My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Matraca Berg

Abum Review: Forester Sisters – ‘Sincerely’

Sincerely was the Forester Sisters’ fifth studio album for Warner Brothers, although it should be noted that the fourth album was a Christmas album. Released in July 1988, Sincerely continued the downward trend of charting lower than each previous (non Christmas) album, reaching only #30 on the charts. Three singles were released from the album, each reaching the top ten but none getting any higher than #7.

The album opens up with “I’ve Just Seen A Face” which was written by Paul McCartney & John Lennon an album track for the British version of the Beatles Help! album. The song has been covered and performed by many country and bluegrass groups over the years and Calamity Jane released it as a low charting single (#44 in 1982). The Forester Sisters give the song a slow intro but then launch into the standard tempo for the song. It’s nice but nothing special.

Byron Gallimore and Don Pfrimmer wrote the next song, “I Will”, a slow ballad that was released as the third (and highest charting) single from the album, reaching #7. It’s a nice song:

Nothing grows in the driest places,
the bitter cold,
or children’s faces,
like love will,
love will…

Nothing can be everlasting
or send an iron curtain crashing
like love will,
love will…

“Letter Home” is up next and was the first single from the album. It only reached #9 but in my opinion this Wendy Waldman composition was the best song on the album

Dear mama, I hope that you’re alright
I can hear the thunder rollin’
Across the Southern sky tonight
The kids are asleep and the T.V.’s on
And I’m sittin’ here alone
So I thought I’d write this letter home

I was the one you were counting on
The family’s high school star
Jimmy and me ran off that summer
Must have broken your and daddy’s heart
We didn’t need nobody’s help
We were 18 years and grown
That’s why there was no letter home

Letters home I wrote them in my dreams
Askin’ if I know what I know now
Would it even have changed a thing
The hardest part of looking back
Is the mistakes are all your own
I just couldn’t tell you
So there was no letter home

Doug Stone would have a #5 hit in 1990 on Harlan Howard’s “These Lips Just Don’t Know How To Say Goodbye”. The Foresters do a pleasant enough job on the song, but it seems more effective from a male perspective. Stone’s version was deservedly a hit, this version is nothing more than album filler.

Next up is the title track “Sincerely”. This song, written by Harvey Fuqua and Alan Freed, was originally recorded by Moonglows, the group of which Fuqua was a member. The Moonglows’ version reached number 1 on the Billboard R&B chart and number 20 on the Billboard Juke Box chart in the early months of 1954. Later during the year the song was covered by the McGuire Sisters. The song reached #1 in 1955 and sold well over a million records. The Forester Sisters version of “Sincerely” is pretty, albeit over-orchestrated and a bit bland. The song reached #8 and was the second single released from the album.

The next track “Things Will Grow” is filler. “Some People”, written by Carol Chase and Dave Gibson, speaks a lot of truth and is perhaps more than simply filler – I can envision a string voiced singer making a hit out of the song.

Russell Smith and Susan Longacre combined to write “On The Other Side Of The Gate”, a song given a more hard country treatment than most of the songs on the album, with steel in evidence and fiddle breaks. I really liked this song.

“You Love Me” from the pens of Matraca Berg and Ronnie Samoset is a really interesting song with a different feel than anything else on the album. At points the arrangement reminds me of John Anderson’s “Seminole Wind” although the lyrics are entirely dissimilar

The last song on the album is Karen Staley’s “Matter Of Time”, a slow ballad about loss of love and the slow passage of time.

The Forester Sisters were bucking the emerging “New Traditionalist” movement with this album. While I like the album a lot, it has more of a 50s-60s easy listening vibe to it than a modern/traditional country vibe. As a easy listening album I would give it an “A” but as a country album I would downgrade it to a “B”.

Advertisements

Album Review: Dixie Chicks — ‘Fly’

NOTE: This is the second time we’ve done a feature on Fly. Check out Chris’ take on the album from March 2009, which was formed as a discussion around whether or not the album deserved to be legendary, by clicking HERE. Also, his post promoted a 27 comment discussion well worth reading. 

Dixie Chicks built on the phenomenal success of Wide Open Spaces with Fly, their second album for Monument Records. It was released in late August 1999 and established them as the foremost superstars of the era, on par with Shania Twain.

The ambitious set redefined how a country album could sound both melodically and lyrically. This is when they began courting controversy, painting outside the lines, and rewriting the rules of Nashville. There wasn’t a single artist at the time or since that has perfected or improved upon the formula they perfected with Fly — a solid foundation of traditional country mixed with a pop sensibility with a collection, and this is the key, of intelligent well-written songs. Fly is an album of talent and substance absent of fluff or filler.

A sign that the Dixie Chicks were heading places came in June 1999 when the album’s lead single “Ready To Run” was subsequently featured as a single from the soundtrack to the Julia Roberts/Richard Gere RomCom Runaway Bride. The Celtic flavored tune, co-written by Martie Seidel and Marcus Hummon, hit #2.

They shot back to the top of the charts with the album’s instantly iconic second single “Cowboy Take Me Away,” also co-written by the pair. The title was inspired by the slogan used in commercials for Calgon and the lyric was in tribute to Emily’s marriage to Charlie Robison. It’s a brilliant record from start to finish, with Sediel’s gorgeous fiddle riffs and Robison’s banjo licks proving the perfect backdrop for Natalie Maines’ passionate vocal. It’s one of the band’s signature songs and rightfully so.

What followed was a black comedy detailing the saga of Marianne and Wanda, the latter of who met and married a man named Earl, who physically abused her. The song, written by Dennis Linde, brings the women’s fight for justice to the forefront as they murder Earl and bury him in a shallow grave. The subject matter of “Goodbye Earl” proved a tough pill for country radio to swallow and the track stalled at #13.

They rebounded with their version of Richard Leigh’s “Cold Day In July,” which was originally recorded (separately) by Suzy Bogguss and Joy Lynne White in 1992. Commenters on country blogs have favored the other women’s versions more, but since I’m only intimately familiar with the trio’s take on the song, which hit #4, and it’s the version I heard first, it’s the one I’ll always prefer.

“Without You,” the album’s second #1, is purely pop with country instrumentation. Maines co-wrote it about the demise of her first marriage, and while it isn’t as sharp as “You Were Mine,” it still soars with heartache. Maines’ vocal, which allows her stretch and use her lower register, is a revelation.

You’re forgiven if you’ve forgotten any of the remaining singles released from the album. Although it hit #3, their take on Matraca Berg’s “If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me” isn’t terribly memorable. The album’s eighth and final single, “Some Days You Gotta Dance,” has a nice groove and works well live, but falls into the same territory. It hit #7.

