My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Lisa Shaffer

Album Review: Darin and Brooke Aldridge – ‘Flying’

flyingHusband and wife bluegrass duo Darin and Brooke Aldridge have been steadily rising through the ranks of bluegrass over the past few years, and they show here how deserving they are of the accolades they have been receiving. The sweet, confident voice of Brooke takes the lead on the majority of songs, and female songwriters (notably Lisa Shaffer and Becky Buller) dominate, with at least one woman contributing to every song included. As one might expect from a happily married couple, the material leans to positive love songs with spiritual undertones, but any lack of variety in themes is made up for by an excellent ear for melodies in whoever was responsible for choosing the songs (none of them composed by the duo) and Brooke’s compelling vocals.

Lisa Shaffer wrote a couple of songs with Bill Whyte, the brightly upbeat ‘Trying To Make Clocks Slow Down’ and the melodic and winsome ‘I Gotta Have Butterflies’, about the need for that special spark when falling for someone. ‘To The Moon And Back’ (written by Shaffer with Wil Nance and Steve Dean) is another charming love song with a pretty tune, this one about anticipating growing old together. It is my favorite of Shaffer’s songs here. Shaffer and Buller together wrote ‘Higher Than My Heart’, which has very nice closely harmonised vocals by Darin and Brooke, and a driving banjo underpinning an idealistic lyric.

Becky Buller (the couple’s fiddle player) also wrote ‘Love Speak To Me’ (with Jimmy Fortune and Jeff Hyde), the only track which has Darin on lead. He has quite a pleasant, if not very distinctive, voice, and it’s a nice song. Buller teamed up with Bethany Dicker-Olds to write the soaring traditional bluegrass of ‘Laurie Stevens’, a dramatic story song involving a young woman tragically drowned in a raging creek on her way to see her sweetheart; Brooke’s vibrant vocal grabs the listener’s attention from start to finish, and the change of mood from the overall positive vibe of the record is also welcome.

The charming mid-tempo ‘Maybe Just A Little’, written by Haley Dykes Johnson, is another of my favourite tracks, with Brooke questioning whether a romantic interest is out of her league. ‘Love Does’, written by Jamie and Susanne Johnson with Jenee Fleenor, is a duet between Brooke and Darin, and is a semi-religious song with a light and airy feel. ‘Little Bit Of Wonderful’ allows Darin to contribute some solo lines, and it is a positive and catchy love song with a charming delivery by the pair.

An unusual choice is a cover of the Nanci Griffith/Tom Russell song ‘Outbound Plane’, with phrasing very similar to that of Suzy Bogguss’s hit version.

This is a very attractive sounding record which feels full of joy. It should appeal not only to bluegrass fans but to those who enjoy top-notch female vocalists on good, generally upbeat material with strong melodies, in an acoustic setting. There are a lot of fine female vocalists in bluegrass, but Brooke Aldridge is rapidly becoming one of my favourites.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Jerry Salley – ‘Showing My Age’

You may well recognise the name of Jerry Salley from his many credits as a songwriter. If you do, you will know what a fine writer he is, but may not be aware he is also an accomplished singer in a bluegrass vein with an attractive light tenor, who occasionally releases an excellent record. His latest album is largely acoustic country with a strong bluegrass influence. He produced it himself, and recruited some excellent musicians and harmony singers to help out.

The outstanding song is the tragic tale told in ‘Paper And Pen, which has been recorded by Alecia Nugent, who sings harmony here. It relates the story of two hearts broken when a man writes to his sweetheart, and she misunderstands his meaning when he writes at length about how hard it is for a man to commit – tearing it up before reading his proposal on the last page:

Her soul was bleeding
So she chose her weapon
And went for his heart
With paper and pen
She got her last words in
“I never loved you”
Was the lie she wrote him

He couldn’t believe
The reply he received
What a sad tragedy
For good love to end
Who needs a knife
When you can take someone’s life
With paper and pen

Another classic-sounding heartbreaker comes with the Jim McBride co-write ‘He Carried Her Mem’ry’, about a man who can’t get over a lost love. He gives up by degrees on everything else in life , falling into drunken despair before eventually killing himself “the night that he carried her memory too far”. Bradley Walker recorded it in 2006 on his outstanding country/bluegrass album Highway Of Dreams, which really needs a successor.

