My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Keb Mo’

Album Review: Dixie Chicks – ‘Taking The Long Way’

The storm of protest and counter-protest which followed the incident in London completely derailed the Chicks’ country music stardom. We can only wonder what might have been musically had they remained accepted by genre fans and the industry. As it was, there was a hiatus in recorded music.

The album (produced by Rick Rubin) marked a sea change in their musical style, a deliberate focus on their own compositions and very personal subject matter, and a defiant unwillingness to kowtow to country radio expectations. Every song is credited to the three women together with an assortment of non-Nashville co-writers, most frequently rock songwriter Dan Wilson.

The first shot was actually conciliatory lyrically, with ‘I Hope’, a gospel-infused song written with bluesman Keb’ Mo’ as a charity single to benefit victims of Hurricane Katrina in the South in 2005. It is definitely not a country song, but it is pretty good, and has an optimistic message:

It’s okay for us to disagree
We can work it out lovingly

But this was not the path taken by the Chick’s new album, finally released in 2006.

The lead radio single was explosive, stating their refusal to bow down. ‘Not Ready To Make Nice’ was uncompromising and undoubtedly powerful as it angrily recounts the aftermath:

Forgive – sounds good
Forget – I’m not sure I could
They say time heals everything
But I’m still waiting
I’m through with doubt
There’s nothing left for me to figure out
I’ve paid a price
And I’ll keep paying

I’m not ready to make nice
I’m not ready to back down
I’m still mad as hell and I don’t have time
To go round and round and round
It’s too late to make it right
I probably wouldn’t if I could
Cause I’m mad as hell
Can’t bring myself to do
What it is you think I should
I know you said
“Can’t you just get over it?”
It turned my whole world around
And I kinda like it

I made my bed and I sleep like a baby
With no regrets and I don’t mind sayin’
It’s a sad, sad story when a mother will teach her
Daughter that she ought to hate a perfect stranger
And how in the world can the words that I said
Send somebody so over the edge
That they’d write me a letter
Saying that I better
Shut up and sing or my life will be over?

The single’s reception reflected the riven nature of contemporary debate, with those who had agreed with Natalie’s original statement acclaiming it, and those offended unimpressed. It received tepid airplay, peaking at #36 on the country chart, but sold exceptionally well, better than any previous single. This was reflected in responses to the album as a whole – decent sales, albeit lower than their previous albums since recruiting Natalie, but losing much of their country fanbase. They would never again make the top 40 on country radio. Going back to the single a decade on, and trying to view it divorced from the controversy it remains a very strong piece of work with the raw emotion still alive.

The next single, ‘Everybody Knows’, written with Gary Louris of alt-country group the Jayhawks, was not a good choice as it was rather dull and forgettable. The semi-title track, ‘The Long Way Around’ is better, again reflecting fiercely and unrepentantly on choice and consequence with nods to some of their past music:

It’s been two long years now
Since the top of the world came crashing down
And I’m gettin’ it back on the road now
But I’m taking the long way
Taking the long way around

I fought with a stranger and I met myself
I opened my mouth and I heard [or hurt?] myself
It can get pretty lonely when you show yourself
Guess I could have made it easier on myself
But I – I could never follow

‘Voice Inside My Head’, the album’s last theoretical attempt at a single, was a rock ballad written with Wilson and Linda Perry. I can’t imagine it ever succeeding as a single even in better times for the band, as although not completely explicit the subject matter appears to be the controversial one of a past, and perhaps regretted, abortion:

I was only a kid when I said goodbye to you
Ten summers ago
But it feels like yesterday
Lost, scared and alone
Nothing I could give to you
I tried, I really did
But I couldn’t find another way
And I want – I need somehow to believe
In the choice I made
Am I better off this way?

I can hear the voice inside my head
Saying you should be with me instead
Every time I’m feeling down
I wonder what would it be like with you around


I’m forever changed
By someone I never knew
Now I’ve got a place
I’ve got a husband and a child
But I’ll never forget
What I’ve given up in you

It’s not a subject I’m comfortable with myself and it seems like a deliberate provocation to choose as a single, especially after all the prior issues.

Motherhood is also the subject of ‘So Hard’, which bewails problems trying to conceive and the toll taken on the marital relationship. ‘Lullaby’ is a delicately pretty song cooing love for, I think, a new baby, surely the happiest and least contentious song on the album, with some lovely fiddle.

‘Bitter End’, written with Louris, is about the end of a fair weather friendship and has a pleasant Celtic feel.