Sandwiched between them is arguably one of the strongest songs they ever sent to country radio. “Heartbreak Town” is Darrell Scott’s take on making it in music city and tells the story of a couple and their baby heading to Nashville and getting rejected by the industry. The record, which hit #23, is a masterpiece:

Hugged your friends

Kissed your mama goodbye

Baby in your arms and a tear in your eye

Twelve hundred miles and you never asked why

From me

 

Me and the baby and you side by side

We all knew we was in for a long hard ride

Nowhere to run and nowhere to hide it seemed

We honked the horn when we crossed the

State line

Woke up the baby and she started to cry

She must’ve known

What we were going to find

 

This ain’t nothin’ but a heartbreak town

Square people in a world that’s round

And they watch you dancin’ without the sound

It ain’t nothin’ no nothin’

You take your number and you stand in line

And they watch to see how high you’re gonna climb

Pat on the back and better luck next time

It ain’t nothin’ no it ain’t nothin’ but a heartbreak town

 

Stardust well it’s a funny thing

It can make you cuss

It can make you sing

And the need to touch it gets hard to explain some days

 

I’ve seen ’em rise

I’ve seen ’em fall

Some get nothin’

And lord some get it all

Some just run

While others crawled away

 

Hold my hand baby don’t let go

I’ve got some front money

And I’ve got a next show

And I’m, I’m gonna need you

Down this yellow brick road

The album tracks are almost as iconic as the singles, especially “Sin Wagon,” which got its origins from the movie Grease. The film is one of Maines’ favorites, and she co-wrote the bluegrass barnburner with Emily Erwin and Stephony Smith. The lyric caught the attention of the trio’s record label, who objected their use of the term ‘mattress dacin’ in the second verse. Maines doubled down and repeated the line for emphasis, a sign that as far back as 1999 she wasn’t going to make nice with anyone.

“Hello Mr. Heartache” is the album’s most traditional number and another masterful record. “Let Him Fly” is their first association with Patty Griffin, Maines’ favorite singer-songwriter of all time. “Hole In My Head” was written by Jim Lauderdale and Buddy Miller and showed off their Americana leanings.

Fly is simply one of the greatest contemporary commercial country records ever made. It rightfully won them both the Grammy for Best Country Album and the CMA for Album of the Year. It’s gone on to sell more than ten million copies and inspired their first headlining trek in 2000, the year they were crowned CMA Entertainer of the Year. They richly deserved every accolade that came their way.

Grade: A+ 

 

Album Review: Hayes Carll — ‘What It Is’

One listen to Hayes Carll’s What It Is and it becomes abundantly clear he’s using these twelve songs, his first new music in three years, to express himself fearlessly. The album is a split personality with one parts love, Carll is engaged to Allison Moorer, whom he plans to wed later this year, and one parts social commentary.

Not surprisingly, it’s the latter that wins the fight for dominance, and while it may seem repetitive to hear another artist use their music to vent their frustrations, or as Carll puts it “get off the sidelines,” few execute as uniquely and memorably as he does here.

The first of these songs is the solely written “Times Like These,” an effective rocker about our current political climate and how Carll desires “to do my labor, love my girl and help my neighbor while I keep a little hope in my dreams” which he says is “sure getting hard brother in times like these.” Less successful is the eccentric “Wild Pointy Finger,” which begins strong:

It points at the fever and the accomplishes of man

It points at all the problems it don’t understand

It points at Persians across the sea

It points at anybody who thinks differently than me

If you’re marching to your own drum or kneeling in the news

My wild pointy finger is probably pointing right at you

But dissolves into a bizarre rant weighted down by unwieldily symbolism. He rebounds nicely with the excellent “Fragile Men,” in which he talks directly to those who feel the world is undermining their ideals. Carll turns inward on “If I May Be So Bold,” the record’s thesis statement, where he sings about no longer standing in the shadows:

I’ll make my way if I should be so bold

Bold enough to make a difference

Bold enough to say I care

Bold enough to keep on trying

Even when the wills not there

There’s a whole world out there waiting

Full of stories to be told

And I’ll heed the call and tell ‘em all

If I may be so bold

“Jesus and Elvis,” the album’s best-known song thanks to Kenny Chesney, who included it on Cosmic Hallelujah in 2017, is one of those compositions. The title originated with co-writer Matraca Berg, but the story of the bar and its patrons, which is rich with the tiniest of details, from the “neon cross and the string of Christmas lights” to the camaraderie between “old friends,” is all Carll’s.

He bridges the gap between the album’s two halves on the gorgeous “American Dream,” where he uses everyday observances (summer sunshine, tumbleweeds, dresses on a clothesline waiting for Saturday night) to paint an idyllic picture of his life in Texas. The romantic side of the album, largely bolstered by his romance with Moorer, also his co-producer and frequent co-writer, finds him as relaxed as Johnny Cash in the presence of June Carter.

Carll is at his most tender on the sparse “I Will Stay,” the album’s masterpiece and the essence of true love, a relationship ballad where he vows to be there for Moorer through the good times and the bad. He goes back in time on “Beautiful Thing,” a shot of bluesy adrenaline that details the combustion he felt in the infancy of their courtship.

Although Moorer co-wrote “None’ya” with Carll, the song his tribute to her, his perspective on the woman he’ll soon call his wife. He shares intimate details of their lives together, like how she painted the ceiling of their front porch turquoise in order to keep out evil spirits because it’s “the way we do it the south,” and captures her essence in all its eccentricities with beauty and sensitivity.

Given the self-doubt he hints at in “I Will Stay,” it’s safe to assume Moorer is the one taking the lead on “Be There,” which paints a less than optimistic view of the couple’s relationship. The banjo-driven title track, in which she provides background vocals, serves as a reminder that “what it was is gone forever, what it could be god only knows, and what it is, is right here in front of me, and I’m not letting go.”

Carll’s very character is at the heart of the cautionary “Things You Don’t Want To Know,” which is directed at Moorer and his fans and warns against asking questions that can lead to uncomfortable truths you might not be ready to hear.

What It Is may be a record of two halves, showcasing distinctly different sides of a fascinating and complicated man, but it works as a cohesive whole thanks to Moorer and co-producer Brad Jones, who infuse the album with an urgency that binds the songs together with a softness and aggression that reveal Carll’s unwavering assurance in his ideals.

What It Is is a journey worth taking from beginning to end, with not a single pit-stop along the way.

Grade: A 

Album Review: Gretchen Peters — ‘Dancing With The Beast’

2016 was an unintentionally cruel transitional year for Gretchen Peters. In the span of twelve months, she encountered a myriad of loss — her mom, her dog, and two of her best friends. The results of the US presidential election only confounded her already fragile state of mind.

She turned to music to make sense of it all, which has resulted in her eighth album, Dancing With The Beast, eleven snapshots of gut-wrenching brilliance inspired as much by her personal misfortune and the 2017 Woman’s March, as the #MeToo Movement that swept into our collective consciousness last autumn. Female-centric perspectives lead the record and the listener on a journey both horrifically candid and deeply satisfying.

The album opens with “Arguing With Ghosts,” a meditation on the passage of time that began when co-writer Matraca Berg supplied what became the opening line ‘I get lost in my hometown’ to describe how much, and how quickly, Nashville has changed into a city she no longer recognizes. I, too, struggle with the quickness of life and find great solace when Peters sings:

The years go by like days

Sometimes the days go by like years

And I don’t know which one I hate the most

At this same old kitchen table

in this same old busted chair

I’m drinking coffee and arguing with ghosts

“Wichita” revives the southern gothic murder ballad and the subset of songs about children, both of which were once mainstays in country music. The song is told from the perspective of Cora Lee, a mentally challenged twelve-year-old girl who uses her mama’s gun to kill a sexual predator who robs her of her innocence and takes advantage of her mother. It’s my favorite song so far this year.

