My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Mary Chapin Carpenter

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Favorite Singles of 2016

My favorite singles of the year run the gamut from commercial to obscure and everything in between. Keep reading for career moments from Tim McGraw and Reba McEntire to shining examples of why Lori McKenna and Brandy Clark are more than expert songwriters.

unknown10. Chris Young Feat Cassadee Pope – ‘Think Of You’

Young deserves credit for searching within his own genre for a female collaborator. He deserves praise for co-writing a song that doesn’t use Pope as
window dressing, but rather as a means of furthering the story. This tale of a once-great couple isn’t revelatory, but it’s catchy as hell.

 9. William Michael Morgan – ‘Missing’

The influence George Strait said was absent from country radio came roaring back to life with William Michael Morgan’s follow-up to “I Met A Girl.” “Missing” is an astonishing single in that it makes little compromise to the modern landscape. Warner Bros deserves credit for releasing something this country to radio. Time will tell if they respond favorably.

 500x5008. Kelsey Waldon – ‘All By Myself’

Among its many achievements, a few of which you’ll see highlighted further down, 2016 introduced Kelsey Waldon, a killer traditionalist, to the masses. “All By Myself” is a stern warning to fakers, a biting assessment of authenticity and a woman’s empowerment anthem for the current generation. 

7. Mary Chapin Carpenter – ‘Something Tamed, Something Wild’

The most common criticism I’ve heard about Mary Chapin Carpenter’s more recent works is she ‘lacks a pulse.’ It may be true to an extent, but I’m not hearing it here. This introspective examination of existential curiosity is one of her finest in recent memory. The parent album it comes from is her best in more than a decade.

6. Time Jumpers – ‘Kid Sister’

Vince Gill’s tribute to Dawn Sears is both personal and touching.

record-year-cover5. Eric Church – ‘Record Year’

Not since “The Song Remembers When” has a song about songs been this clever or powerful. Church proves he’s a master once again, name checking legends at every turn and laying out a jovial tale of heartbreak both ear catching and believable. “Record Year” is undoubtedly the best mainstream single of the year.

 4. Lori McKenna – ‘Wreck You’

The lead single from The Bird and the Rifle is this masterful look at sabotage in which the woman is admitting fault, with brutal candor – “Something between us changed, I’m not sure if its you or me But lately all I do seems to wreck you.”

unspecified-13. Tim McGraw – ‘How I’ll Always Be’

2016 found Tim McGraw in an artistic renaissance, with his strongest back-to-back singles in twenty years. He succeeded in a climate unfavorable to substance without conceding to modern pressures. “Humble & Kind” is the better lyric. But “How I’ll Always Be” shines melodically. Not since “Just To See You Smile” has McGraw sounded this good on record. 

2. Brandy Clark – ‘Love Can Go To Hell’

The genius is in the delivery. Brandy Clark sings this so deadpan, it’s easy to miss the dark humor underneath the surface. I totally missed it, but when it hit me, I never heard this the same way again.

reba-1024x10241. Reba McEntire – ‘Just Like Them Horses’

Tim McGraw wasn’t the only one in the throws of an artistic reawaking in 2016. This tale of a dying man giving positive reassurance to the loved one he’s leaving behind may’ve been too much for radio to bare, the unique take on ‘if you love me, let me go’ too smart for the masses.

Reba eulogized her father with this tune before committing it to record, which only solidified the emotional undertones she brought forth in her performance, her strongest vocal since “If I Had Only Known” twenty-five years ago. “Just Like Them Horses” is just that good, a bone-chilling highlight from a career with far too many to count.

Classic Rewind: Mary Chapin Carpenter – ‘Something Of A Dreamer’

Album Review: Mary Chapin Carpenter – ‘The Things That We Are Made Of’

marychapincarpenter_cvr_sq-64e4729aa565e3a4b0d11d91ba98a2f2477f41a6-s300-c85Mary Chapin Carpenter wasn’t sure who would be interested in producing her fifteenth album, The Things That We Are Made Of, as she rarely keeps up with current trends. She met with Dave Cobb at the suggestion of her publicist and, although no musical ideas were exchanged, the pair agreed to work together. Cobb’s blind faith has resulted in Carpenter’s most interesting album in more than a decade.

The Things That We Are Made Of explores the universal truth of self, the good and bad ingredients that make us who we are as people. Carpenter begins by looking at the two sides of life and how they live congruently with one another on the gorgeous “Something Tamed Something Wild.” She follows with “The Middle Ages,” a brilliant manifesto on aging where she ponders the clarity of the past and the murkiness of the future.

She grounds those feelings in reality on the contemplative “What Does It Mean to Travel” by examining the concept of space and the transformative nature of place. Trekking often means passing through those in between places as she does with “Livingston,” a reflection on the loneliness of the journey, which she did while traversing a long stretch of highway between Montana and Denver.

Carpenter returns to the human condition on “Map of My Heart,” a jaunty exportation of resiliency. There are cracks in her façade on “Oh Rosetta,” a conversation drenched in the self-doubt that arises when we question everything, wondering what it’s all for. We learn on “Deep, Deep Down Heart” that those questions don’t have answers because at our core, human beings are flawed. I found it freeing when I realized we’ll never ‘know it all.’ Life is a constant learning process with mistakes put before us as our greatest teachable moments.

The haunting “Hand on my Back” arises from knowing human connection is the grounding force that gives us permission to stop searching. It’s the bonds with other people that help us solidify our sense of place, of belonging, the comfort in knowing we’re not alone. It’s never a permanent fix, though, as we need the restlessness (in some fashion) to keep growing.

