My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Larry Cordle

Retro Album Review: Daryle Singletary – ‘Straight From The Heart (2007)

straight from the heartBack 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.

Daryle Singletary never managed to become a megastar, mostly because he has too much soul and integrity for today’s Nashville. Simply put, Daryl is “too country”.

This album picks up where Daryl’s 2002 album That’s Why I Sing This Way left off, with one original song “I Still Sing This Way”, one cover of a recent hit, the Larry Cordle-penned Rebecca Lynn Howard hit “Jesus and Bartenders”, and ten classic country covers sung with feeling.

The cover songs are as follows:

“The Bottle Let Me Down” – a Merle Haggard hit from 1966

“Black Sheep” (w/John Anderson) – a #1 for John Anderson in 1983

“Some Broken Hearts Never Mend” – a #1 for Don Williams in 1977

“Promises” – a minor Randy Travis hit which Randy co-wrote

“I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail” (w/Ricky Skaggs) – a Buck Owens classic from 1965

“These Days I Barely Get By” – a top ten George Jones record

“Miami, My Amy” – Keith Whitley’s first top twenty record from 1986

“Lovin’ On Back Streets” – a #5 record for Mel Street in 1973. Like Daryle , Mel Street was ‘too country’, and like Daryle, he was a fine, emotive singer.

“Fifteen Years Ago” – Conway Twitty’s immediate follow up to “Hello Darling”, I always thought that Conway’s performance was better than the song’s rather maudlin lyric. Daryle also handles it well, although it’s still a silly song.

“We’re Gonna Hold On” (w/Rhonda Vincent)- a George & Tammy classic from 1973 that comes off very well. No surprise, really since Rhonda is a superior singer to Tammy, and Daryle hold up his end of the bargain.

The presence of legendary pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins lends a strong sense of authenticity. Best of all no electronic keyboards or synthesizers – this is real country music played on real country instruments.

I’ve heard a bunch of good albums this year and this was my favorite album so far this year, better even, than the Nelson – Haggard – Price collaboration. This is not to say that Singletary is quite in their league as a singer, but his pipes are at least 30 years younger and in better shape.

Grade: A+

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Album Review: The Lonesome River Band – ‘Bridging The Tradition’

bridging the traditionThe Lonesome River Band is one of my favorite bluegrass groups, and the replacement of their last tenor co-lead singer by newcomer Jesse Smathers has not affected the recipe at all. Award winning banjoist Sammy Shelor dominates the arrangements, and also helps out on three-part harmonies, while the lead vocals are divided between Smathers and the excellent Brandon Rickman. This is bluegrass with the addition of drums as well as Shelor’s punchy banjo– anathema in purist bluegrass circles – and is a very listenable meld of bluegrass and acoustic country. Excellent vocals, impeccable playing, and stellar song selection combine to make this a very worthy release.

I loved the life-affirming Kim Williams/Doug Johnson tune ‘Rocking Of The Cradle’ when I first heard it a few years ago, and Rickman’s warm vocal is perfect to bring it alive. He is also warmly believable on ‘Showing My Age’, a lovely song which he wrote with songwriter Jerry Salley about calmly accepting growing older and comfortable in one’s own skin (although the younger Rickman takes the age down by a decade compared to Salley’s own version).

Rickman also wrote ‘Mirrors Never Lie’ with Larry Cordle, a soulful challenge to the protagonist from his own conscience, to face up to his heartbreak rather than hiding from it in a bottle of liquor. He wrote ‘Waiting On My Heart To Break’ with Curtis Wright; this is a mid-tempo country song about a husband’s doubts of his wife’s fidelity.

New boy Smathers opens boldly with the fast-paced ‘Anything To Make Her Mine’ where his vocals soar high. ‘Runnin’ From the Blues’ is a nice song written by Nashville songwriter Brent Maher with bluegrass’s Jamie Johnson. Smathers takes a darker turn on Waylon Jennings’ murder ballad ‘Rose In Paradise’, which is made for a bluegrass makeover.

Rickman’s voice melds with Smathers in a haunting harmony on the traditional ‘Boats On The River’, interspersed with Smather’s soulful lead vocal on the verses. They also harmonise together brilliantly on the Stanley Brothers’ fast-paced ‘Rock Bottom’ and the equally up-tempo ‘Old Swinging Bridge’, another old-time tune from the Virginia Mountain Boys.

Adam Wright contributed a couple of songs. The pacy ‘Thunder And Lightning’ is a gleeful story song about a moonshiner on the run:

I can outrun any old G-man
Might as well be pushing a plow

‘Real People’ ends the album on a good humoured but wryly comic note about struggling with finance and family.

In ‘Showing My Age’ the protagonist talks about missing country music. If you like bluegrass with an acoustic country feel (or country with a strong banjo lead), this is highly recommended.

Grade: A

Album Review: Dave Adkins – ‘Dave Adkins’

dave adkinsBig-voiced bluegrass singer Dave Adkins has just released a second solo album which is worth checking out. Musically this is solid bluegrass with a dominant banjo, but what makes it stand out is Adkins’ voice.

My favourite track is the stunning lost-love ballad ‘Foolosophy’, an outstanding song from two great writers – Larry Cordle and Chris Stapleton. Adkins’s magnificent vocal shows hitherto unguessed elements to his voice as he emotes on this bar room weeper:

Well, I’ve been spending all my nights just searching for some truth
In a bar room with a bottle just crying and trying to prove
That a man can find some peace of mind when a woman he loves leaves
That’s my lonesome heart in foolosophy

Well, I know if I keep drinking
That somehow I won’t hurt
And it won’t take forever to get me over her
Someday soon she’s coming back
It’s just what I believe
That’s my lonesome heart in foolosophy

I bet in a hundred years from now
My researching will show
That a jukebox, smoke and whiskey will heal a broken soul
No doubt I’ll be remembered as Hillbilly Socrates
With my lonesome heart in foolosophy

The mid-tempo ballad ‘Change Her Mind’, one of five on the album which Adkins wrote himself, is very good, with its protagonist’s hope of regaining lost love. He also wrote the cheerfully brisk gospel number ‘A Whole More To Tell’, and the attractive mid-paced love song ‘One And Only’.

Adkins wrote ‘You Don’t Have To Go To Be Gone’ with Paula Breedlove and Brink Brinkman; this is a strong song about a marriage which is hanging on in name only.

The tragic ‘Russell Fork River’ is an intense murder ballad with a twist which Adkins wrote with Dawn Kenny and David Morris. The actual murder is the swift judicial execution of a man believed to have drowned his sweetheart, whose death was actually an accident. The same trio wrote the trucking song ‘Turn And Burn’.

Another dramatic story song, ‘Emmaline’ takes us to Kentucky coal country and a cheating husband whose guilty heart takes him to his death – or has he faked his death to run away with his secret lover?

