My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Mary Karr

Album Review: Rodney Crowell – ‘Close Ties’

The past continues to cast a looming shadow over Rodney Crowell on his latest album, produced by Jordan Lehning and Kim Buie. He has written about his difficult East Houston childhood before, and he revisits it more graphically than ever on ‘East Houston Blues’, a reflective and gripping contemplation of a very tough past which might have ended very badly. The song seems to be set in an alternative world in which he never got out of it:

I grew up hungry
And I grew up hard
Took the streets and alleys
For my own backyard
I got a breakin’-and-enter
On my list of crimes
Been before the judge
One too many times…

I’m a third-born child
My mother’s only son
Which means exactly nothing
Without a loaded gun
I don’t believe in love
This I guarantee
If there’s a God above
He’s got it in for me

This song opens the album, which is bookended with his recollections of his arrival in ‘Nashville ‘72’ and early friendship with Guy and Susanna Clark. He drops lots of names of his musician friends from that era, some of whom will be more familiar than others to the average listener. Susanna Clark’s recent death may perhaps have sparked off this nostalgic mood, and ‘Life Without Susanna’ addresses this sense of loss. While it is well written and clearly heartfelt, the rather histrionic vocals make it hard to listen to.

In another echo of times past, ex-wife Rosanne Cash joins Rodney on ‘It Ain’t Over Yet’, together with John Paul White, formerly half of Americana duo The Civil Wars. A rueful yet optimistic look at growing older partly inspired by Guy and Susanna, this is an excellent song which is being promoted as a single:

It’s like I’m sittin’ at a bus stop waitin’ for a train
Exactly how I got here is hard to explain
My heart’s in the right place,
what’s left of it I guess
My heart ain’t the problem,
It’s my mind that’s a total mess
With these rickety old legs and these watery eyes
It’s hard to believe that I could pass for anybody’s prize
And here’s what I know about
The gifts that God gave
You can’t take ’em with ya
When you go to the grave

The funky ‘I Don’t Care Anymore’ is also about growing older, and no longer bothering about appearances or what others think.

An unexpected guest is Sheryl Crow, who duets with Rodney on ‘Tied To Ya’ which he wrote with Irish musician Michael McGlynn. This is a kind of love song with a pretty melody and rather vague spiritual but not religious lyrics. I much preferred the delicately understated pensive ‘Forgive Me Annabelle’, about a former love and his own past failings, set to a beautiful string arrangement. ‘Reckless’ is a song about dreaming about cheating on a true love, with another classical style arrangement.

‘Storm Warning’, a co-write with poet Mary Karr, with whom Crowell collaborated on his album Kin a few years ago, is an intense description of a tornado, but (while entirely appropriate for the song) it is a bit loud and cluttered for me to actually enjoy. In contrast, the mellow, poetic ‘Forty Miles From Nowhere’ is lovely.

I don’t think I would call this album country, and maybe not even Americana. But it is an excellent, mature piece of work.

Grade: A

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Album Review – Rodney Crowell – ‘Tarpaper Sky’

TarpaperSkyAfter a decade spent making legacy albums, churning out two long anticipated collaborative projects, and writing his memoir, Rodney Crowell has reunited with his late 80s / early 90s brethren (Stuart Smith, Michael Rhodes, John Hobbs, and Eddy Bayers) for his new album. Tarpaper Sky is stunning as a result, consisting solely of original compositions that return Crowell to the straightforward sound that gained him fame in his heyday.

At 63 Crowell’s vocal tone has weathered with age, creating richness that ads reverence to everything he sings. He uses it to his full advantage, along with his genius as a wordsmith, to reflect on life through universal truths.  

“The simple life tastes sweeter now, we have no need to roam,” he sings on “Long Journey Home,” the strum-centric album opener. He’s lamenting on the quieter life he seeks now after a life of living out the self-proclaimed freedom he sought in his younger days. The excellent track is as much an inward expression as a mission statement, drawing the listener into Crowell’s mindset for the whole of the record.