‘Lubbock Or Leave It’ is Natalie’s vicious diss of the hypocrisy of her conservative home town, and features some echoey autotune.

‘Silent House’ is about Natalie’s grandmother, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and is clearly heartfelt but musically dreary. ‘Favorite Year’, written with Sheryl Crow, is quite mellow but not very memorable. ‘I Like It’ is poorly written and boring, and ‘Baby Hold On’ is pedestrian. ‘Easy Silence’ is a tribute to a husband offering respite from the turmoil outside (perhaps ironic given that all three of the marriages in existence at the time have now ended).

Even a dozen years on, the shadows of The Incident hang heavily over this album. To my ears it doesn’t really stand up on its own merits. With the exception of ‘Lullaby’, the strongest moments (e.g. ‘Not Ready To Make Nice’, ‘The Long Way Around’) are entirely rooted in their time and place. The production and songwriting both mostly fall outside country music, and on the whole only the group’s most devoted fans will truly enjoy this record.

Grade: C+

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Album Review: Adam Harvey – ‘I’m Doing Alright’

In 2007 Adam signed to Sony Australia, and released an excellent debut for the label. The style was a little more contemporary country than his most recent albums, but very well performed and produced.

He wrote the majority of the tracks, mostly with Rod McCormack, including my favorite, ‘Someone Else’s Dream’. This is an excellent ballad, set to a strong melody ideally suited to Adam’s deep voice, with a tasteful string arrangement, and an inspiring lyric about fulfilling your own path in life:

I’ve known hurt and pain
Seen things I hope we never see again
I’ve been bought and sold
I’ve learned not to believe most of what I’m told
We’re all busy making plans
But there’s just a few who can
Have a vision and the will to see it through

Truth knows when things aren’t what they seem
And words fall flat if you d- on’t feel what they mean
You can’t move forward
Till you know where you’ve been
The ones who stand alone see
It’s no life
Living someone else’s dream

‘Walls’ is an excellent song, referring to the Aboriginal population of Australia, the Berlin Wall and other artificial barriers:

When different people find a common ground
There’s no way to stop
Walls from tumbling down

Walls
We all build ‘em
When we need something to hide behind
But if we learn from those that came before us
We let ‘em fall
Walls

Every day we make ‘em like we need ‘em to survive
But what’s the use of feelings if they’re locked up inside?

The solemn ‘A Bigger Plan’ relates grandparental advice to a child, while the sultry jazzy ballad of ‘Will You Be Mine’ is the album’s sole love song. ‘Saturday Night’ is another likeable song about childhood memories of good times at family parties every week:

There ain’t nothing like a party at the Harveys on a Saturday night

The soundtrack include smashing bottles and police sirens.

The title track is a mid paced song with a contemporary feel about satisfaction with one’s life despite lacking material goods. Not bad. ‘Way Too Fast’ is a nice song advising taking time out from a busy life, warmly sung.

‘You’d Do The Same For Me’ is a thoughtful ballad about friendship with an attractive melody and some nice fiddle:

We all need a shoulder when life lets you down
One thing you can count on
I’ll always be around
Nothing’s too much trouble for a friend in need
You’d do the same for me

Most of his usual co-writers refused to work on him with ‘Genie In The Bottle’, which they thought was a stupid idea for a song, but while admittedly a bit silly it’s rather fun, about a lovelorn man who takes to the bottle:

The genie in the bottom of the Jim Bean bottle made me do what I didn’t wanna do
I made a wish with the genie but the genie was a meanie and he didn’t make my wish come true
I was hoping he would make your memory go away but I’m still thinkin’ of you

Of the outside material, ‘The Older I Get’ is a pleasant mid-paced tune about learning how to live well. It was written by Danny Gree, Rob Crosby and Liz Hengber.

‘Flowers’ was a very minor hit for its writer Billy Yates, with its perfectly constructed and emotionally devastating lyric about a man who (spoiler alert!) causes the death of his partner by drunk driving. It has also been cut by Chris Young. Adam’s version is decent but not my favorite, lacking a bit of the combined delicacy and intensity needed to carry it off. I don’t quite *believe* this version.

The best known cover is the Guy Clark song ‘Heartbroke’. Adam’s version is highly enjoyable but not as exciting as Ricky Skaggs’ bluegrass infused hit. Adam also takes on bluesman Keb Mo’’s ‘A Better Man’; the original actually has a jug band feel which might have worked better but Adam’s version is a bit dull.

There are “bonus” acoustic re-recordings of several of the songs on this album, and a few older songs, on my version of the album.