The subdued ‘Angel Song’ has a very pretty melody and a sad lyric about bereavement. ‘It’s Not Over (Til I Get Over You)’ is an emotional ballad co-written by the great Tom T Hall about facing an empty home after the protagonist’s wife has left.

‘Wasting Away’ is a pacy song written by the late Randall Hylton, and is decent without making the same impact as the ballads. More effectively, Adkins covers John Michael Montgomery’s 1990s country hit ‘Sold’, which works very well given an bluegrass treatment, and is very enjoyable.

This is an excellent bluegrass album from a singer with a strong and distinctive voice.

Grade: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘Ropin’ The Wind’

ropin the windGarth’s third album was released in September 1991, with the artist at the peak of his commercial success. The first single, Larry Bastian’s ‘Rodeo’ was a portrait of a rodeo rider’s obsession with his pursuit of excitement over love. Delivered with an intensity and drama hovering on the edge of too much, it is pretty good, and peaked at #3.

A cover of Billy Joel’s pop hit ‘Shameless’ was to become one of Garth’s biggest hits. Despite not sounding remotely like a country song, Garth’s passionate vocal (backed by Trisha Yearwood’s harmony) and star status pushed it to #1.

Much, much better is ‘What She’s Doing Now’ (one of seven Garth co-writes on the album, but the first of them to be sent to radio. A gently sad reflection on a failed relationship and its continuing hold on the protagonist, with a string arrangement which sweetens it, this is a very good song. It had been previously recorded by Crystal Gayle with a gender twist in 1989, when she was well past her peak, but Garth’s own version hit the top of the charts. The similarly paced ‘Burning Bridges’ is another understated ballad (written by Garth with Stephanie Brown) which might serve as a prequel to it. This is the confession of a serial leaver, and shows Garth can be subtle. The style is perhaps more James Taylor than honky tonk, but it’s very palatable.

Next to radio was the punchy drama of ‘Papa Loved Mama’, written by Garth with Kim Williams. Telling the story of a trucker who kills his faithless wife and her lover by driving his rig into the motel she is staying at, it peaked at #3.

Papa loved Mama
Mama loved men
Now Mama’s in the graveyard
Papa’s in the pen

The same songwriting partnership, with the addition of Kent Blazy, produced the best song on the album in ‘Cold Shoulder’, the story of a lonely trucker missing his wife while on the road. A tasteful production helps make this a standout:

I wish I could hold her
Instead of hugging this old cold shoulder

The fifth and last single was #1 hit ‘The River’. Written by Garth with Victoria Shaw, it is one of his well meaning but slightly preachy earnest declarations of the importance of taking risks and living life to the full. It is quite pleasant and likeable, with an attractive arrangement.

‘In Lonesome Dove’, which Garth wrote with Cynthia Limbaugh, is a Western story song which is back to the drama but with a relatively low key reading which makes it all the more effective. It may have been inspired by the Western novel and TV drama of the same name, but the plot doesn’t seem to be the same.

‘We Bury The Hatchet’, written with Wade Kimes about a tumultous relationship, is playful western swing and quite entertaining. The lively up-tempo rebellious attitude of ‘Against The Grain’ came from bluegrass singer-songwriters Larry Cordle and Carl Jackson with Bruce Bouton, but doesn’t quite convince.

Not on the original record, but added to subsequent re-releases is ‘Which One Of Them’, a pretty good song about a heartbroken man pretending his one night stands are his lost love, as he muses wearily,

I’ve forgotten what’s wrong
Given up on what’s right

Ropin’ The Wind has sold over 14 million copies in the US alone, and a further 3 million worldwide, making it his biggest ever seller. Is it his best work? Not quite, but it’s not at all bad.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Marty Raybon & Full Circle – ‘This, That & The Other’

this that and the otherMarty followed up the excellent When The Sand Runs Out with a gospel record, What I Came Here To Do, and then 2009 saw the release of This, That & The Other, a generous 14-track collection which he recorded with his live band, Full Circle. While it is predominantly bluegrass, it draws also from his country and Christian influences. It was self-released, and initially only available at a high price from Marty’s website, which meant it got limited attention at the time. Marty didn’t write any of the songs, and a number of them are familiar, but the arrangements and vocals give them an individuality which is worth hearing.

He opens the set with a nice bluegrass cover of Joe Diffie’s exuberant ‘Leavin’ On The Next thing Smokin’’. At the other end of the album is a similar arrangement on ‘Any Ol’ Stretch Of Blacktop’, which was an early Collin Raye album track. Shenandoah also did a version as a bonus track on their first Greatest Hits collection, but it was never a single.

The much-recorded Dickey Lee/Allen Reynolds song ‘Everybody’s Reaching (Out For Someone)’ is prettily done with a sincerely delivered vocal, and it works well in a bluegrass context.

Perhaps the most unexpected cover is the rapid-paced and tongue-in-cheek Bobby Braddock-penned George Jones hit ‘Nothing Ever Hurt Me (Half As Bad As Hurting You)’. While Marty doesn’t sound as on-the-edge as Jones, who recorded it in his days of alcohol abuse, his performance is still very entertaining. The light but bright ‘Ain’t Love A Lot Like That’ was also previously cut by Jones.

His love of bluegrass gospel wasn’t forgotten here. ‘I Cast My Bread Upon The Water’ is a pleasant mid-paced song, but more memorable is the impressive acappella performance of ‘Didn’t It Rain, Rain, Children’.

On a more sober note, the downbeat ballad ‘Going Through Hell (To Get There)’ was written by Curly Putman, Dale Dodson and Billy Ryan. It is the thoughtful reflection of a man realising he is on the wrong path in life, beautifully sung and played, with some stately fiddle leading in:

I’m tired and weary
Got a heavy load
But I’ll find my way
With each prayer I pray
This road will lead
On a brighter day

Cause I’ve been lost out here
On this road to nowhere
I went through Hell to get there

On a similar theme, but handled more dramatically, ‘The Devil’s Ol’ Workshop’ is a great story song about succumbing to temptation and ending up with disaster, written by Larry Cordle and Larry Shell. Red Lane’s ‘Blackjack County Chain’ (recorded in the past by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, and also by bluegrass legend Del McCoury) offers another dark story song, about a man trapped into a chain gang by a dirty sheriff, and taking a bloody revenge.

‘The Immigrant Song’ (written by Billy Lawson) is a feelgood story song about a first generation American who marries a Cherokee girl and becomes the narrator’s great-great-grandfather, it has a Celtic feel reflecting its protagonist’s Scottish roots. On a picky note: Ellis Island, mentioned in the opening lines, only opened in 1892, which seems a bit late for the other clues in the song, but the song really works emotionally.

