My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Leon Russell

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘God’s Problem Child’

Although he has had to cancel a few shows lately because of illness, 83 year old Willie Nelson is still touring and releasing records at a pace which puts to shame artists a quarter of his age. His latest album is his 62st studio album, and although it is his first of brand new songs for some time, he has written a good proportion of the songs here.

Opener ‘Little House On The Hill’, written by producer Buddy Cannon’s 90-something mother Lyndel Rhodes, has a charmingly old fashioned feel. The delicate piano/harmonica ballad ‘Old Timer;, written by Donnie Fritts and Lenny Le Blanc, Is a pensive reflection on growing old and outliving friends. Understated and beautiful, this is excellent.

‘True Love’, one of a number of songs Willie wrote with Buddy Cannon, is sweetly optimistic. ‘Your Memory Has A Mind Of Its Own’ is a lovely, very traditional country tune about battling with heartbreak. Another favorite is the irony-tinged, ‘I Made A Mistake’:

I told a big lie, Lord
And then I forgot
I thought I was Jesus
And believe me I’m not
I thought I was right
And I was wrong by a lot

‘It Gets Easier’ is a plaintive ballad about love and loss. ‘Lady Luck is about compulsive gamblers.

The wrily amusing ‘Still Not Dead’ was inspired by an erroneous report of Willie’s death:

I woke up still not dead again today
The internet said I had passed away…

I run up and down the road makin’ music as I go
They say my pace would kill a normal man
But I’ve never been accused of bein’ normal anyway

More cynical, ‘Delete And Fast Forward’ is a rare venture by Willie into political commentary.

‘A Woman’s Love’ is a loungy jazz ballad written by Sam Hunter and Mike Reid:

A woman’s love is stronger than a man’s
But it can hold your heart in the palm of his hands.
It’ll keep the faith through the long dark night
It takes a woman’s love, a woman’s love
To see the light.

It’ll make you fly
Sink you like a stone,
It’ll leave you high
Or leave you all alone.
You’ll believe her word
No matter what you’ve heard
Anybody say about it
There’s no life for you without it now

Sonny Throckmorton and Mark Sherrill wrote the gentle, pretty ‘Butterfly’. Tony Joe White and Jamey Johnson wrote the title track, a gloomy blues gospel tune about failure and the enduring love of God. The pair, plus the late Leon Russell, also guest on the song.

The album closes with a touching tribute to Merle Haggard. Gary Nicholson actually wrote ‘He Won’t Ever Be Gone’, but it sounds as if Willie did, with its fond memories of both the musician and the man.

Willie is in surprisingly strong voice given his age and hectic schedule. Combined with the excellent songs included, this is a really good album by a living legend who is still at (or at least not far off) the height of his powers.

Grade: A+

Album Review: T. Graham Brown – ‘Forever Changed’

foreverchangedThe newly released Forever Changed, is T. Graham Brown’s first full-length studio album in nearly nine years. Produced by Mark Carman, it is a collection of inspirational songs. Although it is being labeled a gospel album in press releases, most of the songs are not overtly religious, but all of them deliver a positive message. Presumably the project was inspired by his own battles with alcoholism.

As one might expect with a T. Graham Brown album, Forever Changed is heavily influenced by soul and R&B, along with a healthy dose of mainstream pop. It isn’t terribly country, although a number of Nashville’s finest, including Vince Gill, Sonya Isaacs, former Statler Brother Jimmy Fortune, and the Oak Ridge Boys, appear as guest artists.

The album’s lead single “He’ll Take Care of You”, a duet with Vince Gill, was released last August, but failed to make any impact on the charts. It is one of he album’s best tracks, along with the title track (a beautiful ballad), the funky “Soul Talk” and a very nice remake of Charley Pride’s “Power of Love”. The Oak Ridge Boys revisit their own gospel roots on “How Do You Know:”. My least favorite track is “Shadow of Doubt”, which is not a bad song at all, but it is ruined by guest vocalist Leon Russell’s caterwauling.

In addition to the new material, Forever Changed contains two newly recorded versions of songs from Brown’s back catalog. Sonya Isaacs joins Brown on “Which Way To Pray”, about a victim of sexual abuse and domestic violence, and Jimmy Fortune accompanies him on one of his very best songs “Wine Into Water”. Although recycling of material usually annoys me, I didn’t find it objectionable in this case since the album consists of a generous 13 tracks.

Forever Changed has been nominated for a Grammy and I would very much like to see it win. It can be purchased through regular music outlets, Cracker Barrel or downloaded.

Grade: A

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘To All The Girls’

to all the girlsThe newest Willie Nelson album finds Willie treading familiar ground, recording eighteen duets with various female partners. These partners range from young to old, famous to fairly unknown and across a wide array of genres.

