My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Larry Cordle

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

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Timeless And True Love’

Rhonda’s fourth and last album for Rebel (another 1991 release) heralded the move she was about to make into straight country music. Produced by Rhonda with brother and band member Darrin and Ronny Light, it was her best effort to date with a nice collection of material, although many of the songs were covers, some of them surprisingly recent country songs given a tasteful bluegrass or semi-bluegrass treatment. A ballad-dominated set, whose songs were picked out with the assistance of the great songwriter Jim Rushing (although he did not write any of them himself), this is basically a bluegrass influenced country album rather than a pure bluegrass one, with piano, drums, steel and electric guitar added to the basic bluegrass band, although the instrumentation is mainly acoustic and bluegrass-sounding with Rhonda’s mandolin much in evidence. Guests include banjo stars Allison Brown and Bela Fleck.

The beautiful title track was previously recorded by The McCarters, a sister trio who had a top 5 country hit with it in 1987. A sunny version of ‘Birmingham Turnaround’, a song written by Sanger D Shafer and Warren Robb which had been cut on Keith Whitley’s 1988 classic Don’t Close Your Eyes, opens the set in straight bluegrass style. Neither of these quite matches the originals, but they are agreeable listening nonetheless.

The best of the covers is a charming version of another Sanger D Shafer co-write, ‘I Do My Cryin’ At Night’, an old Lefty Frizzell song, which works well for Rhonda. Another favorite track is ‘I’m Not That Lonely Yet’, a lovely traditional country song written by Bill and Sharon Rice about the hard process of getting over an ex, and resisting the temptation of getting back together with him. It was a #3 hit single for Reba McEntire in 1982.

‘Midnight Angel’ is not the country song recorded by both Barbara Mandrell and Highway 101, but an excellent plaintive number written by two of the finest bluegrass songwriters, Pete Goble and Bobby Osborne, but given a classic country arrangement. Steel guitar dominates as Rhonda addresses the title character, her errant spouse who spends the nights preying on other women while she waits unloved at home.

‘Let’s Put Love Back To Work’, written by Larry Cordle and Mark Collie, is an attractive love duet sung with bluegrass singer David Parmley (credited only as a harmony vocalist), The lovely sounding ‘Artificial Tears’ features prominent harmonies from Alison Krauss. Despite the sweetness of the music, Rhonda gives an ultimatum to a partner unwilling to show his true feelings and pretending to be upset about her leaving.

‘Lucinda’ is a story song painting a picture of a kindly truck stop waitress who, having her own lover taken from her, lives vicariously through the truckers’ tales. Another story song, ‘Bobby And Sarah’ relates a love story from teenage romance to marriage and babies.

‘Homecoming’ is a pretty Carl Jackson gospel song about the promise of heaven. ‘Moving On’ is an early Irene Kelley song, written with Nancy Montgomery, pleasant but not that memorable.

Rhonda plays both mandolin and fiddle on the record, and showcases her skills on a self-composed instrumental, ‘Cherry Jubilee’.

This is a fine record which reveals Rhonda at a time when she was planning to spread her wings beyond bluegrass. The vocals are not quite as golden as on her later records, but the overall package is very good indeed.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘A Dream Come True’

A Dream Come True was Rhonda Vincent’s second solo album, and also her second album for Rebel Records, a Roanoke Virginia label that already had a long and distinguished history of preserving and presenting bluegrass music.

Rebel certainly put their best foot forward with this album, assembling a fine cast of musicians to augment Rhonda’s usual supporting cast, with such great musicians as Jerry Douglas (dobro) and Roy Huskey (bass) plus some other guests appearing on selected tracks. Carl Jackson, Kathy Chiavola , Wayland Patton and Tensel Davidson provide vocal harmonies throughout the album.

The album opens up with “Kentucky Sweetheart”, an uptempo romp by bluegrass stalwarts Carl Jackson and Tony King. Blaine Sprouse plays fiddle on this track. The vocal harmonies on this track are somewhat reminiscent of those of the Osborne Brothers during the 1960s. “We Were Almost Like A Dream Come True” is slow ballad co-written by Larry Cordle, a very pretty and wistful song.

One doesn’t think of Pat Alger as a bluegrass songwriter and he isn’t. That said, “Lone Star State of Mind” definitely works as a bluegrass song. This song is performed at a medium fast tempo.

What would a bluegrass album be without a religious song ? The song chosen for this album is a pretty tune titled “Mama’s Angels” from the recently departed Charlie Louvin. Rhonda does a really nice job with this song. David Parmley provides the harmony vocal.

