My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Lee Ann Womack

Classic Rewind: Lee Ann Womack – ‘You’ve Got To Talk To Me’

The song starts about 1.50 in:

Christmas Rewind: Lee Ann Womack – ‘Winter Wonderland’

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Divided And United: Songs Of The Civil War’

divided & unitedI love history as much as I do country music, so a project like Divided And United, and the several other recent albums which have focussed on the musical legacy of the Civil War is of strong interest to me. Of all these projects, this two-disc set is the one to involve the greatest number of straight country artists, although bluegrass and other American roots music are both well represented. Almost all the songs are all of genuine Civil War vintage or older ones which were popular at the time, and performed as far as possible in the style of the period. Movie composer Randall Poster had the idea for the project and produces. Relatively sparse arrangements are similar to the way the songs would have been sung at the time of the war.

My favourite track is Vince Gill’s beautiful, thoughtful prayer by a dying drummer boy to the ‘Dear Old Flag’ for which he is sacrificing his life, set to a simple, churchy piano accompaniment. A choir including Sharon and Cheryl White and the Isaacs, mixed quite low, joins in the final chorus. Another highlight is Jamey Johnson’s haunting lament of a ‘Rebel Soldier’ far from home, a kind of proto-blues which the former serving Marine conveys with an emotional power which renders the song completely believable. Also wonderful is Lee Ann Womack (absent for far too long from the recording studio) on ‘The Legend Of The Rebel Soldier’, a touching story song about a soldier dying far from home, beautifully sung. These three tracks are pretty much perfect.

Ashley Monroe sings ‘Pretty Saro’, another fine sad song reflecting on death, although it does not relate directly to the war (and in fact the songs which significantly predates the period), it fits in nicely musically. The pretty ‘Aura Lee’, another non-war folk song, is sung by the genre-defying musician Joe Henry (who also produces a number of tracks), and was another I enjoyed despite a limited (if emotionally expressive) vocal. I also very much enjoyed Chris Hillman’s sympathetic reading of the classic ‘Hard Times Come Again No More’.

The sad (but not directly related to the war) ‘Listen To The Mocking Bird’ is prettily sung by the brilliant fiddler Stuart Duncan with Dolly Parton harmonising. (Dolly’s star power gets her the lead billing in this pairing, but Duncan is the true lead vocalist on the track). Ricky Skaggs’s quietly measured ‘Two Soldiers’ and Chris Stapleton’s ‘Two Brothers’ relate specifically Civil War tragedies, the latter being one of the few post-war compositions.

The septuagenarian Loretta Lynn is showing her age vocally, but this lends some realistic vulnerability to her convincing portrayal of a farmer’s wife bidding her husband off to war, undertaking that she will carry on the farm until his return. Another veteran, but this time from the world of bluegrass, the legendary Del McCoury plays the part of a soldier bidding farewell to his sweetheart ‘Lorena’. This plaintive tale is mirrored by the mournful sequel at the other end of the album, ‘The Vacant Chair, meditated on by Dr Ralph Stanley, while old-time specialists Norman and Nancy Blake give us ‘The Faded Coat Of Blue’, another melancholy reflection.

Steve Earle portrays a young soldier’s fears the night before going into action, in ‘Just Before The Battle Mother / Farewell Mother’; perhaps he tries a little too hard to sound like a rough, tough soldier, and not quite enough sounding vulnerable and fearful in the face of impending death. The old soldier’s jaundiced attitude to war in ‘Down By The Riverside’ is rather yelled by blues musician Taj Mahal, but it is in keeping with the song and works quite well, while. One can imagine the soldiers singing like this.

‘Dixie’, sung during the war by both sides but associated now with the South, is pleasantly but somewhat underwhelmingly sung by Karen Elson and the Secret Sisters. It just feels a little too winsomely pretty to fit the project. Perhaps the ladies would have been more suited to ‘Wildwood Flower’, one of the few disappointments for me. ‘Wildwood Flower’ would have been better sung by a female singer than by Sam Amidon, a folk singer whose rather pedestrian vocal falls rather flat compared to many other versions I’ve heard, although the picking is nicely done. A A Bondy is a bit too breathy and experimental for me on ‘Johnny Has Gone For A Soldier’.

‘The Fall Of Charleston’, performed by folk/Americana duo Shovels & Rope is rather cluttered and messy sounding, and I could have done without this. T Bone Burnett isn’t much of a singer, but his grizzled vocal is extremely effective portraying the gloomy soldier’s wearied despair in ‘The Battle of Antietam’. Also working well with an everyman style vocal, John Doe’s wearied ‘Tenting On The Old Campground’ feels very authentic. Chris Thile and Mike Daves on the perky-sounding ‘Richmond Is A Hard Road To Travel’ also deal with army life.

‘Old Crow Medicine Show’ take on the two-paced marching song ‘Marching Through Georgia’ quite enjoyably. In a similar vein the less well known (and more anonymous sounding) The Tennessee Mafia Jug Band take on ‘Secesh’ in a raucous singalong. The Civil War had a naval aspect as well as a land one, and this represented here by a quirky sea song, ‘The Mermaid Song’, sung
by musician Jorma Kaukonen.

Angel Snow’s dreamily dejected version of ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ is quite effective at adding an unexpected poignancy.
The late Cowboy Jack Clements closes proceedings with the wistful ‘Beautiful Dreamer’.

Lest we forget the underlying cause of the war, the view of the slaves is represented in two songs (although it is not quite a first-person testimony, as both were written by the white abolitionist composer Henry Clay Ward. Pokey Lafarge tackles the anticipation of freedom in ‘Kingdom Come’ with committed enthusiasm just short of shouting, set against a martial beat. Much better, The Carolina Chocolate Drops hail the ‘Day Of Liberty’ for the country’s enslaved African Americans with a part-narrated (by Don Flemons), part-upbeat vocal (Rhiannon Giddens) song.