The album opens up with the “From Here To The Moon And Back”, an introspective ballad from the catalogue of duet partner Dolly Parton. This song has a very quiet arrangement with piano being the dominant sound, along with a very light string arrangement – very nice song.

Another very quiet song is “She Was No Good For Me” with the normally boisterous Miranda Lambert assisting Willie on an old Waylon Jennings tune. It is nice to hear Miranda sing a song that requires nuance and restraint.

She was a good looking woman no doubt
A high steppin’ mover that men talk about
Everything bad in me she brought it out
And she was just no good for me

[Chorus:]
Don’t be taken by the look in her eyes
If she looks like an angel
It’s a perfect disguise
And for somebody else she may be
But she was just no good for me

“It Won’t Be Very Long” opens with a harmonica intro which comes to a dead stop and then starts to a song with a very country gospel feel – something either Roy Acuff or the Nitty Gritty Dirt band might have tackled. The Secret Sisters aren’t really very well known but probably do the best job of any act on the album of actually harmonizing with Willie. Willie and producer Buddy Cannon wrote this song.

“Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends” is a Kris Kristofferson song that originally was a top ten hit for new Country Music Hall of Famer Bobby Bare (it reached #1 on Record World) in 1971. In 1974 it reached #1 on Billboard for Ronnie Milsap. I always preferred Bare’s version as I think the song benefited from Bare’s more laid back approach to the song. Nelson and duet partner Rosanne Cash adopt the more relaxed approach to the song, with Willie’s guitar being the dominant sound of the background, but with a tasteful organ undertone by Moose Brown. Willie and Rosanne’s voices really don’t mesh well together and Willie’s eccentric phrasing is difficult for any singer to handle, but actual harmonizing on this tune is kept to a dead minimum.

“Far Away Places” is one of the classics of the American Pop Standards canon. The song was written by Joan Whitney and Alex Kramer way back in 1948, and was an immediate hit by three artists in late 1948-early 1949, reaching #2 for the legendary Bing Crosby, #3 for Margaret Whiting and #6 for Perry Como. The Como version is probably the best remembered version since RCA kept the song available for most of the last 65 years whereas the other versions have frequently been out of print. Willie and partner Sheryl Crow harmonize well and recreate the dreamy feel of the 1948 versions. This is my favorite track on this album:

Far away places with strange soundin’ names
Far away over the sea
Those far away places with the strange soundin’ names
Are callin’, callin’ me

Goin’ to China or maybe Siam
I want to see for myself
Those far away places I’ve been readin’ about
In a book that I took from the shelf

I don’t know how many times Willie has recorded his own “Bloody Mary Morning” but this version must be the fastest version on disc. I’m not a big Wynonna Judd fan but this is the kind of song she handles well. Mike Johnson (steel) and Dan “Man of Constant Sorrow” Tyminski (acoustic guitar) really shine on this track.

Writers Wayne Carson, Mark James and John Christopher, Jr cashed in big time with “You Were Always On My Mind” as it was a hit thrice (Brenda Lee, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson) and appeared on many albums generating many millions of sales (and royalties for the songwriters). On this recording Willie is joined by Carrie Underwood in a nice version with fairly minimal backing.

During the 1960s and 1970s semi-permanent male-female duos abounded, nearly all of whom tackled Merle Haggard’s “Somewhere Between”. It’s a great song and Willie is joined by the legendary Loretta Lynn, singing in better voice than anything I’ve heard from her recently. Willie and Loretta trade verses (usually in different keys) and do not harmonize except one line at the end. It’s a great song and full justice is done to the song.

“No Mas Amore” written by Keith Gattis and Sammy Barrett, is given the Mexican treatment by Willie and partner Alison Krauss complete with trumpets. Willies band member Mickey Raphael plays chord harmonica and bass harmonica; Alison’s band member Dan Tyminski adds background vocals and plays mandolin. Usually Alison Krauss duets produce a certain magic, but this one is merely pleasant listening.

“Back To Earth” features Melonie Cannon on this Willie Nelson ballad, taken at a languid pace. The song is nothing special but Melanie and Willie execute it well.

Mavis Staples is one of the best known gospel singers, carrying on the fine tradition of the legendary Staples Family. “Grandma’s Hands” was penned by Bill Withers, probably best known for his monster hits “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lean On Me”. The song was about Wither’s own grandma and is an affectionate look at a loved one, now departed. Willie and Mavis give it a bit of a ‘swamp blues pop’ treatment that fits the song exactly.