The album won an Australian CMA award, and is well worth finding.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Varous Artists: ‘Gentle Giants: The Songs Of Don Williams’

Don Williams had a very successful career in Country Music and is pretty much beloved throughout the English-speaking world. Don would have a long run of chart singles (46 as a solo artist) that would run from 1973 to 1992, and he would continue to release albums of new music through 2014.

With such a long discography, the task is twofold: (1) find artists whose styles are sympathetic to the honoree’s style without being mere imitations, and (2) find some interesting catalog songs rather than simply covering the biggest hits. Moreover, tribute albums tend to be a mixed bag with some of them being very good, and others merely star vehicles for current stars rather than genuine tributes. Gentle Giants is a genuine tribute to Don.

This project succeeds in both respects. The artists cover a broad range of styles and while the songs are mostly big hits, a few lesser known songs are covered as well.

The album opens up with the Pistol Annies’ version of “Tulsa Time” a song written by Danny Flowers, one of Don’s band members. The arrangement of this 1979 #1 record for Don is considerably funkier than Don’s arrangement.

“I Believe In You” was written by Roger Cook and Sam Hogin, hitting #1 in 1980. This was probably Don’s biggest international hit, even reaching #4 on New Zealand’s pop charts. Brandy Clark does a decent job of the song, although it probably should have been tackled by a more grizzled artist than young Brandy.

“We’ve Got A Good Fire Going” was not one of Don’s bigger hits, only reaching #3 in 1986. Written by master songsmith David Loggins, the song seems perfectly suited for a vocal trio such as Lady Antebellum. The arrangement is very gentle with a light string accompaniment.

There’s a storm rollin’ over the hill
And the willow trees are blowin’
I’m standin’ here starin’ out the window
Safe and warm
I feel her put her arms around me
And it’s a good feelin’ that I’m knowin’
Oh, I’ve got a good woman and we’ve got a good fire goin’

“Some Broken Hearts Never Mend” comes from the pen of Wayland Holyfield. The song reached #1 in 1977, Dierks Bentley gives the song an acoustic, nearly bluegrass arrangement. I love the song and I love Dierks’ performance of the song.

While there are no complete misfires on the album, “Amanda” seems ill suited for the duo of Chris Stapleton and Morgane Stapleton. I really like Chris but his voice is just wrong for this song. His version is acceptable but both Don and ol’ Waylon did far better versions of the song.

Similarly Alison Krauss makes the mistake of slowing the tempo in “Till The Rivers All Run Dry”. Since all of Don’s songs are taken at slow to medium slow tempos, reducing the tempo on any of Don’s songs is a mistake. Alison provides a gorgeous vocal, but the song just seems to drag. Don co-wrote this song with Wayland Holyfield, his fourth #1 from back in 1976.

I regard John Prine as a talented songwriter but a poor vocalist with his vocal efforts ranging from mediocre to terrible. Somehow “Love Is On A Roll” works. It was a good idea to pair him with Roger Cook, especially since Prine and Cook were the writers on the song. Don took this song to #1 in 1983.

Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You”, as sung by Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, was a bit of a disappointment, mostly because Amanda Shires is no Emmylou Harris as a harmony singer. I think the song originally was an Emmylou Harris single featuring Don Williams since it was released on Warner Brothers, which was Emmylou’s label. The song only reached #3 but I thought it was an outstanding effort by Don and Emmylou.

“Maggie’s Dream” missed the top ten when released in 1984 but by then Don was staring to lose momentum as a singles artist. Also the album from which the song came, Cafe Carolina, was Don’s least successful album in a decade. Written by David Loggins and Lisa Silver, Trisha Yearwood does a masterful job with the song. I think it has one of the more interesting lyrics that Don ever tackled:

Maggie’s up each morning at four am
By five at the counter at the diner
Her trucker friends out on the road will soon be stopping in
As the lights go on at Cafe Carolina

Maggie’s been a waitress here most all her life
Thirty years of coffee cups and sore feet
The mountains around Ashevill,e she’s never seen the other side
Closer now to fifty than to forty

Maggie’s never had a love
She said she’s never had enough time
To let a man into her life
Aw but Maggie has a dream
She’s had since she was seventeen
To find a husband and be a wife

I am not that familiar with Keb Mo’ but he nailed “Lord I Hope This Day Is Good”, adding a very sincere vocal to an arrangement that is nearly a clone of Don’s original. The song was written by Dave Hanner, best known for his role in the Corbin/Hanner Band. The song reached #1 in 1981.

