My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Linda Ronstadt

Album Review: Pam Tillis – ‘It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis

it's all relativeLeaving Arista might have marked the end of Pam’s commercial heyday, but it led to a taking stock and artistic resurgence which began with a reflection on her roots. As a youngster Pam Tillis had wanted to separate herself from her father’s legacy, hence her brief unsuccessful foray into pop music. But as a mature adult her respect for her father’s remarkable legacy as both artist and songwriter led to her recording an entire tribute album to him in 2002, when he turned 70. The depth of his catalog is revealed by the fact that not only did Mel write every song on this album, half of them on his own, but Pam had to leave many more on the shelf. Some were hits for Mel, others were songs he wrote for others. This album was Pam’s last hurrah on a major-related label, on Sony imprint Lucky Dog.

I love the outrage of ‘Unmitigated Gall’ (a top 10 for Faron Young in 1966), where Pam tells an ex in no uncertain terms just how she feels about his nerve coming back around now. This is definitely one of my favourite tracks. Catchy and confidently performed by Pam, it was a canny choice for the album’s lead single and just a few years earlier could easily have been a hit single all over again. By 2002, however, the tide had begun to turn in earnest, and it was far too country for country radio, failing to chart.

This attitude rises to new heights with the snarling declaration of hatred and ‘Mental Revenge’ (a top 20 for Mel himself in 1976 but better known for renditions by Waylon Jennings and Linda Ronstadt). Pam’s version is sultry and bluesy, and all her own.

Another highlight is the understated yet deeply emotional take on ‘Detroit City’, which brings out the melancholy of the song’s depiction of homesickness and failure with a barely concealed desperation underlying the vocal.

The charming ‘A Violet And A Rose’ is beautifully realised by Pam, with the help of very pretty trilling harmonies from Dolly Parton and a delicate acoustic arrangement. The original was Mel’s first chart single in 1958, and the much-recorded tune also gave its co-writer Little Jimmy Dickens his first top 10 hit in eight years in 1962.

‘Not Like It Was with You’ is an excellent lesser-known traditional country number about the after-effects of a breakup, which I enjoyed greatly. ‘Goodbye Wheeling’ is another fine relatively obscure song (a top 20 for Mel) which really suits Pam’s voice better than Mel’s. Delbert McClinton guests on harmonica.

‘Heart Over Mind’ (‘#3 for Mel and #5 for Ray Price) is transformed from a traditional shuffle to a sophisticated ballad. It is beautifully sung, with Emmylou Harris on harmony, and works well on its own merits, but the melody is barely recognisable slowed down so drastically.

Four tracks were co-produced by Asleep At The Wheel’s Ray Benson. He duets with Pam on an entertaining ‘Honey (Don’t Open That Door)’ (best known as a chart-topper for Ricky Skaggs); Trisha Yearwood and Rhonda Vincent sing close harmonies. The regretful western swing ballad ‘Burning Memories’ (a top 10 in 1977) is another delight with a delicately judged vocal and very retro arrangement, mixing traditional steel and fiddle with Nashville Sound backing vocals. The jazzy ballad ‘So Wrong’ is very much in the sophisticated later style of Patsy Cline, for whom Mel wrote it with Danny Dill and Carl Perkins, complete with a cameo by the Jordanaires. While it’s not my personal favourite sub-genre of country music, Pam sounds really good on this. It was the second attempt at a single to promote the album. Honky tonk classic ‘I Ain’t Never’ was one of the biggest hits for co-writer Webb Pierce, and is the only one of Mel’s own chart toppers to be included. Pam’s version is bouncy and entertaining but comes across as a little shallow emotionally, although I enjoyed the arrangement and instrumental work.

There are only a couple of duds. The singalong ‘Come On And Sing’ is a weak song featuring a children’s chorus, but it was a nice touch to include Mel on one track. I was bored by the very jazz ‘Emotions’. It had been a hit for pop and country artist Brenda Lee as a teenager, and has nothing to do with country music, although it does show the range of Mel Tillis’s talent.

Pam produced the bulk of the set alone, with help from Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson on a a handful of tracks. The result is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Pam’s most traditional album, and a worthy tribute to a truly great singer-songwriter whose contribution to country music has sometimes been overlooked. Yet while it is always respectful, Pam puts her own stamp on many of the songs, not completely reinventing them, but definitely interpreting them in her own way. It is a highly recommended purchase; luckily used copies can be found very cheaply.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Pam Tillis – ‘Collection’ (the Warner Brothers recordings)

pam tillis collectionDuring the 1980s, Pam Tillis was signed to Warner Brothers Records, who released a number of singles to country radio. None enjoyed much success, and by the end of the decade Pam had moved on. After Pam’s rise to fame with Arista the following decade, Warner Bros capitalized by releasing an album containing a selection of the sides she had cut for them, including early versions of songs she had since taken to the top with Arista. Her only album for Warner Bros, Above And Beyond The Doll Of Cutey, was an unapologetically pop (and not very good) record, but these country recordings are all pretty good.

It is hard to see why these early versions of the atmospheric ‘Maybe It Was Memphis’ (a bit more understated than the hit) and the beautifully resigned melancholy of Pam’s own ‘One Of Those Things’ (which was to become one of my favorite Pam Tillis singles – and I think I like this version even more) were not successful at the time.

An excellent and respectful cover of Buck Owens’s ‘There Goes My Love’ shows Pam’s traditional country roots. ‘Those Memories Of You’ may be familiar from the Dolly Parton-Emmylou Harris-Linda Ronstadt Trio album of 1987; Pam’s version (from 1986) does not quite have the charm of that version but is a nice enough recording. Another possible missed opportunity was the fine version of a song which was to become Lorrie Morgan’s breakthrough hit – ‘Five Minutes’ (a Beth Nielsen Chapman song), which Warner Brothers left on the shelf. The production is a little dated with a faintly tinny sound, but the vocal is good.

The other songs are less familiar, but make for a pretty good collection. The joyful up-tempo ‘I Thought I’d About Had It With Love’, written by Beth Nielsen Chapman with Milton Brown about finally finding true love, has a great charm. The catchy ‘I Wish She Wouldn’t Treat You That Way’ is a tongue-in-cheek complaint at the loving way her rival is treating the mutual object of their affections. Both of these songs should have had commercial potential.