“Walkin” features Wiliie’s good friend Norah Jones on a Willie composition. This is a bluesy slow ballad about leaving.

“Till The End of World” is an old Vaughn Horton standard given an up-tempo western swing arrangement. Back in 1949 Ernest Tubb, Jimmy Wakely and Johnny Bond all had top twelve hits with the song, then in 1952 Bing Crosby and ace guitarist Grady Martin took it back into the top ten. Shelby Lynne reestablishes her country credibility with this effort.

“Will You Remember Mine” is a lovely ballad from Willie’s pen. I don’t know anything about Lily Meola but she is a perfect complement to Willie on this song.

Gone are the times when I held you close
And pressed your lips to mine
Now when you kissed another’s lips
Will you remember mine?

I’m sure we’ve all had this thought – indeed.

“Dry Lightning” comes from the pen of Bruce Springsteen. Emmylou Harris can sing with anyone. Therefore it is no surprise that this song works as a duet. It’s another slow ballad, but Emmylou, as usual is exquisite.

I first ran across Brandi Carlile some years ago when the late and lamented Borders chain distributed sampler CDs of her work. On “Making Believe” she proves both that she can sing effective harmony and can sing country music with feeling. This song was written by Jimmy Work but is best remembered as a major hit for Kitty Wells in 1955, with Emmylou Harris taking it back to the top ten in 1977.

“Have You Ever Seen The Rain” is a John Fogarty composition given a slow folk arrangement that enables Willie and (I think) daughter Paula Nelson to convey the lyrics in an uncluttered manner. I really like this recording.

Tina Rose is the daughter of Leon & Mary Russell. Willie recorded an album with Leon Russell in 1979, so it seems only proper that he should record a song with Leon’s daughter. I’m not that impressed with Ms Russell’s vocals, but they work well enough on the vehicle chosen, L.E White’s “After The Fire Is Gone”, which White’s boss, Conway Twitty took to the top of the charts with Loretta Lynn in 1971. Willie and Tina don’t have the chemistry Conway and Loretta had (few do) but the end result is worthwhile.

It remains true:
There’s nothing cold as ashes
After the fire’s gone

All told, there is a very pleasant offering from Willie – I’d give it a B+, mostly because a few more up-tempo numbers were needed. Willie, of course, is always Willie, and as always, he was chosen well in his selection of female guests.

Willie Nelson: the country duet albums

Whatever else one may think about Willie Nelson, there are two things that are absolutely true about the man – he has a strong sense of the history of the genre and he believes in paying it forward and back.

Take a stroll through the sales pages of a website such as CD Baby and count the number of country albums by unheralded artists that feature a track or two in which Willie Nelson does a guest duet or harmony vocal. As for duet albums, Willie has recorded more duet albums than most regular duos record in their career.

In this article we will take a look at some of the many duet albums that Willie has recorded with other country artists. We won’t be looking at the albums he cut with Ray Price (someone else will do that article) and we won’t be looking at the albums that Willie cut with artists outside the genre such as Ray Charles, Julio Iglesias, Wynton Marsailles, Leon Russell or Norma Jones. This will be country music – period.

1) Willie Nelson & Roger Miller – Old Friends (Columbia, 1982)

Willie Nelson and Roger Miller (1936-1992) were contemporaries and old friends who both played in Ray Price’s band. Roger was a unique talent, perhaps the greatest entertainer the world has ever seen. Roger barely needed even a guitar to keep an audience enthralled for hours, but before breaking through as a performer, he was a solid country songsmith, writing hits for other singers such as Jim Reeves and Ray Price.

This album, partially recorded at Willie’s Pedernales Recording Studio and using Willie’s band augmented by a few extra musicians such as Johnny Gimble (fiddle and mandolin), Grady Martin (guitar) and Jimmy Day (steel guitar) has the sound of a Willie Nelson album but all of the material is associated with Roger Miller (Roger wrote all ten songs, one a co-write with Bill Anderson). Staying away from the obvious Miller hits (most of them novelties that don’t lend themselves to duets) Willie and Roger tackle Roger’s solid classics that were hits for others such as “Invitation To The Blues” (Ray Price), “Half A Mind” (Ernest Tubb) “When Two Worlds Collide” (Jim Reeves) and “Husbands & Wives” (a hit for Roger, Jack Jones, Brooks & Dunn and also recorded by many others such as Neil Diamond). The single released from the album, “Old Friends”, also featured Ray Price, and scraped into the top twenty. Oddly enough only three of the songs are actual duets at all (Roger solos on three songs, including the only novelty on the album “Aladambama”, and Willie solos on four songs), but they do represent an enlightening dip into the Roger Miller song-bag.