A few instrumental tunes are included, beautifully played by Bryan Sutton, Noah Pikelny and David Grisman. This impeccably arranged project is a remarkable piece of work, a poignant re-imagining of the Civil War through its music. It won’t appeal to everyone, but I appreciated it a great deal, and on a purely musical level, it has a lot to offer anyone who likes acoustic music.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Alison Krauss & Union Station – ‘New Favorite’

akusBy 2001 Alison Krauss had become well known outside the world of bluegrass and had begun incorporating elements from other genres into both her solo albums and her collaborations with Union Station. As a result, New Favorite is a more eclectic collection than the band’s earlier work. It attempts to blend traditional bluegrass with pop and mainstream country. At times the experimentation works and at other times it does not, and while it may have earned the band some new fans, its a-little-bit-of-something-for-everybody approach must have left bluegrass purists slightly disappointed.

The album produced three singles, two of which were written by Robert Lee Castleman, who had provided the band material in the past. Both “The Lucky One” and “Let Me Touch You For A While” are more contemporary country than bluegrass. The latter reminds me a lot of Lee Ann Womack’s later recording “Last Call.” The title track, a dreamy number written by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, was the final single. Of the three singles, only “The Lucky One” charted, landing at #46. Alison sings the lead on all three. The two Castleman numbers are quite enjoyable, but I found “New Favorite” to be rather dull and dreary, in spite of Alison’s lovely singing. The band’s cover of Dan Fogelberg’s “Stars” is likewise a misstep.

Fortunately, the rest of the album is much better. Dan Tyminski provides a soulful lead vocal to the traditonal “Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn” about a lazy young farmer who seems to be incapable of harvesting a crop before it is destroyed by frost. This song would not be out of place on a SteelDrivers album. Tyminski gives the Bob Lucas composition “Momma Cried” a similar treatment and it is equally effective. “Bright Sunny South”, another Tyminski-led number, is more traditional bluegrass, as is the album’s best track “Take Me For Longing”, which features Alison on lead vocals. Banjo player Ron Block provides a Ricky Skaggs-like lead vocal on “It All Comes Down To You.”

New Favorite is a less cohesive effort than previous AKUS albums, partly because of the different musical styles it incorporates, but also because Alison, for the most part, sings the more crossover-minded songs, while the rest of the band handles the more traditional material. As such it comes across as a slightly disjointed album that is part Alison Krauss and part Union Station, as opposed to a collaborative Alison Krauss and Union Station album from start to finish. Its moments of brilliance largely outweigh the missteps, but overall it doesn’t hold its own against the group’s earlier albums.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind: Willie Nelson and Lee Ann Womack – ‘Mendocino County Line’

A Separation of Church and State: How the Country Music Association mostly got their nominations right this year

as13-dateIn 2006, the Country Music Association sent Faith Hill a clear message when Carrie Underwood was awarded Female Vocalist of the Year, only two singles removed from winning American Idol. They were ushering in a changing of the guard that sent ripple effects through country’s core women, making way for new talent at the helm.

Underwood has received a similar message this year with Taylor Swift being nominated for Entertainer of the Year in her place. Swift may be a bigger celebrity with a broader reach, but Underwood’s no slouch – a sold out tour, four #1 singles, ambassadorship for country music, and she’s been hosting the ceremony going on five consecutive years. Heck she just took over Sunday Night Football theme song duties.

In recent history all the top solo female artists (Reba McEntire, Shania Twain, and Faith Hill) have been nominated and won (Hill lost to Dixie Chicks in 2000) while her contemporaries Swift has won twice and Miranda Lambert received her only nod to date in 2010. That Underwood is being snubbed yet again is one of the biggest injustices in the 47-year history of the award show. Underwood and Swift should be competing in the category together – they both have rightfully earned their place in the category.

Underwood aside, it’s nice to see the Country Music Association mostly get it right this year. The major theme of the nominations is artistic quality, as evidenced by Kacey Musgraves receiving six nominations, a move I didn’t see coming. She’s been building a lot of buzz this year but with little support from country radio, I hardly gave her a chance. Her nominations prove the CMA is still looking for quality contemporary music and actually care about maintaining at least one shred of dignity. They should’ve gone further and showered Ashley Monroe with praise, too, but her outsider-looking-in status likely left her a square peg in a round hole and she was deemed too Americana for this mostly mainstream affair.

There was once a time when you could count the number of females who’ve taken home Album of the Year on one hand. That list has grown in the past few years thanks to wins by Lee Ann Womack (2005), Taylor Swift (2008) and Miranda Lambert (2010). This year Blake Shelton stands alone as the only solo male artist in the category, proving that airplay on country radio isn’t the only factor in scoring a nomination.

I believe whole heartedly that you cannot deny an artist success once they’ve achieved it, no matter how much you may dislike the singer or their song. The world may cry foul over Florida Georgia Line and “Cruise,” but they clearly earned the Single of the Year, Musical Event of the Year, Duo Of The Year, and New Artist nods. The song is a behemoth and is clearly being rewarded as such. Swift’s showering of affection is more puzzling, since the success of Red came in the pop market, but “Begin Again” and “Highway Don’t Care” did keep her relevant in her home genre this year.

Where the Country Music Association deserve the most credit is with the separation of church and state – if you notice, “Cruise” isn’t in the Song of the Year race nor is Here For The Good Times up for Album. In fact, none of the genre’s biggest names (Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, or Shelton) have a Single or Song of the year nod, something I never thought I’d see. Absence by ‘bro-country’ powerhouses leaves the likes of “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Mama’s Broken Heart” to battle it out for the win.

It’s nice to see Nashville songwriters back in the Song of The Year race, too. Even more impressive is the CMA’s distinction in excellence, seeing that the best of commercial Nashville scored big, while the laundry list lovers are left to voyage down dirt roads with beer kegs, country girls, and pickup trucks. Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally are two of the best writers around right now and combined with Musgraves, they’re killer. What other writing team can claim two nominations in the same year?