These same themes creep up again on “The Blue Distance,” a song inspired by Icelandic writer Roni Horn. Carpenter says that Horn describes the universe as ‘blue at it’s edges and it’s depths … the color of that distance is the color of emotion, the color of solitude and desire … the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go …’ I couldn’t extract the way “The Blue Distance” builds upon “Hand on my Back” in terms of the vital need for human interaction in our lives, but I do understand where she’s coming from conceptually.

There’s venerability at the core of “Note On A Windshield” that gives the song a purpose. We’d like to believe we’re all that person brave enough to go out on a limb, fight the fear of exposure, and take the risk. The song is about choosing a life with even the smallest intent, making sure you still have that something to believe in, the thing giving your days meaning.

The final cut, the title track, is a classic Carpenter ballad – slow and steady with her voice barely quivering above a whisper. It’s her signature technique, an art she’s perfected for more than thirty years. “The Things That We Are Made Of,” in Carpenter’s eyes, is the themes of the record. She brings the album full circle, proving that life is ever changing. We may figure some things out, but they’re not meant to stay that way forever.

The Things That We Are Made Of is a fully formed perfectly sequenced whole being best enjoyed in one sitting. It’s a journey worth embarking on, as Carpenter dispenses universal truths from a place of wisdom, as a woman who’s lived a life rich with experience. This isn’t a return to her country form, nor is it without dense production values overwhelming the second half. But it is Carpenter’s most exquisite piece of original work in more than a decade. She has something to say and has found an articulate way of expressing it. I certainly cannot fault her for that.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Wynonna – ‘Tell Me Why’

tell me whyWynonna’s second solo album was released in May 1993,produced as before by Tony Brown. It did not sell as well as its predecessor, but was still certified platinum, and produced five top 10 hits.

The first single, the title track, was a mid-tempo Karla Bonoff song with a glossy contemporary country-rock feel, and reached #3 on Billboard. This performance was matched by its successor, the more delicate and sophisticated ‘Only Love. Written by Roger Murrah and Marcus Hummon, it doesn’t sound particularly country now, but it featured a strong vocal performance.

My favorite track by far, ‘Is It Over Yet’, is a solemn piano-led ballad with a sensitive string arrangement which allows Wynonna’s emotion-filled voice to shine on a song about the pain of a breakup. It peaked at #7.

The most successful single, ‘Rock Bottom’, only just missed the top of the charts. It was written by the songwriters behind Southern Rockers the Atlanta Rhythm Section, and has a bluesy rock groove which suits Wynonna’s confident growl, although it’s not really my favorite style. The final single, Mary Chapin Carpenter’s ‘Girls With Guitars’, is a strong country rock number celebrating female musicians by telling the story of one young woman’s progress from high school to adult success, defeating the expectations of sexist listeners along the way. Naomi Judd and Lyle Lovett contribute backing vocals on the song.

Jesse Winchester’s ‘Let’s Make A Baby King’ is a Christmas song which New Grass Revival had recorded a few years earlier in more bluegrassy style, and which Wynonna gave a black gospel makeover. While Wynonna’s version was not formally released as a single, it gained some airplay at Christmas. ‘Just Like New’ is another memorable Winchester song, a bluesy story about a car once owned by Elvis. Naomi Judd’s ‘That Was Yesterday’ is performed as a slowed down blues number.

‘Father Sun’ was written by Sheryl Crow, about to make her own breakthrough as a rock singer-songwriter, and has a rather elusive lyric. The production funnels Wynonna’s vocal through an echoey effect which wastes her greatest asset, her powerful voice, and more gospel style backing vocals swamp her at the end.

She does show her more subtle interpretative side with a cover of ‘I Just Drove By’, written and originally recorded by Kimmie Rhodes. This charming song is about sweet memories of childhood innocence, and Wynonna sings it beautifully.

While it is a long way from traditional, and a purist might challenge its country credentials on any level, Wynonna was able to take her place in the diverse sounds of 1990s country music. It’s an accomplished record in its own right, genre considerations aside, but that does make it tough to assign a grade to on a country blog.

Grade: B

Album Review: Nancy Beaudette – ‘South Branch Road’

CD400_outA virtue of the independent music scene is the joy in discovering artists for which the act of creating music is a deeply personal art. Nancy Beaudette, who hails from Cornwall, Ontario, but has made a name for herself in Central Massachusetts, is one such singer-songwriter. With South Branch Road, her eighth release, Beaudette’s homespun tales are the most fully realized of her nearly three-decade career.

The gorgeous title track, where the gentle strums of an acoustic guitar frame Beaudette’s elegant ode to her childhood, is a perfect example:

I fell in love with tar and stone

And a county lined with maple and oak

In sixty-one with three kids in tow

Mom and dad bought a place there and made it home

I spent my summers on a steel blue bike

Weaving shoulder to shoulder like wind in a kite

Dreaming big and reaching high

Riding further and further out on my own

The image of a girl and her bike surfaces again on “Ride On,” a wispy ballad chronicling a daughter’s relationship with her father. The track, co-written by Beaudette, Kerry Chater, and Lynn Gillespie Chater, succeeds on the fact it doesn’t end with the father’s death, like these songs almost always do. The journey of life surfaces again on “Can’t Hold Back,” a mid-tempo ballad co-written with Rick Lang. The track beautifully employs a nature metaphor that Beaudette and Lang keep fresh and exciting with their clever lyric.

