My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Kris Kristofferson

Album Review: Jessi Colter – ‘Out of the Ashes’

Out of the Ashes was released in 2006, four years after the death of Waylon Jennings, and with the exception of a 1996 children’s collection, was Jessi Colter’s first album in 22 years. She teamed up with Don Was, who had a reputation for reinvigorating the careers of other veteran artists both inside and outside of country music. He was best known for his work with Bonnie Raitt and had also worked with Waylon, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson both as individuals and as members of The Highwaymen.

Out of the Ashes is not a straight country album. It is heavy on blues and roots rock, with a touch of Gospel occasionally thrown into the mix. Jessi wrote or co-wrote nine of the album’s twelve tracks. It has an earthier sound than her earlier work and her voice sounds grittier but is still in fine form. It is a concept album but only in the very loosest sense. It is about grieving and eventually emerging from that grief and moving on. It opens with a cover of the Gospel song “His Eye Is on the Sparrow”, given a bluesy treatment, and moves on to the sassy, bluesy “You Can Pick ‘Em”. The piano-driven “The Phoenix Rises” is a beautiful ballad about rebirth and new beginnings and is my favorite. The similarly-themed mid-tempo “Out of the Rain”, performed with its writer Tony Joe White is an older song dating back to the 1980s. Waylon had supplied vocals on an unreleased version and they are incorporated into this version. It signals that Jessi has moved on and is ready to explore new relationships, and she takes the plunge headfirst on the steamy “Velvet and Steel”.

Other favorites include the ballad “The Canyon” — about a couple ready to go their separate ways, and told metaphorically from the point of view of a horse:

Don’t lay your bridle on my shoulder
Don’t bring your bit to my mouth
Don’t lay your blanket on my body
Just take your saddle and move out.

The album closes with another Gospel number “Please Carry Me Home”, performed with Jessi’s co-writer and son Shooter Jennings. The track had previously been included on a multi-artist anthology of songs inspired by the film The Passion of the Christ.

The only track I didn’t care much for was the cover of Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”, which seems slightly out of place, with its ambiguous references to people “getting stoned”. It’s not clear if this is a drug song or people being pelted metaphorically with stones, or both.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this collection, but the more I listened to it the more I liked it and I ended up enjoying it much more than I expected to. It is available on streaming services and can also be downloaded or purchased on CD.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Jessi Colter – ‘Diamond In The Rough’

Released in July 1976, Diamond In The Rough was Jessi’s third album for Capitol, and her third album release in eighteen months. Like her first two Capitol album, it reached #4 on Billboard’s Country Albums Chart. Unlike its two predecessors, it generated no significant hits – the only single released, “I Thought I Heard You Calling My Name”, died at #29. Basically sales-wise this album coasted on the success of the first two Capitol albums.

Since the last single from the prior album had died at #50, it is pretty clear that the forward momentum her career received from “I’m Not Lisa” had already been lost. From this point forward none of her solo albums would crack the top forty and none of her singles would reach top twenty status.

Diamond In The Rough
is not a bad album but I am not sure as to the identity of the target audience since the song selection seems rather random.

The title track “Diamond in the Rough” written by Donnie Fritts (a long-time veteran of Kris Kristofferson’s band) and Spooner Oldham, is a bluesy ballad that is much closer to being piano jazz than anything resembling country music.

“Get Back” a Lennon-McCartney composition, was a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic in 1969, with Billy Preston’s energetic electric organ giving the song an energy that the Beatles had seemingly lost. Jessi’s rendition is not terrible, but is lethargic and not very interesting.

Better is Jessi’s “Would You Leave Now”, a lovely ballad, exquisitely sung by Jessi. The background features some gentle steel guitar amidst a light string accompaniment.

Although it was a massive hit, I never liked “Hey Jude”, the second Lennon- McCartney song on the album). Jessi sings it well, but at 7:16 the song is simply too long. Had she shortened it to about four minutes, I might have actually liked her gentle approach to the song, but at some point I simply lost interest – the only thing of interest in the coda is the fiddle.

Another Jessi Colter composition follows in “Oh Will (Who Made it Rain Last Night)”. This is another lovely ballad about the pain of leaving, this more of the folk variety rather than jazz. Jessi’s piano is impeccable and the song is quite lovely, just not country.

Oh Will who made it rain last night?
Who could take blue from my sky and paint it black night?
Who’s telling me to look so I’ll see the tears for years we will cry?
Talk to me Will.
You never told lies; who made it rain last night?

Lee Emerson’s “I Thought I Heard You Calling My Name” was the chart single from the album and is a country break-up song. I heard this song quite a bit upon its release and was surprised to find out later that this topped out at #29. There is an interesting story behind Lee Emerson’s death, but I won’t go into that here. Porter Wagoner and George Strait (Strait Out of The Box) both recorded the song.

I said goodbye to you this mornin’
With only these words to explain
I said I’d found someone I love better
But I still hear your voice call my name
I thought I heard you callin’ my name
Funny, I still feel this way.
Your voice seem so close, but I knew
That by now you were many miles away
I walk through the streets of the city
People passing by think it’s so strange
I’m talkin’ but there’s no one beside me
I thought I heard you call my name

“Ain’t No Way” by Tere Mansfield is a good country ballad which I think could have been a decent single. The problem for Jessi, is that she doesn’t have a really forceful voice, but on this song she gets across enough power to sell the song.

Obviously Jessi really loved Waylon, sticking with him through good times and bad times. “You Hung the Moon (Didn’t You Waylon)” is exhibit number one for this proposition. Too personal to be a single, the song leaves the listen with no doubts as to its sincerity.

You did hang the moon, didn’t you Waylon?
` You did hang that moon, didn’t you Waylon?
Weren’t you the one they called the seventh son?
You did hang the moon, didn’t you Waylon?

You take so many words and bring them all home with one
You walk into my room and it lights up like the sun
Each step you take leads a way for someone
And I know you’d never do love wrong

“Woman’s Heart is a Handy Place to Be” by Cort Casady and Marshall Chapman is a jog-along ballad with a story to tell about a charmer who can never be faithful, but whom the narrator wants anyway . Jessi does a nice job with the song, but Crystal Gayle also recorded the song to better effect.

He’s a charmer
He’s broken every heart that’s tried to hold him
It’s tearin´ me apart to know I want him
Knowin´ I can never tell him so

He’s a loner
Runnin´ from a friend to find a stranger
It makes me weak it makes me wonder
Will I ever make it on my own
Will I ever make it on my own

A woman’s heart’s a handy place to be
For a man afraid of givin’ and fightin´ to be free
Yes a woman’s heart’s a handy place to be
I just wish the heart that’s broken now was not a part of me

Ms Marshall Chapman has led an interesting existence (she is six feet tall and much more of a rock & roller than a country songsmith, but she has had considerable success in country music with Sawyer Brown having a major hit with Betty’s Being Bad”.

The album concludes with an unnecessary reprise of “Oh Will (Who Made it Rain Last Night)”. I would have much preferred an additional song.

This is a tough album to evaluate in that both of the Beatles’ covers were complete misfires and several of the songs seem to be out of context on this album.

Grade: C+

Classic Rewind: Rita Coolidge and Kris Kristofferson – ‘Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends’

Best reissues of 2016

As always most of the best reissues come from labels outside the USA. In those cities that still have adequate recorded music stores (sadly a rare commodity these days) , it can be a real thrill finding a label you’ve not encountered before reissuing something you’ve spent decades seeking. It can be worthwhile to seek out the foreign affiliates of American labels for recordings that Capitol hasn’t reissued might be available on the UK or European EMI labels.