“Wishing Well Blues” is a wistful medium slow ballad which gives Rhonda some opportunity to show off her mandolin playing. “Just For Old Time’s Sake” is a vocal duet with one of Nashville’s finest voices in Jim Ed Brown. I really love this song – Jim Ed and Rhonda harmonize beautifully – and having the great John Hartford playing banjo doesn’t hurt either.

“Break My Heart” is a somewhat generic uptempo number, in that the song itself is nothing special. Rhonda and her cast sound just fine on this number.

Steve Earle and Jimbeau Hinson penned “A Far Cry From You”, a song which was a minor hit for Connie Smith. Today, Rhonda is one of the few vocalists I would compare to Connie Smith, but when this album was recorded in 1989, she was still developing her style. This is not a criticism as Rhonda does an excellent job with this song, but I think if she recorded it today it would be better still.

Jennifer McCarter and Carl Jackson penned “Love Without A Trace”. Jennifer McCarter was the lead singer of the McCarters, a sister act whose music harkened back to a much earlier style of music. This track is a bit more modern sounding than the music of the McCarters, but it has a lovely and intricate harmony arrangement reminiscent of some older musical styles. Blaine Sprouse plays fiddle on this track.

“Goin’ Gone” is another Pat Alger tune that Kathy Mattea took to #1 in early 1988. I love the arrangement on this tune with Blaine Sprouse and John Hartford doing their thing in a very tasteful manner. It’s a tossup as to whether I like this version better than Mattea’s version.

Allen Reynolds is better known as a producer for such artists as Crystal Gayle, Emmylou Harris and Garth Brooks, but he is also a talented songwriter and “Till I’m Fool Enough To Give It One More Try” is a nice medium fast tempo ballad that Rhonda handles to perfection.

Closing out the set is “Sundown”, an instrumental written by Ms Vincent herself. In recent years Rhonda has developed into quite an accomplished songwriter but at this stage of her career she was relying on others for material. This song provides a nice closing to the album and gives Rhonda a chance to let her pickers shine a little.

A Dream Come True is not Rhonda’s best album, but it is a very entertaining album and shows Rhonda as a recording artist of considerable promise. The powerful rafter-rattling vocals would come later as would her development as a songwriter and development of a sense of humor in her music, only hinted at here and there on this album. This was the first Rhonda Vincent album I purchased, the one that served to get me hooked on Ms. Vincent’s remarkable talents.

This album is somewhere in the range of B+/A-.

Album Review: Musicians Against Childhood Cancer – ‘Life Goes On’

Musicians Against Childhood Cancer is the umbrella name for an annual charity concert by some of the best current bluegrass musicians. In 2006 a compilation of tracks recorded at the concert over the years was released in aid of St Jude’s Hospital, and this sequel contains performances from more recent years. The music was all recorded live but the excellent mixing would not be out of place in a studio set. The musicianship is without exception superb, as one might expect, and this is a fine bluegrass sampler in its own right, with a range of subject matter. The two CD-set includes a generous 39 tracks.

The outstanding track as far as I’m concerned is Bradley Walker’s cover of ‘Revelation’, a somber Bobby Braddock vision of the Second Coming which was originally recorded by Waylon Jennings and more recently served as the title track of an album by Joe Nichols. Walker’s superb 2006 debut album Highway Of Dreams has been far too long waiting for a follow up and it is good to hear him again. He is accompanied by a simple acoustic guitar backing allowing the bleakness of the song to take center stage.

I’m a fan of the compelling sibling harmony of the Gibson Brothers, and they contribute the fascinating ‘Ragged Man’, a tale of bitter sibling rivalry. The brother who is reduced to homeless poverty while the brother once preferred by their mother now rolls in riches, rails against “that golden boy” and warns him to “watch his back”. I’m also a big fan of Brandon Rickman’s soulful voice, and he teams up with bandmates from the Lonesome River band for a beautifully judged reading of the traditional ‘Rain And Snow’. Later the Lonesome River Band provide one of the best instrumentals on offer, the lively ‘Struttin’ To Ferrum’, which holds the attention all the way through.

Rhonda Vincent sings a simple but lovely, plaintive version of the traditional ‘The Water Is Wide’. She also sings harmony on Kenny and Amanda Smith’s take on gospel classic ‘Shouting Time In Heaven’. Marty Raybon is excellent on the gloomy Harlan Howard song ‘The Water So Cold’ (once recorded by country star Stonewall Jackson), which sounds made for bluegrass. Read more of this post

Occasional Hope’s Top 10 Albums of 2011

2011 wasn’t the best year for country, but there was still some very good music to be found if you looked for it.  Just missing the cut for my personal top 10 were fine records by the excellent Sunny Sweeney, country chart debutant Craig Campbell, independent artist Justin Haigh, blue collar bluegrass newcomer Scott Holstein, the compelling close harmonies of the Gibson Brothers,  and an enjoyable if not groundbreaking live set from Amber Digby which flew under the radar.