Beaudette solely penned the masterfully constructed “Something Tells Me,” the devastating centerpiece of South Branch Road. An unpredictable twist follows a story that sits in an air of mystery until the final verse belts you square in the gut. I haven’t felt this much emotion towards a song in years, probably because the woman in the song and my mom are the same age.

Beaudette clearly isn’t a novice, as she smartly surrounds “Something Tells Me,” the most affecting number on South Branch Road, with joyous moments of levity. These moments are the heart and soul of the record, showcasing Beaudette’s everywoman nature and her ability to draw you in with her aptitude for turning narratives into conversations, as though you were just casually catching up over a cup of coffee.

“’Till The Tomatoes Ripen” takes me back to my childhood and my grandfather’s tradition of planting an insanely large garden of the titular vegetable. I fondly remember the pleasure of going through the rows and picking the red ones by the basketful. Beaudette’s lyric conveys the much simpler notion of planting the garden itself and the contented happiness that comes from watching it grow. The peaceful oceanfront setting in which she places said garden only increases the joy abounding from the proceedings.

The bonds of newly minted friendship take center ice on “Shoot to Score,” a hockey-themed uptempo number that values the importance of dream visualization. Cornwall is a hockey city, so Beaudette is right-at-home name-checking the likes of Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky. The lyric turns wonderfully personal when Beaudette recounts her own memories with the sport:

I loved to play but I wasn’t great

An’ I showed up with my figure skates

And my first step out onto the ice

And I fell flat on my face

“End of Line” is the purest country song on South Branch Road. Banjo and fiddle abound on a story about a couple, their love of watching trains, and the moment their relationship has to end. The rollicking tune feels almost like a prelude to “Between Your Heart and Mine,” a mournful ballad about a woman, a lost love, and a stroll across the Brooklyn Bridge. I can’t remember an instance when such a memorable walk was so delightfully clouded in ambiguity.

“Build It Up” teams Beaudette with Marc Rossi, a Nashville-based songwriter who graduated from high school with my parents. The lyric details a farmhouse fire in the early 20th century and the way lives were altered as a result. The slicker production, which recalls Forget About It era Alison Krauss, is perfectly in service to the downbeat but catchy lyric. Opener “Starlight” harkens back to early 1990s Mary Chapin Carpenter with a gloriously bright production and Beaudette’s high energy vocal.

South Branch Road is extraordinarily layered and nuanced. Channeling her inner Don Williams, Beaudette draws you in with her natural simplicity. Her songwriting gets to the heart of the matter by conveying emotion without bogging down the listener with unnecessarily clunky lyrics. She’s a master storyteller, which in turn has informed her ability to craft lyrical compositions that fully utilize this very rare gift.

Beaudette’s relatability, and the personal connections I’ve found within these songs, drew me in to fully appreciate the magic of South Branch Road; a window into her soul. She’s constructed an album from the inside out, using her own life to give the listener a deeply personal tour of her many winds and roads, reflecting on the lessons learned around each curve and bend. Beaudette is already a bright bulb on the independent music scene but the release of South Branch Road demands that light shine even brighter.

Grade: A+

Week ending 11/22/14: #1 singles this week in country music history

tomthall1_h1954 (Sales): More and More — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1954 (Jukebox): I Don’t Hurt Anymore — Hank Snow (RCA)

1954 (Disc Jockeys): More and More — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1964: I Don’t Care (Just As Long As You Love Me) — Buck Owens (Capitol)

1974: Country Is — Tom T. Hall (Mercury)

1984: Give Me One More Chance — Exile (Epic)

1994: Shut Up And Kiss Me — Mary-Chapin Carpenter (Columbia)

2004: In A Real Love — Phil Vassar (Arista)

2014: Something In The Water — Carrie Underwood (Arista Nashville)

2014 (Airplay): Neon Light — Blake Shelton (Warner Bros.)

Spotlight Artist: Lee Roy Parnell

lee-roy-parnell_2011_13049617483975.pngHe made a name for himself with vocal stylings similar in tone to Ronnie Dunn. But it was the brief mainstream acceptance of his bluesy Texas country sound that cements the legacy of Lee Roy Parnell.

Parnell was born December 21, 1956 in Abilene, Texas but raised on his family’s ranch in Stephenville. His father toured as part of teenage Bob Willis’ traveling medicine shows. Parnell would have his first public performance on Wills’ radio show at six-years-old, and play both drums and guitar in a local band as a young adult. He joined the Austin music scene in 1974, while he was also a member of Kinky Freedman’s Texas Jewboys.

Parnell would work the Austin music scene for more than a decade, playing clubs, sharpening his skills on the slide guitar, and holding down a radio show. He relocated to Nashville in 1987 where he scored a publishing deal, regular gig at the Bluebird Café, and a record contract with Arista Nashville within a two-year span.

His eponymous album came in 1990, along with three singles that failed to crack the top 40. A fourth single, “The Rock,” that led his sophomore set Love Without Mercy, did slightly better peaking at #50. His breakthrough would finally come when upbeat rocker “What Kind of Fool Do You Think I Am” peaked at #2 in 1992. His string of hits continued for the next four years, where he would peak at #2 twice more (with “Tender Moment” in 1993 and “A Little Bit of You” in 1995) and see four more singles hit the top 10.

In addition to his own hit singles, Parnell would come to be known for notable contributions as both a songwriter and musician. He wrote Pirates of the Mississippi’s 1992 top 40 hit “Too Much” as well as Collin Raye’s 1993 top 10 “That’s My Story.”

