My Kind of Country

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

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Album Review: Rosanne Cash – ‘Seven Year Ache’

Rosanne Cash’s first inroads on the country charts came from the minor hits on Right Or Wrong, but it would be Seven Year Ache, with its disparate themes of melancholy and female-empowerment, coupled with exceptionally cerebral material, that set the standard for Cash’s next decade of recording. The memes set here, of folk singer-songwriter sensibilities meets modern pop-country production, have since been repeated by the likes of Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lucinda Williams, Patty Griffin, and any number of other fringe-favorites.

I’ve already written about this album’s first single and its impact on me as a country fan.  Even today, with a seriously out-dated production – the kind of synthetic hand-clap percussion employed here went out with the Atari, and for many of the same reasons – the track still packs a mighty, meaty punch. The dark, contemplative mood of the song – the internal monologue of bewildered, yet determined individual – is offset by the breezy melody and the entire affair is framed by a looping and driving steel guitar track supplied by Hank DeVito. Cash reportedly wrote the song after a fight with then-husband and producer Rodney Crowell.  The songwriter herself says of the lyric:  ”That’s one of those gifts you only get once in life.  I wrote it in about an hour. I just poured my soul out into the song.”  She bared a lot of herself in the process, but gave us, in my opinion, one of the greatest lyrics of our time.  In 1981, “Seven Year Ache” hit #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart, #6 on the Adult Contemporary list, and #22 on the Hot 100.  It’s been covered several times over the years, most notably by Trisha Yearwood (with Cash featured on vocals, providing the harmonies Emmylou Harris sang on the original recording) on 2001’s Inside Out.

The second single and second #1, Leroy Preston’s “My Baby Thinks He’s A Train”, more than any other track Rosanne Cash has recorded save for covers of the Man In Black’s songs, is a testament to Johnny Cash’s musical influence on his oldest daughter.  The steady and chugging back beat is accompanied by blistering guitar work, and progressive lyrics like:

He eats money like a train eats coal
He burns it up and leaves you in the smoke
If you wanna catch a ride, you wait ’til he unwinds
He’s just like a train, he always gives some tramp a ride

“Blue Moon With Heartache” is the only song here besides the title track Cash herself put pen to paper to create. On this brooding number, the results were less satisfying. The story of a woman living in a troubled relationship, and daydreaming about leaving, is played out amid the intrusive electric piano and a swelling, but hushed, string arrangement.  This, too, topped the country singles chart, but a much better candidate for the final single would have been “You Don’t Have Very Far To Go”, written by Merle Haggard and Red Simpson. “Go” is the most traditional country song on the album with steel guitar flourishes and no signs of pop or rock influences, and while simple in form is an effective heart’s-breaking lyric.

At times, Cash seems bent on pushing the boundaries of a female country album as far as she possibly can, in both form and function. Listening to the roadhouse rocker “What Kinda Girl”, clearly as influenced by Ronstadt and The Rolling Stones as by Loretta Lynn and The Tennessee Three, the cheeky lyrics – “I don’t wear pajamas and I don’t sniff glue” – and butchered-grammar rhyme scheme will turn your head on the first few listens, but the track loses much of its appeal soon after you’re over the cheap tricks.  “Only Human” may be the first time, and maybe still the only, instance of a woman using the word “stoned” on a mainstream country album. Keith Sykes’ honest lyric is marred somewhat by the straight ’80s pop production and the loud backing vocals, but is a marvelous song nonetheless that finds the narrator lamenting her own mortality for the anguish it indirectly causes. Another miss is  “I Can’t Resist” which ventures into easy-listening territory with Phil Kenzie’s saxophone playing and the singer’s detached vocal. “Where Will The Words Come From” with Crowell and Harris providing perfectly desolate harmonies, save for a minimal amount of the era’s background noise, follows the singer’s more recent sounds with its spare production.

Seven Year Ache was an album of firsts for Cash, not just in style and substance, but for being her first #1 charting album, housing her first #1 country singles, and her first pop hit.  It also marks the singer’s first instance of finding her artistry. Despite the missteps in production, which can easily be blamed on the release date as much as the artist and producer, this is a collection of great songs that set the stage for the first phase of a remarkable career.

Grade: A-

The album was released as a 2-for-1 with Rosanne’s U.S. debut album and has been re-released on CD and for digital download.

Album Review: Rosanne Cash – ‘Right Or Wrong’

Rosanne’s U.S. debut in 1980 was produced by her new husband Rodney Crowell and recorded in their new home in LA. Many of the musicians were Rodney’s former band mates and successors in Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band, including Ricky Skaggs singing harmony on six tracks, but the music is several steps away from traditional or even conventional pop-country of the period. The pop-influenced production, no doubt ground-breakingly modern at the time, now sounds very dated, but Rosanne’s voice cuts through the clutter and the eclectic choice of material is pretty solid, if not often very deeply rooted in country music.

