My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Mandy Barnett

Hidden gems of 2018

Here are my favorite album tracks of the year, omitting the albums which made my best albums of the year list.

10. Jay Bragg – ‘The Dreamer’ (from Honky Tonk Dream)
Honky tonker Bragg’s debut album may be only eight tracks, but it’s a strong collection. Best of the bunch is this pensive reflection on how strongly rooted a love is.

9. Kathy Mattea – ‘Mercy Now’ (from Pretty Bird)
A spare, tender version of Mary Gauthier’s song.

8. Jason Boland & The Stragglers – ‘Hard Times Are Relative’ (from Hard Times Are Relative)
A moving story song about a pair of young siblings supporting one another.

7. Catherine Britt – ‘The River And The Gum’ (from Catherine Britt & The Cold Cold Hearts)
Australia’s Catherine Britt retruned to her traditional roots for her latest album. This folk-country ballad is a delight.

6. Ashley McBryde – ‘Girl Goin’ Nowhere’ (from Girl Going Nowhere)
An excellent, thoughtful song about the lif of a struggling musician and what makes it worthwhile. It should get some more attention this coming year, as the track has just been announced as Ashley’s new single.

5. Joshua Hedley – ‘Counting All My Tears’ (from Mr Jukebox)
Very retro, and very good. This sounds like a forgotten classic from the early 1960s.

4. Mandy Barnett – ‘Lock Stock And Teardrops’ (from Various Artists, King Of The Road: A Tribute To Roger Miller)
An exquisite version of a classic.

3. Cody Jinks – ‘Somewhere Between I Love You And I’m Leavin’’ (from Lifers)
A strong song about a relationship on the verge from a rather mixed album.

2. Pistol Annies – ‘When I Was His Wife’ (from Interstate Gospel)
The trio’s latest album didn’t qute make my top 10 of the year, but it is a strong and artistically ambitious collection. The barbed lyric of the best song on the album, set to a sweetly vulnerable country melody, reflects on an acrimonious divorce.

1. Oak Ridge Boys – ‘If I Die Drinking’ (from 17th Avenue Revival)
A magisterial gospel reading of a wonderful song previously recorded by its co-writer Vince Gill. (The other writer was Ashley Monroe.)

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Christmas Rewind: Mandy Banett – ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘King Of The Road: A Tribute To Roger Miller’

Roger Miller was unique in terms of his all-around abilities as an entertainer. He could write off-beat and humorous songs then turn around and write a masterpiece of a straight ahead ballad. The nearest thing to him in terms of his compositional abilities was Shel Silverstein, but unlike Silverstein, who was a terrible singer, Roger was an outstanding vocalist and musician. People who have heard Roger’s concert in Birchmere, VA, about a year before he died can attest that Roger Miller barely even needed a guitar in order to keep and audience entertained.

Because Roger was so offbeat, tributes to him and his music have been rare – many of his most famous songs barely lend themselves to being covered. One of the few tributes I’ve seen was Tim O’Brien’s O’Brien Party of Seven – Reincarnation: The Songs Of Roger Miller, released about six years ago and featuring members of Tim’s family. It is a great album, but Tim and his family mostly stayed away from the more famous songs, and delved deeper into the Roger Miller catalogue.

King of The Road: A Tribute to Roger Miller
is a two disc set featuring snippets of dialogue from Roger along with covers of 34 of his songs as performed by various artists. The covers of straight ahead country songs work best as few artists have the ability that Roger had to let vocal scats and odd phrasings simply roll of his tongue. Among the odder songs tackled on disc one are “Chug A Lug” (Asleep at The Wheel with Huey Lewis), “Dang Me” (Brad Paisley), “Kansas City Star” (Kacey Musgraves), “You Ought a Be Here With Me” /“I’ve Been A Long Time Leaving” (Alison Krauss & The Cox Family) and In The Summertime” (Shawn Camp /Earls of Leicester) . All of these songs are competently performed but sound a bit forced except Shawn Camp’s take on “In The Summertime” since Camp simply treats the song as a straight ahead county song. The Krauss / Cox song would have been better had they performed it as separate songs and not made a medley of it.

For me the disc one the standouts are Loretta Lynn’s take on “Half A Mind”, a hit for her mentor Ernest Tubb, Mandy Barnett’s “Lock Stock and Teardrops” and the religious song “The Crossing” as performed by Ronnie Dunn and the Blind Boys of Alabama.

Dwight Yoakam does a fine job with his co-write “It Only Hurts Me When I Cry” but you’d expect no less since it was a hit for him.

Disc two is more of the same, some banter, goofy songs, and some straight ahead ballads. Cake makes a complete mess of “Reincarnation” (the only decent cover I’ve had was by Jim Nabors as Gomer Pyle, USMC) and I didn’t like Toad The Wet Sprocket’s take on the old George Jones hit “Nothing Can Stop My Loving You” (also decently covered in the 1970s by Patsy Sledd). Jamey Johnson & Emmylou Harris do a nice job on “Husbands and Wives”.

John Goodman, who never claimed to be a singer, reprises “Guv’ment” from the play Big River. Ringo Starr, also not a compelling singer, gives the right vibe to “Hey Would You Hold It Down?”