Pam wrote ‘Sometimes A Stranger Will Do’ with Pat Bunch and Mary Ann Kennedy, a ballad with a melancholic undertone about resorting to the odd one-night-stand while traversing the dating scene in search of a forever love. The trio also wrote ‘Goodbye Highway’, which is a bit fillerish but adds a bit of tempo. ‘Tennessee Nights’ is a pleasant but fairly bland love ballad.

Packaging of this album was both cheap (no pictures) and deliberately misleading (referring to four songs as hits, when two were only hits when re-recorded for Arista, and the other two when recorded by different artists altogether). Dubious marketing aside, the actual music contained here is up to the standard of Tillis’s hit material. Used copies of the CD version are easy to find at cheap prices, and this is worth getting hold of if you’re a fan of Pam’s music. The same material was repackaged yet again in 2000 as Super Hits.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind – Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris – ‘After The Gold Rush’

From Trio II:

Favorite Country Songs Of The 80s: Part 6

Here are some more songs from the 1980s that I liked and remember. See if you recall any of these records:

Memory Machine“– Jack Quist
This 1982 song about a jukebox reached #52. I don’t know anything about Jack Quist other than that he originally was from Salt Lake City, but I am familiar with the song’s writer Ted Harris as he wrote such classics as “Paper Mansions” and “Crystal Chandeliers”.

eddie rabbittOn Second Thought” – Eddie Rabbitt
Released in 1989, this song peaked at #1 in early 1990. This was Eddie’s most traditional sounding hit and my favorite of all of Eddie’s recordings.

Don’t It Make Ya Wanna Dance” – Bonnie Raitt
This song was from the soundtrack of Urban Cowboy and reached #42.

Right Hand Man” – Eddy Raven

Eddy had sixteen consecutive top ten records from 1984-1989. This song is my favorite although it only reached #3. Eddy would have five #1 records during the decade with “Joe Knows How To Live” and “Bayou Boys” being the biggest hits.

She Got The Goldmine (I Got The Shaft)” – Jerry Reed
There are few artists that could get away with recording a song with such a title but Jerry Reed was that one of a kind who could. The song reached #1 in 1982, one of Jerry’s few #1 records. There are those who consider Jerry to have been the best guitar player ever (Chet Atkins among them). Jerry passed away a few years ago perhaps depriving the genre of its greatest all-around talent.

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Razor X’s Top Albums of 2012

Finding good new country music is not as easy as it once was, and due to a number of other things that were going on in my life, I’m afraid I didn’t put much effort into seeking out new music this year but I was able to find a few gems:

10. Heroes — Willie Nelson

Willie’s return to the major labels was an eclectic collection that found him covering Coldplay and Pearl Jam, but also reunited him with Merle Haggard and Ray Price, as well as sharing the spotlight a bit with his sons Lukas and Micah.

dierks9. Home — Dierks Bentley

2010’s Up On The Ridge was successful critically but not commercially, so it’s not surprising that Dierks chose to follow it up with a much more radio-friendly collection. The strategy worked, as Home produced three # 1 singles.

8. Nashville, Volume 1: Tear The Woodpile Down — Marty Stuart

Not quite the masterpiece that 2010’s Ghost Train was, this collection was still one of my favorite listens of the year. I would have rated it higher if it hadn’t contained some recycled material (“Sundown In Nashville”, “Truck Driver’s Blues”).

kelliepickler7. 100 Proof — Kellie Pickler

I never thought that Kellie Picker’s name would ever appear on any of my best of lists, but she really blossomed with this collection of more traditional-sounding tunes. Unfortunately, just as she was finally making music that allowed her to be taken seriously as an artist, she was dropped by her record label. What the future holds for her remains to be seen. There was a time when I would have said that she wouldn’t be missed very much, but now I’m curious to see what direction she goes in next.

6. Calling Me Home — Kathy Mattea

I wasn’t a huge fan of 2008’s Coal, but I like Kathy’s second visit to her Appalachian roots much better. This is a less bleak look at her heritage.

zbb5. Uncaged — Zac Brown Band

Creepy cover art aside, this collection allowed the Zac Brown Band to further expand on their increasing eclectic but always interesting catalog.

4. Thirty Miles West — Alan Jackson

There weren’t any real surprises or stretches in Alan’s EMI Nashville debut; it’s very much in the same vein as most of the other albums he’s released over the past twenty-odd years — which is exactly what country music needs right now.

terriclark3. Classic — Terri Clark

Terri Clark and I were born just a few weeks apart, so we grew up listening to much of the same music. This collection, in which she covers tunes by Linda Ronstadt, Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Reba McEntire and Tanya Tucker, provided a wonderful trip down memory lane and is the best album of her career.

2. Restless — Sweethearts of the Rodeo

This long overdue new release was well worth the wait. It’s a shame that it won’t be as widely heard as it deserves.

jameyjohnson1. Living For A Song – A Tribute to Hank Cochran — Jamey Johnson

By the time I was three tracks into listening to this album for the first time, I knew it was my favorite of the year. It’s a beautifully crafted masterpiece with an impressive guest roster that pays homage to one of the greatest country songwriters of all time. I can’t say enough good things about this album.

Keeping your ears warm: a slacker’s playlist

slacker playlist2December means list-making for lots of people. For Christmas shoppers. said list reminds you to buy Aunt Dorothy that bottle of Evening In Paris perfume and to likewise pick up those all-important token trinkets for every friend, relative, and passing acquaintance in your life. It’s the time of year for giving, after all.

And for music bloggers, it means whittling down the year’s releases into a tidy list of the best of the best. If you’re like me, you’ve waited until December to really start the process of putting them in order. I’ve kept a revolving list of my favorites since January, in no particular order. So for the past week I’ve been revisiting, adding new songs, and eliminating the middling music. In the meantime, I’ve found some great songs – new and old – to keep my ears warm when I’m not re-evaluating the best of 2012. Thanks to my handy Spotify account, I’ve got a pre-made list of my top 10 played songs during the past week. I’ll share them with you below – a sort of procrastination edition of the ever-popular iPod check – and invite you to share your own in the comments.