The loss of innocence is the foundation for “Truckstop Angel,” which originates from a New Yorker article Peters read twenty years ago detailing prostitutes who work at roadside truckstops. She encountered just such a girl (all of 17-18 years old) in Alabama and composed the song from her perspective:

I meet them in the truckstops

I meet them in the bars

I meet them in the parking lots

And I slip into their cars

They come and put their money down

They come and place their bets

I swallow their indifference

But I choke on my regrets

 

Sometimes they ask me questions

Sometimes they treat me nice

You don’t know what you’ll get

Until you roll the dice

You’re a loser or a winner here

Predator or prey

I’m still not sure which one I am

Or how I got this way

“The Boy from Rye” details the overwhelming insecurities of female adolescence. The lyric finds a town of teenage girls in competition for the affection of a guy who rolled into town one summer with his parents and his sister. It’s horrifying how easily the teenagers surrender their bodies to him:

The girls from school in our summer tans
Suddenly self conscious and uncertain
All in a row we arranged ourselves for him
Waiting to see if we deserved him

One too fat, one too thin
One too many flaws to measure
Impossible to live inside your skin
And serve at someone else’s pleasure

**

One too strong, one too smart
But none immune to love or summer
One by one he broke our virgin hearts
And set us one against the other

We dreamed of boys and kisses on the lawn
We yearned to feel that mystery inside us
And there we were with the summer nearly gone
We’d let that mystery divide us

“Lowlands” is Peters’ take on the 2016 US Presidential election:

And the TV it just lies to keep you watching

Politician lies to get your vote

But a man who lies just for the sake of lying

He’ll sell you kerosene and call it hope

Political-minded songs, especially ones referencing our current President, can be polarizing and tiring, and Peters allows “Lowlands” to intentionally drone on-and-on Dylan-esque without a chorus or a hook; a hint of subtly nodding to her state of mind.

“Love That Makes A Cup of Tea” originated from a dream Peters had about her mother, a woman who would show her affection by baking and knitting. The lyric ends the album steeped in hope:

And there is love that makes a cup of tea

Asks you how you’re doing, and listens quietly

Slips you twenty dollars when your rent’s behind

That’s the kind of love I hope you find

“Disappearing Act” lives in the same sonic vein as “Wichita” with a mainstream-minded production adding a layer of fury to the record. The song wonderfully chronicles the frustrations of life, the yin, and yang of good and bad. The title track details a woman in a marriage where her husband always has the upper hand:

He only comes around when he pleases

He only comes around when I’m alone

He don’t like my friends or my family

He don’t like me talkin’ on the phone

 

It isn’t that he doesn’t care about me

If anything it’s that he cares too much

It’s only that he wants the best for me

It’s only that I don’t try hard enough

 

But he takes me in his arms like a lover

He hears my confession like a priest

He whispers in my ear, in the darkness

I’m dancing with the beast

“The Show” finds Peters with ‘Nineteen songs and one more night to go’ until a stretch of concerts draws to a close. “Lay Low” plays like a companion piece, with Peters surrendering to the voice begging her to take some time away and ‘just lay low for awhile.’ She uses “Say Grace” as permission to ‘forgive yourself for all of your mistakes.’

Female perspectives have been the hallmark of Peters’ writing for the whole of her career, whether an eight-year-old girl caught in the middle of destructive domestic abuse or a liberated wife and mother setting her husband free of their crumbled marriage. She says it’s a prism from which to view Dancing With The Beast, and while she’s been writing this way for more than thirty years, her words have never come with this much urgency.

Dancing With The Beast is as masterful as it is bleak. Peters is in a class of her own, especially now that she’s let go of her mainstream inclinations and has been crafting albums for herself and not as a vehicle for other female singers to mine for chart hits. I’m forever grateful for her immense success in the United Kingdom and the incentive it provides her to keep her musical journey alive.

She’s been one of my favorite songwriters since I began listening to country music more than twenty years ago. She’s now one of my favorite artists, too. Dancing With The Beast is among her finest work to date.

Grade: A 

Album Review: Jann Browne – ‘Count Me In’

Jann Browne had parted ways with Curb Records by the time her third album Count Me In was released in 1995. Seeing as it was her first independent record, no singles were released to country radio.

The twelve-track album includes four songs Browne co-wrote with Pat Gallagher. “Baby Goodbye” is a bluesy ballad accentuated with gorgeous lead guitar licks, while “When The Darkest Hours Pass” is mid-paced and delightful. “White Roses” is a mournful ballad brimming with dobro and “Dear Loretta” concerns a woman writing a letter after moving away and landing a job in New York City.

Browne co-wrote every track on the album, including writing two solo. “Hearts On The Blue Train” is an engaging slick rocker that opens the record with energy and gusto. “Red Moon over Lugano” is a western waltz complete with Spanish elements and ear-catching accordion work.

Lee Ann Womack found a lot to love on “Trouble’s Here,” a nice twangy shuffle she included as an album track on her eponymous album two years later. Both versions are equally excellent, which is saying a lot after Womack has lent her vocal to track. In another era, this song would’ve garnered the attention it so richly deserved.

It was one of six songs Browne co-wrote with Matthew Barnes, including the title track, which starts slowly before picking up the tempo with a percussion-heavy arrangement that nearly drowns out her vocal. “One Tired Man” is an album highlight, a sinister ballad about a man coming face-to-face with his many demons.

“Long Time Gone” is song of escape, an anthem for moving on with confidence. “Ain’t No Promise (In The Promise Land)” is a killer contemporary ballad, with strong production and a simply perfect lyric. “I Have No Witness” is even better and it’s shameful the song remained an album track.

Count Me In perfectly exemplifies why the female insurgence of the 1990s was so important to the vitality of country music. The women of country music during that era set the lyrical standard and influenced a generation of country music fans of which I’m proud to say I’m a part.

This album is a songwriting goldmine that should never have fallen through the cracks. It was clear by 1995 that Jann Browne did not have a place as an artist in mainstream country music. But, Womack and “Trouble’s Here” not withstanding, Count Me In should’ve made the rounds behind the scenes for cuts by Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, Martina McBride and the like, who held (and continue to hold) Matraca Berg and Gretchen Peters to the highest standard. Judging by this album alone, Browne should’ve stood right along side them.

I highly recommend seeking this one out if you’re able to come across a copy.

Grade: A

Single Review: Brandy Clark – ‘You’re Drunk’

It’s about time I let you in on a little secret. I’m always clamoring for new releases from Brandy Clark. When my local record store didn’t carry Live From Los Angeles this past Record Store Day, I went online and was able to secure the final copy at Bull Moose Records in New Hampshire.

I’m also still finding additional nuances in Big Day In A Small Town more than a year since it was released. I only recently uncovered the brilliance of “Since You’ve Gone To Heaven,” a track I had initially failed to understand in any concrete way. Brandy Clark isn’t just one of the strongest songwriters to come along this decade. She’s one of the greatest contemporary voices in country music, achieving an equal footing with the likes of Gretchen Peters, Matraca Berg, Bobbi Cryner and Lori McKenna.

Clark is adding to her legacy with “You’re Drunk” a staple of her live show and an outtake from the sessions for Big Day In A Small Town. The story goes that she never took the song seriously until she cut it, the track didn’t fit the vibe of the album and she had to find a way to get it out.

While I’m glad it’s out there, I’m thrilled it didn’t make the album. “You’re Drunk” is an outtake for a reason – it’s shallow, far too contemporary and lacks Clark’s overall distinctiveness. “You’re Drunk” feels undeveloped in a “Girl Next Door” sort of way, trying to be clever without really packing any significant punch.

Her work with Shane McAnally (they co-wrote this with Josh Osborne) has been incredible – the pair wrote “Since You’ve Gone to Heaven” together – but this feels like it’s dripping with McAnally’s influence and not in a good way. The production and overall vibe is far more “American Kids” than “Last Call” or “Follow Your Arrow.”