Marty goes Cajun with the lively ‘Luzianna Man’; the lyrics are predictable but the arrangement infectious. The up-tempo ‘Timber (Stand Back And Watch It Fall)’ is pleasant with a nice arrangement and great vocals but not very memorable. ‘You Get Me’ is a contemporary country love song written by Wendell Mobley and Neil Thrasher; it isn’t a great song, but Marty’s intensely soulful vocal lifts it to a higher plane.

This may be Marty Raybon’s most overlooked album, but it is very good indeed, with a lot of variety, and excellent vocals throughout. I recommend it to all fans of the singer’s voice.

He has since gone on to release a number of fine albums, and is currently signed to Rural Rhythm Records.

Grade: A

Album Review: Shenandoah – ‘Extra Mile’

extramile1990’s Extra Mile was the first Shenandoah album I ever bought. The band was on a hot streak after racking up three #1 hits the year before, followed by the #6 hit “See If I Care.” Extra Mile’s lead single, the Robert Ellis Orall and Curtis Wright two-stepper “Next To You, Next To Me” quickly became the band’s fourth chart topper. It is my favorite Shenandoah recording and it sounds as good as today as it did when it was first released nearly a quarter century ago.

Unfortunately, the rest of the album , for the most part,hasn’t aged as well. Every recording is a product of the era in which it was made and that is part of the charm of listening to vintage music. I don’t mind soaring string sections or Nashville Sound choruses, and even some of the heavy-handed Urban Cowboy records of the early 1980s. I have, however, developed a profound dislike of keyboard synthesizers, which were considered very cutting edge in 1990 but sound horribly dated today. In listening to Extra Mile for the first time in a very long time, I found the synthesizers to be a distraction that mar an otherwise very solid album. It’s first apparent on Hugh Prestwood’s “Ghost In This House” — a beautiful ballad that peaked at #5 when it was released as the album’s second single — and continues to mar ballads such as “When You Were Mine” and it is particularly intrusive on “The Moon Over Georgia”, an otherwise excellent record that reached #9. The aforementioned “When You Were Mine” stalled #38, becoming the album’s only single not to reach the Top 10. “I Got You”, written by Robert Byrne, Teddy Gentry and Greg Fowler, was also released as a single between “Ghost In This House” and “Moon Over Georgia.” It’s another one of my favorite Shenandoah recordings. It peaked at #7.

Production missteps aside, the material on Extra Mile is quite good, and Marty Raybon’s vocals are stellar throughout. The songwriting credits alone are impressive with names such as Lionel Cartwright (“She’s A Natural”), Larry Cordle and Larry Shell (“Puttin’ New Roots Down”) and Rory Michael Burke and Mike Reid (“She Makes The Coming Home Worth The Being Gone”) all appearing alongside the aforementioned Robert Ellis Orrall, Curtis Wright and Hugh Prestwood. The album closes with the sentimental “Daddy’s Little Man” in which a father fears that he cannot live up to the hero image that his young son has of him.

Like The Road Not Taken, Extra Mile earned gold certification. Unfortunately, shortly after the album’s release the band was sued by several other bands that claimed to have rights to the Shenandoah name. Although Shenandoah prevailed in court, it was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and one of the consequences of that action was the termination of the band’s contract with Columbia Records. Although the band later resurfaced on RCA, the legal turmoils did affect their commercial momentum. Shenandoah’s albums are not always easy to come by nowadays, but as one of their better selling efforts, Extra Mile is the exception. Cheap used copies are available as well as a reasonably priced import version which contains The Road Not Taken and Extra Mile on the same disc.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Alison Krauss & Union Station – ‘Two Highways’

twohighwaysAlison Krauss’ contract with Rounder required her to alternate her solo albums with collaborations with her band. Two Highways is the first album under that arrangement credited to Alison Krauss & Union Station. Released in 1989 at a time when bluegrass was still largely regarded as country music’s red-headed stepchild, it is by and large a traditional affair. It has little of the genre envelope-pushing for which Alison would later become known, though it is a softer and more polished sound than was typical of bluegrass up to that time. It was produced by Bill Vorndick. Guest artist Jerry Douglas plays dobro along with regular band members Jeff White, Mike Harman, and John Pennell.

Even though she shares the spotlight with her band members, Alison — who was still only 18 years old when the album was released — is the glue that holds everything together. She plays fiddle throughout the album and sings lead vocals on the majority of the tracks, sounding at times like a young Dolly Parton. The similarity to Dolly is most apparent on the Larry Cordle-penned title track and Todd Rakestraw’s “I’m Alone Again”.

Bass player John Pennell, who contributed much of the material to Alison’s solo album Too Late To Cry, supplies three tracks here: “Love You In Vain”, “Here Comes Goodbye” and “As Lovely As You”, one of the highlights of the album which features Jeff White singing lead vocals with some lovely backing vocals from Alison. Two instrumental numbers – the traditional “Beaumont Rag” and Kenny Baker’s “Windy City Rag” allow the band to shine. The album’s best track is “Teardrops Will Kiss The Morning Dew”, a cover of an old Osborne Brothers song, and the most unusual is a remake of the Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider”, which works surprisingly well with a bluegrass arrangement.

Two Highways did not produce any hit singles, nor did it make the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. It garnered little attention outside the world of bluegrass, but it did receive a Grammy nomination for Best Bluegrass Album in 1990 and it is one of the albums upon which future star Alison Krauss built her reputation.

Grade: A

Album Review: Donna Ulisse – ‘Showin’ My Roots’

showin my rootsFor the past few years former country singer Donna Ulisse has been making a name for herself as a bluegrass singer-songwriter. I’ve enjoyed her music in that vein, but a small part of me hankered after the neotraditional country singer she started out as. Now she has combined the two sides to her music in a nod to her musical roots, re-imagining the country classics she grew up listening to, in a bluegrass setting, with a few bluegrass songs thrown in. The result is a joy to listen to.

Donna produced the record with acoustic guitarist Bryan Sutton. The band consists of some of the finest bluegrass studio musicians: Sutton, Scott Vestal on banjo, Rob Ickes on dobro, Andy Leftwich on fiddle and mandolin, and either Viktor Krauss (on most tracks) or Byron House on upright bass.

A pair of new songs bookend the album, both written by Donna with her husband Rick Stanley. The charming title track sets the mood and dwells on the influence on her of Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens, Dolly Parton and Carter Stanley. Fayssoux Maclean sings harmony. ‘I’ve Always Had A Song I Could Lean On’ is a fond reminiscence of a music-filled childhood.

Donna plays tribute to Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette with confident, sassy versions of ‘Fist City’ and ‘Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad’, both of which I enjoyed very much. A thoughtful and convincing take on Dolly Parton’s ‘In The Good Old Days When Times Were Bad’ acts as Donna’s nod to both Dolly and to Haggard, whose cover influenced this version.

