My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Melonie Cannon

Album Review: Willie Nelson – ‘To All The Girls’

to all the girlsThe newest Willie Nelson album finds Willie treading familiar ground, recording eighteen duets with various female partners. These partners range from young to old, famous to fairly unknown and across a wide array of genres.

The album opens up with the “From Here To The Moon And Back”, an introspective ballad from the catalogue of duet partner Dolly Parton. This song has a very quiet arrangement with piano being the dominant sound, along with a very light string arrangement – very nice song.

Another very quiet song is “She Was No Good For Me” with the normally boisterous Miranda Lambert assisting Willie on an old Waylon Jennings tune. It is nice to hear Miranda sing a song that requires nuance and restraint.

She was a good looking woman no doubt
A high steppin’ mover that men talk about
Everything bad in me she brought it out
And she was just no good for me

[Chorus:]
Don’t be taken by the look in her eyes
If she looks like an angel
It’s a perfect disguise
And for somebody else she may be
But she was just no good for me

“It Won’t Be Very Long” opens with a harmonica intro which comes to a dead stop and then starts to a song with a very country gospel feel – something either Roy Acuff or the Nitty Gritty Dirt band might have tackled. The Secret Sisters aren’t really very well known but probably do the best job of any act on the album of actually harmonizing with Willie. Willie and producer Buddy Cannon wrote this song.

“Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends” is a Kris Kristofferson song that originally was a top ten hit for new Country Music Hall of Famer Bobby Bare (it reached #1 on Record World) in 1971. In 1974 it reached #1 on Billboard for Ronnie Milsap. I always preferred Bare’s version as I think the song benefited from Bare’s more laid back approach to the song. Nelson and duet partner Rosanne Cash adopt the more relaxed approach to the song, with Willie’s guitar being the dominant sound of the background, but with a tasteful organ undertone by Moose Brown. Willie and Rosanne’s voices really don’t mesh well together and Willie’s eccentric phrasing is difficult for any singer to handle, but actual harmonizing on this tune is kept to a dead minimum.

“Far Away Places” is one of the classics of the American Pop Standards canon. The song was written by Joan Whitney and Alex Kramer way back in 1948, and was an immediate hit by three artists in late 1948-early 1949, reaching #2 for the legendary Bing Crosby, #3 for Margaret Whiting and #6 for Perry Como. The Como version is probably the best remembered version since RCA kept the song available for most of the last 65 years whereas the other versions have frequently been out of print. Willie and partner Sheryl Crow harmonize well and recreate the dreamy feel of the 1948 versions. This is my favorite track on this album:

Far away places with strange soundin’ names
Far away over the sea
Those far away places with the strange soundin’ names
Are callin’, callin’ me

Goin’ to China or maybe Siam
I want to see for myself
Those far away places I’ve been readin’ about
In a book that I took from the shelf

I don’t know how many times Willie has recorded his own “Bloody Mary Morning” but this version must be the fastest version on disc. I’m not a big Wynonna Judd fan but this is the kind of song she handles well. Mike Johnson (steel) and Dan “Man of Constant Sorrow” Tyminski (acoustic guitar) really shine on this track.

Writers Wayne Carson, Mark James and John Christopher, Jr cashed in big time with “You Were Always On My Mind” as it was a hit thrice (Brenda Lee, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson) and appeared on many albums generating many millions of sales (and royalties for the songwriters). On this recording Willie is joined by Carrie Underwood in a nice version with fairly minimal backing.

During the 1960s and 1970s semi-permanent male-female duos abounded, nearly all of whom tackled Merle Haggard’s “Somewhere Between”. It’s a great song and Willie is joined by the legendary Loretta Lynn, singing in better voice than anything I’ve heard from her recently. Willie and Loretta trade verses (usually in different keys) and do not harmonize except one line at the end. It’s a great song and full justice is done to the song.

“No Mas Amore” written by Keith Gattis and Sammy Barrett, is given the Mexican treatment by Willie and partner Alison Krauss complete with trumpets. Willies band member Mickey Raphael plays chord harmonica and bass harmonica; Alison’s band member Dan Tyminski adds background vocals and plays mandolin. Usually Alison Krauss duets produce a certain magic, but this one is merely pleasant listening.