That being said, “You’re Drunk” isn’t terrible. It’s found a proper home as an outtake, where it belongs, and not the anchor to a new album, like the one consisting solely of drinking songs she wants to do at some point. I’ll give her a pass for this. It’s an outtake and nothing more. Even Brandy Clark doesn’t have to hit it out of the park every time she’s up at bat.

Grade: B-

Single Review: Brandy Clark – ‘Love Can go To Hell’

love can go to hellHaving loved Brandy Clark’s Twelve Stories, I was disappointed by some of the musical and arrangement choices producer Jay Joyce made for her current album, although her strong songwriting continues to shine. While the arrangement on new single ‘Love Can Go To Hell’ is more cluttered than it needs to be, fortunately it does not detract from the song, which Brandy wrote with Scott Stepakoff (a rock singer turned Nashille songwriter). It doesn’t sound bad – just a touch too busy.

A bitter post-breakup musing on the nature of love and pain sees Brandy reflecting on a recent breakup. She claims, not entirely convincingly, not to blame her ex:

Heaven knows
I only wish you well

I don’t blame you at all
No, I don’t hate you at all
It’s all love’s fault

But she is unable to move on:

I can get drunk on a Saturday night
And try to fall for someone new
But I’d just wake up hungover
Cursin’ the day I fell for you

The mid paced tune is redolent to me of 90s contemporary country, the kind of song Trisha Yearwood or Matraca Berg might have recorded (with a more subtle backing). Brandy is a fine singer as well as an excellent songwriter, with a voice capable of expressing strong emotions, and she performs this song well.

Curb artist Ashley Gearing also released the song as a single this year, but it failed to chart for her. Hopefully it will do better for its writer.

Grade: B+

EP Review: Shelley Skidmore – ‘Shelley Skidmore’

shelley skidmoreKentucky-born Shelley Skidmore co-wrote (with Brandy Clark and Shane MacAnally) a song I loved a few years back when Joanna Smith recorded it – ‘We Can’t Be Friends’. Now she has released her own five track EP (produced by Paul Worley), and proves to have a fine voice with a smooth tone, and a genuine country sensibility. In a recent interview she cites her favorite albums of all time as Lee Ann Womack’s There’s More Where That Comes From and Patty Loveless’s When Fallen Angels Fly – definitely an indicator of someone who loves traditional country music and knows great songs when she hears them.

The excellent ‘White Picket Fences’ was written by Shelley with Brandy Clark and Jessie Jo Dillon, and it’s a very typical Clark story song. It paints a scathing picture of the guilty secrets lying behind both a small town’s respectable surfaces, which are not so very different from the open sins of the dreaded big city:

It’s all white picket fences
It’s all pink and purple pansies
Its the face of small town grace
The perfect place to raise a family
We’re all scandal
We’re all scripture
We’re all smiling for the picture
It’s alright because it’s all white picket fences

A little bit of tasteful brass adds a jocular air.

This is the only song on the set Shelley had a hand in writing – it’s a shame she didn’t include her own version of ‘We Can’t Be Friends’.

The very best song on the album is another Brandy Clark song, this time a co-write with Troy Verges. ‘Pawn Shop’ is a modern classic of a story song, as a woman pawns her wedding ring to raise the money for a bus ticket away from her bad marriage:

It ain’t stolen
It ain’t hot
Someone told me it cost a lot
Man ain’t that the truth
I thought I’d wear it my whole life
It never even crossed my mind
Back when it was new
It’d end up in a pawn shop on Charlotte Avenue

A musician then hands over his beloved guitar, and with it gives up his dreams. And the dreams of both love and music will pass to other dreamers in their turn. This is beautifully written and sung, and deeply moving.

Shelley’s husband, Greg Bates, had a shortlived career with one hit a few years back. Greg never released an album despite a top 5 single, and seems not to have enjoyed the touring aspects of being a star. He duets with Shelley on the ballad ‘What You Need From Me’, a beautiful sad song about a failed relationship written by Jon Randall, Jessi Alexander, and Phillip White:

Woman: You need a trophy on your arm
So you don’t look so lonely
Someone to get you through the nights
Someone to start your morning coffee

Man: You need a man that you can count on
Someone who’ll finish what he started
Not a restless soul that comes and goes
And only leaves you broken hearted

Both: I’m so sorry that I’ll never be what you need from me

With regret they acknowledge their mutual failure to meet the other’s needs. Greg sounds very good here, and it’s enough to make me regret the loss of his career as a solo artist before it had really got going. The tasteful and understated arrangement is very traditional country, with some lovely steel and fiddle.

The one song that doesn’ t appeal to me is the jaunty ballad ‘Making Babies’, written by Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne, and Matt Jenkins, about pressure from the in-laws to start a family. It is neatly written but the melody is the least country sounding on the album, and doesn’t quite work for me with the song.

The album closes with the quirky ‘Back In The Saddle’, a 20 year old Matraca Berg song which Berg recorded on her 1997 album Sunday Morning To Saturday Night Shelley’s version uses the same arrangement, with backing vocals from Berg, Deana Carter, Kathy Mattea and Brandy Clark. It’s very entertaining and ends the too-short set on a high.

This is a great EP I very much enjoyed. I only wish it was a full length album.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Highway 101 – ‘The New Frontier’

317WDCAR5NLPaulette Carlson’s departure was only the first of many changes that Highway 101 underwent in the early 90s. Guitarist Jack Daniels left in 1992 and the following year the remaining band members found themselves on a new label. They’d also parted ways with Paul Worley and Ed Seay, who had produced all of the band’s albums at to that point. Curtis Stone and Cactus Moser took over production duties along with Chuck Howard.

The changes were not for the better. While Worley and Seay had surprisingly managed to keep much of Highway 101’s signature sound intact, despite the change in lead singers, the Highway 101 heard on 1993’s The New Frontier sounds like a completely different band. The band members took over more of the songwriting responsibilities — Moser and/or Stone had a hand in writing six of the album’s ten songs. The New Frontier is less traditional than the band’s previous work; the more contemporary stylewas more beat-driven (as opposed to lyrically driven). This style was often marketed as “New Country”, “Young Country” or “Hot Country” in the early 90s. While not a terrible album, the material is noticeably weaker than their earlier efforts. Not that it mattered very much; by this time that band had slipped into commercial irrelevancy. The final nail in the coffin was the new label to which the band was signed. Liberty Records had made Garth Brooks its one and only priority — to the detriment of every artist on the label, including Paulette Carlson, whose lack of success as a solo artist was partially blamed on Capitol/Liberty’s lack of promotion.

“You Baby You” was the album’s lead single and the band’s last single to chart, landing at #67. The second single, “Who’s Gonna Love You”, a Curtis Stone song, is surprisingly unmemorable despite having been co-written by Matraca Berg. I prefer “Fastest Healin’ Broken Heart”, a Stone co-write with Pat Bunch, which comes the closest to the band’s previous musical style. It’s one of a handful of songs on the album that I truly liked, along with “Home on the Range” and “I Wonder Where The Love Goes”, a very nice ballad that closes out the album. This one must have been a particular favor, because it was later re-recorded during Chrislyn Lee’s stint as lead singer.

I intensely disliked the rock-tinged “Love Walks”, “You Are What You Do” and “No Chance To Dance”, the latter two being attempts to capitalize on the popularity of line dancing. The rest of the album’s songs are strictly forgettable.

As noted earlier, the writing was already on the wall, so it came as no surprise that The New Frontier was Highway 101’s one and only release for Liberty. It was also the band’s last recording for a major label. It is not essential listening and not particularly worth seeking out unless you are a completist music collector, in which case used copies can be obtained cheaply.