He echoes the virtues of that simpler life on “Grandma Loved That Old Man,” his beautiful commentary on true love. Through vivid imagery, and his brilliance as a storyteller, Crowell brings the couple to life – warts and all – linking their story with the mutual affection that bonds their lives together. The melody, lush with acoustic guitar and organ, has a fabulous bootleg quality to it that takes the song to new heights, making you feel like you’ve stumbled upon something special.

Its clear Crowell is in the midst of a creative resurgence, which, for a man who’s been steadily crafting genre-defining work for more than forty years, is remarkable. “Oh, What A Beautiful World,” a Dylan-era inspired folk tune laced with harmonica, is a biting take on the circle of life that could only come from someone with a lot of life in their years. Crowell certainly fits the bill as he sings, “It’s the truth and the lie, is to live and to die.

Nowhere is Crowell’s wide-eyed soul on fuller display than his magical “The Flyboy and the Kid,” a brilliant hymn about one man’s adoration for his best friend. Crowell lays out his wishes (days filled with honest work, easy answers to all life’s questions, etc) with gorgeous sincerity resonated by the mid-tempo mandolin and upright bass filled melody, which ranks as my favorite on Tarpaper Sky.

The standout number on Tarpaper Sky, and the instance where the album title was born, is “God I’m Missing You,” the Mary Karr Kin co-write done on that project by Lucinda Williams. The wordy ballad, stylistically reminiscent of “Open Season On My Heart,” is a tender masterpiece about the impressions people leave on us in this life, and how they never really go away in death. The mournful ache Crowell brings to the number is pitch-perfect, exceeded only by the lyric, which never falters in fully developing the emotional undertones. “There’s a sanded down moon, in a tarpaper sky” may be my favorite line on the whole album.

Crowell may be in a contemplative mood for much of Tarpaper Sky, but he detours into other territories, too. Lead single “Frankie Please” is a rapid-fire pistol-whip about a man’s blink-and-you-missed-it courtship and subsequent marriage “that happened so fast, they said it wouldn’t last” to a woman named Frankie. Crowell, along with Smith and Dan Knobler, give the tune a 50s shuffle feel complete with Memphis inspired electric guitars. It’s a great song with Crowell deserving credit for keeping up with the vibrant energy of the track.

“Fever On The Bayou,” a co-write with frequent collaborator Will Jennings, has been twenty-years in the making, finally finished when the last verse was born out of an airport run in with songwriter Byron House. The tune is excellent, painting a picture of the Bayou life and the women who live there.

Tarpaper Sky only missteps occasionally, either by general pedestrian-ess or melodies that just weren’t to my taste. “Famous Last Words of a Fool In Love” and “I Wouldn’t Be Me Without You” are fine songs, but the ballads seem too generic for an album with this much thematic heaviness. “Somebody’s Shadow” (a co-write with Quinten Collier) and the self-penned “Jesus Talked To Mama” are too heavy with electric guitars for me to fully enjoy them. But they’re not bad songs at all, just weak spots on an otherwise masterful album.

When I read that Crowell began recording Tarpaper Sky in 2010, I was taken aback since this album feels born as much from the recent resurgence in Americana as his creative rebirth in the wake of Kin and Old Yellow Moon. Crowell’s insistence on going back to basics works in his favor, too, although Tarpaper Sky is a fully modern album and not a retread of Diamonds & Dirt. He’s still a songwriter at the peak of his abilities and after more than forty years, that’s wonderful to see. At it’s best Tarpaper Sky is brilliant in its songcraft and one of the strongest songwriting projects to emerge in quite a long time.