2) Willie Nelson & Faron Young – Funny How Time Slips Away (Columbia, 1985)

Faron Young (1932-1996), although only a year older than Willie, had already been a star for six-plus years when Willie hit Nashville. Faron gave Willie his first two big breaks as a songwriter: he recorded “Hello Walls” (a million seller in 1961) and he refused to let Willie (the proverbial starving songwriter) sell him the song for $500, lending him the money instead. At the time, Faron had already seen the preliminary sales figures for the song and knew the songwriters’ royalties would be thousands of dollars. Willie never forgot this and the two remained friends until the end of Faron’s life. Faron would have hits on several other songs written by Willie and this album features most of them.

Side one of the album featured six songs written by Willie Nelson of which three (“Hello Walls”, “Congratulations” and “Three Days” were hits for Faron). Side two of the record features five of Faron’s hits supplied by other songwriters (“Live Fast – Love Hard – Die Young”, “Sweet Dreams” , “Four In The Morning” ,
“Life Turned Her That Way” and “Going Steady”, plus the title track – written by Willie but not a Faron Young hit.

This album was released in 1985. By then Faron’s 22 year run at the top of the charts was long over, but Faron could still sing. Consequently, even though this album was recorded at Pedernales studio, the musicians are Nashville session men and the album does not come across as a Willie Nelson album, but as a true collaborative effort. Faron solos on “Four In The Morning” and Willie solos on “She’s Not For You” but the rest is duets including possibly the best versions you’ll ever hear on “Hello Walls” and “Funny How Time Slips Away”.

3) Willie Nelson & Webb Pierce – In The Jailhouse Now (Columbia 1982)

Webb Pierce (1921-1991) was the biggest star in country music during the decade of the 1950s and remained a viable star until about 1967, after which time his high nasal style permanently fell out of vogue (except in bluegrass music). Most observers have failed to see Willie’s connection with Webb Pierce, who never recorded any of Willie’s songs, except as album cuts, and never had any working relationship with Webb, and it is a bit tenuous to see the connection, although Willie’s vocal phrasing and pinched nasal vibrato seem influenced by Webb’s vocals of the 1950s.

This album features duets on nine of Webb’s 1950s recordings, including Webb’s mega-hits “Slowly”, “There Stands The Glass”, More and More”, “Wondering” , “I Don’t Care” and “Back Street Affair” (a sextet of songs that spent eighty weeks at #1) plus three more songs that appeared on Webb’s albums and one new song written by Willie Nelson, Webb Pierce and Max Powell , the bluesy “Heebie Jeebie Blues #2” . The album was recorded at Pedernales Studio using Willie’s band augmented by Johnny Gimble, Grady Martin, Jimmy Day, Leon Russell and Richard Manuel.

The only single released from the album, “In The Jailhouse Now” barely dented the charts at #72, but Webb’s voice had dropped enough in pitch to make him an effective duet partner for Willie. Both singers obviously had fun recording this album and I regard this as the most effective of Willie’s major label duet albums.

Willie Nelson & Curtis Potter – Six Hours At Pedernales (Step One Records, 1994)

Curtis Potter (1940 – ) is part of the Willie’s Texas connection, having served as Hank Thompson’s band leader from 1959-1971 and one of Willie’s circle of friends including Johnny Bush, Darrell McCall and who knows how many others. Curtis never became a big star outside of his native Texas but he is an impressive singer and he and Willie harmonize well on this collection of country songs. Produced by Ray Pennington, the in-house producer at Step One Records, this collection features three songs written by Pennington, three written by Nelson, plus some outside material. This album features none of Willie’s band members, aiming instead for a Texas Swing/Honky-Tonk feel with outstanding fiddle work by Rob Hajacos and steel by Buddy Emmons.

For me the highlights are “The Party’s Over” and “My Own Peculiar Way” in which Willie and Curtis swap verses on a pair of Willie classics, and Willie’s solo turn on Ray Pennington’s “Turn Me Loose and Let Me Swing”. That said, I really like this entire album. It’s been in my car CD player for the last week.

4) Willie Nelson & Johnny Bush – Together Again (Delta Records, 1982)

Delta Records is a long-defunct Texas independent label that never had much distribution outside of Texas and had some of its inventory confiscated by the IRS during Willie’s tax problem days. Johnny Bush Shinn (1935 – ) is a long-time friend of Willie’s dating back to the 1950s. Both were in Ray Price’s band and have been members of each other’s bands at various times.