In 1994, Parnell played slide guitar and appeared in the music video for Mary Chapin Carpenter’s sole chart-topper “Shut Up And Kiss Me.” That same year he formed Jedd Zeppelin, a supergroup consisting of himself, Steve Wariner, and Diamond Rio. They collaborated on a cover of “Working Man Blues” for the multi-artist Mama’s Hungry Eyes tribute album to Merle Haggard.

He scored his final top 15 hit “Givin’ Water to a Drowning Man” in 1996, while recording for Arista imprint Career Records. A nomination for the Best Country Instrumental Grammy came in 1997, and his final Arista album, a greatest hits collection entitled Hits & Highways Ahead was released in 1999.

Two more albums would follow after the turn of the century – Tell The Truth on the Vanguard label in 2001 and Back To The Well on Universal South in 2006. Neither would produce any hit singles. He was also credited for contributing slide guitar to David Lee Murphy’s low charting single “Inspiration” in 2004.

While Parnell has since retired from the music industry, his legacy of hits live on thanks to the fans who remember his contributions to the country music landscape more than twenty years ago. Please enjoy our retrospective as we revisit his discography for the month of September.

Album Review: Beth Nielsen Chapman – ‘UnCovered’

UnCoveredBeth Nielsen Chapman was one of the finest songwriters in Nashville in the 1990s, getting a lot of high-profile cuts (and hits), particularly among female artists. More of a genreless singer-songwriter than a purely country one, she enjoyed several hits herself on Adult Contemporary radio in the 90s. Her writing style nonetheless fitted in well with the diversity of 1990s country radio, with her songs running the gamut from sensitive ballads to commercial pop-country. Here she revisits a number of her songs recorded by country artists, focussing on those she never recorded herself.

My favourite song here is the excellent ‘Five Minutes’, a one-last-chance ultimatum delivered by a wife about to leave. Back in the late 80s this was recorded separately by Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan, becoming a big hit for the latter, and in a nice touch, both women help out on backing vocals on Beth’s version. Her lead vocals are great and the intimate arrangement works perfectly.

I also really enjoyed her version of ‘Nothin’’ I Can Do About It Now’ (Willie Nelson’s last chart-topper). Beth’s version of the Tanya Tucker hit ‘Strong Enough To Bend’ is also attractively done, mixing vulnerability and strength.

She recruits occasional tour partners Gretchen Peters, Suzy Bogguss and Matraca Berg to provide call-and-response backing vocals on ‘Almost Home’ , which she wrote with and for Mary Chapin Carpenter. The sunnily positive mid-tempo ‘Here We Are’ was a #2 country hit for Alabama in 1991. I hadn’t realised Beth wrote this one with Vince Gill, but so it appears. Vince makes an appearance to sing the high harmony on this version. Beth wrote the moody ‘Sweet Love Shine’ with the late Waylon Jennings, and it was originally recorded as a duet between Jennings and Andy Griggs. Jessi Colter and Duane Eddy guest on Beth’s cover.

The pretty good piano led mid-tempo ‘Simple Things’ was an AC hit for pianist Jim Brickman with country artist Rebecca Lynn Howard on vocals, and it could have easily been covered in a mainstream country version. The sensitive Maybe That’s All It Takes’ (a late minor hit for Don Williams) is tastefully performed in an AC style with Darrell Scott on harmony. ‘Pray’ is a beautifully sung contemporary Christian song with an ethereal Celtic arrangement and backing vocals from co-writer Muriel Anderson and Amy Grant.

But while Chapman is a fine songwriter, she has some less stellar copyrights to her credit. I always hated Faith Hill’s monster hit version of ‘This Kiss’, and I don’t care for this one much more. The bluesy ‘Meet Me Halfway’ (written for Bonnie Raitt) is a bit bland. She wrote ‘One In A Million’ for the ill-fated Mindy McCready, and it too is poppy and lacking in depth.

I always enjoy hearing songwriters reveal their own take on songs they have written for other artists, and while this is not particularly country, the arrangements are generally tasteful while Chapman’s rich, warm vocals work well on most of the songs included.

Grade: A-

Album Review – Suzy Bogguss – ‘Give Me Some Wheels’

220px-SuzyBoggussGiveMeSomeWheelsWith all artists there comes a point in time when their music isn’t in step with current commercial trends and therefore banished from country radio. Following a string of successful projects, that fate met Suzy Bogguss. After teaming up with Chet Atkins for the artistically strong but commercially disappointing Simpatico, she took a year off to start a family. In that time, her unique styling was pushed out in favor of more pop leaning acts like Shania Twain, Faith Hill, and Martina McBride. Bogguss changed producers to Trey Bruce and Scott Hendricks for Give Me Some Wheels, released in summer 1996, but that didn’t reverse her sharp commercial decline.

The production on Give Me Some Wheels was far poppier and more decidedly upbeat than anything Bogguss had released to date, and the change in tempo added immensely to the listening experience. The #60 peaking title track, which reteamed Bogguss with her “Hey Cinderella” co-writers Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison, is an excellent uptempo number not too different from “Believe Me (Baby I Lied)” or “Wild Angles” and nice change of pace for Bogguss. Marcus Hummond and Darrell Scott’s “No Way Out” (also covered by Julie Roberts on her 2004 debut) stalled at #53 despite a wonderful uptempo arrangement and confident vocal from Bogguss. Final single “She Said, I Heard,” a Bogguss co-write with Don Schlitz, is another excellent mid-tempo rockin’ number that nicely recalls of that era Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Bogguss keeps the same pace on Tom Shapiro and George Teren’s “Traveling Light,” which I really, really like although the production leans a bit too generic. She steps far out of her musical comfort zone on Trey Bruce and Craig Wiseman’s “Fall,” framing her energetic vocal behind a decidedly popish drum track. The results are pure filler but Bogguss overcomes the track’s lightness with a charisma that’s hard not to be drawn into.