  • Kasey Musgraves – “Merry Go Round”
  • Don Gibson – “Oh Lonesome Me”
  • Lori McKenna – “Sometimes He Does”
  • Elvis Presley – “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”
  • Kelly Clarkson – “People Like Us”
  • Linda Ronstadt – “Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind”
  • Ray Charles – “I Can’t Stop Loving You”
  • Bobbie Cryner – “Leavin’ Houston Blues”
  • Rick Trevino – “Running Out of Reasons To Run”
  • Kelly Clarkson featuring Vince Gill – “Don’t Rush”

Spotify users can listen to my top 10 playlist.

What’s tops on your playlist right now? Share your top 10 (or 20 or 30) tracks with us.

Razor X’s Top Singles of 2012

Every year it seems that it becomes more difficult to compile a list of the year’s top singles. I seldom listen to country radio anymore and as such I’ve become much more album oriented and barely aware of which songs on my favorite albums were actually released as singles. However, I have managed to identify a few bright spots in a genre that is still sadly headed in the wrong direction. Here are my favorite choices of 2012:

dierks10. 5-1-5-0 — Dierks Bentley

Though not as good as his previous single “Home”, which made my list of 2011’s top singles, the title of this catchy number refers to the section of the California Welfare and Institutions Code which allows law enforcement officers to involuntarily confine individuals with mental disorders. In the case of the narrator of this story, it is his love interest who is making him crazy.

9. Neon — Chris Young

Songs paying homage to one’s favorite watering hole have long been a staple in country music, but this tune by the best of country music’s current crop of male vocalists does it in a fresh and interesting way, comparing the colors of the bar’s neon signs to the blue of a Wyoming sky, the red of a Santa Fe sunset, and the yellow of Texas sunflowers. It underperformed on the charts, peaking at a disappointing #23.

martina8. Marry Me — Martina Bride featuring Pat Monahan

It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to get excited about anything Martina McBride has done, but I was pleasantly surprised by this cover version of a hit for the group Train. Given country radio’s current pop leanings I expected this one to perform well on the charts, but it stalled at #45.

7. Diamonds Make Babies — Bradley Gaskin

I prefer Dierk Bentley’s version of this tune that delves into the six degrees of separation between engagement and parenthood, but it’s a fun song no matter who sings it.

terri6. Love Is A Rose — Terri Clark
If I were compiling a list of this sort a decade ago, it would have been inconceivable that the vast majority of my selections would be by male vocalists. Terri Clark is one of the few females who has released anything that I found remotely interesting this year. Sixteen years after she topped the charts with “Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me”, Clark shows that she can still wrap her vocal cords around a Linda Ronstadt tune. Unfortunately, Terri’s record is unlikely to get any chart action in the U.S., but hopefully it will gain some traction in Canada.

5. Living For A Song– Jamey Johnson featuring Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson and Hank Cochran

The capstone of Johnson’s magnficient tribute album to one of country music’s greatest songwriters finds him joining forces with legends Nelson, Haggard and Kristofferson, and the late Hank Cochran himself. Predictably, it was ignored by country radio.

Zac Brown Band in Concert on NBC's "Today Show" at Rockefeller Center in New York City on July 13, 20124. No Hurry — Zac Brown Band

I really liked everything that the Zac Brown Band released this year and was tempted to include all three of their single releases but that seemed like taking the lazy way out. “No Hurry”, which peaked at #2 early this year, is my favorite of the bunch.

3. Loving You Is Fun — Easton Corbin
This laid back tune, which I reviewed back in February, reminds me of the type of song Clint Black used to do in the 90s. Country music needs more artists like Easton Corbin.

2. So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore — Alan Jackson
Alan’s second single under a new deal with EMI Nashville is well written and impeccably performed but unfortunately, it did nothing to reverse his chart decline. The production and his vocal performance are nicely understated.

george1. Drinkin’ Man — George Strait
After phoning it in for the past couple of years, George Strait came back in a big way with this tune about a lifelong struggle with alcoholism. He tackles the topic in a straightforward and effective manner, never becoming maudlin or preachy. He co-wrote the song with his son Bubba and Dean Dillon. It stands in stark contrast with most of the fluff on country radio — or at least it would have had it received more airplay. It stalled at #37, which is nothing short of tragic because it likely means that the major labels will not be inclined to release material like this in the future. But even though it is the lowest charting single of Strait’s long and illustrious career, it is an artistic triumph.

The fine print giveth

There’s a line in Thomas Rhett’s new single “Beer With Jesus” where the singer is asking “tell me how’d you turn the other cheek, to save a sorry soul like me” that didn’t even register when I first listened to the song. While it was playing in the background the other day my ears zoned in on that line and my reaction was to arch an eyebrow in admiration at the songwriters’ simple and direct way of communicating. In the setting of the song – modern-day Southern Baptist fundamentalism  – it would have been easy to reach for a hackneyed phrase straight out of the hymnal and my ear is still half-expecting “wretched soul” or something equally pretentious when I hear it. But they’ve kept it direct – even conversational – enough to effectively personify the narrator in the process, and that plainspoken bit of talk is why I want to hear the rest of what he’s got to say. So I say good on Rhett and co-writers Rick Huckaby and Lance Miller. They’re paying attention to the details.

So I got to thinking about other songs and the importance of just one word or line. Would “Sunday Morning Coming Down” be as important in the annals of country music history if Johnny Cash hadn’t bucked network television executives’ suggestion to substitute Kris Kristofferson’s lyric, and sing “home” instead of “stoned”? Likely it would have still become a hit. And as long as people still find themselves feeling hung over from a Saturday night, the song itself is strong enough to stand alone as a vivid retelling of such mornings. Still, “wishing Lord that I was stoned” reveals a grit and hair-of-the-dog pluck in the singer where wishing to be home sounds like he’s just given up. It changes the entire perspective. Kristofferson is of course a master of imagery, due in part to his attention to the details.