Grade: C

Album Review: Highway 101 – ‘Paint the Town’

51uqPseH44L1989’s Paint the Town, the third entry in Highway 101’s discography, was the band’s final full length album before Paulette Carlson’s departure as lead singer. Like its two predecessors it was produced by Paul Worley and Ed Seay. The songwriting credits boast a number of prestigious names including Kix Brooks, Matraca Berg, Pam Tillis, Bob DiPiero, Gretchen Peters, and Roger Miller. While not quite as commercially successful as their previous albums, the material is top notch and it received a warm reception from country radio.

“Who’s Lonely Now”, written by Don Cook and a pre-Brooks & Dunn Kix Brooks was the lead single, and it quickly became the last of Highway 101’s four chart toppers. It was followed by my all-time favorite Highway 101 song, “Walkin’, Talkin’, Cryin’, Barely Beatin’ Broken Heart”, which was written by Justin Tubb and the great Roger Miller, who made a memorable guest appearance in the song’s video. Despite the mournful sounding title and subject matter, it’s a bouncy uptempo tune with plenty of pedal steel. It peaked at #4 and was the band’s last excursion into the Top 10. “This Side of Goodbye” just missed the Top 10, peaking at #11.

The rest of the album is a mix of contemporary and traditional country. On the contemporary side are the opening track “I Can’t Love You Baby” and “Rough and Tumble Heart”, a Pam Tillis co-write that Tillis would cover herself a few years later. More traditional are the plaintive Gretchen Peters-penned “I’ll Paint the Town” (blue, not red — this is no party song) and a gorgeous, version of James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James”, which closes the album. Featuring acoustic guitar, harmonica, a touch of pedal steel and a stellar vocal performance by Paulette Carlson, the track is simply stunning and a good example of why it pays to dig a little deeper into any artist’s catalog to find the hidden gems that are overshadowed by the radio hits.

The album is a mere ten tracks, which was standard for the day, and plays for just over 33 minutes. Though lean and mean it may be, the songs are all winners, with just one dud. “Midnight Angel” had been a Top 20 hit for Barbara Mandrell in 1976. I’ve always liked the song very much and at first it seemed like a number that Carlson could easily nail, but the Highway 101 version is surprisingly lackluster. It’s probably my least favorite track on any of the band’s first three albums. That one misstep aside, however, Paint the Town is top-notch affair that sounds as fresh today as it did when it was first released 26 years ago.

Grade: A

Album Review: Highway 101 – ‘Highway 101’

albuma37Highway 101 debuted in January 1987 as the newest artist signed to Warner Brothers Records Nashville. Their spectacular eponymous debut introduced the world to Paulette Carlson, a honky-tonk wonder who has always reminded me of a country Stevie Nicks. The record had four major hit singles and was produced by Paul Worley.

The band launched with the impressive honky-tonk rocker “The Bed You Made For Me,” which deservedly hit #4. Carlson, who solely penned the track, is a woman taking the upper hand while confronting her cheating man (it’s not clear if she’s the mistress or the spouse). She brilliantly uses the bed he cheated in to drive home her argument when laying him out in lavender:

And did you tell her she was sleeping in the bed you made for me?

Did she like my satin sheets and did you sing her to sleep?

And my pillow that she slept on did it bring her sweet dreams?

Did you tell her she was sleeping in the bed you made for me?

***

The pillow that you made for me it was soft with feather down

And the headboard, it came from an old house

That was about to be torn down

And the songs you always sang to me oh as I fall asleep

Did they sound the same to her in the bed you made for me?

***

Now you can take my old pillow and throw it out the door

You can buy another bed you can find another headboard

‘Cause I ain’t gonna lie beneath those satin sheets you tore

The bed you made for me it isn’t mine anymore

Their second single, which peaked at #2, was the incredible steel guitar drenched “Whiskey, If You Were A Woman,” a slice of songwriting gold penned by Mary W. Francis, Johnny MacRae and Bob Morrison. The clever lyric finds Carlson coping uniquely with her man’s grip on the bottle:

Oh, oh, whiskey, if you were a woman

I’d fight you and I’d win, Lord knows I would

Oh, oh, whiskey, if you were a woman

I’d drive you from his tangled mind for good

***

No matter what you do, I do it better

You’ll never be the woman I could be

But you don’t have a heart or any feelings

So I can’t even ask for sympathy

They clinched their first chart topper with the luminescent “Somewhere Tonight,” penned by Harlan Howard and Rodney Crowell, who was a rising star at the time. The track, about a lonesome woman whose man took off for brighter horizons, is surprisingly jaunty for the subject matter. (A bit of trivia: “Somewhere Tonight” was #1 the week I was born).

Final single “Cry, Cry, Cry” was the band’s first consecutive #1. It’s another excellent jaunty honky-tonk rocker, this time with Carlson having quite a difficult time getting over the relationship that just ended:

It’s just a little creek now

But when the rain comes down it’s gonna be a raging river

I just heard my baby say goodbye

He left me here holding back my tears, now he’s gone forever

The dam’s gonna break and I’ma gonna cry, cry, cry

***

I’ma gonna cry and I don’t care who sees

I wonder if he knows what he’s done to me

Gonna love that boy till the day I die

Till the day I do I’m gonna cry, cry, cry

The singles from the band’s debut album were sonically and lyrically cohesive, which helped endear them to radio programmers. The rest of the album somewhat breaks the mold. The band’s drummer Cactus Moser, now married to Wynonna Judd, co-penned the twangy “One Step Closer” with Curtis Stone. The track finds Carlson in a bar with her eye on a guy across the room. She’s hesitant to make a move because ‘One step closer and Mama always told me, don’t go fallin’ till you see the whites of his eyes.’

Carlson solely penned one other track, the equally uptempo “Are You Still Mine,” which could’ve easily been another hit single. She also co-wrote (with Bob DiPiero and Pat McManus) the breakneck paced “Good Goodbye,” about a woman who’s happy to see her current relationship has ended. Matraca Berg lends her pen to “Bridge Across Forever,” a co-write with Ronnie Samoset. It isn’t Berg’s most distinctive lyric and the track unfortunately falls short in comparison to the rest of the album.

The album’s most famous ballad is “Woman Walk The Line,” written by Emmylou Harris and Paul Kennerley. Harris and Trisha Yearwood have both recorded their own versions, which bring out the palpable hurt within the lyric. Highway 101 gives the track pep, which is a bit jarring, but it works as another way of presenting the story.

The final ballad, “Someone Believed” is the most distinctly different from any other track on the album. The song tells a two-act story about a girl who wishes to leave her life on the farm and a city boy who cannot imagine any other life than the girl’s. The cohesiveness is found in the idea that anything is possible in life if you just believe.

Highway 101 is a near perfect debut album. The majority of the tracks are stunning and the production is nicely within the neo-traditional meets contemporary style that was popular at the time. My only slight complaint is that the album is almost too cohesive. I wish Worley had given the album tracks a bit more sonic variety and thus presented the album with a few more surprises. It’s still an essential album 28 years later, with all of the band’s biggest hits in one place. If you were going to check out Highway 101 this is absolutely where you would begin.

Grade: A

Album Review: Ashley Monroe – ‘The Blade’

the bladeAshley Monroe’s second Warner Brothers release has been among my most-anticipated albums this year. While it lacks the immediate charm of the wonderful Like A Rose, the Vince Gill/Justin Niebank-helmed set has substance and beauty which grows on repeated exposure to reward the listener. Ashley’s delicately pretty voice is perfect for the vulnerable emotions expressed in many of the songs.