A couple of songs included here may be familiar from cuts by major country stars. ‘The Best Thing That I Had Goin’’ which Brad Paisley recorded some years ago, is the plaintive reflection on a lost relationship despite the protagonist’s success in other areas of life; the writer’s own version is very good, with delightful close harmonies from Brandon Rickman and a very bluegrassy feel. Reba McEntire has recorded the very fine ‘Close To Crazy’ written with Melba Montgomery, a regretful first person song about struggling to get over someone and finding,
This close to crazy is far from over you

‘The Broken Ones’ paints the portrait of Maggie, a compassionate young woman who works helping the hopeless:

If you call her an angel she’ll be quick to say to you
She’s just doing what the one who died for her would do

Love the broken ones
The ones that need a little patching up
Look for diamonds in the rough
And make them shine like new
It really doesn’t take that much
A willing heart and a tender touch
If everybody loved like He does
There’d a be a lot less broken ones

Opening track ‘Comin’ Home To You’, written with Chris Stapleton, is one of the less memorable songs, but sets a promising tone with its prominent banjo and relaxed happy mood as the protagonist changes his mind about leaving his loved one. ‘That’s Just Me Loving You’ is a pleasant love song performed as a duet with co-writer Lisa Shaffer.

The title track is a mature reflection on “staring 50 in the eye”. It was written with Brandon Rickman and feels like a 20-years-on sequel to the latter’s similarly themed ‘So Long 20s’, which was on his excellent 2009 release Young Man, Old Soul. I really like this with its comfortable acceptance of age – and the growing confidence maturity brings.

‘Where I’m Coming From’ and ‘Back Then’ look back (mostly fondly) on the lessons learned from growing up in the south in a previous generation. The good-humored and perky ‘It’ll Get You Where You’re Goin’’ also looks back to teenage years, and the gift of an old car at the age of 16. The fiddle-led ‘Five O’Shadow’ talks sweetly about fatherhood and a little boy who wants to be with daddy whenever he is home.

The first verse of ‘Amazing Grace’, performed with careful reverence by the Isaacs, leads into the equally sincere testimonial of ‘That’s All That Matters To Me’.

You can hear samples of several of the songs on Jerry’s website – which is also offering a deal to get both this album and its equally good predecessor, 2007’s New Songs, Old Friends, which features collaborations with Vince Gill, the Oak Ridge Boys, Rhonda Vincent, our current Spotlight Artist Ricky Skaggs and many others.

Grade: A

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Sunday Mornin’ Singin’ Live’

Since her decision to leave the confines of even a sympathetic label like Rounder, Rhonda Vincent seems to have discovered a new freedom to record as she wishes.  The first album she released on her own label was the conventional (and very good) Taken, but her follow-up was her excellent country duet project with the great Gene Watson.  Third time around, Rhonda has decided to go back home to record her first live gospel album.  She has produced an acclaimed live album in the past, and she has always mixed in religious material alongside the secular, as well as releasing a gospel album when she was working with her parents’ family group, the Sally Mountain Band.  This is her first combination of the two, and to do so she chose to record the tracks live at Rhonda’s home church, Greentop United Methodist, in Greentop, Missouri.  It is not precisely a concert performance, as I gather breaks were taken between tracks.  The church has very clean acoustics; indeed this sounds like a studio set with occasional polite applause.  Rhonda is in predictably excellent voice, and The Rage play and harmonise impeccably throughout.  The production and arrangements are all meticulous, thanks to Rhonda and her fiddle player and son-in-law Hunter Berry.  Some of the material is familiar, having been picked out by Rhonda from some of her past recordings

There is a bit of a slow start, with the nicely done but unexciting opener, a revival of ‘I Feel Closer To Heaven Everyday’ which she sang as a youngster with her family’s Sally Mountain Band.  A sensitive vocal then brings life to ‘Blue Sky Cathedral’, a pretty story song about an elderly relative feeling closer to God in the midst of the beauties of nature than in church.

Rhonda wrote the slow wailing acapella ‘His Promised Land’ (with Lisa Shaffer), but although I liked the swooping melody reminiscent of an 18th century hymn tune, unfortunately I didn’t care for the droning harmonies.  ‘Fishers Of Men’, another acapella number later in the set, has a more engaging arrangement, and this version seems to have more vibrancy than her earlier cut of it, on 2003’s One Step Ahead. The pure bluegrass ‘Where We’ll Never Say Farewell’, an older song written by Larry and Eva Sparks, picks up the mood and tempo, with some great instrumental breaks and a committed vocal.