On John Hiatt’s superb “When We Ran”, Linda Rondstadt spends the first three minutes of the song wailing and gnashing her teeth about a lover that got away. She finally concludes “the mind is just a loose cannon and the memories are rollin’ dice“, letting the listener in on the fact that she’s acutely aware of the absurdity of her obsession with the past.  Otherwise, we’d expect to see her walking Main Street, carrying a suitcase, faded rose in her hair.  It’s also near the end of Lori McKenna’s voyeuristic “Your Next Lover” that the singer’s cool sentience is told when she sings in the bridge “I hope she reminds you nothing of me and as crazy as it sounds I hope she’s beautiful“, with no discernible amount of either sadness or bitterness. These are details that round out their song’s characters. If they were one-sided, would we care about these misfits and their lives? Would we relate their situations as easily to our own? I don’t think so. We relate to them because Hiatt and McKenna didn’t shirk their responsibility to the details.

All of these songs are favorites because they give the listener a glimpse inside the psyche of the song’s characters. I believe it’s that attention to detail that separates the good songs from the really great songs. TV Bishop Fulton Sheen’s famous quote “the big print giveth and the fine print taketh away” runs opposite to these and many other great songs in which the fine print giveth.

Classic Rewind: Linda Ronstadt – ‘The Only Mama That’ll Walk The Line’

Linda Ronstadt covers Waylon Jennings:

Album Review: Rodney Crowell – ‘Jewel of the South’

1994’s Let The Picture Paint Itself reunited Rodney Crowell with co-producer Tony Brown, and though they were unable to recapture the commercial spark of Diamonds & Dirt, they collaborated again for the following year’s Jewel of the South. It was the last project they worked on together.

Though not as traditional nor as satisfying as Diamonds & Dirt, Jewel of the South is nonetheless a solid album. Unfortunately, Rodney’s commercial momentum had been lost by this point, and the album did not receive the recognition it deserved. The album’s lone single was “Please Remember Me”, which Crowell wrote with Will Jennings. It stalled at #69. Aaron Neville and Linda Ronstadt later covered the song, as did Tim McGraw, who took it all the way to #1 on the country charts and #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1999. For the record, I prefer Crowell’s version to McGraw’s.

Crowell had a hand in writing eight of the album’s eleven tracks, including the brief Tex-Mex flavored closing track “Que Is Amor” which lists Will Jennings and the late Roy Orbison as co-writers. Clocking it at just over a minute and a half, the song doesn’t doesn’t say much or add much to the album. It is, however, very much the exception because the rest of the album’s tracks are solid. The rock-tinged “Love to Burn” reunites Crowell and Jennings with Hank DeVito; the result is reminiscent of the music Rodney made back in his Warner Bros. days. One of the album’s best tracks is the introspective “Thinkin’ About Leavin'”, which is about musician who apparently gave up life on the road for a marriage and family and is now experiencing some regret. The lyrics seem to serve as a metaphor for Rodney’s declining commercial appeal:

Sometimes I miss the bright lights sometimes I miss the crowd
Sometimes I miss the women sometimes the music loud
Sometimes I miss that world out there so cold hard and unkind
I’ve been thinking about leaving long enough to change my mind

Sometimes I miss the bright lights sometimes I miss the noise
Sometimes I miss the women sometimes the good old boys
Sometimes I miss that world out there so cold hard and unkind
And I’ve been thinking about leaving long enough to change my mind

In addition to Rodney’s original material, there are some well-chosen covers. The Harlan Howard-Buck Owens tune “Storm of Love” is perhaps an attempt to recreate the magic of “Above and Beyond”. It’s not quite as good as “Above and Beyond” but it’s still the album’s best track. There is also a very good rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Candy Man”, complete with a bluesy harmonica solo.

Despite a solid set of songs and Rodney’s connections to the label brass, Jewel of the South was a commercial failure and was Rodney’s last for MCA. It’s still worth listening to and fortunately inexpensive copies are easy to find, including a 2-for-1 import release that also contains Let The Picture Paint Itself.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Linda Ronstadt – ‘Willin’

Spotlight Artist: Vern Gosdin

The April Spotlight Artist is one of the truly great vocalists in the history of the genre, Vern Gosdin. There are very few male recording artists who deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Geoge Jones, Ray Price and Gene Watson. It takes the ability to convey the depths of despair, the heights of jubilation and the serenity of an abiding faith – that’s all that is required to be known as “The Voice” and Vern was one of the few to fit the bill.

Born in Woodland, Alabama, Vern (1934-2009) and his brother Rex (1938-1983) first surfaced in the American conscious during the 1960s in various capacities in the Southern California music scene. Despite inclusion in the Byrds’ inner circle of musicians and friends, the Gosdin Brothers bluegrass/country/rock hybrid never achieved great success.

The Gosdin brothers grew up with their seven siblings on a farm. Since money was never in great supply, they, like many other poor rural children, turned to music to escape the drudgery of everyday life. Energized by their discovery of the Louvin Brothers, Rex and Vern (and a third brother) started singing together, mastering the art of vocal harmony, and performing regularly on local radio station WVOK as teenagers. In 1953 Vern moved to Atlanta and in 1956 he moved again to Chicago where he ran a country music nightclub. Meanwhile Rex had moved to California.

Vern moved to Los Angeles in 1961, where he joined up with Rex and they expanded their musical horizons as they found their way into a bluegrass group led by Chris Hillman called the Golden State Boys. The group later changed its name to the Hillmen. Their association with master musician Hillman led to their acceptance into the Los Angeles music scene from which the Byrds and such later stars as Poco, Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles emerged. During this period, the Gosdin Brothers picked up gigs when available, performed on recording sessions, and recorded a few songs as a duo. The duo expanded their musical repertoire, moving into an area somewhere between the folk-rock of the pre-Gram Parson Byrds and the Country-Rock that would emerge in the early 1970s.

In 1966 Vern and Rex contributed vocal harmonies to Gene Clark’s album Gene Clark and the Gosdin Brothers. In 1967 a single, “Hangin’ On,” cracked the charts, leading to the release of the duo’s only album, Sounds of Goodbye on Capitol in 1968. The title song, written by up and coming songwriter Eddie Rabbit was a hot commodity-so much so that three different acts recorded and released the song as a single, ensuring that no one would have a big hit with the record, although Opry veteran George Morgan came closest as his version was a big hit in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic areas. Tommy Cash’s record also made the national charts with the song. The Gosdin Brothers version did not chart nationally, but it did well on the left coast.