This twelve song album features ten duets plus Johnny Bush solos on “Driving Nails In My Coffin” and his own “Whiskey River” (taken at a very different tempo than Willie usually performs it). The album opens up with the Buck Owens classic “Together Again” and works its way through a solid program of songs including the Paul Simon song “Still Crazy After All These Years” plus Willie Nelson tunes “I Let My Mind Wander”, “I’ve Just Destroyed The World I’m Living In” , “The Party’s Over” and “My Own Peculiar Way”.

“Whiskey River” was released as a single just denting the top 100, and “You Sure Tell It Like It Is, George Jones” was also released as a single, although it didn’t chart (it is a great track). “The Party’s Over is a standout track as is “The Sound of A Heartache”, a song written by Johnny Bush.

The album was recorded at Willie’s Pedernales Studio, but produced by Johnny Bush. Willie’s band was not used on this album, so the sound is more that of a conventional country band. This album was recorded after Johnny was struck with spastic dysphonia so he was not at his vocal peak , but still he was still a tremendous singer, if not quite the ‘country Caruso’ (later medical discoveries would restore him to peak condition).

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Album Review – Willie Nelson – ‘Shotgun Willie’

220px-Shotgun_WillieAfter the release of The Willie Way in 1972, Willie Nelson opted not to resign with RCA Records, thus terminating his seven-year relationship with the label. He retreated to Austin, Texas for what was supposed to be a short trip, but found the bourgeoning hippie scene at Armadillo World Headquarters so enlightening that it had a profound effect on his musical style. Back in Nashville, he met Atlantic Records Vice President Jerry Wexler at a party who then signed Nelson as the first act under Atlantic’s newly formed country division.

The sessions for Shotgun Willie began in New York City (where Wexler rented Nelson a studio) in February 1973. The initial sessions yielded the tracks that would become his 1976 album The Troublemaker plus early sides for Shotgun Willie. Nelson was still feeling uninspired after these preliminary sessions, but found the motivation he needed after penning what would become the album’s title song on a sanitary napkin rapper in his hotel bathroom. Turkish-American music producer Arif Mardin oversaw most of the sessions while Wexler and David Briggs also shared production duties. Sessions for the project also took place in Nashville as well as Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee.

The significance of Shotgun Willie cannot be overstated – it was one of the original albums of the outlaw movement, a revolt against the slick pop-heavy Nashville Sound that was dominant at the time. National sales of the album were poor upon release that June, although in Austin it sold more copies than most of Nelson’s earlier recordings did nationwide.

Atlantic chose the title track as the lead single and it peaked at #60 on the Billboard Country Chart. The song tells the story of real-life domestic abuse suffered by Nelson’s daughter Lana. When Nelson confronted Lana’s husband, he threatened to kill him if he ever hit Lana again. Lana’s husband retaliated by shooting at Nelson’s house with his brothers, only to have Nelson fight back by shooting at their truck, thus ending the incident. It’s a fairly simple song given the subject matter, with Nelson singing, ‘You can’t make a record if you ain’t got nothing to say,’ referring to his anguish over the recording sessions. The production is nice and understated, with acoustic guitars and drums framing Nelson’s confident vocal.

A cover of Bob Willis’ “Stay All Night (Stay A Little Longer)” was the second and final single peaking at #22. Nelson’s version is very good even though it scarifies the track’s western swing elements in favor of a jaunty barroom arrangement complete with a chorus of backup singers. His vocal could’ve also been stronger, as he seems to mumble a bit throughout, but it does add a nice effect to the whole proceedings.

Nelson’s original studio recording of “Whiskey River” was on Shotgun Willie, coming a year after Johnny Bush’s (who co-wrote the song with Paul Stroud) #17 peaking hit. Nelson would release the song from Willie and Family Live five years later and it would become his signature tune. The studio recording is very similar to the live one, but lacking in the famous boisterous energy Nelson is known for with the song. It’s still excellent and a nice alternate interpretation to the smoothness of Bush’s take.

“Bubbles In My Beer” was a second Willis’ cover and a song that became a country music standard shortly after Willis and his Texas Playboys first recorded it in 1947, taking it to #4 on the charts. Co-written by Cindy Walker, Thomas Duncan, and Willis it’s the drinking song that started the classic theme of drowning your sorrows in a barroom. Nelson hits a home run by retaining the western swing elements of the song while also updating it for the modern audience.

Keith Whitley covered “Sad Songs and Waltzes” in 1982 although it first saw CD release in 2000 as the title track to a compilation of his pre-fame recordings. Nelson’s original is phenomenal, with acoustic guitars and pedal steel framing his gorgeously deep vocal. He gives a more understated reading than Whitley, and his conversational tone has a hymn-like effect that helps the track stand out.