Donna’s husband is a cousin of Carter and Ralph Stanley, and Donna’s version of the Stanley Brothers’ ‘How Mountain Girls Can Love’ is bright and charming. The finest moments on this album are the ballads. A beautifully measured version of Ralph Stanley’s deeply mournful ‘If That’s The Way You Feel’ is my favorite track. Larry Cordle and Carl Jackson add harmonies to this exquisite reading.

Almost as good, ‘Somebody Somewhere (Don’t Know What He’s Missing Tonight)’, a Loretta Lynn hit written by Lola Jean Fawbush, is lonely and longing, with the gorgeous tone Donna displayed on her 1990s country records, and a very spare, stripped down arrangement. Absolutely wonderful.

Donna is sincere and compelling on ‘Wait A Little Longer Please, Jesus’, a favorite of her father. I also enjoyed the traditional ‘Take This Hammer’ (the first song Donna ever sang in public, as a small child) with guest Sam Bush sharing the vocals. A sweet and tenderly romantic ‘Send Me The Pillow That You Dream On’ is delicately pretty.

‘I Hope You Have Learned’ was written in the 1950s by Donna’s great-uncle Gene Butler, who spent a short period in Nashville working as a songwriter. It is a high lonesome bluegrass ballad whose protagonist is in prison for murdering a romantic rival, and wants to know if the spouse will be waiting on release. Donna twists the genders around but otherwise this is faithful to the original, recorded by Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe.

The only disappointment for me was Rodney Crowell’s ‘One Way Rider’, which boasts sparkling playing by the musicians, but although Donna tackles it with enthusiasm, it feels a little characterless despite John Cowan’s harmony providing some flavor.

This is one of a number of excellent bluegrass/country albums to emerge this year, but Donna’s beautiful, expressive vocals, which are at their best on this album, make this one not to be missed. Her interpretative ability means that she brings her own contribution even to the best-known songs, and this is thoroughly recommended.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Travis Tritt – ‘No More Looking Over My Shoulder’

TNomorelookingovermyshoulderravis Tritt changed producers once again, replacing Don Was with Billy Joe Walker, Jr for 1998’s No More Looking Over My Shoulder. His sixth studio album, it was his least successful release to date spawning three singles that didn’t peak any higher than #29 on the charts.

The #29 peaking single was the first, “If I Lost You,” which Tritt co-wrote with Stewart Harris. The beautiful piano led ballad is a charming story about a man’s undying love for a woman and his feelings if he should loose this person. The record is near perfection; from the tasteful production to Tritt’s sensitive vocal. Even the video was excellent as it served as the conclusion to his Mac Singleton trilogy, a fitting tribute to the five year old daughter Mac shares with now deceased wife Annie.

I also thoroughly enjoy the Craig Wiseman and Michael Peterson penned title track, which served as the second single, peaking at #38. An excellent sing-a-long mid-tempo rocker, the song has an engaging energy and I love the acoustic guitar riffs throughout.

Unlike the majority of Tritt’s rockin’ anthems, third and final single “Start The Car” doesn’t have many overly dated elements within the production track, and Tritt adds a strong, confident vocal performance to the mix. The rock elements don’t bother me either at all but the whole thing comes off very underwhelming thanks to Jude Cole’s inability to add anything memorable to the lyrics. It’s the type of song you forget the second you’ve heard it, which likely accounts for its poor chart performance (it peaked at #52).

The rest of the project isn’t as bland as I was expecting, but as a whole the album doesn’t really get off the ground. There just isn’t that standout track needed to raise the album above just okay. It’s solid, but nothing really special.

The best album cut is probably the weakest lyric, saved only by the production, which feels heavy influenced by Patty Loveless’ seminal When Fallen Angles Fly. “Girls Like That” boasts a nice, rollicking dobro that recalls “Half Way Down” and “Handful of Dust.” It’s too bad the lyric is beyond inane, as Tritt could’ve had a showstopper here. You’d think he and co-writer Bruce Ray Brown could’ve tried to put in some effort, and not resorted to a three-minute list of attributes talking about “Girls Like That.”

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Album Review: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Don’t Go Near The Water’

1991 was the height of the neotraditional movement, and the period saw a host of exciting new artists rooted in traditional country music breaking through. It was the ideal time for Sammy Kershaw, with his astonishingly George Jones soundalike voice, to make his debut. Buddy Cannon and Norro Wilson produced his first album for Mercury, and did a fine job showcasing the artist’s voice.

His debut single ‘Cadillac Style’ was an immediate success, reaching #3. It sunnily celebrates the power of true love to overcome the limitations of poverty. The sultry title track (penned by Chapin Hartford and Jim Foster) relates the passions of first love somewhere in the South. Imbued with Southern atmosphere, the record peaked just outside the top 10.

The record’s finest song, ‘Yard Sale’ was Sammy’s third straight top 20 hit, and his finest single to date. Written by Dewayne Blackwell and Larry Bastian, it depicts in precise detail the sad aftermath of a failed marriage, with the couple’s goods being sold off cheap to all comers, leading to Sammy’s sardonic comment,

Ain’t it funny how a broken home can bring the prices down?

This excellent song would have been perfect for George Jones himself at his peak. While Kershaw isn’t quite the superlative interpreter Jones is, he still delivers the song very well.

The final single, ‘Anywhere But Here’, was Sammy’s second top 10. A vibrant up-tempo treatment belies the protagonist’s broken heart and desire just to get away from the scene of his broken heart.

Bob McDill’s regretful ‘Real Old Fashioned Broken Heart’ has a lovely fiddle/steel laden arrangement. The protagonist finds his sophisticated modern worldview collapses when his heart gets broken, and he reverts to an older style of dealing with heartbreak:

I play Hank Williams on the jukebox
Order up old whiskey at the bar
And through my tears I light another Lucky
I’ve got a real old fashioned broken heart

This is another gem, as is ‘Kickin’ In’, a heartbreak ballad written by Keith Stegall and Roger Murrah, with a pretty melody and fiddle underlining the sad mood.

Underlining the comparisons to George, Sammy picked an obscure George Jones song to record. ‘What Am I Worth’ has the protagonist plaintively questioning his value regardless of other achievements in life, because his loved one is rejecting him. A vivacious up-tempo mood belies the downbeat lyric.

My favorite track is the hardcore cheating song with a twist – both parties in the marriage are running around behind the other’s back, ‘Every Third Monday’. It was written by Larry Cordle, Larry Shell and Billy Henderson. Also with a twist, the ballad ‘I Buy Her Roses’ initially sounds like a sweet love song, but there is a sting in the tale. The protagonist’s loved one has actually left him, and he is buying the flowers he always forgot to do when they were together. A sincerely delivered vocal sells the song effectively.