So what did make my cut? Read more of this post

Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘X’

By 2008 I had lost a lot of faith in Trace Adkins as an artist. But then he released the mistitled X (it is the Roman number 10, and was supposedly to mark this as his 10th release – but they only reached that number if you count greatest hits compilations).

The first single, the gospel-inflected ‘Muddy Water’ presents a troubled sinner seeking renewal in baptism. It’s a bit more heavily produced than necessary, but largely enjoyable although it peaked just outside the top 20. There is room for some sheer frivolity when a jaundiced Trace, just divorced, decides next time he might as well ‘Marry For Money’, in a humorous song written by Dave Turnbull and Jimmy Melton. This did a little better on the charts, reaching #14, the same peak as the rather more serious ‘All I Ask For Anymore’. ‘All I Ask For Anymore’ (written by Casey Beathard and Tim James) is a mature reflection on the changing desires that come with growing up, from shallow youthful selfishness to a grown man’s concerns for his wife and children. Trace delivers perhaps the finest pure vocal performance of his career supported by a swelling string arrangement. The similarly themed ‘Happy To Be Here’ (written by Jason Matthews, Jim McCormick and Mike Mobley) is a bit too heavily produced but not bad.

Two of the songs are outright modern classics. ‘Til The Last Shot’s Fired’ was not a single, but gained some attention when Trace sang it live at the ACM award show. A superb song by Rob Crosby and Doug Johnson, this explores the sacrifice of soldiers who have died, mostly in vain, starting with a Confederate soldier falling outside Nashville in the Civil War, and taking us through Omaha Beach on D-Day, Vietnam and Afghanistan:

Say a prayer for peace
For every fallen son
Set my spirit free
Let me lay down my gun
Sweet mother Mary, I’m so tired
But I can’t come home
Til the last shot’s fired

Trace’s vocal is perfectly understated and conveys the sense of defeat which imbues the song’s longing for an end to conflict. The West Point choir joins the chorus at the end, embodying the unresting souls of their predecessors, but they sound perhaps just a little too rehearsed and polite for the part they are playing.

If anything, the bleak look at alcoholism and denial penned by Larry Cordle and Amanda Martin, ‘Sometimes A Man Takes A Drink’, is even better as it remorselessly catalogs a man’s battle with alcohol, with the alcohol winning:

Sometimes a man takes a drink
So he can just throw his head back and laugh
At the things he can’t change
Like the bills he can’t pay
And all of those ghosts from the past
It’s the crutch he leans on
When things have gone wrong
Life didn’t turn out like he planned
Sometimes a man takes a drink
Oh but sometimes a drink takes the man

This is a masterpiece, with a superb vocal from Trace (who has had his own issues with drinking in the past).

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Album Review: Larry Cordle – ‘Pud Marcum’s Hanging’

Larry Cordle’s new album was supposedly released a few months back, but, perhaps because it is on the artist’s own label, distribution had been limited, and it has taken some time for me to track down. I’m glad I took the trouble to do so, because this is an excellent album full of memorable songs.

A brilliant songwriter and an emotive singer, Cordle wrote all the songs with a small band of collaborators, most frequently Larry Shell (with whom he wrote ‘Murder On Music Row’) and Connie Leigh. This record contains elements of bluegrass, country and acoustic Americana, in roughly that order. Cordle also produced the record, in dobro player Randy Kohrs’ studio.

Almost all the material consist of absorbing story songs rooted in Kentucky, three of them dealing with murders. The pure bluegrass title song tells us of a young man hanged for murdering a hated relative despite having found God in jail, bolstered by strong harmonies from bluegrass legend Del McCoury. It is based on a true story, which took place in Kentucky in 1886-1887; the unfortunate Pud was the last man ever hanged in eastern Kentucky and the very public occasion seems to have made a lasting impression on locals.

‘Justice For Willy’ tells the very modern story of a man murdered by his wife, planning to spend the insurance payout on Botox and lipo and a trip to Europe with the grocery boy – but satisfyingly, she is arrested at the funeral. As she poisoned him I’m not quite sure how she was trapped by DNA evidence as the song states, but I’m prepared to accept the resolution.

A third murder tale comes with ‘The Death Of Bad Burch Wilson’, in which the killer (most likely the narrator, whose wife was having an affair with the deceased) gets away with it:

I don’t believe he slipped and fell
I don’t believe he drowned
Nobody mourned his passing when they laid him in the ground
Things happen in the mountains that the mountains only know
Some secrets are as dark and deep as any seam of coal

The delightfully effervescent ‘Uncle Bob Got Religion’ has an appropriate old-time gospel feel with a wailing Pentecostal chorus. Fat, lazy uncle Bob is a counterfeiter and general bad lot but eventually comes to regret his sins and gets baptised in the river. The Oak Ridge Boys Richard Sterban sings bass, while Carl Jackson adds tenor and Jerry Salley baritone harmonies.

