My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Marty Raybon

Album Review – Shenandoah – ‘The Road Not Taken’

Shenandoah_road_not_takenAfter their eponymous album produced two top-twenty singles, Shenandoah saw a reversal of fortunes when they gathered at Fame Recording Studios in Muscle Sholes, Alabama to record their sophomore record, The Road Not Taken. A major success, the album spawned three #1 hits, was certified gold, for shipments of 500,000 copies, and turned 25 upon the anniversary of its Jan 31, 1989 release just one week ago.

Columbia Records noticed the band’s upward swing when their third single, “She Doesn’t Cry Anymore” cracked the top ten, peaking at #9. Written by Robert Byrne (their co-producer) and Will Robinson, the track is a forlorn synth heavy ballad that shows the band’s promise but isn’t indicative of their strongest work. To capitalize on the song’s success the label carried it over to The Road Not Taken, releasing it as the third single from the band’s debut and first from their second album.

This album’s first official single, “Mama Knows,” gave the band their inaugural top five hit. An excellent mandolin and string centric ballad, “Mama Knows” began their tradition of singing simple tales about small-town life. This one’s about a mother who always knows whatever her son is trying to hide:

Mama knows, Mama knows

Somehow I think she’s got a window to my soul

Mama knows, Mama knows

Even when I think it doesn’t show

Mama knows, mama knows

“The Church on Cumberland Road,” Their first of three consecutive #1 hits came next, impacting the country charts in early 1989. A two-week #1, the track marked the first time a band had their first chart-topper spend multiple weeks atop the charts. A catchy rocker about a groom late for his wedding, the song uses electric guitars in its production, and is heavy on the charm. A piece of nostalgia from my childhood, it remains one of my favorites of their singles to date.

Their second number one came courtesy of Jay Booker’s masterpiece “Sunday In The South,” which is my favorite thing Shenandoah has ever committed to record. The song is a day—in the life of the southern US on a sacred Sunday, bringing alive the traditions of going to church, enjoying family dinners, and getting one’s haircut. While the track retains a bit of laundry-list tactics, it succeeds on its sincerity, Marty Raybon’s impeccable lead vocal, and the flawless traditional production that weaves gorgeous ribbons of harmonica throughout.

The more contemporary “Two Dozen Roses,” co-written by Byrne with Mac McAnally, finished off the band’s banner 1989, becoming their third #1 hit. Another excellent song, “Two Dozen Roses” contains everything I love about country music – twang (both vocally and from guitars), a killer chorus, and an effortless vibe that seems easy to pull off, but really isn’t. “Two Dozen Roses” is just a great, great song all around.

The album’s final single, “See If I Care,” bookends the album with a track similar in nature to “She Doesn’t Cry Anymore.” That isn’t a complement, though, as the song retains the former’s somewhat listless production and vocal stylings and feels almost like a regression from the excellence of the band’s three previous singles. The track justifiably peaked at #6.

Like the blander singles, the title track has an adult cotemporary vibe that’s somewhat unbecoming. Raybon doesn’t do that great a job singing it either, which is a shame. An on-point vocal from him could’ve elevated this tale of regret, but instead we’re left with a song that’s just bland. “Changes” is more interesting thanks to its cadence, which allows entry into the song, but Raybon’s delivery could once again use a little zap of energy.

McAnally, who’s one of my favorite songwriters of all-time, wrote “She’s All I Got Goin’” solo. Raybon gives an exquisite vocal performance and the production is a pure delight, no matter how retro it sounds to today’s ears. The track should’ve been the finale single, instead of “See If I Care.” Also good is “Hard Country” although the harmonies from the other band members on the chorus just sound strange.

It’s easy to see why The Road Not Taken was Shenandoah’s breakthrough album. A strong collection of songs and Raybon’s indelible voice help raise the record above the average radio faire. It’s also a testament to all involved that two of the projects biggest hits, “The Church on Cumberland Road” and “Two Dozen Roses” have go on to become classics, with Rascal Flatts covering the former on occasion. Gary LeVox is nowhere near the astute vocalist that Raybon is, but they do a surprisingly decent job.

It’s hard to believe the CD is 25 years old, but it sounds nearly as good today as it did when it was released all those years ago.