In sizing up the New Artist competition, I was about to show my denial of a mass extinction, until I looked at the Billboard Airplay Chart and noticed “Parking Lot Party” in the top 10, on it’s way to becoming Lee Brice’s fourth consecutive number one. Like fellow nominee Kip Moore, he’s becoming a force for the future, and with his single “I Drive Your Truck” up for Song of the Year (Brice doesn’t have a writing credit on it), he has a better chance of winning than I gave him credit for initially. This is a very strong category, although Musgraves is the only nominee with proven artistic potential, a necessary ingredient for longevity.

I’ll have my predictions closer to the November 9 telecast, with a breakdown per category, and thoughts on each individual race. But overall the Country Music Association deserves credit for getting more right than wrong this year, mostly opting for artistic integrity over commercial viability.

Check out all the nominations here.     

Album Review: Erin Enderlin – ‘I Let Her Talk’

i let her talkSinger-songwriter Erin Enderlin is responsible as a writer for two of the best songs to hit mainstream country music in the past decade: Alan Jackson’s hit ‘Monday Morning Church’ and Lee Ann Womack’s last chart record, the top 15 ‘Last Call’. Enderlin is also a fine vocalist in her own right, and has just released her second almost full length album (nine tracks). Producer Alex Kline (a multi-instrumentalist and former member of all-girl group the Lunabelles who BNA were promoting a couple of years ago) has orchestrated a traditionally-based sound with a contemporary edge. Dan Dugmore’s steel and Jenee Fleenor’s fiddle are prominent, although it is occasionally just a little too busy-sounding.

New versions of her two big successes are understandably included, and it’s always interesting to hear the writer’s take. An intimate version of the exquisitely sad ‘Monday Morning Church’ with a delicate piano backing is exceptional and tear-provoking. ‘Last Call’ is inevitably not quite as superlative as the hit versions (Erin has an excellent voice but she can’t quite match up to Lee Ann Womack), but it is still very good, and the very tasteful production supports Erin’s vocal perfectly.

Erin clearly has a gift for story songs, and there are some great examples on this record, brought alive in vivid color. The excellent title track is cowritten with the wonderful Leslie Satcher, and is a real highlight. It is written from the viewpoint of an initially sympathetic listener who, while taking refuge from her own troubles in a bar, listens to another woman tell her story of a sordid affair, with a devastating twist:

She was pouring out her heart and soul
So loud I couldn’t even think

I let her talk about the hotel room
Where she spent last night
I let her talk about the married man
And his soft green eyes
A careless drunk will show you pictures too
So baby, I let her talk about you

Another excellent story song with a bar room and cheating theme, but one more sympathetic to the woman, the very closely observed ‘Get That At Home’ is a about a desperately lonely wife fending off feelings of guilt over her pending first-time adultery. She wouldn’t be out looking for love elsewhere,

If she felt that he still loved her.

The dark-tinged exploration of a conversation with a man whose drink problem has wrecked his life, ‘You Don’t Know Jack’ is another highlight; it has been recorded by hit maker Luke Bryan, and was one of the few redeeming factors on his 2011 album Tailgates and Tanlines, and has also been cut by independent artist Jamie Richards. Erin’s version has an appropriately stark and lonesome feel.

The optimistic ‘Finding My Voice’ is about a woman leaving a bad relationship and finding herself, and is a very good mid-tempo number. The assertive ‘Unbroken’ triumphs over a lying cheating ex, and might have commercial potential.

The vibrant up-tempo ‘Countryside’ offers a gender twist on the hackneyed theme of country boy and city girl; it’s quite enjoyable and refreshingly actually sounds country, if a little bit busy production-wise. It’s very well-played, but there are just a few too many instruments to allow the song to breathe. ‘Good Kind Of Pain’ is a mid-tempo ballad about an obsessive love, and is yet another well-written song with a committed vocal, but the production feels a little cluttered.

It’s a shame one more track wasn’t included to round out the set, especially as she included versions of the two big hits on her last EP, and also that it is only available digitally, but this is still warmly recommended. It’s an indictment of the current country music industry that Erin isn’t either already a big star as an artist or on the fast track.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Kacey Musgraves – ‘Same Trailer, Different Park’

imagesA major reason for my disillusionment with modern commercial country music is the lack of the mature adult female prospective that elevated the quality of radio playlists throughout the 1990s. The absence of Matraca Berg and Gretchen Peters songs on major label albums (and the decline in popularity of artists such as Pam Tillis, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kathy Mattea, Patty Loveless, and Trisha Yearwood) has left a noticeable gap, one filled with unsatisfying party anthems and the occasional attempt at a throwback that just never quite quenches the thirst.

Thank goodness for Kacey Musgraves. The 24-year-old former Nashville Star contestant from Golden, TX is the take-no-prisoners rebel country music needs to get out of its funk. Same Trailer, Different Park is the strongest commercial country album I’ve heard in ages, filled with timely songs that say something relevant to the modern world. She has a way of crafting lyrics that touch a nerve without seeming offensive that goes well beyond her years.

Initially I will admit I wasn’t floored by “Merry Go ‘Round” the way that most everyone else was, because I managed to get it lost in the shuffle when it debuted late last year. I now fully see the genius in it – the striking way Musgraves (along with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne) paints a deeply honest portrait of small town life so simply. She also brings those same qualities to her new single “Blowin’ Smoke,” which includes a genius play on words (literally smoking/wasting time) for added effect.

I found that a main commonality in the records I’ve loved in past few years are lyrics containing interesting couplets, and Same Trailer Different Park is no different. The obvious example is scrapped second single “Follow Your Arrow,” which among other things, brings the equality debate firmly to the forefront:

Make lots of noise
And kiss lots of boys
Or kiss lots of girls
If that’s something you’re into
When the straight and narrow
Gets a little too straight
Roll up a joint, or don’t
Just follow your arrow
Wherever it points, yeah
Follow your arrow
Wherever it points

Say what you feel
Love who you love
‘Cause you just get
So many trips ’round the sun
Yeah, you only
Only live once

To me it’s a shame that the country music industry has evolved into a place where such a song can’t be given its due, especially since it’s not so different from such classics as “The Pill” or “The Rubber Room,” and is an anthem for our times. Personally I celebrate her boldness (which in actuality is pretty tame) and quite enjoy both the banjo driven musical arrangement and her uncomplicated twangy vocal. The track’s overall feel good attitude really works for me.