Closing out the set, ‘Harbor For A Lonely Heart’ is a pleasant but not particularly memorable ballad written by Kostas and Jenny Yates.

While Kershaw’s vocal similarity to George Jones meant he perhaps lacked a degree of individuality, there are far worse singers to emulate. This was a pretty solid album with some very fine moments, and a promising debut. It sold well at the time, and was certified platinum. Used copies can now be found very cheaply, and it’s a worthwhile addition to any collection.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Ricky Skaggs – ‘Solid Ground’

1995’s Solid Ground marks the beginning of the end of Ricky Skaggs’ major label career. The first of a pair of albums released by Atlantic Records, after more than a decade with Epic. It produced three singles, one of which failed to chart and the other two peaked outside the Top 40. He produced the project with some assistance from Brian Ahern.

Solid Ground attempts to combine the traditional country for which Ricky was well known with some more contemporary fare designed to appeal to radio. The pleasant but forgettable “Back Where We Belong” became the first single of Ricky’s career not to chart. The title track, which would have fit nicely on his previous album My Father’s Son, was released next and only climbed to #57. The third and final single, a cover of Harry Chapin’s 1974 pop hit “Cat’s In The Cradle”. At first glance it seems like an odd choice for Ricky Skaggs, but it fits well with country music’s storytelling tradition, and it was in fact, according to the song’s writers, inspired by a country song they had heard on the radio. It’s a story about a disengaged father who never has time for his son. By the end of the story, the father is an old man and begging his son to come home for a visit, but the son is too busy with his own life to oblige. It’s a departure for Skaggs stylistically and also thematically, since most of his other songs about family relationships are happy ones. It’s a bit of a stretch for Ricky, but he rises to the occasion nicely. I quite like it and wish it had risen higher on the charts than its #45 peak.

Bluegrass music played a huge role in the success of Ricky’s early 80s work for Epic, but he had become decidedly more mainstream by the decade’s end. On Solid Ground, however, he gives a nod to his bluegrass roots with a cover of Bill Monroe’s “Cry, Cry Darlin'”, which features harmony vocals by Vince Gill and Alison Krauss. “Callin’ Your Name” sounds like an old bluegrass number but it was actually a new song written by Larry Cordle and Chris Austin, and is one of the highlights of the album. Less effective is Ricky’s cover of the Webb Pierce/Mel Tillis rockabilly number “I Ain’t Never”, which doesn’t quite work. Rounding out the album are a couple of nice ballads, “Every Drop of Water” and “Can’t Control The Wind”.

Late career label changes generally do little to revive an artist’s flagging career, and Solid Ground was no exception. In addition to its failure to produce any radio hits, it also became the lowest charting album of Ricky’s career up to that point, landing at #72 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. His next and final major label release failed to chart at all; after that he returned to bluegrass full time and released a number of acclaimed independent releases, most of which charted higher than his last couple of albums for the majors.

Solid Ground is but a footnote in the Skaggs discography, and not an album that is well remembered today; however, it is nevertheless an enjoyable listen. It’s inexpensive and easy to find.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Ricky Skaggs – ‘Kentucky Thunder’

By 1989 Ricky Skaggs was no longer the hottest commodity in country music; the New Traditionalist movement had produced a lot of new and younger competition, and Ricky’s sales and radio airplay figures suffered as a result. However, he closed out the decade of his greatest commercial success with one of the finest albums of his career.

For the first time, he worked with a co-producer — Steve Buckingham — perhaps in part because Ricky was busy producing Dolly Parton’s White Limozeen album at the same time. Dolly’s chart resurgence seems to have rubbed off on Ricky; shortly after her album dropped he scored a #1 hit with “Lovin’ Only Me”, his first chart topper since “Cajun Moon” three years earlier. It was also to be the last #1 hit of his career. However, he did reach the Top 5 one last time with Kentucky Thunder’s second single “Let It Be You”, an excellent ballad written by Kevin Welch and Harry Stinson.

Skaggs was seemingly back in the good graces of country radio, but his renewed success proved to be only temporary. From this point on, none of his records cracked the Top 10. There were, however, three more singles released from Kentucky Thunder: “Heartbreak Hurricane”, which reached #13, “Hummingbird”, which peaked at #20, and the #25-charting “He Was On To Something (So He Made You).” All of them are quite good but my favorite of the three is the energetic “Hummingbird”, which had appeared a few years earlier on a Restless Heart album. One of that band’s more country sounding numbers, it was written by band member Greg Jennings with Tim DuBois.

As far as the tracks that weren’t released as singles are concerned, the best are the grass-is-always-greener themed “The Fields of Home”, “Lonesome For You” (both written by Larry Cordle and Larry Shell), “Casting My Shadow In The Road”, and the ballad “When I Love”, which was written by Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet, one of the hottest songwriting teams in country music at that time.

Kentucky Thunder
lacks the bluegrass flourishes of Ricky’s earlier work, but it is an excellent example of late-80s traditional country. It briefly reversed his decline on the singles chart, it did little to improve his sales figures. Its sole flaw is its brevity; it clocks in at just under 30 minutes, despite the inclusion of an atypical-for-the-era eleventh track (the spiritual “Saviour, Save Me From Myself”). It’s difficult to find, except at absurd prices, but presumably it will join Ricky’s other Epic albums in re-release on Skaggs Family Records. When it does, grab it; it’s well worth it.

Grade: A

Album Review: Ricky Skaggs – ‘Love’s Gonna Get Ya!’

Ricky Skaggs’ career can be said to have reached its peak in 1985, when he was named the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year. The following year, Randy Travis scored his big breakthrough and the New Traditionalist movement exploded. Ironically, that same year, Ricky Skaggs’ career began to show the first signs of decline. Although it reached #3 on the Billboard Top Country chart, Love’s Gonna Get Ya! failed to produce any #1 hits and became his first release for Epic not to earn gold certification.

Like its predecessors, Love’s Gonna Get Ya! was produced by Ricky himself, but it doesn’t contain the bluegrass flourishes that hallmarked most of his earlier work, with the exception of the spiritual tune “Walking In Jerusalem”. “Love’s Gonna Get You Someday”, written by Carl Chambers, was the album’s first single. The Western-swing flavored tune was a bit of a departure for Ricky, but it was well received by radio and made it to #4 on the Billboard country singles chart. The Don Everly-penned “I Wonder If Care As Much”, which had been a #2 pop hit for the Everly Brothers in 1958, didn’t fare as well. Reaching #30, it was the lowest-charting single of Skaggs’ major label career up to that point. With its double-track harmony, it’s instantly recognizable as an Everly Brothers tune, and though it may have been an artistic stretch for Ricky, it was a decent effort. He rebounded with the next single, a Cajun-flavored duet with his wife Sharon White called “Love Can’t Ever Get Better Than This”, which reached the Top 10, albeit barely. It’s my favorite track on the album.

