My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Lee Ann Womack

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Ten Favorite singles of 2017

While it does become harder and harder to assemble this list each year, it always amazes me that quality country music does exist, even if the upper echelon of the airplay chart screams otherwise.  Sit back and enjoy what I consider the ten best singles released this year:



10. Tanya Tucker – Forever Loving You

Go online and you’ll find countless videos of Tucker where she details the volatility of her relationship with Glen Campbell. She freely admits to the drug and physical abuse that defined their union, which became a cornerstone of her early 20s. Even after they split, and she went onto some of her greatest success, she clearly never truly got over him.

More than a tribute to Campbell, “Forever Loving You” is an exquisite love song. Tucker is in fine voice, which makes the longing for new music all the more aching. Why does this have to be a standalone one-off and not the lead track to a new album?

9. Alan Jackson – The Older I Get

Easily Jackson’s greatest achievement since “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore.” He’s in a contemplative mood, looking back in the year he received induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. If this is any indication, I look forward to whatever he chooses to do next.

8. Jon Pardi – She Ain’t In It

The best mainstream single of 2017 comes from the newly crowned CMA New Artist of the Year. The lyric isn’t earth-shattering, but the drenching of fiddle and steel more than makes up the difference. With his solid foundation in traditional country and his willingness to stay true to himself no matter the cost, Pardi’s future is bright. As of now, he’s one of the good guys.

7. Lee Ann Womack – Hollywood

A housewife is begging her husband to engage with her. He won’t bite except to dismiss her feelings or downright ignore their partnership. She’s exhausted from their loveless marriage, and the part he’s playing in it, so much so she wonders, “either I’m a fool for asking or you belong in Hollywood.” The first of two songs in this vein comes with that killer hook and Womack’s equally effective performance.

6. Alison Krauss – Losing You

Krauss revives a somewhat obscure Brenda Lee hit from 1965 and knocks it out of the park. The covers album that followed is just as rich and deeply satisfying.

5. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – If We Were Vampires

If life didn’t come with an expiration date, would we love as hard? Isbell asks that central question on the stunning centerpiece from That Nashville Sound. He proves mortality is actually a good thing, not something to be feared. For my ears, “If We Were Vampires” is the love song of the year.

 4. Chris Stapleton – Either Way

In my more than twenty years of seriously consuming country music, no song has stuck with me as long or had as great an impact on my psyche as “Either Way.” Lee Ann Womack brought it to life eight years ago in what still remains the song’s definitive version. Stapleton sings the fire out of it, too, but his greatest achievement is being the man who wrote it. He’s easily among the upper tier of the greatest country songwriters of his generation.

3. Brandy Clark – Three Kids No Husband

Clark teamed with Lori McKenna on an anthem for the women who assume all titles without a man to even the score. Both have recorded it, but it’s Clark who found the subtly within the lyric and ultimately drove it home.

2. Sunny Sweeney – Bottle By My Bed

Many songs have been written about the struggle for a woman to conceive, but none are as achingly beautiful as Sweeney’s tale of heartbreak in the wake of a miscarriage. A powerful and universal tale for anyone who has suffered the same fate.

1. Erin Enderlin – Ain’t It Just Like A Cowboy

I didn’t have a clear favorite single this year until I played these ten songs back-to-back when considering the rankings. Enderlin blows away the competition with her story of a wife realizing how foolish she is for staying with the cheating bastard who probably never loved her in the first place. A true country ballad for the ages.

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Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘The Lonely, The Lonesome And The Gone’

Lee Ann Womack’s latest album is something of a departure, leaning in a bluesier direction than previously. This arose largely out of the lyrical theme of the album, adrressing hard times and lost love.

The opening ‘All The Trouble’ (written by Lee Ann with Adam Wright and Waylon Payne) is a hushed blues with a doomladen air, rising into a wail as she bemoans her life. Lee Ann’s vocals are fabulous, but the guitar work is unnecessarily muddy for my taste. It sets the tone for the album as a whole.

The same writing partnership is responsible for a further trio of songs. The sophisticated 60s pop/R&B ballad ‘Hollywood’ (apart from intrusive backing vocals) is a well written and exquisitely sung song about a troubled marriage which I would have preferred in a more traditional country arrangement. ‘Mama Lost her Smile’ is a closely observed story song reminiscing about the protagonist’s childhood and musing over the lacunae of memory. ‘Sunday’ is a pure blues tune which doesn’t do much for me.

‘Wicked’, written by Lee Ann with Adam Wright, is a dramatic southern gothic story song, about a mother who turns to murder to protect her child. It’s a compelling story, and well sung, but spoiled somewhat by the intrusive production:

You can’t blend in down in San Jacinto
With long blonde hair and an orange El Camino
But two things I never thought I’d need to get by
A 38 special and an alibi

Whatever I get I guess I’ve earned
But I never hurt anyone that didn’t deserve it

Oh, wicked is as wicked does
And if this ain’t wicked
Well, it’s close enough
I thought I was good and maybe I was
But wicked is as wicked does

Somethin’ had to happen
Somethin’ had to be done
And it turns out I’m pretty good with a gun
It doesn’t make it right but it is what it is and
Any mama in the world woulda done what I did

On his own, Adam Wright contributed the charming ‘End Of The End Of The World’, a pretty lilting waltz about getting back together. The title track is a subdued country ballad featuring steel guitar, gently regretting all that has been lost – a broken heart and changing times. It was written by Adam Wright with Jay Knowles.

Dale Dodson and the great Dean Dillon co-wrote ‘Talking Behind Your Back’, a lovely conversational song with the protagonist admitting to her lover’s ex over an awkward lunch that the man still really loves the other woman. A slightly loungy arrangement is okay but doesn’t quite do the song justice. Dodson teamed up with Lee Ann again, together with Dani Flowers, to write ‘Someone Else’s Heartache’, a nicely understated song of apparent resignation to a breakup, with the vulnerable vocal telling a different tale.