Another favorite line, ‘You sure look pretty in your glass house/You probably think you’re too good to take the trash out’ opens another confident statement piece, “Step Off,” which plays like the typical breakup ballad sans petty revenge. Also slightly atypical is the similar themed “I Miss You,” another love gone wrong song, but this time with the added vulnerability of actually missing the guy she’s broken up with. It’s nice, and a refreshing change of pace, to hear someone still grappling with feelings towards the ex instead of just writing them off in a typical Taylor Swift type scenario. The gently rocking “Back On The Map” goes even a step further and finds Musgraves pleading for a date, telling the men of the world “I’ll do anything that you ask.”

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Occasional Hope’s Top Albums of 2012

It’s not been a bad year for country music – as long as you ignore the charts and mainstream country radio. My #1 album of the year was released on a major label but with no singles success, and most of my other selections came from independent labels, although some of the names will be familiar. Just missing the cut were, among others, albums from Joey + Rory (some delicious moments but more hit and miss than their previous efforts), Terri Clark’s classic covers, the always reliable Alan Jackson, Kathy Mattea, and current star Dierks Bentley.

For full reviews, and purchase details, click on the links in the album title and artist name respectively.

10. Alive At Brushy Mountain PenitentiaryMark Collie

The live prison album was recorded in 2001, but only escaped the vaults of MCA this year. It was worth the wait, with an energetic set of suitably themed mainly original songs.

Best tracks: ‘I Could’ve Gone Right’, ‘Rose Covered Garden’, ‘Maybe Mexico’, ‘On The Day I Die‘.

marty raybon9. Southern Roots And Branches: Yesterday and TodayMarty Raybon

Former Shenandoah lead singer Marty Raybon released a pair of albums this year. This, the secular one of the pair, was the better, with Marty’s smoky voice sounding as good as ever on a bluegrass influenced set including the odd reworking of a few Shenandoah hits.

Best tracks: ‘Long Hard Road’, ‘Big Pain’, ‘Ghost In This House’, ‘Get Up In Jesus’ Name’.

8. Honky Tonk Till I DieEric Strickland and the B Sides

Solidly enjoyable, unpretentious honky-tonk with some great original songs written by the North Carolinian lead singer. It may be obscure, but it’s really good.

Best tracks: ‘Haggard And Hell’, ‘Freedom’, ‘Standing In The Headlights’, ‘Womankind‘.

wesley dennis7. Country EnoughWesley Dennis

An excellent return from one of the best singers who never made it. The former Mercury Records artist has a classic country voice and has written some fine songs for this independent releases.

Best tracks: ‘A Month Of Sundays’, ‘Lady’s Choice’, ‘That Dog Won’t Hunt’, ‘Sun, Surf And The Sand (And My Ties)‘.

6. The Time JumpersThe Time Jumpers

The part-time supergroup featuring Vince Gill and Dawn Sears came up with a delightful confection of country, jazz and western swing for their first studio alum together. The musicianship sparkles and this is a real celebration of the joy of making music.

Best tracks: ‘So Far Apart’, ‘Three Sides To Every Story’, ‘The Woman Of My Dreams’, ‘Someone Had To Teach You’.

gene watson5. Best Of The BestGene Watson

I wasn’t sure whether to include this album in my list but in the end the quality shone through and I had to keep it in. A veteran star who still has the vocal goods to shame most of his younger, more commercially successful rivals, Gene Watson has chosen to revisit some of his best-loved recordings for this release. I would really have preferred new material from him, but this is just a lovely listening experience.

Best tracks: ‘Farewell Party’, ‘What She Don’t Know Won’t Hurt Her’, ‘Nothing Sure Looked Good On You’, ‘Between This Time And The Next Time’.

4. Pourin’ Whiskey On PainTim Culpepper

The unknown newcomer gave me my most pleasant surprise this year with his traditional sound and some excellent songs.

Best tracks: ‘One More For The Road’, ‘When Misery Finds Company’, ‘Pourin’ Whiskey On Pain’, ‘Toss And Turn’.

jason eady3. AM Country HeavenJason Eady

I called this a “low-key delight” when I reviewed it earlier this year, and my judgment stands. This mature thoughtful record has no weak spots at all. Patty Loveless duetting on one track is an unexpected bonus.

Best tracks (though everything is worth hearing): ‘AM Country Heaven’, ‘Man On A Mountain’ (with Patty Loveless), ‘Water Into Wine’, ‘Old Guitar And Me’.

2. Too Much Ain’t EnoughClinton Gregory

Sweet voiced singer/fiddler Clinton Gregory is back after years of silence with a lovely set of mainly sad songs.

Best tracks: ‘Too Much Ain’t Enough’, ‘Too Country For Nashville’, ‘Has Love Taken Its Toll?’, ‘Chase Away The Lonely’.

jamey johnson21. Living For A Song: A Tribute To Hank CochranJamey Johnson

It was obvious as soon as I listened to this album that it was going to be this year’s highlight. Songs by one of the greatest country songwriters ever, performed by Jamey Johnson and some of his friends including legends like Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Ray Price and Emmylou Harris, and more recent stars like Lee Ann Womack, Ronnie Dunn and George Strait. From the exquisite opening notes of ‘Make The World Go Away’, with Alison Krauss’s angelically sweet counterpoint to Jamey’s gruff tenderness, every single song here is a gem, and almost every track is excellent. This really is an outstanding album.

Best tracks: hard to pin down, but if I must then ‘Would These Arms Be In Your Way’ solo; ‘Make The World Go Away’ with Alison Krauss; ‘You Wouldn’t Know Love’ with Ray Price; and ‘Don’t Touch Me’ with Emmylou Harris.