For me the two best songs on disc two are the Dolly Parton & Alison Krauss recording of “The Last Word In Lonesome Is Me” and Flatt Lonesome’s exquisite “When Two Worlds Collide”, easily the best performance on the album.

This album offers a good overview of the depth and breadth of the songwriting talents of Roger Miller. While I wasn’t all that impressed with all of the performers on the album, all of them clearly gave their performances their best efforts.

I mostly enjoyed this album and would give it a B+ but if this is your first exposure to Roger Miller, I would strongly suggest picking up one of Roger’s currently available collections of Smash/Mercury recordings.

Album Review: Mandy Barnett — ‘Strange Conversation’

The last time we heard from Mandy Barnett was 2013, when she released I Can’t Stop Loving You: The Songs of Don Gibson. It’s taken five years for her to follow it up and she does so with an album that finds her exploring uncharted territory in her 22-year career.

As Barnett puts it frankly, Strange Conversation isn’t a country album. She recorded it in Muscle Shoals, and through inspiration from the area’s classic sound, she plays instead under the umbrella and within the sonic textures of modern-day Americana and she’s enlisted drummer Marco Giovino and guitarist Doug Lancio to serve as her producers. The former has worked with Robert Plant and Buddy Miller while the latter has collaborated with John Hiatt and Patty Griffin.

Strange Conversation opens with “More Lovin,’” an excellent cover of the song originally recorded by Mabel John. The groove, created by a nice mixture of upright bass and crashing percussion, gives the song an appealing jazzy groove. She travels back to the 1960s for her R&B and soul-infused version of “It’s All Right (You’re Just In Love),” which originates with the Alabama-based band The Tams.

“Dream Too Real To Hold” jumps ahead to 1997 and came to Barnett via Greg Garing, who among his many contributions, worked with Kenny Vaughn to revitalize Lower Broadway in Nashville some time ago. It’s another excellent song, with nice jazzy undertones. The title track is a pleasant ballad which finds Barnett turning in a sultry vocal performance.

The album continues with “A Cowboy’s Work Is Never Done,” originally recorded and released by Sonny & Cher in 1972. Barnett mostly keeps the song within the same vein as the original, retaining Hiatt to sing on it with her. They work fine together and the lyric is good, but I hate the fuzzy and cluttered arrangement, which unnecessarily drowns them out. I know it’s in keeping with how the song was intended when written, but it’s very unappealing to my ears.

Tom Waits originally released “Puttin’ On The Dog” in 2000. The lyric, a sexual innuendo, is slinky and the song is downright obscure. Like the Sonny & Cher cover that preceded it, it’s also not to my taste. “All Night” is pure lounge and torch, as though it comes straight from an old smoky jazz club. It fits perfectly within Barnett’s classic wheelhouse.

Neil Sedaka pitched “My World Keeps Slipping Away” to Barnett directly. She evokes Rosanne Cash, who I could easily hear covering this song, on the sparse ballad, which she knocks out of the park. “The Fool” is not a cover of the Lee Ann Womack classic, but rather a tune written by legendary country and pop singer Lee Hazlewood. The barroom anthem, one of the album’s best tracks, revives Barnett’s classic sound and gives the latter half of the Strange Conversation some much-needed pep and variety. She closes the ten-track album with a cover of Andre Williams’ “Put A Chain On It,” a slice of straight-up R&B that features backing from the McCrary Sisters.

Besides insisting Strange Conversation isn’t a country album, which it most certainly is not, Barnett also says it purposefully doesn’t rely on the full-power of her voice. This choice, which makes use of her sultry lower register, gives the music a different feel from her previous albums, which I like. I certainly appreciate Barnett’s artistry and feel the end result is the album she set out to make. The tracks are on YouTube and I highly recommend you go check out the album for yourself.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Jim Lauderdale – ‘Planet Of Love’

Jim Lauderdale was already a successful songwriter when he secured his first album deal with Reprise Records, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers. His debut album in 1991 was produced by Rodney Crowell and John Leventhal, and Lauderdale wrote every song, mostly with Leventhal.

The label tried three singles, none of which saw any chart action. ‘Maybe’, co-written by Lauderdale and Leventhal with Crowell, may not have been the best choice to launch Lauderdale as a solo artist. It is a decent mid-tempo song with an optimistic message about taking a chance in love, but it is not very interesting musically.

‘I Wasn’t Fooling Around’ is much more on the mark, and it is a shame it didn’t get airplay. A great traditional country shuffle, it was picked up by George Strait a couple of years later. The third single, ‘Wake Up Screaming’, is a minor keyed country rock number later recorded by Gary Allan on his debut album, but I don’t’ particularly like it.

Other artists also saw potential hits from this album’s set list. My favorite is ‘The King Of Broken Hearts’, later covered by George Strait, and still later by Lee Ann Womack. This is a loving tribute to George Jones and Gram Parsons, ornamented by tasteful steel guitar from Glen D. Hardin. Emmylou Harris adds harmonies. ‘Where The Sidewalk Ends’ was another Strait pick, and was also recorded by Jann Browne. It’s a very good song about a breakup, but I prefer both the covers to Lauderdale’s own version.