The religious ‘Gone On Before’ is pretty and soulful, and features harrnonies from its co-writer Ronnie Bowman and his wife Garnet. Ronnie and Garnet also contribute suitably angelic harmonies to ‘Angel On His Shoulder’, which portrays the internal battle faced by one man with a restrained passion:

There’s an angel on his shoulder and the devil by his side
One’s trying hard to save him
One wants to take his life
And there’s a war that’s raging down in his soul tonight
Between the angel on his shoulder and the devil by his side

Steel guitar adds a touch of melancholy.

On a similar note, Larry also gives us his own version of his song ‘Sometimes A Man Takes A Drink’, with Randy Kohrs on harmony. This was an instant classic when it was recorded a couple of years ago by Trace Adkins. I think Trace’s version is just a little better, but this is still very well done, and the song packs a massive emotional punch as it unsparingly shows up the power alcohol can gain over its victims.

The sole love song included has a dark undercurrent as the protagonist makes advances to ‘Molly’, whose husband is off somewhere cheating on her.

On a more light-hearted note, ‘Shade Tree Mechanic’ paints a fond portrait of the kind of guy who is a natural with machinery and whose home looks like his own junkyard. The sardonic ‘Brown Check’ is the story of “sorry sot” Delbert Meeks/Biggs, “too dang lazy to hold down a job”, who decide to become a welfare fraudster claiming to be too sick to work (unless he gets paid cash under the table, of course).

Coal has been a mixed blessing for the people of Kentucky and West Virginia, providing work for generations but also bringing death. The atmospheric ‘Hello My Name Is Coal’, sung as a duet with co-writer Jenee Fleenor (who has a strong voice and also plays fiddle on the track) anthropomorphises the substance and illustrates some of the things it means to the people of the Appalachians.

The only mis-step (and one which will still appeal to many listeners) is the clumsy closing track, which has Larry plaintively wondering ‘America Where Have You Gone’. It sounds good aurally, but the (conservative) sentiments are expressed surprisingly unimaginatively – not a criticism I would give to anything else on offer here.

Overall, this is an excellent record which I highly recommend.

Grade: A

You can listen on Larry Cordle’s website. The CD can be purchased there or from CDBaby, while Amazon has it as a digital download only.

Album Review: Gene Watson and Rhonda Vincent – ‘Your Money And My Good Looks’

What happens when you pair the best male country vocalist of the last 35 years with the reigning Queen of bluegrass music ? You get the best album that will be released in 2011. I can think of no recent duet album that I’ve enjoyed as much as this album. Released on the Upper Management Music label, this album contains the warning ‘Contains REAL Country Music’, and truer words never were spoken.

Although Rhonda is a bluegrass artist, and there are touches of bluegrass on a few of the tracks, this basically is a modern traditional country album, with fiddles, steel guitar and truly outstanding vocals, both individually and in harmony with each other.

The title cut is probably the weakest cut on the album. This isn’t to say that Gene and Rhonda don’t sing it well, because they do, but the song itself is nothing special. The next two tracks “Gone For Good”, a slow ballad about breaking up, and “It Ain’t Nothing New” a mid-tempo ballad co-written by bluegrass legend Larry Cordle, are both really good songs, and on many albums they would be the standout tracks but on this album they are merely the hors d’oeuvres.

With the fourth track the album shifts into overdrive with a cover of Gene Watson’s 1976 hit “You Could Know As Much About A Stranger”. I had never thought about this song as a duet, but it works really well, as Gene and Rhonda trade verses and duet on the choruses, accompanied by a lightly updated version of Gene’s original backing.

From here the album covers a 1977 hit written by Cathy Gosdin for her brother Vern Gosdin, “Til The End”. Covering Vern Gosdin is a treacherous task at best, and while I regard Gene Watson as being the superior overall vocalist, Vern Gosdin had no peers at singing melancholy slow ballads. Still Gene and Rhonda do an admirable job on the song.

The Billy Yates-penned “Alone Together Tonight” is a clever twist on the theme of a lonely boy and lonely girl in a honky-tonk. The melody reminds me of the 1982 John Anderson hit “Would You Catch A Falling Star”.

Next up is a cover of Gary Stewart’s 1974 hit “Out Of Hand”. The arrangement and instrumentation are very similar to Stewart’s recording, but with very slight alterations to the lyrics, it makes a very successful male-female duet.