The fine folks at Jasmine Records (UK) can always be counted on for fine reissues:

SHUTTERS AND BOARD: THE CHALLENGER SINGLES 1957-1962 – Jerry Wallace
Jerry Wallace wasn’t really a country artist during this period, but he was a definite fellow traveler and a very popular artist and very fine singer. This thirty-two track collection includes all his early hits (except 1964’s “In The Misty Moonlight”) , such as million (and near million) sellers such as “How The Time Flies”, “Primrose Lane”, “There She Goes” and “Shutters And Boards”. From about 1965 forward his focus become more country and he would have two #1 county singles in the 1970s

THE NASHVILLE SOUND OF SUCCESS (1958-1962) – Various Artists
I will just list the tracks for this fine two disc set. This is a good primer on a very important era in country music

Disc 1 1958-1959
1 THE STORY OF MY LIFE – Marty Robbins
2 GREAT BALLS OF FIRE – Jerry Lee Lewis
3 BALLAD OF A TEENAGE QUEEN – Johnny Cash
4 OH LONESOME ME – Don Gibson
5 JUST MARRIED – Marty Robbins
6 ALL I HAVE TO DO IS DREAM – The Everly Brothers
7 GUESS THINGS HAPPEN THAT WAY – Johnny Cash
8 ALONE WITH YOU – Faron Young
9 BLUE BLUE DAY – Don Gibson
10 BIRD DOG – The Everly Brothers
11 CITY LIGHTS – Ray Price
12 BILLY BAYOU – Jim Reeves
13 DON’T TAKE YOUR GUNS TO TOWN – Johnny Cash
14 WHEN IT’S SPRINGTIME IN ALASKA (It’s Forty Below) – Johnny Horton
15 WHITE LIGHTNING – George Jones
16 THE BATTLE OF NEW ORLEANS – Johnny Horton
17 WATERLOO – Stonewall Jackson
18 THE THREE BELLS – The Browns
19 COUNTRY GIRL – Faron Young
20 THE SAME OLD ME – Ray Price
21 EL PASO – Marty Robbins

Disc 2 1960-1962
1 HE’LL HAVE TO GO – Jim Reeves
2 PLEASE HELP ME, I’M FALLING – Hank Locklin
3 ALABAM – Cowboy Copas
4 WINGS OF A DOVE – Ferlin Husky
5 NORTH TO ALASKA – Johnny Horton
6 DON’T WORRY – Marty Robbins
7 HELLO WALLS – Faron Young
8 HEARTBREAK U.S.A – Kitty Wells
9 I FALL TO PIECES – Patsy Cline
10 TENDER YEARS – George Jones
11 WALK ON BY – Leroy Van Dyke
12 BIG BAD JOHN – Jimmy Dean
13 MISERY LOVES COMPANY – Porter Wagoner
14 THAT’S MY PA – Sheb Wooley
15 SHE’S GOT YOU – Patsy Cline
16 CHARLIE’S SHOES – Billy Walker
17 SHE THINKS I STILL CARE – George Jones
18 WOLVERTON MOUNTAIN – Claude King
19 DEVIL WOMAN – Marty Robbins
20 MAMA SANG A SONG – Bill Anderson
21 I’VE BEEN EVERYWHERE – Hank Snow
22 DON’T LET ME CROSS OVER – Carl Butler and Pearl
23 RUBY ANN – Marty Robbins
24 THE BALLAD OF JED CLAMPETT – Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys

Another UK label, Hux Records, continues to issue delightful product:

HERE’S FARON YOUNG/ OCCASIONAL WIFE – Faron Young
After mucking about with more pop-oriented material for a number of years, these two fine Mercury albums (from 1968 and 1970) find Faron making his way back to a more traditional country sound. It must have worked for the singles from these albums (“’She Went A Little Bit Farther”, “I Just Came To Get My Baby”, “Occasional Wife” and “If I Ever Fall In Love (With A Honky Tonk Girl)” all returned Faron to the top ten, a place he had largely missed in the few years prior.

THE BEST OF TOMMY OVERSTREET – Tommy Overstreet (released late 2015)
Tommy Overstreet had a fine run of country singles in the early 1970s, most of which are included in this albums twenty-six tracks, along with about eight album tracks. While Tommy never had a #1 Billboard Country song, four of his song (“Gwen-Congratulations”, “I Don’t Know You Any More”, “Ann, Don’t Go Running” and “Heaven Is My Woman’s Love”) made it to #1 on Cashbox and/or Record World. Tommy’s early seventies records sounded very different from most of what was playing on the radio at the time.

Hux only releases a few new items per year, but in recent years they have reissued albums by Johnny Rodriguez, Connie Smith, Reba McEntire, Ray Price and others.

http://huxrecords.com/news.htm

Humphead Records releases quit a few ‘needle drop’ collections which our friend Ken Johnson has kvetched. The bad news is that for some artists this is necessary since so many masters were destroyed in a warehouse fire some years ago. The good news is that Humphead has gotten much better at doing this and all of my recent acquisitions from them have been quite good, if not always perfect.

TRUCK DRIVIN’ SON OF A GUN – Dave Dudley
This two disc fifty-track collection is a Dave Dudley fan’s dream. Not only does this album give you all of the truck driving hits (caveat: “Six Days On The Road” and “Cowboy Boots” are the excellent Mercury remakes) but also key album tracks and hit singles that were not about truck driving. Only about half of these tracks have been available previously

BARROOMS & BEDROOMS : THE CAPITOL & MCA YEARS – Gene Watson
This two disc, fifty-track set covers Gene’s years with Capitol (1975-1980) and MCA 1980-1985. Most of the tracks have been available digitally over the years, but the MCA tracks have been missing in recent years. The collection is approximately 70% Capitol and 30% MCA. These are needle drop but the soiund ranges from very good to excellent. There are a few tracks from the MCA years that have not previously been available in a digital format, but most of the material will be familiar to Gene Watson fans. Of course, if you buy this collection and are not already a Gene Watson fan, you will become one very quickly. I would have preferred more tracks from the MCA years since most of the Capitol tracks have been readily available, but the price is right and the music is timeless.

The folks at Bear Family issued quite a few sets this year; however, very little of it was country and none of it essential. There is an upcoming set to be issued in 2017 that will cover the complete Starday and Mercury recordings of a very young George Jones. I’m sure it will be a terrific set so be on the lookout for it. We will discuss it next year.

Although not essential FERLIN HUSKY WITH GUESTS SIMON CRUM AND TERRY PRESTON is a nice single disc entry in Bear Family’s Gonna Shake This Shack Tonight series. Simon Crum, of course, was Ferlin’s comedic alter-ego, and Terry Preston was a stage name Ferlin used early in his career. The set contains thirty-two tracks of country bop, proto-rockabilly and comedy that should prove enjoyable to everyone, along with Bear’s usual impeccable digital re-mastering and an informative seventy-two page booklet.

I don’t know that the music available from Cracker Barrel can always be described as reissues since some of it has never been commercially available before.

During the last twelve months we reviewed WAYLON JENNINGS – THE LOST NASHVILLE SESSIONS

Our friend Ken Johnson helps keep the folks at Varese Vintage on the straight and narrow for their country releases

THAT WAS YESTERDAY – Donna Fargo
This sixteen track collection gathers up Donna’s singles with Warner Brothers as well as two interesting album tracks. Donna was with Warner Brothers from 1976 to 1980 and this set is a welcome addition to the catalogue.

FOR THE GOOD TIMES – Glen Campbell
This sixteen track collections covers the 1980s when Glen was still charting but no longer having huge hits. These tracks mostly were on Atlantic but there are a few religion tracks and a song from a movie soundtrack from other sources. For me the highlights are the two previously unreleased tracks “Please Come To Boston” (a hit for Dave Loggins) and the title track (a hit for Ray Price).

SILK PURSE – Linda Ronstadt
This is a straight reissue of Linda’s second Capitol album, a fairly country album that features her first major hit “Long Long Time” plus her takes on “Lovesick Blues”, “Mental Revenge” and “Life’s Railway To Heaven”

On the domestic front Sony Legacy issued a few worthy sets:

THE ULTIMATE COLLECTION – Roy Orbison
This twenty-six track set covers Roy’s work on several labels including a couple of Traveling Wilbury tracks. All of these songs have been (and remain) available elsewhere, but this is a nice starter set.

THE HIGHWAYMEN LIVE: AMERICAN OUTLAWS
This is a three disc set of live recordings featuring the Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. To be honest, I prefer the studio recordings, but this is a worthwhile set

Meanwhile Real Gone Music has become a real player in the classic country market:

LYNN ANDERSON: THE DEFINITIVE COLLECTION
This two disc set provides a nice overview of one of the leading ladies of country music during the mid-1960s through the mid- 1970s, covering her work for the Chart and Columbia labels. Although not quite as comprehensive on the Chart years as the out-of-print single disc on Renaissance, this is likely to be the best coverage of those years that you are likely to see anytime soon on disc. Forty tracks (15 Chart, 25 Columbia) with excellent sound, all the hits and some interesting near-hits.