The jazzy and sophisticated title track was covered by Mandy Barnett and the pre-Natalie Maines incarnation of the Dixie Chicks. The soulful ‘What You Don’t Know’ was later recorded by Jon Randall.

‘Heaven’s Flame’ is a midpaced warning against a femme fatale. ‘Bless Her Heart’ is a low-key love song and is rather sweet, with gospel style backing vocals. The valedictory ‘My Last Request’ is slow and sad, with Rodney Crowell adding a prominent harmony.

Lauderdale’s main problem as an artist was that his vocals were not strong enough. He may also have been a bit too eclectic. However, he is a great songwriter, and this album has a lot to offer, especially if you have more adventurous tastes.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Mandy Barnett – ‘I’ve Got A Right To Cry’

Album Review: Mandy Barnett – ‘I’ve Got A Right To Cry’

Mandy Barnett’s sophomore album, I’ve Got A Right To Cry, released in 1999, is the stuff of country legend. Her producer for the project was the iconic Owen Bradley, who Barnett had chosen to bath the project with his classic touches. Just four songs into the recording process, Bradley died suddenly and very unexpectedly at age 82.

As the story goes, Barnett didn’t know what to do, or how she could even go on to finish the album. Fortunately, Bradley’s equally iconic brother Harold stepped in and the album became a tribute of sorts to Owen’s indelible mark on country music during the 1960s. Remarkably, the album didn’t change much at all after Owen’s passing. He had already provided notes on the songs they were to record together, which Harold used when producing the remaining tracks.

The album itself failed to chart and didn’t launch any charting singles. None of this is surprising – there was little to no appeal in mainstream Nashville for the old classic sound of country music in 1999. The songs are mostly classics, taken from that golden era of country music Barnett loves so much.

The title track, a wonderful soaring torch ballad, comes courtesy of Joe Liggins, an R&B pianist during the late 1940s and early 1950s. It’s followed by Don Gibson’s 1958 top 5 hit “Give Myself A Party,” a steel-drenched ballad with a nice tempo.

The engaging ballad “Trademark” comes from the pen of Porter Wagoner. “Funny, Familiar, Forgotten Feelings” is Barnett’s fine take on the Mickey Newbury classic that found a home with the likes of Gibson, Tom Jones, and Engelbert Humperdinck.

Two of the album’s songs have ties to Patti Page. “With My Eyes Wide Open I’m Dreaming,” which she originally recorded in 1949, is exquisite. “Evertrue, Evermore” is of just as high a quality.

“I’m Gonna Change Everything” was a #2 hit for Jim Reeves two years prior to his death in 1962. Barnett’s take on the song is excellent. “Don’t Forget to Cry” is the Boudleaux and Felice Bryant song made famous by The Everly Brothers. Barnett turns in a truly wonderful performance.

“Who (Who Will It Be)” is a newly recorded jazzy number that Barnett treats beautifully. “The Whispering Wind (Blows On By)” is one of the album’s strongest tracks. “Mistakes” is another lovely torch ballad.

I highly recommend seeking this one out if you haven’t heard it or need to hear it again after all these years.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Mandy Barnett – ‘Now That’s All Right With Me’

Album Review: Many Barnett – ‘Mandy Barnett’

When Asylum Records released Mandy Barnett’s eponymous album Mandy Barnett in 1996, I hoped I was hearing the first in a long string of albums for this excellent vocalist. Mandy was not unknown to me, having made television appearances in conjunction with her role in the play Always … Patsy Cline, starting around 1994 or 1995. Unfortunately, the market shifted away from anything resembling real country music so while Mandy remains active, her solo recordings remain few and far between.

Mandy Barnett would prove to be Mandy’s only successful chart album in terms of singles, but the contents were strong, the voice is terrific and her artistic integrity has been maintained through the years. The album would reach #60 on the country charts (it reached #28 on the Canadian country charts)

The album opens with “Planet of Love”, a song written by the much underappreciated Jim Lauderdale. The song was never a big hit for anyone, but it has been recorded quite a few times. Mandy’s bluesy take reveals a song that Patsy Cline could have done as well as, but not better than, Mandy herself.

 I’ve found a new planet that only I can see

Just came back to get you let’s leave this misery

Nothing can reach us so far from harm’s way

Only sunshine and rainbows every day

We’ve got to get back there hurry up and get your things

The countdown has started go ahead try on these wings

Don’t need no spaceship for what I’m thinking of

Didn’t I tell you that I’d take you to the planet of love

I should mention that this album was produced by Bill Schnee and Kyle Lehing, but clearly,  both understood what Owen Bradley accomplished with Patsy Cline and at times have created an updated version of that sound.

Next up is “Maybe”, a then-contemporary song aimed at getting Mandy some radio airplay. The son was the second single and peaked at #65. Written by Lauderdale, Rodney Crowell, and John Leventhal, the song should have been a hit but perhaps it was too similar to some other songs currently floating about at the time (I could mentally hear Patty Loveless doing this song)

I know how the story ends where everything works out

I get the feelin’ once again that I can’t shake your doubt

Instead of hidin’ from romance

You’re gonna have to take a chance

 

Baby, don’t say Maybe

There’ll be no comin’ back tomorrow, Baby

“Rainy Days” is a gentle ballad sung to perfection. The song, written by Kostas and Pamela Brown Hayes,   is filler but of a high grade.