‘Silent Partner’ (written by Jeff Barbra and Darrell Webb) is also excellent; the partner is, of course, Jesus, and the lyric engagingly applies the metaphor of business life:

Now I’ve found my calling
I’m working for the Man
The pay is so much better
With the great life insurance plan

Me and my silent partner
We’re always side by side
He helps me run this business that I call life
He is the best advisor
And I can reach him any time
Me and my silent partner Jesus Christ

Turning to the hymn book, ‘Just As I Am’ gets a tasteful, rather subdued reading with soothing close harmonies.  Rhonda’s heartfelt version of ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ is beautifully sung.  ‘Walking My Lord (Up Calvary’s Hill)’ is more upbeat musically despite the subject matter, and is sung partly as a tribute to Wilma Lee Cooper.

The charming ‘God Put A Rainbow In the Clouds’ (an old Johnnie & Jack number) features vocals from Rhonda’s band members, and is just great fun.  The joyful narrative of the Old Testament story of ‘Joshua’ also features prominent vocals from the guys, and is a delight.

‘Prettiest Flower There’ is a pretty and sentimental story song which Rhonda recorded on All American Bluegrass Girl in 2008, and sings here as a tribute to her late grandmother.  ‘The Last Best Place’ (included on her secular Raging Live set  a few years ago) looks at the prospect of reuniting after death, with a lovely melody and solemn fiddle fitting the elegiac mood.  Rhonda sings it quite beautifully.  On a similar theme, Rhonda first recorded Carl Jackson’s lovely ‘Homecoming’ twenty years ago, and revives it nicely here.

The vibrant ‘Where No Cabins Fall’ harks back to traditional country gospel vocals with its call-and-response vocals. ‘Help Me To Be More Like Him’ is sweet and sincere, with particularly sympathetic backings, and I like this a great deal.

Not everyone is interested in religious music, so this album may appeal to a smaller group of Rhonda’s fans than her secular material.  Committed fans may possibly be disappointed that a fair proportion of the material is familiar from Rhonda’s previous records.  However, it is a beautifully produced, played and sung album from an artist at the peak of her ability, with very little to criticize.

Grade: A

Album Review: Darin & Brooke Aldridge – ‘Darin & Brooke Aldridge’

Husband and wife Darin and Brooke Aldridge style themselves the Sweethearts of Bluegrass and have recently released their second record together on the independent label Mountain Home. Recorded in North Carolina and produced by songwriter Jerry Salley (who contributes backing vocals on a number of tracks), there is a careful mixture of sacred and secular (but predominantly positive) material. The musicianship is exemplary, largely coming from the couple’s regular band (with Rob Ickes guesting on dobro on a few tracks). Multi-instrumentalist Darin plays guitar and mandolin, but the focus of the album is on wife Brooke.

She has a sweet, pure voice not dissimilar tonally to Rhonda Vincent, and a subtle interpretative ability. She takes the lead on the majority of the songs, including the charming mid-tempo opener ‘I Thought I’d Seen It All’, a positive travelog-cum-love song about the surprise love brings, written by Burton Collins and Lisa Shaffer.

Her voice has a more piercing quality on the pastoral ‘Corn’, also written by Shaffer, this time with Bill Whyte, about the joys of rural living and true love. Producer Salley and Donna Ulisse wrote ‘It Moves Me’, a thoughtful take on appreciating the beauties of nature, this time on the Gulf Coast “where I swear I can see God’s hand”. This is that rare thing, a beach song I can truthfully say I like.

The outstanding track is the religious ‘The Last Thing On His Mind’, a beautiful and moving reflection on Calvary, written by Dennis K Duff. The optimistic ‘The Light From Heaven’ (about hope), which precedes it, pales in comparison but Brooke sounds good. I really liked the pure bluegrass lament for a failing relationship, where she can’t make ‘Something Out Of Nothing’. This is the only sad-tinged song here, no doubt a reflection of their real-life relationship.

The pair both sing in close harmony with alternating solo lines on a delightful version of Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson’s ‘Sweetest Waste Of Time’. This couple’s version is sweeter sounding than the rawer original, although the arrangement is broadly similar (check this), and is one of my favorite tracks.

Their gorgeous close harmonies are also showcased on ‘Let’s Not Go There’, a pretty song written by Tom T Hall and his wife Dixie about not dwelling on past relationships or mistakes:

The past is all behind us now
The future’s ours to share
There’s nothing back there for us
Let’s not go there

Let’s not go there there’s nothing we can change
Let’s not go there
Let’s not relive the pain
Wondering who was to blame
Won’t get us anywhere
Everybody has a past
Let’s not go there

Listen to this live here.

‘Remind Me Again’ is another nice romantic duet, this time rekindling the flame of love in an established relationship, written by Jerry Salley (who sings harmony vocals on a number of tracks) and Tammi Kidd.

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