Leon Russell wrote “You Look Like The Devil,” a simple no-frills traditional country number complete with Steel and acoustic guitars. He also penned the American standard “A Song for You,” which closes the album. Nelson’s take is slow, with just a simple acoustic guitar backdrop, but it allows him to shine vocally, giving the track an everyman feel that draws the listener in to the story.

“Local Memory” is beautifully simple number with nice acoustic guitar, steel, and drums giving Nelson a gently rolling mid-tempo arrangement to compliment his warm vocal. It’s an excellent track, even when Nelson descends to near whisper at the end of the second verse, just before the melody picks up again.

“Slow Down Old World” has an elegant opening of Spanish-infused guitar that gives way to a wonderful mix of acoustic guitar and steel. Nelson’s vocal is sharp and confident giving off an intimacy between Nelson and the listener. “Slow Down Old World” is easily one of Nelson’s finest moments.

“Devil In My Sleeping Bag” gives the middle of the album a nice dose of pep, infusing acoustic guitars and drums in a sunny feel good arrangement. It’s an excellent story song about his return to Austin but the chorus becomes a little prodding with Nelson’s exaggerated twang putting a damper on the listening experience. “She’s Not for You” is a typical Nelson ballad, with his usually sleepy vocal, but the production (complete with steel, guitars, and drums) helps to nicely lift the song out of the doldrums of being another slow number. “So Much to Do” is also slow, but the fantastic lyric makes up for any shortcomings in the production:

My oatmeal tastes just like confetti

The coffee’s too strong so forget it

The toast is burning

Well let it

There’s just so much to do

Since you’ve gone

Too much to do all alone

Shotgun Willie may’ve only peaked at #41, but it remains one of Nelson’s most important albums, a project that “cleared his throat” as he later said. The project is a masterpiece not because of the Outlaw Movement it inspired, but on it’s own merit – song for song, vocal for vocal it’s spot on. The arrangements let the songs have their own life and Nelson once again proves his incredible talents at crafting simple yet effecting songs. Shotgun Willie stands out because it doesn’t pander to any ideals – it just stands on its own as an understated gem. If you’re only familiar with Nelson’s more popular recordings from the mid to late 70s, go and pick this one up. You’ll witness a singer/songwriter in his prime, who’s stumbled upon the authentic identity that would help cement his place in not just country, but American music history.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Clint Black – ‘D’lectrified’

clintblackClint Black’s swan song for RCA was the first album he produced by himself and arguably his most ambitious. As the title suggests, D’lectrified was recorded entirely with acoustic instruments, but rest assured, it is no quiet, stripped-down unplugged affair. By implementing a variety of instruments not usually used in country music — such as the clarinet, various saxophones and percussion, as well as a string section — he achieves a rich, full sound which causes the listener to sometimes forget that no electric instruments were used.

The album is also a departure from Clint’s usual practice of writing or co-writing every song. There is a great deal of cover material here and his choices are quite eclectic — from The Marshall Tucker Band’s “Bob Away My Blues” which opens the album, to Leon Russell’s “Dixie Lullaby” (done as a duet with Bruce Hornsby) and the novelty tune “Ode To the Galaxy”, which is quite likely the first time a major country music star covered Monty Python. A slightly re-worked version of “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” appears as a tribute to Waylon Jennings, whose name is substituted for Hank’s in the title and lyrics. None of these tunes are in the vein of what fans had come to expect from Black, but all of them were quite well done.

The rest of the album is more conventional. Clint’s wife Lisa Hartman Black joined him on the sentimental and AC-leaning “When I Said I Do”, which was the album’s first single. I remember cringing upon learning that Clint’s wife would be his duet partner. I was unaware that she had released four unsuccessful pop albums between 1976 and 1987. Though she was no Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton, she was a better vocalist than I’d expected. Radio loved the record, and it quickly rose to #1. It was Lisa’s first chart-topper and Clint’s last. It also reached #31 on the Billboard Hot 100. The album’s second single was “Been There”, on which Clint is joined by his co-writer Steve Wariner. Released in January 2000, it reached #5, becoming the last Top 10 hit of Clint’s career.

The album’s best track by far is “Love She Can’t Live Without”, a Black co-write with Skip Ewing. It should have been a monster hit, but it stalled at #30. I suspect that with Clint’s contract with RCA about to expire, the label did little to promote the record. The album’s weakest cut is “Harmony”, a duet with co-writer Kenny Loggins. A sappy and syrupy affair that plods along for nearly five and a half minutes, it is the album’s sole dud and quite possibly the worst thing Black ever recorded.

