My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Larry Sparks

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Christmas Grass: The Collection’

christmas grassThis two-disc compilation of the best tracks from a series of three Christmas Grass albums released in 2002, 2004 and 2007 respectively comprises equal parts instrumentals and vocal tracks, and mixes the reverent with the fun/nostalgic side of the season. Most of the material is fairly well known, but the impeccable, cleanly played arrangements and excellent vocals make these versions a welcome addition to your Christmas playlists.

Dolly Parton gets things going to a bright and cheery start with her perkily irresistible reading of ‘Christmas Time’s A-Comin’’, backed by the harmonies of Dailey & Vincent. The duo also back up Russell Moore on the briskly cheerful ‘Christmas Time Is Near’.

A charmingly nostalgic look back at Christmases past in Tom T Hall’s likeable ‘Oh Christmas Candle’ is attractively sung by the trio of Jamie Dailey, Barry Scott and Doyle Lawson. Rhonda Vincent is warm and tender on Amy Grant’s Southern-themed ‘Tennessee Christmas’, while the Larkins take on a bluegrass version of Alabama’s ‘Christmas In Dixie’, which is quite nice.

Larry Sparks lends an unexpectedly wistful melancholy to ‘I Heard The Bells Ring On Christmas Day’ (with a lyric comprising a Longfellow poem), which I liked very much. My favourite track is the most downbeat one, ‘Merry Christmas Ho Ho Ho’, about a man facing his first Christmas alone, sung with a gentle sadness by Ronnie Bowman with supporting harmonies from Darrin Vincent and Sharon White.

John Cowan provides some variety by contributinga sultry soul-style vocal on ‘Please Come Home For Christmas’, which works surprisingly well with the bluegrass instrumentation.

On the religious side of things, Dailey & Vincent sing a quietly reverent and beautifully harmonised version of ‘Beautiful Star Of Bethlehem’, set to a simple guitar and mandolin backing. This must be one of their earliest recordings together. Sonya Isaacs sounds lovely on ‘Mary, Did You Know?’, while Sarah Jarosz is pleasantly soothing on ‘One Bright Star’.

3 Fox Drive get two tracks, both rather forgettable: ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’ and ‘The Christmas Song’, which I usually find boring anyway.

Approximately half the tracks are instrumental versions of well-known Christmas tunes (the first of the three albums this compilation draws on was all-instrumental). I was initially a little disappointed by this, even though they are all flawlessly played, but they make for contemplative interludes. My favourite is a gently melodic performance of ‘What Child Is This’ (the Renaissance tune ‘Greensleeves’), featuring Alison Krauss on fiddle and Ronnie McCoury on mandolin, which is quite lovely. The stately melody of ‘Silent Night’ (one of my favourite carols) is also very fine, while a bouncy ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’ is fun.

This is a very tasteful bluegrass collection, leaning more to the mellow and contemplative sides of Christmas than to revelry. I would recommend it to all fans of bluegrass and acoustic music at this time of year.

Grade: A

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Album Review: Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice – ‘The Story Of The Day That I Died’

the story of the day that i diedOne of my favorite current bluegrass acts is Virginia-based Junior Sisk & Rambler’s Choice. Excellent musicianship sparkles throughout the set, and they have a knack for picking interesting material. On their fourth album, everything comes together perfectly.

The outstanding title track is a witty story song written by Ashby Frank about a man who fakes his own suicide in order to make a new life in Mexico (paid for with his cheating wife’s IRA investments and credit cards):

I guess that sorry girl will never cheat again
After the way I did me in

I hope that you never learn the truth
You’re dead to me and now I’m dead to you

This is a sheer delight.

There is more misery on offer in the classically high lonesome ‘A House Where A Home Used To Be’, another fine song, written by Daniel Salyer. ‘Another Lonely Day’ is another Salyer-penned hurting song, with the band’s bass player Jason Tomlin given the chance to sing lead. While his vocals are a little uncertain, the song itself is pretty good. Another faithless wife leaving her man for a lover causes the moonshining protagonist to flee ‘High In The Mountains’, a fast paced number allowing the band to show off their instrumental chops.

‘Lover’s Quarrel’ is a sad traditional third-person story song once recorded by the Stanley Brothers, and with that pure mountain music style, about a couple who argue and separate for petty reasons. The young man begs his sweetheart to make things up, but she refuses, and after a while he dies.