PORTER WAGONER: THE DEFINITIVE COLLECTION
There is a lot of Porter Wagoner material available, although much of it is either remakes or gospel songs from the Gusto family of labels. For a comprehensive look at Porter’s career it has been necessary to purchase one of the pricey (albeit excellent) Bear Family collections.

This two disc set has forty tracks, twenty seven of Porter’s biggest hits and thirteen key album cuts and shows the evolution and growth of Porter as an artist. While there is some overlap with the Jasmine set released last year (The First Ten Years: 1952-1962) about 60% of this set covers from 1963 onward, making it a fine complement to the Jasmine collection. This is straight Porter – no duets.

DIAMOND RIO: THE DEFINITIVE HITS COLLECTION
I’m not a real big Diamond Rio fan, but I have quite a few of their albums. If someone is interested in sampling Diamond Rio’s run of hits during the 1990s, this would be my recommendation. Fabulous digital re-mastering with all the major Arista hits such as “Meet in the Middle,” “How Your Love Makes Me Feel,” “One More Day,” “Beautiful Mess,” and “I Believe,” plus favorites as “Love a Little Stronger,” “Walkin’ Away,” “You’re Gone,” and one of my favorites “Bubba Hyde”.

EACH ROAD I TAKE: THE 1970 LEE HAZELWOOD & CHET ATKINS SESSIONS – Eddy Arnold
This is one of the more interesting collections put out by Real Gone Music.

The first half of the disc is the album Love and Guitars, the last album produced for Eddy by Chet Atkins. Missing is the usual Nashville Sound production, replaced by an acoustic setting featuring Nashville super pickers guitarists including Jerry Reed, Harold Bradley, Ray Edenton, and Chet himself, playing on an array of contemporary county and pop material.

The second half features the album Standing Alone, produced (in Hollywood) by Lee Hazelwood and featuring Eddy’s take on modern Adult Contemporary writers such as John Stewart, Steve Young, Ben Peters, and Mac Davis.

The album closes with four singles heretofore not collected on a domestic CD. On this album Eddy is cast neither as the Tennessee Plowboy nor the Nashville Sound titan. If you’ve not heard this material before, you might not believe your ears !

TAKE THIS JOB AND SHOVE IT: THE DEFINITIVE JOHNNY PAYCHECK
MICKEY GILLEY: THE DEFINITIVE COLLECTION

These albums were reviewed earlier. Needless to say, both are is highly recommended

Real Gone Music does not specialize in country music – they just do a good job of it. If you are a fan of jazz, folk, rock or even classical, Real Gone Music has something right up your alley

There is a UK based label that also calls itself Real Gone Music but in order to avoid confusion I will refer to this label as RGM-MCPS. This label specializes (mostly) in four disc sets that compile some older albums, sometimes with miscellaneous singles. The sound quality has ranged from fair to very good depending upon the source material, and the packaging is very minimal – no booklet, basically the names of the albums and very little more. Usually these can be obtained from Amazon or other on-line vendors. These are bargain priced and can fill holes in your collection

SIX CLASSIC ALBUMS PLUS BONUS SINGLES – Kitty Wells
This collection collects six fifties and early singles albums plus some singles. Much Kitty Wells music is available but if you want to collect a bunch of it cheaply, this is the way to go

The British Charly label doesn’t specialize in country records but they have a fabulous catalogue of rockabilly, including some very fine collections of recordings of the legendary Memphis label Sun. For legal reasons they cannot market much of their product in the USA but their product can be found on various on-line vendors. Their reissue of Townes Van Zandt albums is excellent.

I suppose I should again say a few words about the Gusto family of labels. It appears that Gusto is in the process of redesigning their website but plenty of their product can be found from other on-line vendors
As I mentioned last year, with the exception of the numerous gospel recordings made by Porter Wagoner during the last decade of his life, there is little new or original material on the Gusto Family of labels. Essentially, everything Gusto does is a reissue, but they are forever recombining older recordings into new combinations.
Gusto has accumulated the catalogs of King, Starday, Dixie, Federal, Musicor, Step One, Little Darlin’ and various other small independent labels and made available the music of artists that are otherwise largely unavailable. Generally speaking, older material on Gusto’s labels is more likely to be original recordings. This is especially true of bluegrass recordings with artists such as Frank “Hylo” Brown, The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Stringbean and Curley Fox being almost exclusive to Gusto.

After 1970, Gusto’s labels tended to be old age homes for over-the-hill country and R&B artists, and the recordings often were remakes of the artists’ hits of earlier days or a mixture of remakes of hits plus covers of other artists hits. These recordings range from inspired to tired and the value of the CDs can be excellent, from the fabulous boxed sets of Reno & Smiley, Mel Street and The Stanley Brothers, to wastes of plastic and oxides with numerous short eight and ten song collections.

To be fair, some of these eight and ten song collections can be worth having, if they represent the only recordings you can find by a particular artist you favor. Just looking at the letter “A” you can find the following: Roy Acuff, Bill Anderson, Lynn Anderson, Eddy Arnold, Leon Ashley, Ernie Ashworth, Chet Atkins and Gene Autry. If you have a favorite first or second tier country artist of the 1960s or 1970s, there is a good chance that Gusto has an album (or at least some tracks) on that artist.

Album Review: Waylon Jennings – ‘The Lost Nashville Sessions’

the-lost-nashville-sessionsDuring the 1960s and 1970s it was not uncommon for the various branches of the US Military to put together fifteen or thirty minute radio shows for use on country radio stations. Mostly these shows aired on smaller radio stations, usually in air slots where it was difficult for them to sell advertising. Some of these shows, such as Country Music Time (a recruiting tool for the US Air Force) and Country Cooking With Lee Arnold (a recruiting program for the Army Reserves) featured some chatter with the weeks’ musical guests followed by some recordings by the musical guest. Others, such as Navy Hoedown, featured chatter with the featured artist playing with the program’s band.

Waylon Jennings – The Lost Tapes comes from recordings made for an unspecified military recruiter program. The recordings were made at Scotty Moore’s Music City Recorders on July 13, 1970. They have not been commercially available before now.

The songs featured here are songs from the first half dozen years of Waylon’s career with RCA. In other words, these songs pre-date the “Outlaw” movement. The revelation here is that most of these songs were originally recorded with the heavily produced strings and chorus-laden production of the time, but here they are featured without those trappings. As such, this is a real treat for his fans.

Originally recorded, on a rush basis, with members of Waylon’s band, the tracks had problems with the bass and drums, so the tapes were turned over to Robby Turner, a former member of Waylon’s band for post-production work and overdubbing. Robby Turner overdubbed steel guitar, keyboards and dobro; Paul Martin played the bass parts and the drum kit; and Paul Martin, his wife Jamie, Robby Turner and Colene Walters adding vocal harmonies. Waylon plays guitar on the recordings.

The end result is early Waylon songs that sound almost as if they had been released during the ‘New Traditionalist’ era. The song list is as follows:

1. Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line (#2 hit from 1968 – #1 in Record World)
2. The Chokin’ Kind (#8 hit from 1967)
3. Stop The World And Let Me Off (#16 hit from 1965 – Waylon’s first top 20 record)
4. Anita You’re Dreaming (#17 hit from 1966)
5. Just To Satisfy You (he & Don Bowman wrote – minor hit for Bobby Bare, 1965 & Waylon & Willie, 1982)
6. Green River (#11 hit in 1967)
7. Singer of Sad Songs (#12 hit from 1970)
8. Love of The Common People (title track for one of Waylon’s albums)
9. MacArthur Park (#23 hit from 1969, cover of a pop hit by Richard Harris)
10. Brown Eyed Handsome Man (#3 hit from 1970 – #1 in Record World, written by Chuck Berry)
11. Mental Revenge (#12 hit from 1967)
12. Time To Bum Again (#17 hit from 1966)
13. Sunday Morning Coming Down (Kristofferson wrote it, Cash released single in September 1970)
14. Young Widow Brown (Waylon wrote it and released it as an album track)

I picked up my copy at Cracker Barrel. The songs were all familiar to me but I really enjoyed hearing the frequently less orchestrated versions on this disc. Bass and drums are a little loud so I give this a B+, but the concept is definitely worthwhile, and more modern listeners than I likely will give this an A.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Bradley Walker – ‘Call Me Old Fashioned’

call-me-old-fashionedTen years ago I was blown away by the debut album by Bradley Walker, a country traditionalist/bluegrass singer with a great baritone voice. Sadly, it didn’t lead to the success it deserved, and it has taken a decade for him to release a follow-up. He has appeared on the Joey + Rory TV show and was a favorite of the late Joey Feek, who asked for him to sing at her funeral. His honoring of that request led to his signing a new record deal with gospel label Gaither Music Group. This album (produced by Rory Feek) is mainly religious in nature, but it is also very definitely traditional country.