Rodney wrote ‘No Memories Hangin’ ‘Round’ and originally intended to record the duet with Rosanne, but decided when the pair attended a Bobby Bare concert that he would be a better choice. Bare was an established star (although one whose chart success tended to be hit or miss) with Outlaw credentials, and he was an admirer of Rodney Crowell’s work, having recently recorded the latter’s ‘Til I Gain Control Again’. The album’s outstanding song was Rosanne’s first hit single, and although it peaked at only #17, is a minor classic. Bare’s rougher vocals complement Rosanne’s velvety tones, and they convince as a couple fighting off the memory of old flames. The production on this track nicely balances a country feel with contemporary sensibilities.

Rodney contributed a further three songs, two of which had previously appeared on Rosanne’s ill-fated German release. There is a good version of ‘Baby, Better Start Turnin’ ‘Em Down’, which had just been a non-charting single for Rodney himself (and would be covered a few years later by Emmylou Harris), and epitomizes the mood of the album with its consideration of modern life. ‘Seeing’s Believing’ is an excellent song which deserves to be better known, with a fine vocal from Rosanne and Emmylou Harris adding a supportive harmony. However, I don’t really like the dreary sound of ‘Anybody’s Darlin’ (Anything But Mine)’.

‘Couldn’t Do Nothing Right’, largely forgotten today, was technically the album’s biggest hit, reaching #15 on Billboard. The production has a Caribbean feel which does not stand up very well today, although it is a well-written song looking back at a failed relationship, penned by singer Karen Brooks (who was to have a short chart career herself in the early 80s) and her husband Texas singer-songwriter Gary P Nunn. I prefer the upbeat ‘Man Smart (Woman Smarter)’, a rather entertaining cover of an old calypso number, originally written by Trinidad’s Norman Span in the 30s but best known from Harry Belafonte’s 50s recording. Emmylou Harris sings harmony again on this proto-girlpower anthem.

The last single, ‘Take Me, Take Me’ peaked at 25. Rosanne’s vocals are soothingly tender on this melodic love song, and Sharon and Cheryl White sing harmony, but the percussion is unbearably intrusive and the song (also previously cut on the German album) doesn’t have much country influence. It was written by Keith Sykes, who also provided the title track, a fairly catchy mid-tempo pop song on a cheating theme.

Rosanne wrote just one of the songs, the pensive AC ballad ‘This Has Happened Before’, which shows her promise as a developing young songwriter and is one of the best tracks, with a pretty tune. She also commits to a spunky cover of her father’s ‘Big River’, which is another highlight.

The album is available on a 2-for-1 reissue CD with Seven Year Ache, also including Rosanne’s cover of ‘Not A Second Time’, an obscure and not very interesting Beatles song which had replaced ‘Baby, Better Start Turnin’ ‘Em Down’ on the European release of the album. It is probably only for Rosanne Cash completists, but includes some material worth hearing. Rosanne and Rodney were carving out their own artistically ambitious path, and if commercial success was limited at this stage, they were setting the pattern for Rosanne’s music over the next few years.

Grade: B

Album Review: Patty Loveless – ‘Patty Loveless’

patty loveless - debutA teenager of 14, Patty Loveless first came to Nashville with her brother Roger in 1971. Roger had a job on one of the most popular shows of the day, the nationally syndicated Porter Wagoner Show.  Brother Roger arranged a meeting with Wagoner one day, and after hearing her sing ‘Sounds of Loneliness’, Porter offered his help to the teen and invited her to tour with his road show, which included Dolly Parton, on weekends and during the Summer, encouraging her to finish school while she pursued her dream of a singing career.

Then, one fateful night at the Grand Ole Opry in 1973, Jean Shepard was caught in a flood and couldn’t make it to the Ryman, so promoter Danny King called the Rameys, Patty and Roger, who appeared on the Opry that night and caught the attention of Doyle Wilburn.  This meeting would lead to her first publishing deal with Sure-Fire Music, and she went on tour with The Wilburn Brothers from 1973 to 1975, while Doyle was grooming her to replace their former leading female singer, Patty’s distant cousin Loretta Lynn.  When she graduated in 1975, she did just that, becoming a full-time member of the show.  In the meantime, she met and fell in with the group’s drummer, Terry Lovelace.  Doyle Wilburn told them to end the relationship, not wanting the band members to date one another, but instead, Terry and Patty quit the band, got married, and moved back to his hometown in North Carolina, where she played the rock club circuit for a while.  It was from the name Patty Lovelace that she adapted her stage name of Patty Loveless.

Patty Loveless came back to Nashville for the second time in 1985 to try her hand at country music.  This time again with brother Roger in tow to help his little sister work her way into the music business.  As the story goes, Roger Ramey pretended to be someone else who was late for an appointment with MCA executive Tony Brown in order to get in the office to meet the A&R head.  Once he got in there, Brown gave him 30 seconds to sell him on what Roger called “best girl singer to ever come to Nashville”.  Ramey played him Patty’s recording of ‘I Did’, and Brown was impressed, but told Roger he’d get back to him.  Still bluffing – the man must have a great poker face – Roger told Tony Brown he needed an answer that day because they had another label wanting to sign Patty.  Tony had a quick meeting with label head Jimmy Bowen while Roger waited in his office.  When Brown came back it was with a short-term, singles deal.

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