+

Christmas Rewind: Kathy Mattea – ‘Baby King’

Album Review: Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time – ‘All Star Duets’

all star duetsOne of my favorite songwriters, Larry Cordle’s latest album has been a long time in the making. he has teamed up with a selection of stars to recreate some of his big hits as a songwriter in a tasteful bluegrass setting, backed by Larry’s bluegrass band Lonesome Standard Time and a few added guests. Recording sessions have taken place at intervals over the past decade, and the album was first announced for release a couple of years ago. But the wait was worth it, because this is a truly lovely record filled with great songs.

Alison Krauss recorded Cordle’s ‘Two Highways’ as a teenager; revisiting the song as a mature adult she brings a fuller vocal, and the result is shimmeringly lovely. It’s actually the oldest composition here, having been written in 1977 when the young Larry Cordle was stuck in a job he hated and dreaming of music. Ricky Skaggs was Cordle’s earliest big supporter, and his recording of ‘Highway 40 Blues’ (also written in the late 70s) was his breakthrough as a songwriter. Skaggs revisits the song (one of many great Cordle songs he has recorded over the years) here, playing his mandolin as well as sharing the vocals. Skaggs’ 1983 #1 hit version made Cordle a name to be reckoned with, and as he puts it in the liner notes, “changed his life”.

I was a bit dismissive of Garth Brooks’ recording of ‘Against The Grain’ when I reviewed ‘Ropin’ The Wind’ recently, but the breezier bluegrass version he guests on here is much more enjoyable, although it’s still one of my less favourite tracks here. Much better is the beautiful high lonesome ‘Lonesome Dove’, which like ‘Against The Grain’ was written with Carl Jackson. Trisha Yearwood, who recorded it on her debut album, and is at her glorious best singing it here.

Dierks Bentley is an engaging guest on a version of the wry ‘You Can’t Take It With You When You Go’, which was a single for the great Gene Watson towards the end of his major label career. It is one of Cordle’s many collaborations with his friend Larry Shell. They wrote several songs here, including the most recently written song, the modern classic ‘Murder On Music Row’, which seems more topical every year. The guest vocalists are minor 90s star Daryle Singletary and the very underrated Kevin Denney, both of whom were regarded as “too country” for country music. Daryle is one of the best traditional country singers out there, and I’ve long regretted that Denney hasn’t recorded again since his one and only album in 2002. They do a great, heartfelt job, on this version. It is, incidentally, unfortunate that Denney’s name is mis-spelled on the cover. The liner notes (also available digitally) are otherwise excellent and informative, with a little discussion of how each song was written and picked up for recording.

Diamond Rio contribute duet and harmony vocals on Cordle and Shell’s ‘Mama Don’t Forget To Pray For Me’, which was one of my favorite of the band’s hit songs, and is another real highlight here. The gently melancholy tune is perfect for the emotional yet stoic lyric about the strains of life on the road, and the arrangement is beautiful. Less well known, but a very beautiful song written by the pair which deserves to be known better is the wistful ‘The Fields of Home’, which Ricky Skaggs recorded on Kentucky Thunder in 1989, and which feels like a sequel to ‘Mama Don’t Forget To Pray For Me’. Kenny Chesney appears as the duet partner here, and does a superb job exuding understated regret; I really wish he would return to this style of music.

Bluegrass giant Del McCoury guests on the playful ‘The Bigger The Fool’ (The Harder The Fall)’, which Chesney recorded on his first album (when he was a neotraditional youngster and had not yet gained fame and fortune or discovered the beach). The charming tune is one of two co-writes with Jim Rushing, the other being ‘Lonesome Standard Time’, which gave its name to Cordle’s band. Kathy Mattea, who had a hit with it, duets with Cordle here.

He teamed up with two great female songwriters, Leslie Satcher and the veteran Melba Montgomery, to write ‘Cure For The Common Heartache’. Terri Clark recorded it in the late 90s, and sounds great duetting with Cordle – it’s much better than anything on her current solo release. Cordle wrote ‘Rough Around The Edges’ for Travis Tritt with J P Pennington and Les Taylor from country-rockers Exile; it sounds much better in this energised bluegrass version, featuring Tritt.

This is a superb album, collecting an excellent set of songs and performing them with taste and heart.

Grade: A

Album Review: Kelly Willis – ‘Easy’

KellyWillisEasyMy first exposure to Kelly Willis came around 2002 when the video for “I Left You” was featured on CMT’s fantastic TRL inspired Most Wanted Live video countdown program. The single led Easy, Willis’ second album for Rykodisc Records and first batch of new material in three years. Gary Paczosa, who’s gone on to produce Joey + Rory and Kathy Mattea among others, co-produced with Willis.

The two singles from the album, neither of which charted, remain a couple of my favorite songs from the 2000s still today. Willis wrote “If I Left You,” an acoustic guitar soaked masterpiece about a woman running through how she’d act if she left her man, in the wake of him actually leaving her. Her gorgeous cover of UK singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl’s “Don’t Come The Cowboy With Me, Sunny Jim!” is even better; a stunning waltz about a woman’s stern warning to a man that she’s done being taken advantage of by players. Her vocal on the Spanish-flavored tune is perfection, a great example of Willis’ ability to wrap her distinct twang around a song.