Album Review: Jamey Johnson – ‘Living For A Song: A Tribute To Hank Cochran’

One of today’s greatest singer-songwriters salutes one of the great country songwriters of all time by recruiting an all-star cast to revive some of Cochran’s greatest songs. Every song here is a timeless classic, and Johnson and his friends do them justice in what is for me unquestionably the album of the year so far. Fellow songwriters Buddy Cannon and Dale Dodson produce with taste. Jamey was close to Hank in his later years, and was one of those who visited the hitmaker the night before he died to sing with him. Furthermore, while his reputation is based on his writing, he is also a fine singer, who shows his interpretative skills throughout this album. It came out on vinyl for collectors on September 25, and gets its mass market release digitally and on CD this week.

Alison Krauss’s angelic tones contrast exquisitely with Jamey’s gruffer but intensely emotional vocal on a beautiful version of the Cochran-penned standard ‘Make The World Go Away’, where they seek comfort from their troubles by reviving the love in a longstanding relationship. Tasteful steel is prominent in the sympathetic arrangement, while Krauss’s soothing voice provides the sweetness given by string arrangements in the hit versions, which epitomized the Nashville Sound. First recorded by Ray Price in 1963, it was the era’s superstar Eddy Arnold who had the biggest hit with the ballad, but many others have covered the song, both within and beyond country music – even Elvis Presley. The lovely Johnson/Krauss version stands up well against previous takes, and is one of the finest tracks on this album.

‘I Fall To Pieces’, which Cochran wrote with the equally great Harlan Howard, is one of the finest country songs of all time. Jamey sings this with Merle Haggard, and this is another superlative recording with the emotion and pain of lost love stripped down to its core, and completely believable performances from both men. Read more of this post

Album Review: Ricky Skaggs – ‘Waitin’ for The Sun To Shine’

Ricky’s work with Emmylou Harris had brought him to the attention of Nashville, and in 1981 he signed a solo deal with Epic Records. His Epic debut was self-produced, and he played guitar, fiddle and mandolin himself, backed by some stellar pickers. Future wife Sharon White and her sister Cheryl sing harmonies, and their father Buck plays piano. It was country rather than bluegrass, with electric instruments, steel guitar and piano added to the mix, but there was a distinctly bluegrass and sensibility to it, particularly in the song selection. Where it is not rooted in bluegrass, the inspiration is in traditional country, with most of the songs being relatively obscure covers. The tasteful playing is excellent throughout, but remains in service to the songs.

A vibrant cover of Flatt & Scruggs’s bluegrass classic ‘Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’’ was Ricky’s first chart single, peaking at #16. The rhythmic ‘You May See Me Walkin’’ (written by Tom Uhr of bluegrass band the Shady Grove Ramblers) then sneaked into the top 10 at 9. Ricky scored his first chart topper with ‘Crying My Heart Out Over You’, another Flatt & Scruggs song, cowritten by county veteran Carl Butler. It works perfectly for Ricky, whose understated version has become the standard.

‘I Don’t Care’ also made it to #1, as it did for the original artist, honky tonk star Webb Pierce, in 1955. It was written by the great Cindy Walker and is a sweet love song refusing to pry into his sweetheart’s possibly murky past, which Ricky delivers with sincerity:

I don’t care if I’m not the first love you’ve known
Just so I’ll be the last

The gently resigned hurt of ‘If That’s The Way You Feel’, a cover of a Stanley Brothers classic, is delightful, with tasteful harmonies from Sharon and Cheryl. ‘Lost To A Stranger’ is a plaintive ballad with a lovely tune, which was originally recorded by its writer Hylo Brown in 1954.

‘Your Old Love Letters’, cover of a 1961 hit by Porter Wagoner, feels charmingly old fashioned now, with Ricky pondering a past love affair as he burns the titular letters (tied up in blue ribbons). The rhythmic ‘Low And Lonely’ is catchy, and another older song, a single for the legendary Roy Acuff in 1942. Merle Travis’s ‘So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed’ also dates from the 1940s.

The title track, virtually the only new song included, is a beautiful ballad which has become a modern country classic with perhaps the best known version by Lee Ann Womack on her superlative There’s More Where That Came From in 2005. Ricky’s version isn’t quite as gorgeous, but still very good, and the song is lovely with an optimistic feel about the likelihood of getting past current heartbreak.

There really is not a weak track on this excellent album. A real breath of fresh air in the Urban Cowboy era, it is astonishing to contemplate today how warmly such a bluegrass-influenced album was received in the country mainstream. Sales were excellent for the era, and the album was certified gold. Its follow up, Highways & Heartaches (which Razor X reviewed when it was reissued on Skaggs Family Records in 2009), was to do even better, and really set Ricky Skaggs up as a mainstream country star. Both albums stand up very well today, and cheap used copies of both can be found easily.

Grade: A

Album Review – Easton Corbin – ‘All Over The Road’

Upon the release of his self-titled debut in 2010, Easton Corbin was branded as the savior of country music thanks to his neo-traditional sound and George Strait-like vocal approach. Corbin showed promise, and scored back-to-back #1s, but his debut felt too safe, like he was aiming to please by recording songs that were middle of the road and took few risks.

Unfortunately that trend continues with All Over The Road and I can fully understand why. In our post “Neon” and “So You Don’t Have to Love Me Anymore” society, it’s clear that neo-traditionalism is being pushed out in an effort to “Kick It In The Sticks” with “The One That Got Away” while we “Tip It On Back” and “Take A Little Ride.”

But thankfully Corbin and producer Carson Chamberlin didn’t completely sacrifice quality at the price of commercial viability. There actually are some excellent songs thrown into the mix, and if country radio will play them, they might turn into big hits.

I’ve been a big fan of the lead single, Jim Beavers and Bob DiPiero’s “Lovin’ You Is Fun,” the catchy two-step number currently sitting at #8 and climbing. The easygoing nature of Corbin’s vocal coupled with the beautiful stands of steel guitar laced through the arrangement more than sell the song while the upbeat nature means its perfect fodder for heavy rotation at radio.