Ashley co-wrote every song but one. That outside contribution is the title track, written by Marc Beeson, Jamie Floyd and Allen Shamblin. It is a truly outstanding song about the disillusonment of finding one has always loved more than one’s partner, and is now left high and dry:

I let your love in, I have the scar
I felt the razor against my heart
I thought we were both in all the way
But you caught it by the handle
And I caught it by the blade

That’s the risk you run when you love
When you love and you give it all you’ve got to give
Knowing all along there’s a chance
There’s a chance you’ll reach and they won’t
You’ll bleed and they don’t

For you, it’s over; for me, it’s not
I kept tryin’ and you just stopped
Now I know how you can sound so brave
Cause you caught it by the handle, baby
And I caught it by the blade

Gill and Niebank’s understated production perfectly backs up Ashley’s hushed vocal. The whole thing is quite stunning.

The exquisite ballad ‘Has Anybody Ever Told You’ (written with Tyler Cain) is a charming love song supported with lovely steel guitar.

Another highlight is one of two songs written by Ashley with Chris Stapleton and Jessi Alexander, the traditional country lament ‘If The Devil Don’t Want Me’, in which a broken heart fails to find comfort anywhere:

I’ve heard stories ’bout honky tonk angels
Pickin’ up pieces of broken strangers
I’m at rock bottom with a smoke and a sin
When the party is over, then I’m lonely again

If the devil don’t want me
Where the hell do I go?
If I can’t see the light
In the neon glow
If there ain’t enough whiskey
To kill the fire in my soul

This writing partnership also produced the rapid paced bluesy rock ‘Winning Streak’, backed with wild honky tonk piano, on a similar theme, down and out with not even the devil interested. This is less to my taste musically than the other song, but well written and performed.

Alexander also co-wrote the contemporary ballad ‘If Love Was Fair’ with Ashley and with Steve Moakler. Miranda Lambert joined Ashley and Jessi to write the closing track, ‘I’m Good At Leavin’’, another excellent country tune, this time about an unapologetic rambling soul and free spirit, given a Celtic style arrangement.

Justin Davis and Sarah Zimmermann of the dup Striking Matches joined Ashley to write two songs. The gently pretty ‘From Time To Time’ has a tender lullabyish mood, while the memorable up-tempo ‘Dixie’ has a retro feel and a dramatic southern Gothic storyline:

It was the mines that killed my daddy
It was the law that killed my man
It was the Bible Belt that whipped me
When I broke the Fifth Command
I don’t hate the weather
I don’t hate the land
But if I had it my way I’d never see this place again

When I cross that line, man I’ll sing a brand new song
Instead of sitting here by the railroad tracks whistlin’ Dixie all day long
And I’m so tired of paying, praying for my sins
Lord get me out of Dixie Land
Jesus’ name, Amen

When I tread out of these parts
Look me up on the other side
Cause I’ll be damned if I go down in Dixie when I die

‘Bombshell’, written with Steve McEwan and Gordie Sampson, is about facing the guilty decision to tell a lover she is leaving, and knowing there is never going to be a good time to do it. Very good indeed.

Producer Gill co-wrote ‘Weight Of The Load’, a nice song about sharing the burdens of doubt and fear. Ashley’s friend Brendan Benson of the rock band The Raconteurs helped her with the pretty folky ballad ‘Mayflowers’. The first single, the upbeat and catchy ‘On To Something Good’ is agreeable listening if one of the lighter tracks.

The one track I didn’t much care for was the repetitive minor-keyed moody ‘I Buried Your Love Alive’ (a co-write with Matraca Berg), and even this grew on me a bit.

Overall, this is a great album which should raise Ashley Monroe’s profile.

Grade: A

Album Review: Gretchen Peters – ‘Blackbirds’

blackbirds250In the months leading up to the release of Blackbirds Gretchen Peters was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and she also performed as part of the Poets & Prophets series at the Country Music Hall of Fame with her husband Barry Walsh. The follow-up to her 2012 masterwork Hello Cruel World, Blackbirds is the most personal album of her illustrious career.

Peters began the songwriting process for Blackbirds in the summer of 2013, drawing inspiration from a week where she attended three funerals and a wedding. Thus, she explores mortality from varying perspectives, through transcendent bouts of vivid poetry, compositions commanding the listener’s attention without letting go.

The exquisitely bleak “Pretty Things,” co-written by Peters and Ben Glover, serves as the promotional single. A raw meditation on the fleeting lure of beauty, “Pretty Things” is a stunning battle cry about gratitude, and our need to appreciate what we have, while it’s still here.

Peters co-wrote two other tracks with Glover, a musical partner with which she feels both kinship and safety. The songs couldn’t exude a sharper contrast thematically, running the gamut from murder in Southern Louisiana to an account of a snowy winter set in 1960s New York City. The cunning murder ballad is the title track, a vibrant tale of destruction soaked in haunting riffs of electric guitar. A second version, recorded more soberly, closes the album. The wintry anecdote is “When You Comin’ Home,” a dobro drenched Dylan-esque folk song featuring singer-songwriter Johnny LaFave.

Peters, who often does her best work by herself, penned half of the album solo, including the album’s timely centerpiece, “When All You Got Is a Hammer.” The tune masterfully paints the mental conflict raging inside veterans as they readjust to life on home soil. Peters investigates another facet of darkness with “The House on Auburn Street,” set where she grew up. Framed with the image of a house burning down and recounting memories with a sibling, the track beautifully captures quite desperation, but the dragging melody could use a bit more cadence to get the story across most effectively.

Peters takes us to California to examine the mysteries of death on “Everything Falls Away.” She asks the questions that remain enigmatic while gifting us a piano based production that stretches her voice to an otherwordly sphere she rarely taps into, allowing it to crack at the most appropriate moments. Her vocal on “Jubilee” taps similar emotional territory, with a story about surrendering once death is near. Like “The House on Auburn Street,” the melody here is slow, and could’ve benefited from picking up the pace a little.

Her final solely written tune is “The Cure for the Pain,” which she wrote after a weekend in the hospital with a loved one. The acoustic guitar based ballad doesn’t offer much hope, and rests on the idea that the only cure for pain is more pain.

The only outside cut on Blackbirds comes from pop singer-songwriter David Mead. His “Nashville” is a track she’s loved for more than a decade, and she gives it a beautifully delicate reading. In searching for Mead’s version of the song, I was surprised to find a live cover by Taylor Swift, who apparently sang it a couple of years ago in her shows.

“Black Ribbons” reunites Peters with her musical sisters Matraca Berg and Suzy Bogguss, for a tune about a fisherman who lays his wife to rest in the aftermath of the BP oil spill. One of the album’s strongest tracks, thanks in a large part to the inclusion of tempo and the background vocals by both Berg and Bogguss, “Black Ribbons” is a brilliant illustration of despair that serves as a reminder of the pain the fisherman in the gulf went through during that time.

Blackbirds is masterfully lyrical, setting pain to music in a myriad of different contexts that put the listener at the heart of each story. The end result leaves that listener emotionally exhausted, which is why Blackbirds should be taken in small doses in order to fully appreciate all the goodness found within. Peters has been one of Nashville’s strongest female singer-songwriters for well over two decades now, but she’s only gotten better as she’s amassed more life experience and concentrated on creating soul baring masterworks. Like Hello Cruel World before it, Blackbirds is an album not to be missed.