Grade: A-

“Remember country music?” – An Evening with Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell at Birmingham Symphony Hall, Friday 10 May 2013

promo for emmylou harris rodney crowell birminghamHaving relished their new album together, Old Yellow Moon, I couldn’t pass up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Emmylou Harris reunited live with Rodney Crowell when their tour to promote the record came over to Europe. I was joined at Birmingham Symphony Hall by an enthusiastic audience; it was almost, but not quite a sell-out, and the crowd clearly enjoyed every second.

It was a generous set; two hours and twenty minutes revisiting highlights of the pair’s past careers (mainly the 70s when they first worked together with a sprinkling of songs from the new millennium), as well as songs from Old Yellow Moon. There was no opening act, and no time for one. The focus was on music rather than chat, with the first four songs completed before anyone spoke a word.

The evening opened with a reminder of Emmylou’s time with Gram Parsons as the band walked on stage and launched straight into ‘Return Of The Grievous Angel’, followed by his song ‘Wheels’ which Emmylou included on Elite Hotel and which was magical here.

A change of pace led to a beautifully understated version of ‘Pancho And Lefty’, opening with Emmylou and her acoustic guitar, with the band later coming in and finally Rodney adding his vocal – a stylistic template for many of the evening’s best songs.

Rodney then sang his own ‘Earthbound’ (from 2003’s Fate’s Right Hand), which I enjoyed much more live than on record. Emmylou then introduced the wonderful ‘Til I Gain Control Again’ as the first song Rodney ever sang for her. He sang a tender lead on the song, with a lovely harmony from Emmylou. The pair then sang ‘Tragedy’, a song they wrote together for her Red Dirt Girl album; while okay, it was not my favorite moment of the evening.

Emmylou paid tribute to the late Susanna Clark by singing Clark’s song ‘I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose’, which Emmylou recorded on 1978’s Luxury Liner. This was just delightful, with honky tonk piano. It was followed by a stripped down ‘Red Dirt Girl’, which was very good.

Rodney then spoke for the first time, unexpectedly sounding a little nervous, before singing his autobiographical ‘Rock Of My Soul’.

The couple then duetted on ‘Heaven Only Knows’, a song written by Emmylou’s ex-husband Paul Kennerley. It was perhaps the most unexpected song choice as it came from Emmylou’s largely overlooked 1989 record Bluebird, and the only song in the set to date from that decade. It sounded very good, though, and was a welcome inclusion.

The swooping melody of ‘Love Hurts’ was a highlight, with emotional vocals from both Emmylou and Rodney (who is a much better singer than the late Gram Parsons). I was less impressed by the martial beat of ‘Luxury Liner’, although I was probably alone in that reaction – it seemed to get a particularly enthusiastic amount of applause, perhaps to reward the band’s virtuoso performances. The sound was a bit muddy for me on this song, although generally the acoustics were superb, and I wasn’t surprised when Emmylou asked for the sound to be turned down for the next song.

The band took a much needed break while Emmylou sat down for a simple acoustic number, ‘Darlin’ Kate’, her lament for her late friend Kate McGarrigle. Friendship was perhaps the overarching theme of the night. Rodney returned on stage to join Emmylou on a lovely traditional version of the Louvin Brothers’ ‘The Angels Rejoiced’. Emmylou then sang ‘Longtime Girl Gone By’, the song she sang on Rodney Crowell’s Kin album of songs written with poet Mary Karr. She didn’t know the song well, and had to use a lyric sheet, while Rodney accompanied her on guitar (he confessed he didn’t know the songs from that album all that well either).

By now the rest of the band was back, and Rodney sang ‘I Know Love Is All I Need’, which he introduced as something he had dreamed.

The Old Yellow Moon portion of the evening then arrived, with a joyful version of the album’s opener ‘Hanging Up My Heart’, followed by a excellent (if slightly too loud) ‘Invitation To The Blues’. Emmylou asked pointedly,

“Remember country music? It’s hard to find sometimes back in the States. But it’s in our hearts, and it’s on our record.”