There are some fine cuts among the album tracks, many of them written by some of Nashville’s finest songwriters, such as Larry Cordle, Jim Rushing, and Gary Burr. The production is occasionally dated, particularly the use of the synthesizer on “I Won’t Let You Down” and the James Taylor duet “New Star Shining” — not atypical of the era but unusual on a Ricky Skaggs album — but it didn’t diminish my overall enjoyment of the album. Rushing’s “Hard Row To Hoe”, one of many country songs dealing with the plight of the American farmer, was perhaps inspired by the first Farm Aid concert which had been held a few months before this album’s release. “Artificial Heart”, written by Johanna Hall and John Hall, suffers from some contrived lyrics but its excellent steel guitar solo more than compensates.

It’s a bit ironic that having been a key player in bringing country music back to its roots, Skagg became a victim of the success of the New Traditionalist movement. Having to compete with a new crop of talent for sales and airplay may partially account for this album’s relative lack of success compared to his earlier work. However, it’s a fine album that deserves a second listen — or a first one if you missed it the first time around. The original Epic version is out of print but it was re-released on a 2-for-1 CD along with Comin’ Home To Stay. This is probably the most economical way to acquire both albums.

Grade: B+

Album Review – Ricky Skaggs – ‘Country Boy’

Known primarily for its now classic title track, Ricky Skaggs’ Country Boy has held up beautifully since its release in 1984. A number one gold selling album, it wasn’t as prolific as the string of releases that preceded it, but it stands as a strong collection in Skaggs’ catalog.

The #2 peaking “Something In My Heart” was the first of two singles. A fine slice of neo-traditional country, the track is pleasant on the ears but not memorable enough to stand out among Skaggs’ iconic hits. The brilliant title track was the second single, a one-week chart topper in 1984. It’s possibly my all time favorite Skaggs recording, the song both infectious and effortlessly cool but more importantly, it stands the test of time sounding fresher today than back then.

The rest of the project matches the exuberance of the singles. Never one to shy away from covers, Skaggs peppers a few smart selections among Country Boy’s ten tracks. My favorite is Bill Monroe’s instrumental hoedown “Wheel Hoss,” a fiery fiddle and steel number that also makes ample use of a mandolin’s charms. Skaggs also does a great job covering “Window Up Above,” a 1960 hit for George Jones. While its hard to compare, Jones does have the slight edge with his near flawless ability at capturing heartache with his voice. In comparison, Skaggs sounds a bit too clean.

“I’m Ready to Go” is a cover of an old Carter Stanley co-write and a magnificent banjo centric bluegrass thumper. Like the title track that opens the record, “I’m Ready To Go” closes out the proceedings with a similar jaunty texture but instead of incorporating modern country elements, it sticks straight up bluegrass, a wonderful choice for a wonderful song.

Larry Cordle wrote “Two Highways” which would become the title track for Alison Krauss’ 1989 album. Surprisingly it’s Krauss’ version that’s more upbeat but Skaggs’ rendition is far superior thanks to a slower neo-traditional arrangement that appropriately lets the ache of the lyric shine through.

“Baby I’m In Love With You” is another steel accented uptempo number, and a rare love song on the album. The fluffy lyric, written by Alex Gibson, Andy Gibson, and Joe Weaver, brings the song down considerably, and coupled with the production, make the song a miss. I don’t have a problem with the drunk on love scenario but the execution is too sappy for my tastes.

“Brand New Me,” the other love song, works much better because Skaggs’ character comes from a place of healing. The overall track has a bit of a Dan Seals’ vibe down to the ribbons of steel guitar woven throughout and Skaggs’ straightforward approach to the vocal. Overall it’s a good song, but there’s nothing terribly special or unique to help it stand out amongst the strongest tracks on the project.

The fiddle ballad “Patiently Waiting” is one of those standout tracks. The neo-traditional arrangement is perfect and acts as an inviting gateway into the song. Another highlight is “Rendezvous,” a slightly theatrical love song about getting back to the stage when the couple first met.

As a whole Country Boy is a very solid above average album with some brilliant moments sprinkled throughout. His material was stronger on his previous two releases, which is reflected in the notion that Country Boy isn’t one of Skaggs’ best-remembered projects for much beyond the title track. But its definitely still worth listening to even though its just below essential.

Grade: B+ 

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Lonesome Standard Time’

1992’s Lonesome Standard Time saw Kathy working with a new producer, Brent Maher, probably best known for his work with the Judds in the 80s. Happily, this didn’t change the overall style, and Kathy was able to maintain her usual standard of high-quality material with a strongly non-mainstream feel.

The punchy title track, written by Jim Rushing and Larry Cordle, draws on the high lonesome tradition of bluegrass to portray the sad emotions of a broken heart, when the sound of a “crying fiddle is the sweetest sound on earth”. The lead single, it just failed to break into the top 10 but is a great track with a committed, energized vocal which opens the album with a real bang.

The pensive ballad ‘Standing Knee Deep In A River (Dying Of Thirst)’ contemplates losing touch with friends not treasured enough. A mature lyric and string laden production make this a bit more AC than most of her work, but the lovely tune, sensitive vocal, and wise lyrics (penned by Bucky Jones, Dickey Lee and Bob McDill) would stand out in any company. Its genre crossing capacity is shown by the fact that blues-rock musician Joe Cocker covered the song in 1994, followed by country veteran Don Williams in 1995. Kathy’s version was the album’s second single and just squeezed into the top 20.

Equally thoughtful, the spiritual ‘Seeds’ (which peaked at #50) takes a philosophical look at human potential, declaring,

We start the same
But where we land
Is sometimes fertile soil
And sometimes sand
We’re all just seeds
In God’s hands

The final single, Nanci Griffith’s uplifting ‘Listen To The Radio’, where country radio acts as the protagonist’s friend and companion while she drives away from her man, performed even more poorly despite being packed full of vocal character – not to mention the presence of Eagle Bernie Leadon on guitar.

The sardonic and catchy ‘Lonely At The Bottom’ had recently been recorded by former duet partner Tim O’Brien in his shortlived attempt at a solo country career. The protagonist is talking to an old friend who has found success has not brought happiness; unfortunately, Kathy informs him, poverty has brought nothing better either. A great acoustic arrangement, Kathy’s playful interpretation supported by call and response backing vocals make this highly enjoyable.

‘Forgive And Forget’ is a mid-tempo Kieran Kane song which sounds potentially radio friendly, and had previously appeared on Kane’s underrated 1993 solo Atlantic album Find My Way Home following the breakup of The O’Kanes. A lively, confident cover of ‘Amarillo’ is also highly entertaining.