I thoroughly appreciate Bogguss’ efforts in changing up the proceedings on Give Me Some Wheels and not riding on the quiet angelic ballads that won her so much industry attention a few years earlier. Sure it was a calculated attempt at keeping up with current trends but it worked because Bogguss can pull of these kinds of songs very well.

She didn’t abandon her love of ballads completely, however. Bogguss and her husband Doug Crider co-wrote “Far and Away,” possibly the strongest song that wasn’t on her heyday albums, and if it had been a single back then would’ve likely topped the charts. Her conviction is incredible and I love the riffs of steel guitar heard throughout. “Feelin’ Bout You” is another home run as it beautifully blends the simplicity of a ballad with just enough tempo to keep it interesting. I also love “Let’s Get Real,” which is an example of country/rock done right. It leads as a country ballad complete with fiddle and steel but brings in some crashing drums on the chorus to give it oomph. Bogguss doesn’t sound as committed vocally on this track as I would’ve liked, but it’s very good nonetheless. “Live To Love Another Day” is a further example of Bogguss’ ballad sweet spot and a wonderful addition to the album. “Saying Goodbye To A Friend” is quiet and subtle, but it works thanks to Bogguss’ direct poignancy.

It may seem kind of odd to hear Bogguss positioned as a pop/country singer and not the eloquent balladeer we all came to know (and love) on her early to mid 90s recordings. But she pulls it off just like I knew she could. The issue with her early work was the albums got bogged down in a sea of sameness, a factor Bruce and Hendricks nicely rectified on Give Me Some Wheels. I hadn’t heard the album prior to writing this review, but it’s a very pleasant surprise in all accounts and might just be my favorite of all her recordings. If only every singer (I’m looking at you current Hendricks devotee Blake Shelton) could make trend pandering music sound this good.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Mary Chapin Carpenter – ‘I Take My Chances’

Mary Chapin Carpenter performs at the 1994 ACM Awards. Introduction by Reba McEntire.

Album Review: Kacey Musgraves – ‘Same Trailer, Different Park’

imagesA major reason for my disillusionment with modern commercial country music is the lack of the mature adult female prospective that elevated the quality of radio playlists throughout the 1990s. The absence of Matraca Berg and Gretchen Peters songs on major label albums (and the decline in popularity of artists such as Pam Tillis, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kathy Mattea, Patty Loveless, and Trisha Yearwood) has left a noticeable gap, one filled with unsatisfying party anthems and the occasional attempt at a throwback that just never quite quenches the thirst.

Thank goodness for Kacey Musgraves. The 24-year-old former Nashville Star contestant from Golden, TX is the take-no-prisoners rebel country music needs to get out of its funk. Same Trailer, Different Park is the strongest commercial country album I’ve heard in ages, filled with timely songs that say something relevant to the modern world. She has a way of crafting lyrics that touch a nerve without seeming offensive that goes well beyond her years.

Initially I will admit I wasn’t floored by “Merry Go ‘Round” the way that most everyone else was, because I managed to get it lost in the shuffle when it debuted late last year. I now fully see the genius in it – the striking way Musgraves (along with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne) paints a deeply honest portrait of small town life so simply. She also brings those same qualities to her new single “Blowin’ Smoke,” which includes a genius play on words (literally smoking/wasting time) for added effect.

I found that a main commonality in the records I’ve loved in past few years are lyrics containing interesting couplets, and Same Trailer Different Park is no different. The obvious example is scrapped second single “Follow Your Arrow,” which among other things, brings the equality debate firmly to the forefront:

Make lots of noise
And kiss lots of boys
Or kiss lots of girls
If that’s something you’re into
When the straight and narrow
Gets a little too straight
Roll up a joint, or don’t
Just follow your arrow
Wherever it points, yeah
Follow your arrow
Wherever it points

Say what you feel
Love who you love
‘Cause you just get
So many trips ’round the sun
Yeah, you only
Only live once

To me it’s a shame that the country music industry has evolved into a place where such a song can’t be given its due, especially since it’s not so different from such classics as “The Pill” or “The Rubber Room,” and is an anthem for our times. Personally I celebrate her boldness (which in actuality is pretty tame) and quite enjoy both the banjo driven musical arrangement and her uncomplicated twangy vocal. The track’s overall feel good attitude really works for me.

Another favorite line, ‘You sure look pretty in your glass house/You probably think you’re too good to take the trash out’ opens another confident statement piece, “Step Off,” which plays like the typical breakup ballad sans petty revenge. Also slightly atypical is the similar themed “I Miss You,” another love gone wrong song, but this time with the added vulnerability of actually missing the guy she’s broken up with. It’s nice, and a refreshing change of pace, to hear someone still grappling with feelings towards the ex instead of just writing them off in a typical Taylor Swift type scenario. The gently rocking “Back On The Map” goes even a step further and finds Musgraves pleading for a date, telling the men of the world “I’ll do anything that you ask.”

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Album Review – Collin Raye – ‘Can’t Back Down’

RayebackdownCan’t Back Down, Collin Raye’s seventh studio album, came just eight months after Tracks and did nothing to reverse his already declining fortunes. He took on co-producer James Stroud for the project, but that didn’t help matters, and he exited Epic shortly thereafter.