Beyond “If I Left You,” Willis had a hand in writing three more tracks solo. “Not What I Had In Mind” is a mournful ballad about a woman “loving you now, though you’re no longer mine.” It’s a great lyric, but the production is lacking in steel guitar, an oversight leaving the track feeling unfinished. “Reason To Believe” is lush lullaby equating a woman’s ability to let go and live with the start of a romantic relationship. Willis’ vocal is the star here, a master class of control. The track forces her to whisper more than belt and she mostly pulls off the restraint with little difficulty. The title track, the final number Willis penned solo, is excellent, even though the melody could’ve stood for a bit more distinction.

Willis co-wrote two more tracks on Easy. “Getting to Know Me” “Getting to Me” is a mid-tempo mandolin drenched number penned alongside Gary Louris, a founding member of The Jayhawks, and a prominent co-writer on Dixie Chicks’ Taking The Long Way album. It’s a good song, but feels like a second-rate “If I Left You” sonically. “Wait Until Dark” found Willis collaborating with Rosanne Cash’s husband John Leventhal. The ballad is excellent, with Willis and Paczosa dressing it in a fabulous mandolin and acoustic guitar driven arraignment reminiscent of the work Cash would come to produce later in the decade.

Willis turned to her husband Bruce Robison for “What Did You Think,” an excellent ballad, and one of the strongest tracks on Easy thanks to its full melody and strong lyric. Paul Kelly wrote “You Can’t Take It With You,” Willis’ sole detour into bluegrass, a shift that would’ve benefited from a more energized vocal, but is great nonetheless. Blues Pianist and singer Marcia Ball wrote “Find Another Fool,” a steel and fiddle centric ballad about a woman done with a no good man that allows Willis to soar vocally.

I actually downloaded the two singles from Easy long before I went back and purchased the whole album. They remain my favorite of the tracks, likely due to their more commercial bent. The remainder of Easy is a mixed bag, more ballad driven than I was expecting with far less interesting arrangements than I thought would be here given how great the singles sounded. But Easy isn’t a bad album by any means and well worth revisiting if you’ve never heard it or haven’t given it a listen in a while.

Grade: B

Album Review – Sara Evans – ‘Slow Me Down’

SaraEvansSlowDownAlbumWhen Sara Evans appeared on Opry Backstage with Bill Anderson in the late 90s, she commented on her voice, saying no matter what she sings it’ll always come out country. That logic may’ve been true at the time, but with producer Mark Bright at the helm and a 2014 mentality to uphold, Evans is as far from her country roots as one can be and still associate with country music.

If you’ve studied the careers of the 80s and 90s country women as closely as I have over the years, you know they show their true colors when their commercial prospects begin to fade. Do they go the Reba or Faith Hill route and squeeze out every last hit, with little regard for quality? Or do they take the Kathy Mattea and Patty Loveless route and seamlessly transition into a legacy career marked by adventurous and risk taking records that display the innate artistry that made them too smart for country radio in the first place?

With Slow Me Down Evans fits squarely into the former category with an album that exposes a hidden truth of her career – that she was never that artistic at all, just a trend follower who happened to come of age at a time when good quality songs were still the mainstay of mainstream Nashville. With that era firmly in the rearview mirror, we’re left with a singer resorting to whatever she can to find a platform, and the results are more than a little desperate.

When the title track was released late September, the press behind it made “Slow Me Down” out to be the best thing Evans had ever recorded, a record akin to the 80s crossover hits that came between the Urban Cowboy era and the new traditionalist movement. In reality it’s a terrible song, shoddily written by Merv Green, Heather Morgan, and Jimmy Robbins. The verses are stunted and repetitive and the chorus, while strong, becomes too breathy when Evans morphs into a pop diva by the end.

The rest of the album follows suit, with Evans turning out one generic ‘bright pop’ moment after another with little regard to singing anything that actually has something to say. Bright’s use of drums and electric guitars is far too generic for Evans, and any uniqueness in her voice is suppressed in favor of exploiting the lowest common denominator. Even her trademark covers of mainstream hits have taken a beating, with her take on Gavin DeGraw’s “Not Over You” maintaining far too much of his original, down to inviting him in for a guest vocal.

When I reviewed Stronger three years ago, I said one of that project’s shortcomings was the lack of Evans’ trademark sweeping story songs (‘I Learned That From You’ and ‘You’ll Always Be My Baby’) and her distinctive honky-tonkers (‘Born To Fly’ and ‘Suds In The Bucket’). Those problems exist here, too, but after three years of such songs going the way of VCRs and Landline telephones, it’s hardly a surprise. Evans does try and maintain the last ounce of her country credibility with “Better Off,” a fiddle-heavy tune featuring Vince Gill, but the production is still far too loud, with drums and noise marring the purer elements.

If it’s any consolation, there’s a lyrical consistency on Slow Me Down that elevates the album above Stronger, which had too may juvenile lyrical couplets. But that’s hardly a cause for celebration, as the music here is far too weak, generic, and bland for a singer of Evans’ caliber. I’m not overly disappointed, though, as I kind of expected this, and in the context of mainstream country, this is one of the less irritating releases to come so far this year.

