My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Lee Ann Womack

Album Review: Ralph Stanley & Friends – ‘Man Of Constant Sorrrow’

man of constant sorrowJust after the release of the very similarly titled tribute I reviewed recently comes another project, this one featuring the man himself, produced by Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale. Mostly the guests sing lead with Dr Ralph harmonising, but some are true duets too.

There is some overlap in personnel (of those associated personally and professionally with Dr Ralph) but almost none with songs. The smooth-voiced Nathan Stanley duets with his grandfather on ‘Rank Stranger’ to great effect. Ricky Skaggs shows up again here with Carter Stanley’s ‘Sweethearts In Heaven’ and combines plaintive emotion with a solid driving rhythm.

The big country names all do a fine job. Josh Turner delivers a solid lead vocal on the joyful ‘We Shall Rise’. Dierks Bentley is excellent and sounds very authentic on the high lonesome ‘I Only Exist’. Lee Ann Womack is exquisite leading on ‘White Dove’.

The producers join Ralph on a three part harmony on ‘I Am The Man, Thomas’ with Stanley on lead vocal. Americana favourites Gillian Welch and David Rawlings join Dr Ralph on the traditional ‘Pig In A Pen’, which is very enjoyable.

I’m not much of a fan of Robert Plant, but his voice combines surprisingly well with Ralph’s on the ethereal ‘Two Coats’, and the effect is very haunting. Rock singer Elvis Costello has never had much of a voice, and while his duet with Ralph on ‘Red Wicked Wine’ isn’t at all bad, it is more or less saved by Stanley’s emotional heft, and the fact that Costello mostly doesn’t get to sing solo.

Fellow bluegrass veteran Del McCoury joins Ralph on the Jesse Winchester tune ‘Brand New Tennessee Waltz’. Modern jug band Old Crow Medicine Show join Ralph on ‘Short Life Of Trouble’.

‘Hills Of Home’ is a mostly-spoken eulogy to Ralph’s late brother, the troubled Carter Stanley, which is genuinely moving.

This release is currently a Cracker Barrel exclusive but hopefully it will get a wider relase at some point.

Grade: A

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Predictions for the 57th Annual Grammy Awards

It’s early February, which means it’s time for the annual Grammy Awards telecast, airing this Sunday at 8pm on CBS. Look for performances from Eric Church and Miranda Lambert, plus winners in the Country and American Roots categories.

GiveMeBackMyHometownBest Country Solo Performance

Consisting of four former winners, who have proven perennial Grammy favorites, this couldn’t be a more predicable group of nominees. Miranda Lambert won the CMA Award so she has less of a chance of winning here, but really everyone has a very good chance of walking away with the trophy.

Should Win: “Give Me Back My Hometown” – The buzz surrounding The Outsiders coupled with the fact he’s never won a Grammy, should be enough to push him over the top.

Will Win: “Something In The Water” – With a win for “Last Name,” the Grammy voters proved they would award Carrie Underwood for just opening her mouth. She made quite a splash this year, so look for her winning streak to continue.

Little-Big-Town-Day-DrinkingBest Country duo/group performance

A banal group of mainstream fare, these nominees are far more flash than artistry. The Band Perry has the best song, but Kimberly’s feathery vocal, likely from screaming too much during the Pioneer era, hinders their Glen Campbell cover.

Should Win: “Meanwhile Back At Mama’s” – Although it wasn’t much of a duet, Tim & Faith should be rewarded solely for McGraw’s artistic comeback.

 Will Win: “Day Drinking” – Miranda and Carrie won the CMA, which dramatically hurts their chances here. That’ll leave room for Little Big Town to swoop in and claim victory with their anathematic earworm.

10523141_295010450688997_7271262647762240217_nBest Country Song

A sentimental nod for Glen Campbell gives these nominees, which are otherwise tethered to mainstream fare, a bit more variety. He could very easily win on principal, which would be a wonderful thing to see.

Should Win: “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” – a win now for Campbell would indeed be wonderful, especially after all he’s been through.

Will Win: “American Kids” – Grammy song categories are always surprising, as the substantive ballad doesn’t always emerge victorious. Kenny Chesney’s hit is an offbeat choice, but crazier things have happened. If Chesney doesn’t win, I could see Eric Church easily taking this home.

12 storiesBest Country Album

The strongest of the country categories, with five worthy nominees, including two that should be duking it out to the finish.

Should Win: It’s a statistical dead heat between 12 Stories and The Way I’m Livin.’ Brandy Clark and Lee Ann Womack turned in stellar recordings that, in their own right, each deserve this award.

Will Win: The Outsiders – Eric Church’s wildly uneven fourth album has a buzz that cannot be ignored. It’s a good project, but nowhere near the artistic caliber of Clark and Womack’s sets.

UnknownBest American Roots Performance

I’m not as well versed here, but Rosanne Cash and Nickel Creek turned in valiant efforts and Alison Krauss is featured on a track.

Should Win: “Destination” – Nickel Creek came back together after nine years, bringing with them their artistic gains from solo and side projects. Their astounding growth shouldn’t be ignored. 

Will Win: “And When I Die” – I never bet against the obvious, Alison Krauss is featured here, but I could easily see Rosanne Cash taking this home as well. 

rosannecashBest American Roots Song

I’ve only heard Rosanne Cash’s track, and while good, it isn’t “When The Master Calls The Roll.”

Should Win: “A Feather’s Not A Bird” – I’d still give this one to Cash

Will Win: “Pretty Little One” – Steve Martin wins without even trying, so he has the edge here. Jesse Winchester, who passed away last year, could also claim the sentimental vote.

Rosanne CashBest Americana Album

All hail the might God that is Sturgill Simpson. Most were furious he wasn’t in the Best Country Album category, since his album has Country Music in its title, but its experimental nature makes it a perfect fit here. I haven’t been able to get into him (sacrilege of the highest order) but I can appreciate his artistry.

Should Win: The River & The Thread – Rosanne Cash’s impeccable ode to her family legacy is one of the year’s true masterworks 

Will Win: The River & The Thread – Cash has the name recognition to pull this off and it couldn’t be more deserved. But she isn’t Simpson, and that could hurt her, and everyone else in this category.

81Yyaq+5nDL._SL1500_Best Bluegrass Album

This is quite the substantive category, with at least three nominees that could emerge victorious.