The Feek connection is underlined with the recording of ‘In The Time That You Gave Me’, which is a moving duet with Joey about making the most of life, written by Shawn Camp and Dennis Morgan. Heartfelt vocals from both Joey and Bradley make this very powerful. ‘Sing Me To Heaven’ (by Camp and Buddy Cannon) anticipates the eternal life to come.

A stunning version of the Kristofferson-penned classic ‘Why Me’ opens the album. Walker’s voice has the gravitas to carry it off. Equally good a song is Erin Enderlin and Irene Kelley’s ‘His Memory Walks On Water’, an uncompromisingly honest story song about a man whose drunken abuse of his family means that when he finally crashes his car, his neighbours all judge he “died ten years too late”.

But his absence means that his daughter can reimagine him as a lost hero:

She’ll only see the best in him now looking back
So she can finally have a father who’s gentle, kind and good
She’ll let his memory walk on water since he never could

This is an extraordinary song which Bradley does full justice to.

‘Don’t Give Up On Me’ is a confessional Rory Feek ballad about an imperfect man dealing with hard times and feeling he has let down his wife. Musically it has more of Christian Contemporary feel than the pure country of the remainder of the album, but the sensitive lyric, fine vocal and tasteful arrangement all sell it.

‘Sinners Only’ points out that salvation is not just for the righteous, as a priest with a past is torn between the bottle and his calling:

He knows God’s gonna love him whatever he decides
Sinners only
Bring your drunkards and your fighters and no-one-seems-to-like-hers
Bring your drifters and your liars and your thieves
In other words, anyone who breathes

A form of muscular dystrophy means that Bradley uses a wheelchair, and he refers to this with a complete lack of self-pity in ‘I Feel Sorry For Them’, which he wrote with Rory Feek and Tim Johnson about what he has to be grateful for. The lilting ‘I Count My Blessings’ is less personally specific, but also about being happy with what one has. ‘The Toolbox’ offers some homespun philosophy from a note left by the protagonist’s dad in the toolbox he leaves behind. Very nice harmonies augment a soothing melody and comforting lyric.

The title track, written by Jerry Salley and Dave Turnbull, lauds traditional values of honesty, hard work, and patriotism. ‘Pray For God’ is on the verge of being too sweet, with its small child’s innocent suggestion at a church prayer meeting. ‘The Right Hand Of Fellowship’, written by Larry Cordle and Leslie Satcher, is a bright and catchy description of a church with bluegrass/southern gospel harmonies. The stripped down ‘With His Arms Wide Open’ is a beautiful meditation on Jesus.

The one track that doesn’t quite work for me is the closing ‘Beulah Land’, a slightly shaky live recording with the Isaacs on backing vocals.

Everything else, though, is stellar. Excellent songs, a great singer, and tasteful production make this a must-have as long as you don’t dislike religious material.

Grade: A

A DVD featuring these songs in concert, filmed at Joey + Rory’s barn, is also being made available.
call-me-old-fashioned-dvd

Retro Album Reviews: New and old music from some veteran artists in 2007

last of the breedBack in the days writing for the 9513 Blog, I would post occasional reviews on Amazon. We are republishing updated versions of some of those reviews here.

LAST OF THE BREED – HAGGARD, NELSON & PRICE

This may be the Holy Grail of classic country recordings. Three legendary figures in Ray Price, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, singing twenty-two selections containing some of the greatest country songs ever written, although not necessarily the biggest hits of Willie, Ray or Merle (except a cover of Ray’s “Heartaches by the Number”). On eleven (11) of the tracks all three artists appear. Ray and Merle each have a solo (Ray’s with Vince Gill assisting), and the rest feature two of the three (with Kris Kristofferson assisting on “Why Me”). The backing band consists of top current session men and some legends who played in the bands of the legends such as Buddy Emmons and Johnny Gimble. Plus the legendary Jordanaires can be heard on several tracks.

Ray Price has had the lowest profile of the three over the last ten or so years, but even at 81 years of age, he is one of the most effective singers on the planet. It is no knock on either Willie or Merle to say that neither is in Ray Price’s league as a pure singer – no one else is either. Maybe this CD will sell well enough to introduce a new generation to the music of Ray Price. If so, it will have done everyone a big favor.

To summarize: Buy It.

Grade: A+

THE RAY STEVENS BOX SET

Good recordings of classic Ray Stevens material but quite a few remakes that lack the sparkle of the originals. In a nutshell, if it was originally issued on Curb or Clyde, it’s probably the original recording but if it was issued on Mercury, Barnaby, Monument, MCA or RCA then it’s likely a remake.

If you haven’t heard these recordings before, or its been a long time since you’ve heard them, beware – you may bust a gut laughing.

Even with the remakes, it’s well worth purchasing.

Grade: B+

16 BIGGEST HITS – JIMMY DICKENS

While it could have been better, this collection gives a balanced look at Jimmy’s career. Best known for his diminutive size and novelty tunes, Jimmy was a superior ballad singer as tunes such as “My Heart’s Bouquet”, “Just When I Needed You”, “Take Me As I Am (Or Let Me Go)”, “We Could” and “Violet And A Rose” amply demonstrate. Yes, the novelties are here as well as a few of the jump tunes, but it’s the ballads that will enhance your appreciation of Little Jimmy Dickens. I would like to see a more encompassing collection, including more of his hillbilly boogie and his recordings on MCA /Decca, but until that happens this is a fine collection.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Dolly Parton & Kris Kristofferson – ‘Ping Pong’

Album Review: Dallas Wayne – ‘Songs The Jukebox Taught Me’

songs the jukebox taught meCountry DJ-singer-songwriter Dallas Wayne has a big booming voice which has not been heard on record for a while; his last album was released back in 2009. Now signed to traditionalist label Heart Of Texas Records, his fantastic new album shares some less familiar cover tunes which offer a solid honky tonk reminder of what country used to be.

Willie Nelson duets with Dallas on the lively shuffle ‘Your Time’s Comin’’, which was a #4 hit for Faron Young in 1969, and was written by Kris Kristofferson and Shel Silverstein. The cynical lyric relates a hookup with a woman who claims to be a neglected wife, but turns out to be an unrepentant serial cheater:

Just as I got up to leave
He walked through the door
And I guess that I thought he’d be surprised
But he looked at me as if to say
He’d been there before
And he offered me this word to the wise

He said, “you know she’s a cheater, son
But you believe that you’re the one
Who’s got a lot of what it takes to change her
And I’ve no doubt that you can get her
You ain’t much but that don’t matter
Nothing suits her better than a stranger
And the stranger man, the better
The chances are she’ll set her eyes on you
The next time she goes slummin’
So just sit back and wait your turn, boy
You got lots of time to learn, boy
Cool it while you can,
‘Cause your time’s comin’

Well, it happens that in time
It happened just like he said
And soon enough her shoes
Were sittin’ under my bed
And I’ll confess I did my best
To prove that man had lied
But nothing short of suicide
Could keep her satisfied

He ends up passing on the same advice to his successor.

Another Faron Young hit, ‘Three Days’ was written by Young with Willie Nelson. This has a loungier feel to the vocal.

Another enjoyable shuffle, ‘A Dime At A Time’, is about someone who is both broke and broken hearted, killing time one jukebox tune after another. It was a #12 hit for Del Reeves in 1967.

The mournful ballad ‘Who’ll Turn Out The Lights In Your World Tonight’ (a top 40 hit for Mel Street in 1980 and recorded by many other artists including George Jones and neotraditionalist Ricky Van Shelton) is loaded with steel and an emotional vocal does it justice.

The Nashville sound gets represented as well as the hardcore honky tonkers, with a string-laden version of Vern Gosdin’s 1977 top 10 hit ‘Yesterday’s Gone’. Willie Nelson’s daughter Paula guests on this, taking the part Emmylou Harris did on the original. It can’t match the exquisite original, but is still a nice recording with a strongly emotional reading.