Covers of a couple of country classics are thrown in, remade in a soulful style fitting the overall mood of the album. ‘Long Black Veil’ (with no gender twist to the original lyric) is slow and soulful, with a stripped down arrangement and fragile vocal. ‘He Called Me Baby’, a Harlan Howard song once recorded by Patsy Cline, gets an intensely sultry jazzy makeover. An obscure George Jones-penned rockabilly gospel song, ‘Take The Devil Out Of Me’ is retro, vivacious and all too short.

Brent Cobb is a rising singer-songwriter, and Lee Ann is obviously a fan as she has covered two of his songs. ‘Shine On Rainy Day’ (the title track of Cobb’s own recent album) is a dreamy ballad with a messy, dirty sounding production I didn’t like at all set against Lee Ann’s pure vocals. The mid paced ‘Bottom Of The Barrel’ is a bit monotonous.

I’ve never been a big fan of Frank Liddell’s production choices, but I have little doubt that this album is exactly what Lee Ann wanted this time. My own feelings are mixed: it is a beautifully realized piece of work from a general artistic point of view, but I really miss the traditional country Lee Ann Womack.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind: Lee Ann Womack – ‘Stubborn (Psalm 151)’

Song Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘Hollywood’

Ever since debuting “All The Trouble,” Lee Ann Womack has been busy preparing for the Oct. 27 release of her ninth album, The Lonely, The Lonesome and The Gone. She completed a mini acoustic tour with Patty Griffin and starred as the main attraction at AmericanaFest in Nashville, sponsored by The Americana Music Association. Events included the annual Lee Ann Womack & Friends concert and an intimate conversation and performance at The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum moderated by Peter Cooper.

Womack also participated in the Build Series in New York City (The interview is on Facebook) and gave a wide-ranging interview with Noisey, a music brand created through Vice with the mission “to document new and exciting music across the globe — from pop’s heavy-hitters to tiny garage bands and everything in between.” Womack vented her frustrations with mainstream Nashville and revealed she had to constantly battle her traditional tendencies with the need to satisfy her major label’s bottom line.

Amongst these performances and interviews, she premiered “Hollywood,” which she also co-wrote with Waylon Payne and Adam Wright. The ethereal ballad finds Womack in familiar territory, as the wife in a disintegrating marriage with a less than forthcoming spouse. Like all her songs, the wife has every clue what’s happening before her eyes, so much so she routinely begs her husband to have a substantive conversation with her, both at the breakfast table:

Morning cup of coffee, not a single word

And if you do say something, it’s only about work

Every time I ask you, you just say we’re good

And in bed, where he admits his anticipation:

We say good night, I love you

We never miss our cue

I ask you if you mean it

You say yes I knew you would

The wife is clearly exhausted from fighting for everything he won’t give her, which Womack brings out in her performance, strong yet breathy. Like any woman who trusts her intuition, the wife only wants one thing out in the open — the truth:

Like the silver screen, its a technicolor dream

We pretend it’s real, but it’s only make-believe

But it’s the killer hook that drives everything home. The wife only doubts herself once, right after he fails to give her the answers she so desperately needs:

Either I’m a fool for askin’

Or you belong in Hollywood

I’ll freely admit it took me a minute when I first heard “Hollywood” to digest the presentation, from the dark production and background singers to Womack’s vocal, which goes in and out from her soprano to her falsetto. But on repeat listenings, I get what’s going on here. This song is so old Hollywood, so Mad Men-esque it’s almost scary. It won’t appeal to everyone, but it eventually finally got me.

Grade: A 

Single Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘All the Trouble’

Although she is best known to the masses for her massive crossover hit “I Hope You Dance”, Lee Ann Womack has built a reputation as one of only a very select few female artists that adheres to country music’s traditions. John Rich once referred to her as this generation’s Tammy Wynette. I’m not sure I quite agree with that assessment; my first reaction was that she was more like a Patty Loveless, but I’ve come to realize that a case can be made that she is this generations’ Emmylou Harris, putting artistry and tradition ahead of commercial concerns and earning universal respect from her peers. Let’s just pretend that 2002’s Something Worth Leaving Behind never happened; she has more than redeemed herself for that misstep.

Lee Ann is releasing a new independent album in October and there have been rumors that she is moving in an Americana direction. It’s a little hard to say based on the advance single “All the Trouble,” which is different from her usual fare. I’d call it country blues with a touch of gospel rather than Americana; in fact, it sounds like something that The Judds might have had success with in their heyday.

Written by Lee Ann with her bandmates Adam Wright and Waylon Payne, “All the Trouble” begins with Lee Ann singing the chorus acapella at a the lower end of her register and slowly builds in intensity. During the first, mostly acoustic verse, she sounds beaten down:

The deck is stacked against you
Life’s a losing hand
Even when you think you’re up
You’re right back down again
Either way you play it
The house is gonna win.

By the second chorus, she kicks it up a notch, sounding more like the Lee Ann of old.

I’ve got all the trouble I’m ever gonna need
And I just don’t want no more.

By this point she’s singing more intensely, desperately searching for a happy ending. It’s about a full octave higher than the beginning of the song, which is quite effective in giving the listener a full sense of her emotions. The background vocalists provide a gospel feel which gives the whole song a sense of hope. Unfortunately, at this point the production becomes a lot busier and louder than it was at the beginning and I feel that this is a case where less would have been more.