Since country music was a singles-driven genre, the failure of “The Sounds of Goodbye,” the most radio-friendly cut on the album, spelled finis to their recording career on Capitol. This was truly a pity as the album contains many great harmonies and otherwise worthwhile moments including original material in “For Us To Find” and “The Victim.” While the Gosdin Brothers sounded good collectively, Vern’s sparkling vocals were the highlight of the album. Discouraged, the Gosdin Brothers split up with Vern largely dropping out of the entertainment business for a while when he returned to Atlanta, where he ran a glass and mirror shop. Rex continued to perform.

Never Give Up – The Voice Returns

Vern Gosdin never entirely stopped performing. In 1976, he returned to recording for the Elektra label, charting his first solo chart hit, a solo version of “Hangin’ On” and enjoying Top 10 hits with “Yesterday’s Gone” (both featuring harmony vocals by Emmylou Harris, a friend from his California days) and “Till The End.” By this time he was forty-two years old. He left his sons to run the glass and mirror business and rejoined brother Rex for touring. Unfortunately, Rex died in May 1983 at the age of 45, some two weeks before his own solo recording of “That Old Time Feelin'” entered the charts.

Elektra’s country division folded in 1980 and Gosdin landed on smaller labels AMI (which folded) and Compleat where he enjoyed continued success. After landing with Compleat, Gosdin joined forces with songwriter Max D. Barnes (whose son Max T. Barnes also was a successful songwriter) to write some truly classic honky-tonk laments. In 1983 Gosdin had two top five hits (“If You’re Gonna Do Me Wrong” and “Way Down Deep”) and in 1984 he had his first #1 single with “I Can Tell by the Way You Dance (You’re Gonna Love Me Tonight)” and had two additional top 10 hits.

After 1984, his career hit a temporary lull, but the “New Traditionalist” movement lured Columbia into signing him in 1987 where he justified Columbia’s faith in signing him with a top 10 hit in the tormented “Do You Believe Me Now.” In 1988 Gosdin returned to the top of the charts with his Ernest Tubb tribute “Set ‘Em Up Joe.” The next year “Chiseled In Stone,” co-written with Barnes, won the Country Music Association’s Song of the Year and cemented his reputation as one of the all-time great song stylists. His 1989 album, Alone, chronicled the breakup of his own marriage.

As a solo artist, Vern Gosdin charted 41 country chart hits, with 19 top ten records and 3 chart toppers.

Vern was hospitalized in 1995 with a stroke and subsequently dropped by Columbia. He continued to record sporadically after that, most notably the 2004 album Back In The Swing of Things and the four CD set 40 Years of The Voice issued just months prior to his death in April 2009. In 2005, Gosdin was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. Perhaps the Country Music Hall of Fame will see fit to do likewise.

“The Voice” is now silenced but he left behind an incredible legacy of recorded performances. Join us now as we explore the music of April’s Spotlight Artist, the incomparable Vern Gosdin.

Favorite country songs of the 1970s: Part 6

For part six of this series, as always, just some songs I liked, one song per artist, not necessarily the biggest hit, (although I feel free to comment on other songs by the artist).

Forgive and Forget” – Eddie Rabbitt (1975)

Prior to this, Eddie was known, if at all, as a songwriter. This record got to #12, but did better than that in some markets, and gave Rabbitt his first significant hit. The next song “I Should Have Married You” got to #11; after that the next 33 singles would crack the top 10 with 19 of them getting to #1 on either Billboard and/or Cashbox.

Ladies Love Outlaws” – Jimmy Rabbitt and Renegade (1976)

The title track of a 1972 Waylon Jennings album, for some reason RCA never issued the song as a Jennings single, although it got considerable airplay (it didn’t chart because Billboard did not track non-singles airplay at the time). Jimmy’s version was good (Waylon’s was better) and got to #80, his only chart appearance.

Ain’t She Something Else” – Eddy Raven (1975)

Eddy’s second chart single reached #46 and became a #1 record for Conway Twitty in 1982. It took Raven eight years and 16 singles to have his first top 10 hit. Can you imagine any artist being given that much slack today

“Whatcha Gonna Do With A Dog Like That” – Susan Raye (1975)

Susan Raye had the Buck Owens organization behind her, was very pretty, and sang well. Despite those advantages, she never really became a big star, probably because her heart wasn’t in it. This song got to #9, one of six solo top tens she was to enjoy. In theory “(I’ve Got A) Happy Heart” was her biggest hit, reaching #3, but she got so much pop radio action on “L.A. International Airport” that it sold a million copies.
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Album Review – The O’Kanes – ‘Tired of the Runnin’

In 1988, The O’Kanes followed up their successful debut album with Tired of the Runnin’ which continued their short hot streak on the charts. It would also mark their commercial peak, as a third album, Imagine That, would come without much fanfare in 1990.

The first single, “One True Love” would peak just inside the top 5 in 1988. The tune perfectly showcases the duos distinct harmonies and features snarly guitar riffs that recall the California rock sounds of Fleetwood Mac and has echoes of Linda Ronstadt in the drum work. The production works to frame the duo vocally, but the lightness of the lyrical bed ultimately leave the song feeling a tiny bit less than memorable.

The second single, “Blue Love” marked the end in their streak of top ten singles, peaking at #10 in 1988. Written by the duo, the song stands as a warning to love and its effects on the human psyche:

One day, your love is, one day your love is, so true

Next day, you’re changin’, next day, you changin’, your mood

I just can’t take it, I just can’t take your blue love

A much better song than the first single, “Blue Love” succeeds on its sing-a-long melody and fusion of lead guitar and drumbeats. Vocally, it seems, the duo are channeling Buddy Holly and as a package the whole thing works.

A third single, “Rocky Road” was also released in 1988 but only managed to peak at #71. That radio ignored the tune isn’t entirely surprising; the nearly seven minute harmonica laced ballad about going down the “rocky road of love” was just out of step enough with the neotraditionalism favored by country radio at the time. But it’s still an outstanding track by all accounts and the folksy production is as delightful to listen to today as it was nearly 25 years ago.