“Back To Earth” features Melonie Cannon on this Willie Nelson ballad, taken at a languid pace. The song is nothing special but Melanie and Willie execute it well.

Mavis Staples is one of the best known gospel singers, carrying on the fine tradition of the legendary Staples Family. “Grandma’s Hands” was penned by Bill Withers, probably best known for his monster hits “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lean On Me”. The song was about Wither’s own grandma and is an affectionate look at a loved one, now departed. Willie and Mavis give it a bit of a ‘swamp blues pop’ treatment that fits the song exactly.

“Walkin” features Wiliie’s good friend Norah Jones on a Willie composition. This is a bluesy slow ballad about leaving.

“Till The End of World” is an old Vaughn Horton standard given an up-tempo western swing arrangement. Back in 1949 Ernest Tubb, Jimmy Wakely and Johnny Bond all had top twelve hits with the song, then in 1952 Bing Crosby and ace guitarist Grady Martin took it back into the top ten. Shelby Lynne reestablishes her country credibility with this effort.

“Will You Remember Mine” is a lovely ballad from Willie’s pen. I don’t know anything about Lily Meola but she is a perfect complement to Willie on this song.

Gone are the times when I held you close
And pressed your lips to mine
Now when you kissed another’s lips
Will you remember mine?

I’m sure we’ve all had this thought – indeed.

“Dry Lightning” comes from the pen of Bruce Springsteen. Emmylou Harris can sing with anyone. Therefore it is no surprise that this song works as a duet. It’s another slow ballad, but Emmylou, as usual is exquisite.

I first ran across Brandi Carlile some years ago when the late and lamented Borders chain distributed sampler CDs of her work. On “Making Believe” she proves both that she can sing effective harmony and can sing country music with feeling. This song was written by Jimmy Work but is best remembered as a major hit for Kitty Wells in 1955, with Emmylou Harris taking it back to the top ten in 1977.

“Have You Ever Seen The Rain” is a John Fogarty composition given a slow folk arrangement that enables Willie and (I think) daughter Paula Nelson to convey the lyrics in an uncluttered manner. I really like this recording.

Tina Rose is the daughter of Leon & Mary Russell. Willie recorded an album with Leon Russell in 1979, so it seems only proper that he should record a song with Leon’s daughter. I’m not that impressed with Ms Russell’s vocals, but they work well enough on the vehicle chosen, L.E White’s “After The Fire Is Gone”, which White’s boss, Conway Twitty took to the top of the charts with Loretta Lynn in 1971. Willie and Tina don’t have the chemistry Conway and Loretta had (few do) but the end result is worthwhile.

It remains true:
There’s nothing cold as ashes
After the fire’s gone

All told, there is a very pleasant offering from Willie – I’d give it a B+, mostly because a few more up-tempo numbers were needed. Willie, of course, is always Willie, and as always, he was chosen well in his selection of female guests.

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Album Review: Sammy Kershaw – ‘A Sammy Klaus Christmas’

The most interesting thing about Sammy Kershaw’s brand new Christmas record is the topping and tailing of the record with two narrations of the old poem ‘The Night Before Christmas’, both completely without any musical backing. The one at the start of the album is done quite straight, and makes an attractive opening as Sammy proves himself a fine readers of the recitation who really brings the story to life. Then at the end, Sammy tries a reworking in a strongly accented Cajun-English patois, which has a lot of charm.

This is an almost completely secular take on Christmas, with a strong emphasis on the figure of Santa Claus, who rather bizarrely gets a personal thank you in the liner notes. Sammy produced, and also designed the cheap looking cover. His road band provide the backings, with Melonie Cannon, John Wesley Ryles and Garnet Bowman guesting on backing vocals.

A playful ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’ is perky and enjoyable and gets you in the Christmas mood even in November. ‘Up On The Housetop’ (the only song repeated from Sammy’s previous Christmas album, 1994’s Christmas Time’s A Comin’) is bright and cheerful; I really enjoyed this and prefer it to his previous version because that had a child singing half of it, not particularly well.