Should Win: I honestly don’t have any idea

 Will Win: Only Me – Rhonda Vincent is the biggest name here, a fact that usually secures a win

Top 20 Albums of 2014: A Hidebound Traditionalist’s View

Rosanne CashWe didn’t get a chance to run this before the end of the year, but we figured our readers wouldn’t mind reading Paul’s year in review a little late. — Razor X

1. Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread

This album came out fairly early in the year, and yet I was fairly sure it would be the best new album I would hear in 2014. Elegant and insightful would be the terms I would think best describe this album.

2. Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard

So timeless are the songs are the songs of Merle Haggard that even marginal talents such as Jason Aldean and Jake Owen couldn’t mess up the songs. If fact I would regard Aldean’s take on “Going Where The Lonely Go” as he best recording he’s ever made. This tribute album is largely composed of modern country artists (Toby Keith, Parmalee, Dustin Lynch, Kristy Lee Cook, Randy Houser, Joe Nichols, Jake Owen, Jason Aldean and James Wesley) with Merle’s son Ben thrown in for good measure and Garth Brooks on the physical CD available at Walmart. The two tracks by Thompson Square (“You Take Me For Granted”, “Let’s Chase Each Other Around The Room”) are given a playful reading and are my favorite tracks, but every artist keeps the spirit of the Hag alive with these songs.

3. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison – Our Year

The follow-up to Cheater’s Game dishes up another nice serving of real country music with more focus on newer material but with some covers including a nice take on the Statler Brothers classic “I’ll Go To My Grave Loving You” .

4. Jerry Douglas – Earls of Leicester

An instant classic, this album is almost a theatre piece with various stellar musicians cast in the roles of the members of the classic Flatt & Scruggs lineup of the 1950s and 1960s, doing a program of classic Flatt & Scruggs material. Starring Jerry Douglas on dobro, Barry Bales on bass, Shawn Camp on acoustic guitar and vocals, Johnny Warren – fiddle, Tim O’Brien – mandolin, & Charlie Cushman – banjo and guitar. Johnny Warren is the song of longtime F&S fiddler Paul Warren.

5. Carlene Carter – Carter Girl

Carlene Carter pays tribute to her musical heritage with a classic collection of Carter Family tunes plus a pair of original compositions. These recording have a modern sound that differs from, but is true to, the spirit of the originals.

6. Ray Price – Beauty Is

I wanted to call this the best album of 2014 and if Ray had been in top vocal form I would have, but this is the swan song of a dying man who knows the end is but months away. The album is elegant and heartfelt, in many respects a valentine to his wife of many years.

7. Jeff Bates – Me and Conway

For as popular as Conway Twitty was during his heyday (think George Strait), he has been almost entirely forgotten. A tribute to Conway Twitty is long overdue and while I think a multi-artist album would be nice, if it has to be a single artist tribute album, there is no one better to do it than Jeff Bates, whose voice can sound eerily similar to that of Conway Twitty. The album is about half Conway Twitty songs and half new material including the title track. My favorite tracks are the title track, “Lost In The Feeling” and Jeff’s duet with Loretta Lynn on “After The fire Is Gone” .

8. Mandy Barnett – I Can’t Stop Loving You: The Songs of Don Gibson

Mandy is a masterful singer, if somewhat addicted to slow songs. Don Gibson was a top-drawer song writer, as well as a soulful performer. This album, initially available as a Cracker Barrel exclusive is proof that when you pair great songs with a great singer that very good things can happen. Don’s been gone for over a decade so it’s nice to see someone keep his songs in front of the American public.

9. Ray Price – A New Place To Begin

I am mystified that the tracks on this album went unreleased on an album for so long. During the mid 1980s Ray Price and Snuff Garrett collaborated on a number of successful singles (some of which were used in movie soundtracks) plus some other songs. True, producer Snuff Garrett fell ill somewhere along the line and retired, but Garrett was a big name producer and you would think these would have escaped somehow. This CD features seven chart singles that were never collected on an album, and seven other songs that were never released on an album. Sixteen tracks from one of the masters most featuring more steel guitar than was common for Ray during this period .

10. George Strait – The Cowboy Rides Away (Deluxe Edition)

This album has some flaws including what sounds like auto-tune on some tracks and the standard issue of the album doesn’t warrant a top twenty listing since it has only twenty songs on it. The Deluxe Edition, however, plants you into the middle of a George Strait concert – twenty-eight songs on the two CD set plus the entire 40 song set on the concert DVD with some bonus features. George never did tour extensively and when he hit town, the tickets were expensive and sold out quickly so I never did get to see him live in concert. This set is the next best thing. While the studio recordings are better, this is still worth having.

11. Chris Thile & Edgar Meyer – Bass & Mandolin

This album is a little hard to characterize – it’s not exactly bluegrass, folk, jazz or classical music, but it is all of them and more on the ten featured tunes, all of them co-writes. Meyer plays piano on a few tunes but mostly plays bass. Thile shines on the mandolin. The listener exults in the magic.

12. Sammy Kershaw – Do You Know Me: A Tribute To George Jones

True, Sammy is a distant cousin to Cajun pioneers Rusty and Doug Kershaw, but Sammy’s musical muses were Mel Street and George Jones. Here Sammy pays tribute to George Jones and does it well. My favorite among the dozen Jones hits (plus two new songs) covered is “When The Grass Grows Over Me”.

13. Joe Mullins – Another Day From Life

Joe Mullins has been around the bluegrass scene for a while, but this album was the first of his albums I happened to pick up. It’s very good and I’ll be picking up more of his albums when I hit the bluegrass festival in Palatka, Florida on February 20.

14. Rhonda Vincent – Only Me

Half country/half grass but 100% excellent. I wish that Rhonda would do an entire album of western swing and honky-tonk classics. It was silly to split this up into two six song discs, but I guess that the ears of the bluegrass purists needed protection from the country classics. My favorite track is “When The Grass Grows Over Me” which was also my favorite George Jones song. Rhonda’s takes on “Once A Day” and “Bright Lights and Country Music” are also highlights.

15. Lee Ann Womack – The Way I’m Livin’

It is good to see new music from Lee Ann. I don’t regard this as highly as I did her first few albums, but it is a welcome return to form.