“All Because of You,” another drum and mandolin soaked track is a love letter to the woman who has made life all the better:

Look at me feeling good

Who’d have thought I ever would

See my dreams come to light

See the dark turning bright

For the first time I feel more than good

All because of you

The hopeful message is another album standout and a delight to listen to. The catchy melody draws in the listener making them want to hear the song until the end.

Another great song is the Celtic flavored “If I Could Be There” which was covered by Emmylou Harris on her Live At the Ryman album from 1992. The sparse production made up of fiddle, mandolin and guitars works like magic to frame the duo vocally and draws the listener into the story of a person’s obligation to their work taking precedence over where they wish they could be:

If I could be there

I’d be there tonight comforting you

This road I’m on is so far away, too far away

If God would grant me wings to fly

I’d be in your arms by and by

If I could be there

I’d be there tonight comforting you

The funky “Highway 55,” which opens with a distinct plucking of strings, was nothing like I was expecting. I love the overall mood of the track and the harmonies elevate it to a higher level. Plus the overall sound is very reminiscent of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. But in context with the rest of the project, it doesn’t quite work.

Much like “Highway 55,” “All My Heart” features a similar funky arrangement but it’s paired with a somewhat haunting vocal. In comparison to the rest of the album the song is a little strange and stands out because of it. It’s safe to say it isn’t one of my favorite songs on the project.

Another weird song, “Isn’t That So” has somewhat of a party vibe suggested by what appears to be steel drums in the opening. Like “All My Heart,” this song also doesn’t gel with the rest of the project.

The bluegrass heavy title track features a driving melody in sharp contrast to the story of a fatherless boy. The story is quite effective and does a nice of job of outlining the effects of growing up without a father figure. I wasn’t sold on the contrast in lyrics and production at first, but the fast-paced melody succeeds in highlighting the fact this guy is still running his way through life sort of as a vagabond.

The album nicely picks up again with “I’m Lonely” which retains the sound featured on the singles. It’s hard to see why this wasn’t released instead of “Rocky Road” as it most likely would’ve extended the duo’s time in the top 10 by at least one more song.

All and all Tired of the Runnin’ is an above average collection of music from an underrated duo with a short chart life. I hadn’t heard their music prior to writing this review and liked most of what I heard. Unfortunately the album is out of print, but it’s worth seeking out a copy if you can find it.

Grade: B+ 

Week ending 10/15/11: #1 albums this week in country music history

1966: Bill Anderson – I Love You Drops (Decca)

1971: Ray Price – I Won’t Mention It Again (Columbia)

1976: Linda Ronstadt – Hasten Down The Wind (Asylum)

1981: Eddie Rabbitt – Step By Step (Warner Brothers)

1986: Randy Travis – Storms Of Life (Warner Brothers)

1991: Garth Brooks – Ropin’ The Wind (Capitol)

1996: LeAnn Rimes – Blue (Curb)

2001: Martina McBride – Greatest Hits (RCA)

2006: Alan Jackson – Like Red On A Rose (Arista)

2011: Lady Antebellum – Own The Night (Capitol)

Week ending 10/8/11: #1 albums this week in country music history

1966: David Houston – Almost Persuaded (Epic)

1971: Ray Price – I Won’t Mention It Again (Columbia)

1976: Linda Ronstadt – Hasten Down The Wind (Asylum)

1981: Eddie Rabbitt – Step By Step (Warner Brothers)

1986: Janie Fricke – Black and White (CBS)

1991: Garth Brooks – Ropin’ The Wind (Capitol)

1996: LeAnn Rimes – Blue (Curb)

2001: Martina McBride – Greatest Hits (RCA)

2006: Kenny Chesney – Live Those Songs Again (BNA)

2011: Lady Antebellum – Own The Night (Capitol)

Album Review: Rosanne Cash – ’10 Song Demo’

Rosanne’s debut for Capitol in 1996 was a new start for her in more ways than one. She was no longer concerned artistically with dissecting the failure of her marriage to Rodney Crowell, and no longer interested in making anything that might be regarded as conventional country music. Rosanne wrote all the songs (there are actually eleven rather than ten), all but one by herself, and this is really a showcase of Rosanne as a songwriter not tied to any genre. She was also pursuing prose writing at this time, publishing her first (and so far last) collection of short stories, Bodies Of Water, the same year. Recorded in New York and produced by Rosanne with her new husband John Leventhal as a demo for the record label, the executives liked the results enough to release it as it stood. This decision dictated the marketing of the record, with the title and artwork rather deliberately positioning this as the work of a serious artist rather than the hitmaker Rosanne had been a decade before.

The tastefully understated production and Rosanne’s vocals do sound very good, but as background listening (when not paying close attention to the lyrics), these songs have a real tendency to blend into one another without much variation in pace or mood.

‘The Summer I Read Collette’ harks back effectively to a clever girl’s teenage exploration of life and sensuality sparked by her reading; the title (embarrassingly mis-spelt on the liner notes and album cover) relates to Colette, the French novelist obsessed with youthful sexuality the anniversary of whose birth occurred when Rosanne was 18. It is melodic and passionate, and feels as autobiographical as anything else Cash has written. It is not a country song in concept or style, but the subject and theme convince, and this is perhaps the most memorable songs on the album, as the imagery is intense and the tune more distinctive than the remainder of the material.

The closing track, ‘Take My Body’ is also memorable, a strong defiance of cultural demands for modern American women as Rosanne admits to growing older

‘If I Were A Man’ beat Beyonce and Reba to the titular idea, and is a more thoughtful, low key and personal if decidedly less catchy take on the subject matter, and in fact it forms just one option in a sprawlingly discursive reflection.

The thoughtful piano-led ‘Price Of Temptation’ is good, with an intense lyric, although it gets a bit repetitive. It has a nice feel and beautifully judged vocal. ‘Bells & Roses’ is a hushed, velvety ballad about the depression following a breakup, which sounds decent, but is one-paced and repetitive, and frankly boring.

The Jerusalem-set and agnostic ‘Western Wall’ has a very dull melody, but must have been one of Rosanne’s favorites, as she chose to re-cut it for her next studio album, Rules Of Travel, and was also covered by the stellar pairing of Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. ‘List Of Burdens’ picks up the pace a little, the tenderly sung ‘Child Of Steel’, and the laid-back ‘I Just Don’t Talk About It’, the only cowrite (with Leventhal), and the closing ‘Mid-Air’ are all pleasant enough background listening, but tend to blur together.