“Three Days”, from the pen of Willie Nelson, is also filler. The song was a top ten hit for the great Faron Young back in 1962, and k.d. lang took it to #9 on the Canadian country charts in 1990. This is one of my favorite Willie compositions, and while Mandy does an excellent job with the song, the song seems a little more believable from the male perspective. I love the endless time loop perspective of the song – if this isn’t the definition of depression, I don’t know what would qualify

Three days I dread to see arrive

Three days I hate to be alive

Three days filled with tears and sorrow

Yesterday today and tomorrow

 

There are three days I know that I’ll be blue

Three days that I’ll always dream of you

And it does no good to wish these days would end

‘Cause the same three days start over again

“Baby Don’t You Know” was written by Jamie O’Hara has that traditional vibe, accentuated by the walking bass line and I think that I would have tried this as a single as this is just an excellent track. The song has a great sing-along chorus

Baby don’t you know I still love you

Baby don’t you know I still miss you

Baby don’t you know you’re breaking my heart

Oh, oh, oh

Baby don’t you know I still want you

Baby don’t you know I still need you

Baby don’t you know you’re tearing me apart

Kostas and Tony Perez penned “Now That’s All Right with Me”, the first and most successful single released on from the album. This is a very then-contemporary sounding song with late 90s-early 00s country instrumentation including some steel guitar in the background. The song peaked at #43. I don’t recall the song getting much of a promotional push but perhaps my memory is wrong. I only heard the song a few times on the radio.

Karen Brooks and Randy Sharp wrote “A Simple I Love You”, the last and least successful single released from the album. Mandy sings it well, but the song itself is a rather bland string-laden ballad, the only track on the album to heavily feature strings. The song died at #72.

Two more Kostas songs follow, “I’ll Just Pretend” and “What’s Good For You” (with Kelly Willis as co-writer). The former is a gentle and wistful medium slow ballad; the latter is a bit more up-tempo and a bit more of a downer. Both are excellent songs and well sung.

“Wayfaring Stranger” is one of the great folk/gospel classics, that first appeared in the early to mid-1800s. I’ve heard many versions of the song with many and varied verses. Below is a “standard” version of the lyrics (insofar as any version can be called standard) that is pretty similar to Mandy’s version. This song features very sparse instrumentation

I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger

Traveling through a world of woe

But there’s no sickness, toil or danger

In that fair land to which I go

 

I’m going there to see my father

I’m going there no more to roam

I am just going over Jordan

I am just going over home

 

I know dark clouds will gather round me

I know my way is rough and steep

But beautiful fields lie just before me

Where God’s redeemed their vigils keep

 

I’m going home to see my mother

She said she’d meet me when I come

I’m only going over Jordan

I’m only going over home

I’m just a going over home

It is clear that the producers of this album were trying for radio success with this album. The singles are all good – worth about a B+ but the tracks where the producers let Mandy follow her own inclinations are excellent – an easy A+. I would give this album an A and I still pull it out occasionally and listen to it.

The album is available as a digital download. If you want an actual CD, a later Warner Brothers release titled Many Barnett: The Platinum Collection contains nine of the ten songs on this album and eleven of the twelve songs on her second album I’ve Got A Right To Cry.

Spotlight Artists : Overlooked Women of the 90s

After our look back at three male artists who emerged in 1996 (Daryle Singletary and Wade Hayes) we’re widening the net a little with our current spotlight. As we all now, it’s often harder for women to make it in country music, and that was the case even in the 1990s which might be regarded as the high point for female artists’ commercial success. For the next two months we will be talking about several female singers who tried to make an impact in the 1990s, and didn’t receive as much attention as they deserved. We hope you enjoy our selection.

Jann Browne was born in Indiana in 1954. She began performing in California in the 1970s, before joining stellar Western Swing band Asleep At The Wheel in 1981. Her heart was in more traditional styles of country music, and in 1989, with the neotraditional movement in full swing, she signed a solo deal with Curb Records. Perhaps she was just a little too late to the party, perhaps she was curbed by her label, or the fact that she continued to base herself on the West Coast, but a pair of top 20 country hits and two underrated albums were all she had to celebrate. A couple of independent albums followed later. She continues to tour locally in California, and her most recent recorded work was a Buck Owens tribute album in 2007. She is planning a new record for release this year.

Linda Davis was born in Texas in 1962. She moved to Nashville in the early 1980, and formed a duo called Skip & Linda with Skip Eaton, which released a few independent singles. Regular work singing advertising jingles and song demos got her noticed, and she secured a deal with Epic Records in 1988. After failing to make a breakthrough, she temporarily gave up her solo aspirations and joined Reba McEntire’s road outfit as a backing vocalist. That put her in the right place at the right time when Reba needed a strong female duet partner for the song ‘Does He Need You’. The song was a #1 hit and won a Grammy for the pair, and it allowed Linda another shot at solo success when she signed to Arista. While she never matched the success of the Reba duet, she has continued to tour and record, releasing several albums on different labels. She returned to prominence recently when she teamed up with her husband Lang Scott and daughter Hillary (known for her band Lady Antebellum) for a very successful country gospel project, billed as the Scott Family.