16. Willie Nelson – Band of Brothers

Death, taxes and a new Willie Nelson album are the only things you can really count on seeing every year. This one is up to the usual standards, with Willie having written nine of the fourteen songs on the album.

17. Secret Sisters – Put your Needle Down

I actually liked their debut album better, but this one will appeal more to younger listeners. At this rate they won’t be a secret much longer. Buy it at Cracker Barrel as their version has two extra songs.

18. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

A lot has been written about this album, but the truth is that words really don’t adequately describe it. This album requires repeated listening.

19. Dierks Bentley – Riser

I like this album, but I keep expecting more of DIerks Bentley. “Drunk On A Plane” and “I Hold On” were the big radio/ video singles but I don’t think they were the best songs on the album.

20. Cornell Hurd Band – Twentieth Album

In some ways the Cornell Hurd Band is like Asleep At The Wheel, a very versatile band that can handle anything. Both are terrific swing bands but AATW leans more to the jazzy side while the CHB is more honky-tonk and more prone to novelty lyrics. All of their albums are filled with many and varied treasures.

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Top Ten Albums of 2014

For whatever reason, I always find it easier to tackle a singles list than one dedicated to albums. It’s easier to dive into the creative merits of a song for me than to look at a whole album, at least where a ranked list is concerned. As country music has veered off course in recent years, I’ve noticed my tastes have shifted away from the mainstream as I’ve filled my ears with the sounds of independent or Americana leaning artists, who still make music for themselves, and not for the corporate machine.

My top ten includes an artist who staged a wonderful comeback, another who treated us to his second album this decade, a group who reunited for their twenty-fifth anniversary, and a duet pairing who’ve spoiled us with riches two years in a row. All are strong artistic triumphs and prove, once again, that incredible country music continues to see the light of day.

71Pl0cfcAZL._SL1500_10. Nickel Creek – A Dotted Line

Nine years after breaking off in different directions, Sara, Sean, and Chris reunite showing astonishing artistic growth. A Dotted Line doesn’t eclipse their breathtaking 2000 debut, but it’s just so great to have them back.

Key Tracks: “Destination,” “Hayloft,” “Love Like Mine”

9. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison – Our Year11183_JKT

The married couple follow-up 2013’s stellar Cheater’s Game with a traditional delight that packs on the steel and Willis’ once in a lifetime voice with Robison’s brilliant songwriting. It doesn’t get much better.

Key Tracks: “Carousel,” “Anywhere But Here,” “This Will Be Our Year”

MirandaLambertPlatinum8. Miranda Lambert – Platinum

The de facto mainstream entry goes to Lambert’s latest set, which balances progressive sensibilities while remaining nostalgic for times gone by.

Key Tracks: “Automatic,” “Pricilla,” “All That’s Left (with Time Jumpers)”  

RF.EISHS-117. Radney Foster – Everything I Wish I’d Said

Foster’s latest covers wide ground – the grip of creativity, love for the Golden State, and racism, et al – but it all works, thanks to his sharp songwriting and blistering production.

Key Tracks: “Whose Heart You Wreck,” “California,” “Not In My House”

lm_album6. Lori McKenna – Numbered Doors 

The first of three stellar collections from female singer-songwriters to land on the list comes from McKenna, singing exquisitely about small-town life. It’s always a treat when she releases a new set, and Numbered Doors is no exception.

Key Tracks: “The Time I’ve Wasted,” “Stranger In His Kiss,” “What A Woman Wants”

angaleena-presley-album-american-middle-class-2014-08-1000px5. Angaleena Presley – American Middle Class 

Holler Annie’s voice is an acquired taste and her production choices aren’t entirely conventional, but her songwriting is vividly clear and features the focused prospective of a woman breathing every last word.

Key Tracks: “Grocery Store,” “Life of the Party,” “Better Off Red”

don-williams-album-reflections-2014-400px4. Don Williams – Reflections

And So It Goes was a wonderful reintroduction to Don Williams for a new generation, as a man in his 70s. Fully reacquainted, Williams has released the collection of his life – ten reflections on life from a man who’s lived and breathed every word.

Key Tracks: “I’ll Be There In The Morning,” “Working Man’s Son,” “Talk Is Cheap”

81jry8GphML._SL1425_3. Rodney Crowell – Tarpaper Sky

Rodney Crowell is irrefutably one of the greatest songwriter/artists of the past forty years. He’s done it all in his astonishing career, yet he continues to surprise at a point in his profession where artists either hang it up or coast on their success. He’s at the peak of his ability with no signs of slowing down. All the better for us, and the greater good of the country genre.

Key Tracks: “The Long Journey Home,” “God I’m Missing You,” “The Flyboy & The Kid”

the way im livin2. Lee Ann Womack – The Way I’m Livin’ 

A new Lee Ann Womack album is a cause for celebration, and while I wasn’t blown away by her latest set, there were some incredible moments throughout. It also doesn’t hurt that she’s championing pure country music, especially at a time when the genre is poppier than it’s ever been.

Key Tracks: “Fly,” “Same Kind of Different,” “Sleeping With the Devil”

Rosanen-Cash-The-River-The-Thread-300x3001. Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread

The third consecutive release in which she mines her family legacy is Cash’s masterpiece, the brilliant singer-songwriter project that comes wholly from the soul of its creator. Through twelve immaculate southern-themed songs, Cash vividly paints her landscapes and introduces us to those who call this region of the country home.

Key Tracks: “When The Master Calls The Roll,” “Night School,” “The Sunken Lands”

Razor X’s Top 10 Albums of the Year

johnnycashCompiling a list of the year’s best albums is a much easier task than putting together a list of the year’s best singles. My list is comprised entirely of works by veteran artists who have more or less been put out to pasture by country radio but continue to produce quality music for their loyal fans.

10. Provoked — Sunny Sweeney

In a sane world, Sunny Sweeney would be a superstar. But even though she never quite found her niche at radio and is no longer on a major label, her first release in three years makes it crystal clear that she’s not about to quietly fade away.

Ray Price9. Beauty Is … The Final Sessions — Ray Price

Ray Price was dying of cancer while recording his swan song, but you’d never know it by listening to it. His voice sounded remarkably strong for an 87-year-old in declining health. Fans of Price’s countrypolitan period will enjoy this one.