“Ain’t Nobody Gonna Take That From Me” peaked at #43 and it’s an excellent song, evidenced by Joe Nichols cover on 2007’s Real Things. Raye’s version, however, was a bit too poppy, but he gives a pleasant vocal and has some nice fiddle riffs throughout. The breathy religious-tinged ballad “What I Need” failed to chart.

The main problem with the album is the generic nature of the proceedings – Raye and Stroud fail to amass a collection of songs that rise above average, with the song selection failing to be anything terribly memorable let alone hit worthy. Raye spends the project trying to fit in with the early 2000s Nashville crowd, thus spending too much time pandering and not enough time finding great songs.

That being said this isn’t a terrible album, but it isn’t up to Raye’s usual standards. “Gypsy Honeymoon” does boast a nice up-beat production, but Raye’s raspy vocal is a bit off-putting. He charges up the production again on “Young As We’re Ever Gonna Be” (which he co-wrote), to much better results, pulling off what sounds like a long-lost Mary Chapin Carpenter anthem circa Stones In The Road.

Raye again looses his way on the majority of the ballads. “Dear Life” attempts to be inspirational but his breathy vocal and the AC-leaning piano hinder the enjoyment. “What I Did For Love” and “One Desire” are just odd and feature a sonically out of place drum machine that does little more but water down Raye’s usual tenderness into a pop-meets-R&B concoction that’s far more LA than Nashville.

Raye does attempt to regain his footing in the mainstream, though, and you have to credit a man for trying. “It Could Be That Easy” sounds like it could’ve come from any of his previous records, but it just isn’t nearly as strong. “Dancing With No Music Playing” and “End of the World” have the best production (with the latter best representing Raye’s glory days), but they fall up short thanks to weak lyrical content and somewhat scrawny vocal performances. “I Can’t Let Go Now” is just too slow, and the string section makes the track too sleepy for my tastes.

It’s easy to see why Can’t Back Down marked the end of Raye’s mainstream career – it just wasn’t a great album. I’m all for applauding artists when they grow stylistically, but Raye seems like he’s changed. Save the first single and “Young As We’re Ever Gonna Be,” this isn’t the same man who had a long string of hits just a few years earlier. The ballads don’t pack the same punch and his voice doesn’t sound like it’s aging gracefully, which is a shame. But it isn’t his worst album. It may be among his safest, but it isn’t dreck.

Grade: B-

Album Review – Collin Raye – ‘I Think About You’

Rayethink1995 was a good year for Collin Raye. Coming off the success of Extremes, he released I Think About You in late August. Like its three predecessors, it received a platinum certification and retained John Hobbs as producer (Ed Seay and Paul Worley co-produced).

I Think About You was instrumental in shaping my country music identity as it was one of the first country projects I was exposed to as a kid, and remains my third favorite country album to this day (behind Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Come On, Come On and Dixie Chicks Home). The hits from this project have a special quality I’ve never been able to duplicate with any other artists’ work.

Mark Alan Springer and Shane Smith co-wrote the #2 peaking lead single, “One Boy, One Girl,” a fantastically touching ballad centered around the full-circle love affair between a couple. The ending of the story is a bit predicable, but Raye gives the type of touching performance only he could bring to a ballad, and both Dan Digmore and Paul Franklin drench the number in gorgeous pedal steel.

Even better is “Not That Different,” Karen Taylor-Good and Joie Scott’s song about indifference that climbed to #3. I love how the song builds, starting out as a simple piano ballad and building to its drum-infused conclusion with the bridge. The lyric, both simple and brilliant, is fine testament to the powers of fate, and probably my favorite on the whole album:

She could hardly argue

With his pure and simple logic

But logic never could convince a heart

She had always dreamed of loving someone more exotic

And he just didn’t seem to fit the part

So she searched for greener pastures

But never could forget

What he whispered when she left

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Album Review: Holly Williams – ‘The Highway’

the highwayBeing the grand-daughter of Hank Williams (and to a rather lesser extent the daughter of Hank Jr) is a lot for a young singer-songwriter to live up to. Holly’s first two major label albums had some fine songs, but I was not quite convinced she was a fully formed artist. Now in her 30s, she has made the leap and produced a truly excellent collection of songs, released on her own label. Holly’s sultry alto voice is compelling as she portrays a variety of characters or bares her own soul. In a vague modern Americana singer-songwriter style with frequent use of a cello giving a richer, less sweet sound than the more familiar fiddle, it is tastefully produced by the artist with Charlie Peacock, best known for his work with critical favourites The Civil Wars.

Among the best songs is the bleak ‘Giving Up’, which she announces as “the saddest damn story you’ve ever seen”. It is a weary plea addressed to an alcoholic friend who keeps on claiming to be tackling her problem, a wife and mother so far gone, “the doctor said you’d die if you had another drink”. But that doesn’t seem to get her beyond platitudes, and Holly notes, incisively:

Well, I wonder if it scares you
I wonder if you think about
The daughter that you’re leaving
The man you used to love
And the son that cries for you
..
Well I guess this is it
Oh yeah, you must be giving up

You put us all through a living hell
A thousand excuses for your liquor trail
But my compassion is fading fast
Another rehab, and you break another glass

Bottles in driers
Bottles in shoes
There are even bottles in the baby’s room
You’re losing everything that you ever had
Your life is one thing all that money can’t buy back

This hits very hard, and sounds as if it was inspired by a specific person.