Dawn Sears was born in Minnesota in 1961. In her late 20s she was signed to Warner Brothers, releasing her critically acclaimed debut album in 1991. When this failed to launch her to superstardom, she became a backing singer for Vince Gill. Decca then picked her up in 1994, again with no lasting success, and she returned to working for Gill. She achieved non-mainstream success late in her career thanks to her role as one of the lead singers of The Time Jumpers. Tragically, she died of cancer in 2014.

Ronna Reeves was born in Texas in 1968. She was on Mercury in the early 1990s, but enjoyed limited radio success despite regular appearance on the Statler Brothers’ TNN TV show which helped her to sell enough records to stay on the label for several releases. Virginia’s Donna Ulisse released a single, excellent album on Atlantic Records in 1991. When her singles failed to gain traction despite her beautiful voice, she gave up on performing and began to concentrate on songwriting. She re-emerged 10 years ago as a bluegrass singer-songwriter, and has been forging a successful career in that vein ever since. Singer-songwriter Bobbie Cryner was born in California in 1961. She released two albums for Epic, and despite stellar vocals and material she too failed to appeal to country radio. She continued writing songs for other artists for a while but has not been active lately.

Ohio-born Kim Richey is an acclaimed singer songwriter who spent the second half of the 1990s as a semi-mainstream country artist on Mercury. She is still actively wriing and recording, and has just released a new album.
Mandy Barnett
, born in 1975 in Tennessee, was a throwback to the era and style of Patsy Cline. She made an impact as a teenager lying Patsy on stage, which enabled her to get a record deal of her own. Perhaps she was too retro for mainstream success in the second half of the 1990s despite massive critical plaudits, but she returned to her stage role with more success.

Julie Reeves, born in Kentucky in 1974, was more on the pop-country side. She had a deal with the short lived country imprint of Virgin Records. Her singles gained some airplay, and perhaps another label would have capitalised on that. As it was, marriage to comedy act Cledus T Judd sidelined Julie’s music career. The marriage ended in divorce and Julie is now a radio DJ. Finally, Chalee Tennison was born in Texas in 1969. A deal with Asylum Records in 1999 saw her touring with Alan Jackson, but her singles were only modestly successful despite strong vocals and material drawing on her varied life experience (teenage motherhood, failed marriages, and work as a prison guard).

These women offered a variety of styles of country music, but they share one thing: none really achieved the level of success they deserved. We hope you enjoy exploring their music.

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

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

1. Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread

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

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

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

3. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison – Our Year

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

4. Jerry Douglas – Earls of Leicester

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

5. Carlene Carter – Carter Girl

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

6. Ray Price – Beauty Is

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

7. Jeff Bates – Me and Conway

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

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

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

9. Ray Price – A New Place To Begin

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

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

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

11. Chris Thile & Edgar Meyer – Bass & Mandolin

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

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

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

13. Joe Mullins – Another Day From Life

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

14. Rhonda Vincent – Only Me

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

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

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

16. Willie Nelson – Band of Brothers

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

17. Secret Sisters – Put your Needle Down

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

18. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

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

19. Dierks Bentley – Riser

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

20. Cornell Hurd Band – Twentieth Album

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

Album Review: Mandy Barnett – ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You: The Songs of Don Gibson’

mandybarnettThe late Don Gibson is not as well remembered as he ought to be. A successful recording artist who racked up 22 Top 10 hits between 1956 and 1974, he is primarily remembered for his songwriting. “Oh Lonesome Me”, “Sea of Heartbreak”, “Sweet Dreams” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You” are just a few of the timeless classics that he penned. Mandy Barnett’s new album, featuring twelve classic Gibson songs, is a worthy tribute that every fan of classic country music should enjoy.

With I Can’t Stop Loving You, which was jointly released by Rounder Records and Cracker Barrel, Barnett breathes new life into these timeless classics. The obvious crowd pleasers are all represented, along with a handful of of Gibson’s lesser known tunes that will be unfamiliar enough to seem new to many fans — myself included. The opening track “(Yes) I’m Hurting” is one such example. I wasn’t previously familiar with this one and although the string arrangement seems a bit heavy-handed, it is appropriate for a song originally released during the Nashville Sound era. “Too Soon To Know” is another new one for me. Originally included on Gibson’s 1972 album Woman, Sensuous Woman, it was never released as a single, but one can imagine Patsy Cline having a huge hit with this one.