The gentle ‘Last Night I Dreamed Of Loving You’ is a beautiful song by country-folk poet-songwriter Hugh Moffatt, given a delicately stripped down production, with the haunting harmonies of Tim O’Brien balancing the raw emotion of the lead vocal.

There are just a couple of tracks which fail to sparkle. ‘Slow Boat’, written by Kathy’s husband Jon Vezner with George Teren is pretty and laidback but a little forgettable. ‘33, 45, 78 (Record Time)’ takes a metaphorical look back at the passing of time.

Despite the relatively disappointing performance of teh singles, sales were good, and it was Kathy’s fourth successive gold record. The limited airplay may mean, however, that more casual fans may have missed out on an excellent album. Luckily, you can make up for that, as used copies are available very cheaply.

Grade: A

Album Review – Kathy Mattea – ‘Calling Me Home’

Coming off the supposed one-off side project Coal, Kathy Mattea found her purpose as a recording artist transformed from a commercial country singer to an Appalachian folk singer. The four-year journey has led to a full exploration of her West Virginian roots and the land surrounding the mountains where she’s from.

Calling Me Home finds Kathy exploring the austere realities of man’s desire for growth at the expense of preserving our natural world. The album richly chronicles the death of nature from many perspectives, and features the works of notable folk and bluegrass singer/songwriters Jean Ritchie, Laurie Lewis, Alice Garrard, and Hazel Dickens among others.

“The Wood Thrush’s Song,” written by Lewis, leads the charge with an effective thesis on the drawbacks of advancement within the human race:

Man is the inventor, the builder, the sage


The writer and seeker of truth by the page


But all of his knowledge can never explain


The deep mystery of the Wood Thrush refrain 

The thesis makes a bold yet true statement, and I connected with the way Lewis used the plight of the Wood Thrush to hone in her main point about man’s relentlessness to grow, seemingly without consequence.

Kathy explores that sentiment on a more human level with Ritchie’s masterfully heartbreaking “Black Waters,” a crying out over the state of Kentucky’s decision to allow the building of a strip mine in her backyard. I was taken aback by the brilliance in Ritchie’s storytelling; how she layered the vivid imagery to devastating effect. The climax of the track comes towards the end, when Kathy sings about Richie’s lack of sympathy from those causing the destruction:

In the summer come a nice man, says everything’s fine


My employer just requires a way to his mine

Then they blew down the timber and covered my corn


And the grave on the hillside’s a mile deeper down


And the man stands and talks with his hat in his hand


As the poison black waters rise over my land

“Black Waters” comes off a bit too sing-song-y, a bit too commercial in feel. But the lyrical content speaks for itself as does the haunting combination of Patty Loveless and Emmylou Harris on backing vocals, which adds an additional texture to the proceedings.

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You didn’t have a good time: songs about struggling with alcohol

The recent unfortunate news of Randy Travis’s apparently alcohol-fuelled decline has prompted me to bring together these songs about people struggling to give up alcohol.

Randy’s own recording of ‘You Didn’t Have A Good Time’ from his last studio album, 2008’s Around The Bend, now seems heartbreakingly prescient – or an early warning to himself of a problem that he was, one assumes, aware of. The song starts from the standpoint that the first step in tackling the problem is acknowledging its existence:

I bet you don’t remember
Kneeling in that bathroom stall
Praying for salvation
And cursing alcohol
Then went right back to drinking
Like everything was fine
Let’s be honest with each other
You didn’t have a good time

So take a good hard look in the mirror
And drink that image down
I’m truth that you can’t run from
I’m the conscience you can’t drown
And the happiness you want so bad
You ain’t gonna find
Until you start believing
You didn’t have a good time

When you woke up this morning
I guess you just assumed
That you got something out of
The empty bottles in this room
There ain’t an angel that can save you
When you’re listening to the wine
And the demons they won’t tell you
You didn’t have a good time

Trace Adkins ‘Sometimes A Man Takes A Drink’ offers an equally somber warning of the gradual fall from casual social drinking into the prison of addiction, with its melancholy warning, “sometimes a drink takes the man”. (Co-writer Larry Cordle has also recorded a superb version of the song, but Trace’s magnificent vocal edges his cut ahead.)

The same theme appears in George Jones’s bitingly honest ‘A Drunk Can’t Be A Man’, from his 1976 album Alone Again, when he was still drinking heavily himself. In this third person story, George sings of a man whose life is utterly miserable thanks to his drinking but “seems proud to have the devil for his guide”.

Sometimes it seems like a miracle that Jones is still alive in his 80s, given his chequered history with alcohol. This history has been frequently acknowledged in his choice of songs like ‘Wine (You’ve Used Me Long Enough)’, the agonized ‘Wean Me’, ‘If Drinking Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)‘, I’ve Aged Twenty Years In Five’,  ‘Ol’ George Stopped Drinking Today’, and the rueful admission of ‘Wine Colored Roses’. In 1999 it was also the subject of his last solo top 30 hit ‘Choices’, a bleak Billy Yates song about the lifelong effect of bad decisions and putting drinking above those who loved him.

Jones following a 1978 DUI arrest.

One of my uncles was (and I would say he still is) an alcoholic, and while struggling with his problem in his 20s he spent some time living with his older married half-brother (my parents, before I was born). I’ve left out a whole range of songs about the impact of an alcoholic relative on his or her spouse and family, but the role of a loved one in supporting someone through the hard times is also important, and dealt with in a number of country songs. One of my favorites is ‘I’m Trying’, recorded both by Diamond Rio in duet with Chely Wright, and more recently solo by Martina McBride, which movingly shows the middle of the struggle, with a loved one trying to support the drinker.

Someone who can’t admit their problem to their loved ones is clearly not in good shape to turn the corner. Now-disbanded trio Trick Pony were best known for main lead singer Heidi Newfield, but one of their best songs (‘The Devil And Me’), sung by one of her male bandmates, dealt with the struggles of an alcoholic, shamefacedly hiding his used bottles from his wife and children, and confessing,

I’ve battled with the bottle all alone for years

Bleak though the basic situation is, he still hopes things can turn around, affirming in the last verse and chorus:

I’m hoping for a miracle
I know that I can change
No, I’m not giving up
I know there’ll come a day

When I’m not too tired to fight it
Or too ashamed to pray
And I know the Lord won’t be bored
With the promises I’ve made
I won’t live here with my secret
Where no one else can see
No, I won’t keep it
Between the devil and me

Sometimes it takes a catastrophic incident to prompt a change of heart. 80s star T. Graham Brown has recorded a moving plea to God from a man who has reached rock bottom for help to turn the ‘Wine Into Water’. In the brilliant Leslie Satcher song ‘From Your Knees’ (recorded by Matt King  (with Patty Loveless on harmony), later by John Conlee, and ironically, also by Randy Travis on Around The Bend), a wife tired of her man’s “cheating and drinking” finally leaves after 17 years, forcing him to face the truth:

Right then and there in an old sinner’s prayer
He told things he’d kept in the dark
There was no use in lying
Cause the man who was listening
Could see every room in his heart

Sometimes a man can change on his own
But sometimes I tell you it takes

Empty closets and empty drawers
And a tearful confession on the kitchen floor
And burning memories in the fireplace
He had waited too late to say he was wrong

Brother, you would not believe
What you can see from your knees

Another song from his own repertoire Travis might be advised to pay attention to, now he seems to have reached his own rock bottom point.