The protagonist of the presumably tongue-in-cheek ‘Old Bicycle Chain’ complains about his wife’s (mostly rather minor) bad behaviour and threatens her with violence:

You trashed my trailer last Sunday
While I was at church singing hymns
I’ve had enough of your bad ways
So hold this anchor and take a swim

It’s never too late to change your ways, dear
Face your mistakes and take the blame
And don’t come back messing round here
Or I’ll whoop you with an old bicycle chain

On a more serious note, the excellent ‘If The Bottle Was A Bible’ takes a thoughtful look at a man taking refuge from the misery of bereavement in “the haze of neon lights and tortured souls” rather than God. The song was written by Ronnie Bowman, Clint Daniels and Billy Ryan. Sisk, whose vocals are at their best here, plays the part of a sympathetic bartender watching the man staring at the labels from his bottle of gin:

Imagine what he’d know
If the bottle was a Bible

I bet he’s drank the River Jordan
The flesh is weaker than what they’re pourin’
And right there in that bar we’d have revival
If that bottle was a bible

‘Walking In Good Company’, written by Sisk with his father, offers up some traditional bluegrass gospel. ‘Prayers Go Up’ is sung by mandolin player Chris Davis, and he has a warm voice well-showcased on a pleasant song celebrating homespun philosophy, written by three country songwriters, Ben Hayslip, Patrick Matthews and Bryan Simpson. The lyric is a little cliche’d, but the sincere spirit of the vocal sells the song. The title of the cheerfully pacy ‘Good To See The Home Place Once Again’ tells you all you need know about the song.

The record closes out with a cheerful Larry Sparks song praising the comradeship found at a local bar, ‘Drinking At the Water Hole’.

This album is an example of bluegrass at its best.

Grade: A

Buy the album at amazon.

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Sunday Mornin’ Singin’ Live’

Since her decision to leave the confines of even a sympathetic label like Rounder, Rhonda Vincent seems to have discovered a new freedom to record as she wishes.  The first album she released on her own label was the conventional (and very good) Taken, but her follow-up was her excellent country duet project with the great Gene Watson.  Third time around, Rhonda has decided to go back home to record her first live gospel album.  She has produced an acclaimed live album in the past, and she has always mixed in religious material alongside the secular, as well as releasing a gospel album when she was working with her parents’ family group, the Sally Mountain Band.  This is her first combination of the two, and to do so she chose to record the tracks live at Rhonda’s home church, Greentop United Methodist, in Greentop, Missouri.  It is not precisely a concert performance, as I gather breaks were taken between tracks.  The church has very clean acoustics; indeed this sounds like a studio set with occasional polite applause.  Rhonda is in predictably excellent voice, and The Rage play and harmonise impeccably throughout.  The production and arrangements are all meticulous, thanks to Rhonda and her fiddle player and son-in-law Hunter Berry.  Some of the material is familiar, having been picked out by Rhonda from some of her past recordings

There is a bit of a slow start, with the nicely done but unexciting opener, a revival of ‘I Feel Closer To Heaven Everyday’ which she sang as a youngster with her family’s Sally Mountain Band.  A sensitive vocal then brings life to ‘Blue Sky Cathedral’, a pretty story song about an elderly relative feeling closer to God in the midst of the beauties of nature than in church.

Rhonda wrote the slow wailing acapella ‘His Promised Land’ (with Lisa Shaffer), but although I liked the swooping melody reminiscent of an 18th century hymn tune, unfortunately I didn’t care for the droning harmonies.  ‘Fishers Of Men’, another acapella number later in the set, has a more engaging arrangement, and this version seems to have more vibrancy than her earlier cut of it, on 2003’s One Step Ahead. The pure bluegrass ‘Where We’ll Never Say Farewell’, an older song written by Larry and Eva Sparks, picks up the mood and tempo, with some great instrumental breaks and a committed vocal.