‘No Relief In Sight’ is a stellar lost-love ballad which has been recorded a number of times, and is done well here. The sentimental Hank Jr ballad ‘Eleven Roses’ is also beautifully sung, with the song’s co-writer Darrell McCall’s wife Mona providing a harmony vocal.

‘It Just Doesn’t Seem To Matter’ was written by Jeannie Seely for herself and duet partner Jack Greene. She lends a hand on Dallas’s version, and while her voice is not what it was in her youth, the song itself is a fine one. ‘She Always Got What She Wanted’, another Seely composition, is a deeply sad ballad:

In more ways than one way I was her clown

She always got what she wanted
She got what she wanted for free
She always got what she wanted
Lord I wish that she wanted me

‘Sun Comin’ Up’ is a Nat Stuckey song I hadn’t heard before, but I was struck by the tune’s strong similarity to that of Randy Travis’s ‘Diggin’ Up Bones’. The upbeat feel of the melody is belied by a remorselessly dark lyric depicting a homeless alcoholic:

It’s that time of the mornin’ when the sun starts comin’ up
And I’m standin’ on the corner with my guitar and my cup
And I’m waitin’ for some people to come by and fill it up
But the sun ain’t come up yet this morning
I spend nights in the barrooms for the small change I can make
But the money don’t repay me for the things I have to take
Somebody buys me liquor, then they laugh at how I shake
But it makes my sun come up each morning
See that man with the spit-shine on his shoes, I know him well
He’ll slip me half a dollar, walk on by me, turn and yell
“Hey, that five spot ain’t for liquor!”
Well, he can go to hell
‘Cause he just made my sun come up this morning

Lord, I wish I could remember how it feels to be a man
To get knocked down and have the guts to get back up again
And know that I don’t really need this bottle in my hand
To make my sun come up each morning
I guess the devil knows he’s got me when the bottle does me in
Hell can’t be no worse than places I’ve already been
And I don’t wanna go to heaven
‘Cause I hear there ain’t no gin
To make my sun come up each morning

Dallas is very believable on this, and also on another powerful anti-alcohol anthem, ‘Devil In The Bottle’, a 1974 chart topper for T G Sheppard. The social commentary of ‘Skip A Rope’ still hits home, too.

‘Sea Of Heartbreak’ is delivered briskly and is pleasant but inessential listening, at least in comparison to the rest of the album. ‘Stop The World And Let me Off’ balances pace and emotion more effectively and is rather enjoyable.

Overall, this is an excellent reminder of what real country music sounds like. I thoroughly recommend it.

Grade: A+

Classic Rewind: Trisha Yearwood ft Kris Kristofferson – ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’

Trisha covers a classic with help from its writer:

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘Real. Country. Music.’

real country musicWhile his commercial success never equalled his prowess, Gene Watson is one of the great country singers. Furthermore, of all the veterans still performing, his voice has held out the best, and almost unbelievably, he still sounds glorious at over 70. Gene’s producer for the last few projects, Dirk Johnson, does his usual sterling job – few album titles are as accurate about the contents as this one. The songs are all older ones, making this album something of a companion piece to its immediate predecessor, My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys, and are almost all emotional ballads about lost love, which play to Gene’s strengths as a vocalist.

One does not normally expect to hear a Gene Watson album opening with swelling strings, but his voice soon takes over, and the remainder of the album comprises familiar country arrangements featuring fiddles and steel guitars. ‘Enough For You’ is an excellent Kris Kristofferson tune which first appeared on the latter’s Jesus Was A Capricorn album in 1972. Gene says he first heard it in 1980 in the form of Billie Jo Spears’s cover (from her 1975 album Billie Jo), and has wanted to record it ever since. The suicidal cuckold’s lament is perfectly suited to Watson’s perfectly judged vocal, and is the first single.

‘She Never Got Me Over You’ is the last song Keith Whitley wrote before his untimely death (with the help of Dean Dillon and Hank Cochran). A powerful song about love and obsession, it was recorded a few years ago by Mark Chesnutt, but Gene makes it sound as if it was written just for him. If you want to check out Keith’s original demo, it’s on youtube.

There are two covers of Larry Gatlin songs, both of which were recorded by Elvis in the 70s. The gospel ballad ‘Help Me’ is delicately understated (and may serve as a taster for a new religious album Gene plans to release later this year). ‘Bitter They Are, Harder To Fall’ is a classic heartbreak ballad which Gene actually recorded many years ago on his early album Because You Believed In Me.

Gene revisits a number of other songs he has previously recorded on this album. ‘Old Loves Never Die’ was never a single, but as the title track of one of his most successful albums is perhaps the most familiar to fans. The melancholic ‘Ashes To Ashes’ was on his excellent but often overlooked 1987 alDbum Honky Tonk Crazy (his final Epic release). He covered the superb ‘Couldn’t Love Have Picked A Better Place To Die’ (previously cut by George Jones) on his now hard to find 1997 album A Way To Survive; this new steel-led recording is beautiful. He cut Bill Anderson’s ‘When A Man Can’t Get A Woman Off His Mind’ on his Sings set in 2003; another jealous man’s pain-filled take on love lost but still deeply felt, this is magnificently sung.

A little less familiar is ‘A Girl I Used To Know’ – not the classic song of that name, but a David Ball song from the latter’s underrated 2004 album Freewheeler. A subtly sad, slow song about poignant memories of lost love with the steel guitar to the fore, it fits nicely with the other material. ‘A Bridge That Just Won’t Burn’ is a wonderful song written by Jim McBride and Roger Murrah which was one of Conway Twitty’s last few singles. Nat Stuckey’s emotional All My Tomorrows’ is another fine song and recording.

The one song not fitting the pattern of slow sad songs is a honky tonker previously recorded by Waylon Jennings and Jerry Lee Lewis, ‘I’ll Find It Where I Can’. One venture away from country territory is a cover of the Nat King Cole hit ‘Ramblin’ Rose’. Although there have been country covers of the song before, none was a big hit. Gene’s version is nice, and he certainly mnages to make it sound like a country song, but insofar as this album has a weak spot, this is it.

This is a superb album of excellent songs by one of the genre’s all time great singers, who is, thankfully, still in possession of his golden voice.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Buddy Miller and Friends – ‘Cayamo Sessions At Sea’

cayamo sessions at seaBuddy Miller’s latest project comprises a series of collaborations with other artists recorded between 2012 and 2015 on the cruise ship Cayamo, as part of a music festival the ship puts on annually. The eclectic selection of artists tackle some classic country songs, with the odd outlier given a country arrangement, and the result is a joy to listen to from start to finish. Buddy does an excellent job producing, and sings either harmonies or duet vocals on each track.

The album opens with a tremendous version of the classic duet ‘After The Fire Is Gone’, performed with the always wonderful Lee Ann Womack. Kacey Musgraves is charming on Buck Owens’ upbeat ‘Love’s Gonna Live Here Again’. I also enjoyed the duet with the underrated Elizabeth Cook on ‘If Teardrops Were Pennies’.

Kris Kristofferson sings his own ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’, and sounds more controlled vocally than he usually does live. Lucinda Williams, another singer who can be unpredictable, is intensely emotional on a slow, measured version of ‘Hickory Wind’. The legendary British folk singer, Richard Thompson, has a longstanding love of traditional country music, and he sings Hank Williams’ somber ‘Wedding Bells’. Doug Seegers, an equally towering figure of American folk, joins Buddy for the gospel number ‘Take The Hand Of Jesus’.

Nikki Lane, whose music I had not heard previously, is soulful on ‘Just Someone I Used To Know’. Another unfamiliar name, Jill Andrews sings ‘Come Early Morning’ charmingly, duetting with Buddy.

Singer songwriter Shawn Colvin tackles the Rolling Stones’ most country-sounding song, the wistful ballad ‘Wild Horses’, to beautiful effect. Brandi Carlile, who falls somewhere in between alt-country and folk-rock, is joined by the Americana band The Lone Bellow for ‘Angel From Montgomery’. If this is my least favourite track, this is only because it is merely very, very good, and everything else is even better.

This is a superb album, which is my favorite of everything Buddy Miller has recorded. It is highly recommended.