The powerful, pained ‘Drinkin’ tackles a drinking, cheating, abusive husband to ask him why, and is another of the strongest songs, with Holly’s compelling vocal grabbing attention.

Another highlight is ‘Waiting On June’ a tender reimagining of Holly’s maternal grandparents’ love story, which is very touching, with added poignancy from the death of the grandfather’s WWII comrade. The acoustic arrangement and actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s backing vocals give it a homespun feel.

Also based on her family, the quietly mournful ‘Gone Away From Me’ is a beautifully observed recollection of a small town childhood blighted by the loss of family members, and is another highlight. Jackson Browne sings backing vocals, but it is Holly’s emotional vocal which really bring this alive.

‘Railroads’ picks up the tempo with a disconcertingly upbeat tone musically belying the dark first-person story of a sinful preacher’s wild son.

‘Happy’ is a mournful reverie about a past relationship the protagonist now regrets throwing away, with the cello sounding almost menacing as Holly bemoans:

The truth is I loved you all the same
That night I broke your heart
And the day you cursed my name
And the truth is I never really knew
You were everything to me
Until it was much too late
Cause you’re the only one who makes me
The only one who makes me happy

Like the stripped-down acoustic bluesy folk ‘Let You Go’, it is written by Holly with Chris Coleman, her rock drummer husband. With Cary Barlowe, the pair also wrote ‘Til It Runs Dry’, a cheerful-sounding mid-tempo number featuring Dierks Bentley’s backing vocals.

‘Without You’, written with Lori McKenna, looks back to past searching for love and life, from a position of fulfilment. Jakob Dylan sings backing vocals, and a stately cello gives a mature feel befitting the literary allusions in the lyric. Sarah Buxton co-wrote ‘A Good Man’, a sweet love song with a striking acappella first verse and stately melody.

The title track was the least compelling song, but the weakest song on an album this strong is still pretty good. here Holly fondly recalls the period she was on the road with her music.

This is an excellent set which should appeal to fans of literate female singer-songwriters with country and Americana connections, like Matraca Berg, Lori McKenna and Mary Chapin Carpenter, but for my money this is the most appealing record of its kind I’ve heard in a long time.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind – Kathy Mattea with Mary Chapin Carpenter and Vince Gill – “Wall ‘Round Your Heart”

From Nashville Now in 1991:

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Walking Away a Winner’

Kathy Mattea’s early-90s experimentation with Celtic and folk sounds resulted in a predictable decline in her chart performance. By 1994 she hadn’t had a Top 10 hit in three years, so she switched producers and made a conscious effort to release an album with a decidedly more commercial sound. Her only album produced by Josh Leo, Walking Away a Winner includes more upbeat, mainstream-sounding songs than Time Passes By and Lonesome Standard Time, and the strategy to reverse her commercial fortunes was at least initially effective. The title track and lead single, written by Bob DiPiero and Tom Shapiro, peaked at #3, becoming the final Top 10 hit of Kathy’s career. It reminds me of some of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s upbeat material, as does the follow-up single “Nobody’s Gonna Rain on Our Parade”. It’s interesting that two such similar singles were released back-to-back; after the success of “Walking Away a Winner”, Mercury likely thought that “Nobody’s Gonna Rain on Our Parade” would easily sail into the Top 10, but the strategy misfired; the record stalled at #13, though it did fare slightly better in Canada, topping out at #8 there.

In the ballad “Maybe She’s Human”, Kathy takes up the cause of a put-upon wife and mother who is struggling — not always successfully — to juggle career and family responsibilities. It is rather similar in theme to Reba McEntire’s “Is There Life Out There” from a few years earlier, but it was met by a big yawn from radio and it only reached #34. The final single “Clown In Your Rodeo” is a feistier take on the same theme. I like this one a lot. It didn’t get the attention it deserved, but it does bear the distinction of being Mattea’s final Top 20 hit.

There are some excellent tracks among the album cuts; my favorite is the light-hearted “The Cape”, written by Jim Janosky, Guy Clark, and Susanna Clark. It is not, as the title might suggest, a song about Cape Cod, but rather a tune about a child who is pretending to be a superhero and believes he can fly. The more serious “Another Man” finds Mattea confronting her husband and telling him that she’s in love with someone else. The twist here is that he is not the same man she married and she still loves the man he used to be. This type of song used to be a staple at country radio and in another era it might have been a big hit. The album closes with the poignant “Who’s Gonna Know”, written by Kathy’s husband Jon Vezner. In this one, she’s looking at an old childhood photograph of herself and her now-aging parents, and contemplating the day when they are no longer with her. It’s a bit unsettling, perhaps because it’s something to which most of us can relate.

Despite a tepid reception at radio, Walking Away a Winner sold respectably; it was Kathy’s last album to earn gold certification. Its lack of radio hits may mean that some fans may have overlooked the album when it was initially released. Those fans would be well advised to give the album a listen now, because there is much here to like. Inexpensive copies are easy to find at retailers such as Amazon.

Grade: B+

Album Review – Kathy Mattea – ‘Willow In The Wind’

By 1989, Kathy Mattea was at the top of her commercial game. She was nominated three times at the CMA Awards in 1988, winning Single of the Year for “18 Wheels And A Dozen Roses” and scoring an album nomination for Untasted Honey but losing to then red-hot K.T. Oslin in her first foray in the Female Vocalist category.

Mattea followed the success with Susanna Clark and Richard Leigh’s “Come From The Heart” in early 1989. Set to an infectious mandolin centric beat; the tune quickly rose to #1 during its fourteen-week chart run. The song, previously recorded by Don Williams in 1987 and Clark’s husband Guy in 1988, features a well-known refrain:

You’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money,

Love like you’ll never get hurt.