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Jonathan Pappalardo’s Top Albums of 2012

Adventurism. Turning convention on its head. Those are just two of the themes threading each of the albums on my list. I’ve noticed my tastes venturing further and further from the mainstream, as radio playlists are marginalized and top 40 acts are less and less interesting. To get an even fuller picture of my picks, check out the albums I ranked 19-11 here.

gretchenpeters10. Gretchen Peters – Hello Cruel World

Thinking people’s music from a lyrical master. It’s easy to overlook the beauty of Hello Cruel World and cast it off as slow, depressing, and moody. But to do that is to completely miss the point of an emotional woman bearing her soul for all who will listen.

9. Various Artists – Kin: Songs by Rodney Crowell and Mary Karr

A patchwork quilt infusing distinct individual moments with simple yet evocative lyrics brought to life by a stellar cast, Kin is a concept project done right. But the marriage of the poet and song master is its greatest achievement, two people from different fields of work, aiming at the same goal – affecting emotion. Look no further than “My Father’s Advice” or even “Mama’s On A Roll” to know they’ve succeeded in spades.

living for a song8. Jamey Johnson and Friends – Livin’ For A Song – A Tribute to Hank Cochran

 One of country’s greatest songwriters gets a tribute from one of its fiercest advocates for tradition. Johnson could’ve done the work solo and still come through with a masterwork, but instead he’s paired with some of the finest vocalists of our generation, elevating simple lyrics into works of art.

7. The Time Jumpers – The Time Jumpers

Time and again I’ve said it but I really miss the days when Vince Gill brought his class and sophistication to mainstream country. Now its a prime example of you don’t know what you had until it was gone. Like last year’s stellar Guitar Slinger, he’s back working his magic, this time with his stellar string band. A not to be missed delight The Time Jumpers is the convergence of expertly talented musicians and singers coming together to spread their considerable awesomeness onto the world.

100 Proof6. Kellie Pickler – 100 Proof

Often regulated to singing kiss off songs about men that have done her wrong (“Things That Never Cross A Man’s Mind,” “Best Days of Your Life,” “Red High Heels”) and empowerment anthems (“Don’t You Know you’re Beautiful”), Kellie Pickler became a singer who never quite rose above mediocrity.

Enter 100 Proof, a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am/take-no-prisoners/unapologetic classic country tour de force that finally matches the music to the talent, For the first time since America first met Pickler on American Idol, she makes a statement. And it’s a giant leap forward.

5. Jana Kramer – Jana Kramer 

Haven’t we seen this before? An actress from a television show detours through Nashville to have their fifteen minutes of fame as a country singer. They claim their allegiances to the music, try to sing and look the part, but end up only as a parody of the real thing, a jokester trying in vain to pull off a charade so fake you wonder how on earth this could’ve transpired in the first place.

Luckily they’re not all built from the same tattered cloth. Jana Kramer is the exception, turning the most satisfying and promising debut album in years. I found myself continually mesmerized by her voice and spellbound by her ability to fish through the dreck and find quality music. So this isn’t Storms of Life Part II. But she’s obviously trying and cares to sound country. And not generically pop-country, either. She might not be a revolution, but she’s the most promising step in the right direction a commercially viable mainstream country singer has gone in years. And I couldn’t be happier about it.

marty-stuart-nashville-cover4. Marty Stuart – Tear The Woodpile Down: Nashville, Volume 1 

Stuart’s latest foray into traditional country refines the formula set by Ghost Train by pairing originals with well-chosen covers. He fearlessly wears his love for country music on his sleeve and proves he’s the best teacher any contemporary country singer can learn from, if only they would take his class. A cover of Luke The Drifter’s “Pictures From Life’s Other Side,” a duet with his grandson Hank III, is easily among the best album cuts 2012 had to offer.

3. Punch Brothers – Ahoy! – EP

A creative risk like none you’ll hear all year, Punch Brothers fill their Who’s Feeling Young Now companion with brazen eccentricity, wild abandon, and more than enough musical gambles to make anyone dizzy.