“This Wanting You” was co-written by Bruce Boulton, T. Graham Brown and Bruce Burch. I don’t recall the song being issued as a single but it was one of the standout tracks on TGB’s 1988 album Come As You Were and also appeared on a Bruce Burch collection.

“Making Everything Perfect Tonight” was penned by Rhonda Vincent, a spirited mid-tempo romp about life and one of the joys of domestic life.

“Sweet Thang” was a top five for its author Nat Stuckey in 1966; however, no one remembers Nat’s version anymore because of the spirited version done by the dynamic duo of Ernest Tubb and Loretta Lynn the following year. While the ET-LL version wasn’t a big radio hit, it was a popular concert favorite for years to follow. Gene doesn’t have quite the same degree of ‘rascal’ in his voice that Ernest did, but his vocals are better.

Saving the best for last, Gene and Rhonda demonstrate their blues chops on the old Hank Williams classic, “My Sweet Love Ain’t Around”. The track runs over five minutes so even in the good old days, it wouldn’t have received much airplay. I referred to Gene Watson as the best male vocalist currently performing in country music today but Rhonda Vincent may be the best female vocalist in country music, although most of her efforts have been focused on bluegrass. Rhonda had a crack at becoming a mainstream country star on Giant Records back in the 1990s but was let down by the material the label foisted off on her. Carrie Underwood should listen to this track, as she could learn a lot about singing from Rhonda’s vocals on this track. Carrie has a vocal range very similar to Rhonda’s but with much less command and control of her vocal abilities.

There actually is a ‘bonus track’ on the album, a bluegrass instrumental “Ashes of Mount Augustine, featuring Michael Rojas, Stuart Duncan, Mike Johnson, Michael Rhodes and James Mitchell.

This album won’t be released until June 6, 2011. By then I will have listened to the album a couple dozen times !

Classic Rewind: Larry Cordle – ‘Mama Don’t Forget To Pray For Me’

The songwriter shares his version of the classic Diamond Rio hit single:

Happy Mothers’ Day.

Album Review: Ken Mellons – ‘Rural Route’

Ken Mellons was a Sony artist in the mid 90s, whose biggest hit was ‘Jukebox Junkie’, and he has also spent time signed to Curb. I always liked his incisive and emotional voice and pure country-style, and thought his albums had a lot of great cuts which never got the exposure they deserved. Like the better known Joe Diffie he is now trying to make a career in bluegrass. His late father was apparently a big bluegrass fan and always wanted his son to make a bluegrass record. The musicians are some of the best bluegrass pickers out there, including Adam Steffey on mandolin, Rob Ickes on dobro and Darrin Vincent on bass, and they do an excellent job, with producer Joe Caverlee on fiddle. Ken still sounds as good as he did in the 90s, and he has picked some fine outside material to record here alongside his own songs.

I first heard the Luke Bryan co-written title track as recorded earlier this year by indie artist Jamie Richards, with whom Ken has written and from whom I suspect he may have picked up the song. I didn’t much like it then, but this version has a cheery charm and works really well with the bluegrass instrumentation and backing vocals from Darrin Vincent and Larry Cordle (who is, incidentally quoted in the liner notes). The up-tempo ‘Take It Like A Man’, written by producer and fiddle player Joe Caverlee with Wendell Mobley and Kenny Beard, about a sexy girlfriend, is not that interesting lyrically but has some delightful instrumental fills and a great vocal.

Much better is an understated cover of ‘Still They Call Me Love’. It’s not quite as intense as the version on Gene Watson’s most recent release, Taste Of The Truth, but still very good, with thoughtful phrasing and Vince Gill and Sonya Isaacs on harmony. The vibrant ‘Tennessee’, a classic bluegrass number from the pen of Jimmy Martin and Doyle Neukirk, pays tribute to Ken’s home state, with Darrin and Rhonda Vincent and Daryle Singletary on call-and-response backing vocals.

Also pure bluegrass is the didactic but lovely ballad ‘Don’t Neglect The Rose’, written by Emma Smith and previously recorded by Larry Sparks, with bluegrass stars Dale Ann Bradley and Steve Gulley on backing vocals. Bradley and Gulley also sing backup on ‘Blue Wind’, written by the SteelDrivers’ Chris Stapleton and Mike Henderson. This is a fine country ballad which sounds lonesome but is actually a committed love song about holding on to your loved one through the winter:

There’s a blue wind that comes out of nowhere
It cuts to the heart and the bone
But it can’t cut the vine between your heart and mine
It’s the strongest that I’ve ever known
I don’t care how hard the rain falls
I don’t care if the weather turns cold
Honey, I’ll keep you warm through the eye of the storm
No matter how blue the wind blows

Ken, an accomplished songwriter who wrote much of his major label material, co-wrote six of the twelve tracks this time. He gives a sparkling bluegrass makeover to ‘Memory Remover’, one of his old songs, written with Jimmy Melton and Dale Dodson in 1991 and recorded originally on his second album, Where Forever Begins, in 1995, as a straight honky tonker.