Grade: A+

Classic Rewind: Trace Adkins – ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’

A classic cover:

Album Review: Waylon Jennings – ‘Lonesome, On’ry and Mean’

51VGuWwwc+L._SS280-21973’s Lonesome, On’ry and Mean was a pivotal album in the career of Waylon Jennings. It was his first release after gaining some significant creative control over his music, following some hard-fought negotiations with RCA. He produced most of the album himself, but interestingly, did not write any of its songs. We begin to see the “outlaw” Waylon, beard and leather vest included, emerge for the first time. The album has a much rawer, more organic sound than was typical of the era, though it is not completely free of Nashville Sound trappings.

Three of the album’s tracks had been recorded a few years earlier and were gathering dust in the RCA vaults. “Gone To Denver” was written by Johnny Cash and Red Lane. It had been recorded in 1970 and produced by Danny Davis — a producer with whom Waylon had clashed. Davis was known for heavily orchestrated, overproduced recordings, but “Gone To Denver” is not one of them, consisting of a tasteful electric guitar track, some harmonica and a touch of pedal steel. “Lay It Down”, written by Gene Thomas and produced by Ronny Light, is an understated number featuring the legendary Ralph Mooney on steel. Waylon’s buddy Willie Nelson provided the third older cut, “Pretend I Never Happened”, which includes a Nashville Sound-style chorus. It was released as a single and reached #6.

Waylon produced the rest of the album himself. “You Can Have Her” was the album’s other single, which reached #7. It too, has a Nashville Sound-style chorus and some strings. Perhaps despite having mostly caved to Waylon’s demands, RCA was hedging its bets and playing it safe with the records it was releasing to radio. My favorite song on the album is the title track, which I had always thought was released as a single, but apparently it was not. Mickey Newbury’s “San Francisco Mabel Joy” is a real gem. Waylon’s cover of “Me and Bobby McGee”, written by his pal Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster, is a by-the-numbers reading of the song — certainly not bad, but not particularly memorable.

“Me and Bobby McGee” closes out the original album. The 2003 CD re-release includes three bonus tracks. I could have done without the Tex-Mex flavored “The Last One To Leave Seattle”, a Waylon co-write with Steve Norman, but I enjoyed “Laid Back Country Picker” and his cover of Wynn Stewart’s “Big, Big Love” is excellent.

The Outlaw movement wouldn’t officially get underway for a couple of more years, but the seeds were clearly sown with this collection, which is well worth checking out.

Grade: A

Album Review: Waylon Jennings – ‘Good Hearted Woman’

220px-Good_Hearted_Woman_cover_artReleased in 1972, Good Hearted Woman found Waylon Jennings making large strides in the direction towards the Outlaw Movement for which he’s most associated. Songwriting credits from the likes of Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson were paramount in making the musical shift.

Chet Atkins enlisted Ronnie Light to produce the project after Danny Davis exited the fold to focus his attention on his Brass Band. Jennings noted he put Light through hell during production although his anger was directed at the musicians who didn’t truly understand his artistic vision.

The #3 peaking title track served as the album’s first single. Famous for a version that featured Jennings singing with his co-writer Willie Nelson, “Good Hearted Woman” is presented here with Jennings singing solo (the duet came three years later on Wanted! The Outlaws). The background vocalists are dated and distracting, but the track is otherwise perfect.

Jennings solely penned the harmonica laced “Do No Good Woman” while Nelson took a sole writing credit on “It Should Be Easier Now.” The pedal steel soaked Nelson composition afforded Jennings the opportunity to give a tour de force vocal performance while his own track feels a bit run of the mill.

Chip Taylor and Al Gorgoni’s shuffle “Sweet Dream Woman” peaked at #7. The pesky background vocalists rear their ugly heads again, but other than that the track is excellent. I love Jennings’ vocal, too, but I get the sense he was being constricted. If I had to guess, I bet he would’ve desired to cut loose a lot more than he was able to.

Kristofferson composed the album’s closing track, the excellent recitation “To Beat the Devil.” Jennings’ baritone is the perfect vehicle to convey the story, about a man who happens upon a tavern on a cold winter’s night.

Harlan Howard contributed the honky-tonker “One of my Bad Habits.” With an ear-catching chugging beat the track details the plight of a man coming clean about his reckless behaviors (smoking, drinking, his woman) and trying to do something about them. I love the bright production, complete with both steel and twangy guitars.

Swamp rocker Tony Joe White contributed “Willie and Laura Mae Jones,” one of the album’s standout tracks. White composed the masterful lyric, about a friendship between a white family and their black neighbors, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement; three years prior to the release of Good Hearted Woman. The subtly is masterful. With just one line (‘that was another place, another time’) he’s able to get his message across beautifully.

Canadian Folk-Rocker Gordon Lightfoot graces Good Hearted Woman with his stone country ballad “Same Old Lover Man.” The tender qualities in the lyric and production are equally matched in Jennings’ vocal, which makes use of his higher register. There’s nothing wrong with the track but in the context of the album it feels a bit too light.

“Unsatisfied” is a more typical ballad, with Jennings using his lower register to convey the lyric. While I was listening the melody seemed somewhat familiar and it came to me. To my ears the track is similar to Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey,” which might’ve been intentional or just something I heard. Otherwise, it’s a solid recording.

“I Knew You’d Be Leavin’” is another ballad, but unlike the previous two, has a peppier production that really caught my ear. I wasn’t fond of Jennings’ vocal, it seemed to low for my tastes, but the track itself is very good.

Good Hearted Woman is a wonderful album and well worth checking out to get a better view of Jennings’ recorded output during this era of his career. The proceedings are too clean and careful and “Willie Mae and Laura Jones” should’ve been the album’s second single. But I would still recommend this album as it is another strong entry in Jennings’ discography.

Grade: A 

Album Review: Waylon Jennings – ‘The Taker/Tulsa’

the taker tulsaThe double-titled 1971 album The Taker/Tulsa was released in 1971. Waylon was starting to take control over his music, and this was the first album he produced himself. The songs are full of substance and the arrangements solid.

Both the title tunes were singles. ‘The Taker’ was a significant hit, peaking at #5. This excellent song (written by Kris Kristofferson and Shel Silverstein) is a perceptive depiction of a charming man who ends up hurting the woman who loves him:

He’s a talker
He’ll talk her right off of her feet
But he won’t talk for long
‘Cause he’s a doer, and he’ll do her
The way that I’d never
Damned if he won’t do her wrong.

He’s a taker
He’ll take her to places and make her
Fly higher than she’s ever dared to
He’ll take his time before takin’ advantage
Takin’ her easy and slow

And after he’s taken the body and soul she gives him
He’ll take her for granted
Take off and leave her
Takin’ all of her pride when he goes.

It was one of no less than four outstanding songs written by Kristofferson, then a relative newcomer to Nashville, and which help to make the album as a whole cohesive. Waylon’s version of the regretful ‘Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down’, a very recent hit for Johnny Cash, is convincing, with the song well suited to him. Less well known at the time, but at least as much of a classic today, was ‘Lovin’ Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again)’, which Kristofferson was about to make a hit of in his own right. Waylon’s version is as good as any of this modern standard.

The least familiar of the Kristofferson songs for most listeners (although it has still been recorded a number of times) is ‘Casey’s Last Ride’, which may be the only country songs to be set on the London Underground, and may have been written when Kristofferson was studying at Oxford in the late 1950s, although the gloomy melody sounds to me to be influenced by the Beatles and other British 60s artists, which would place its composition later.

The second title song, ‘(Don’t Let The Sun Set On You) Tulsa’ is a dramatic story song written by Wayne Carson, it might be a kind of sequel to ‘The Taker’, with the protagonist championing the girl he loves, who has been abandoned and left pregnant by another man:

Jamie is the only thing I ever really cared for
She don’t deserve this kind of shame
She’s carryin’ the child that you’re to blame for
You just laughed and said
There ain’t no way it’s gonna get your name
I swore I’d get you for what you’re puttin’ her through
And the only reason I ain’t got you
Jamie cried and begged me not to
But I ain’t through with you yet
Don’t let the sun set on you in Tulsa

It’s a fine song which was a top 20 hit for Waylon, and should be better known. The last single, another top 20 hit, was Red Lane’s ‘Mississippi Woman. A brooding tale of jealousy, the narrator spies on, and eventually murders, the object of his affections.