“Good Ole Boys Like Me”, written by Bob McDill is probably my favorite Don Williams song and Garth Brooks version tells me that Garth definitely grew up on and was inspired by Don’s songs. Billboard had this song dying at #2 but Cashbox and Record World both had it reaching #1.

All said, this is a pretty nice album. Don Williams was a pretty laid back artist and I wish someone had selected some of the more up-tempo songs (admittedly, there were not that many from which to choose). Other than Leon Redbone and Bobby Bare, no one was as good at laid-back as Don Williams.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Orthophonic Joy’

orthophonic joyThis project seems to have been in the works for some time, as I remember hearing about it last summer with a projected release date of October 2014. Now at last it has made its way into the world, and it was worth the wait.

It is a tribute to the 1927-8 recording sessions in Bristol, Tennessee, which really created country music as a recording genre, with the artists including Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. A generous 18 tracks, spread across two discs, interspersed with spoken segments by Eddie Stubbs, veteran Opry compere. The songs are performed by a range of latterday luminaries, while Stubbs provides informative commentary which is well worth listening to, with small snippets from the original recordings. Carl Jackson acts as producer, and the musicians do a wonderful job recreating the original backings.

The Carter Family were one of the great successes of early country music, and several of the songs they sang at Bristol are included in this project. Emmylou Harris takes on ‘Bury Me Under The Willow’, another traditional song which was the first song the Carters recorded. Ashley Monroe’s version ‘The Storms Are On The Ocean’ is very charming and one of my favourite tracks here. Rock (and occasional country) singer Sheryl Crow sings ‘The Wandering Boy’ very well.

Vince Gill isn’t the most obvious choice to play the part of Jimmie Rodgers, but ‘The Soldier’s Sweetheart’ is a ballad well suited to his plaintive vocal, and this WWI ballad is another highlight.

Ernest ‘Pop’ Stoneman was already an established recording artist when he contributed to the Bristol sessions with various musical partners. One of the songs he performed, the religious ‘I Am Resolved’, is performed here by the Shotgun Rubies, with bluegrass singer Val Storey’s sweet, tender lead vocal.

Religious songs were a very important element of the repertoire of these early musicians. Bluegrass legend Doyle Lawson and his band Quicksilver tackle the traditional gospel tune ‘I’m Redeemed’, originally recorded by the little known Alcoa Quartet, a local acappella group, whose name came from the steelworks where two of the men worked.

Dolly Parton sings ‘When They Ring Those Golden Bells’, recorded at Bristol by the Reverend Alfred Karnes, and does so with great sincerity. Karnes’ selections are well represented in this project. The roots of country, blues and gospel all draw from the same well and blues musician Keb Mo’ performs a soulful version of ‘To The Work’, with the help of a 12 year old protege. The Church Sisters take on the slow ‘Where We’ll Never Grow Old’.

Marty Stuart brings great energy to the banjo tune ‘Black Eyed Susie’, originally recorded by a local farmer. Comedian and banjo player Steve Martin is joined by the Steep Canyon Rangers for the Tenneva Ramblers’ comic ‘Sweet Heaven When I Die’. Glen Campbell’s children Shannon and Ashley sing Blind Alfred Reed’s tale of a real life train tragedy, ‘The Wreck Of The Old Virginian’, and do a fine job.

Larry Cordle sings ‘Gotta Catch That Train’, supported by the Virginian Luthiers, a band led by a grandson of the fiddler on the original session. Bluegrass star Jesse McReynolds, now 85, and another grandson of an original musician from the Bristol sessions, plays that grandfather’s fiddle on ‘Johnny Goodwin’ (now better known as The Girl I Left Behind’), one of the tunes he recorded.

Superstar Brad Paisley is joined by producer Carl Jackson for a beautifully played and nicely harmonised version of ‘In The Pines’. Jackson takes the lead on the murder ballad ‘Pretty Polly’, recorded at Bristol by the uneducated farmer B F Shelton, who also recorded the moonshine fuelled ‘Darling Cora’. 20 year old newcomer Corbin Hayslett sings and plays banjo on the latter, and he has a very authentic old-time style which defies his youth.

The Chuck Wagon Gang close proceedings with the choral ‘Shall we Gather At The River’, the last song recorded at Bristol, joined by the massed artists involved in this project.

I would have liked the liner notes to be included with the digital version of the album, but Stubbs’ knowledgeable discussion betwee songs makes up for this lack. This is a very educational album which brings home the significance of the sessions and their place in music history. It is also highly enjoyable listening, beautifully played, arranged and produced.

Grade: A