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Album Review: Loretta Lynn – ‘Still Country’

Loretta’s first solo album in a decade was recorded in 1998 and released two years later released on the independent Audium label. Her voice was, sadly, not quite what it had been, but the songs are stronger than they had been on her last MCA album and the production from Randy Scruggs is exemplary throughout.

The heart-wrenching piano-led opening track ‘On My Own Again’ sounds as though it must be autobiographical addressing Loretta’ own experience of widowhood following Doolittle’s death in 1996, but it was actually written by Randy Scruggs, who produced the album. The woman in this song, unlike Loretta, is childless, but in other respects this must have felt very close to home. It is definitely a highlight, filled with intense emotion.

She did write one personal expression of her loss in ‘I Can’t Hear The Music’ credited as a co-write with Cody Jones and Kendal Franceschi, who finished it off when the weight of emotion overwhelmed Loretta herself from doing so. Tears audibly fill her voice as she talks about her feelings for Doolittle, and the effect is genuinely moving:

He showed me there was more to me
When I thought I had nothing else to give
God knows he wasn’t perfect
Ah but then again nobody is
He always told me the truth
No matter how hard it was to hear
When he’d say “I believe in you”
That was music to my ears

Oh each word’s like a note,
Like a beautiful tune
The kind that inspires
And helps you get through
Oh if I said “I can’t” he’d say “you can”
He was my toughest critic
Oh, and my biggest fan
Now he’s gone to a distant shore
And I can’t hear the music any more

By all accounts, including Loretta’s own in her two unflinchingly honest autobiographies, he was a bad husband in many respects – constantly unfaithful and an alcoholic, but her love for him is undeniable.

Her other composition here is the bouncy gospel-cum-tribute to Kentucky (“the closest place to Heaven that I know” of ‘God’s Country’, with hoe-down style fiddle and Earl Scruggs on banjo. The decline in her vocal powers is all too obvious, but her personality comes through engagingly, as it does on ‘Country In My Genes’, written by Larry Cordle, Larry Shell and Betty Key, and the other track featuring Earl Scruggs. This was the single released to support the album, but perhaps unsurprisingly it failed to chart. Here Loretta defies attempts to change her image; it’s a bit shouty at times but still enjoyable:

I got country in my genes
Country in my blood
It goes back generations
It’s something I’m proud of
It’s something I was born with
Whatcha get is what you see
I’m just an old hillbilly with a country song to sing
Lord I’ve got country in my genes

Yeah country’s hit the big time
Me, I’m still the same
I ain’t above my raising
And I ain’t about to change

Max D Barnes and Vince Gill wrote the pretty but mournful look at lost-love, ‘Table For Two’ which has the best vocal and is one of my favorite tracks. I’m surprised that Vince never recorded this beautiful song himself. Another favorite track is the poignant ‘Hold Her’, the third-person tale of a woman planning to leave the husband she wrongly thinks doesn’t love her, and the man who could keep her if he only showed her he did, written by Don Wayne and Irene Kelley:

All he’d have do to hold her is to hold her
Tell her how he feels down deep inside
All he’d have to do to hold her is to hold her
There’s no way she would ever leave his side

I enjoyed the sprightly cover of John Prine’s charmingly optimistic ‘Somewhere Someone’s Falling In Love’, with its almost-Caribbean rhythms, and the closing track, a version of ‘The Blues Ain’t Workin’ On Me’, previously recorded by Rhonda Vincent on her underrated 1996 release Trouble Free. ‘Don’t Open That Door’, written by Jerry Salley, Coley McCabe and Robin Lee Bruce, is a great song about struggling to resist the temptation to get involved again with a bad-news ex, but Loretta’s voice sounds strained on the sustained notes in the chorus.

The least successful track is ‘Working Girl’, a Matraca Berg/Randy Scruggs song with Matraca and Carolyn Dawn Johnson on backing vocals, a disastrous attempt at sounding contemporary. It just doesn’t work, with Loretta sounding very strained vocally, and is actually painful to listen to. It was covered more successfully a few years later by Terri Clark.

Loretta had been out of the limelight for some years, due in part to Doolittle’s illness, and this record was largely ignored. Unfortunately, despite the high quality of the material, it is a little disappointing, revealing Loretta had passed her best vocally.