The powerful ‘Six White Horses’ (not the Tommy Cash hit but another song with the same title, written by Bobby Bond), voices the fears of a soldier’s (blind) father for his boy:

Read again the letter that tells me where he’s gone
To hell with the fighting, I want my son home

I taught him to fish and I taught him to be strong
Taught him that killing any man was wrong
But tomorrow in battle I’d run to where he stood
If the help of a blind man would do any good

Last night I went to his room for a while
Touched all the things that he used as a child
I rocked the cradle where he used to lay
I found his tin soldiers and threw them away

Also downbeat in mood is ‘Grey Eyes You Know’, a string-laden lament by a bereaved husband for the beloved wife who stood by him through all the bad times.

A brisk cover of Don Gibson’s ‘(I’d Be) A Legend In My Time’ does not work as well for me as either the original or Ronnie Milsap’s big hit a few years later. Waylon write one song, the post-breakup ‘You’ll Look For Me’, which is quite good but not that memorable.

Overall this was an excellent album which shows Waylon stretching himself and asserting himself as an artist.

Grade: A

Album Review: Country Music of Your Life

country-music_good-brightTime-Warner has long been a trusted name for providing excellently re-mastered music in various genres of music. Country music fans may remember the Country USA series that covered each year for the period 1950-1972 with 24 songs, including some interesting songs that weren’t necessarily the biggest hits (usually because they weren’t on major labels).

The R&B market was covered by a similar series and the Easy Listening market hit the jackpot with the Your Hit Parade series that exhaustive covered the years 1940-1960 by year plus a bunch of CDs that grouped music together by theme or topic and extended the series into the 1960s, I don’t know whether or not I have the entire Your Hit Parade series but I do have forty-one CDs of the series covering about 1000 recordings.

Subsequent Time-Life series have featured the same digital mastering and useful notes but have been less exhaustive in scope. The Contemporary Country series would cover a three or four year period with a single disc of 22 songs, so the lesser known and minor label songs largely were gone. The latest Time-Life series is a collaboration with Music of Your Life, a radio format largely devoted to the easy listening/adult contemporary music market. Time-Life has collaborated before with Music of Your Life in assembling CDs of the music usually associated with the format. The actual label for this set is Star Vista/Time Warner.

Titled Country Music of Your Life, this latest set is a group of five two-CD sets in standard CD jewel boxes that hold two CDs. The booklet in the jewel box gives only the songwriting and publisher credits and billboard chart information . Additional information is contained in the 36 page book enclosed in the box. The titles of the CD sets are Talking In Your Sleep, Satin Sheets, I Believe In You, For The Good Times and Sweet Country Ballads. All but the last set are named after a song featured on one of the discs of the set.

By and large the first four sets are just random assortments of songs. All of the songs are big hits performed by the artists that enjoyed the hit, and the songs cover a wide range of dates. The first set has Hank Williams’ posthumous 1953 hit “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and Kenny Rogers’ 1980 hit “Lady” with sixteen of the tracks from the 1970s. The second set follows a similar pattern with Lefty Frizzell replacing Hank Williams as the token early 1950s representative.

The fifth set would please any fan of traditional country music (aside for the two Elvis Presley tracks, one a cover of “Green Green Grass of Home”). This set includes such gems as “Crazy Arms”, “Once A Day”, “Ring of Fire”, “Walk Through This World With Me” and “Please Help Me I’m Falling”. In theory the set consists of four two-CD sets with the fifth set as a “free bonus” (the television advertising was misleading). Accordingly, the enclosed book, although truly excellent, only covers the first four sets. The book is concise and well-written, giving interesting tidbits of information about the song and/or the performance, there are eight full page photographs of some of the stars (I think they reversed the image of the Glen Campbell photograph, which I recognized as the cover photo from Glen’s Wichita Lineman album) . Here’s an example of the book’s tidbits, this one about Sammi Smith’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night”:

“Whatever criticism that had been leveled against Nashville’s conservative approach to how records sounded, there’s no question that the songs themselves were getting edgier. Sammi Smith moved to Music City in 1967 and befriended songwriter Kris Kristofferson. County fans bought into the sexual frankness of ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’; the single went gold,earning Grammys for both Smith and Kristofferson. Smith’s record also boosted Kristofferson’s reputation as one of the best songwriters of his generation.”

Here’s another, this one on Waylon Jennings’ “Amanda”:

“Bob McDill called ‘Amanda’ an apology to his wife, Nan, and it almost became the hit that got away for Waylon Jennings. McDill sent the demo to Waylon’s office, where it got lost. Jennings, who first heard the song when Don Williams’s version came out in 1973, recorded ‘Amanda’ for his 1974 album The Ramblin’ Man. RCA added overdubs nearly five years later; the “new and improved” ‘Amanda’ gave Waylon his seventh No. 1 hit as a solo artist.”

The booklet in the jewel box for the fifth or “bonus” set is flawed in that it only gives information for the first disc in the set.

If you are new to country music and suspect that there is more to the genre than Rascal Flatts, Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan and (ugh) Florida Georgia Line, this set is a good starting point. With the notable exceptions of Ernest Tubb, Carl Smith and Webb Pierce, most of the most significant artists of the period 1952-1988 are represented here, even if there is a bit more Elvis Presley and Olivia Newton-John than I feel is justified. The sound quality is terrific – you won’t hear better recordings of these songs.
Apparently there is a deluxe edition available for purchase which features 270 songs on eighteen discs. In either version the discs average 15 songs per CD (30 songs per set) and cost about $15 per disc or $30 per two disc set. Payment installments are available.

I would give the following grades:

Sound Quality:    A+
Book & Booklets:  A-
Song Selection:  B-
Value:   B-

The song lists as well as ordering information can be found at the Time-Life website.

Album Review: Randy Travis – ‘Influence Vol 2: The Man I Am’

influence 2The first volume of Randy Travis’s recordings of classic country covers came out last year, not long after his health issues came to a head. I was afraid this second volume would consists of lesser cuts left on the shelf when the first album was released, but if anything I think this instalment is even stronger. His vocals are better on both sets than they had been in years, and Randy delivers a masterclass in country music.

‘Vern Gosdin’s great ‘set Em Up Joe’ only came out in 1988 so could not really be described as a direct influence on Randy, who was at his commercial peak himself at the time. However, it fits perfectly thematically with its tribute to classic country records and their lasting impact as solace for a broken heart. It is also, of course, a wonderful song, and Randy’s version is great, matching the original. It is one of the standouts on a collection of consistently exceptionally high quality.

‘For The Good Times’ is also stunning, with a gently tender reading which is just exquisite. A delicate string arrangement is sweet without being overwhelming.

Haggard was the strongest influence on Vol. 1, and his shadow is strong here too. ‘Are The Good Times Really Over’ is masterfully done, with a thoughtful reading of Hag’s gloomy polemic about changing times. A resigned ‘That’s The Way Love Goes’ is almost as good.

‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ is also excellent, with a very distinctive interpretation.

Vibrant committed versions of ‘I’m Movin’ On’ and ‘The Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line’ pick up the tempo nicely. Ernest Tubb’s lesser-known ‘You Nearly Lose Your Mind’ is catchy and enjoyable.

Marty Robbins’s ‘Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me’ and Hank’s ‘Mind Your Own Business’ both have a playful almost jazzy feel; the latter is more successful for me with Randy sounding fully engaged. His own travails with press interest in his life may have fed into this.

Jimmie Rodgers’ ‘California Blues’ is the most bluesy side of Rodgers, and effectively done. ‘There I’ve Said It Again’ is a crooning pop ballad from the early 60s which is an unexpected choice but smoothly performed.

Volume 1 included a new song. ‘Tonight I’m Playing Possum’, recorded as a duet with Joe Nichols. The song makes a reappearance here, solo.

This is an excellent album from one of the greatest living country singers. Playing this through and then taking a look at any recent “country” chart is enough to make one cry with frustration and regret at what we appear to have lost. Perhaps it’s best just to take consolation in the great music we do have access to.

Grade: A+

Concert Review: Willie Nelson & Family and Alison Krauss and Union Station along with Kacey Musgraves

“That is the most random pairing of acts I’ve ever seen in one show together in my life”

300x_062014If not my exact words, that’s at least what I was thinking when I logged into Engine 145 Feb 10 to Ken Morton Jr’s headline – “Willie Nelson, AKUS announce co-headlining tour.” Why in the world would two seemingly completely different acts share a stage unless for a one off benefit show somewhere in Texas or Nashville? Well I didn’t get my answer June 17 at The Blue Hills Bank Pavilion on the Boston Waterfront, but I was treated to four hours worth of music across the span of three acts.