Grade: C-

Album Review – Holly Dunn – ‘Getting It Dunn’

HollyDunnGettingItDunnA year after releasing her first retrospective, Holly Dunn returned with the album that would serve as closure to the commercial phase of her career. Getting It Dunn was released in June 1992 and spawned four singles, none of which cracked the top 40 on the charts.

Mel Tillis’ mid-tempo honky-tonker “No Love Have I,” served as the first single, peaking at #67. Despite a generous helping of steel, and Dunn’s impeccable vocal, the track didn’t chart higher although it deserved to. The Dunn/Chris Waters/Tom Shapiro penned “As Long As You Belong To Me” charted next, peaking at #68. The mid-tempo rocker had a confident vocal from Dunn, although it just wasn’t commercial enough to pop in the current radio climate. “Golden Years,” the third and final single, did slightly better, peaking at #51. A co-write by Gretchen Peters and Sam Hogin, the track is wonderful despite the somewhat sappy string section heard throughout.

The album’s other notable track is “You Say You Will,” composed by Verlon Thompson and Beth Nielsen Chapman. Dunn’s version of the bluesy Dobro infused number appeared just two months before Trisha Yearwood’s take on her own Hearts in Armor album. Both versions are remarkably similar and equally as good, although Yearwood turned in a slightly more polished take, which helped the pensive tune reach #12 in early 1993. Warner Brothers didn’t release Dunn’s version as a single.

Dunn’s usual co-writers Waters and Shapiro helped her write a few other tunes for the project. “Let Go” is somewhat light, with an engaging drumbeat and muscular electric guitar heard throughout. Steel and synth ballad “I’ve Heard It All” is a revelation, with Dunn playing the part of a jilted lover done with excuses. “You Can Have Him,” marks similar territory and is the best of three, with an engaging beat, and polish that had it ripe to be a single.

Shapiro teamed up with Michael Garvin and Bucky Jones to write “I Laughed Until I Cried,” a fabulous break-up power ballad with one of Dunn’s most emotion filled vocals on the whole album. Craig Wiseman co-wrote “If Your Heart Can’t Do The Talking” with Lynn Langham. The steel and dobro infused mid-tempo number is excellent and wouldn’t have been out of place on one of Yearwood’s early albums. Wally Wilson and Mike Henderson composed “Half A Million Teardrops,” another mid-tempo number and one more example of the excellent recordings found on Getting It Dunn. Karen Brooks and Randy Sharp’s “A Simple I Love You” rounds out the album, and Dunn provides the project’s standout vocal. I love the steel on this, too, although the rest of the production is a touch heavy-handed.

Holly Dunn will always be a quandary to me. Her vocal and songwriting abilities are outstanding, but the production on her records was always lacking in that little bit of extra polish that would’ve sent her over the top to the leagues of say a Trisha Yearwood or a Kathy Mattea. But that isn’t to suggest her music was lacking in any particular way to be less than excellent, it just wasn’t always embraceable by country radio and their standards at the time. But, thankfully, commercial prospects aren’t everything, and Getting It Dunn is another glorious addition to her already wonderful discography.

Grade: A

Album Review – Holly Dunn – ‘Across The Rio Grande’

HollyDunnAcrosstheRioGrandeFor her third MTM release Across The Rio Grande, Holly Dunn took a co-producing credit for the first time, working with Tommy West (who produced her previous two releases) and Warren Peterson. Her career was also gaining traction by the time this was released in 1988 and she was now in the good graces of country radio.

Chick Rains and Bill Caswell penned the first single, “That’s What Your Love Does To Me.” The track is an excellent dobro infused uptempo number oozing with charm and personality from Dunn who’s voice is the perfect vehicle for the song. Radio and the fans agreed and the song made it to #5. Michael Johnson and the Forester Sisters also recorded versions of the song around the same time.

Slightly less successful was the second and final single, the #11 peaking “(It’s Always Gonna Be) Someday.” With country music in the thick of the new traditionalist movement by 1988, I would’ve thought this would’ve done much better, maybe even peaking higher than “That’s What Your Love Does To Me.” Could it have been the backup singers or Dunn retro style that was the issue? The song is surely excellent on its own merits even if it may’ve been a little too retro even for 1988.

Dunn and her “(It’s Always Gonna Be) Someday” co-writers Tom Shapiro and Chris Waters teamed up to write three other songs for the project. “City Limit” is a wonderful uptempo number dosed in fiddle with a rather engaging drumbeat. Dunn does a wonderful job vocally too, bringing out the song’s infectious charm. “Have A Heart” is the same sort of dobro infused track and Dunn does a wonderful job here as well. The best of the four is “If Nobody Knew My Name,” an album highlight thanks to gorgeous high lonesome harmonies from Cheryl and Sharon White. The production on the ballad, light guitars and fiddle, is impeccable, too.

“Lonesome Highway” found Dunn teaming up with Budd Lee to write a mid-tempo dobro centric number that was another of the stronger songs on the project and possibly my favorite thing on the whole album thanks in part to the production and Dunn’s vocal delivery. Dunn’s final co-write came courtesy of “On The Wings of an Angel,” which she wrote with Don Schlitz. Her crystal-clear voice is the perfect counterpart to the striking fiddle-laced production.