Grade: B-

Album Review: George Strait – ‘Ocean Front Property’

Ocean Front PropertyStrait was on a serious hot streak in 1987 when he released Ocean Front Property, his seventh studio album, co-produced with Jimmy Bowen again. Each of the three singles from the album went to #1, starting with the title track, and the album itself was the first album ever to debut at the top of the Billboard Country Album charts. At present, it is the only one of his 80s releases to have achieved double platinum status.

That title track, written by Dean Dillon, Hank Cochran and Royce Porter, has become one of George’s classics, with its ironic lyric telling his ex that he’s over her, and barely concealed subtext that only an idiot could believe that:

“I don’t love you, and now if you’ll buy that
I’ve got some ocean front property in Arizona
From my front porch you can see the sea …
If you buy that, I’ll throw the Golden Gate in free”

Dean Dillon contributed two further songs, the solo composition ‘I’m All Behind You Now’, a resigned post-breakup number which closes the album in sightly downbeat mood, and the sweetly melancholic ‘Without You Here’, where he teamed up again with Royce Porter to produce the tale of a wife who can’t enjoy herself on a Caribbean cruise because her husband isn’t with her:

“There’s just no fun in the sun to be had
Without you here
It’s no place to be
This dream vacation is a bad situation
I’m in misery
In a sea of tears
Without you here”

It’s not altogether clear why they’re not vacationing together, but one assumes business kept him at home.  There is a happy ending, as he misses her too, and ends up flying out to join her. The song’s phrasing is very characteristic of Dillon’s work, and the song has faint but subtle Caribbean tinges to the production which do not stop it from sounding country.

The second single was another all-time Strait classic, the amusing western swing ‘All My Exes Live In Texas’, written by the great Sanger D Shafer. He had written ‘Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind’ with his third wife Darlene, and he wrote this one with his fourth wife Lyndia. On one level this might be dismissed as little more than a novelty song, as the narrator reels off a list of the exes after his blood resulting in him escaping to Tennessee, but George’s laidback ironic delivery carries the track.

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Album Review: Brandon Rickman – ‘Young Man, Old Soul’

Brandon RickmanBrandon Rickman is a very talented bluegrass singer and guitarist, with a grittily soulful voice which is very distinctive. Although this is his debut solo album (on the always-admirable Rural Rhythm Records), he has spent some time as lead singer for the Lonesome River Band. Rickman co-produces with Jimmy Metts, and they have made a record with a surprisingly full acoustic bluegrass sound, despite the small number of musicians; many tracks just feature Brandon’s voice and guitar, although others feature members of the Lonesome River Band and other musician friends. Brandon also co-writes almost all the material.

The album immediately seizes attention with the arresting opening track, ‘Always Have, Always Will’, an excellent song which Brandon wrote with Chris Stapleton of the SteelDrivers. This portrays a man who cannot stop drinking and lives with the cost, as he declares his undying love for the woman who could not live with it:
I’ve fought it time and time again
But the whiskey always wins
I got regrets I try to kill
I always have and I always will …
I know the Devil way too well
But I knew the price when I made the deal.”

The song is well complemented by the arrangement, with some fine playing, especially from Aaron McDaris on banjo and Jenee’ Fleenor on fiddle.

Two songs are written with Craig Market. ‘Here Comes That Feeling Again’ is a rather good country song about a love that should be over, but somehow keeps sneaking back into his heart “out of nowhere, out of thin air, it just comes rolling in like an old song”. Even better is ‘What I Know Now’, a thoughtful reflection on past mistakes and growing up, delivered very simply, just Brandon and his guitar:
“I don’t like to dwell on what I’ve done wrong in my life
Chalk it up to being young and full of youthful pride
You can’t go back – and I know that – but if I could, somehow,
I might’ve stayed a little longer, loved a little stronger, done right where I done wrong
If I knew then what I know now.”

Another introspective take on growing older comes with ‘So Long 20s’ as Brandon hails turning 30, again in very low-key style. He wrote this song with one-time Lyric Street country act Kevin Denney, and shares feeling which will be all-too-familiar to most of us:
“The older I get, the more I’m afraid
It’s not my age that scares me, it’s how fast I got here …
Seems like I laid down, took a nap around 18
Woke up this morning like it was all a dream.”

Buddy Owens helped Brandon write the less interesting ‘Wide Spot In The Road’, about a small hometown. I preferred the similarly themed ‘I Take The Backroads’, written with Jerry Salley (who also contributes harmonies), which has the protagonist returning home to a town which has changed out of recognition, thanks to a new freeway. Salley also co-wrote (with Brandon and Justin David) the regret-filled tribute to a prodigal’s loving mother, ‘Wearing Her Knees Out Over Me’, which is one of my favorite tracks.