Grade: A 

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Classic Rewind: Marty Raybon – ‘Mama Knows’

Marty covers his first top 5 hit with Shenandoah:

Spotlight Artist: Marty Raybon and Shenandoah

marty raybonMarty Raybon was born in Greenville, Alabama, on 8 December 1959. He grew up playing bluegrass in a family band. In his 20s he moved to Muscle Shoals in the north of the state, where he founded a band with Ralph Ezell on bass guitar, Stan Thorn on keyboards, Jim Seales on lead guitar, and Mike McGuire on drums. The group, known originally as the MGM Band after the club where they had a regular gig, recorded a demo which attracted the interest of CBS Records, who picked them up and also gave them the name Shenandoah. They had also briefly used the name Diamond Rio, although they had no connection with the successful country group of that name.

Their self-titled debut album was released in 1987, but was only modestly successful, and is now very hard to obtain. However, it did provide their first top 30 country hit, ‘Stop The Rain’. The label had faith in the band, and their second album The Road Not Taken realised those hopes, taking them to the top of the charts. Less traditional than some of their peers, their music balanced radio friendly gloss with Mary Raybon’s soulful voice and allied to high quality material helped them to become among the brightest stars of the late 80s/early 90s.

Shenandoah never won as many awards as their talent may have dictated. The band was named the Academy of Country Music Vocal Group of the Year in 1990, and they won CMA and Grammy awards for their collaboration with Alison Krauss, ‘Somewhere In The Vicinity Of The Heart’.

Soon afterwards, however, they ran into trouble when several unknown bands sued them for use of the name Shenandoah. The costs of fighting these claims led the band into bankruptcy and forced them to leave Columbia in 1992.

They had a new start on RCA, and enjoyed further commercial success, before a further move to Capitol imprint Liberty Records in 1994. However, Marty Raybon appears to have been getting restless, and in 1995 recorded his first solo album (a self-titled gospel one) as a side project. Original band members Ezell and Thorn also left around this time. The band’s final album featuring Marty Raybon was a Christmas one.

Soon after this, Marty left Shenandoah for good. He teamed up with his brother Tim to form the duo the Raybon Brothers, and they had a hit single with the sentimental ‘Butterfly Kisses’ in 1997. It sold well but received mediocre airplay, and the brothers disbanded.

Meanwhile, Marty returned to his first musical love, bluegrass, and from 2000 onwards has recorded a succession of fine bluegrass albums. These days he is signed to Rural Rhythm Records.

It was always Marty Raybon’s voice which made Shenandoah. Indeed, they continue to tour without him, with a succession of new lead singers, but it was never the same without his smoky-voiced lead.

Through February we will be exploring Marty’s work with Shenandoah and solo.

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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Occasional Hope’s Top Albums of 2012

It’s not been a bad year for country music – as long as you ignore the charts and mainstream country radio. My #1 album of the year was released on a major label but with no singles success, and most of my other selections came from independent labels, although some of the names will be familiar. Just missing the cut were, among others, albums from Joey + Rory (some delicious moments but more hit and miss than their previous efforts), Terri Clark’s classic covers, the always reliable Alan Jackson, Kathy Mattea, and current star Dierks Bentley.

For full reviews, and purchase details, click on the links in the album title and artist name respectively.

10. Alive At Brushy Mountain PenitentiaryMark Collie

The live prison album was recorded in 2001, but only escaped the vaults of MCA this year. It was worth the wait, with an energetic set of suitably themed mainly original songs.

Best tracks: ‘I Could’ve Gone Right’, ‘Rose Covered Garden’, ‘Maybe Mexico’, ‘On The Day I Die‘.

marty raybon9. Southern Roots And Branches: Yesterday and TodayMarty Raybon

Former Shenandoah lead singer Marty Raybon released a pair of albums this year. This, the secular one of the pair, was the better, with Marty’s smoky voice sounding as good as ever on a bluegrass influenced set including the odd reworking of a few Shenandoah hits.

Best tracks: ‘Long Hard Road’, ‘Big Pain’, ‘Ghost In This House’, ‘Get Up In Jesus’ Name’.

8. Honky Tonk Till I DieEric Strickland and the B Sides

Solidly enjoyable, unpretentious honky-tonk with some great original songs written by the North Carolinian lead singer. It may be obscure, but it’s really good.