Most of the other titles will be familiar most listeners. My favorite is “Sweet Dreams”, a song that will forever be associated with Patsy Cline, and one that I expected would sound like something from the soundtrack of Always … Patsy Cline, in which Barnett played the lead role in the mid-90s. Instead, she puts her own stamp on the song and proves that she’s more than a Cline sound-alike. The lush string arrangement is eschewed in favor of the steel guitar and Mandy’s version is more reminiscent of the version that Emmylou Harris took to #1 in 1977. “Just One Time” peaked at #2 for Connie Smith in 1971. Barnett’s version is more polished, but I prefer the more raw and uptempo original. Mandy likewise slows down the tempo on “Blue Blue Day”, but it is surprisingly effective on this track, which features harmony vocals by Alison Krauss. The title track is a fairly faithful interpretation of the 1962 Ray Charles version, considered by most to be the definitive recording of the song. I was never much of a Ray Charles fan, and as such this is my least favorite song on the album.

There have been no shortage of tribute albums in recent years, but this one really puts a fresh spin on a somewhat cliched concept by allowing one singer to concentrate on the work of a sole songwriter. Barnett proves that she is more than up the challenge of tackling the classic material. Somehow I missed this album when it was released back in November. Had I been aware of it, it would most certainly have earned a spot on my best albums of the year list.

Grade: A

Album Review – Heidi Feek – ‘The Only’

Heidi-Feek-The-OnlyI became a fan of Heidi Feek after her profile during a season one episode of The Joey + Rory Show. During the segment, she introduced the world to her then fiancé and spoke about her love of listening to vinyl records. She’s since become a regular fixture on her parents’ television show, providing background vocals during performances and singing Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight” and Hank Williams’ “Kaw-Lija” during Crosley Radio Vinyl Rewind pieces.

Like her parents Feek is a throwback to a simpler era making it easy to forget she’s in her mid-twenties, around my age. She’s a great vocalist, with a distinctively bluesy twang not far removed from Cline or torch singer Mandy Barnett. I’ve been anticipating a full-length album since that initial appearance, and while I didn’t buy her 2010 EP Eden I was quick to acquire a copy of The Only when the release was announced in late August.

Needless to say, I’m not disappointed. Feek’s first full-length album is a wonderful showcase for her distinct stylings and a fine introduction to who she is as an artist. The album blasts off with the rockin’ “I Like The Way,” an excellent electric guitar drenched number reminiscent of Dwight Yoakam, and the first of four tracks she penned solely with her father Rory. Reverb heavy “I Didn’t Know About You” (co-written by Feek, her father, and James Slater) continues in a similar uptempo vein, transporting Feek back to the Sun Records era of the 1950s while also updating that sound to keep the track modern and fresh. Similarly to “I Like The Way,” “I Don’t Know About You” succeeds on its electric guitar centric sound, giving Feek some muscle behind her energetic vocal.

“57 Bel Air,” another father daughter co-write, is not only the best of the uptempo numbers, and the strongest track on the whole project and the one song I can’t wait to hear each time I listen to the album. It picks up on the electric guitar heavy sound that threads together the uptempo numbers, but adds a distinctive drum beat that elevates the track above the rest. “57 Bel Air,” in which Feek compares her current relationship to the classic car, does the best job of maintaining the rock sound Feek loves while also keeping the track firmly within the realms of her country roots.

As a fan of Feek I was excited to hear her trademark ballads, the side of her musical personality I was most familiar with going in. Feek’s style is best summed up when she’s inspired by Cline, as she shows on “One Night With You,” a co-write with her dad, Austin Manual, and Aaron Carnahan and “There Lives A Fool,” which her dad co-wrote with Sara Evans about sixteen years ago. Both numbers are ripe with bluesy elements that allow Feek to shine vocally, although a chaotic guitar solo suffocates the end of “One Night With You.” The gorgeously understated opening of “There Lives A Fool,” featuring Feek’s vocal backed solely by an upright bass, showcases her impressive range and is one of album’s standout moments.

I also really enjoy “Someday Somebody,” the album’s first single and a co-write between Feek and her dad. The song takes a modern approach to her bluesy side with distinctive electric guitar riffs infused with a steady drumbeat framing her straightforward vocal. Even more contemporary is the title track (which Feek penned solo), a 90s country inspired ballad about a woman telling her man he isn’t the end of the line in terms of relationships. I love how the drums and guitars work together to create a gentle ease that helps guide the song along. “Berlin,” co-written by Feek, her dad, and Slater, follows the same path although it’s far more addicting with the wonderful ‘we hold on/we let go/body and soul/still I love you’ refrain keeping it memorable.

By all accounts, The Only is a solid album, although it didn’t provide the listening experience I was hoping for despite some truly outstanding numbers. There aren’t any clunkers on the project (not even a very atypical cover of “Heartbreak Hotel” that shows off Feek’s interpretation skills) but the production is too heavy handed at times, giving the album a sense of sameness that grows tiring after hearing just a few tracks. But The Only isn’t a bad album by any means, and well worth checking out.

Grade: B+

Country Heritage Redux: Webb Pierce

An updated and expanded version of an article originally published by The 9513:

It has been twenty years since Webb Pierce passed away in February 1991, about six months short of his 70th birthday, and yet he still has his diehard legions of fans. For the second half of the twentieth century, Webb Pierce was the most successful recording artist in county music with his records topping the Billboard charts for a total of 113 weeks, with Buck Owens second with 82 weeks at #1. George Strait finally passed Buck Owens in 2007 with 83 weeks at #1, a total still growing, albeit slowly.