8. Carter Girl — Carlene Carter

Her tribute to her famous ancestors has a few missteps along the way — mostly when the arrangements get a little too contemporary but overall Carlene Carter’s labor of love is very well done and well worth the asking price.

7. Band of Brothers — Willie Nelson

Willie’s voice has grown weaker with age but he is still a top-notch musician and songwriter and shows that he can still deliver the goods with this collection produced by Buddy Cannon.

Do You Know Me6. Do You Know Me: A Tribute to George Jones — Sammy Kershaw

I can’t think of anyone better suited to do a Jones tribute album, whether it be covers of the Possum’s classic hits or biographical title track that was written for but never recorded by Jones.

5. Influence, Vol. 2: The Man I Am — Randy Travis

This album’s tracks were all recorded in the same sessions as those that appear on the first Influence volume that was released last year. I had initially feared that Volume 2 would be made up of the leftover tracks that weren’t deemed good enough for the first disc, but I was pleasantly surprised at how strong Volume 2 actually is. I may even prefer it to its predecessor.

4. Our Year — Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis

This sparsely produced follow-up to last year’s Cheater’s Game is the perfect antidote to the overproduced bro-country currently being pushed by Nashvegas. I was a little surprised that they released this album only a year after its predecessor. Is it greedy to wish for another one in 2015?

blue smoke album3. Blue Smoke — Dolly Parton

After releasing a trio of critically acclaimed bluegrass albums in the early 2000s, Dolly lapsed back into the pop-country territory that she’d explored throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. She recovered nicely with Blue Smoke, and I really hope that this is the beginning of another creative surge and not just a one-off.

2. The Way I’m Livin’ — Lee Ann Womack

This was the comeback story of the year as far as I’m concerned. The Way I’m Livin’ is the sort of album I had hoped she would release as a follow-up to There’s More Where That Came From. It took almost a decade to happen but it was well worth the wait.

1. Out Among The Stars — Johnny Cash

This vintage Cash album was recorded mostly in the 1980s when the Man In Black was still in good voice. He was in the midst of a commercial dry spell and label politics prevented the completion and release of the album for 30 years. It was recently discovered and completed by his son John Carter Cash and is a real treat for Cash fans.

Occasional Hope’s top 10 albums of 2014

the way im livinIt’s not been the best of years for mainstream country music, but great music is still out there to be found if you’re willing to hunt it down. There was a plethora of great covers projects, including excellent offerings from Joey + Rory and Gene Watson, and a number of other fine records which just missed the cut in my top 10 selection.

10. Dave Adkins ‘Nothing To Lose
Classic high lonesome bluegrass from a singer with a big, emotional voice.
Best tracks: ‘I Can’t Even Walk’, ‘Don’t Pray That Way’, ‘Mistaken Heart

9. J P Harris & The Tough Choices – ‘Home Is Where The Hurt Is
Authentic retro honky tonk with some great songs.

Best tracks: ‘Home Is Where The Hurt Is’, ‘Truck Stop Amphetamines’, ‘Every Little Piece’

provoked8. Sunny Sweeney – ‘Provoked
Back on an independent label, Sunny Sweeney’s unbridled honky tonk with a modern twist is irresistible.

Best tracks: ‘You Don’t Know Your Husband’, ‘Backhanded Compliment’, ‘Sunday Dress

7. Fayssoux, ‘I Can’t Wait
A lovely mellow folk-country record.

Best tracks: ‘Mama’s Hungry Eyes’, ‘I Made A Friend Of A Flower Today’, ‘Golightly Creek’

6. Randy Travis – Influence Vol 2
The second instalment of Randy’s covers project, fortunately recorded before his recent health crisis was, unexpectedly, even better than the first one.

Best tracks: ‘Set ‘Em Up Joe’, ‘Are The Good Times Really Over’, ‘For The Good Times’

daylight and dark5. Jason Eady – ‘Daylight And Dark
Solid country music from a talented singer-songwriter I like more every tie I hear him. This was one of the year’s first releases, and it hasn’t lost its appeal for me.

Best tracks: ‘Whiskey And You’, ‘Liars And Fools’, ‘Late Night Diner

4. Rhonda Vincent – ‘Only Me
The bluegrass star offers a stellar selection of material. The packaging is a touch gimmicky, with two CDs in one packages, each containing just six tracks. One is billed as straight bluegrass, the other traditional country, but both are wonderful. My only criticism is that it would be nice to hear some new songs of this quality.

Best tracks: ‘I’d Rather Hear I Don’t Love You (Than Nothing At All)’, ‘Teardrops Over You’, ‘We Must Have Been Out Of Our Minds’ (ft Daryle Singletary), ‘Beneath Still Waters

3. Jade Jack – ‘Off The Record
I was very impressed by fiddler/traditional country singer Jade’s debut album. Very much in the style of Amber Digby, this is packed full of heartbreak numbers, backed with fiddle and steel. It just squeezes in ahead of Rhonda thanks to the inclusion of original material.

Best tracks: ‘I Can’t Help It If He Can’t Stop Loving Me’, ‘I Had A Husband’, ‘I Can Bring Him Back’, ‘I’m Dynamite’

lucky2. Suzy Bogguss – ‘Lucky
In a year which saw a lot of fine tribute and cover albums, this was the best of the lot. Suzy’s beautiful readings of Haggard songs are exquisite. This record is just lovely. The sensitive vocal interpretations are backed by delicately stripped down arrangements which shows that less is more.

Best tracks: ‘If We Make It Through December’, ‘Sing Me Back Home’, ‘You Don’t Have Very Far To Go’

1. Lee Ann Womack – ‘The Way I’m Livin
I was disappointed by Trisha Yearwood’s return, when she only recorded six new songs. But Lee Ann Womack did not disappoint, with that exquisite voice wrapped around 13 excellent songs. ‘Chances Are’, my favorite, is sublime. She sounds thoroughly revitalised by her move from the major labels and hankering after radio play to Sugar Hill’s focus on artistry. The result is magical.