They stand out because they’re fierce and bold, charting a course all their own. No one else looks or sounds like them and their underground following is a testament to their originality. Where they’ll venture from here is anyone’s guess.

2. Punch Brothers – Who’s Feeling Young Now?

Now this is acoustic music I can fully endorse. Where acts like Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers blend too much rock into their sound for my liking, The Punch Brothers take their cues directly from the foundations of bluegrass and build their sound from there. But like their rock counterparts, this isn’t strictly acoustic – odes to pop (“This Girl”) and funk (“Patchwork Girlfriend”) mix in effortlessly and are guided by Chris Thile’s measured vocals and brilliant mandolin playing. For lovers of an adventurous out of the box take on the traditional album format, look no further than Who’s Feeling Young Now, one of the finest albums of 2012.

Calling Me Home1. Kathy Mattea – Calling Me Home

In the increasingly marginalized landscape of current popular music, realism is as rare a virtue as honesty, with singers churning out products aimed at returning maximum profit at radio and retail without effort towards impact or intention. Music as a means to influence emotion and affect thought is nearly non-existent. Not everyone sees it that way, thankfully, as Calling Me Home is the infrequent exception to the current model, a masterwork forcing us human Beings to venture inward and examine our complacency towards place and the havoc our irreversible actions have had on mankind.

Although the chronicled subjects rise from the Appalachian Mountains, and the day-to-day realities revolve around the “scoundrel and saint” that is coal, the overarching messages in these songs are universal to anyone with a conscious. But even more important is the conveyor, and Mattea brings each track to life with the power of her voice, a ribbon weaving through the complexities of each lyric, driving home every declaration.

At 53, Mattea is singing from the sharpened eye of experience, pondering the meaning of life and death with the vibrancy and vigor of wisdom that surfaces through a life lived with spiritual connectedness to ones own body and mind. And for that reason, Calling Me Home is one of the most important records to come along in a long, long time, a masterpiece of the soul and the earth from which all of us are born.

Album Review – Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell – ‘Kin: Songs by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell’

The relationship between Mary Karr, a New York Times bestselling author, and Rodney Crowell began in 2003 when Crowell mentioned the author in “Earthbound” a track from Fate’s Right Hand. He’d just finished her book The Liar’s Club and had suspicions, based on her background in poetry, she could write songs.

Flash forward nine years and they’ve acted on that premonition with Kin: Songs by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell, an album for wordsmiths and musical connoisseurs alike. With an all-star cast of heavyweights (Vince Gill, Lee Ann Womack, Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson) and fringe artists (Norah Jones and Lucinda Williams) lending their talents, the appreciation is only deepened by results worthy of their talents.

Kin shows its brilliance by presenting each artist in a new light, by giving the listener an unexpected treat with each composition. Producer Joe Henry pushes everyone out of their musical comfort zones with delightful arrangements that deepen their artistic integrity while allowing for substantial growth. Without the need to tread in the stagnant waters of mainstream Nashville, the artists have a chance to explore each song without fear of displeasing younger listeners, a constituency who wouldn’t be drawn to Kin in the first place.

Sonically, Kin is a slice of ear candy, an observation enhanced by the mix of steel, fiddle, upright bass, and acoustic guitar that drench each song. Womack exemplifies this perfectly, turning in her best song in over half a decade with “Mama’s On A Roll.” Soaked in dobro and acoustic guitar, she infuses the song with the slow-burn felt after downing a sift drink at a bar. Equally appealing is Jones, who infuses her trademark smoky warmth into the ear-catching “If The Law Don’t Want You.” By interjecting her performance with her Little Willies playfulness, she proves how compelling she is at singing country music and seduces the listener into hoping she’ll dabble in it with more frequency.