Love song ‘I Want To Know’ has some good lines but is very repetitive and has the least attractive production choices.

I like the overall feel of this record better than some of her early 80s work where she seems to be striving too hard to be creating a new direction for country music. Here she abandons that struggle and lets the songs breathe in a way which doesn’t date, but too many of the songs fail to make an individual or lasting impact.

The album failed to chart and was understandably ignored by radio despite critical acclaim, leading to a hiatus in Rosanne’s recording career. It is available digitally, and cheap used copies of the CD are easy to find. It should appeal to Rosanne’s diehard fans, and to those who like literate female singer-songwriters of the ilk of post-major label Mary Chapin Carpenter, without any particular genre ties.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Rosanne Cash – ‘Seven Year Ache’

Rosanne Cash’s first inroads on the country charts came from the minor hits on Right Or Wrong, but it would be Seven Year Ache, with its disparate themes of melancholy and female-empowerment, coupled with exceptionally cerebral material, that set the standard for Cash’s next decade of recording. The memes set here, of folk singer-songwriter sensibilities meets modern pop-country production, have since been repeated by the likes of Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lucinda Williams, Patty Griffin, and any number of other fringe-favorites.

I’ve already written about this album’s first single and its impact on me as a country fan.  Even today, with a seriously out-dated production – the kind of synthetic hand-clap percussion employed here went out with the Atari, and for many of the same reasons – the track still packs a mighty, meaty punch. The dark, contemplative mood of the song – the internal monologue of bewildered, yet determined individual – is offset by the breezy melody and the entire affair is framed by a looping and driving steel guitar track supplied by Hank DeVito. Cash reportedly wrote the song after a fight with then-husband and producer Rodney Crowell.  The songwriter herself says of the lyric:  ”That’s one of those gifts you only get once in life.  I wrote it in about an hour. I just poured my soul out into the song.”  She bared a lot of herself in the process, but gave us, in my opinion, one of the greatest lyrics of our time.  In 1981, “Seven Year Ache” hit #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart, #6 on the Adult Contemporary list, and #22 on the Hot 100.  It’s been covered several times over the years, most notably by Trisha Yearwood (with Cash featured on vocals, providing the harmonies Emmylou Harris sang on the original recording) on 2001’s Inside Out.

The second single and second #1, Leroy Preston’s “My Baby Thinks He’s A Train”, more than any other track Rosanne Cash has recorded save for covers of the Man In Black’s songs, is a testament to Johnny Cash’s musical influence on his oldest daughter.  The steady and chugging back beat is accompanied by blistering guitar work, and progressive lyrics like:

He eats money like a train eats coal
He burns it up and leaves you in the smoke
If you wanna catch a ride, you wait ’til he unwinds
He’s just like a train, he always gives some tramp a ride

“Blue Moon With Heartache” is the only song here besides the title track Cash herself put pen to paper to create. On this brooding number, the results were less satisfying. The story of a woman living in a troubled relationship, and daydreaming about leaving, is played out amid the intrusive electric piano and a swelling, but hushed, string arrangement.  This, too, topped the country singles chart, but a much better candidate for the final single would have been “You Don’t Have Very Far To Go”, written by Merle Haggard and Red Simpson. “Go” is the most traditional country song on the album with steel guitar flourishes and no signs of pop or rock influences, and while simple in form is an effective heart’s-breaking lyric.

At times, Cash seems bent on pushing the boundaries of a female country album as far as she possibly can, in both form and function. Listening to the roadhouse rocker “What Kinda Girl”, clearly as influenced by Ronstadt and The Rolling Stones as by Loretta Lynn and The Tennessee Three, the cheeky lyrics – “I don’t wear pajamas and I don’t sniff glue” – and butchered-grammar rhyme scheme will turn your head on the first few listens, but the track loses much of its appeal soon after you’re over the cheap tricks.  “Only Human” may be the first time, and maybe still the only, instance of a woman using the word “stoned” on a mainstream country album. Keith Sykes’ honest lyric is marred somewhat by the straight ’80s pop production and the loud backing vocals, but is a marvelous song nonetheless that finds the narrator lamenting her own mortality for the anguish it indirectly causes. Another miss is  “I Can’t Resist” which ventures into easy-listening territory with Phil Kenzie’s saxophone playing and the singer’s detached vocal. “Where Will The Words Come From” with Crowell and Harris providing perfectly desolate harmonies, save for a minimal amount of the era’s background noise, follows the singer’s more recent sounds with its spare production.

Seven Year Ache was an album of firsts for Cash, not just in style and substance, but for being her first #1 charting album, housing her first #1 country singles, and her first pop hit.  It also marks the singer’s first instance of finding her artistry. Despite the missteps in production, which can easily be blamed on the release date as much as the artist and producer, this is a collection of great songs that set the stage for the first phase of a remarkable career.

Grade: A-

The album was released as a 2-for-1 with Rosanne’s U.S. debut album and has been re-released on CD and for digital download.

Album Review: Connie Smith – ‘Long Line of Heartaches’

When I interviewed Connie Smith in March 2009, we both lamented the current state of country music, particularly the fact that an entire generation of fans — and performers — are unaware of the genre’s rich heritage. “It’s not their fault,” she commented, “because no one taught them.” With Long Line of Heartaches, her first studio album in 13 years, she undertakes the task of finally showing the younger generation how it’s done. The 12-track collection is both a homage to tradition and a sampling of what country music might once again (hopefully) become.

Comparisons to Smith’s husband Marty Stuart’s recent Ghost Train are inevitable. Both albums were produced by Stuart and feature a generous sampling of the couple’s original compositions. In addition, both albums seek to recreate the traditional sound, while maintaining a contemporary feel, and both albums were recorded in RCA’s legendary Studio B, where most of Connie’s 1960s classics were created.

Long Line of Heartaches makes no concessions to the latest radio trends, perhaps in acknowledgement that it is unlikely to receive much mainstream airplay. As such, no singles have been released. Instead, Stuart and Smith concentrate on creating a collection that sounds right at home with Connie’s 60s hits; the steel guitar is up front and center, as it should be, throughout the album. And as with Ghost Train, they’ve managed to recreate that sound without sounding dated or retro.