I was most excited about tour opener Kacey Musgraves, the only act on the bill I hadn’t previously seen live. Her thirty-minute set was short, and we came in while she was performing a perfect rendition of her live-your-life mid-tempo ballad “Silver Lining.”

She plucked away on the banjo during “Merry Go ‘Round” and tried to get the crowd going during the chorus of “Follow Your Arrow,” which worked surprisingly well. Both were good, but Musgraves stunned with “It Is What It Is,” wrapping her voice around the lyric brilliantly. She gave her underrated steel player a gorgeous solo – and an “I love Pedal Steel” shout out – that easily trumps the recorded version.

The main concern people have with Musgraves is her burgeoning friendship with Katy Perry, a move that could transition her away from country. But the set showcased her country bonafides wonderfully, from her naturally twangy voice to her love of western themes (trademark neon cacti). As proof, Musgraves and her band closed their set with a glorious a Capella rendition of the Roy Rogers classic “Happy Trails To You” featuring the refrain “Till We Meet Again.” I know I’ll be meeting her again, hopefully as a headliner, real soon.

Alison Krauss and Union Station were next, bringing their comforting bluegrass picking to the hungry audience. From the first notes of opener “Let Me Touch You For A While,” I was home. Their 90-minute set was spectacular, with Krauss wrapping her otherworldly voice around their signature songs – “The Lucky One,” “Every Time You Say Goodbye,” “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You,” to “You Will Be My Ain True Love,” “Sawing On The Strings,” “Ghost In This House,” and “Paper Airplane.”

While their set was familiar, it was heavy on uptempo material, which I found surprising, given Krauss is known for her ballads. It worked though, as a whole night of ballads would’ve been too much. Even more startling was Dan Tyminski’s heavier-than-usual role acting like a second lead singer more than just a band member. He ripped through many of songs he fronts including “Dust Bowl Children” and got a charge out of some venue workers with “Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn.” Krauss showcased her trademark wit when talking about “Hey Brother,” his collaboration with EDM mastermind Avicii and the mainstream exposure it’s afford him, including a prime spot over the speakers at Kohl’s stores. Tyminski played that, too, along with his classic rendition of “Man of Constant Sorrow.” He’s a great singer but his prominence was likely do to Krauss’ vocal troubles over the past year.

Her master Dobro player Jerry Douglas also got a solo, plucking away on covers including one by Paul Simon. He’s incredible and the obvious master of his craft. They closed their set with an encore highlight, gathering around in a semi-circle to gift the audience short snippets of “When You Say Nothing At All,” “Down At The River To Prey,” the chorus of “Whiskey Lullaby” and a fabulous take on “The Long Journey,” which Krauss recorded with Robert Plant. The inventive encore was the highlight, a surprise moment of magic. At this point, especially since they haven’t released new music in three years, Krauss and Union Station is a well-oiled machine, albeit an exquisite one.

It’s hard to believe Willie Nelson is a man of 81, when he sings and has the energy of men thirty years his junior. After the show a friend asked me if he still had the goods and with a resounding yes, he does. But really, does he sing well? No, he doesn’t. But much like Kris Kristofferson, that’s to be expected, as Willie will always be Willie.

Like most every other show he’s played, Nelson began his set just as expected, with “Whiskey River.” He has to be the oddest entertainer I’ve ever seen as he doesn’t take breaks between songs, instead he lets song after song bleed into one another so you don’t know where one ends or the next begins. It works for him as he bled “Crazy” into “Night Life” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” into “Always On My Mind.”

He also turned in fantastic renditions of “On The Road Again” and “Good Hearted Woman,” which he dedicated to Waylon Jennings. When he launched into “Beer For My Horses,” I didn’t recognize the song at first given how he’d changed it up, but the lyric caught up to me when he got to the “Pappy told my pappy” line in the second verse. I always love hearing him sing “Me and Paul,” and especially liked the all-too-appropriate line about him singing on a package show with Charley Pride.

Nelson had his family band with him, which included his two sons and sister Bobbie, who gave a nice piano showcase. His guitarist was introduced as simply as Johnny, and revealed late last week to be the actor Johnny Depp, who’s in town playing Mobster Whitey Bulger in the biopic Black Mass.

His son Lukas had a showcase of his own, ripping through the blues on “Texas Flood,” a nine minute set highlight showcasing his masterful guitar playing and powerfully aching booming voice. He later went more restrained and joined his dad for their recent duet “Just Breathe.”

As much as for his own material, Nelson’s set was a showcase for country music. He gifted us with three Hank Williams covers – “Jambalaya,” “Hey Good Lookin,” and “I Saw The Light,” all of which were outstanding. He turned “Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” into a chant, converting the word ‘mama’ into a deep-throated wail, which worked for a sing-along but became grating.

Nelson, who transported the crowd to a 1970s Texas honky-tonk with his unique outlaw sound, closed the show (and evening) with a sing-along that brought out Krauss, Union Station, Musgraves, and her band. With everyone on stage they went through the gospel favorite “I’ll Fly Away” and country standard “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” among others. It was fabulous he included everyone in this and it was a hoot to see Musgraves’ band in their flashy suits that light up like a Christmas tree.

All and all it was a fantastic evening of live music that left this Musgraves, Krauss, and Nelson fan extremely satisfied. Given that Rounder Records began in Massachusetts, it’s wonderful that Krauss gave a shot out to the people who signed her in 1985 – who also happened to be in attendance.

Now, could Nelson have sung “Poncho and Lefty” or “City of New Orleans?” Of course. Should Musgraves have been allowed to play longer? Hell, yeah. Did I want to hear Krauss sing a bit more? Without a doubt. But that’s just nitpicking a near perfect evening of exceptional music from three of the brightest talents country music has to offer. Just a terrific show, and wonderful evening, all around.

Album Review: Carlene Carter – ‘Carter Girl’

carlenecarterCarlene Carter’s own music is vastly different from that of her famous family, so when plans were announced for a Carter Family tribute album, I wasn’t expecting a collection of faithful-to-the-original remakes. On one hand it makes sense to update these old classics, many of which date back to the 1920s, for the benefit of modern audiences. And who better to do so than the heiress to the Carter Family musical legacy? On the other hand, changing them too much runs the risk of alienating fans. Although she does take some liberties with the arrangements, for the most part Carter and producer Don Was get things right, although there are a few production missteps along the way.

Carter Girl, which was released last week on Rounder Records boasts an impressive lineup of guest artists from Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Kris Kristofferson and Elizabeth Cook to Sam Bush and the late Cowboy Jack Clement. The song selection is impeccable, consisting mostly of old chestnuts written by A.P. Carter, Helen Carter, June Carter Cash, and of course Mother Maybelle. Carlene herself gets songwriting credit on two numbers: “Me and the Wildwood Rose”, a remake of a recording she included on her 1993 album I Fell In Love and “Lonesome Valley 2003”, an old A.P. Carter and Al Anderson number which gets some updated lyrics.

The album’s main weakness is that some of the updated arrangements are too heavy-handed with the percussion, which doesn’t suit some of these old songs. This is immediately apparent with the opening track “Little Black Train”, which I instantly disliked. Upon hearing it, I was convinced that the entire album was going to be a disaster. The production on “Blackie’s Gunman” is also a bit cluttered. I did not initially like her take on her mother’s composition “Tall Lover Man” at all, finding the production a bit heavy-handed, but it’s been growing on me with repeated listenings.

Carlene and Don Was may have pushed the envelope a little too far on some of these numbers but they more than compensate for those excesses on the ones they get right, which is the rest of the album. She does a stunning version of “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight”, which features harmony vocals by Elizabeth Cook. Willie Nelson is her duet partner on “Troublesome Waters”, and Vince Gill provides the harmony on “Lonesome Valley 2003”, which is the centerpiece of the album. The original tune dates back to the 1930s. Carlene wrote the updated and deeply personal lyrics, which deal with the 2003 death of her mother June Carter Cash as well as the death of Johnny Cash four months later.

Production missteps aside, Carter Girl is a very fine tribute and a great introduction to one of the most influential families that country music has ever known.

Grade: B+