I also love the romantic “A Thing For You,” which Corbin co-wrote with Chamberlin and Tony Lane. Sounding like a long-lost mid-90s shuffle, the track succeeds because its light as air and turns the mournful steel guitar into an optimistic delight.

“Only A Girl” co-written by Chamberlin with Will Nance and Wade Kirby exists in much the same fashion, and is very ear catching. The hook of “It’s Only a Girl/There’s A Million of them in this Town” is kind of basic, but Corbin makes up for it by injecting the track with his personality.

Another standout is album highlight “Tulsa, Texas,” which Tony Lane co-wrote with Mike Lane and David Lee. Another upbeat steel infused honky-tonker, it didn’t make the cut for Corbin’s debut, but he liked it so much he put on here.

It’s easy to see why, as it boasts the best lyric on the album with the story of a guy telling his ex where she can find him:

I’ll be down in Tulsa, Texas, Tallahassee, Tennessee

Memphis, Mississippi, it’s probably where I’m gonna be

Albuquerque, Alabama, St. Lou, Louisiana

If you wanna find me, you can find me in Tulsa, Texas

Another favorite is the closer, Tom Shepherd and Jeff Silvey’s “I Think Of You,” which sounds like the best Zac Brown Band song they didn’t record. A perfect country tune, Chamberlin did a wonderful job of opening the track as a piano ballad before bringing in the steel, fiddle, drums, and guitars. That beginning allows Corbin to display his venerability and showcase how he’s grown since his debut.

Likely second single “Are You With Me” is a little slicker than we’ve come to expect from Corbin, but it never becomes bombastic thanks to the healthy dose of steel in the not-to-distant background. The romantic ballad also succeeds because of Corbin’s tender vocal, but the track would’ve been even better had it been a duet with someone like Carrie Underwood or Miranda Lambert or maybe even Kellie Pickler or Lee Ann Womack.

A duet would’ve given the album some added spice, which wouldn’t have hurt the proceedings, which were brought down by the addition of a few throwaway tracks. “That’s Gonna Leave A Memory,” “This Feels A Lot Like Love” and the title track are all okay in their own right, but feel like light weight filler. They’re the kind of songs Alan Jackson has been getting away with for more than a decade – indistinguishable honky-tonkers where you swap lyrics out of the same basic melody over and over again. I’ve been over this practice since before it began and don’t want to see Corbin brought down by it.

“Hearts Drawn In The Sand” has a solid story, but kind of feels like the type of song given to a new artist when they’re trying to establish themselves. I wasn’t impressed by its inclusion here, although Corbin does his best with what he’s given to work with.

But I really like “Dance Real Slow,” even if it has the same fiddle licks as Strait’s “Amarillo By Morning.” I love the accents of fiddle throughout and the whole vibe of the song just works.

Overall I really like All Over The World. When I was listening to it, I kind of felt like I was back in 1995 listening to Daryle Singletary, but the more I dig in the more solid the album feels. He definitely could’ve stood to take more risk and stretch himself (does every song have to be about a girl?) but he proves here he’s one of the good guys, even if he should rough himself up a bit more.

Grade: A –

Single Review: Kelleigh Bannen – ‘Sorry On The Rocks’

Listening to Capitol/EMI newcomer Kelleigh Bannen’s debut single sounds like you’re hearing the amalgamation of Martina McBride, Sara Evans, the Dixie Chicks, and virtually every female country act to hit it big at the turn of the century.  The sound here isn’t vintage, but certainly a throwback to the mass appealing sounds of a boom era for females in country music.  A crisp, neotraditional sound leads the Nashville native’s precise singing, and everything about this track reeks of committee planning.

The gist of the confrontation in the lyrics comes from the place where Lee Ann Womack’s “Last Call” meets your garden variety I’m-kicking-you-to-the-curb, frisky female goodbye song (think: “You Can Feel Bad”, “A Little Gasoline”, “Bye Bye”).  A pair of clever lines – “pretty words don’t mean too much, coming from the bottom of a glass” and “I’ve finally had enough/It’s clear you’ve had way too much” – keep the exchange interesting and make you think ‘hey this girl’s clever and will probably win this argument’.

But on the downside, producer Paul Worley uses those moments to crank the drums way too loud and invites the singer to reach outside her low-register comfort range.  Neither of those sonic missteps is the song’s major liability, however. While the narrating character in “Rocks” comes across and sensible and likable, she lacks the garrulous tenacity demanded on today’s airwaves. After all, she isn’t threatening to shoot, set fire to, or maim this clueless drunk who’s called her up in the middle of the night.  She simply tells him to kiss off. That, coupled with the tired and predictable production snaps is where your commercial liability lies.

Endearing, it is. Pleasing to the ears, it is. A big fat flop at country radio? I’m afraid so.

Grade: C

Listen here.

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘The Storm Still Rages’

A year and a half after her triumphant return to bluegrass, Rhonda Vincent did the unthinkable and released an album that was actually better than 2000’s excellent Back Home Again. Like its predecessor, it is a collection of contemporary and traditional bluegrass songs, along with a handful of covers of country classics with acoustic arrangements. Slightly more traditional than Back Home Again, The Storm Still Rages was self-produced. Ronnie Light, who shared production duties on Back Home Again, acts as engineer this time around. Rhonda’s brother Darrin is once again in tow, playing bass and singing harmony. Also present are some of Nashville’s most prestigious musicians, including Stuart Duncan on fiddle, and Sonya Issacs and Alison Krauss whose harmonies are what really give this album an edge over Back Home Again.

By 2001, bluegrass was on a hot streak and the rising tide that lifted albums by Alison Krauss and the O, Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack to the top of the charts also benefited Rhonda, who had an album on the charts herself for the very first time. The Storm Still Rages reached #59 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart and #9 on their Top Bluegrass Albums chart.