Before he discovered the beach, Kenny Chesney recorded some strong material, and one of the best was the earnest ‘That’s Why I’m Here’, a #2 hit in 1998. A mature reflection on the damage done to a life “when you lose control”, this seems to have a happy ending as the protagonist has learned his lesson and started attending AA meetings.

However, some damage cannot be undone, as we see from a couple of songs dealing with the effects of addiction to drugs rather than alchol. The video for Jeff Bates’ emotional ‘One Second Chance’ ties it in with his own former drug problem, while Jamey Johnson’s stunning ‘High Cost Of Living’ is one of the finest songs of its kind as it portrays someone whose addiction led to throwing away everything good in his life. Billy Yates’ minor hit ‘Flowers’ (subsequently covered by Chris Young) deals with the literally sobering aftermath of a drunk driving incident in which the protagonist killed his wife or girlfriend; change comes too late. Gravel-voiced singer-songwriter Bobby Pinson included several compelling songs referring to the drunk-driving death of a high school friend on his underrated album Man Like Me ( ‘Don’t Ask Me How I Know’, ‘A Man Like Me’ and ‘I Thought That’s Who I Was’), the culminating effect of which sounds autobiographical. In ‘One More Believer’ on the same album he looks back to a sordid past passing out drunk before finding salvation through the love of a good woman.

Joe Nichols, another star who has struggled with substance abuse in real life, chose to record ‘An Old Friend of Mine’, a moving low key confessional of the day a man gives up drinking:

I never thought I’d be strong enough to leave it all behind
But today I said goodbye to an old friend of mine…
And I heard freedom ring when that bottle hit the floor
And I just walked away not needing anymore

Yet it’s still a struggle to maintain sobriety after making that commitment. My uncle stopped drinking over 40 years ago, but still attends AA meetings regularly and can’t touch a single drop of alcohol in case it sets off the cravings again. George Jones has had the odd lapse in recent years, and it’s well documented that Randy Travis had issues with drinking among other wild behaviour as a teenager before straightening up, so his current woes may be a resurgence of a longstanding underlying problem.

Collin Raye’s hit ‘Little Rock’ shows an alcoholic trying hard to make a fresh start and making a good beginning, but only 19 days into his sobriety there’s clearly a long way to go (although his record is 10 days and counting ahead of the protagonist of George Strait’s recent single ‘Drinkin’ Man’. Co-written with Dean Dillon who has had his own issues with alcohol in the past, this searing portrait of a man whose problems go back to his early teens unfortunately proved to be a bit too close to reality for today’s country radio and became the lowest charting single of Strait’s career.  It remains one of the best singles of 2012.

Texan Jason Boland’s ‘Bottle By My Bed’, looking back on the time when “my life was as empty as the bottle by my bed,” also talks about all the false starts, when “each time was the last time, that’s what I always said”, but has the protagonist now on safer ground.

Finally, if anyone reading this thinks they have a problem: please get help. For information and resources, visit the AA.org and Al Anon websites for help for you and/or your loved ones.

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Trouble Free’

Rhonda’s second Giant album took broadly the same approach as its predecessor. Producers James Stroud and Richard Landis provide sympathetic backings for Rhonda’s sparkling vocals. Sadly, however, country radio had begun its move in a poppier direction following the crossover success of Shania Twain, and Rhonda’s music was just a little too traditional for the time.

‘What More Do You Want From Me?’ (written by Bob Regan and Mark D. Sanders) was the only single, and it failed to gain enough airplay to chart. That was a shame, because it’s an excellent up-tempo song with some attitude and banked harmonies as Rhonda bemoans her lot to the personification of Love.

The opening ‘Somebody’, written by Al Anderson and Robert Ellis Orrall, sounds as though it was recorded with an eye on chart potential. It is well sung but feels a bit generic (despite Alison Krauss’s harmony), and is the only disappointing moment. Another song written by Orrall, this time with Curtis Wright and Billy Spencer, the wistful lost-love ‘If I Could Stop Loving You’, is better.

‘It Ain’t Nothin’ New’ is a lovely duet with Randy Travis, written by Larry Cordle, Larry Shell and Betty Keys. Randy’s voice is at its best, and the pair’s voices meld extremely well, while the song is a sweet look at the hard work developing a relationship and keeping it alive once the shine has worn off a little, and affirming their love. It is one of my favorite tracks, with some beautiful fiddle. The love song ‘You Beat All I’ve Ever Seen’ was written by the winning combination of hitmaking songwriter Kostas, veteran Melba Montgomery, and Kathy Louvin (daughter of Ira). It has a pretty melody and a sweet and sincerely delivered lyric.

Melba Montgomery wrote ‘An Old Memory (Found Its Way Back Home Again)’ with Jerry Salley. This is a delightful up-tempo number with Rhonda wryly facing the revival of feelings she thought she had left behind, with an unexpectedly cheerful feel as she attacks the lyric, comparing her ex’s memory to
an old dog that you drop off just outside of town, uninvited, comin’ back anyhow.

The vibrant up-tempo title track was written by Carl Jackson and Jerry Salley, and is also highly enjoyable. Rhonda triumphantly denies that her ex’s departure has caused her any sleepless nights. The sunny ‘The Blues Ain’t Workin’ On Me’ was written by George Teren and Tom Shapiro, and features a cameo from Dolly Parton on harmony.

‘When I’m Through Fallin’ Apart’ written by Michael Huffman, Gene Dobbins and Bob Morrison, is another good song, with Rhonda deferring a promising new prospect for new romance until she has got over the last one.

The John Jarrard/Kenny Beard-penned ballad ‘At The Corner Of Walk And Don’t Walk’ has a lovely traditional feel and tune with some atmospheric steel guitar underpinning the melancholic mood, although the metaphor feels a little forced. The underlying story, with the protagonist calling from a payphone as she has second thoughts about leaving, and uncertain whether her future lies with or without her lover, is still good, and Rhonda’s vocal is excellent, making this another favourite of mine.

The album was no more successful than its predecessor, and it marked the end of Rhonda’s flirtation with mainstream country music. It is however, a very fine album which has a lot to appeal to country fans.

Grade: A