“All the Trouble” is not perfect, but it’s everything that contemporary mainstream country is not: substantive, well-written, and well sung from the female point of view. I’m looking forward to hearing the full album.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind: Joe Nichols and Lee Ann Womack – ‘We’re Gonna Hold On’

A cover of a George Jones/Tammy Wynette classic:

Classic Rewind: Lee Ann Womack – ‘Chances Are’

Album Review: Don Williams – ‘Especially For You’

Don’s eleventh album, released in June 1981, continued Don’s string of successful albums, reaching #5, his ninth (of eleven) albums to reach the top ten. Three singles were released from the album, all of which made the top ten: “Miracles” (#4 Billboard/ #1 Cashbox ), the exquisite duet with Emmylou Harris “If I Needed You” (#3 Billboard/ #1 Record World) and “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good” (#1 across the board).

The instrumentation on this album is a bit unusual for a country album of this vintage as a variety of odd instruments appear including such things as bongos, congas, ukulele, shaker and tambourine. Fortunately only the second and ninth tracks feature synthesizer, and Lloyd Green is present on steel guitar to restore order on five of the tracks. Unlike Don’s earlier albums, dobro (or resonator guitar) does not show up in the mix at all, and I definitely miss its presence.

The album opens up with a tune from “The Man In Black” (Johnny Cash) in “Fair-weather Friends”. This is a religiously oriented track, but a nice song

Fair-weather friends, fair-weather sailors
Will leave you stranded on life’s shore
One good friend who truly loves you
Is worth the pain your heart endures

We never know which way the wind will blow
Nor when or where the next turmoil will be
But He’s a solid rock when troubles grow
And He’s holding out a saving hand for me

“I Don’t Want to Love You” comes from the pen of Bob McDill. Bob never did anyone wrong with a song and this song about the human dilemma is no exception

I think about you every minute
And I miss you when you’re not around
And every day, I’m gettin’ deeper in it
I’m scared to go on, but the feelin’s so strong
I can’t turn away from you now

No, no, no, I don’t want to love you
And oh, oh, oh, I’m tryin’ not to
No, no, no, I don’t want to love you
But oh, oh, oh, I think I do

“Years from Now” by Roger Cook and Charles Cochran is a tender ballad with no potential as a single

Still love has kept us together
For the flame never dies
When I look in your eyes
The future I see

Holding you years from now
Wanting you years from now
Loving you years from now
As I love you tonight

Dave Hanner was a familiar figure in the country music as a writer and performer (Corbin/Hanner). His songs have been recorded by the Oak Ridge Boys, Glen Campbell, Mel Tillis and the Cates Sisters but the capstone of his writing career is the classic “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good”, a chart topper for Don and recorded many times since then including nice versions by Lee Ann Womack and Anne Murray. Don had Corbin/Hanner for his opening act on one tour. Taken at mid-tempo, this is one of the songs that come to mind when Don’s name is mentioned.

Lord, I hope this day is good
I’m feelin’ empty and misunderstood
I should be thankful Lord, I know I should
But Lord, I hope this day is good

Lord, have you forgotten me
I’ve been prayin’ to you faithfully
I’m not sayin’ I’m a righteous man
But Lord, I hope you understand

I don’t need fortune and I don’t need fame
Send down the thunder Lord, send down the rain
But when you’re planning just how it will be
Plan a good day for me

“Especially You”, written by Rick Beresford has an artsy feel to it and has that “Nashville Sound” combination of strings and steel. I think that this song would have made a decent single

I see the rainbow in your eyes,
I see all the colors pass me by
I sure like the things my eyes can do,
Especially when they see you.

I hear the music of this day,
I sure like the songs this world can play
But most of all I like your tune,
When you whisper I love you.

My senses don’t like, I get a definite high
When you’re near I feel clear off the ground
Reach for my arms, and I will give you the stars
There is nothing that is holding us down.

Townes Van Zandt was the source of “If I Needed You”, Don’s successful duet with Emmylou Harris. I am not that much of a fan of Emmylou’s solo endeavors, but she can seemingly blend with anyone. Pair her with a good singer like Don Williams, and the end result is outstanding. I think that this is my favorite Townes Van Zandt composition:

If I needed you, would you come to me?
Would you come to me, for to ease my pain?
If you needed me, I would come to you
I would swim the sea for to ease your pain

Well the night’s forlorn and the mornin’s warm
And the mornin’s warm with the lights of love
And you’ll miss sunrise if you close your eyes
And that would break my heart in two

“Now and Then” (Wayland Holyfield) and “Smooth Talking Baby” (David Kirby, Red Lane) are acceptable album filler, but nothing more.

“I’ve Got You to Thank for That” by Blake Mevis and Don Pfrimmer is an upbeat mid-tempo love song song that grows on you over time. Blake Mevis had considerable success as a songwriter but may be best remembered as the producer of George Strait’s early albums.

I’ve got Sunday school to thank for Jesus
Got educated thanks to mom and dad
I can borrow money thanks to banker Johnson
Thanks to me I’ve spent all that I have.

I quit smoking thanks to coach Kowalsky
Thanks to lefty Thomson I can fight
It took a while learning all life’s lessons,
But I learnt about love just one night.

Honey I’ve got you to thank for that
It’s good from time to time to look back
It always reminds me that I love it where I am at
Honey I’ve got you to thank for that

The album closes with the first single released from the album “Miracles”. Written by Roger Cook, the song is yet another slow ballad. In the hands of anyone other than Don Williams, the song would seem turgid, but Don sells the song effectively. The use of strings with steel enhances the dramatic presentation

Miracles, miracles, that’s what life’s about
Most of you must agree if you’ve thought it out

I can see and I can hear, I can tell you why
I can think and I can feel, I can even cry
I can walk, I can run, I can swim the sea
We had made a baby son and he looks like me

I don’t think Don Williams is capable of issuing a bad album. It appears that Especially For You was only briefly available on CD (I’ve been reviewing from a vinyl copy), but is currently unavailable.

I prefer the more acoustic sound of Don’s earlier albums, but this is a good album that I would give a B+. Did I mention that I really missed that dobro?