Billy Joel, three years before he gave Garth Brooks the okay to record “Shameless,” had a country connection with Dunn, who included his “Travelin’ Prayer” on this album. Originally released on Joel’s 1973 album Piano Man, “Travlin’ Prayer” has a chugging beat similar to Gram Parson’s “Luxury Liner.” Dunn veers little from Joel’s recording although she does convert it into a bluegrass song, which works well. Dunn’s vocal is incredible, too, as she’s able to keep up with the rapid fire pace of the song with ease.

Mandolin riffs are front and center on Shapiro and Waters’ “The Stronger The Tie.” The spiritual number is reminiscent of something Kathy Mattea would record and quite good even if it leans in a more contemporary vein. Spanish infused “Just Across The Rio Grande,” the album’s title track, is excellent although somewhat thematically out of place.

Across The Rio Grande is a wonderful album complete with many stellar moments from Dunn. The album isn’t as commercial as the albums her contemporaries were releasing at the time, but its still full of excellent songs with nice production and Dunn’s beautiful voice. Across The Rio Grande definitely has a late 80s sheen to it and thus it hasn’t aged as gracefully as it could’ve, but that doesn’t hinder the listener’s enjoyment at all. It’s also a shame the album is out of print as it’s a worthwhile addition to any record collection.

Grade: A 

Album Review – Suzy Bogguss – ‘Sweet Danger’ (plus her SinuCleanse commercial at the end)

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For the last decade Suzy Bogguss has been focusing on making music her own way, leaving behind country music in favor of jazz and folk. She’s been releasing new music about every four years and it’s some of the most compelling she’s ever made. Sweet Danger, Bogguss’ follow-up to Swing, was released in the fall of 2007 via Loyal Duchess Records. The album, co-produced by her longtime friend Jason Miles and featuring seven songs co-written by Bogguss, is a beautiful jazz/coffeehouse fusion that does a much better job of showcasing her evolved sound than Swing, which I didn’t care for at all.

The centerpiece of the album is the stunning “In Heaven,” written by Bogguss’ husband Doug Crider. It details the story of a widow who’s finally moved on with her life after her husband’s passing:

I can’t see you anymore,
I found somebody new
I love with all my heart
And he feels that way, too;
I think you’d really like him
If you ever got to know him;
I just had to close this door
So I could let another open;

I gonna give my life to him,
But I’d like to have your blessing—
I’m in heaven here on earth,
…and you’re in heaven.

“In Heaven” is the closet Bogguss has ever come to recreating the magic of “Aces,” (the song) and she brings the track to life with her emotion filled vocal and Miles’ perfect musical accompaniment. It remains one of my all-time favorite of her recordings to date.

For longtime Bogguss fans Sweet Danger is littered with fine moments that showcase she still has it after all these years. “The Bus Ride,” a Gary Burr co-write, is a wonderful (and lush) story song about second chances. “One Clear Moment,” a co-write with Kathy Mattea’s husband Jon Vezner, is an honest tale of a couple’s love that musically recalls “Love At The Five And Dime.” Another excellent number is Bogguss’ own “Baby July,” a tale about innocence.

Her son Ben was the inspiration behind the oddest song choice on the record, a cover of Chicago’s 1976 hit “If You Leave Me Now.” She wanted to capture the vulnerable feeling her son brought to the lyric when he stripped down the proceedings. The results are spectacular. I love how Bogguss and Miles capture the essence of the lyric and keep from incorporating any vocal gymnastics.

I am amazed I adore the bulk of this record as much as I do seeing as it tends to lean kind of sleepy, but when the songs are of this high a quality I can forgive the arrangements. That’s certainly true of the title track, a tale of forgoing inhibitions that boasts a fantastic hook, “Here’s my disclaimer/I’m throwing caution to the wind/Yeah, I’m falling in, sweet danger.”

The remaining tracks on the project aren’t bad by any means – they just didn’t grab my attention as strongly. “Everything” is a bit too progressive, “No Way To Go” is too poppy, “Chain Lover” and “Even If That Were True” are too quiet, while “Right Back Into the Feeling” and “It’s Not Gonna Happen Today” lean too Jazz.

It’s kind of too bad because if Miles had put some tempo behind Bogguss the pace of Sweet Danger would be a lot more forgiving on the ear. But that being said, there are many moments that rank among the best of Bogguss’ career both lyrically and vocally. For fans of her 90s work, this is the closest she’s come to recapturing that magic on original material in years. I urge you to pick up a copy as it’s well worth seeking out.

Grade: B+

A commercial for SinuCleanse came out around the release of the album, starring Bogguss. She’s also shown singing “One Clear Moment:” 

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: Dailey & Vincent – ‘Brothers Of the Highway’

brothers of the highwayAfter a detour with their Statler Brothers tribute and two gospel releases, the duo who burst onto the bluegrass scene in 2008-2009 are back on Rounder with an exceptional album mixing old and new material. The duo is in fine form vocally, with Jamie Dailey generally taking the lead and Darrin Vincent providing a close harmony, but they vary the arrangements as best suits each song. The band is augmented by the brilliant fiddler Andy Leftwich and acoustic guitarist Bryan Sutton, among others.