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Album Review – Keith Whitley: A Tribute Album

Keith whitley tributeOne of the problems with making a tribute album is how far the participants are prepared to bring something of themselves to the interpretation, and how far they are so concerned to pay their respects the artist being honored, that the end result is little more than very tasteful, high-class karaoke.

The tribute album produced by BNA, the successor to Keith Whitley’s record label RCA, in 1994, five years after his death, does sometimes fall into that trap, but it makes one or two decisions which mark it out, too. The highly respected Randy Scruggs took on production duties, with Lorrie Morgan as executive producer. Another of those involved was songwriter Byron Hill, who says on his website that the project was the one he enjoyed working on most in his period as A&R director for BNA (1993-1994).

Some of the hottest artists of the mid 90s were recruited for the project, and most of them give respectful versions of some of Keith’s best-known songs, which speak well of their admiration of Keith, but fall a little flat when compared to the originals. Alan Jackson takes on ‘Don’t Close Your Eyes’; Tracy Lawrence tries ‘I’m Over You’; Joe Diffie sings ‘I’m No Stranger To the Rain’; and Mark Chesnutt tackles ‘I Never Go Around Mirrors’. They are all fine singers in their own right, and their versions of Keith’s hits are pleasant enough to listen to, but the overriding adjective which comes to mind while listening is ‘nice’. They lack something of the passion Keith brought to them, and perhaps this is because they were thinking of the act of tribute they were paying rather than the song itself. I suspect that if any one of these gentlemen had independently decided to record the song on one of his own albums, it would have had a different approach and more life. I think what is missing is inspiration.

Diamond Rio are a little more successful bringing something new to their track, ‘Ten Feet Away’, one of the better songs on LA To Miami. This is partly because the natural advantage of being a harmony-based band automatically brings a new feel to a song popularised by a solo singer, and partly because the new version has better production. Also very pleasing and not overawed by the task is the duet by Keith’s old friend Ricky Skaggs with Marty Raybon, lead singer of Shenandoah, on ‘All I Ever Loved Was You’, the least familiar of all the covers. This traditional-sounding bluegrass waltz was written by Ricky’s mother Dorothy Skaggs, and originally recorded by Keith and Ricky as precociously talented teenagers on their 1971 set Second Generation Bluegrass.

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Album Review: Alecia Nugent – ‘Hillbilly Goddess’

HillbillyGoddessI first heard Alecia Nugent back in 2004, when she released her eponymous debut album. It had some great songs on it, but I must confess that I didn’t really enjoy her singing, which I felt lacked subtlety and verged on the strident. Because of that, I passed on her follow-up in 2006, A Little Girl … A Big Four Lane, and it is only now, with the release of her third album Hillbilly Goddess, that I have rediscovered Alecia.

Her singing has improved immeasurably. Her tone has become warmer and fuller, the stridency I disliked has disappeared, and she has developed the ability to sing with subtlety as well as emotion. Carl Jackson’s production is faultless, and the pair of them have picked some very good songs well-suited to Alecia’s voice and style, which is very much in the country-meets-bluegrass vein.

The change is evident from the first track, the edgy ‘Wreckin’ The Train’, where Alecia gives it some rambling-girl attitude as she refuses to settle down: “I just had to walk away, he would have made a good husband, I guess that’s why I couldn’t stay.”

There is a gorgeous version of Buddy and Julie Miller’s modern classic ‘Don’t Tell Me’, which is imbued with delicately understated emotion, which is perhaps the best exemplification of how far Alecia has progressed as a vocalist. She gives a beautifully understated reading of Tim O’Brien’s regretfully poetic ‘Wishing Hard’: “Sugar just can’t hide the taste of bitterness that you get from wasting a heart that’s full of love but just can’t show it”.

Several of the songs are told in the third person, although they tend more towards snapshots of lives rather than true story songs. Some of them work rather nicely together. The downbeat ‘Just Another Alice’ takes a sympathetic look at aspiring singers “believing they’re a song away from being stars” but really “just another Alice here in Wonderland”. In ‘The Last Greyhound’ an 18 year old girl who might be one of those Alices leaves home to follow her dreams, only to find home is what she really dreams of. A male protagonist learns the same lesson later in life in the mellow-sounding closing track, ‘Already Home’:

“He knew the road like the back of his own hand,
He’d been on it a lifetime, still he wouldn’t call it a friend,
He said, he guessed some people search forever for something they already own,
And he could have saved himself a lot of miles if he had only known”

The joyful title track, co-written by Alecia herself with Jackson and Sonya Kelly, is a light-hearted but at heart, deeply romantic, tale of true love, set to a lively up-tempo tune featuring banjo from J D Crowe. The downhome heroine “may not be a glamor queen”, but to her man, she is the eponymous “hillbilly goddess”. The label should try this irresistible song as a single.

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