‘Here Comes Santa Claus’ is quite pleasantly Christmassy, and old chestnut ‘Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!’ is likeably done.  ‘Jingle Bells’ is addressed energetically but unconvincingly, although I like the arrangement with the tentative piano representing the sleigh bells. ‘Have A Holly Jolly Christmas’ isn’t bad, but not particularly exciting. The pedestrian take on ‘The Twelve Days Of Christmas’ is paint-by-numbers and the poorest track here.

‘Santa Claus Is Back In Town’ is a blues number once recorded by Elvis, and while not really to my tastes, is quite well done. However, I didn’t like Sammy’s version of Ray Charles’ ‘That Spirit Of Christmas’ at all. The languid bluesy ballad about the joys of family time at Christmas ends up just sounding depressed. It is one of only two songs to mention Jesus at all, with the only really religious number a solemn reading of ‘Silent Night’, the most beautiful of all Christmas carols.

This isn’t quite as good as Christmas Time’s A Comin’, but it’s still quite an enjoyable Christmas album with a jovial party atmosphere.

Grade: B

Album Review: Sammy Kershaw – ‘Haunted Heart’

Sammy Kershaw’s sophomore effort reunited him with producers Buddy Cannon and Norro Wilson, whose collaboration had helped Don’t Go Near The Water achieve platinum-level sales. 1993’s Haunted Heart continues in a similar vein. It too achieved platinum status, but it also improved upon its predecessor’s inconsistent success with country radio; all of Haunted Heart’s four singles landed in the Top 10, unlike Sammy’s previous effort which had produced only two Top 10 hits.

Straight out of the box, the catchy lead single “She Don’t Know She’s Beautiful”, written by Bob McDill and Paul Harrison, rose all the way to #1, becoming the first and only chart-topper of Kershaw’s career. The upbeat title track was the album’s worst performing single, peaking at #9, while the similar sounding “Queen Of My Double Wide Trailer” performed slightly better, reaching #7. The latter song, written by Dennis Linde, is marred by somewhat cliched and silly lyrics, but its catchy beat makes it enjoyable nonetheless. The fourth and final single, “I Can’t Reach Her Anymore” is the best of the group and ranks right up there with “Yard Sale” as one of Kershaw’s best singles.

Aside from the hit singles, Haunted Heart is noteworthy for some of its supporting personnel. The legendary Weldon Myrick, famous for his work with Connie Smith, plays steel guitar on that album, and one of the background vocalists is Sammy’s labelmate, the then largely unknown Shania Twain. She can be heard most prominently on the excellent Dean Dillon and Danny Kees composition “What Might Have Been”. It’s too bad that Shania’s own discography doesn’t contain material like this. Another standout track is the beautiful ballad “Still Lovin’ You”, which despite its inclusion on Sammy’s 1995 The Hits: Chapter 1 compilation, was never released as a single. The steel guitar track and Melonie Cannon’s harmony vocals are beautiful.

However, not all of the album’s material is stellar; there are two duds in particular — the novelty tune “Neon Leon” which really wears thin with repeated listenings, and “You’ve Got A Lock On My Heart”, which was written by producer Buddy Cannon with Larry Bastian. Heavy on electric guitar, it’s the least traditional song on the album. Another artist might have made it work, but it’s a stretch for Sammy and it really doesn’t fit well with the rest of the album. All is forgiven however, with the closing track, a contemporary take on the Bill Monroe classic “Cry, Cry Darlin'”. Unlike the original, this version does not have a bluegrass arrangement; the electric guitar is a bit intrusive at times, but the pedal steel and harmony vocals are superb.

Casual Sammy Kershaw fans may be content to own just his hits compilations, but there are enough gems among this collection’s album cuts to make it worth purchasing. It can be easily obtained at bargain prices.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Ashton Shepherd – ‘Where Country Grows’

Ashton Shepherd was the youngest of the artists we spotlighted last year as the “new New Traditionalists”. At last, three years after she emerged on the scene, she has released her second album, which marks a serious bid for mainstream success by a talented young singer-songwriter. It is produced, like her first record, by Buddy Cannon, who does a fine job balancing contemporary and traditional elements of Ashton’s sound and emphasizing her unique voice.