The sometimes frenetic pace and constantly changing rhythms of the opening ‘Steel Drivin’ Man’ make for an arresting start, and the music never let’s go. It is one of two Jamie Dailey compositions, and may be the first country or bluegrass song to be inspired by reading a Wikipedia article. The subject may have been garnered at second-hand, but the story sounds as authentic as if it were a traditional number, while the lengthy instrumental passages allow the band to show off their musical chops. Dailey’s other song here, ‘Back To Jackson County’, is pleasantly nostalgic about a childhood in the country. The similarly titled ‘Back To Hancock County’, written by Pete Goble and Leroy Drumm, has a little more substance with its wistful consciousness of change. It is one of a few songs where Darrin shares the lead vocals with Jamie evenly, as they do on the playful Porter Wagoner top 20 country hit ‘Howdy Neighbor Howdy’, another opportunity for an instrumental showcase.

Dailey & Vincent are challenged only by the Gibson Brothers among current proponents of close bluegrass harmony, and their version of the Louvin Brothers’ ‘When I Stop Dreaming’ is simply perfect. Darrin takes the lead vocal, and does an excellent job, with Jamie’s harmony vocal twining around it on the chorus to create a magical sound. Darrin also sings lead, and band members Jeff Parker and Christian Davis add a full spectrum of voices to the harmony on the well-played and sung but otherwise unremarkable ‘Big River’.

Bill Monroe’s bluegrass classic ‘Close By’ gets Jamie’s highest high lonesome vocal with no harmony and more superb playing. ‘Tomorrow I’ll Be Gone’ is a Wilma Lee Cooper song which has been recorded by a number of bluegrass artists including Monroe; Dailey & Vincent’s version is as excellent as one would expect.

A gentle laid back take on ‘Brothers Of The Highway’, the ode to truckers recorded by George Strait on his Troubadour set, is an unexpected inclusion, but a very welcome one. Jimmy Fortune of the Statler Brothers adds a third harmony voice. Gospel tune ‘It Will Be Wonderful Over There’ gets a Statlers-style gospel quartet arrangement.

Vince Gill’s ‘Hills Of Caroline’ gets a stripped down arrangement and spare lead vocal very reminiscent of Gill’s version, with a delicate harmony – simple and beautiful, and another outstanding moment. Kathy Mattea’s 80s chart-topper ‘Where’ve You Been’, with its sensitive portrayal of a couple divided by Alzheimers but united in love, has a full-scale string section backing Jamie’s vocal, making it the one song not to adhere to traditional bluegrass stylings. It works quite well, but is slightly out-of-place.

This is the best bluegrass album I’ve heard in a couple of years – and my favorite record so far this year.

Grade: A+

Get it at amazon.

Album Review: Kacey Musgraves – ‘Same Trailer, Different Park’

imagesA major reason for my disillusionment with modern commercial country music is the lack of the mature adult female prospective that elevated the quality of radio playlists throughout the 1990s. The absence of Matraca Berg and Gretchen Peters songs on major label albums (and the decline in popularity of artists such as Pam Tillis, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kathy Mattea, Patty Loveless, and Trisha Yearwood) has left a noticeable gap, one filled with unsatisfying party anthems and the occasional attempt at a throwback that just never quite quenches the thirst.

Thank goodness for Kacey Musgraves. The 24-year-old former Nashville Star contestant from Golden, TX is the take-no-prisoners rebel country music needs to get out of its funk. Same Trailer, Different Park is the strongest commercial country album I’ve heard in ages, filled with timely songs that say something relevant to the modern world. She has a way of crafting lyrics that touch a nerve without seeming offensive that goes well beyond her years.

Initially I will admit I wasn’t floored by “Merry Go ‘Round” the way that most everyone else was, because I managed to get it lost in the shuffle when it debuted late last year. I now fully see the genius in it – the striking way Musgraves (along with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne) paints a deeply honest portrait of small town life so simply. She also brings those same qualities to her new single “Blowin’ Smoke,” which includes a genius play on words (literally smoking/wasting time) for added effect.

I found that a main commonality in the records I’ve loved in past few years are lyrics containing interesting couplets, and Same Trailer Different Park is no different. The obvious example is scrapped second single “Follow Your Arrow,” which among other things, brings the equality debate firmly to the forefront:

Make lots of noise
And kiss lots of boys
Or kiss lots of girls
If that’s something you’re into
When the straight and narrow
Gets a little too straight
Roll up a joint, or don’t
Just follow your arrow
Wherever it points, yeah
Follow your arrow
Wherever it points

Say what you feel
Love who you love
‘Cause you just get
So many trips ’round the sun
Yeah, you only
Only live once

To me it’s a shame that the country music industry has evolved into a place where such a song can’t be given its due, especially since it’s not so different from such classics as “The Pill” or “The Rubber Room,” and is an anthem for our times. Personally I celebrate her boldness (which in actuality is pretty tame) and quite enjoy both the banjo driven musical arrangement and her uncomplicated twangy vocal. The track’s overall feel good attitude really works for me.

Another favorite line, ‘You sure look pretty in your glass house/You probably think you’re too good to take the trash out’ opens another confident statement piece, “Step Off,” which plays like the typical breakup ballad sans petty revenge. Also slightly atypical is the similar themed “I Miss You,” another love gone wrong song, but this time with the added vulnerability of actually missing the guy she’s broken up with. It’s nice, and a refreshing change of pace, to hear someone still grappling with feelings towards the ex instead of just writing them off in a typical Taylor Swift type scenario. The gently rocking “Back On The Map” goes even a step further and finds Musgraves pleading for a date, telling the men of the world “I’ll do anything that you ask.”