Album Review: Chris Stapleton – ‘From a Room: Volume 1’

Ever since he swept the 2015 CMA Award and his career-defining performance with Justin Timberlake at that show, Chris Stapleton has been regarded by many as the savior of country music, who will lift the genre out of its creative doldrums and set it back on a path towards traditionalism. The great irony is that Stapleton’s music is really not that traditional for the most part. Roots-oriented, organic, and substantive yes, but he’s hardly the modern day equivalent of Randy Travis in 1986. Nevertheless, there is no denying that the genre has benefited from his success. He has a powerful voice but his style owes more to blue-eyed sound southern rock than traditional country. His style is not usually my cup of tea, but I actually like Chris Stapleton quite a lot and have ever since he was the lead singer for The SteelDrivers. And regardless of whether or not one likes his vocal style, one can’t help but root for someone who can have commercial success while bypassing the cesspool that is country radio.

The follow-up to his immensely successful debut album Traveller was originally envisioned as a two-disc set, but Mercury apparently had some reservations about a double album and opted to release From a Room in two volumes, with the second set tentatively slated for an autumn release. One of the unfortunate consequences of his is that the first volume consists of a mere nine tracks. No album should consist of less then ten songs, in my opinion. I was annoyed when RCA trimmed back its albums to nine tracks in the 1980s and the practice, though rare nowadays, still does not sit well with me. Surely there were more songs recorded that could have been used to flesh out the album a bit. That criticism aside, From a Room is, for the most part, an outstanding collection.

Like Traveller, From a Room: Volume 1 was co-produced by Stapleton and Dave Cobb and recorded in RCA Studio A. Eight of its nine tracks were co-written by Stapleton (many apparently from his extensive back catalog), the sole exception being a stunning version of “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning”, which was a #2 hit for Willie Nelson in 1982. It tells the story of a morning in which everything goes wrong: the delivery of a past-due bill notice, an alarm clock that fails to go off on time, a spilled pot of coffee, among other things, culminating in the narrator’s wife or girlfriend calling an end to their relationship. Stapleton’s wife Morgane Hayes-Stapleton provides the harmony vocals.

Another tune that will be familiar to many listeners is “Either Way”, which was originally included on Lee Ann Womack’s Call Me Crazy album in 2008. A ballad about a relationship taking its last dying breaths, it is the perfect vehicle for Stapleton’s powerhouse voice. Wikipedia lists it as the current single. Don’t expect to hear it the radio.

“Up to No Good Livin'”, the sole traditional track on the album, is my favorite. Again featuring Morgane signing harmony, it is a pedal-steel drenched up-tempo number about a reformed hell raiser whose wife refuses to believe that he’s mended his ways:

Wish I could come home from workin’
And not have her checking my breath
I’m tired of her turning her questions
Into the Gettysburg Address
There’s no reason why she shouldn’t trust me
The fact that she don’t makes me mad
Can’t count all the times that I’ve begged her
Honey, just let my past be the past

I used to drink like a fish and run like a dog
Without a whole lotta sh*t not committed by law
People called me the Picasso of painting the town
I’ve finally grown up
I’ve finally changed from that someone I was
To somebody I am
But she finds it hard to believe that she’s turned me around
So I’ll probably die before I live all my
Up to no good livin’ down

It’s no surprise, given Stapleton’s reputation as one of Nashville’s best songwriters, that From a Room: Volume 1 consists of very well-crafted and well executed songs. The sole dud is “Them Stems”, a tongue-in-cheek number about a marijuana user who has come to the end of his stash and desperate for a fresh supply. It’s catchy, but songs about drug use make me uncomfortable and as a result, I really can’t get into this one. One throwaway track on an album is no big deal but it’s a little harder to overlook when there are only nine songs in total.

From a Room: Volume 1 is sure to be one of 2017’s best sellers, and deservedly so. I’ve already played it several times and actually prefer it to Traveller. I’m looking forward to hearing the second volume in a few months.

Grade: A

Album Review: Reba McEntire – ‘Sing It Now: Songs of Faith and Hope’

rebaReligious albums, like Christmas albums, are sometimes a hard sell to fans because there is inevitably much overlap in song selection with other artists’ Gospel collections. Reba McEntire avoids falling into that trap with Sing It Now: Songs of Faith and Hope, which was released last week. The generous two-disc collection is evenly divided between traditional hymns and more contemporary inspirational songs. As long as thirty years ago, I can remember Reba saying she wanted to a Gospel album; finally, she has reached a point in her career where commercial pressures have eased enough to allow that dream to become a reality.

Reba produced the collection with Rascal Flatts member Jay DeMarcus. The first disc contains most of the old familiar favorites beginning with “Jesus Loves Me” – the first song Reba sang in public at age four, and progressing on to other standards such as “Oh, How I Love Jesus”, “When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder”, “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art”. She is joined by family and friends on a few tracks: her mother and sisters provide the harmonies on “I’ll Fly Away”. The Isaacs appear on a mash-up of “In The Garden” and “Wonderful Peace” and Kelly Clarkson and Trisha Yearwood lend their voices to “Softly and Tenderly”, which closes out the first disc. This track was released as a single in December. It didn’t make the country charts but did reach #43 on the Christian chart. All of these songs are tastefully arranged; the production is appropriately sparse and traditional. Reba and DeMarcus push the envelope slightly on “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, which features some nice steel guitar work (an instrument we rarely hear on Gospel albums). The only tune on the first disc that I didn’t particularly care for was “Oh Happy Day”, on which the production is a cluttered mess of too-loud horns, saxophones and a Gospel choir. Clocking in at more than five and a half minutes, it goes on way too long.