Best tracks: ‘Haggard And Hell’, ‘Freedom’, ‘Standing In The Headlights’, ‘Womankind‘.

wesley dennis7. Country EnoughWesley Dennis

An excellent return from one of the best singers who never made it. The former Mercury Records artist has a classic country voice and has written some fine songs for this independent releases.

Best tracks: ‘A Month Of Sundays’, ‘Lady’s Choice’, ‘That Dog Won’t Hunt’, ‘Sun, Surf And The Sand (And My Ties)‘.

6. The Time JumpersThe Time Jumpers

The part-time supergroup featuring Vince Gill and Dawn Sears came up with a delightful confection of country, jazz and western swing for their first studio alum together. The musicianship sparkles and this is a real celebration of the joy of making music.

Best tracks: ‘So Far Apart’, ‘Three Sides To Every Story’, ‘The Woman Of My Dreams’, ‘Someone Had To Teach You’.

gene watson5. Best Of The BestGene Watson

I wasn’t sure whether to include this album in my list but in the end the quality shone through and I had to keep it in. A veteran star who still has the vocal goods to shame most of his younger, more commercially successful rivals, Gene Watson has chosen to revisit some of his best-loved recordings for this release. I would really have preferred new material from him, but this is just a lovely listening experience.

Best tracks: ‘Farewell Party’, ‘What She Don’t Know Won’t Hurt Her’, ‘Nothing Sure Looked Good On You’, ‘Between This Time And The Next Time’.

4. Pourin’ Whiskey On PainTim Culpepper

The unknown newcomer gave me my most pleasant surprise this year with his traditional sound and some excellent songs.

Best tracks: ‘One More For The Road’, ‘When Misery Finds Company’, ‘Pourin’ Whiskey On Pain’, ‘Toss And Turn’.

jason eady3. AM Country HeavenJason Eady

I called this a “low-key delight” when I reviewed it earlier this year, and my judgment stands. This mature thoughtful record has no weak spots at all. Patty Loveless duetting on one track is an unexpected bonus.

Best tracks (though everything is worth hearing): ‘AM Country Heaven’, ‘Man On A Mountain’ (with Patty Loveless), ‘Water Into Wine’, ‘Old Guitar And Me’.

2. Too Much Ain’t EnoughClinton Gregory

Sweet voiced singer/fiddler Clinton Gregory is back after years of silence with a lovely set of mainly sad songs.

Best tracks: ‘Too Much Ain’t Enough’, ‘Too Country For Nashville’, ‘Has Love Taken Its Toll?’, ‘Chase Away The Lonely’.

jamey johnson21. Living For A Song: A Tribute To Hank CochranJamey Johnson

It was obvious as soon as I listened to this album that it was going to be this year’s highlight. Songs by one of the greatest country songwriters ever, performed by Jamey Johnson and some of his friends including legends like Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Ray Price and Emmylou Harris, and more recent stars like Lee Ann Womack, Ronnie Dunn and George Strait. From the exquisite opening notes of ‘Make The World Go Away’, with Alison Krauss’s angelically sweet counterpoint to Jamey’s gruff tenderness, every single song here is a gem, and almost every track is excellent. This really is an outstanding album.

Best tracks: hard to pin down, but if I must then ‘Would These Arms Be In Your Way’ solo; ‘Make The World Go Away’ with Alison Krauss; ‘You Wouldn’t Know Love’ with Ray Price; and ‘Don’t Touch Me’ with Emmylou Harris.

Album Review: Musicians Against Childhood Cancer – ‘Life Goes On’

Musicians Against Childhood Cancer is the umbrella name for an annual charity concert by some of the best current bluegrass musicians. In 2006 a compilation of tracks recorded at the concert over the years was released in aid of St Jude’s Hospital, and this sequel contains performances from more recent years. The music was all recorded live but the excellent mixing would not be out of place in a studio set. The musicianship is without exception superb, as one might expect, and this is a fine bluegrass sampler in its own right, with a range of subject matter. The two CD-set includes a generous 39 tracks.

The outstanding track as far as I’m concerned is Bradley Walker’s cover of ‘Revelation’, a somber Bobby Braddock vision of the Second Coming which was originally recorded by Waylon Jennings and more recently served as the title track of an album by Joe Nichols. Walker’s superb 2006 debut album Highway Of Dreams has been far too long waiting for a follow up and it is good to hear him again. He is accompanied by a simple acoustic guitar backing allowing the bleakness of the song to take center stage.