The remainder of D’lectrified consists primarily of re-worked versions of some of Clint’s earlier hits, such as “Burn One Down” and “No Time To Kill”. Both were done in a bluesy, jam-session style, which ironically are quite loud for acoustic recordings and Clint seems to be struggling at times to be heard over the arrangements. Neither holds its own against its original hit version; however, an acoustic guitar-led instrumental version of “Something That We Do”, which appears as a hidden track at the end of the album is quite nice.

Unlike all of Clint’s previous albums, D’lectrified failed to attain platinum status, though it did earn gold certification (his last studio album to do so). After the album was released, Black left RCA to found his own label, Equity Music Group, which was meant to introduce a new business model to the music industry by allowing artists to keep a greater share of the profits they generated. The experiment did not succeed, and neither did any of Clint’s recordings for the fledgling label. D’lectrified, his last truly successful album, was an adventurous project and is worth seeking out.

Grade: A

Favorite Songs of the 1980s: Part 5

The 1980s got off to a poor start with the early 1980s producing some of the lamest country music ever recorded, as the Urban Cowboy movie wrecked havoc on the genre. Fortunately, there was still good country music being released. The first flowering of the late 1980s “New Traditionalist” movement arrived in 1981 with the first hits of Ricky Skaggs and George Strait, but they remained outliers until 1986 as far as good new artists were concerned. The latter part of the decade, however, produced some truly excellent country music with the 1986 arrival of Randy Travis and company.

Here are some more songs that I liked and remember. See if you recall any of these records.

the okanes“When You Leave That Way You Can Never Go Back” – Sam Neely
This 1983 song reached #77 for a talented performer who spent many years playing the clubs and honky-tonks of Corpus Christi. The song, the reflection of a condemned inmate’s life, looks back at all the bridges he burned beyond repair. The song also was recorded by Bill Anderson and Confederate Railroad.

Dream Lover” – Rick Nelson
Epic reissued Rick’s 1979 cover of a Bobby Darin classic after Rick’s death in a New Years Eve 1985 air crash. It only reached #88 but it gives me a chance to mention one of the fine rock ‘n roll / country singers one last time.

Save Me” – Louise Mandrell
Louise never quite emerged from her big sister’s shadow but this #6 single from 1983 shows that a lack of talent wasn’t the problem.

Wabash Cannonball” – Willie Nelson with Hank (Leon Russell) Wilson
This song is at least as famous as any other song I’ve mentioned in any of my articles. Although the song is often attributed to A.P. Carter, it really is much older than that. Willie and Hank took this to #91 in 1984.

American Trilogy”– Mickey Newberry
Mickey issued a new version of his classic 1971 pop hit in 1988. While it only reached #93, it was good to hear it again on the radio. Glory, Glory Hallelujah forever.

The Sweetest Thing (I’ve Ever Known)“– Judy Kay ‘Juice’ Newton
This #1 hit from 1982 was Juice’s biggest hit. As great as this recording is, the song sounds even better when she performs it acoustically.

Dance Little Jean” – The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
Perhaps my favorite recording by NGDB, it only reached #9 in 1983 but I still hear the song performed today by various and sundry acts, not all of whom are country. The song was the group’s first top ten country hit there would be sixteen in all), although they had pop chart hits dating back to the 1960s.

“Let’s Go All The Way ” – Norma Jean and Claude Gray
A pair of veteran performers teamed up to release this 1982 hit which charted at #68. The song was Norma Jean’s first chart hit back in 1964. This was her last chart hit; in fact, she hadn’t charted since 1971 when this record was released on the Granny White label.

Elvira” – The Oak Ridge Boys
Although not their biggest chart hit, this cover of a Dallas Frazier-penned song from the 1960s , was easily their biggest selling song, reaching #1 in 1981 while hitting #5 on Billboard’s pop charts. Has anyone really forgotten the chorus?

So I’m singin’, Elvira, Elvira
My heart’s on fire, Elvira
Giddy up, oom poppa, omm poppa, mow mow
Giddy up, oom poppa, omm poppa, mow mow, heigh-ho Silver, away!

I didn’t think so …

Oh Darlin’” – The O’Kanes (Kieran Kane and Jamie O’Hara)
This coupling of a couple of singer-songwriters who had not had solo success, resulted in a half dozen top ten records that had a fairly acoustic sound and feel that sounded like nothing else currently being played on the radio. This song reached #10 in 1986. Their next single “Can’t Stop My Heart From Loving You” would reach #1.

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J.R. Journey’s Top Albums of 2012

Here are my favorite albums from 2012, in no order. Click the links to listen on Spotify.

nashville soundtrackNashville Cast The Music of Nashville: Season 1, Volume 1

The Tennesseean‘s Peter Cooper made a valid case about the music coming from the hit ABC drama being better than most mainstream country hits. I agree with him. While the TV show’s original songs haven’t yet shown much aptitude with traditional country sounds – leaning more toward Americana and pop-country – they’re leaps and bounds ahead of the current top 40 when it comes to content and substance.