Best tracks: ‘Chances Are’, ‘Nightwind’, ‘Sleeping With The Devil

Razor X’s Top 10 singles of 2014

law way im livinIt seems that every year it becomes more and more difficult to compile a list of the year’s ten best singles. I don’t listen to country radio very much (OK – at all) anymore, so when one of my favorite artists releases a new album, I’m not always aware of which tracks have become singles. In fact, many veterans on independent labels no longer bother releasing product to radio. That being said, there were some worthwhile single releases this year and the following were my favorites:

10. All Alright — Zac Brown Band

The Zac Brown Band had been one of the few consistent bright spots at country radio in recent years. This tune has a great melody and a strong vocal performance, and I would have rated it higher had it not been for the over-the-top guitar solo that mars an otherwise very good record.

9. Like A Cowboy — Randy Houser

In another era, Randy Houser might have been a superstar. He’s one of the genre’s best vocalists but like many of his contemporaries he has struggled to consistently select strong material. This pop/rock-with-steel-guitar power ballad is not a timeless classic, but it’s one of the relatively few songs that didn’t either bore or annoy me. Yes, the bar has been lowered that much. That’s not to suggest that I didn’t enjoy this song, just an admission that it probably wouldn’t have made my Top 10 list in a stronger year.

8. Lay Low — Josh Turner

Turner is another artist whose talent often far exceeds the quality of the songs he sings. The lyrics don’t have a whole lot of depth but Turner’s vocal performance is enough to make this an enjoyable listen.

Sunny-Sweeney-Bad-Girl-Phase7. Bad Girl Phase — Sunny Sweeney

After a three-year hiatus, Sunny Sweeney returned this year, feeling feisty and letting everyone know that she’s not just the girl next door in this unfortunately non-charting effort.

6. PrizeFighter – Trisha Yearwood ft. Kelly Clarkson

Trisha Yearwood is another one of my long-time favorites who made a comeback this year. While not the strongest entry in her discography, “PrizeFighter” is a good, though not great, record.

A Million Ways To Die Single Cover5. A Million Ways To Die — Alan Jackson

Radio totally ignored this song from the film A Million Ways To Die In The West. This retro-sounding effort totally different from anything Jackson has ever done and is reminsicent of something Johnny Cash would have enjoyed sinking his teeth into. A fun listen if you don’t take it too seriously.

4. Who I Am With You — Chris Young

His latest album found Chris Young moving in a more pop direction. While I prefer his more traditional efforts, he is such a strong vocalist, it’s difficult not to like his music. On this track, he often sounds like a young Randy Travis, though the song itself is a far cry from Randy’s brand of country.

3. That’s What Dreamers Do — Travis Tritt

This is a very nicely crafted ballad, from a film about the life of Walt Disney. Tritts’ voice sounds a little more worn than it did back when he was a staple on country radio, but this song holds its own with the best of his 90s ballads.

dolly bluesmoke2. Blue Smoke — Dolly Parton

This bluegrass-flavored single and the album from which it came marks Dolly Parton’s strongest effort since her bluegrass albums for Sugar Hill. At nearly 69 years of age, Dolly sound fresh and energetic and is showing no signs of slowing down any time soon.

1. The Way I’m Livin’— Lee Ann Womack

A lot of big names returned from long hiatuses this year, but Lee Ann Womack’s was the one I was most excited about. This non-charting record is an example of what country music used to be all about. It’s the first release of the post-major label phase of her career. I hope that her association with Sugar Hill is a long one and that she’ll begin releasing music more frequently than she has in the past. Country music needs more Lee Ann Womacks.

Album Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘The Way I’m Livin”

wayimlivinIt’s a bit early for year-in-review reflections, but 2014 will surely go down as an important year in country music history — the one that saw the long-awaited comebacks of two of its most important female artists, Trisha Yearwood and Lee Ann Womack. Womack’s long-awaited debut on Sugar Hill Records finally hit the market last week.

Womack may be frustratingly unprolific but anyone who listens to The Way I’m Livin’ — her first effort since 2008’s Call Me Crazy — will be hard-pressed to make the case that it wasn’t worth the wait. Whereas Call Me Crazy was a somewhat uneven affair, that is decidedly not the case here. Womack seems to have made good use of her time during her long hiatus from recording; she didn’t write any of the songs on The Way I’m Livin’ but she and her producers Chuck Ainlay, Frank Liddell, and Glenn Worf have compiled an excellent selection of songs from some of Nashville’s best songwriters. In an era where mainstream country music seems to have lost its way, The Way I’m Livin’ could be used as a textbook for a course called “Country Music Done Properly” that ought to be compulsory for every recording artist, producer and label executive in Nashville.

While the sound of The Way I’m Livin’ is no way retro, the songs do harken back to a time, not that long ago, when country music relied on melody rather than beat and the lyrics weren’t afraid to tackle serious topics. Much of The Way I’m Livin’ deals with life’s darker side — from the right-and-wrong struggles of the title track, Brennan Leigh’s “Sleeping With The Devil”, and Mindy Smith’s Delta-blues flavored “All His Saints”, to the beautiful and understated opening track “Prelude: Fly”, which deals with the death from spinal menangitis of songwriter Brent Cobb’s friend. Womack’s performance here has been compared to some of Dolly Parton’s early work.

Her performance on Hayes Carll’s “Chances Are” — my favorite track on the album — has evoked comparisons to another female legend, and although it’s not hard to imagine the treatment that Billy Sherrill and Tammy Wynette would have given this one, I think it’s just vintage Lee Ann Womack that sounds like something that could have been included on her masterpiece There’s More Where That Came From. The mournful “Send It On Down” sounds like something that Patty Loveless might have sung with gusto, but it’s hard to imagine her or anyone else topping Lee Ann’s version.

The great Bruce Robison contributed two tracks to the project: “Nightwind” and “Not Forgotten You”, which might have been considered the highlights on a weaker ablum, but the material on The Way I’m Livin’ is so consistently excellent, it’s really difficult to pick favorites. I didn’t realize at first that Kenny Price’s “Tommorow Night In Baltimore”, about a man in love with a nightclub dancer, was a remake of a 1971 Roger Miller hit. I’m not sure how I managed not to hear this one until now.

I simply cannot praise this album enough; it is one of those rare collections that is flawless from beginning to end. If you are only going to buy one album this year, make sure it’s this one.

Grade: A +

Album Review – Jim Lauderdale – ‘I’m A Song’

Jim-Lauderdale-070114-300x300Jim Lauderdale, recording once again for Sky Crunch Records, has gifted us with a self-produced double album to follow-up his acclaimed Buddy & Jim duets project from 2012. I’m A Song, his 26th album, spans twenty songs over a single disc of pure honky-tonk bliss with not a clinker in the bunch.