Grade: A

Album Review: Trisha Yearwood – ‘PrizeFighter: Hit After Hit’

prizefighterThe initial euphoria I felt upon learning that Trisha Yearwood was finally releasing a new album was tempered slightly by the realization that it would be mostly comprised of her old hits along with six new tracks. After a seven-year hiatus, one would think that fans should be able to expect a full-length album’s worth of new material. The older songs included on PrizeFighter: Hit After Hit, are re-recordings of ten of Yearwood’s best known hits. They are faithful enough to the originals that casual fans will probably not notice the difference, with the possible exception of “XXX’s and OOO’s”, which lacks the double-tracked vocal of the original. These re-recordings are the rare exceptions that can hold their own against the orignals, proving that nearly a quarter-century after her debut, Yearwood can still deliver the goods. That being said, the newly-recorded versions don’t bring anything new to the table and no matter how well done they are, one can’t help feeling a little disappointed that Trisha and her producers didn’t make the effort to find a few more new songs to include on the album in their place.

As far as the new material goes, Trisha shows that she hasn’t lost her touch when it comes to choosing top-notch material. The title track and lead single “PrizeFighter“, which I reviwewed back in September, is the only one of the six new tracks that seemed tailor-made for radio. The collaboration with Kelly Clarkson peaked at a disappointing buy not surprising #42 on the country airplay chart and didn’t enter the main Billboard country singles chart at all. The remainder of the new material seems decidedly less commercial. The best of the group is “I Remember You”, a stripped-down acoustic ballad written by Kelly Archer, Ben Caver and Brad Rempel. Trisha’s sister provides the harmony vocals and the song is dedicated to their late parents. Almost as good is “Met Him In A Motel Room”, a Rory Lee Feek and Jamie Teachenor tune about a young girl, possibly a prostitute, meeting someone for a clandestine tryst. The setting of the seedy motel is juxtaposed with a church in the next verse. It’s not clear whether the girl is meeting a clergymen or a pillar-of-the-community married man, but she is later contemplating suicide in another motel room, when the sight of a Bible on the beside table gives her pause to reconsider.

“Your Husband’s Been Cheatin’ On Us” and “You Can’t Trust the Weatherman” provide a much-needed change of pace after such heavy material. The former is a bluesy number, a departure for Yearwood and reminsicent of something Wynonna might have recorded. It is told from the point of view of a cast-aside mistress who gets her revenge by telling her ex-lover’s wife about his affair with yet another woman. The song was written by Matraca Berg, Marshall Chapman and Jill McCorkle. “You Can’t Trust The Weatherman”, written by Ashley Gorley, Wade Kirby and Bryan Simpson, is a tongue-in-cheek number about a shotgun wedding that eventually finds the young couple becoming a latter-day Bonne and Clyde — and almost getting away with it. It is the most country-sounding of the album’s new songs.

Despite the somewhat disappointing recycling of so much old material, Trisha Yearwood fans are bound to be happy to finally have something new to sink their teeth into. The album can be purchased on CD or downloaded from GhostTunes.

Grade: A

Album Review: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Speed of Life’

220px-NGDB-SpeedThe Nitty Gritty Dirt Band released their most recent project Speed of Life on their own NGDB Records distributed by Sugar Hill in 2009. George Massenburg and Jon Randall Stewart produced the album, which peaked at #59 on the Billboard Top Country Albums Chart. The album, which didn’t produce any singles, is folksy bluegrass. Given Stewart co-produced it, he helmed Dierks Bentley’s Up On The Ridge, that isn’t a surprise.

Jeff Hanna’s wife Matraca Berg contributed two songs to the project. Both are mid-tempo harmonica laced ballads. “The Resurrection,” which she co-wrote with Alice Randall, is about a lost soul in a nowhere town, while “Good To Be Alive,” (a co-write with Troy Verges) is sing-a-long folk. Both tracks are very good, although I enjoy the latter a bit more even though the cadence is a cheesy for my taste.

John McEuen also contributed two tracks while Bob Carpenter, who co-wrote one with him, supplied four. “Earthquake” is a western swing meets bluegrass fusion ballad complete with gorgeous old-time steel guitar riffs. McEuen composed “Lost In The Pines,” a slow instrumental solo, and while it’s heavy on banjo, it really isn’t my thing.

Carpenter also co-wrote “Something Dangerous” and “Amazing Love.” The former is a plucky mid-tempo number while the latter skews contemporary country. Both are very good although “Amazing Love” is more appealing both sonically and lyrically.

The remaining tracks on Speed of Life offer more of the same bluegrass meets folk mid-tempo numbers that are all expertly crafted if not terribly exciting. “Tulsa Sounds Like Trouble To Me” is an exception, opting for a more upbeat style that gives the track a bit more muscle and energy. “Going Up To The Country” and “Brand New Heartache” follow suit, but they’re more organic in style.

Overall, Speed of Life is a very good album that continues the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s legacy of strong, cleanly produced projects that sound great but aren’t a real punch in the gut. The band could stand to be a bit more adventurous, but that’s just not their style. I would recommend this album to anyone that likes their music mixing bluegrass and folk with organic sounds throughout.

Grade: B+

Classic Rewind: Jeff Hanna ft Matraca Berg – ‘God Bless The Broken Road’

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Jeff Hanna and his wife Matraca Berg wrote this song, which is probably best known from Rascal Flatts’ cover.

Album Review: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume III’

will the circle 317 years passed between the original Will The Circle Be Unbroken and Volume II. 13 years after that, in 2002, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band decided it was time for a third instalment, which they released on Capitol. It did not make as much of a stir as either of the previous instalments, but is still a pretty solid collection of bluegrass and oldtime music with some guests old and new.

The opening ‘Take Me In Your Lifeboat’ is beaty bluegrass gospel performed with Del McCoury and his sons. The McCourys are back on the secular ‘Love Please Come Home’, which is well done but not memorable.

I preferred the contributions from bluegrass great Jimmy Martin (1927-2005), who had taken part in both previous versions, and who belies his age with confident upbeat performances here. He sings his own ‘Hold Whatcha Got’ (which Ricky Skaggs had made into a hit in the late 80s), and also the lively ‘Save It, Save It’.

In contrast, June Carter Cash (1929-2003) takes the lead vocal on the Carter Family’s ‘Diamonds In The Rough’, with Earl Scruggs on banjo. She does not sound at all well, and indeed died the following year. Although Johnny Cash (1932-2003) was also in poor health, he sounds much better than his wife on a self-penned tribute to the late Maybelle and Sara Carter, ‘Tears In The Holston River.

Willie Nelson, not involved in previous versions, gets two cuts here. Willie sounds good on ‘Goodnight Irene’, but the tracks is irredeemably ruined by the presence of duet partner Tom Petty. Petty is out of tune and the harmony is embarrassingly dissonant. A cheery Nelson version of ‘Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms’ is better although it does feel a bit perfunctory.

Dwight Yoakam (another newcomer to the series) is great on his two tracks. He shows his Kentucky roots on the mournful and authentic ‘Some Dark Holler’. He is outstanding on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ ‘Wheels’, which he makes sound like. Vince Gill’s ‘All Prayed Up’ is an excellent piece of up-tempo bluegrass gospel.

Emmylou Harris sings her ex-husband Paul Kennerley’s ‘I’ll Be Faithful To You’, a sweet declaration of eternal love, exquisitely. She also duets with Matraca Berg (Mrs Jeff Hanna) on Berg’s folk-styleode to the river running through Nashville, ‘Oh Cumberland’. Alison Krauss exercises her angelic tones on ‘Catfish John’.