Disc Two contains more modern religious-themed songs, mostly performed in the pop-country style for which Reba is well known. I particularly liked the title track and the current single “Back to God”, which first appeared on Randy Houser’s 2008 debut album. A Houser co-write with Dallas Davidson, Reba’s version of “Back to God” currently resides at #25 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, although it has yet to appear on the airplay chart. “There Is a God” — also quite good — is a remake of the 2009 Lee Ann Womack single. “God and My Girlfriends” sounds as though it could have appeared on any Reba album released during the past twenty years. Not as overtly religious as the title suggests, it probably would have stood a chance of being a hit a few years ago, but probably not now. The upbeat “I Got The Lord on My Side” sounds like an old-time revival song; it was written by Reba and her mother Jackie McEntire.

“Angel on My Shoulder”, which features a banjo and drum machine suffers from the clichéd production that we’ve heard too much of in mainstream country in recent years. The song itself is not bad, but it is probably the weakest in the collection. “From the Inside Out” is a pretty but somewhat lifeless ballad.

Reba is one of the best female vocalists that country music has ever known and she’s always been one of my favorites. I’ve been critical of many of her musical choices over the past decade or so as she seemed more concerned with chasing trends and maintaining a presence on the radio than just singing good songs. Sing It Now shows that when she puts aside commercial considerations and works with good material, she is still second to none. Despite one or two minor missteps, Sing It Now is a great collection and hopefully a sign of the direction that this talented lady will be going in the future.

Grade: A-

Occasional Hope’s top 10 albums of 2016

real-country-musicThere has been some excellent country music released this year, admittedly mostly away from the major labels. Just missing my cut were strong comebacks from Loretta Lynn and Lorrie Morgan; glorious Western Swing from the Time Jumpers; sizzling bluegrass from Rhonda Vincent and her band; and a pair of very promising debuts from Mo Pitney and William Michael Morgan.

10 – Bradley Walker – Call Me Old Fashioned
Traditional country meets gospel from an underrated singer.

Best tracks: ‘His Memory Walks On Water’; ‘Why Me’; ‘Sinners Only’; ‘In The Time That You Gave Me’.

big-day-in-a-small-toen9 – Brandy Clark – Big Day In A Small Town

Like Miranda Lambert’s latest, this album married outstanding storytelling and songwriting, good vocals and overbearing production. But the songs here are so strong that the end result still made it into my top 10.

Best tracks: ‘Since You’ve Gone To Heaven’; ‘Three Kids, No Husband’; ‘Homecoming Queen’.

8 – Cody Jinks – I’m Not The Devil

His deep voices tackles themes of darkness versus light, on some very strong songs.

Best tracks: ‘The Same’; ‘I’m Not The Devil’; ‘Grey’.

7 – Jamie Richards – Latest And Greatest

Warm, inviting vocals and excellent songs with a real gift for melody.
Best tracks: ‘I’ll Have Another’; ‘I’m Not Drinkin’; ‘Last Call’; ‘Easier By Now’.

for-the-good-times

6 –Willie Nelson – For The Good Times: A Tribute To Ray Price

As the veterans of country music continue to pass away, it’s a comfort to see that at 83, Willie Nelson is still going strong. His tribute to the late Ray Price, with the help on several tracks of The Time Jumpers, was a delightful reminder of some of the best country songs ever written.

Best tracks: ‘Heartaches By The Number’; ‘Crazy Arms’; ‘Invitation To The Blues’.

5 – Dallas Wayne – Songs The Jukebox Taught Me

The deep voiced singer’s Heart of Texas debut is a honky tonk joy.
Best tracks: ‘No Relief In Sight’; ‘Eleven Roses’; ‘She Always Got What She Wanted’.

4 – Mark Chesnutt – Tradition Lives

A solid return from the 90s star with some excellent songs. It feels as if the last 20 years never happened.

Best tracks: ‘Is It Still Cheating’; ‘So You Can’t Hurt Me Anymore’; ‘Neither Did I’.

hymns3 – Joey + Rory – Hymns That Are Important To Us

A final heartbreaking labor of love for the duo recorded during the last stages of Joey’s illness. Joey’s beautiful voice and inspirational spirit are showcased for the last time.
Best tracks: ‘Softly And Tenderly’; ‘When I’m Gone’; ‘I Surrender All’.

2 – John Prine – For Better, Or Worse

I adored John Prine’s collection of classic country duets on the topic of marriage, and said when I reviewed it that it was set to be my favourite of the year. I was almost right. It really is a delightful record – great songs, lovely arrangements, and outstanding vocals from the ladies counterpointing Prine’s gruff emotion.

Best tracks: ‘Fifteen Years Ago’ (with Lee Ann Womack); ‘Look At Us’ (with Morgane Stapleton); ‘Color Of The Blues’ (with Susan Tedeschi); ‘Cold Cold Heart’ (with Miranda Lambert); ‘Dreaming My Dreams With You’ (with Kathy Mattea); ‘Mr And Mrs Used To Be’ (with Iris De Ment).

1 – Gene Watson – ‘Real. Country. Music

While Willie Nelson is still great, his voice is showing signs of age. The wonderful Gene Watson is still at the peak of his powers in his 70s, and his skill at picking excellent material hasn’t faltered either. His latest album reminds younger performers what real country music is all about.

Best tracks: ‘Couldn’t Love Have Picked A Better Place To Die’; ‘Bitter They Are, Harder They Fall’; ‘When A Man Can’t Get A Woman Off His Mind’; ‘A Bridge That Just Won’t Burn’; ‘Ashes To Ashes’; ‘She Never Got Me Over You’.

Album Review: Jamie Richards – ‘Latest And Greatest’

latest-and-greatestThe underrated Oklahoma-born country singer and songwriter Jamie Richards is back with a fine new release, his fifth album. He has a warm mellow voice which is always good to hear, a solid songwriting gift (he wrote or cowrote every song on the album), and is a real country singer. As the title suggests, some of the cuts are new versions of older songs, but there are five new ones as well.