I’m a fan of the compelling sibling harmony of the Gibson Brothers, and they contribute the fascinating ‘Ragged Man’, a tale of bitter sibling rivalry. The brother who is reduced to homeless poverty while the brother once preferred by their mother now rolls in riches, rails against “that golden boy” and warns him to “watch his back”. I’m also a big fan of Brandon Rickman’s soulful voice, and he teams up with bandmates from the Lonesome River band for a beautifully judged reading of the traditional ‘Rain And Snow’. Later the Lonesome River Band provide one of the best instrumentals on offer, the lively ‘Struttin’ To Ferrum’, which holds the attention all the way through.

Rhonda Vincent sings a simple but lovely, plaintive version of the traditional ‘The Water Is Wide’. She also sings harmony on Kenny and Amanda Smith’s take on gospel classic ‘Shouting Time In Heaven’. Marty Raybon is excellent on the gloomy Harlan Howard song ‘The Water So Cold’ (once recorded by country star Stonewall Jackson), which sounds made for bluegrass. Read more of this post

Album Review: Marty Raybon – ‘Southern Roots & Branches (Yesterday & Today)’

Barely weeks after his last album release, the enjoyable religious record Hand To The Plow, ex-Shenandoah singer Marty Raybon has come up with a mainly secular bluegrass-based effort which is even better than the latter.  He produced it himself and has done a fine job.  A variety of pickers were used, with an average of four players of any given instrument across the album (but no detailed breakdown by track)but the end result is very cohesive, sparklingly performed bluegrass with Marty’s distinctive, warm voice taking center stage.  Marty sounds great again, and the songs are all pretty good, with an overarching theme of the past.

A nice cover of the Rodney Crowell-penned Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s nostalgic hit ‘Long Hard Road (Sharecropper’s Dream)’, with particularly pleasing fiddle, is a highlight, and Marty is entirely convincing singing of a childhood in poverty but a happy one.

The religious focus is not completely abandoned.  Marty actually co-wrote the joyfully urgent gospel of ‘Get Up In Jesus’ Name’, which Lee Ann Womack recorded on her debut album in the 90s, and here he gives his own reading, which is very good (although I would still just give the edge to the earlier recording).  An absolutely beautifully sung close-harmony ballad, ‘Beulah Land’ is another religious number, and there is an enjoyable cover of the bright mid-tempo ‘Prayer Bells Of Heaven’, written by bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin and Buck White (member of the Whites and father in law of Ricky Skaggs).

Bluegrass heritage gets several nods with interesting revivals of generally lesser-known songs.  Bill Monroe’s ‘Rocky Road Blues’ rhythmically melds blues and bluegrass, while ‘White House Blues’, another Monroe song, taken at a frenetic pace, takes on a political theme – but neither a contemporary one nor a controversial one.  It wasn’t even contemporary when Monroe recorded it in 1954, as it deals with the 1901 assassination of President William McKinley and his replacement in the White House by Theodore Roosevelt.  Lyrically, it seems an odd choice to revive, but musically it sounds very good.  ‘Down The Road’ is a Flatt & Scruggs song which is bouncily enjoyable, and Jimmy Martin’s vivacious up-tempo ‘Home Run Man’ rather engagingly uses baseball as the metaphor for a man courting his love interest.

Marty also pays heed to his personal musical heritage by redoing a couple of Shenandoah hits.  The melodic ‘Ghost in This House’ is lovely, and ‘Next To You, Next To Me’ is also well done, but both are probably inessential if you have the original recordings.

If there is an emphasis on ‘yesterday’, the ‘today’ of the album’s sub-title is represented by a couple of new songs.  The plaintive mid-tempo ‘Big Pain’ is an excellent new song written by Marty with Billy Droze and John Fountain.  It bemoans a lost love, causing a pain which hurts so much more than physical injuries.  ‘Dirt Road Heartache’, a mid-tempo heartbreak bluegrass song written by Melissa Peirce and Jerry Salley, is also new and very good.

I am slightly puzzled as to why these two albums have been released quite so close together (and both on Rural Rhythm imprints), yet not quite simultaneously, as there must be a risk that one or the other will get overlooked.  But the music on this second album is flawless, and the song selection makes its potential market wider than its companion.  It really is well worth hearing if you like Marty’s singing, or bluegrass in general.