The couple contributed five original songs to the album, including the title track, which opens the set. It’s a traditional country shuffle that sets the tone for the entire album, serving notice that this isn’t going to be the typical Nashvegas pop fare. “The Pain of a Broken Heart” was written by Stuart and Smith several years ago, on the same day they wrote “Farmer’s Blues” which Marty recorded with Merle Haggard. The uptempo waltz has a melody that is reminiscent of “The Long Black Veil”, albeit at a faster pace. Connie steps outside of her comfort zone just a bit for “Blue Heartaches”, which proves that she’s as comfortable tinging her country wtih blues as she is at singing straight honky-tonk. Of all the songs she and Marty have written, Connie says this is one of the ones of which she is most proud. My favorite of the Stuart-Smith compositions, however, is “I’m Not Blue”, which they co-wrote with the famed songwriter Kostas. It’s a little more contemporary than the other songs they wrote for the album, and I can’t help but think that somebody could have a big hit on their hands if they covered this song.

In addition to their own compositions, Stuart and Smith armed themselves with stellar material from an impressive line-up of outside songwriters. Harlan Howard and Kostas’ “I Don’t Believe That’s How You Feel” has been recorded many times; Tanya Tucker included it on her 1997 disc Complicated. It’s usually given a Tex-Mex feel complete with mariachi horns, which Connie and Marty omitted on this version. The legendary Dallas Frazier makes a contribution with “A Heart Like You”. Written after a 30-year hiatus from songwriting, it contains one of country music’s all-time great lines — “what’s a heart like you, doing in a fool like me?”, which one wonders why someone didn’t think of before. “My Part of Forever” is another beautiful ballad, which, surprisingly, was originally recorded by Johnny Paycheck. But my favorite song on the album by far is “That Makes Two of Us” which was written by Kostas along with Patty Loveless and Emory Gordy, Jr. This is a beautiful number, impeccably sung, and in a sane world it would be a monster hit. The album closes with a stripped-down, acoustic hymn “Take My Hand”, on which Connie is joined in harmony by her three daughters.

Dolly Parton once named Connie Smith as country music’s greatest female singer in her now famous quote, “There’s really only three female singers in the world: Streisand, Ronstadt and Connie Smith. The rest of us are only pretending.” That may have been an exaggeration, but only a slight one and as strong a case can be made for Smith’s greatness today as when Dolly first spoke those words many years ago. There isn’t a single dud among the twelve tracks on this album. It’s great to have new music from Connie Smith; hopefully she can be persuaded to record more frequently. I don’t want to have wait another 13 years for her next record.

Long Line of Heartaches
can be purchased from Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Ashton Shepherd – ‘Where Country Grows’

Ashton Shepherd was the youngest of the artists we spotlighted last year as the “new New Traditionalists”. At last, three years after she emerged on the scene, she has released her second album, which marks a serious bid for mainstream success by a talented young singer-songwriter. It is produced, like her first record, by Buddy Cannon, who does a fine job balancing contemporary and traditional elements of Ashton’s sound and emphasizing her unique voice.

The insistent lead single ‘Look It Up’ (written by Angaleena Presley and Robert Ellis Orrall), which I reviewed at the end of last year, has Ashton coming on scornfully like a modern Loretta Lynn. This works tremendously well, and it is a shame it was not a monster hit for Ashton rather than peaking just inside the top 20 – although that made it her biggest hit to date.

It is one of only two tracks not written by Ashton. She is developing well as a songwriter, and I am pleased to see her working with other writers to hone her own gifts, building on the untutored natural talent she showed on her debut three years ago.  Former artist and recent Sugarland collaborator Bobby Pinson helps writing a couple of country-living themed numbers. The title track and current single is a bit predictable as Ashton pays tribute to her rural roots, but the up-tempo ‘More Cows Than People’ on the same theme is quite entertaining, with colorful details rooting the song in a specific reality. This one isn’t a generic southern small town. I also like the relaxed but catchy ‘Beer On A Boat’. Written by Marv Green, Ben Hayslip and Rhett Akins, some of the lyrics might sound leering sung by a man, but Ashton makes it wholesome and charming. These four originally appeared on an EP earlier this year, which Razor X reviewed in anticipation of the album.

The best of the new songs is the sultry ‘That All Leads To One Thing’, one of Ashton’s solo compositions. It has a southern gothic Bobbie Gentry feel. A tormented married woman addresses the husband who is obviously cheating. With a vibe too dark for today’s country radio, it is one of the highlights on the record.  The upbeat ‘Tryin’ To Go To Church’ (written with Shane MacAnally and Brandy Clark) is lively and entertaining tune about struggling to live right in the face of various temptations (like the “husband-stealing heifer” she has to “set right”), and is reminiscent of ’70s Linda Ronstadt.

‘I’m Just A Woman’ is a ballad about being a woman, and specifically a wife and mother; the lyrics are not particularly deep or insightful, but the extraordinarily intense vocal makes it sound better than it is. The ballad ‘While It Ain’t Raining’ is equally intense to the point of verging on the over-dramatic, and although the song itself is well written (by Ashton with Troy Jones) a slightly more understated approach might have been more effective. Both tracks have backing vocals from Melonie Cannon (Buddy’s daughter and an exceptional talent in her own right).

‘I’m Good’ is a fine song which Ashton wrote with Dale Dodson and Dean Dillon. Like ‘Look It Up’, it is presented from the point of view of a woman refusing to forgive the man who has hurt her, but with a mellower feel musically as she concentrates on affirming her own strength and moving on. Her enunciation is oddly over emphasized – a feature of her vocals some criticized on her first album, which seems to have been intensified on this track in particular. ‘Rory’s Radio’ fondly recalls teenage memories of listening to the radio while driving with her older brothers, and has some slightly awkward phrasing.

I thought Ashton’s debut was enormously promising, the voice of a fresh new talent while still unmistakably country. This is more commercial, and will hopefully gain her some radio play, but although this is an encouraging step forwards, I feel she is still a work in progress, with her best yet to come.

Grade: B+

Buy it at amazon.