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Concert Review – Kathy Mattea at Silver Center For The Arts in Plymouth, NH

Kathy MatteaKathy Mattea came ready to give it her all. Amidst a blinding snowstorm, and the after effects of the head cold that had eluded her to three days prior, she took the stage Feb 23 in the teeny 665 seat Hanaway Theatre (located in isolated Plymouth, NH) with just three other musicians, a caravan of guitars, and a message.

Of late Mattea has been outspoken on the subject of coal, or “Black Gold” as she sings in a recent song. Her crusade opened a so-far two-album floodgate, a life-changing detour into the Appalachian Folk songs of her West Virginian heritage and the most fully realized music of her thirty-year recording career. Her otherworldly alto graces the lyrics of Jean Ritchie, Laurie Lewis, Hazel Dickens, and Alice Garrard with the plainspoken beauty of a woman directly in line with her authentic center.

But even more impressive is Mattea’s ability to blend the “new” with the old, creating a woven tapestry linked by environmental cause, a deep sense of history, and a sharp ear. She opened with the first track on Calling Me Home (“A Far Cry”) before launching into “Lonesome Standard Time,” her #11 peaking single from 1992, without skipping a beat. She then graced the audience with my favorite of her singles, “Standing Knee Deep In A River (Dying of Thrust),” which was recently reinstated back into her set.

The intermingling of her past hits and newer material took me by surprise. I expected Mattea to focus mainly on the subject of coal, with a dusting of her biggest hits, thus leaving non-signature tunes as distant memories. But instead Mattea covered the hallowed ground between her past and present with the seamless ease of a songstress in tune with every note, paying close attention to every lyric.

Dressed in a mint green blouse, black jacket, and casual leggings, Mattea had the confidence of a seasoned professional but the cool of an everywoman; she was one among equals not a star singing to a crowd. Her greatest virtue was her subtlety, showcased through her candor and humor, on par with that of a next-door neighbor, a friend.

She greeted us like we’ve known her all our lives, commending us “Plymouthians” on our toughness in weather, braving a major snowstorm like a bright sunny day. Later she encouraged communal participation, denouncing those who belittled us for an inability to carry a tune, before having us sing loud and proud on multiple choruses of both “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses” and “Come From The Heart.” The latter bonded us as a tight-knit family – she enthusiastically attempted to get us clapping on the offbeat, which wasn’t meant to be. Clapping on all beats didn’t work either so plan B had us singing “You gotta sing like you don’t need the money, love like you’ll never get hurt, dance like nobody’s watching, it’s gotta come from the heart if you want it to work” at the tops of our lungs.

Further audience participation caused an off-script deviation into “Mary, Did You Know” and a proclamation that it wasn’t included with the $35 ticket price. She rolled with the flow, only grappling with the tune to see if she could reach the high note without her head popping off (she did have a head cold, after all). The song soared, and proved that sick or healthy professionalism wins out every time.

My favorite moment of the night confirmed another of Mattea’s many facets -her shrewd intellect. Her successful blending of old and new cumulated in a shared linkage – most of Mattea’s songs are deeply rooted in various fossil flues, albeit generally indirectly. I’d never viewed her material from such a focal point before, and she gracefully clarified her hypothesis, explaining how she’s singing about the diesel fuel of trains (“Lonesome Standard Time”) and the long hall truckers (“Eighteen Wheels”) to the coal. This led to a fabulous rendition of “455 Rocket” (fossil fuel: gasoline), her 1997 single and final top 20 chart hit. (In another showcase of her clever humor, I loved how she modified the line, “as we skid I thought I heard angles sing (sounded like the Beach Boys)” into a sly commentary on Beyoncé’s recent lip-synching scandal).

Mattea went on to grace us with more stories – how she first played the banjo in college only to pick it up again more recently, and the time she performed in newly restored theatre in Ohio, only to find out the majority of the audience didn’t know whom she was. She was candid on the subject of marriage, mentioning her and Jon’s recent (the prior week) 25-year milestone, gracing us with “Love Chooses You,” a Willow In The Wind album cut, and the song sung at their wedding.

Before “Love At The Five and Dime” she remarked on Nanci Griffith’s writing, likening the second verse to poetry, and shared that her classic “Where’ve You Been” almost wasn’t written, if co-writer Don Henry hadn’t been in the room. The latter came with a tale about a man with Alzheimer’s who’d forgotten his wife, until a visit in which she and their daughter were yelling at each other – and memories came flooding back.

Some of my favorite moments weren’t even the older hits (she also sang “Untold Stories,” another unexpected surprise) but the new material, even more simplistic on stage, than record. The quiet beauty of “Agate Hill” elicited tears, while her effective reading of “West Virginia Mine Disaster” showcased her storytelling prowess. “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” was a nice uptempo change of pace, and “Coal Tattoo” really let the band rip.

My other great joy, and the benefits of my front row center seat, was witnessing the nuances of the band in action all evening. Sitting that close, I was able to take in all that was happening on stage and watch the four musicians bring each song to life with the fullness of a full ensemble. The front row seat brought an appreciation to the evening that even two or three rows back would’ve made near impossible.