‘Silent Partner’ (written by Jeff Barbra and Darrell Webb) is also excellent; the partner is, of course, Jesus, and the lyric engagingly applies the metaphor of business life:

Now I’ve found my calling
I’m working for the Man
The pay is so much better
With the great life insurance plan

Me and my silent partner
We’re always side by side
He helps me run this business that I call life
He is the best advisor
And I can reach him any time
Me and my silent partner Jesus Christ

Turning to the hymn book, ‘Just As I Am’ gets a tasteful, rather subdued reading with soothing close harmonies.  Rhonda’s heartfelt version of ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ is beautifully sung.  ‘Walking My Lord (Up Calvary’s Hill)’ is more upbeat musically despite the subject matter, and is sung partly as a tribute to Wilma Lee Cooper.

The charming ‘God Put A Rainbow In the Clouds’ (an old Johnnie & Jack number) features vocals from Rhonda’s band members, and is just great fun.  The joyful narrative of the Old Testament story of ‘Joshua’ also features prominent vocals from the guys, and is a delight.

‘Prettiest Flower There’ is a pretty and sentimental story song which Rhonda recorded on All American Bluegrass Girl in 2008, and sings here as a tribute to her late grandmother.  ‘The Last Best Place’ (included on her secular Raging Live set  a few years ago) looks at the prospect of reuniting after death, with a lovely melody and solemn fiddle fitting the elegiac mood.  Rhonda sings it quite beautifully.  On a similar theme, Rhonda first recorded Carl Jackson’s lovely ‘Homecoming’ twenty years ago, and revives it nicely here.

The vibrant ‘Where No Cabins Fall’ harks back to traditional country gospel vocals with its call-and-response vocals. ‘Help Me To Be More Like Him’ is sweet and sincere, with particularly sympathetic backings, and I like this a great deal.

Not everyone is interested in religious music, so this album may appeal to a smaller group of Rhonda’s fans than her secular material.  Committed fans may possibly be disappointed that a fair proportion of the material is familiar from Rhonda’s previous records.  However, it is a beautifully produced, played and sung album from an artist at the peak of her ability, with very little to criticize.

Grade: A

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: Kim Williams – ‘The Reason That I Sing’

williamskimI’ve mentioned before that I always enjoy hearing songwriters’ own interpretations of songs which they have written for other artists. The latest example comes from Kim Williams, a name you should recognize if you pay attention to the songwriting credits. Kim has been responsible for no fewer than 16 number 1 hits, and many more hit singles and album tracks over the past 20 years. Now he has released an album containing his versions of many of his big hits, together with some less familiar material.

The album is sub-titled Country Hits Bluegrass Style, although the overall feel of the record is more acoustic country with bluegrass instrumentation provided by some of the best bluegrass musicians around: Tim Stafford (who produces the set) on guitar, Ron Stewart on fiddle and banjo, Adam Steffey on mndolin, Rob Ickes on dobro, and Barry Bales on bass, with Steve Gulley and Tim Stafford providing harmony vocals. Kim’s voice is gruff but tuneful, and while he cannot compare vocally to most of those who have taken his songs to chart success, he does have a warmth and sincerity which really does add something to the songs he has picked on this album.

Kim includes three of the songs he has written for and with Garth Brooks, all from the first few years of the latter’s career. ‘Ain’t Going Down (Til The Sun Comes Up’), a #1 for Garth in 1993, provides a lively opening to the album, although it is one of the less successful tracks, lacking the original’s hyperactivity while not being a compelling or very melodic song in its own right. ‘Papa Loved Mama’ is taken at a slightly brisker pace than the hit version, and is less melodramatic as a result – neither better nor worse, but refreshingly different. ‘New Way To Fly’, which was recorded by Garth on No Fences, also feels more down to earth and less intense than the original, again with a very pleasing effect.

The other artist whose repertoire is represented more than once here is Joe Diffie. The lively western swing of ‘If The Devil Danced In Empty Pockets’ (written with Ken Spooner) with its newly topical theme of being well and truly broke is fun. Although ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ (from the 1992 album Regular Joe) was never released as a single, this tender ballad about separation from a loved one has always been one of my favorite Joe Diffie recordings. Kim’s low-key, intimate version wisely avoids competing vocally, but succeeds in its own way.

One of my favorite hit singles this decade was ‘Three Wooden Crosses’, a #1 hit for Randy Travis in 2002, which Kim wrote with Doug Johnson. A movie based on the story is apparently in development. I still love Randy’s version, but while Kim is far from the vocalist Randy is, this recording stands up on its own terms, with an emotional honesty in Kim’s delivery which brings new life to the story.

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