‘Last Call’ (a co-write with Wayd Battle) comes off like an answer to the Lee Ann Womack song of the same name (although in fact it predates it, having made its first appearance on Jamie’s first album back in 2004. While coming from the viewpoint of the man calling up his latenight last resort inevitably lacks the devastating impact of the LAW song, there is some self awareness, as he admits

Don’t know why she still answers

‘Any Way You Want Me To’ (written with Walt Wilkins) and ‘When You Love Somebody’ (written with Bruce Bouton) are nice love songs.

‘Second Hand Smoke’ (the lead single) is a fine song about a man still struggling with the memory of his lost love, despite claiming he is completely over her:

You’d think three years clean would be plenty of time
While you’ve been out of sight, I’ve been out of my mind
Yeah I kicked the habit
I’ m back in control
I’m over you and better alone
But you’re still hangin’ around like second hand smoke

The languid ‘Never Gonna Hear It From Me’, which has an almost hypnotic feel to the melody, is another excellent song about ongoing feelings for an ex. ‘Drive’, the title track from his 2007 album, is another to brood over lost love.

The outstanding ‘Sayin’ Goodbye’ (one of the new songs) again balances the pain of loss and denial. Even better, ‘I’ll Have Another’ is an excellent song about losing a loved one which is revisited from 2013’s All About The Music.

The powerful ‘I’m Not Drinkin’’ is another displaying the protagonist’s attempts to try to keep his dignity and hide his pain from the woman who has caused it:

You say I look a little rough
I look like a man who’s given up …

No I don’t need you to drive me home
Cause I’m not drinkin’
I’m just thirsty
Your leavin’ didn’t even hurt me
I don’t really like the taste of whiskey

The track is augmented by effective backing vocals from Charla Corn.

‘Easier By Now’ (from Richards’ Sideways) is a lovely song with a beautiful melody and another sad lyric.

The fiddle led ‘Whiskey Night’ sees a hard drinker changing his ways (and his diet from whiskey to beer) a little too late:

This ain’t a whiskey night
I won’t be tight and I’ll go home
Goin’ down a dead end road
I lost my way
I lost control
And I won’t lose her without a fight

‘She’s Cold As That Beer She’s Drinking’ is about not getting lucky.

The cheerful mid-tempo ‘Real’ sets out his country boy philosophy of life:

Old boots, old hat
For skinny jeans I’m a bit too fat…
I believe most pretty boys that sing
Don’t know a thing about country twang
That’s just how I feel
Cause I like real

There are two versions of this, one straightforwardly down the line, the other a bonus cut at the end performed as a duet with Texas radio DJ Justin Frazell.

While as a longstanding fan I would have liked more new material, this makes a good introduction for newer listeners. There really isn’t a bad note here. And if you try it you have his previous albums to catch up on.

Grade: A

Album Review: Mo Pitney – ‘Behind This Guitar’

behind-this-guitar23 year old Mo Pitney from Illinois is chasing on the heels of William Michael Morgan as the latest neotraditional country singer to make a mainstream bid for success. (In a bizarre coincidence, they share a name – Mo is short for Morgan). Mo’s singles haven’t achieved the same level of success as that of his contemporary, but he has been building up some grassroots support as he issues his debut album, produced by veteran Tony Brown. Mo is a talented songwriter as well as a fine singer, and cowrote most of the songs here.

I was pleasantly surprised by the lead single ‘Country’ over 18 months ago, and still enjoy its relaxed feel. The second single ‘Boy And A Girl Thing’ is also very pleasant sounding, augmented by harmonies from Lee Ann Womack; as Razor X noted in his review, it has strong echoes of late George Strait to it. Sadly, neither single (both Pitney co-writes) reached the top 40 on the Billboard country chart. Both follow fairly well travelled ground lyrically, and although unambitious, Mo’s vocals and the gentle country arrangements make them worth hearing. Current single ‘Everywhere’ has a fuller, more contemporary sound, but isn’t terribly interesting, even though it is a cowrite with the great Dean Dillon.

Dillon also co-wrote ‘Take The Chance’, which has a very pretty melody and arrangement, and grows on repeated listens.

One of the album’s highlights is the deeply affecting ‘Just A Dog’ (written with Jimmy Melton And Dave Turnbull). It is the story of a stray dog who becomes the protagonist’s best friend. Another favorite is ‘I Met Merle Haggard Today’. Unlike some Haggard tributes, this one makes a (successful) effort to sound like the man himself, with the song structured like some of Haggard’s conversational style numbers, and Mo’s vocal echoing Hag’s stylings. It relates a real life meeting with Mo’s hero in 2013.

The excellent ‘Cleanup On Aisle Five’ (written by Mo with Wil Nance) has a nicely detailed story of a chance encounter with an ex in the supermarket leading to a man’s emotional breakdown:

If I wasn’t standing in that store I might have laid right on that floor and cried

‘Come Do A Little Life’ is a nice mid-tempo everyday love song (written with Nance and Byron Hill); ‘When I’m With You’, written with David Lee Murphy, is along the same lines. ‘Love Her Like I Lost Her’ is a strong song about realising the fragility of life and importance of love, which Mo wrote with bluegrass songwriter Dennis Duff.

Mo has a very strong religious faith, and includes the understated contemporary Christian ‘Give Me Jesus, set to a very stripped down acoustic arrangement. This (written by Fernando Ortega) is one of only two songs Mo did not help to write. The other, oddly enough, is the title track, which was written by Casey Beathard, Don Sampson and Phil O’Donnell, despite sounding as if it must be autobiographical. It’s a charming folky song about being a musician:

Behind this guitar is just a boy who had a dream in his heart
Behind this guitar is just a guy who can’t believe he got this far

Well, I’ve always said that I’ve been blessed
Why me is anybody’s guess
Well, I don’t know
But I’m well aware the man upstairs could have answered any other’s prayers
And let mine go
But thanks to Him, my family, friends, and those that got me where I am
(You know who you are)
And with that in mind the truth is I’m not the only one
Behind this guitar

This is a very promising debut, perhaps a little more traditional and less commercial than that of William Michael Morgan. I do hope that both young men do well in their careers.