Grade: A

Album Review: Marty Raybon – ‘Hand To The Plow’

Marty Raybon, best known as the lead singer of 90s hitmakers Shenandoah, has most recently been quietly releasing bluegrass and bluegrass gospel records, the best of which is 2006’s When The Sand Runs Out. Now he has signed to the excellent Rural Rhythm Records’s Christian music subsidiary, and his debut for the label has a Christian country sound.

The outstanding track is a fabulously soulful and passionate gospel quartet on the traditional ‘Workin’ On A Building’ which may be my favorite version of the song. Marty is joined by Trace Adkins, Jimmy Fortune of the Statler Brothers and T Graham Brown on vocals, all sounding fantastic, and the instrumental arrangement is superb too. I understand a video has been filmed for this.

‘When He Rains, It Pours’ and ‘You’ve Got To Move’ are entertaining uptempo gospel numbers co-written by Marty, the Bible-based former with Mike Curtis and Mark Narmore with handclaps and Hammond organ strains providing a churchy sound, the latter with Barry Hutchens. Marty wrote the emotional ‘Walking With God At A Guilty Distance’ with Gerald Crabb, leader of Southern Gospel family band the Crabbs. It’s a rather good song with an attractive melody, about a man sitting in a church pew conscious of his sins and recognising his need to surrender to God. The mid-tempo ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This’, a solo Marty Raybon composition with another pretty tune, is a pensive reflection on salvation, which is also pretty good.

‘He’s Still My Little Man (Matty’s Song)’ is a very personal and rather touching ode to Marty’s soldier son, which is repeated from his last secular album 2010’s At His Best:

I guess I’m not too old to have a hero of my own
And I’m proud to say that tall was not the only way he’d grown

The other songs are a bit lackluster in comparison, but Marty’s passionate soulful vocals and velvety tone make them sound better than they otherwise would. In fact, the whole record sounds good, with generally tasteful arrangements and production from Mark L Carman. Marty’s brother Tim, who was a bandmate in Shenandoah and his partner in the short-lived duo the Raybon Brothers, sings backing vocals.

Opener ‘I’ve Seen What He Can Do’ pays tribute to the testimony of the natural world to the glory of God, set around a bedtime conversation with a child, and sung with palpable conviction. Natural beauty is also referred to in ‘He’s Still Doing Miracles Today’, although it tries to cover too much ground by also focussing on how sinners’ lives are turned around, and (less successfully) illnesses healed. ‘You Get Me’ is written by Neil Thrasher and Wendell Mobley (embarrassingly, both have their names misspelt in the liner notes) and is a beautifully sung love letter to God with a CCR feel. ‘Bright New Morning’ is a ballad with a pretty melody, written by Barry Hutchens.

Religious records aren’t for everyone, but this is a pretty good one with a pleasingly melodic sound. Fans of Marty’s voice might like to check it out.

Grade: B+

10 things I hate about CD liner notes

The CD may be a dying format, but it’s still my personal preferred way to buy music. Partly that’s because I like having proper printed liner notes to refer to and keep physically with the music they refer to. But I often have cause to complain. Here are my top ten peeves with unsatisfactory liner notes:

10. Songs not listed in the correct order (most recently I found this on Marty Raybon’s religious album from 2008). This is deeply confusing when you’re listening for the first time and aren’t yet familiar with the material. You wonder why a song has the apparently dissasociated title it appears to, before you realize they’ve had a last minute change in the sequencing, after the liner notes were printed. Not a frequent error, but really annoying when it happens. It’s more common for the songs to be listed in order, but only if you unfold the paper in just the right way.

9. Print too small to read without a magnifying glass or a torch. What’s the point of printing it if no-one can read it?

8. Text and background in a color combination too faint/dark to read ever.

7. Mis-spelling songwriters’ or musicians’ names. This looks embarrassingly amateur as well as being disrespectful to the person in question. On Brandon Rickman’s very good album last year, for instance, fiddle player Jenee Fleenor’s name was spelt correctly twice and incorrectly three times. Misspelt sogwriters’ names are even more common.

6. Mis-spelt words on printed song lyrics or in commentary. There is no excuse for this on a high-budget release. If the person responsible for putting the notes together can’t spell, employ a proofreader.

5. No lyrics at all.

4. No songwriter credits – not common these days, but some low-budget releases do omit them; this is an economy too far for me. I want to know who wrote the songs.