Iris Dement sings beautifully on her own nostalgic ‘Mama’s Opry’. Ricky Skaggs and Rodney Dillard team up for the pacy folk of ‘There Is A Time’. Band members’sons Jaime Hanna and Jonathan McEuen (who were the duo Hanna-McEuen at the time) are a bit limp for me on ‘The Lowlands’, a folky Gary Scruggs song.

Sam Bush takes it high mountain lonesome on Carter Stanley’s ‘Lonesome River’. ‘Milk Cow Blues’ is taken back to its blues roots and features Josh Graves and Doc Watson. Watson also sings the traditional ‘I Am A Pilgrim’. More contemporary is ‘I Find Jesus’, penned by Jimmy Ibbotson. ‘Roll The Stone Away’ (written by Jeff Hanna with Marcus Hummon) uses religious imagery but it is a bit dull. The Nashville Bluegrass Band take on A. P. Carter’s ‘I Know What It Means To Be Lonesome which is OK.

Gravel-voiced bluesman Taj Mahal and legendary fiddler Vassar Clements guest on the good-humored ‘Fishin’ Blues, which is mildly amusing. Taj Mahal and Alison Krauss guest on this album’s take on the title song which falls rather flat with Alison sounding a bit squeaky and therest of them dull and lifeless.

This album lacks the groundbreaking nature of Volume I, and the cosy atmosphere of either previous set, making more of a standard collection of older material. There are definitely some tracks well worth hearing, and I’d still be interested if there was a Volume 4.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – ‘Bang, Bang, Bang’

bangbangbang1999’s Bang, Bang, Bang was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s sole release from DreamWorks Records, and a last-ditch effort to reverse the band’s decade-long commercial decline. Emory Gordy, Jr. and Steve Fishell were brougnt in to co-produce with Josh Leo. The result was an album that relied more heavily on outside songwriters than most of their earlier work and a more mainstream country-pop sound instead of the country-rock for which they had become well known. As the title suggests, Bang, Bang, Bang isn’t their most substantive collection of songs, but it still has its enjoyable moments.

The opening track “If This Ain’t Love”, written by Jim Lauderdale and Gary Nicholson is a big departure for the group. The horns are a bit jarring but the tune is catchy and contains plenty of steel guitar in the mix, which is a very welcome inclusion — remember this was the era of Shania Twain and Faith Hill when many artists had one eye on the pop charts. The title track, which was the album’s sole single, is a disappointing piece of fluff. It died at #52 when it was originally releasd in 1998. The following year’s re-release fared even worse, recaching only #63. Even more disappointing is the Steve Bogard/Rick Giles tune “Forget The Job (Get A Life)”, an extremely annoying number that sounds like something Shania Twain rejected. I don’t know what they were thinking when they recorded this one but everyone involved should have known better. “It’s About Time” isn’t a first-rate song but it is saved by a nice harmony vocal provided by Matraca Berg.

Things get better with a nice cover of Mac McAnally’s “Down The Road”, which I prefer to the original. “Singing To the Scarecrow”, about a Kentucky farm girl who dreams of stardom, is one of two Dennis Linde compositions and is also quite good. Even better is “Dry Town”, an uptempo Gillian Welch-Jown Rawlings number. The novelty tune “The Monkey Song”, written by Jimmy Ibbotson, is the album’s sole song written by a NGDB member.

While Bang, Bang Bang ultimately did nothing to relaunch the band’s recording career, and it may not be the best remembered entry in their discography, it is certainly worth a listen. Used cheap copies are readily available.

Album Review: Angaleena Presley – ‘American Middle Class’

angaleena-presley-album-american-middle-class-2014-08-1000pxFor her solo debut, Pistol Annie Angaleena Presley took the unconventional approach of self-producing the album along with her Husband Jordan Powell. Released earlier this month on Slate Creek Records, American Middle Class is one of the most authentic creations of self-expression you’ll likely hear all year.

Presley, who hails from Beauty, Kentucky, faced an uphill battle in Nashville where she couldn’t get signed to a major label. Then she landed her big break as ‘Holler Annie’ in the trio also consisting of Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe. As a songwriter, her “Fastest Girl In Town” was a top 5 hit for Lambert and Ashton Shepherd took her co-write “Look It Up” into the top 20.

I’ve always been a fan of Presley’s direct approach to songwriting, where she refuses to mince words in effort to make a point. Her Pistol Annies cuts have been some of my favorites from the trio, and while she doesn’t have the flashiest vocal tone, it works in her favor here.

Presley, who co-wrote the whole album, composed five of the album’s songs solo. “Ain’t No Man” is a brilliantly biting ballad with stunning turns of phrase while “All I Ever Wanted” sets a religiously confrontational lyric to an ear catching shuffle beat. The mix of Presley’s strong vocal with her prominent background vocalist renders “Pain Pills” too cluttered, distracting the listener from the tale of Jimmy, who’s drowning his sorrows in booze and narcotics in an effort to cope with his life.

Presley is at her best when her storytelling prowess remains the focus of a song, and American Middle Class abounds with prime examples. Her self-penned “Better off Red” is a masterpiece of perception, a beautiful reflection on one’s place in our world. Equally powerful is Lori McKenna co-write “Grocery Store,” three minutes of observations culled from a checkout line. The deceptively simple track is filled with gorgeous articulations of our mundane everyday lives and comes together as a dazzling work of art almost too good to be true.

“Life of the Party” teams Presley with her hero Matraca Berg for another mouth-watering creation, this time the pedal steel soaked story of a woman facing the light of day after a night spent with another man. The pair is an irresistible songwriting force, with Berg turning in a co-write on par with the myriad of classics she churned out in the 1980s and 1990s, a feat in of itself.

On “Drunk” Presley and co-writer Sara Siskind cover identical ground as Presley’s labelmate Brandy Clark did on “Hungover,” and they turn out equally as delicious a tune about unappreciative men and their selfish ways. “Knocked Up,” co-written with Mark D. Sanders, is the prequel to “Drunk,” a banjo driven number about an unplanned pregnancy and shotgun wedding that plays like a delightful dark comedy.

“Dry Country Blues,” which Presley also co-wrote with Sanders, paints the gritty glory of small town life down to the drunk boys out to get laid and their female counterparts trying not to turn into meth whores. The self-penned title track, which covers the same ground, boarders on preachy and falls dangerously close into a pandering flag-waving anthem, but she makes it work by bringing in Patty Loveless for a harmony vocal that gives the track an added texture that works well with the formidable arrangement.

“Blessing and a Curse,” co-written with Bob DiPiero, is one of the more mainstream-leaning lyrics on American Middle Class with a bluesy arrangement that works beautifully with Presley’s voice. Even the electric guitar, which dominates, isn’t a hinder but rather an assist to the track’s overall splendor. Another such track is “Surrender,” the record’s closing number and a co-write with Luke Laird and Barry Dean. The ballad is as lush and exciting as it is assessable, and Presley turns in an elegant vocal.

American Middle Class is easily a highlight of 2014 with Presley’s fine tuned prospective on the world expressed through sharp songwriting and immaculate choices in instrumentation. Her decision to co-produce with her husband has given the album an added authenticity that gives the record an artists’ touch, an obvious missing link in the majority of mainstream music today. Presley, who’s the real deal, has filled my heart with a joy I haven’t felt in a long, long time.

I cannot recommend this nearly flawless album enough.

Grade: A+

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-