Grade: A-

Album Review: John Prine and Friends – ‘For Better, Or Worse’

for-better-or-worseBack in 1999 singer-songwriter John Prine released a charming collaboration with a group of country and folk female singers, singing classic country duets. 17 years later here comes a sequel, which is just as delightful. Prine’s gruff vocals are set off by his duettist’s much better voices, and the combinations work very well.

Most of the collaborators are different, with the exception of Fiona Prine (John’s wife) and Iris De Ment. The latter featured on no less than four tracks on the first album, and two here, both originally recorded by Loretta Lynn and Ernest Tubb. The tongue in cheek opener ‘Who’s Gonna Take Your Garbage Out’ has Iris throwing out her good-for-nothing husband. He complains of being henpecked, while she declares,

Calling a man like you a husband’s like calling an ol’ wildcat a pet

They take a broken marriage more seriously in the sad ‘Mr And Mrs Used To Be’.

The wonderful Lee Ann Womack is ethereally sweet on ‘Storms Never Last’. She is even better on ‘Fifteen Years Ago’, a pained tale of long lasting heartbreak, which was a hit for Conway Twitty. Turning it into a duet transforms the song from one of solo heartache (a la ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’, but with no end in sight) to one of mutual regret, which is almost more poignant. This is my favourite track.

‘Cold, Cold Heart’ doesn’t work as well as a duet lyrically, but the cut shows duet partner Miranda Lambert can do traditional country with a lovely sounding and emotional vocal. Kacey Musgraves hams it up a bit on the ultra-retro ‘Mental Cruelty’, but the track is fun. Holly Williams is good on the sassy back-and-forth of ‘I’m Telling You’, although the song is very short (less than two minutes).

The pure voice of Kathy Mattea makes two appearances. ‘Dreaming My Dreams With You’ is gorgeously tender and romantic, while ‘Remember Me’ is pretty with a little melancholy undertone. Alison Krauss guests on the gently pretty ‘Falling In Love Again’. Probably the least known singer to a general audience is Morgane Stapleton (wife of Chris), but I’ve loved her voice since she was briefly signed to a major label a decade ago. Her performance on Vince Gill’s ‘Look At Us’ is lovely, and very reminiscent of Lee Ann Womack.

A very pleasant surprise for me was Susan Tedeschi, a blues/rock singer who does an excellent job on ‘Color Of The Blues’. Although she’s not the greatest vocalist, Americana artist Amanda Shires is also decent on ‘Dim Lights, Thick Smoke’ (one of my favourite songs), and adds a bit of quirky personality.

It’s fair to say that Fiona Prine is not in the same class as the other ladies vocally, but her duet, ‘My Happiness’, is quite pleasant. There is one solo track, the closing ‘Just Waitin’’, a surprisingly entertaining narration.

This is an excellent album which is vying to be my favorite of 2016.

Grade: A+

Retro Album Reviews: Joe Nichols – ‘Real Things’, and Tracy Lawrence – ‘For The Love’

for the loveBack 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.

REAL THINGS – JOE NICHOLS (2007)

Other than Brad Paisley, I cannot think of another of the current Nashville acts that has as good a grasp on what is or isn’t country music than Joe Nichols. This album simply is a delight from start to finish.

The opening track “Real Things” sets a nice placemat for the current single “Another Side of You” (currently a top 25 and rising). For this album Nichols has tapped the cream of Nashville’s songwriting community for good songs. Only one old song was selected for the album and that is the late Blaze Foley’s classic “If I Could Only Fly” performed here as a duet with Lee Ann Womack and with the legendary John Hughey on steel guitar (Paul Franklin plays steel on the remaining tracks where steel is used). All of the material is top-flight and my only fear was that it may prove “too country” for today’s wimpy country radio.

The copy of the CD I purchased has a 14th track on it, a wry song titled “When I’m Hurtin'” in which a country singer apologizes to the audience that the only time he really sings well is you know when. This song is easily a 5 star effort and should have been released as a single.

Grade: A

FOR THE LOVE – TRACY LAWRENCE (2007)

Among the younger singers, Tracy Lawrence has the best pure country voice this side of John Anderson and Randy Travis. Like previous efforts, this CD has two or three cuts that are merely okay, and the rest are terrific. My favorite songs is “Til I Was a Daddy Too” , as meaningful a song as you will ever encounter. “You Can’t Hide Redneck” is a fun romp and “Rock and A Soft Place is another highlight. Such is the vocal prowess of Tracy Lawrence that his solo cut of “Find out Who Your Friends Are” is considerably better than the cut on which he is joined by Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw, both lesser vocal talents. I love this disc, an early nominee for CD of The Year honors.

Grade: A+

EP Review: Shelley Skidmore – ‘Shelley Skidmore’

shelley skidmoreKentucky-born Shelley Skidmore co-wrote (with Brandy Clark and Shane MacAnally) a song I loved a few years back when Joanna Smith recorded it – ‘We Can’t Be Friends’. Now she has released her own five track EP (produced by Paul Worley), and proves to have a fine voice with a smooth tone, and a genuine country sensibility. In a recent interview she cites her favorite albums of all time as Lee Ann Womack’s There’s More Where That Comes From and Patty Loveless’s When Fallen Angels Fly – definitely an indicator of someone who loves traditional country music and knows great songs when she hears them.