For this project Lauderdale wrote or co-wrote every song, opting to self-pen eight of the album’s tracks. For these numbers he mainly focuses on different aspects of relationships, from the hopeful beginnings of “Lets Have A Good Thing Together” to a woman’s uniqueness in “You’ve Got A Way With Yours.” “There’s No Shadows In The Shade” confronts what we tend to hide from one another in relationships, while the title track cleverly compares a romance to different aspects of a song. All are excellent, with gorgeous twangy guitar, drum, and pedal steel based arrangements that nicely complement Lauderdale’s southern drawl.

Much like “There’s No Shadow In The Shade,” “Hope and Find” has a very modern, and somewhat heavy, accompaniment the builds along with the sinister lyric. “The Day The Devil Changed” is the exact opposite – sunny and bright, despite a lyric about a man’s desire to course correct his troubled past. “We Will Rock Again” closes the album by echoing the honky-tonk beat of opener “Lets Have A Good Thing Together,” but presenting it as straight up rock. The lyric, about endings that aren’t goodbye, is in its chosen spot given its appropriateness as an album ending song.

Lauderdale teamed up with Jimmy Richie and Mark Irwin for “Past It,” in which the guy is eternally hopeful that he and his woman may be over the ‘rough patch that we’re on.’ The jaunty beat nicely aids in his optimism, while his cynical vocal suggests otherwise. Newly minted Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Bobby Bare shares co-writing credits on “This Feeling’s Hanging On,” a glorious straight-up traditional number bursting with steel and fiddle. “End of the World Rag” is one of the louder numbers, a doomsday lament that’s rock in every way.

Odie Blackmon, probably best known for writing Lee Ann Womack’s “I May Hate Myself In The Morning,” collaborated with Lauderdale on three cuts. “Neon Hearts” is a lonely man’s ode to drinking in bars, “Makin’ Honey” is a jarringly happy love song that seems somewhat out of character for the album, and “The World Is Waiting Below” concerns a very happy couple who are so in love they haven’t come down to earth yet. Of these three, which are all good, “Neon Hearts” is a cut above the rest, a wonderful bar song that gets to the heart of why we sometimes just need a stiff drink to wash away our troubles. Matt Warren and Gary Allan (along with Lauderdale) co-wrote “I Wish You Loved Me,” a fabulous honky-tonk number about unreciprocated love.

Womack provides harmony vocals on two of the four duet tracks on I’m A Song. Co-written with Robert Hunter, “A Day With No Tomorrow” is an excellent mid-tempo traditional country ballad about a recently heartbroken man. Even better is “Doin’ Time In Bakersfield” a Frank Dycus co-write about a man behind bars in the aforementioned California city. I wish Womack could’ve done more than harmonize here, making it a true duet, but her contributions only add to the outstanding quality of the track.

A collaboration with Patty Loveless on the self-penned “Today I’ve Got The Yesterdays” is given the same harmonizing treatment as the Womack numbers, and while it’s a great song with a flawless production, I would’ve liked to have seen Lauderdale give her some lines to sing solo. Their voices sound sharp together, too, as the both have distinct twangy vocals that keep them from harmonizing perfectly, like he was able to do with the sweeter voiced Womack. The Buddy Miller partnership on his Elvis Costello co-written “I Lost You” works the best given the format, as they are essentially a duo anyways.

“The King of Broken Hearts,” which George Strait brought prominence with the Pure Country soundtrack and Womack cut on Call Me Crazy gets recorded here by its writer twenty-three years after his original release since that project is long out of print. A staple of his shows and easily his most popular song, its revival here is a welcomed treat.

Most times when an artist opts to gift their fans twenty songs on a single disc, the results are uneven at best, and often wrought with wide sweeps of varying styles meant to please each and every sector of the audience. Lauderdale smartly forgoes that in favor of crafting a pure honky-tonk project as cohesive as any album could aspire to be. While not a fault of his own the track do tend to run together a bit, but the standout numbers (“Doin’ Time in Bakersfield,” “Neon Hearts,” and “The Day The Devil Changed”) stand out loud and clear.

Grade: A

Single Review: Lee Ann Womack – ‘The Way I’m Livin”

wayimlivinIt’s hard not to feel frustrated at times when Lee Ann Womack’s name is mentioned, primarily for two reasons: (1) she never quite achieved the level of commercial success she deserved, and (2) she is frustratingly unprolific. She has released only six studio albums (excluding 2002’s pseudo-holiday collection The Season For Romance), in her seventeen years as a recording artist, but fortunately the six-year drought since her last album is just about over, with a new collection slated for release in September. The title track was just released as the album’s first single.

“The Way I’m Livin'”, which was written by Adam Wright and produced by Womack’s husband Frank Liddell, is not a major departure in style for Lee Ann. And that is a good thing; although she’s made some missteps along the way, Womack has been one of a very few artists who haven’t lost touch with their country roots. She sounds refreshed and invigorated by her sabbatical from the recording studio; this track would not sound out of place on Lee Ann’s sophomore disc, 1998’s Some Things I Know. The raw acoustic guitar and Lee Ann’s strong vocal performance give the song a haunting feel. It’s a song about temptation and remorse, about drinking and the devil — the kind of song that country fans used to take for granted in the days before mindless redneck and drinking anthems became staples at country radio. I could have done without the over-the-top monster guitar solo and string arrangement during the song’s instrumental break but aside from that minor complaint, this is top-notch all the way. I’m looking forward to the full album release in the autumn. In the meantime, “The Way That I’m Livin'” is available for download at iTunes.

Grade: A

Album Review: Gene Watson – ‘In a Perfect World’

perfectworldI’m not sure whether I’d call Shanachie a major label or not – it certainly is one of the big three when it comes to Irish/Celtic music, but however you chose to characterize the label, this album, produced by Brent Rowan, found itself issued on Shanachie, one of two Watson albums released on this particular label.

By the time this album was released in 2007, Gene had been bouncing from label to label for a decade since leaving Step One Records. In fact much of the output of the period (1998-2007) consisted of Gusto reissues of material taken from Step One albums and other material released on independent labels such as Broadlands.