Seeing Mattea live was one of those musical highlights of life where everything comes together perfectly for a truly outstanding evening. She’s an otherworldly talent who has only aged with sincere grace and humility since her Nashville hit making days. If you’ve never attending one of her shows, or if it’s been a while since your last evening with Mattea, it’s well worth it to catch her when she’s in your area. It’ll likely be one of the best musical nights of your life. That was certainty the case for me.

Single Review – The Band Perry – ‘Done.’

DoneI’ve had Kathy Mattea on the brain lately, thanks in no small part to the life enriching experience I had seeing her live for the first time in late February. I came away stunned by her intellect and grace, but more importantly, her ability to pick songs that have an indelible magic. Her material is ageless and sounds just as good coming from a 53 year old as it did all those years ago when she was in her 20s and 30s.

The power of a great song is lost on much of mainstream country music today but judging from their 2010 eponymous album, I always thought The Band Perry had ‘it.’ I’ve loved all their singles (expect “Hip To my Heart”) to date, and they’ve truly been one of the bright spots on country radio in the past three years.

But there’s something way off about ‘Done,’ the second preview of their soon to be released (April 2) sophomore record Pioneer. What’s allowed them to stand out is an innate ability at mixing a sweet likability with a dark edge. Take that away, and they’re just another mainstream act vying for the attention of fans

At the simplest level, “Done” is so sloppily constructed, it’s beneath a band with this much talent. What struck me first was how juvenile the lyrics were, especially the chorus:

Mama always told me that I should play nice

She didn’t know you when she gave me that advice

I’m through, with you

You’re one page I’d like to burn

Bottle up the ashes, smash the urn

I’m through with you, la ti da

I don’t wanna be your just for fun

Don’t wanna be under your thumb

All I wanna be is…done

Seriously? They couldn’t even find at least one ear catching phrase to make their point? Lines like ‘I don’t wanna be your just for fun’ or ‘I’m through, with you’ are so childish, it’s almost embarrassing. The verses aren’t much better, oozing with the maturity level of a thirteen-year-old girl breaking up with her first love (“It’s gonna hit you hard Til You see stars” and “You play with dynamite don’t be surprised when I blow up in your face”). “Done” is like the reject song Taylor Swift left off her first album, the one that made “Picture To Burn” seem like such a good idea at the time.

I can forgive bad songwriting if I enjoy the track’s production (can’t “Done” just sound even a little country?), a case evident with TBP’s “You Lie,” which was actually clever. But the breakneck speed of “Done” makes the intent feel disingenuous, almost exacerbating the song’s lyrical problems. I give Kimberly credit for putting her sass into overdrive (and her vocal is strong as usual), but this feels like a comedy show, not a biting revenge anthem towards a dead-end boyfriend.

They need to do way better than this if they want to have a catalog of hits worthy of being sung thirty years from now.

Grade: C

Songwriters: Reid Perry, Neil Perry, John Davidson, Jacob Bryant

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Country Heritage: Billy Edd Wheeler

billy edd wheelerIf anyone in Country Music can truly be said to be a “renaissance man” that person would be Billy Edd Wheeler. Poet, painter, playwright, author, songwriter, singer, artist, lecturer and ecologist would be but a few of the hats that accurately (and comfortably) fit onto his head.

Billy Edd Wheeler fits into the realm between folk music, pop music and country music as his songs have been covered by artists in all three genres. Folk artists such as the Kingston Trio (“The Reverend Mr. Black,” “Desert Pete”), Judy Collins (“The Coming of the Roads,” “Coal Tattoo”), Judy Henske (“High Flying Bird”) and pop artists such as Glen Campbell (“Ann”), Kenny Rogers (“Coward of the County”), Nancy Sinatra-Lee Hazelwood (“Jackson” ), and Jim Nabors (“Hot Dog Heart”) have all enjoyed success with his songs.

Meanwhile, on the country side of the ledger, artists such as Hank Snow (“Blue Roses”), Johnny Cash (“Blistered,” “Jackson”), Jerry Reed (“Gimme Back My Blues”) and Johnny Darrell (“I Ain’t Buying,” “Ain’t That Living”) were among the artists who enjoyed success with his songs. Kathy Mattea’s recent album, Coal, featured several of his songs including “Coal Tattoo” and “The Coming of the Roads.” Moreover, he had one major country hit of his own (“Ode To The Little Brown Shack Out Back”) and several lesser hits including “I Ain’t The Worrying Kind” and “Fried Chicken and a Country Tune”. Wheeler was a long-time friend of Chet Atkins and they wrote a number of songs together including the amusing “I Still Write Your Name in the Snow”.

Born on December 12, 1932, in Whitesville, West Virginia, Billy Edd Wheeler was raised in Boone County, West Virginia, and an artistic bent showed up early. After high school, he headed to North Carolina where he graduated from Warren Wilson Junior College in 1953, and then to Berea College in Kentucky where he graduated in 1955.

After an interlude in the military in the Naval Air Corps, he did graduate studies at Yale’s School of Drama under John Gassner, majoring in playwriting. During this time, he became acquainted with the famed team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and collaborated with them on some songs, including “Jackson,” “The Reverend Mr. Black,” and “(The Girl Who Loved) The Man Who Robbed The Bank At Santa Fe (And Got Away)”, which was a Top 10 hit for Hank Snow.