The excellent ‘White Picket Fences’ was written by Shelley with Brandy Clark and Jessie Jo Dillon, and it’s a very typical Clark story song. It paints a scathing picture of the guilty secrets lying behind both a small town’s respectable surfaces, which are not so very different from the open sins of the dreaded big city:

It’s all white picket fences
It’s all pink and purple pansies
Its the face of small town grace
The perfect place to raise a family
We’re all scandal
We’re all scripture
We’re all smiling for the picture
It’s alright because it’s all white picket fences

A little bit of tasteful brass adds a jocular air.

This is the only song on the set Shelley had a hand in writing – it’s a shame she didn’t include her own version of ‘We Can’t Be Friends’.

The very best song on the album is another Brandy Clark song, this time a co-write with Troy Verges. ‘Pawn Shop’ is a modern classic of a story song, as a woman pawns her wedding ring to raise the money for a bus ticket away from her bad marriage:

It ain’t stolen
It ain’t hot
Someone told me it cost a lot
Man ain’t that the truth
I thought I’d wear it my whole life
It never even crossed my mind
Back when it was new
It’d end up in a pawn shop on Charlotte Avenue

A musician then hands over his beloved guitar, and with it gives up his dreams. And the dreams of both love and music will pass to other dreamers in their turn. This is beautifully written and sung, and deeply moving.

Shelley’s husband, Greg Bates, had a shortlived career with one hit a few years back. Greg never released an album despite a top 5 single, and seems not to have enjoyed the touring aspects of being a star. He duets with Shelley on the ballad ‘What You Need From Me’, a beautiful sad song about a failed relationship written by Jon Randall, Jessi Alexander, and Phillip White:

Woman: You need a trophy on your arm
So you don’t look so lonely
Someone to get you through the nights
Someone to start your morning coffee

Man: You need a man that you can count on
Someone who’ll finish what he started
Not a restless soul that comes and goes
And only leaves you broken hearted

Both: I’m so sorry that I’ll never be what you need from me

With regret they acknowledge their mutual failure to meet the other’s needs. Greg sounds very good here, and it’s enough to make me regret the loss of his career as a solo artist before it had really got going. The tasteful and understated arrangement is very traditional country, with some lovely steel and fiddle.

The one song that doesn’ t appeal to me is the jaunty ballad ‘Making Babies’, written by Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne, and Matt Jenkins, about pressure from the in-laws to start a family. It is neatly written but the melody is the least country sounding on the album, and doesn’t quite work for me with the song.

The album closes with the quirky ‘Back In The Saddle’, a 20 year old Matraca Berg song which Berg recorded on her 1997 album Sunday Morning To Saturday Night Shelley’s version uses the same arrangement, with backing vocals from Berg, Deana Carter, Kathy Mattea and Brandy Clark. It’s very entertaining and ends the too-short set on a high.

This is a great EP I very much enjoyed. I only wish it was a full length album.

Grade: A+

Classic Rewind: Kenny Rogers and Lee Ann Womack – ‘Every Time Two Fools Collide’

The song starts a couple of minutes in:

Classic Rewind: Lee Ann Womack pays tribute to Loretta Lynn – ‘I Know How’

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Southern Family’

southern familyMixed artist compilations can often be hit and miss. This concept album based on life in the American South, produced by Dave Cobb, is no exception. The concept itself hangs together a little vaguely, and the artists come from country and Americana with a side of (white) soul and rock. However, if it is intended to represent the South as a whole, it is rather lacking in the ethnic diversity of participants.

Jason Isbell is normally more Americana than country, but ‘God Is A Working Man’ is definitely a country song, and an excellent one to boot. The lyric pays tribute to a working class family with lots of colourful details about a Pentecostal preacher and his son. The melody and rustic vibe remind me of ‘Grandpa Was A Carpenter’, as recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and John Prine on Will the Circle Be Unbroken Part II. I like it better than any of Isbell’s past recordings.

Brent Cobb is producer Dave’s cousin (actually, first cousin twice removed). His track, ‘Down Home’, is quite pleasant without being very memorable. I also quite enjoyed Holly Williams’ ‘Settle Down’, about starting a new family.

I tend to prefer Miranda Lambert when she isn’t rocking it up, so I enjoyed her song, ‘Sweet By And By’ – not the gospel classic but a reflective depiction of rural life and family philosophy which sounds as though it was written for the prompt of the album concept. The old fashioned folky lyric and vocal are charming, although a more stripped down arrangement would have been even better.

‘Learning’, by Miranda’s new boyfriend, Anderson East, an Americana/R&B artist based in Nashville, is not my style of music, but is pretty good of its kind. Shooter Jennings’ ‘Can You Come Over’ is in similar vein, but more listenable. Rich Robinson of the rock band the Black Crowes offers a loud and boring number.

John Paul White’s former duo the Civil Wars were much admired by many critics, but they were never quite my thing, and I’m afraid I strongly disliked White’s whispery tune here, ‘Simple Song’.

Not all the songs here are new. Zac Brown (who appears to have lost the plot on his last album) is back on form here with a nice cover of Skip Ewing’s ‘Grandma’s Garden’. Lee Ann Womack adds a sweet harmony. Jamey Johnson wrote the tender ‘Mama’s Table’ for the Oak Ridge Boys a few years ago, and revives it here himself. The song remembers childhood happiness. Brandy Clark has recorded the affecting ‘I Cried’, about a family funeral, before, but it fits neatly in the theme for this collection, and she sings it beautifully.

Morgane Stapleton, wife of Chris, once had her own record deal, although nothing was ever released. She has a very pretty voice in the vein of Lee Ann Womack or Dolly Parton, so I was disappointed that her contribution (backed by Chris) was not really to my taste. It is a dramatically slowed down blues/rock take on the oldie ‘You Are My Sunshine’ which sounds suicidally depressed.

This is a bit too varied for me as a whole, but there are several worthwhile tracks.

Grade: B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A+