In addition to her roles as lead singer, mandolin player and producer, Rhonda is also credited as a songwriter, having had a hand in creating three of the album’s songs — the opening track “Cry of the Whippoorwill” and “On Solid Ground”, which she co-wrote with Terry Herd, and “When The Angels Sing” which she co-wrote with Herd and her brother Darrin.

One of the album’s standout tracks is “Is The Grass Any Bluer”, which is a tribute to the late Bill Monroe. Addressing the father of bluegrass directly, Vincent asks:

Is the grass any bluer on the other side?
Did it look like old Kentucky when the gates swung open wide?
Bet the good Lord’s got you playin’ somewhere up there every night.
Is the grass any bluer on the other side?

Rhonda also pays tribute to Lester Flatt with the album’s closing track “The Martha White Theme”.

My favorite song on the album is “Don’t Lie”, which had been a single for Trace Adkins two years earlier and ranks among his most underrated recordings. Rhonda’s version was also released as a single but it did not chart. The album produced two more non-charting singles, “I’m Not Over You” and a cover of the Hank Williams classic “My Sweet Love Ain’t Around”. Also among the country classics Rhonda covers is a version of the Jack Clement tune “Just Someone I Used To Know”, which was originally recorded by George Jones and is best remembered as a hit for Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. Rhonda’s version reminds me of the version Lee Ann Womack would record a few years later for her There’s More Where That Came From album.

Two gospel tunes are included in the set, the aforementioned “When Angels Sing” and “If You Don’t Love Your Neighbor You Don’t Love God”, a rousing toe-tapper that is probably the best known of Rhonda’s religious tunes.

The Storm Still Rages is one of those rare albums without a single misstep; the singing, playing, production and the songs themselves are all top-notch. Even if you think you don’t like bluegrass, give this one a listen and you may find that you’ve changed your mind.

Grade: A+

Album Review – Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell – ‘Kin: Songs by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell’

The relationship between Mary Karr, a New York Times bestselling author, and Rodney Crowell began in 2003 when Crowell mentioned the author in “Earthbound” a track from Fate’s Right Hand. He’d just finished her book The Liar’s Club and had suspicions, based on her background in poetry, she could write songs.

Flash forward nine years and they’ve acted on that premonition with Kin: Songs by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell, an album for wordsmiths and musical connoisseurs alike. With an all-star cast of heavyweights (Vince Gill, Lee Ann Womack, Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson) and fringe artists (Norah Jones and Lucinda Williams) lending their talents, the appreciation is only deepened by results worthy of their talents.

Kin shows its brilliance by presenting each artist in a new light, by giving the listener an unexpected treat with each composition. Producer Joe Henry pushes everyone out of their musical comfort zones with delightful arrangements that deepen their artistic integrity while allowing for substantial growth. Without the need to tread in the stagnant waters of mainstream Nashville, the artists have a chance to explore each song without fear of displeasing younger listeners, a constituency who wouldn’t be drawn to Kin in the first place.

Sonically, Kin is a slice of ear candy, an observation enhanced by the mix of steel, fiddle, upright bass, and acoustic guitar that drench each song. Womack exemplifies this perfectly, turning in her best song in over half a decade with “Mama’s On A Roll.” Soaked in dobro and acoustic guitar, she infuses the song with the slow-burn felt after downing a sift drink at a bar. Equally appealing is Jones, who infuses her trademark smoky warmth into the ear-catching “If The Law Don’t Want You.” By interjecting her performance with her Little Willies playfulness, she proves how compelling she is at singing country music and seduces the listener into hoping she’ll dabble in it with more frequency.

Another standout is the impressive Gill, who turns up the twang with “Just Pleasing You,” a steel and fiddle led number proving him correct in thinking his best days musically lie ahead. “Sister oh Sister,” sung by Cash, is like a visit from an old friend and fits her like a glove. While I would’ve liked to hear Cash sing something a little more energetic, you can’t fault her expressive tone on the somber tune about the relationship between close siblings.

Along the same lines is the sleepy “Long Time Girl Gone By” which finds a wispy Harris running the gamut from soft to strikingly compelling. More folk than country, it needed just a slight pick me up to hold my attention, but there isn’t any denying her artistry. Same goes for Williams who infuses “God I’m Missing You” with her usual tipsy delivery.

Crowell, not to be out done by the guest vocalists, turns in four songs of his own, his first since 2008’s Sex and Gasoline. The Dylan-like “Anything But Tame” rolls along with an acoustic guitar led arrangement, “I’m A Mess” recalls a Steve Earle-like sensibility, and “Hungry For Home” is straight-up folk. But the most appealing is “My Father’s Advice,” a duel role duet with Crowell as the son and Kristofferson as the advice-lending dad. The most country of Crowell’s vocal contributions to Kin, it offers flourishes of fiddle and harmonica that helps move the story along at a nice even pace.

As a whole, Kin is a patchwork quilt infusing distinct individual moments, led by Karr and Crowell’s simple yet evocative lyrics and brought to life by the stellar cast who gathered to record them. It’s a not-to-be-missed collaboration and one of the most original country albums of 2012.

Grade: A 

Album Review: ‘The Rodney Crowell Collection’

Warner Bros. was Rodney Crowell’s label home between 1978 and 1981. During that time he released three albums, none of which was commercially successful and they are all long out of print. Released in 1989 as a means of capitalizing the success that Crowell was enjoying at Columbia Records at that time, The Rodney Crowell Collection is the best available sampler of his Warner Bros. years.