3. Your liner notes are printed on a glossy, multi-page brochure with room for dozens of fetching pictures of the artist in various outfits, holding instruments, posing with pets, etc, but somehow they still have no room for the lyrics. (Okay, I like the odd picture of a dog. I’d stil rather have the lyrics, though.)

2. You can’t be bothered to print the lyrics in the liner notes, but tell buyers you can see them on the label or artist website. Websites are transitory. I hope to still be listening to your album in 10, 20 or more years’ time: is your website still going to be there?

1. A note saying lyrics (or credits) are available on the label website, when they aren’t, at least when the album is released (Anita Cochran’s Serenity and Randy Kohrs’ Quicksand are recent guilty parties here). This is extremely frustrating.

What are your pet peeves?

Year In Review: Occasional Hope’s Top Ten Albums of 2009

It hasn’t been a great year for mainstream releases, and none of my top 10 appeared on one of the major labels. There have been some fine albums released across the genre, although this year’s list is more bluegrass-oriented than would have been the case in years past.

10. Benefit Of Doubt – Pam Gadd
A joyful mixture of acoustic country and bluegrass, with duets with Dolly Parton and Marty Raybon. I reviewed it in March, and you can listen to the album on last.fm.

9. 30 Something And Single – Tammy Cochran
This album strikes an almost-perfect balance between contemporary and traditional country, with a sense of humor to boot. I reviewed it in the summer, and you can listen to clips and buy the album at CDBaby.

8. Bigger Hands – John Anderson
John was our Spotlight Artist in July, and his new album (which I reviewed then) found him in great voice with some interesting material, including the apocalyptic title track, and Anderson’s magisterial version of his co-write with John Rich, ‘Shuttin’ Detroit Down’.

7. Mister Purified Country – Shane Worley
There is still great traditional country music being made, and this fine independent CD in the Merle Haggard tradition is an excellent example -with some incisive criticism of the mainstream in the title track as an added bonus. I reviewed it in September, and you can listen to clips and buy the album at CDBaby.

6. When The Money’s All Gone – Jason Eady
Poetic singer-songwriter Jason Eady is more on the Americana side of things, with country, folk and blues elements. This album is full of interesting material, and repays close listening. I reviewed it in September, and you can listen to lips and buy at Amazon.

5. I’ll Take The Fifth – Dallas Wayne
With a voice as distinctive as John Anderson’s, I acclaimed this as my favorite of the year to date when I reviewed it back in March, and it hasn’t slipped that far down the rankings in the ensuing nine months. Buy it here.

4. The Reason That I Sing – Kim Williams
This delightful record is the one I’ve found myself singing along to more than any other this year. Songwriter Kim isn’t technically a great vocalist, but that really doesn’t matter, as he brings a warmth and honesty to his songs. I reviewed it in August, and you can now listen to it on last.fm.

3. Hillbilly Goddess – Alecia Nugent
Alecia has been recording for some years, but it was with this excellent album that she came of age artistically. Very much in the bluegrass/country zone, the youngest of the artists in my top 10 proved herself as a first-rate vocalist with some great material. I reviewed it in May, and you can hear clips and buy at Amazon.

2. Mountain Soul II – Patty Loveless
The only album on my top 10 list I didn’t review, but Razor X rightly called it a triumph of artistry in his review. Sometimes raw-sounding, always authentic and impressive, Patty cemented her credentials as one of the finest singers in country music in her sequel to her first bluegrass-inspired album Mountain Soul. My favorite tracks are the revival of the classic ‘Busted’, with the original coalmining lyrics heard for the first time; Jon Randall’s ‘You Burned The Bridge’; and the new version of ‘Feelings Of Love’. For clips, and to buy it, go to Amazon.

1. Taste Of The Truth – Gene Watson
Honey-voiced Texan Gene is a veteran of the music business, but he is still producing some of the best music out there. This year, in fact, he produced my #1 album, with the lovely Taste Of the Truth. I called it a masterclass in singing country music when I reviewed it in August, and you can hear it for yourself at last.fm.

Album Review – Keith Whitley: A Tribute Album

Keith whitley tributeOne of the problems with making a tribute album is how far the participants are prepared to bring something of themselves to the interpretation, and how far they are so concerned to pay their respects the artist being honored, that the end result is little more than very tasteful, high-class karaoke.