Billy Edd Wheeler is a warm and engaging performer whose singing is more folk than country. His career as a singer emerged at the end of the “Hootenanny” era so he has had a relatively low profile as a recording artist. Living in Swannanoa, North Carolina since 1971 has kept him out of the Nashville spotlight but he has remained busy. During his career, he has received 13 awards from ASCAP for songs recorded by the likes of Judy Collins, Bobby Darin, The Kingston Trio, Johnny Cash, Neil Young, Kenny Rogers, Elvis, and 90+ other artists. Wheeler estimated a few years ago that his songs sold over 57 million units. By now the total is over 65 million units. “Jackson” was featured in the soundtrack to I Walk The Line, a very successful movie.

He has written a dozen plays, including 4 outdoor dramas that include the long-running Hatfields & McCoys at Beckley, West Virginia, and Young Abe Lincoln at Lincoln City, Indiana. His most recent play, Johnny Appleseed, premiered at Mansfield, Ohio in 2004. He also has authored or co-authored several books of humor, most recently Real Country Humor – Jokes From Country Music Personalities.

If that isn’t enough, Billy Edd Wheeler also is an accomplished painter. He was featured in Appalachian Heritage magazine’s 2008 winter issue, which included 16 of his original paintings, and the North Carolina Our State magazine featured him in their December, 2007 issue.

Billy Edd Wheeler was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in 2007 and the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 2011. He also is a member of the Nashville Association of Songwriters International’s Hall of Fame, and has won awards in various other fields of endeavor.

Discography

Vinyl

Billy Edd Wheeler issued a number of albums for Kapp and other labels. All of them contain interesting songs and any that you happen to come across will be worth the purchase.

While he had recorded previously, Memories of America/ Ode to the Little Brown Shack Out Back (Kapp, 1965) was the album that brought Billy Edd Wheeler to the attention of most people. This album contains most of the songs for which he is remembered including “Jackson” and “The Reverend Mr. Black.” Joan Sommer is the female lead on several songs and the Coasters (yes, those Coasters) provide the harmony on “After Taxes.” This album had previously been issued under the title A New Bag of Songs, but when the title song became a surprise hit, the album was reissued minus two songs and adding the title song and “Sister Sara” which the Kingston Trio had recently turned into a hit.

I Ain’t the Worryin’ Kind (Kapp, 1968) is the other vinyl album to look for, as it contains most of the other songs for which he is known, and some of the best examples of Billy Edd’s wry wit. “Gladys (The Anatomy of A Shotgun Wedding)” is not to be missed, nor is “I Ain’t The Worryin’ Kind.”

CD

CDs are available can be purchased from Billy Edd’s website www.billyeddwheeler.com

None of his vinyl albums have made it to CD intact, but Milestones contains some original versions of his songs. I would also recommend Songs I Wrote With Chet, a collection of songs co-authored by the great Chet Atkins. Actually go ahead and buy every CD and book he has for sale on his website. They are all great fun.

The Ernest Tubb Record Shop has available one CD not available from Billy Edd’s website titled A Big Bag of Songs. Released in 2010 on the Omni label, the disc contains most of the A New Bag of Songs album, please an interesting array of Wheeler’s other work. A significant portion of this album is in monaural and some of the tracks were remastered from secondary sources as much of the Kapp audio library was destroyed in a Universal Studios vault fire some years back. This CD contains 28 tracks.

Country Heritage: Merle Travis

merle travisIt troubles me no end that the artistry of Merle Travis has been lost in the sands of time. It troubles me, but does not surprise me, as Travis–the victim of changing tastes and a lifelong battle with John Barleycorn–had largely disappeared from the airwaves by the time I started really following country music in the mid-60s. Although the general public lost sight of Merle’s genius, he has fared better in the esteem of Nashville’s pickers and singers and has been cited as a primary influence by many of the world’s best pickers, including Chet Atkins, Doc Watson, Earl Hooker, Scotty Moore and Marcel Dadi.

Chet Atkins admired and initially tried to emulate the Travis style, once commenting that it was fortunate that he did not have as much opportunity to hear Travis growing up as he would have liked or his own style might have become a clone. The great Arthel “Doc” Watson thought so much of Travis that he named his son Merle after him. Glen Campbell’s parents were such big fans that they reportedly gave their son the middle name “Travis.” The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had him as a featured performer on their classic Will the Circle Be Unbroken album issued in 1972.

Travis was born and raised in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, a coal mining center that would prove to be the source of inspiration for many of his finest musical compositions. In the hard and bleak life of a coal mining town, he found escape in the guitar–an instrument played by his brother Jim, who was also believed to have made Merle’s first guitar.

Music was one of the few recreations available in the area of western Kentucky, particularly during the heights of the Great Depression. There were many guitar players in the vicinity of Muhlenberg, and Travis freely acknowledged his debt to such earlier players as black country blues guitarist Arnold Shultz, and more directly to guitarists Mose Rager, a part-time barber and coal miner, and Ike Everly, the father of Don and Phil Everly. The Travis style eventually evolved into the ‘Travis Pickin’’ style of playing a steady bass pattern with the thumb and filling out some syncopated rhythms with the fingers of the right hand. Meanwhile, he developed a “talking bluesman” style of singing that was instantly recognizable by the perpetual smile in his voice. Read more of this post