Unlike previous albums, which never saw Watson other than as a solo vocalist, Watson entered new territory, recording six songs featuring guest artists (mostly as harmony vocalists rather than true duets) out of the eleven songs on the album. Also unlike recent albums, this album does not contain remakes of earlier Gene Watson hits, focusing instead on some old classic country songs, with some newer material mixed in.

While this album could never be described as innovative (a value-neutral term as innovation can be bad) or cutting edge, it is yet another example of a master craftsman applying his talents to a terrific set of songs.

The album opens with the old Hank Cochran classic “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me”. Released during the 1960s this recording would have been a major hit. This song is followed by Vince Gill harmonizing with Gene on the Harlan Howard’s “Let Me Be The First To Go”, a song initially recorded by the great Wynn Stewart. This song is a tearjerker in which Watson asks God to call him home first as he couldn’t handle life without his wife. Aubrey Haynie’s fiddle and Sonny Garrish’s steel guitar really standout on this track

“What Was I Thinking” follows next – this was not the Dierks Bentley hit of a few years earlier but a Skip Ewing ballad lamenting the breakup of a relationship.

“Today I Started Loving You Again” is one of Merle Haggard’s most famous songs, even though it was never a hit for the Hag (it was the B-side of “The Ballad of Bonnie & Clyde”) although Sammi Smith had a minor hit with it. The song has been recorded many times, but never better than this version which features Lee Ann Womack’s harmony vocals, especially noteworthy on the repeat chorus.

Harley Allen and Tim Mensy penned the title track “In A Perfect World” , a song of a man who has reached bottom and is imagining life as it could be, not as it really turned out to be. Joe Nichols harmony vocals provide the proper shading for this very desolate song:

In A Perfect World It Never Rains on Saturday
In A Perfect World I Wouldn’t Hate The Holidays
I’d Sleep Just Like A Baby and Have One Down The Hall
You’d Still Be My Girl, In A Perfect World

Tim Mensy also contributed “She’s Already Gone” and “This Side of he Door” (co-written with Shawn Camp). “She’s Already Gone” is just another good song about a relationship that is already dead except for someone actually leaving, but “This Side of The Door is really good. Guest vocalist Mark Chesnutt has some solo lines on this song, which Chesnutt originally recorded on his What a Way to Live album released in 2004. This songs rocks a little harder than is customary for Gene.

It is hard to image that “Together Again” was the B-Side of “My Heart Skips A Beat” for Buck Owens never wrote a better song. Buck’s A-side spent seven weeks at #1 but so many DJs flipped the record that the B-side also spent two weeks at #1. Rhonda Vincent guest on this song, the only true duet on the album, an a harbinger of more collaborations to come. In my opinion, this is the standout track on the album.

Another Tim Mensy song “I Buried Our Love” was released as a single although I never heard it played on the radio. It has a strong lyric and should have received at least some airplay.

Connie Smith is one of the few country singers on a par with Watson in terms of being a master vocalist. I think this song was first recorded by Point of Grace but I doubt that many would consider this rendition in any way inferior to the original. I would like for Connie’s voice to have been more prominently featured.

The album closes with yet another Tim Mensy song, “Like I Wasn’t Even There”. This song sounds more like the stuff currently played on the radio (only sung better) than like classic country. The storyline of this ballad is one of a man encountering his ex and seeing her behave as if he didn’t exist.

Reaction to this album at the time of its release varied although all reviewers considered it a good collection of songs sung by an excellent singer, while docking it stars for not pushing the boundaries of the genre. In my humble opinion when an album is this good, I don’t care whether or not it breaks new ground.

From this point forward Gene would feature more duets – his next Shanachie album would feature actual duets with Trace Adkins and Rhonda Vincent and Alison Krauss providing harmony vocals on a track.

Grade: A

Album Review – Miranda Lambert – ‘Platinum’

MirandaLambertPlatinumMidway through Miranda Lambert’s new album Platinum comes a jarring exception to the rule as daring as the twin fiddles that opened Lee Ann Womack’s There’s More Where That Came From nine years ago. The one-two punch of a Tom T and Dixie Hall composition coupled with a glorious arrangement by The Time Jumpers has yielding “All That’s Left,” a rare nugget of traditional western swing with Lambert channeling high lonesome Patty Loveless. Besides producing one of the years’ standout recorded moments, “All That’s Left” is a crucial nod to our genre’s heritage, and the fulfillment of the promise Lambert showed while competing on Nashville Star.

Suffice it to say, there’s nothing else on Platinum that equals the brilliance of “All That’s Left,” since Lambert never turns that traditional or naturally twangy again. Instead she opts for a fifteen-slot smorgasbord, mixing country, pop, and rock in an effort to appeal to anyone who may find his or her way to the new music. In lesser hands the record would be an uneven mess, but Lambert is such an expert at crafting albums she can easily pair western swing and arena rock and have it all fit together as smaller parts of a cohesive whole.

The main theme threading through Platinum is one of getting older, whether for purposes of nostalgia, or literally aging. She continues the nostalgia trip she began with fantastic lead single “Automatic” on “Another Sunday In The South” as she recruits Jessi Alexander and fellow Pistol Annie Ashley Monroe to reminisce about the good ‘ol days of 90s country music, among southern signifiers like lazy afternoons and times spent on the front porch. The only worthwhile name check song in recent memory, “Another Sunday” cleverly weaves Restless Heart, Trace Adkins, Pam Tillis, Clint Black, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and song namesake Shenandoah through the lyrics without pandering or sounding cutesy. I only wish she had referenced Diamond Rio and had producer Frank Liddell pepper the track with more of a 90s throwback production, which would’ve fit slightly better than the soft rockish vibe the track was given.

Lambert actually does recapture the Patty Loveless-like twang on “Old Shit,” Brent Cobb and Neil Mason’s love letter to the appealing nature of antiques. The framing technique of using the grandfather and granddaughter relationship coupled with the organic harmonica laced organic arrangement is charming, and while I usually don’t advocate for swearing in country songs, it actually works in this case and seems more appropriate than any of the cleaner words they could’ve used instead.