Recommended tracks: “Wrong Song”, “If I Didn’t Know Better”, “No One Will Ever Love You”

Kellie Pickler100 Proof

A handful of barn-burning up-tempos, a few clever female-friendly medium tempos, and even more stone country tear-jerkers, served up with heaps of fiddle, pedal steel, and Kellie Pickler’s Carolina twang? Yes, please.

Recommended tracks: “Long As I Never See You Again”, “Where’s Tammy Wynette”, “The Letter (To Daddy)”

jameyjohnsonJamey Johnson – Living For a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran

Johnson’s tribute to Music Row pioneer and songwriting legend Hank Cochran features an all-star cast taking on some of Cochran’s big hits and a few well-chosen and lesser known gems.

Recommended tracks: “Make The World Go Away” (with Alison Krauss), “A-11” (with Ronnie Dunn), “A Way To Survive” (with Leon Russell and Vince Gill)

Zac Brown BandUncaged

On their third album, the Zac Brown Band again combines country with bluegrass and the sounds of the islands and the songs this time out are again smart and to the point.

Recommended tracks: “Sweet Annie”, “Goodbye In Her Eyes”, “The Wind”

Alan JacksonThirty Miles West

Jackson’s first album for the EMI Nashville label follows his winning no frills neotraditional formula. Thirty Miles West is a set full of top-notch songs and performances. I can’t stop playing it.

Recommended tracks: “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore”, “Look Her In The Eye and Lie”, “She Don’t Get High”

dwight yoakam - 3 pearsDwight Yoakam  – 3 Pears

Yoakam’s first album of all new material in seven years is as eclectic as the man himself. On 3 Pears, he shares production duties with punk-rock hero Beck and songwriting credit with Robert Richie (aka Kid Rock) and Ashley Monroe on respective tracks on a set that ably combines the sound of rock and roll’s golden AM era with his own distinctive country stamp.

Recommended tracks: “It’s Never Alright”, “Heart Like Mine”, “Long Way To Go”

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: Alan Jackson – ‘Like Red On A Rose’

Reliable, consistent, neo-traditionalist, new traditionalist, self-penned tunes – that’s so often how Alan Jackson’s music is described. Like Red On A Rose stands out from the pack of Jackson albums then as a unique and beautiful album of ballads and love songs with a wonderful mix of thoughtful, tender and reflective interpretations of songs by several  writers.

After working with Keith Stegall as the producer on all of his previous albums, Jackson opted to try something different.  He approached Alison Krauss about possibly making a bluegrass album. Instead, Krauss’s song selection and production resulted in an album that lets Jackson’s vocal talent and skill come to the fore in a more acoustic style. This album truly features Alan’s warm, intimate, subtle and honest voice – arguably one of the best in country music. One phrase from ‘The Firefly’s Song’ sums up the overall production well: Sometimes less is more.

Like Red On A Rose was released in September of 2006, following Jackson’s Gospel album, Precious Memories.  Both albums were a departure from his reliable and a bit predictable style, though not a departure from Jackson’s personal history.  He grew up singing Gospel in church, and Jackson’s interpretation of the introspective songs on Rose give you the sense that he’s lived their stories in one way or another personally.

The overall mood of the album calls for a glass of your favorite full-bodied beverage and a quiet evening of reflecting on the richness of deep love, both kept and lost, and the blessings of life in general from the maturity of having lived a good portion of it already — thus, the album cover. But though the mood is fairly consistent throughout the album, the musical styles are somewhat varied.

‘Anywhere On Earth You Are’ sets the tone with a smokey road-weary ballad followed by the aptly titled and bluesy ‘Good Imitation Of The Blues’. Jimmy Holiday’s ‘Don’t Change On Me’ is a gospel-flavored number complete with choir-sounding back-up and gospel organ in the mix. John Pennell’s country waltz ballad ‘As Lovely As You’ has some lovely acoustic guitar.

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Week ending 8/29/09 – #1 singles this week in country music

hollydunn1949: I’m Throwing Rice (At The Girl I Love) — Eddy Arnold (RCA)

1959: The Three Bells — The Browns (RCA)

1969: A Boy Named Sue — Johnny Cash (Columbia)

1979: Heartbreak Hotel — Willie Nelson & Leon Russell (Columbia)

1989: Are You Ever Gonna Love Me — Holly Dunn (Warner Bros.)

1999: Amazed — Lonestar (BNA)

2009: Big Green Tractor — Jason Aldean (Broken Bow)