The tribute album produced by BNA, the successor to Keith Whitley’s record label RCA, in 1994, five years after his death, does sometimes fall into that trap, but it makes one or two decisions which mark it out, too. The highly respected Randy Scruggs took on production duties, with Lorrie Morgan as executive producer. Another of those involved was songwriter Byron Hill, who says on his website that the project was the one he enjoyed working on most in his period as A&R director for BNA (1993-1994).

Some of the hottest artists of the mid 90s were recruited for the project, and most of them give respectful versions of some of Keith’s best-known songs, which speak well of their admiration of Keith, but fall a little flat when compared to the originals. Alan Jackson takes on ‘Don’t Close Your Eyes’; Tracy Lawrence tries ‘I’m Over You’; Joe Diffie sings ‘I’m No Stranger To the Rain’; and Mark Chesnutt tackles ‘I Never Go Around Mirrors’. They are all fine singers in their own right, and their versions of Keith’s hits are pleasant enough to listen to, but the overriding adjective which comes to mind while listening is ‘nice’. They lack something of the passion Keith brought to them, and perhaps this is because they were thinking of the act of tribute they were paying rather than the song itself. I suspect that if any one of these gentlemen had independently decided to record the song on one of his own albums, it would have had a different approach and more life. I think what is missing is inspiration.

Diamond Rio are a little more successful bringing something new to their track, ‘Ten Feet Away’, one of the better songs on LA To Miami. This is partly because the natural advantage of being a harmony-based band automatically brings a new feel to a song popularised by a solo singer, and partly because the new version has better production. Also very pleasing and not overawed by the task is the duet by Keith’s old friend Ricky Skaggs with Marty Raybon, lead singer of Shenandoah, on ‘All I Ever Loved Was You’, the least familiar of all the covers. This traditional-sounding bluegrass waltz was written by Ricky’s mother Dorothy Skaggs, and originally recorded by Keith and Ricky as precociously talented teenagers on their 1971 set Second Generation Bluegrass.

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Album Review: Pam Gadd – ‘Benefit Of Doubt’

pamgadd1I like a little bluegrass mixed in with the straight country in my musical diet, and I was pleased to hear that Pam Gadd was releasing another album.  I first came across Pam back in 1990, when she was the more prominent of the two lead singers of Wild Rose, a bluegrass-infused all-female country band who released three albums on Universal and Capitol Records, and received a Grammy instrumental nomination.  She is not as productive as some artists, having recorded just two previous solo efforts, the excellent The Road Home on Vanguard in 1997, and the not-quite-as-good The Time Of Our Lives in 2001.  Musically, Pam falls in the hinterland where acoustic country overlaps with bluegrass.  Her voice is strong and distinctive with characterful inflections.

Although there are no instrumental tracks, there is some excellent acoustic playing throughout, which complements the material rather than overwhelming it.  Pam herself plays banjo, joined by former Wild Rose bandmate Wanda Vick on dobro, Vick’s husband Mark Burchfield on bass (except on ‘Farewell Wagon Master’), Bryan Sutton on guitar, Andy Leftwich on fiddle and mandolin, and Aubrey Haynie on mandolin.

The tone for the album is set with the opening track, a lively and beautifully played cover of bluegrass great Jimmy Martin’s ‘Hold Whatcha Got’, a song which will be more familiar to country fans as the song which lent the title to Ricky Skaggs’s late 80s album Comin’ Home To Stay.

Pam refers back to previous aspects of her career in a number of ways on Benefit Of Doubt.  The harmony singers include Dale Ann Bradley, with whom Pam worked in the New Coon Creek Girls, another all-female group, but this time a straight bluegrass one.  Wild Rose’s drummer Nancy Given Gardner, also sings harmony co-produces the album with Pam, although she only plays tambourine on one track (‘Applejack’), as there is no room for drums on the record.  Two of the songs Wild Rose recorded are given a new lease of life, namely ‘Home Sweet Highway’, which was one of the group’s better songs, and ‘Hit The Highway’.  I’m not a big fan of repeating songs previously recorded by the same artist, but reviving two songs after 20 years, on an album with 14 tracks is not unacceptable.  Another song, ‘Wrong Wrong Wrong’, was apparently recorded by the group but never released; it’s a catchy, medium-up-tempo number with a funky feel, which would have suited the Wild Rose vibe.

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