Another standout is the impressive Gill, who turns up the twang with “Just Pleasing You,” a steel and fiddle led number proving him correct in thinking his best days musically lie ahead. “Sister oh Sister,” sung by Cash, is like a visit from an old friend and fits her like a glove. While I would’ve liked to hear Cash sing something a little more energetic, you can’t fault her expressive tone on the somber tune about the relationship between close siblings.

Along the same lines is the sleepy “Long Time Girl Gone By” which finds a wispy Harris running the gamut from soft to strikingly compelling. More folk than country, it needed just a slight pick me up to hold my attention, but there isn’t any denying her artistry. Same goes for Williams who infuses “God I’m Missing You” with her usual tipsy delivery.

Crowell, not to be out done by the guest vocalists, turns in four songs of his own, his first since 2008’s Sex and Gasoline. The Dylan-like “Anything But Tame” rolls along with an acoustic guitar led arrangement, “I’m A Mess” recalls a Steve Earle-like sensibility, and “Hungry For Home” is straight-up folk. But the most appealing is “My Father’s Advice,” a duel role duet with Crowell as the son and Kristofferson as the advice-lending dad. The most country of Crowell’s vocal contributions to Kin, it offers flourishes of fiddle and harmonica that helps move the story along at a nice even pace.

As a whole, Kin is a patchwork quilt infusing distinct individual moments, led by Karr and Crowell’s simple yet evocative lyrics and brought to life by the stellar cast who gathered to record them. It’s a not-to-be-missed collaboration and one of the most original country albums of 2012.

Grade: A 

Spotlight Artist – Rodney Crowell

Born in Houston, Texas on August 6, 1950, Rodney Crowell has made a name for himself as one of the finest songwriters in country music.  A difficult family background was also a very musical one and he was a serious musician by his teens.  He moved to Nashville in 1972 to pursue his vocation as a songwriter, and found a first mentor in Jerry Reed before becoming a friend and acolyte of another great Texan songwriter, Guy Clark.

His career took a new turn when Emmylou Harris, who had recorded some of his early songs, recruited him as a seminal member of her Hot Band.  He also had a side project with the Cherry Bombs, a band whose other members included Vince Gill and future record executive Tony Brown.  In 1978 he signed his own deal with Emmylou’s label Warner Brothers.  He was to release three albums for the label in the late 70s and early 80s, but while his blend of country and rock garnered him significant critical acclaim, mainstream success was frustratingly slow to follow.  It certainly wasn’t due to poor material – many of his songs were hits for more established artists including Emmylou and the Oak Ridge Boys and even Crystal Gayle.

Rodney married Johnny Cash’s daughter Rosanne, and in 1981, he put his solo career on hold in favour of producing her records.  That led eventually to his signing with her label Columbia in 1986.  Street Language, his debut for the label was another flop, but it was followed in 1988 by Diamonds & Dirt.  This masterpiece was both a critical and commercial success, with Rodney having mastered a radio friendly sound.  It was the first album in country music history to contain five #1 hits, and is the biggest selling record in Crowell’s career.  The song ‘After All This Time’ won him a Grammy.  However, his hot streak slowed down after that and was not reinvigorated by a move to another major label, MCA, in 1992 (the year he and Rosanne divorced).

After a break from recording in the later 90s, Rodney returned to making music in the new millennium.  He was now primarily a singer songwriter with increasingly less concern for mainstream country, with 2008’s Sex And Gasoline Grammy-nominated in the Folk/Americana category.  He has nonetheless remainded a presence in country music thanks to a number of high profile covers of both older and newer songs, such as George Strait’s revival of ‘Stars On The Water’ and Tim McGraw’s version of Rodney’s ‘Please Remember Me’. He also revived the Notorious Cherry Bombs with Vince Gill.  His latest work, out on 5 June, is a collaboration with poet and writer Mary Karr, who like Rodney had a difficult childhood in Texas.  He is also reportedly working on a duet album with Emmylou Harris.