During this time, Crowell was best known as a songwriter and as a key member of Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band. He was also steadily gaining respect for his talent as a producer, having produced the records of his then-wife Rosanne Cash. As a recording artist, Rodney only cracked the Top 40 twice during his tenure with Warner Bros., but a quick glance at this album’s tracklist will quickly reveal that the songs themselves were not at fault for his lack of commercial success. Most of the titles were significant hits for other artists, and anyone who was listening to country radio in the late 1970s and early 1980s will be familiar with them. “I Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This” was the title track of his first Warner Bros. album. That same year, Emmylou Harris recorded the song for her Quarter Moon In a Ten Cent Town album, and the following year, Waylon Jennings scored a #1 hit with the song. Emmylou had also recorded “Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight” and sings harmony on Rodney’s version. The Oak Ridge Boys would take this song to #1 in 1979. Emmylou also lends her vocals to a gorgeous rendition of “Voila, An American Dream”, which the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band also recorded. The Dirt Band’s version petered out at #58 on the country chart but reached #13 on the pop chart and was a #3 hit in Canada. The beautiful “Till I Gain Control Again” was a #1 hit for Crystal Gayle in 1982, and “Shame On The Moon”, the song for which Crowell was probably best known during this era, was recorded by numerous Nashville who released albums in 1982 and 1983. It was a huge pop hit for Bob Seger, who took it to the top of the adult contemporary chart, to #2 on the pop chart, and #15 on the country chart.

None of the previously mentioned songs was released as a single by Crowell, but there is a pair of songs on the album that were released as singles, and despite their limited chart success, went on to become hits for other artists: “Ashes By Now” (Lee Ann Womack) and “Stars On The Water” (George Strait). Rodney’s version of the latter did reach #30 on the country singles chart, making it his best chart performance up to that time. There are only three songs on the album that weren’t written or co-written by Crowell, and two of them were also hits for others; Juice Newton took Hank DeVito’s “Queen of Hearts” to #14 on the country chart and #2 on the Hot 100, while Ricky Skaggs scored a #1 country hit with Guy Clark’s “Heartbroke”.

For the most part, Crowell’s recordings are not as good as the better known hit versions by other artists. He is a good, though not truly great, vocalist, but the production on these recordings may be partly to blame for their commercial failure. Most of them have too much reverb and the arrangements are a little too rock-leaning for what country radio favored at the time. One song on which Crowell’s vocals truly shine, however, is “Victim or A Fool”, one of the few songs on the album that did not become a hit for someone else. It’s my favorite track here, possibly because there isn’t another more familiar version with which to compare it.

Though not essential listening, The Rodney Crowell Collection allows the listener an opportunity to hear a number of widely recorded songs in the songwriter’s voice and also helps to explain why he was such a respected producer and songwriter during the era before he achieved his commercial breakthrough. Inexpensive new and used copies are easy to find and are worth checking out.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Lee Ann Womack pays tribute to George Jones – ‘The Grand Tour’

Album Review: Marty Raybon – ‘Southern Roots & Branches (Yesterday & Today)’

Barely weeks after his last album release, the enjoyable religious record Hand To The Plow, ex-Shenandoah singer Marty Raybon has come up with a mainly secular bluegrass-based effort which is even better than the latter.  He produced it himself and has done a fine job.  A variety of pickers were used, with an average of four players of any given instrument across the album (but no detailed breakdown by track)but the end result is very cohesive, sparklingly performed bluegrass with Marty’s distinctive, warm voice taking center stage.  Marty sounds great again, and the songs are all pretty good, with an overarching theme of the past.

A nice cover of the Rodney Crowell-penned Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s nostalgic hit ‘Long Hard Road (Sharecropper’s Dream)’, with particularly pleasing fiddle, is a highlight, and Marty is entirely convincing singing of a childhood in poverty but a happy one.

The religious focus is not completely abandoned.  Marty actually co-wrote the joyfully urgent gospel of ‘Get Up In Jesus’ Name’, which Lee Ann Womack recorded on her debut album in the 90s, and here he gives his own reading, which is very good (although I would still just give the edge to the earlier recording).  An absolutely beautifully sung close-harmony ballad, ‘Beulah Land’ is another religious number, and there is an enjoyable cover of the bright mid-tempo ‘Prayer Bells Of Heaven’, written by bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin and Buck White (member of the Whites and father in law of Ricky Skaggs).

Bluegrass heritage gets several nods with interesting revivals of generally lesser-known songs.  Bill Monroe’s ‘Rocky Road Blues’ rhythmically melds blues and bluegrass, while ‘White House Blues’, another Monroe song, taken at a frenetic pace, takes on a political theme – but neither a contemporary one nor a controversial one.  It wasn’t even contemporary when Monroe recorded it in 1954, as it deals with the 1901 assassination of President William McKinley and his replacement in the White House by Theodore Roosevelt.  Lyrically, it seems an odd choice to revive, but musically it sounds very good.  ‘Down The Road’ is a Flatt & Scruggs song which is bouncily enjoyable, and Jimmy Martin’s vivacious up-tempo ‘Home Run Man’ rather engagingly uses baseball as the metaphor for a man courting his love interest.

Marty also pays heed to his personal musical heritage by redoing a couple of Shenandoah hits.  The melodic ‘Ghost in This House’ is lovely, and ‘Next To You, Next To Me’ is also well done, but both are probably inessential if you have the original recordings.

If there is an emphasis on ‘yesterday’, the ‘today’ of the album’s sub-title is represented by a couple of new songs.  The plaintive mid-tempo ‘Big Pain’ is an excellent new song written by Marty with Billy Droze and John Fountain.  It bemoans a lost love, causing a pain which hurts so much more than physical injuries.  ‘Dirt Road Heartache’, a mid-tempo heartbreak bluegrass song written by Melissa Peirce and Jerry Salley, is also new and very good.

I am slightly puzzled as to why these two albums have been released quite so close together (and both on Rural Rhythm imprints), yet not quite simultaneously, as there must be a risk that one or the other will get overlooked.  But the music on this second album is flawless, and the song selection makes its potential market wider than its companion.  It really is well worth hearing if you like Marty’s singing, or bluegrass in general.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Jason Sellers – ‘A Matter Of Time’

Lee Ann Womack’s first husband, a successful sonmgwriter, had a shortlived singing career himself. This was his biggest hit, peaking at #33 in 1999:

Classic Rewind: Lee Ann Womack – ‘I Think I Know’

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