You’ve got to dance like nobody’s watchin’

Unlike most songs from its era, let alone most music nearing 25 years old, the song is remarkable in that it doesn’t sound the least bit dated. That’s partly why it ranks high among my favorite of Mattea’s singles.

“Come From The Heart” was the lead single to Willow In The Wind, which saw Mattea once again teaming up with Allen Reynolds. This was a smart move as he kept the production clean and let Mattea’s voice shine throughout.

“Burnin’ Old Memories” came next and like its processor, peaked at #1 during a fourteen-week chart run. The song itself is excellent, but unlike “Come From The Heart,” it has aged considerably and the production, while ear catching, is indicative of its era and other sound-alike songs including Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “How Do” and Patty Loveless’ “A Little Bit of Love.” That isn’t necessarily bad, but it keeps the song from being memorable all these years later.

The third single turned the tide, however, and elevated Willow In The Wind to classic status. Although it only peaked at #10, “Where’ve You Been,” the love story of a couple (Claire and Edwin) culminating in the wife dying from Alzheimer’s, quickly became Mattea’s signature song. Written by Mattea’s husband Jon Vezner and Don Henry, the simple elegance of the tune made it a masterpiece, and the combination of Mattea’s touching vocal with the acoustic guitar backing elevated the track to one of the greatest (and one of my personal favorite) expressions of love ever recorded in the country genre (also, a must read article on the importance of the song can be found, here).

“Where’ve You Been,” one of my top two favorite of Mattea’s songs, was also her most rewarded. On the strength of the single she won her second CMA Female Vocalist trophy in 1990, as well as a richly deserved Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. Vezner and Henry took home CMA Song of the Year and Grammy Best Country Song honors as well.

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Album Review – Dan Seals – ‘In A Quiet Room’

I’ve never been a fan of artists re-recording their material, whither in a live setting, acoustically, or for a new label in cases where the singer’s previous label holds the rights to the hit recordings. Usually nothing new is brought to the songs, and it ends up feeling pointless.

Released in 1995, Dan Seals’ In A Quiet Room functions much the same way. His only recording for Intersound, an independent label, the album collects ten of Seals’ biggest hits, re-recorded in an acoustic setting.

Two singles were released from the project, although neither charted. “I’d Really Love To See You Tonight,” a cover of his 1976 pop hit (as part of England Dan and John Ford Coley) came first. While listenable, the track offers nothing new either vocally or stylistically to improve upon the original. “The Healing Kind,” meanwhile, is excellent and draws on a lush mandolin-centric production and beautiful harmony vocals from Alison Krauss

Too bad it’s the only shinning moment on the project. The songs featured on In A Quiet Room are Seals’ biggest hits and therefore so well known its hard not to remember the originals when listening to these acoustic renderings. More often than not, they just don’t sound as full and as a result lack the magic that made them great in the first place.

Songs like “Bop” just plain don’t work in this coffeehouse like setting, as without the drums and horns, the song comes off like Seals is playing sound check before a concert. The same is true for his masterpiece, “Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold)” which sounds pleasant enough, but without the drums and steel guitar, it sounds too naked. Same goes for “Big Wheels In The Moonlight.”

The ballads are nice to listen to, but all sound the same thanks to similar production treatments that keep them difficult to distinguish between. The only notable exception is “One Friend,” which is extended in length from the original recording. But even though the original clocked in under two minutes, it’s still much warmer sonically.

Overall, In A Quiet Room is a miss because these versions very rarely improve upon the originals in any way, and therefore make the overall album feel pointless. I would much have preferred Seals rework the songs in some notable way, like Mary Chapin Carpenter did with “Quittin’ Time” on her Party Doll album.

Problem is, these songs were perfect originally, so there was no need to mess with them in the first place.

Grade: C+

Favorite country songs of the 1980s, Part 1

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

This list is meant neither to be a comprehensive list of great country songs from the 1980s, nor any sort of ranking of records. It’s just a list of some songs that I liked and remember. See if you recall any of these records.

If You’re Gonna Play In Texas (You Gotta Have A Fiddle In The Band)“ – Alabama
Alabama made excellent music during the 1980s, although the country content of some of it was suspect. Not this song, which is dominated by fiddle. One of the few up-tempo Alabama records that swings rather than rocks.

I’ve Been Wrong Before” – Deborah Allen
An accomplished songwriter who wrote many hits for others, particularly with Rafe VanHoy, this was one of three top ten tunes for Ms. Allen, reaching #2 in 1984. This is much more country sounding than her other big hit “Baby I Lied”.

Last of The Silver Screen Cowboys” – Rex Allen Jr.
After some success as a pop-country balladeer, Rex Jr. turned increasing to western-themed material as the 1980s rolled along. This was not a big hit, reaching #43 in 1982, but it featured legendary music/film stars Roy Rogers and Rex Allen Sr. on backing vocals.

“Southern Fried” – Bill Anderson
This was Whispering Bill’s first release for Southern Tracks after spending over twenty years recording for Decca/MCA. Bill was no longer a chart force and this song only reached #42 in 1982, but as the chorus notes: “We like Richard Petty, Conway Twitty and the Charlie Daniels Band”.

Indeed we do. Read more of this post

Christmas Rewind: Gary Morris, Vince Gill, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Trisha Yearwood, Restless Heart and Buck Owens: ‘Silent Night/Little Drummer Boy’