Like Eddy Arnold, during the late 1940s, Webb Piece dominated the 1950s, particularly from 1952 to 1957, the period in which all his Billboard #1s occurred. This dominance occurred despite Pierce not having any chart records until after he turned thirty years old.

Unlike the smooth Eddy Arnold, whose vocals (and personality) had appeal across many segments of society, Webb Pierce was a country music performer with one core style. You either liked Pierce or you hated him, but you could not ignore him. He sang in a high nasal tenor that will never come back into vogue in mainstream country music (although the style remains viable in bluegrass), but he selected great songs and could sell even the most maudlin lyric. He was one of the first stars to wear “Nudie Suits,” the colorful rhinestone-studded western wear that became de rigueur for country stars for the next 35 years. His song “Slowly” was the first country hit to feature the pedal steel guitar as played by Bud Isaacs. Then there was the famous guitar-shaped swimming pool.

Like many performers of his era, years were subtracted from his real age to make him seem younger to the fan base. Most articles written about Pierce during his heyday gave his date of birth as July 8, 1926, an error which was not corrected until the 1980s. He never penned an autobiography, and I’ve never seen a full biography of him, so biographical information remains sketchy. It is known that he had his own radio show on KMLB in 1938 and served in the Army for three years during WWII before moving to Shreveport, Louisiana in 1944, where he supported himself for some years as a shoe salesman at the local Sears store.

Pierce’s first recordings were on the Four Star label in 1949. By 1950 he was appearing at the Louisiana Hayride – a serious competitor to the Opry during the late ’40s and ’50s–where he quickly became a featured performer. Pierce and Hayride founder Horace Logan formed Pacemaker Records as a vehicle to issue his records. None of these records became national hits, but they sold well enough that Decca inked Pierce to a contract in 1951.

The third Decca single, “Wondering,” established Pierce as a major star. It reached No. 1 for four weeks and stayed on the charts for 27 weeks. The song also provided Pierce with the nickname “The Wondering Boy,” which stayed with him throughout his career. The next two singles, “That Heart Belongs to Me” and “Backstreet Affair,” also reached No. 1 for multiple weeks. This was followed by four more top ten records and the eight week No. 1 “It’s Been So Long” (the flip side “I’m Walking the Dog” reached No. 9).

For many artists, a record that reached No. 1 for eight weeks would be a career record, but Pierce was just getting started. Released on October 24, 1952, “There Stands the Glass” was one of six double-sided hits (with the “B” side reaching top ten status) to reach No. 1 for ten or more weeks. A recent CMT poll of Greatest Drinking Songs had “There Stands the Glass” at No. 11, but they are wrong – it is the ultimate drinking song, the ultimate expression of the angst that accompanies those who are trying to forget:

There stands the glass that will ease all my pain
That will settle my brain, it’s my first one today
There stands the glass that will hide all my fears
That will drown all my tears, brother I’m on my way

“There Stands the Glass” was followed by “Slowly” (No. 1 for 17 weeks), “Even Thou” (No. 1 for only 2 weeks), “More and More” (No. 1 for 10 weeks), “In the Jailhouse Now” (21 weeks at the top), “I Don’t Care” (12 weeks at No. 1) and “Love, Love, Love” (13 weeks at the top).

Pierce moved to the Grand Old Opry in 1955, but soon departed because of the requirement that members had to perform twenty-six Saturdays annually to maintain membership. For Pierce, who was commanding thousands of dollars for his personal appearances, this meant losing considerable income. Since he became a star without the Opry’s help, Pierce correctly figured that the monetary loss would not be offset by the prestige of continued Opry membership. Unfortunately, he burned many bridges when he left the Opry.

The onslaught of Rock and Roll in 1955-1956 destroyed many country music careers and put a damper on many other careers. According to Billboard, Pierce’s last No. 1 record was “Honky Tonk Song” in mid-1957, but Pierce adapted and survived. He added drums to his records and picked more up-tempo material, including songs from younger writers such as Wayne Walker and Mel Tillis. He continued to chart top ten records for another decade (other charts had three of his records reach No. 1 during the period of 1959 to 1967). His record of “Bye Bye Love,” recorded at the same time as the Everly Brothers version, was a top ten hit, and the Mel Tillis penned “I Ain’t Never” stayed at No. 2 on Billboard for nine weeks (it dis reach #1 on Cashbox). It was kept out of Billboard’s top spot by Stonewall Jackson’s “Waterloo” and The Browns “The Three Bells.”

Webb’s last top ten hit in 1967 with “Fool, Fool, Fool” which reached #1 on Record World, #3 on Cashbox and #7 on Billboard. Pierce continued to record for Decca from 1967 to 1972, then for Plantation for two years where he had a minor hit with “The Good Lord Giveth (and Uncle Sam Taketh Away),” a song which deserved a better fate than missing the top forty. After 1976, Pierce – having invested wisely in real estate and music publishing – retired from performing (he had been semi-retired for years already). He would record only twice more.