The aging side of getting older, which Lambert and company began tackling with “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty” on Annie Up last year, is far more prevalent a force on Platinum. As has become customary for Lambert, she wrote thumping rocker “Bathroom Sink” solo. The lyric is scathing, detailing scary self-loathing that builds in intensity along with the electric guitars. Lambert’s phrasing is annoying, though; punctuating the rimes so much they begin to sound rudimentary. While true, “Gravity’s a Bitch,” which Lambert co-wrote with Scotty Wray, just doesn’t feel necessary to me. I think being outside the track’s demographic target aids in my assessment, but I do enjoy the decidedly country meets bluesy arrangement.

When the press release for the album said the title track was ‘Taylor Swift pop’ I was admittedly worried, no matter how many times I got down with the dubstep of “I Knew You Were Trouble” or the bubblegum of “22.” Since Max Martin isn’t anywhere near this album, “Platinum” is more “Red” than anything else, and the infamous ‘what doesn’t kill you only makes you blonder’ lyric is catchy as hell. Similarly themed and produced “Girls” is just as good, and like “Gravity’s a Bitch,” it’ll appeal quite nicely to the fairer sex.

The rest of Platinum truly defines the smorgasbord aspects of the album, with some conventional and extremely experimental tracks. Lambert co-wrote “Hard Staying Sober” with Natalie Hemby and Luke Laird and it ranks among her finest moments, with the decidedly country production and fabulously honest lyric about a woman who’s no good when her man isn’t present. “Holding On To You,” the closet Lambert comes to crooning a love song, is sonically reminiscent of Vince Gill’s 90s sound but with touches that makes it all her own. While good it’s a little too bland, as is “Babies Making Babies,” which boats a strong opening verse but eventually comes off less clever than it should’ve and not surprising enough for me.

Ever since Revolution, production on Lambert’s albums has to be taken with a grain of salt, which is unfortunately still the case here. I’m betting, more than anything since Brandy Clark and Lambert co-wrote it together with Heather Little, that “Too Rings Shy” has a strong lyric underneath the unlistenable production that found Lambert asking her production team to go out and lyrically record circus noises. It’s a shame they couldn’t make this work, since they pulled it off with Randy Scruggs reading the Oklahoma Farm Report in the background of “Easy Living” on Four The Record. There’s just no excuse why the track had to be mixed this intrusively.

Polarizing more than anything else is Lambert’s cover of Audra Mae’s “Little Red Wagon,” which I only understood after listening to Mae’s original version. Given that it’s a duet with Little Big Town, I know most everyone expected more from “Smokin’ and Drinkin,’ and I understand why (the approach isn’t traditional), but I really like the lyric and production, making the overall vibe work really well for me. The same is true about “Something Bad,” which isn’t a great song, but works because of the beat, and interplay between Lambert and Carrie Underwood. The two, even on a marginalized number like this one by Chris DeStefano, Brett James, and Priscilla Renea, sound extremely good together.

Nicolle Galyon and Jimmy Robbins teamed up with Hemby to write the album’s most important track, a love letter Lambert sings to Priscilla Presley. While the concept is questionable on paper, the results are a revelation and give Lambert a chance to directly address what she’s been going through since her husband’s career skyrocketed on The Voice. At a time when most artists of Lambert’s caliber are shying away from singing what they’re going through, Lambert is attacking her rise in celebrity head on with a clever lyric, interesting beat, and an all around engaging execution that makes “Priscilla” this album’s “Mama’s Broken Heart.”

Even without the added punch of co-writes with her fellow Nashville Star contestant Travis Howard or the inclusion of a bunch of artistic covers from the pens of Gillan Welch, Allison Moorer, Carline Carter, and others – Platinum ranks high in Lambert’s catalog. She’s gotten more introspective as she’s aged but instead of coasting on past success or suppressing her voice in favor of fitting in or pleasing people, she remains as sharp as ever tackling topics her closest contemporaries wouldn’t even touch. I didn’t care for this project on first listen, but now that I completely understand where she’s coming from, I’m fully on board. All that’s left is my desire she go even more country in her sound, but Platinum wouldn’t be a Miranda Lambert record without the added touch of Rock & Roll.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Lee Ann Womack, Peter Cooper and Tom T. Hall – ‘I Love’

Single Review – Kacey Musgraves – ‘Keep It To Yourself’

Kacey-Musgraves-Keep-It-To-YourselfSo, it appears Mercury Nashville is applying the old adage, “Throw it against a wall and see if it sticks.”

With her last two attitude-laden singles meeting a lukewarm reception at radio, it is time to take a different approach and see if the safe ballad will ignite the radio gods and give Musgraves the breakthrough hit that would reverse course and put her on a more equal playing field with Miranda, Carrie, and Taylor.

On the surface Musgraves, Shane McAnally, and Luke Laird have composed a fairly straightforward breakup ballad – a guy is missing the girl he recently broke up with, trying to contact her, and hoping to win her back. The trio captures his pain wonderfully, from insomnia (‘It’s the drip of the sink, it’s the click of the clock, and you wonder if I’m sleeping’) to deep regret (‘you heard from your friends that I’m doing okay, and you’re thinking maybe you made a mistake’). He’s flailing but she isn’t, and that subtle confidence is what brilliantly sells the song.

Especially in the chorus I’ve always regarded “Keep It To Yourself” as similar to Lee Ann Womack’s “Last Call” in that they both feature drunk and venerable men (and were co-written by McAnally) and women who see the light and stop wasting their time with men who are beneath them. There’s no suggestion here that the ex-boyfriend in the song is a looser, just a heartbroken individual who wants his girl back.

And Musgraves couldn’t care less about reuniting with him, and it’s refreshing how she tells him to stay away:

Keep it to yourself

If you think that you still love me

Put it on a shelf

If you’re looking for someone

Make it someone else

When you’re drunk

And it’s late

And you’re missing me like hell

Keep it to yourself

There’s no hint of jealousy, immature ramblings about how men suck, or any need to blow up his house, car, or get revenge on him. She’s just doing better since they ended things and doesn’t want him around anymore. If he’s having trouble grabbling with that, then, that’s his problem. Taylor Swift could learn a thing or two from Musgraves’ adult perspective – mainly to quit pandering to the teenage audience in her romantic thinking. But then again, her immaturity has made Musgraves’ maturity that much more exhilarating.

Will “Keep It To Yourself” be a big hit? I doubt it, especially in the current climate of terrestrial country radio. That’s a shame because this is a song that deserves to be heard and in the past decade would’ve easily had enough glue to stick to that wall.

Grade: A  

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.