The insistent lead single ‘Look It Up’ (written by Angaleena Presley and Robert Ellis Orrall), which I reviewed at the end of last year, has Ashton coming on scornfully like a modern Loretta Lynn. This works tremendously well, and it is a shame it was not a monster hit for Ashton rather than peaking just inside the top 20 – although that made it her biggest hit to date.

It is one of only two tracks not written by Ashton. She is developing well as a songwriter, and I am pleased to see her working with other writers to hone her own gifts, building on the untutored natural talent she showed on her debut three years ago.  Former artist and recent Sugarland collaborator Bobby Pinson helps writing a couple of country-living themed numbers. The title track and current single is a bit predictable as Ashton pays tribute to her rural roots, but the up-tempo ‘More Cows Than People’ on the same theme is quite entertaining, with colorful details rooting the song in a specific reality. This one isn’t a generic southern small town. I also like the relaxed but catchy ‘Beer On A Boat’. Written by Marv Green, Ben Hayslip and Rhett Akins, some of the lyrics might sound leering sung by a man, but Ashton makes it wholesome and charming. These four originally appeared on an EP earlier this year, which Razor X reviewed in anticipation of the album.

The best of the new songs is the sultry ‘That All Leads To One Thing’, one of Ashton’s solo compositions. It has a southern gothic Bobbie Gentry feel. A tormented married woman addresses the husband who is obviously cheating. With a vibe too dark for today’s country radio, it is one of the highlights on the record.  The upbeat ‘Tryin’ To Go To Church’ (written with Shane MacAnally and Brandy Clark) is lively and entertaining tune about struggling to live right in the face of various temptations (like the “husband-stealing heifer” she has to “set right”), and is reminiscent of ’70s Linda Ronstadt.

‘I’m Just A Woman’ is a ballad about being a woman, and specifically a wife and mother; the lyrics are not particularly deep or insightful, but the extraordinarily intense vocal makes it sound better than it is. The ballad ‘While It Ain’t Raining’ is equally intense to the point of verging on the over-dramatic, and although the song itself is well written (by Ashton with Troy Jones) a slightly more understated approach might have been more effective. Both tracks have backing vocals from Melonie Cannon (Buddy’s daughter and an exceptional talent in her own right).

‘I’m Good’ is a fine song which Ashton wrote with Dale Dodson and Dean Dillon. Like ‘Look It Up’, it is presented from the point of view of a woman refusing to forgive the man who has hurt her, but with a mellower feel musically as she concentrates on affirming her own strength and moving on. Her enunciation is oddly over emphasized – a feature of her vocals some criticized on her first album, which seems to have been intensified on this track in particular. ‘Rory’s Radio’ fondly recalls teenage memories of listening to the radio while driving with her older brothers, and has some slightly awkward phrasing.

I thought Ashton’s debut was enormously promising, the voice of a fresh new talent while still unmistakably country. This is more commercial, and will hopefully gain her some radio play, but although this is an encouraging step forwards, I feel she is still a work in progress, with her best yet to come.

Grade: B+

Buy it at amazon.

Songs about adoption

Lisa as babyI was adopted as a baby, and because of that the subject has always drawn me in fiction. In fact I’ve read some really bad books and watched some bad TV purely because of the topic. One of the things I appreciate most in country music is the range of topics it covers, and I feel inspired to bring together some of the best songs I’ve heard over the years on the subject of adoption.

Actually, one area that seems a bit lacking is songs about the experience of the adopted child. One of the few that does start from that point is Jeff Bates’ autobiographical ‘Rainbow Man’, title track of his 2003 debut album. Although the song goes on to talk about race and the American melting pot, I definitely identify with Jeff’s questioning of his identity.

Moving on to adulthood, I love the story song ‘Cactus In A Coffee Can’, a delicately realized third-person tale of a plane encounter with a young woman who has been reunited with a drug-addict birth mother just before the mother’s death. I first heard it ten years ago from Jerry Kilgore on his Love Trip album on the short-lived Virgin country imprint, and it was beautifully revived by the excellent Melonie Cannon on her most recent album, And The Wheels Turn. You can check both versions out on last.fm. There’s also a version available by Steve Seskin, who co-wrote the song with Allen Shamblin, where his more fragile vocals add a certain vulnerability.

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