In 1982, Willie Nelson was able to drag Webb into the recording studio for a duet album, which puzzled some since Webb wasn’t one of Willie’s former label mates or Texas compadres, but the recordings make clear the strong influence Pierce had on Willie’s pinched vibrato and vocal phrasing. In 1985 Pierce got together with two old Louisiana buddies, Jerry Lee Lewis and Faron Young, and Florida songwriter Mel Tillis, to record an album called Four Legends. All of the songs on the collection were old Webb Pierce hits.

He died on February 24, 1991 of a heart attack, but would likely have died soon of cancer anyway. The old guard of the Nashville establishment shamefully denied him entry into the Country Music Hall of Fame until ten years after his death. He should have been inducted around 1977.

According to Billboard, Webb Pierce was the No. 1 country artist of the 1950s and the No. 7 artist of the 1960s. He charted 96 songs, 80 of which reached the Top 40, and 54 of which reached the Top Ten. His thirteen number one records stayed there for a cumulative total of 113 weeks–second all-time only to Eddy Arnold with 145 weeks (86 of Eddy’s weeks occurred during the 1940s). His 1955 recording of the old Jimmie Rodgers song “In the Jailhouse Now” is the third ranking county single of all time with 21 weeks at No. 1 and 34 weeks in the Top Ten.

Amusingly, Carl Smith, a Columbia recording artist (and 4th most popular country artist of the 1950s), recorded an album titled There Stands The Glass in 1964 in which he recorded twelve of Webb’s hits and never mentioned him on the album cover (which has several paragraphs of liner notes) or the record label (except on the songwriter credits of several songs)!

Discography
Much of Webb’s recorded output has been unavailable for years. Most of the albums on vinyl are typical Nashville product – one or two hit singles, some covers of other artists’ hits and some filler. If you like the songs listed on the album cover, you’ll probably like the album. Webb With A Beat from 1960 may be his strongest album and shows Webb transitioning his sound to a more modern approach, re-recording several of his older hits in the process. If you find the album Webb Pierce’s Greatest Hits, released on Decca in 1968, it is a really fine album (in fact, the first Webb Pierce album I ever purchased) but it is mostly re-recordings of his earlier hits as Decca had all of its major stars re-record their older hits to take advantage of modern stereo technology. If you find a copy of the Plantation album Webb Pierce and Carol Channing, please do Webb’s family a big favor – buy it and destroy it. You cannot imagine how bad Carol’s vocals are on this album!

There are now quite a few CDs available of Webb’s pre-1958 output (European copyrights expire in 50 years so in Europe those recordings can be released without paying royalties), but very few of the post 1958 recordings are available, although they are slowly beginning to appear:

1. 20th Century Masters – The Millennium Collection: The Best of Webb — a budget collection, digitally re-mastered. Only 12 songs but they are the biggies in their original versions. The Plantation recordings have been endlessly leased out to other labels – unless I know the source, I assume that the off-label recordings of Webb are leased from Plantation.
2. Webb Pierce – Greatest Hits: Finest Performances — these are re-makes recorded for Plantation during the middle 1970s. They are not bad, but they lack the sparkle of the original recordings and Pierce’s voice had dropped in the interim.
3. King of the Honky-Tonk: From the Original Master Tapes — released by the Country Music Foundation in 2000, this was the first effort to get the original Decca hits back in print. Eighteen hits, great sound and a useful booklet. Now out of print, but it can be located with a little effort.
4. A Proper Introduction to Webb Pierce: Groovie Boogie Woogie Boy — British reissue label, 28 tracks, mostly pre-Decca material, some with overdubs. Worth owning. Apparently out of print but still can be found.
5. The Wandering Boy (1951-1958) [BOX SET] — The Holy Grail for Webb Pierce fans — a deluxe Bear Family boxed set — four CDs, 114 tracks with great sound and an interesting, but somewhat disjointed booklet. Covers all of Webb’s recordings through 1958 with a few alternate takes of songs such as “Slowly” where you can see the Pierce style developing.
6. Hux Records out of the UK recently released Fallen Angel / Cross Country – a two-fer which collects a pair of early 1960s albums. This album might be considered post-peak as far as the hits were concerned but Webb was still at his vocal peak
7. Audio Fidelity had a two-fer of Sweet Memories / Sands of Gold from the mid-1960s available about fifteen years ago. Audio Fidelity remixed the two album to push Pierce’s vocals further front in the mix and suppressed the background vocals and strings, greatly improving both albums. This one is hard to find, but you might get lucky.

And don’t forget Caught in the Webb, a tribute album released in 2002, produced and organized by Gail Davies, featuring 21 of Webb’s hits performed by guests, including: Dale Watson, The Jordanaires, Mandy Barnett, Charley Pride, Rosie Flores, George Jones, Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris, Robbie Fulks, Joy Lynn White, Allison Moorer, Matt King, Crystal Gayle, Del McCoury Band, Lionel Cartwright, Guy Clark, Gail Davies, Willie Nelson, BR549, Billy Walker, Kevin Welch, Trent Summar, Pam Tillis, Deborah Pierce (Webb’s daughter) and the Carol Lee Singers. Proceeds of this album benefited the Minnie Pearl Cancer Research Center.